Category Archives: Holiday

Haunted

Title: Haunted

Author: Starfleetofficer1

Summary: Mulder is trapped in a ‘haunted house’ on Halloween.
Written for the VS.

Category: X-file, Mulder in peril, Scully in peril

Rating: PG-13

Two weeks exclusive with VS15.

Disclaimer: no copyright infringement intended.

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BASEMENT OFFICE

WASHINGTON, DC

TUESDAY, OCTOBER 31st, 2007

1400

“Mulder, why are we here?” Scully asked with a sigh, staring up at the pencils embedded in the ceiling as she leaned back in her chair.

“Because there have been reports of unexplained phenomena in this particular house, in the suburban neighborhood just outside—”

“I’ve listened to that explanation for the past hour and a half,” Scully said, sitting up straight now and looking him in the eye. “And I fail to see how we have any real evidence of an X-file here. What we have is a children’s newspaper article—something you picked up entirely by chance, that is most likely made up to scare their friends at school.”

“The Hillside Elementary School’s newspaper won awards for its credibility,” Mulder said. “They reported on Presidential elections, the stock market, current affairs…not to mention a highly developed video game review section and comic page.”

“They’re eight years old.”

“Some of them are ten,” Mulder said. He put the child’s article down on his desk, and stood up. “Scully, the evidence presented in their article may sound juvenile but it all checks out. It doesn’t matter if their writing style is childish—they’re children! It doesn’t mean they aren’t credible. I’ve checked out every sighting they mentioned in the article, and they were all established with the local police.”

“A local police office in Hillside, Virginia, that has less to do than Andy Griffith.”

“Come on, Scully, it’s worth checking out.”

“It’s Halloween.”

“And you’re already here, so why not go trick-or-treating with me?”

She gave him a ‘look’.

“Like you said, it’s Halloween! Let’s have a little fun with it!”

She stood up, and sighed. “Mulder, I swear, if I didn’t love you I’d have killed you by now.”

“I knew you’d see my side of it,” Mulder said cheerfully, apparently ignoring her implied threat. He stood up and grabbed his coat, and started out the door.

Scully reluctantly followed, and said, “If this turns out like the last haunted house, Mulder, it won’t matter if I love you. I will shoot you.”

Mulder looked behind him, and smirked. “I thought you didn’t want it to turn out like last time.”

She rolled her eyes, and barged in front of him. He grinned, and followed.

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HILLSIDE ELEMENTARY SCHOOL

HILLSIDE, VA

TUESDAY, OCTOBER 31st, 2007

1430

Walking through the halls, the agents were bombarded by a stream of giggling eight-year-olds in the third grade section of the school. One little boy tripped and Mulder feared he would be stampeded by his classmates, so he helped the third-grader to his feet. The thanks he got was a screeching cry, “Stranger! Stranger! Help! He’s got me, help!”

Mulder let the little boy go, and a teacher ran out into the hallway. The kids made way for the adult, who looked like she was about to punch Mulder.

The agents quickly drew their badges. “We’re here with the FBI,” Scully said before the woman could ask. “And we’re investigating suspicious activity near 435 Westbury Street.”

“A little girl named Ashley Burns wrote a detailed article on the subject, and we were wondering if we could speak to her about her sources.”

The teacher looked taken aback. “Um…of course. She’s in my class. I hope you understand that the ‘suspicious activity’ is nothing more than teenagers playing pranks around that area.”

“Yes, we’ve considered that option,” Scully said, aiming a pointed glance at Mulder.

Mulder quickly covered his tracks. “But in the event that it wasn’t teenagers, and illegal activity has been occurring in the location, we need to investigate,” he said.

The woman nodded comprehensively and led them into her classroom. A bell rang, and the little children ran toward their classrooms to take their seats. “I’m Pam Wells, by the way,” the teacher said.

“Agent Mulder, and this is Agent Scully,” Mulder said.

”Pleased to meet you,” Pam told them, and approached a little girl sitting at a desk. “Ashley, these people are here from the FBI. They’re interested in your newspaper article.”

The little girl’s eyes grew wide. “Did I break any rules?” she asked.

“No, Ashley, we just had a few questions,” Mulder said kindly. “Want to step out into the hallway?”

Ashley nodded cautiously, and Scully offered her hand to the fearful girl. When Ashley took it, they moved into the hallway and could hear the classroom explode with chatter as soon as they were gone. The door shut behind them, and Ashley looked up inquisitively.

“We understand you checked out the Westbury house, for your newspaper article,” Scully said. “We were just wondering how you made sure all the things you put in the article were true. Could you tell us that?”

“I talked to the police,” Ashley said, “And I brought them a big list of things that people had seen. I wanted to make sure everything I wrote had a police record, ‘cause people report things like that. And they had records of everything. So I put it all in my article.”

“Could you tell us if you’ve ever seen any of the things you’d written about?”

“I saw the lights going on and off, and I knew the house was contempted, so no one lived there.”

“Condemned,” Mulder corrected with a small smile. “Do you live near the haunted house?”

“I live about two blocks away. I ride my bike down there all the time.”

Mulder nodded, his facial expression still passive and non-threatening. “So I’ll bet your friends and you sometimes want to go inside, huh?”

“Sometimes we dare each other, but no one’s actually done it. The sign on the front says you can get in a lot of trouble if you cross the fence. But a lot of teenagers have come really close. Most of them were arrested.”

“They were arrested right away? Before they got into the house?” Scully asked.

Ashley nodded. “The police sit right around the corner, and sometimes right out front. If anyone goes near it, they arrest them. That’s why not many kids make it past the back yard fence. And no one goes in the front. That’s just dumb.”

Scully looked perplexed, but Mulder spoke before she could voice any concerns about the story. “So you’ve probably heard a bunch of stories about that haunted house, huh?”

Ashley nodded.

“Would you share some of them?”

She looked uncomfortable for a moment, before saying, “It’s just supposed to be a Hillside thing. That’s what the grown-ups told us when they told us all the stories. That’s how the story starts. ‘You can’t tell anyone outside Hillside.’”

Mulder and Scully glanced at each other. “We’ve got special permission to hear things like that, Ashley,” Scully said. “FBI agents are like police officers—you can tell them things you wouldn’t tell other people.”

“So I won’t get in trouble?” Ashley asked.

“You won’t get in trouble, I promise,” Mulder said.

“Okay,” Ashley started, hesitating for a moment. “I’ll tell it just like my parents told me. Twenty-five years ago, before I was born, a man in Hillside went crazy. He got a chain saw and started hacking people up with it, just like in the movies only for real. They tried to catch him, but he got away. He ran into the forest.” She shuddered a bit. “And then ten years later, some people say they saw him. They say he met somebody outside the forest who led him straight to the contempted—condemned—house. But when the police went and searched it, they said no one was there. Still, every night, the lights come on for a bit and then go out. The doors open up and close by themselves. One minute you’ll see a window closed, and the next it’s open again. The yard’s unkempt and overgrown and messed up, and the ivy’s about to take over the house, but no one dares go near it. ‘Cause if you do, the crazy man will get his chainsaw and hack you up. It’s not a person in there—it’s his ghost. And that’s why it’s haunted.”

Mulder and Scully were quiet for a moment. “And why aren’t you allowed to tell people that live outside Hillside?” Mulder asked.

“Because, that’s how the story starts,” Ashley explained. “It’s a Hillside secret. Not even the real estate office tells people about it. That’s what my dad says.”

“Ashley, what’s the house like on Halloween night? Is it very busy, with police all around it? Or is it kind of quiet?” Scully asked.

“There are two more cars than usual on Halloween. It’s kinda something all the kids go and stare at, until they’re told to move away. It’s kinda cool, like that. But we don’t want to get hacked up or something. So only stupid teenagers go past the fence in the backyard.”

“Thank you, Ashley, you’ve been very helpful,” Mulder said. “And I’m very glad you wrote that article.”

Ashley shrugged. “It was just a school project.”

“We’ll let you go back to your classroom now. Thanks for helping us out,” Scully said. Ashley smiled and went back into the classroom, leaving Mulder and Scully alone in the hallway.

“Well, I think it’s fairly obvious what’s going on here,” Scully said.

“Yes, I do too,” Mulder said, and started walking.

“I’m afraid to ask, Mulder,” Scully stated.

”Don’t worry, I don’t think this is a ghost, or an X-file,” Mulder stated.

Scully stopped in her tracks. “You don’t?”

“No, of course not. It’s pretty obvious what’s really happening.”

“Well…why don’t you enlighten me?”

“The chainsaw man—whatever his name is, we’ll have to look that up—he’s being harbored in the house by the police. Clearly it’s their own little secret. We’ve just got to get a warrant to go in and drag him out.”

Scully smiled, and looked down as she started walking.

“What?” Mulder asked. “You don’t think he exists, do you, Scully?”

“It’s a child’s tale, Mulder. And that house is condemned—a very attractive thing for children. It makes sense that there would be a police presence, especially on Halloween. Imagine what would happen if one of those kids went in there, and fell through the floor?”

“Explain the lights, then. And the windows.”

“Kids imagine things all the time. They love ghost stories, and you yourself admit that this is not a ghost.”

“Not a ghost. A fugitive,” Mulder said.

“A fugitive we’ve never heard of? A fugitive that is guilty of a violent killing spree with a chainsaw, from twenty-five years ago, that we haven’t heard of?”

“It’s possible. We don’t know every serial killer who’s ever walked the Earth.”

“But this is Virginia,” Scully argued, opening the front door to the school. “It’s too close to home. We would at least remember it from the nightly news. You would definitely remember something like that.”

“I was in England, and you were in college, and please tell me you didn’t watch the nightly news every day at college.”

“No,” she admitted reluctantly, “But I would’ve heard about something like this. It would have been all over American news everywhere.”

“I doubt it. If he only killed two people and it was contained to Virginia, it would have been a brief story on one or two nights of the week, and people may have mentioned it in casual conversation, but it wouldn’t have been big. We’ll find out, though.”

“Where are we going?”

“Back to the office. I want to look a few things up before we head to that house for the night.”

“For the—Mulder, we can’t spend Halloween night in a condemned house!”

“Why not? Sounds perfect to me.”

“We don’t even have a warrant, or backup, or…what are you planning on doing? Waiting for the chainsaw man to come home from the grocery store?”

“I doubt he leaves very often.”

They climbed into their car, and Mulder started the engine. “Mulder, I want you to do me a favor,” Scully said.

“Ooooh, Scully, I thought you’d never ask,” Mulder said with a mischievous grin.

Scully rolled her eyes, and ignored the comment. “I want you to promise me you aren’t going to ditch me and go in there by yourself. If we’re going in, we’re going in together, and we’re doing it with backup and a warrant. If there is a chance that this chainsaw maniac is in there, then the police are obviously trying to protect him and we’ll be working against a madman and the locals.”

“I think we can dish out more reserves than little Hillside can,” Mulder said nonchalantly. “I’m not worried. But okay. I won’t go in alone. And we’ll approach the maniac with extreme caution.” He didn’t voice his happiness that Scully was acknowledging the maniac’s existence with so little argument. He didn’t want to spoil the moment.

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435 WESTBURY ST

HILLSIDE, VA

TUESDAY, OCTOBER 31st, 2007

1800

Trick-or-treating had started in the tiny town. It was less than a mile across, but the kids were in every square meter they could occupy. They ran around happily, ready to start their candy-collection, or T.Ping and egging in some cases.

Mulder and Scully walked down the street, having parked a few blocks away, and surveyed the police presence casually. They noticed three cars, one hidden and two visible. The only way in seemed to be through the back. They had federal agents ready to move in and surround the place the minute they had confirmation of the suspect’s presence. The agents also had orders to detain any police officers who might try to resist the apprehension of the suspect.

What they had found at their office was disturbing. There was indeed a chainsaw maniac twenty-five years ago that no one had caught. No body had ever been found after the final chase that forced the killer’s car into the forest, and caused the vehicle to explode in a ball of fire. But no charred human remains had been sited, even after a careful inspection.

What was even more disturbing was Mulder’s discovery of the nearly successful cover-up that took place directly afterward. The maniac was the police chief’s younger brother. Mulder and Scully didn’t even bother talking to the man. From witness testimony, and what they pieced together, they had enough for a warrant. And surprisingly enough, Mulder had found a contingent of field agents willing to be his backup.

The one snag was that the house was, indeed, condemned and they had no idea about the infrastructure. They weren’t sure if they were walking into a booby trap or rotted floorboards from the moment they entered. So they had no choice but to enter carefully.

The police presence made that very difficult. Since they were operating under the radar, in a completely FBI-sanctioned mission to discover if the local police really were concealing a fugitive from the federal government, they had clearance to detain anyone who resisted. But that, naturally, would undermine the nature of their mission. If the occupant inside was alerted to their presence, there was a chance he could make a run for it.

Mulder spotted a hole in the woods right behind the house. “See that clearing?” he pointed.

“Yeah, I see it. Are we moving in that way?”

“We should try,” Mulder said. They were both wearing concealable GoldFlex vests under their shirts, which allowed them to look like they were wearing normal clothing, thanks to the nanotechnology. They carried their weapons in their holsters, but their jackets covered them up. Whenever someone would look in their direction, Mulder would grab Scully’s hand so they looked like a normal, civilian couple. And considering her reaction to the necessary but comfortable contact, Mulder wished people would look in their direction a little more often.

They were able to sneak through a few backyards to get to the woods behind the Westbury Street house, and saw the policeman guarding the door in the back. “Damn,” Mulder said, and swung back around the trunk of a tree, dropping to his butt as he leaned against it.

Scully sighed. “We’ve gotta create a diversion,” she said.

Mulder nodded, and spoke into his radio. “This is Agent Mulder,” he said on the secured channel. “Requesting diversion for a single officer guarding the back door.”

“Copy,” came the reply, and a moment later, some firecrackers were set off in the backyard of the house next door. The policeman rolled his eyes, and walked away from his post. “Hey!” Mulder and Scully heard him yell. “Hey, you kids, get out of there! Where are you? Where’d you go? Yeah, that’s right, leave before I call your parents!”

They took that as their opportunity to enter in the back door. They did so as quickly and quietly as possible, drawing their weapons and opening the creaky door carefully. They shut it once inside, and began scouting out the house.

It was full of cobwebs. There wasn’t a spot they could walk in without getting one on their face, arms, or hands. The dust was piled so high that Mulder felt like he was walking on sand, and he knew no one had been in this house for at least a decade. He was beginning to feel a little discouraged, when Scully gasped.

Mulder quickly made his way through the rotting wood-paneled house and reached her location. “What’s wrong?” He asked, gun extended in front of him.

“Mulder, look at this,” she said, looking curiously at the kitchen counter.

Mulder lowered his weapon slightly and glanced at the counter. There wasn’t a speck of dust on it. It was rotting, like the rest of the house, but there was no dust.

“Odd,” he said.

“Extremely. I think you may be right—there could be someone living here.”

“Then how did he get to the kitchen? There are no footprints in the dust.”

“I have no idea,” Scully said, shaking her head.

“Maybe he really is a ghost.”

She rolled her eyes. “You take the upstairs. I’ll see if there’s a basement.”

He nodded, and extended his weapon again.

“Be careful on the stairs,” she told him.

He listened, and tried each step before putting his full weight on it. Before he knew it, though, he was on the second floor of the tiny house, and encountered nothing more than more dust, and some vacant rooms. The hinges on the doors had rusted completely, and every door had fallen off. Mulder was surprised that such decay occurred in such a short amount of time—the house had been abandoned and condemned since 1967, but it had lasted 102 years prior to that. Perhaps it had just been in existence for too long.

Mulder heard a noise, and turned his head and his gun instantly. He walked carefully into the room from which it came, holding his weapon and flashlight straight out in front of him in a cross-hand position.

The second he entered the room, though, he felt something heavy come down on top of him and he collapsed, as the world faded.

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435 WESTBURY ST

HILLSIDE, VA

TUESDAY, OCTOBER 31st, 2007

1830

Mulder awoke handcuffed to a very rusty pipe, sitting on the ground. He looked around, and wished he could rub his aching head. He didn’t see anyone, and so he called, “Scully! Scully, I need help!”

“Shut up, or I’m gonna have to do something you’re not gonna like,” a voice said. Then a man emerged from the closet. He wore all black, looked to be in his late fifties, and carried a chainsaw in his hand. He matched the picture of the police chief’s younger brother.

“Mulder?” Scully called, and they heard her mount the creaky steps.

“Sorry ‘bout this,” the man said with a wicked smile, and stomped once on the floorboard he was standing on. Suddenly, everything began shaking, and there was an enormous crash. Mulder heard Scully scream.

“Scully!” He called, panicked, as he struggled against the handcuffs. “Scully! What did you do to her, you bastard?!”

The man rolled his eyes. “Oh, please, stop your whining. She’s not dead. Just buried.”

“You son of a bitch, I’ll—”

“Not from this position, you won’t,” the man said, stepping out of reach of Mulder’s low kick and stomping on the floorboard in one motion. The floor directly beneath Mulder caved at that moment, and the agent dropped downward, only to be stopped by his hands, secured on the rusty pipe. He cried out in agony, and hung there painfully, half supported by the piece of floorboard sticking against his back, and half by his now bloody wrists.

“I’m gonna enjoy this,” the maniac said with a nasty grin, and started up his chainsaw.

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One story below them, Scully was half-buried by collapsed floorboards. Her upper body was exposed though, and when she came to, she groaned in pain and tried to extricate herself. She found she couldn’t. She tapped her hand against the radio in her ear, and said, “Request backup, request backup, move in immediately! Move in!” Then she placed her hand on her head, and felt the sticky liquid that could only be blood.

She tried again to extricate herself just as she heard the sound of sirens and commotion outside. This time, she was able to wiggle most of her lower body free. It took her a few more moments, but she was fueled by adrenaline and the ever-present, urgent screams from upstairs. She knew Mulder was in trouble. They had found their killer.

She knew the sixth step was barely accessible, but the upper half of the stairs were still intact, and she had to get up there quickly. She found her gun and picked it up with a bloodied hand, holstered it, and climbed on top of the unstable rubble. She leapt for the sixth stair, scraping her hands and nearly falling off in the process. She gripped the rotting floorboards and pulled with all her might, thinking only of Mulder and what could be causing those horrified screams. Images of chainsaws descending on her partner were ever-present in her mind.

She hauled her leg up to the sixth stair and rolled into a position where she could get to her knees, and climb the rest of the way up. She nearly fell off twice when the boards started to give way, but she made it up the short flight and half dove, half stumbled, into the room where the screams were coming.

Drawing her weapon as she entered the room, she quickly assessed the situation. Mulder was hanging by his hands from a rusty pipe—one that would likely break soon. He was unable to pull himself up, quite obviously, as at least one of his arms had to be already dislocated. And from his position, Scully could tell that the floorboards from the collapsed floor were likely sticking into his back, if not penetrating it.

She pointed her weapon at the older man standing over her partner with a running chainsaw. Its blade was far too close to his skin for her comfort. “Turn it off and drop it, now,” Scully yelled.

“Scully—” Mulder cried in pain, looking at her with…concern? How could he be concerned about her when he was the one hanging by his wrists from a rusty pipe?

“I ain’t stoppin’ for no one. This is my first kill in—”

Before he could continue, and just as he lowered the chainsaw so it was level with Mulder’s midsection, Scully put a bullet in his temple. He dropped to the side, the chainsaw falling on top of him and slicing his own midsection open. Scully shot the machine, after quickly scanning for a battery and making sure she wouldn’t blow them to kingdom come by shooting a gas tank. When the chainsaw ceased running, she ran over to Mulder.

“Scully, my God…” Mulder panted.

“I know, Mulder, I’m gonna get you out of here.”

“No—I’m okay—”

“You’re not okay,” Scully said. That much was obvious by his labored speech and profuse sweating. She assessed his position, and after quickly determining that he didn’t have any broken bones, she asked, “Do you think you can bring your legs up if I supported your torso?”

He squinted in pain, and nodded. “Scully, please…let someone else—you’re hurt.”

“I’m fine, Mulder,” Scully said.

Mulder shook his head. “Your ear,” he said, before he couldn’t help but cringe in agony, and yell out at the pain.

Scully reached her hand up to her ear, where she felt a flap of skin clearly open and bleeding profusely. She still didn’t feel it, but she knew she would soon. She could only imagine how it might look. “It’s okay, Mulder,” she said quickly. She hugged his torso tightly, trying to support it and alleviate some stress from his arms. He cried out in pain, and she said, “Pull your legs up. Come on, you have to try, Mulder. I know it hurts, just try, damn it!”

Mulder yelled the entire time he was attempting to get his legs out, and by the time he managed to raise one knee so that it was level with the floor, a fireman walked in with a paramedic not far behind.

“We can take over, Ma’am,” the fireman said. “Alright, Sir, we’re gonna get you out of there. Don’t worry.”

“I’m a medical doctor,” Scully explained. “And I’m his partner. Let me help—I’ve already assessed his condition.”

“You need some help yourself, Ma’am,” the paramedic said.

“I don’t think he has any broken bones,” Scully said quickly, ignoring their protest. She watched as the fireman supported Mulder’s back on a short backboard, and alleviated some of the stress from the jagged floorboards digging into his back. “He can move his legs. You just need to pull him out slightly. One or both shoulders might be dislocated, be careful—” she tried to say, but the two of them were already on their way to extricating Mulder. They had him out fairly quickly, and they cut the handcuffs off of him and loaded him on a portable stretcher.

“We’re gonna have to get him out the window,” the paramedic said. “We can’t navigate that staircase.”

“Absolutely agreed,” the fireman said. “We’ll get the chopper over here,” he stated, and radioed it in. It wasn’t long before the chopper arrived, and they broke the window open.

During the exchange, Scully’s eyes wondered from Mulder’s form to the suspect lying dead on the floor. She couldn’t believe what she saw next.

The man rose, grabbed his chainsaw, and before Scully could even get a shot off, walked through the walls.

Only a few seconds after that, she collapsed.

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GEORGETOWN MEDICAL CENTER

GEORGETOWN, VA

TUESDAY, OCTOBER 31st, 2007

2000

Scully entered Mulder’s room with a bandage around her head, over her ear. The ear wound hadn’t caused any nerve damage, and had required nineteen stitches but had otherwise been superficial.

But she had gone into shock and had only woken up after receiving blood and being hooked up to an IV. She now traveled, as was hospital policy, in a wheelchair pushed by a nurse.

Mulder’s left shoulder had been dislocated, but his right was just strained. Both wrists were bandaged and his left arm was in a sling, but he was otherwise no worse for wear. He was expected to be released that night, while they wanted to keep Scully overnight for observation.

“Hey,” Mulder said, swinging his legs over the side of the bed and getting up to meet her. “I can take it from here,” he said to the nurse.

“I’m sorry, Sir, but I can’t let you do that,” the nurse stated.

Mulder rolled his eyes. “I should’ve been the one to come see you, Scully,” he said as they walked back to his bed together. He held her hand once he had climbed up onto the bed, and she smiled at him. “How are you feeling?”

“I’m fine, Mulder. They’re just keeping me for observation.”

“I’m sorry to make you come over here. You really shouldn’t be out of bed.”

“Tell me about it,” the nurse said.

“Do you think you can give us a few minutes alone?” Scully asked the nurse.

The woman rolled her eyes. “If you get out of that wheelchair, it better be to get into a bed.”

“Oh, so that’s how this hospital operates,” Mulder said with a grin. “I don’t think we’ll have trouble following those instructions.”

The nurse muttered something about ‘need to retire’ before she left.

Scully chuckled at Mulder, and smiled tiredly at him. “How’s your arm?”

“It’s okay. It’ll be fine. Scully, you’re never going to guess what the police found when they searched the house.”

Scully eyed him suspiciously, and he continued. “Nothing. Not a trace of him anywhere, Scully. You shot him. I saw you shoot him. I saw him fall—but he’s not there. Someone must have stolen the body. They’re gonna want to question you, when you feel up to it. Did you see anything after I was loaded onto the helicopter?”

Scully hesitated, and looked down. “You have to understand, Mulder, I had a concussion, I was in shock…I was probably delirious.”

“What did you see?” he asked excitedly.

She looked up at him, and smiled slightly. He’s gonna have a field day with this. “I saw him get up and walk through the wall. But it was a concussion-induced image, it means nothing—”

“It proves he was really a ghost,” Mulder said.

“No, Mulder, it proves that someone stole the body and I couldn’t process the information.”

Mulder frowned. “Who would want to steal the body, Scully? And how would they get it through the wall?”

“I don’t know, but it’s the only viable explanation. If he really was a ghost, then why would he have fallen when I shot him?”

Still frowning in thought, the agent let go of Scully’s hand. He rotated his right shoulder carefully, and shook his head. “Maybe he didn’t want anyone to know about his existence.”

“And why would that be?”

“He’s a ghost. I don’t know why they do what they do, what motivation they could possibly have. And let’s hope I don’t find out anytime soon.”

Scully smiled. “Yes, let’s hope for that.” She reached out for his hand again, and gave it a squeeze.

“Thanks for what you did in there, Scully.”

“No problem,” Scully said, meeting his eyes and starting to smirk. “But now you owe me one.”

Mulder laughed. “Always, Scully. Always.”

Slainte

Slainte

SLANTE’

By Martin Ross & StarfleetOfficer1

Category: Casefile; humor.

Rating: R for language, graphic descriptions

E-mail: rossprag@fgi.net

Three dead mobsters, three impossible crimes, an ex-genie, and a human luck magnet. When Mulder and Scully luck onto the case, they learn to be careful what they wish for.

clip_image002

Ballou’s

Chicago, Illinois

1:23 a.m.

It happened as Terry Fitzcarren was about to turn into Ballou’s for the evening’s final brew.

Initially, Terry thought he’d been blindsided. Stars had blossomed in his head, like they had after that piece of low Irish shit Joe Hannahan kicked him upside the skull with those heavy biker boots he wore to look macho. All because Terry’d been caught putting it to Joe’s little sister, what’s-her-name. But here, Terry had felt no collision of hardened, steel-reinforced leather against his temple, no jaw-slamming jolt as baseball bat or tire iron encountered tissue and bone.

Then there was the blinding light. Terry had heard of folks who’d seen such a light as they hovered between life and death, had listened vaguely to the priests yammer on about the illuminating glory of God. Long before he could legally buy his first pint, Terry had known the Miranda-Escobedo warning far better than The Lord’s Prayer or his Hail Mary’s. He discounted the possibility St. Peter was awaiting him with a Harp’s.

Even if he believed in such things as angels that looked like Roma Downey (like to polish her halo, mused Terry, whose only contact with angels was semi-comatose and out of remote range in front of the Hallmark Channel), Ellen Fitzcarren’s youngest long since had recognized any posthumous trip he was taking was going to be straight to the furnace room.

Terry’s eyes began to clear, and he realized he was standing in the middle of some field, maybe downstate, some freakin’ cornfield or whatever the hell they grew out in Redneckville. They must’ve hit me real good to get me from the edge of the Loop all the way out to the sticks without me coming to, he reflected, surveying the scenery around him. The trees looked funny; the air was strange, made him feel dizzy.

Terry felt something scurry over his soft leather wop loafer, which by the way had been pretty effed-up by the boggy soil on which he’d been standing. He looked down, yelped, and jumped about six times higher than he’d ever managed in that prick Coach Jacobs’ eighth grade P.E. class. The thing that had trespassed on Terry’s shoe scuttled off under a bush that didn’t look like nothing ever grew in the old neighborhood.

“Fuckin’ shit,” Terry breathed, checking all around him for more of the crab-sized cock-a-roaches. They must’ve taken him somewhere like Florida or California or some other primitive hellhole. It was kind of hot, he thought, and just like that, a cool shadow fell over the young man.

He glanced up at the too-blue sky to see if some rain was moving in. That would seriously fuck up his new shoes.

Instead of clouds, however, Terry Fitzcarren saw teeth, lots of them, and the wet, black hole behind them…

“Fuckin’ shit,” Terry reiterated. Considering his blood alcohol count, it was a reasonably eloquent assessment.

Congo Region

Africa

2:12 p.m. the following day

Sir Kenneth Rees-Petrie nearly ran his Rover into the corner anchor of the main research tent, then barely remembered to put the battered vehicle into park. He barked his chin on said stake as he stumbled toward the open flap.

Meadors and the students were huddled around the large worktable at the tent’s center, watching intently as D’Onofrio, one of the Americans hired under the Royal Academy grant, scraped and brushed at the domed object before him.

“This is it?” Rees-Petrie rasped, nudging his way through the group. No one asked how his permit negotiations had gone at the capital, how the turbulent plane trip back to camp had been. For once, the knighted and eccentrically garrulous paleontologist wasn’t center stage, and for once, he didn’t care. “You found this where now?”

“Grid 12-D,” Meadors murmured, as if afraid to disturb the object before him. “Where we uncovered the Megalosaurus jawbone.”

Rees-Petrie reached for the worktable to steady himself. “That can’t conceivably be–”

“But it is,” stated D’Onofrio, who’d never once allowed the scientist to finish a sentence, and who reveled in some “musical” group misspelled Phish. “And there was no sign of geological shift. You carbon date this fucker, I’m betting he’s gonna match the jawbone. And from the dinosaur shit we found in the vicinity and the scratches I’ve found on the temples, he might’ve been killed by the same jawbone.”

Rees-Petrie was too stunned either to chide D’Onofrio for his utterly inexcusable language or his identification of coprolites as “dinosaur shit.” “This is entirely insane. It not only would predate Leakey’s findings by eons, but it defies all known theories of saurian and mammalian evolution.” The scientist stopped dead and leaned in, coming nearly nose-to-occipital with his crew’s find. “Bloody hell. This is Homo sapiens.”

D’Onofrio grinned as Meadors frowned anxiously. “That’s why we didn’t dare give you details over the radio, Kenny. You can even see rudimentary evidence of modern dental work. But this skull undeniably came from the same Jurassic strata as the Megalosaurus remains.”

“Show him the other,” urged D’Onofrio, like some oversized, shaggy five-year-old playing doctor. “You are gonna fucking LOVE this.”

Rees-Petrie finally glared disapproval at his student, but he fell back into a trance as Meadors unwrapped a previously ignored parcel a few inches from the human skull which had rested impossibly for hundreds of centuries under the African topography.

It was a small metal disk, in remarkably good shape and clearly machine-tooled. Rees-Petrie gawped. “No, you didn’t find this…”

“Right by the skull,” D’Onofrio crowed. “It’s a watch – I mean, the back of a watch. I’d say solid gold. Maybe a Rolodex. Get it under the lamp – here, you’ll need a magnifier.”

Rees-Petrie snatched the glass from the impertinent Yank and squinted at the hieroglyphics inscribed on the back of the acid-cleaned disk.

“To Terence Fitzcarren, with, with…” the paleontologist recited, awestruck.

“I think it’s ‘love,’” Meadors ventured. “’With love and best wishes from Uncle Liam.’ Kenneth? Kenneth, you don’t look at all well.”

“He’s fucking stroking out,” D’Onofrio yelled, and the last terrifying sight Rees-Petrie saw before darkness descended was the hairy giant lunging to perform CPR…

The Breath of Cork

Chicago, IL

10:12 a.m. two weeks later

“Shit!”

Jenn glanced up warily almost as the obscenity escaped her lips. She gasped the oath’s twin blasphemy — Cragan O’Mara was grinning at her from his booth under the Guinness mirror. He’d finished his huge Irish breakfast — hard to believe such the old pixie could put away such a feast before noon, harder still to conceive of the octogenarian surviving on a daily diet of Irish bacon, fried eggs, grease-bloated black-and-tan puddings, and plumply lethal sausage links. Actually, Jenn was uncertain eightysomething might not be on the shy side. She wouldn’t have been surprised to find he’d shared a pint or two with the young James Joyce. Or started the Potato Famine his own self with a nod of his liver-spotted brow.

“And what would so dismay such a lovely lass as yourself in the dawning hours of such a fine day?” O’Mara murmured, his Trib limp in his leathery claws. His dialogue was straight out of ‘40s-era Hollywood, too. B’gosh and begorrah and gimme an effing break, Jenn moaned silently.

“Nah, just all the crap in the news today,” she smiled in a valiant attempt at nonchalance. “You know, same old same old.”

To her true dismay, the old “gent” rose and hobbled across the battered planks to the bar. Jenn found herself transfixed: He’d managed somehow to maintain eye contact the entire time, like an ancient mongoose hypnotizing a cobra. Except he was the cobra, too. A cobra hypnotizing a deer in the headlights? Formulating metaphors had never been Jenn’s strongest point. She cursed Kelli, who’d asked Jenn to sub a couple mornings so she could hit Atlantic City with her latest slab of man-beef. Cragan O’Mara was always Ballou’s solitary customer before the 11 a.m. barflies started drifting in.

“And so what is distressing me dear girl this a.m.?” Yellow-nailed fingers turned the folded Sun-Times she’d spread on the bartop. “Ah yes, I saw something about this. I wonder if this fella’s any kin to our poor absent Terry.” O’Mara chuckled, like a crow pondering a fresh strip of rodent carrion. “A curious affair, all right. But I’d scarcely imagine this should be anything to bother your pretty head about, Jenn, me dear.”

Something seemed to pass through his mineral eyes, made them brighter, sharper. Jenn unconsciously backed a step, banging her tailbone against a Harp tap. Then, it all fell into place as she recalled a certain last call a few weeks before.

“Just got me thinking about Terry, is all.” Jenn shrugged, “You know, how he just vanished without a trace. One of the guys said he saw him outside, you know, outside the bar, the night before he went missing.”

“And what would you make of that, dear girl?” O’Mara inquired, eyes dancing. “No doubt ran into one of his crowd. Or, more’s the like, ran afoul. Terence McCarren was always a bad sort, rough piece of work. Fine young gal like yourself shouldn’t concern herself about such a bad penny. Sure, and he’ll show up in some form or another.”

“Sure,” Jenn stammered.

O’Mara squinted for a moment, the grin vanishing. Then he cackled; Jenn jumped. “All right then. Guess I’ll be off with myself. Give Timmy my regards. And may the–”

“Bye, Mr. O’Mara,” Jenn interrupted, blithely. “Take care.”

The elfin Irishman nodded, smiling now in an altogether different manner. “Right. Right. Top of the morning.”

As soon as O’Mara shut the sun and the Tuesday morning traffic back outside, Jenn fumbled her Samsung from her bag under the bar. She nearly dropped the cheap phone in the ice bin before she could punch in the D.C. area code.

J. Edgar Hoover Building

Washington, D.C.

2 p.m.

“You must’ve read about the archeological find a couple weeks back in Africa. The body, the watch?”

Scully nodded cautiously. Terry Fitzcarren had been a low-echelon Chicago hood and enforcer, nephew of Liam Fitzcarren, head of Chicago’s Irish mob. He’d been reported missing the night after he’d been seen celebrating some suspiciously cryptic accomplishment, probably related to his uncle’s organization.

Then he turns up the next day under several layers of dirt and rock, known associates T. Rex and Brachiosaurus. Jurassic Park IV: Married to the Mob. It had been all over the papers, the media alternately alleging a colossal scientific fraud (Scully’s pet theory), gross incompetence (Oops, misplaced my mobster), or a massive criminal conspiracy (Hey pal, how’d you like to be sleeping with the Icthyosaurs).

Scully chased thoughts of mobsters and monsters from her mind. Mulder was sniffing at the edge of a new case just as she was trying to clear the decks for the reunion. Aunt Deborah’d guilted her into this Joycean trek into the Great Midwest to reconnect with a bunch of third-degree relatives Scully recalled dimly at best.

Wait. Chicago. Had Scully not missed her morning Americano Grande because of Mulder’s dallying, the dawn would have come earlier.

“Mulder,” she murmured frostily. “You are not leaving me alone with these people to go chasing sociopathic hoodlums, no matter how tempting.”

“Well, somehow, because this lad was with one of the Chitown outfits, Organized Crime got stuck with the case,” Mulder continued. “Case, ha. Closest thing we’ve got to a suspect is Fitzcarren had a run-in with one of Tony Caprano’s boys a month or so ago. You remember, big player in the western burbs?”

“Doesn’t sound like Caprano’s style, though,” Scully frowned. “Doesn’t sound like anyone’s style. And ‘we’ don’t have a case.”

“Which is what brings us to today’s presentation,” Mulder said hopefully.

“We have a 4:45 flight. And why can’t you learn PowerPoint, like everyone else?”

“When Gates gets the bugs out. See, there’re two things the press doesn’t know. Number one, the archaeological team in the Congo found some gouges in Fitzcarren’s ribs that seem to indicate…”

“Yes?”

“Ah, that Fitzcarren was gnawed to death by something big – bigger than anything walking around either Michigan Avenue or the Congo, except maybe Rosie O’Donnell.”

Scully’s brows rose. “Number two?” she asked slowly.

Mulder chewed at the inside of his cheek. “Well, there may be a couple of related homicides.”

“Related to this?” his partner asked, incredulously. “How?”

“Hold onto your popcorn,” Mulder breathed, fooling with switches.

**

“Richard ‘The Swordfish’ Fraternelli,” Mulder narrated as the first slide displayed a man. Or what had been one, Scully observed, grimacing. Looked more like Richard “The Flounder.” “He was one of Caprano’s collectors, about as low on the totem pole as you can get. He was supposed to meet some of the boys in Flatbush for dinner, wound up falling in the middle of the street in front of the restaurant, punched a three-foot-deep hole in the asphalt. Nothing on the block was more than four stories, and the coroner insists Fraternelli fell from a height of at least 30,000 feet. So we start looking for a helicopter, maybe one of the competing families wants to send a message to Tony, air mail. It was easy to find out – you know how tight they’re watching big-city airspace after 9-11. No chopper, no Cessna, no ultralights, not even any kids flying a kite in the area.”

Mulder clicked the projector remote. Another obviously mobbed-up man appeared onscreen, festooned with too much gold jewelry and wearing an expensive polo shirt and khakis. A tall drink was on the patio table next to the man’s chaise lounge. The man’s face looked like a Texas beef brisket about halfway through the grilling process.

“Jesus,” Scully exhaled. “He looks like he lost three rounds with a Radar Range.”

“Ramon DeColta, runner for one of the Venezuelan cocaine families, runs the Cook County franchise. His brains were cooked inside his skull. Eyeballs were like a couple of Swedish meatballs. And get this. We asked maybe did somebody do a job on him with a blowtorch, maybe one of those gas heat blowers. M.E. says no, this was radiation.”

“Nuclear?”

Mulder smiled sadly and hopelessly. “Solar, Scully. Solar.”

“What the hell—”

“Probably what he said, too,” Mulder empathized.

“Mulder, this is fascinating – I won’t deny your adolescent wonder. However, we are officially on P.T. in roughly three hours. In 24 hours, we will be in the warm bosom of Clan Scully – you no doubt playing World of Warcraft with the kids, me being interrogated about why you and I haven’t enjoyed the sacred sacrament and started churning out mini-Mulders. I won’t candy-coat it: It will be 72 hours of Gaelic-American purgatory, and if we escape with our souls intact, we will be all the stronger for it. But you will stay away from all mobsters – Irish or Italian – and certainly from Venezuelian drug kingpins. My Great-Uncle Francis should be grim and frightening enough for you. Is this registering, Mulder?”

Mulder nodded as he flourished a pink phone slip. “And then there’s this. It came in while you were with Skinner. Remember that case down in Florida? The Great Mouthless Storage Manager, your invisible slacker?”

Scully’s pale Irish skin lightened a shade. “No.”

Mulder grinned, folding his arms and nodding sharply with a blink. “Seems our favorite ex-djinn’s working a tap in Terry Fitzcarren’s former stomping grounds. She thinks she may know what happened to these people. I guess even after you lose the touch, you never lose the Eye.”

“Mulder, please. . .”

“It’s like kismet, fate, Scully. C’mon, lass; come leprechaun-hunting with me.”

O’Hare International Airport

Chicago

11: 10 p.m.

“I don’t want a pickup,” Scully said through her teeth for the fifth time. “I don’t like pickups, I can’t parallel park a pickup, I don’t want to haul some monster truck through Chicago rush hour traffic.”

The girl hadn’t yet broken contact with her computer screen. “You know, you’re really getting a great deal on the Sonora,” the clerk droned in a thick Chicago accent. “Normally, you’d haveta pay an extra $20 a day, but we got this special runnin’…”

“You’re not listening,” Scully growled, glaring at Mulder peering at the parade of bags, totes, and trucks circling the carousels. “I don’t want a Sonora.” She flopped her ID on the counter, as she had at Reagan when the airline tried to bump her. “I was supposed to get a Bureau car, but they’re all booked up, so I need a nice economy sedan, a Fusion, even a Yugo, if you have one. But I don’t want a pickup.”

The clerk’s fingers had been playing her keyboard during his entire discourse. Now she looked up for the first time with a beaming smile. “Jesus, you’re in luck. We gotta Dodge Grand Caravan.”

Scully’s right hand twitched toward her jacket, where her shoulder holster would’ve been if she hadn’t packed it.

“You want the insurance?” the clerk inquired.

Scully shook her head wearily. “I feel lucky.”

**

“Lemme get this straight,” Scully said slowly. “You gave away our room?”

“Nooo,” the impeccably dressed desk clerk responded patiently. “You failed to request a late check-in, and we have four, no, five, major conventions in this borough alone this week.”

Mulder had disappeared seconds after Scully queued up at the registration desk. “I have a confirmation number,” Scully complained. “I’m FBI, you’ve got that on your computer.”

“I sympathize,” the balding young man offered, a sympathetic look momentarily flitting across his pink face. “However, you failed to request a late check-in, and we were forced to offer your room to someone else.”

She pursed her lips momentarily before asking testily, “What else do you have? I just need a place to crash. Anything.”

“Well, we have one VIP suite open, but of course…”

“I’ll take it.”

“But it’s $350 a night.”

“Gimme the key.” Years of chasing other-dimensional entities and shape-shifting aliens and flukemen or man-flukes or whatever had rendered Scully immune to Bureau bean counters. And after said years of mind-bendingly unusual travel expenses, she doubted Skinner would lean too hard on her about Mulder raiding the hotel’s minibar and watching a few naughty nurse movies on Spectravision.

“But, ma’am, we like to keep the VIP suites open for, well, visiting VIPs…”

“How about VAPs?” Scully asked with a dangerous smile.

“What?”

“Very Armed People? Do you have a policy for them?”

“Need any help with your bags?”

“They got lost at the airport,” Scully informed him, slumping against the desk. “Just give me a 5 a.m. wake-up call.”

“Will do.” A phone warbled at the clerk’s elbow. He grabbed the handset. “Yeah? Oh…Oh. Oh, my. Yeah. Do that.” The desk clerk cradled the phone and looked nervously at the disheveled agent. “You have a Dodge Grand Caravan? It seems the attendant had a little accident in the parking garage. You know, those things are terrible for getting around in The Loop.”

“All set?” Mulder chirped as Scully’s trigger finger trembled. “I made a couple calls, and we’re all set for a meeting with the departed Mr. Fitzcarren’s Uncle Liam three hours before we have to be at Scullyfest 2011. Luck of the Irish, huh?”

“Erin go eff yourself,” Scully muttered, reaching for a luggage handle.

Chicago

9:21 a.m.

“Accommodations OK, guys?” Det. First Class Danny von Flanagan asked as they cruised past a seemingly interminable string of row houses, pizzerias, delis, groceries, industrial supply houses, and more row houses.

“Yeah, fantastic,” Mulder beamed. “They screwed up and we scored the Donny Trump suite. Little late night partying going on next door, but Scully straightened ‘em out. You know, after awhile. Right, Stallone?”

“Huh?” Scully grunted, head snapping up. “So what do we know about this McCarren?”

Von Flanagan shook his head. “Liam’s a smart one – hides under a few dozen layers of phony paper, cardboard businesses, straw men, and an Irish brogue so thick he could serve it up hot with some soda bread and green beer. He’s fourth generation Chicagoan, so when he’s alone, he probably sounds more like Elliott Ness than Father Flanagan, but he likes the image of a lovable but dangerous character.

“Nephew Terry settled for dangerous. Five assaults, two with intent, on his sheet, all kicked by his uncle and the family consigliere, a sharp old coot who’s been with the family since Eisenhower. Stupid kid, always wanted to throw gas on the fire. Not surprising he bought it young.”

“Little more surprising he bought it getting mauled by Barney’s tougher cousin,” Mulder suggested.

“Hmm,” von Flanagan murmured.

**

The Breath of Cork, a brick-fronted pub wedged between a women’s boutique and an insurance office, was Liam Fitzcarren’s base of operations. The almost impossibly deep room beyond the solid wood door was dark, comfortable, and permeated not unpleasantly with the smell of yeast, hops, and whiskey. Though it was early in the morning, a couple of guys in street department coveralls hurled darts and traded obscene observations about an unidentified female coworker.

Liam Fitzcarren was ensconced in a rear booth, a steaming cup of black coffee sending plumes to the stamped tin ceiling. On the bench across from him was an ancient man, bushy white hair neatly combed in waves, eyebrows like restless wooly worms, an expensive but vintage three-piece suit draping smoothly over his skeletal shoulders.

“My sympathies on your nephew’s death,” von Flanagan offered with nary a breath of irony, scooting in next to the old man.

Liam nodded, a small smile on his face. “Ah, that’s very kind of you, Detective. What I like about the boy – we may not often see eye to eye, but always a gentleman, he.”

The senior man smiled in kind.

“Mr. Fitzcarren, Agents Fox Mulder and Dana Scully, from D.C. They investigate, um, unusual cases.”

Liam glanced over and extended a clean and exquisitely manicured hand. Mulder pumped it once. “And an unusual case it is, too, eh?”

“That’s an understatement,” Mulder said neutrally. He glanced at the old man. “And you are…?”

The gentleman smiled, the Mona Lisa number. “Cragan O’Mara, sir. A pleasure, I’m certain. I’m what you might call the family retainer, though I’m quite afraid I don’t retain as much as I used to.”

Von Flanagan snorted cheerfully. “Stow the blarney, Cragan. Mr. O’Mara here is either one of the most skilled attorneys in the five boroughs, or one of the luckiest.”

“I’d prefer to believe the former, but my honor forces me to confess to the latter,” O’Mara chuckled.

It was an immodest pass at modesty, but it was the elderly lawyer’s odd tone that brought Scully to attention.

“So,” Fitzcarren interjected, “I’m always happy to help my federal government in time of need, especially if we can find the son-of-a-bitch killed poor Terry.”

“You told Homicide the last you saw your nephew was right here, night he disappeared,” von Flanagan said, happy to be done with the amenities.

“That’s correct. My associates and I were celebrating a legal victory.”

“Any problems? Arguments between your nephew and anybody?”

Fitzcarren shook his head impatiently. “I’m sure you’ve already had a look at Terry’s sheet, and you know the boy has a touch of Irish temper.”

Von Flanagan’s eyebrows rose. “You’re a master of understatement today.”

Fitzcarren’s eyes narrowed, and Scully started to cough, but Cragan O’Mara cackled. “Come now, Liam. You and I both know the boy was no candidate for sainthood or even altar boy. But no, Detective, the evening proceeded without major conflict.”

“Major conflict?” Mulder inquired.

O’Mara’s blue eyes twinkled, and the agent could swear they became clearer. “What a perceptive fellow, this one. All right, Agent, you caught me in a sloppily constructed web of mendacity. The boy had a mouth on him, and little respect for his elders or betters. Liam, unclench that granite chin of yours. Friends, family, and associates alike, we’d come to ignore young Terry’s excesses. He was going a bit heavy on his drink, and one of the boys observed as how his consumption might lead him to an early demise. Terry took personal umbrage at this, but beyond a little bluster and crowing, no physical harm came to either party.”

“And who was the other party?” Scully asked blankly.

“That would be me, as a matter of fact,” O’Mara smiled. “I suppose I should know better than to try to staunch the foolish fervor of the young.”

“You think Cragan here bludgeoned Terry, booked the two of ‘em on a flight to darkest Africa, and put him to sleep with the dinosaurs?” Fitzcarren sneered. “And in case you should, I’ve got a dozen men plus William at the bar will tell you Cragan was with us ‘til the joint closed.”

“Nobody’s accusing anybody,” von Flanagan assured the mobster. “We want what you want, Liam – the guy that killed your nephew. You know of anyone in any of the other families that would have a reason to kill Terry?”

“Those fuck–, pardon my French, Johnny,” Fitzcarren said. “Those Capranos – you know the boy had a run-in with one of those hoodlums a few years back.”

Mulder suppressed a smile at the irony of Fitzcarren’s indictment. “You know Richard Fraternelli? Used to work for the Caprano organization?”

“Guy ripped a hole in the sidewalk in front of that eye-talian restaurant? Yeah, the arrogant smartass actually came in here looking for a job after Tony Caprano let him go. I told him politely to perform an unnatural act upon himself.”

“I was a bit more circumspect,” O’Mara added, unnecessarily. Almost purposefully unnecessarily, Scully thought.

Mulder persisted. “Ramon DeColta?”

Fitzcarren’s eyes flicked to his attorney, who sat smiling and motionless, and shook his head. Must’ve had business dealings, Scully concluded. But how would Fitzcarren jockey DeColta under a giant magnifying glass, like an ant ready for broiling?

“I’m afraid you’ve exhausted my supply of insight,” Fitzcarren said, rising. “Cragan and I have a meeting down at City Hall, a zoning issue, so we’ll say our goodbyes now. You want, William will set you up. My tab, William,” the mobster shouted to the bar as O’Mara slid carefully from the booth. The attorney’s expensive wingtips gleamed in contrast to his vintage suit and the surroundings.

“You mind if we ask William a few questions?” Mulder asked.

Fitzcarren grinned sadly. “Last I knew, William answers questions without authorization from myself or any other man. William, you help these fellows as a favor to Terry, hear? Anything you remember, right?”

The burly bartender nodded once. Fitzcarren nodded with finality, O’Mara with amiable courtesy, and von Flanagan with confusion. Mulder blinked his farewell.

“May you find what you’re looking for, and may it be what you seek, Agent Mulder,” O’Mara murmured. The crime boss and the lawyer took their leave, opening a blinding hole of outdoor light that sealed tight on their heels.

“What was that, Mulder?” von Flanagan demanded. “It was almost like the old man was trying to make a point. To you. And did you have to come on so strong with Fitzcarren? I have to keep my relationships solid in this town.”

“Let’s talk to the barkeep,” Mulder suggested, striding to the long expanse of dark wood. William placed a white towel and a newly polished stein on the bar. He looked to von Flanagan as if he’d been stamped out of that mold all Chicago bartenders used to pop out of before mixing frozen, syrupy cocktails had become the trend. “William…?”

“Healy,” he said. “Wha’ can I help you with?”

“The night Terry Fitzcarren disappeared, was there any trouble?”

“’Bout like Mr. Fitzcarren said,” Healy murmured. He smiled slightly. “Gotta keep your ears open and your mouth shut, kinda heavy clientele we get here. Terry always went through his belligerent drunk stage early in the evening, and if he didn’t get socked, or he didn’t sock somebody, or one a’ Mr. Fitzcarren’s boys didn’t sock somebody for him, Terry’d usually mellow into a whiny mope by ten or so. How his uncle won’t trust him with more of the business, how the chicks today are all lezzies ‘cause he can’t get laid, how the world’s just generally screwin’ him over.”

“Didn’t like him much, huh?” von Flanagan asked.

William shrugged. “You make your own luck, ‘cept Terry never wanted to waste the energy to do it. That night, he’d got all pissed off ‘cause one of the guys was ragging him how he was gonna drink and smoke himself into a early grave. He starts rantin’ and waving his arms, tellin’ everybody how he’s gonna outlive us all. The old man finally shut him up.”

“Cragan?”

“Yeah, he just smiles at Terry, that shit-eatin’ smile he’s got, and says, ‘May you live to be the oldest man in this room.’ He’s always spoutin’ some corny old Irish toast or blessing or some such crap. Well, Terry didn’t have enough brain cells left by that point to come up with anything, so he just staggered out.” William chuckled at the memory.

“Do you remember the night Richard Fraternelli came in here?” Mulder changed tracks.

William frowned for a second. “Didn’t get his name, but that must’ve been the Italian guy came in. See, we usually don’t get anybody in here from any farther south than Oak Lawn, so he stood out. Plus, he got a little, ah, loud. Seems he blamed some falling out he’d had with his boss on Mr. Fitzcarren.”

Looking for a job, Scully reflected. “Did it get physical?”

“Nah, the guy was a little shit-faced, but he knew not to fuck with Mr. Fitzcarren or the boys. He started talking kinda loud, like you do when you wanna punch somebody but you know better? Well, Mr. Fitzcarren just talked him down quiet-like, and suggested he go home to dry out. Even asked if I’d call the guy a cab, and Cragan sent him on his way with some more genuine Irish folk shit.”

“OK. Ramon DeColta.”

William didn’t seem to lose his composure, but his eyes shut down. “Nah, don’t ring a bell.”

“Doesn’t ring a bell, huh?” Mulder smiled. “I’d have thought DeColta would’ve ‘stood out.’”

“Mighta been off that night,” the bartender suggested. “Yeah, Jen, she was subbing for me.”

“Yeah. Look, William, I’m not going to start talking about bringing in health inspectors and checking to see if your license covers after-hours, ‘cause I’m sure you or Fitzcarren or whoever’s paid off the appropriate municipal officials,” von Flanagan said pleasantly but purposefully. “But if I start looking at this bar, your ownership papers, any illegal activity taking place on these premises, and Mr. Fitzcarren finds out it was you who brought all this federal heat down on him, I don’t think he’s going to bring out the good whiskey for your wake.” He paused. “We’re not looking to burn Fitzcarren,” he added, swallowing a “for now.” “We just want to know why DeColta came in here.”

William paused a beat, and then sighed. “OK, but you gotta keep this confidential. All I’m gonna say is DeColta and Mr. Fitzcarren were discussing a business deal, and Mr. Fitzcarren didn’t like DeColta’s terms. There were a few what-you-call ‘veiled threats’, and DeColta and his guys left. No guns, no problems, OK? That’s it.”

Mulder waited, but William had turned into a Stonehenge lawn ornament. “OK,” the agent said, pushing off the bar. von Flanagan sprinted after him into the sunlight, only to find him standing on the sidewalk, transfixed. Scully exited shortly thereafter.

“Mulder?” she inquired, walking up to him after a quick glance at von Flanagan. “Hey, you all right?”

“Ah, I was just thinking about the ‘killings,’ if that’s what we want to call them.”

Von Flanatan gave him a skeptical look. “Jesus, Mulder, you’ve been acting spooky ever since we left headquarters.”

“I’m fine,” Mulder smiled, half at the old nickname. “Look, the two things the victims have in common is Liam Fitzcarren and this bar. But what could that mean? I mean, Terry was part of the organization, part of the family. And how did a bunch of mobsters pull off three such bizarro murders? I’m sure they’ve got the money, but how do you hire the muscle to stick a giant, seemingly extinct carnivore on one man, drop a second one on the street out of thin air, and fry a third with solar radiation?”

He looked over at von Flanagan, who was staring incredulously at him. “Unless that’s how you Windy City guys roll,” Mulder added with a lazy grin.

Cicero, Illinois

10:17 a.m.

“He did something to him, that mick flauta de hijo,” Rosarita DeColta spat as she set a plate of sugar-dusted pastries before the agents and quickly crossed herself. “I just know it. Those criminals killed my Ramon.”

Standing in an apron in the spacious living room of her son’s luxuriously ill-gotten home, wearing a doubtlessly extravagant diamond necklace and a designer housedress, Ramon DeColta’s mother seemed unaware of the irony of her indictment of the Fitzcarrens. The universal battle cry of the doting mother – “He’s a good boy.”

“How do you think they might’ve done that?” Scully asked patiently.

“How do I know?” the fashionable, gray-haired senora snapped. “Prob’ly one of those satellite laser beams I seen on the TV. Those Fitzcarrens, they got loads of money, the Capranos, too. Everybody’s getting’ all high-tech, with the Internet and the cell phones and the fax machines. Maybe they figure it’s cheaper just to buy some surplus killer satellite than to pay out all that money on hitmen.”

“Uh, we’ll look into that,” Mulder suggested.

Rosarito’s eyes narrowed. “You think I’m muy loco , a little crazy, huh? Well, let me tell you, Mr. Bigshot Federal Cop, you grow up like I did in one of the villages a thousand miles from the nearest indoor bathroom, you’d know there are loco things going on around us every day you can’t even see if you had Superman’s x-ray glasses…”

Mulder started to correct her on the superheroic inaccuracy, but she was on a roll.

“My papa, he saw the chupacabra at our window one night, waiting to snatch my sister from her bed. One time, I saw my dead uncle digging in our garden – just like that boy in the movie.” She crossed herself once more, whether for the dead uncle, herself, or Haley Joel Osment, Mulder didn’t know.

“You, ah, found the body, right?” he ventured.

Rosarita turned gray and back to Maybelline pink. “It was as if they’d barbecued him alive. I could hear his skin crackling, like frying meat. And he just kept screaming, as if the devil himself would take him. I didn’t tell those pinchi policia, those dumb cops, but that’s how I knew it was those criminals who were always bugging my Ramon.”

The report hadn’t mentioned DeColta saying anything before he died. “What did he scream?” Mulder asked.

Despite the horrific circumstances, she had their attention now, and she crossed her fleshy arms with satisfaction. “Omerta.”

**

“Omerta,” Scully murmured as von Flanagan calmly dodged a vintage Lincoln pulling an abrupt three-lane change across the exit from 290 into the business district. Scully grabbed the dash and waited for her heart to return to a normal rhythm. “The mafia code of loyalty. DeColta betrayed somebody in one of the families, or they betrayed him.”

“Yeah, but wait,” Mulder said as the cop screeched to a halt to allow a jaywalking homeless man to pass. The man grinned toothlessly and flipped the agents off. “DeColta was a Venezuelan. Why would he have used an Italian mob term like that?”

Scully shrugged. “Maybe he was trying to say an Italian mobster had killed him. One of Caprano’s guys, perhaps.”

“I don’t buy it. He’s being fried alive, probably going out of his mind. Why would he be that roundabout about who killed him? If it was one of Caprano’s guys, why not yell, ‘Caprano’? I mean, it’s not like the hitter matters; Caprano put out the hit. If it was a hit. And the same for Fitzcarren. I mean, if it was a hit. Oh, crap, I don’t know what I mean.”

The assistant district attorney von Flanagan had recommended Mulder meet was a tall, thin, Lincolnesque man named McCoy, who’d recently left the New York DA’s office to take a post in Cook County. He was now located in one of the high rise buildings off of Chicago Avenue. They parked and entered the lobby, rode the elevator to the fifth floor, and walked into the cubicle land. McCoy was burning the late night oil at his desk, and his serious demeanor gave way to a dry smile as he considered the Fitzcarrens.

“Extraordinarily lucky,” McCoy said. “We’ve had them up on a few local charges, trying to make something stick long enough to put Liam away, but something would always break in his favor. Some juror we had pegged to convict him would choke on a piece of hot dog, a crucial piece of evidence would just vanish from police inventory, the jury would fly against all logic and just cut Liam loose. Incredible luck. The same was true of his father, Seamus, and, I heard, his grandfather, too. Cragan’s been representing the family for nearly 50 years.”

“What about this Cragan guy? The lawyer,” Mulder asked. “He must be really good, huh?”

McCoy started to nod, then frowned. “You know, not really, when I think about it. As I recall, he’s not particularly adept with case law, and his closings are based more on colorful cultural aphorisms and appeals to sentiment than on the facts of the case. Half the time lately, he’ll just stop in the middle of a motion, like he’s lost the thread of what he’s thinking. Of course, he’s somewhere between 80 and 150. It’s amazing he’s had such an impressive win record.”

“Amazing,” Scully moaned unconsciously. She was getting an uneasily familiar feeling…

**

“Agent Scully?” Patel’s low voice crackled over the speaker of Scully’s iPhone. The young man had taken second seat to Scully as the X-Files’ forensic specialist of choice. “It’s me. I had a look at your victims, and I can honestly say I am totally at a loss. I ran the bite marks on Fitzcarren’s body against every animal large enough to have inflicted the injury, and nothing even came close. Except some fossil teeth I examined at Georgetown University.

“Fraternelli’s injuries were more, ah, conventional: He actually appears to have died of cardiac failure, which is common enough in fall victims. But, given the condition of his body, I could find no evidence of him struggling or having been restrained in any way, which I might have expected if he’d been taken on an evening helicopter ride.”

“No helicopters were up anywhere near that part of town,” von Flanagan supplied, swerving smoothly around a cursing Chicago cabbie. “That’s been confirmed – 9/11, the threats to the Sears Tower.”

“As for DeColta, he had suffered injuries that might be consistent with one who’d spent his summer about two planets closer to the sun. I checked to see if the burns might’ve been caused by radioactive exposure, but he exhibited no other physiological symptoms of radiation poisoning. In short, Agent, you are up the creek without benefit of forensic insight.”

“Thanks, anyway,” Scully sighed, clicking off. She glanced at her watch. “Detective, can you drop us off at the station? I have a family, er, thing we need to get to.”

“That reminds me,” Mulder ventured. “I seem to have forgot to pack that 30-year-old whiskey for Great Uncle Francis.”

“Argh,” Scully stated.

**

“Dana!” the old man’s ancient eyes looked even more sunken in his skull because they were shaded from the sun by his enormous eyebrows.

“Uncle Francis,” Scully greeted with a suitably polite smile, trying not to wince as she got close enough to hug the man who smelled like his diaper probably needed changed.

The elderly Scully turned to Mulder and asked with a frown, “And who are you?”

“This is Mulder—you met him before, Uncle Francis,” she replied, hoping she didn’t sound too annoyed.

“What kind of a name is Mulder? And where’s the whiskey?”

“Um—“ Mulder started, but was rescued by Maggie, Tara, Matt, and Claire, who rushed outside the giant suburban home as soon as they realized Mulder and Scully were there.

“Fox! Dana!” Maggie called as if she hadn’t seen them in ages. They lived close to each other—in fact, they were considering inviting Maggie to live next door in the duplex. It was recently vacant and they wanted to make sure she had help when she needed it.

“Why is it you have to travel a few hundred miles to be excited to see someone?” Scully asked rhetorically so only Mulder could hear, but then put on a bright face for her immediate family as they approached.

There was kissing and hugging, and Mulder and Matt high-fived. Then they started back toward the house, and on their way to the porch, Francis backhanded Mulder across his arm and asked, “Who are you again?”

“Dana! And Fox!” Someone yelled, and Mulder wasn’t sure whether he should turn or duck.

A very large woman in her fifties bustled over, nearly knocking down two rowdy red-headed children fighting over a Nintendo DS. She held out her arms and waved her hands at her wrists. Scully wasn’t sure whether she was fake-crying or waving them to hug her, but the agent smiled politely and said, “It’s nice to see you again.”

Mulder glanced at her, questioningly, but she pointedly didn’t look at him. “My God, you look like you’ve lost weight,” she said, but didn’t give Scully a chance to respond as she enveloped her in a hug, and pulled Mulder in too. “So when’s the wedding date?”

Mulder laughed nervously. “There’s not a…”

“We’re not sure,” Scully answered with a half-smile.

“Well, don’t you live together in Bethesda?”

“Georgetown,” Mulder corrected, and promptly received an elbow in his side.

“Oh, you’ll have to give me your address so I can send you baked things. I love to bake,” she said with a grin. “What do you like to eat? You look like a man who can eat.”

“I—“

“He’s watching his weight,” Scully answered, falsely apologetic, and grabbed one of the kids nearby to rescue them from this situation. “Aedan, how’s school?’

“Good, I guess,” the six-year-old answered, and then said with sudden excitement, “You know what I did yesterday? I put a piece of a stick in Jessie’s backpack ‘cause it looked like a turd.” He giggled. “’Cause it looked like a *turd*,” he repeated, making sure they understood why it was hilarious.

“That’s very commendable,” Mulder said kindly, and the child beamed as Scully shot him an angry look.

The woman was now gone, and so her ploy had worked. She had gone on to talk to someone else in the exquisite but crowded house. “Who was that?” Mulder asked her.

She shrugged her shoulders and shook her head. “No idea.”

“Okay. Well, I’m gonna go check out the hors d’ oerves.”

“Mulder, don’t you dare leave me here—“ he was gone too quickly for Scully to catch him. “Dammit,” she whispered, and little Aedan giggled and said, “Ooooooh! Aunt Dana said a bad word!”

Scully rolled her eyes but managed to smile. “Go play with your cousins, Aedan,” she told him kindly and sighed in relief as he ran off. But she was instantly sorry, because when Great Aunt Kathleen saw that she wasn’t talking to anyone, she promptly approached her and offered a hug, and the most popular question of the afternoon. “When’s the wedding date, dear?”

Meanwhile Mulder was telling stories of mothmen and flukemen and man-eating amoebas to a group of previously bored college and high-school-aged Scully’s.

“That’s amazing, man,” a sixteen-year-old hipster with red hair told him.

Mulder nodded his agreement.

“But you ever seen a Prince concert while you’re high?” the young rapper wannabe asked with a smirk. “Now *that* is truly amazing.”

The other kids stared at him and Mulder chuckled. “Can’t say I have, but I have seen an intelligent octopus used as a weapon before. And I wasn’t high.”

“*Sick*” one of the college-aged boys declared.

“What are you folks talking about over here?” an older voice asked, and Mulder turned around to see a middle aged man approach. He didn’t know who he was, but he said, “Just talking about what I do for a living. I’m Mulder—Scully—Dana’s partner.” He fumbled with his title.

“Mulder? That’s a strange name. I’m Don. Jessie’s husband,” he said, and pointed to someone Mulder didn’t know with his unoccupied hand.

Mulder nodded politely and some of the kids dispersed, sensing the ‘cool’ factor drop now that a mature adult had apparently entered the picture.

“So you’re her partner? Are the two of you going to tie the knot?”

It was about an hour later when Maggie brought out cookies and Mulder snagged three that he spotted a familiar face in the crowd. Scully nearly bumped into him from behind. “Mulder! There you are. I’m going to kill you.”

“Scully—look over there.”

“I can’t see over there. People are too tall. What is it?”

“Cragan O’Mara.”

Scully’s face changed from perpetual annoyance to shock. “What’s he doing here?”

“Let’s go find out.”

He stuffed one of the cookies in his mouth and handed the other two back to Scully. He nearly ran into that woman who had originally greeted him. She turned to see who had bumped her, and was now staring Mulder straight in the face. “Watching your weight?” she asked after a moment’s pause.

Mulder’s mouth was full, so Scully simply said, “It’s the high-carb diet,” as she pushed him forward in the sea of Scully’s. But by the time they reached where Mulder had previously seen O’Mara, he was gone. “Excuse me,” Mulder asked, and swallowed the last of the cookie as he tapped the shoulder of some woman he didn’t recognize, “Excuse me. Have you seen the man who was standing right here a moment ago? Old fellow, older suit?”

She smiled and said, “Hi, Dana. Good to see you again. You must be Fox. It’s nice to meet you. And yes, I did see Cragan. He was just here—he’s a delightful man, isn’t he? I’m sure he’ll want to catch you before he goes. He was just leaving.”

“Sally, do you remember how we’re related to him?” Scully asked brightly.

Sally paused, then frowned. “As a matter of fact…I don’t. Isn’t that terrible? I guess with a family this big, though…”

Mulder frowned. “Thanks for your help, Sally. Good to meet you.”

He spotted O’Mara by the door, then, and said, “There! Scully, come on.” He nearly dragged his partner by the wrist, leading her to the front door. But again, he lost sight of O’Mara and then he was gone. “Mulder!” Don from the yard suddenly rescued himself from a conversation with Francis, and clapped Mulder on the shoulder. “Hey, have you seen Cragan around here? You know who I’m talking about?”

“Actually, we were looking for him too,” Scully said.

“We just made a bet and I owe him $10,” Don said. He shook his head. “But he disappeared before I could give it to him. I guess with this many people in the room…”

“Do you remember how your wife is related to him?” Mulder asked.

Don laughed. “I’m lucky if I remember what my wife *looks* like with this many Irish people in the room. Sorry,” he said, and shook his head.

“That’s okay. Thanks,” Scully replied, and turned to Mulder. “Think we should—“her phone interrupted her, and she immediately answered it. “Scully. Oh, no, it’s no problem. No, really. Oh? Okay. Where? Mulder and I will be there in about thirty minutes. Thanks.”

Mulder gave her an inquisitive look.

“That was von Flanagan. Apparently there’s a woman named Jen who says she has important information regarding the case. She wants us to meet her in a coffee shop on Michigan Avenue. We should get on the road if we want to beat rush hour.”

Mulder laughed. “You just want to get out of—“ he received a prompt elbow in the side as Scully’s mother approached from behind.

“Fox, Dana! Come on into the kitchen—Tara wants to know if you’re going to have time to set up some video games for Matt and the other kids.”

Scully gave her an apologetic expression. “Sorry, Mom, but we have to take off. We just got a call.”

Maggie’s face fell, but then she perked up. “You’ll be by later, right?”

“Absolutely,” Mulder said, and gave her a hug. “Try not to suffocate in here.”

She laughed and slapped him on the shoulder playfully, then gave her daughter a hug. “Be careful driving. It’s supposed to snow. But they said it’s going to be a wet snow, so it shouldn’t be too bad until it starts to freeze. Oh! Before I forget—Cragan had to leave, but he asked me to give you this.” She handed them a small folded Post-it note.

Mulder took it and read, “May the roof over your heads be as well thatched as the couple inside is well matched.”

Maggie burst into laughter. “See, even *he* knows you two better than you do.”

“Thanks, Mom,” Scully said with a smile and a jesting eye roll.

When they were on their way in the car, Scully turned to Mulder and said with a nearly crazy smile that really turned him on, “So Mulder, when’s the wedding date?”

___________

“Ah,” Jen smirked. “You brought the little woman. And by little woman—-”

“Wassup?” Mulder interjected, seizing Scully and guiding her into the chair across from the retired djinn. The Michigan Avenue coffee shop was packed as the Chicago nightlife roared outside. Jen had commandeered the window table that afforded her the best seat for the human parade of which she’d never tired. She smiled sweetly at Scully; Scully fired back with an equal serving of strychnine-laced saccharine.

“Serious bad mojo in the workplace.” Jen sipped at her Kono Caramel Macchiato and sighed blissfully. “Haven’t felt this kind of vibe off anyone since Mussolini asked me to make him immortal. For a guy who always made the trains run on time, he sure didn’t see that one coming back to bite his Fascist ass. You know his middle name was Andrea? I always thought maybe he was overcompensating—-”

“You called?” Scully murmured.

“Sure. Fine. Whatever. There’s this old dude, probably a few centuries older than me. . .”

“Cragan O’Mara,” Mulder supplied. “Already had the pleasure.”

Jen raised an eyebrow. “Wow. You have wised up. Anyway, I think he’s cleaning up Chicago’s surplus douchebag population, though I can’t figure out how Liam Fitzcarren’s brain-deficient kid fits in.”

“You think O’Mara’s a leprechaun,” Scully said.

“Oh, please, of course not. There’s no such thing. Said the genie to the first fed ever to autopsy an invisible man.” Gen turned to Mulder. “I was working the stick a few weeks ago when Old Man Fitzcarren told that South American drug dude — DeColta — in no uncertain terms he wasn’t interested in doing business with him. Then DeColta turns to the goon that came in with him and said somethin in Spanish that didn’t sound very complimentary. They grab their coats, and Cragan, who’s been grinning the whole time, says to DeColta, now, lemme see… Yeah. ‘May the sun shine warmly on your face.’ Something like that. Blarney bullshit. Or so I thought.”

“And what did Mr. O’Mara tell Richard the Swordfish when he came in to leverage Liam?” Mulder inquired, clearly exhilarated. “No, wait; lemme guess. ‘May the road rise up to meet you.’”

Jen smiled serenely, embracing her mug with black-nailed fingers. Then the smile dropped away. “William’d told me what Cragan said to Terry the night he went missing, but I didn’t put it together ‘til yesterday morning, when I read about what happened to him. My poker face seems to have disappeared with the mystical powers, and I could tell Cragan could tell I knew. Must be some kind of fraternity between preternatural entities. I thought for a second he was going to toast my continued weight loss or wish me into the cornfield or something, but he just hobbled out. I think he may just be biding his time, though, and I figured you’d be the only guy, well, open enough to the possibility.”

“The possibility one of Chicago’s oldest and worst octogenarian lawyers is a leprechaun?” Scully squeaked. “Listen to yourself.”

“Still an absolute joy, huh?” Jen sighed. Mulder shrugged.

“”All three of the vics talked to Liam Fitzcarren shortly before they died, and they weren’t exactly pleasant encounters,” Mulder explained to his partner patiently. “All three encounters were in Fitzcarren’s favorite bar. And this lawyer, Cragan O’Mara, was in the vicinity each time.

“Then we got the murder methods, if you wanna call them that. O’Mara tells the first vic, ‘May the road rise up to meet you,’ and sure enough, it does, so to speak. The second time, it’s another old Irish saying: ‘May the sun shine warmly on your face.’ Next day, the victim gets a sunburn a tanker truck full of No. 400 sunblock wouldn’t have stopped.”

“Mulder…”

“No, Scully, wait. The third guy, Fitzcarren, the one sleeping with the dinosaurs, he gets a little soused, starts mouthing off. This old shyster tells him, ‘May you live to be the oldest man in the room.’ Now, where those scientists found Fitzcarren, wouldn’t that make him the oldest man in existence? Of course, I don’t think the kid’s uncle would’ve had anything to do with his murder, so that means the lawyer’s working on his own. At least in the last murder.”

“Mulder,” Scully said, this time more quietly but firmly. “This is like saying Tinkerbell jolted Fitzcarren with her magic wand, or accusing the Big Bad Wolf of huffing and puffing and, well, you know what I mean. A leprechaun?”

“When DeColta got fried, he kept yelling something,” Mulder persisted. “His mom thought he was screaming, ‘Omerta!’ Probably’d been around mobsters too long. What if he was shouting, ‘O’Mara!’? His mom’s a superstitious old broad: What if DeColta realized Cragan O’Mara had put a curse on him at the bar?”

“I thought those old Irish toasts were supposed to be blessings. A leprechaun?”

Mulder sat up. “This O’Mara, he’s been working for three generations of the Fitzcarren family, for a half-century. He’s not a particularly great lawyer, but he always manages to get Fitzcarren off. And there’s his shoes.”

“His shoes,” Scully finally intoned.

“Bear with me for a minute. I surfed up some stuff about leprechauns on the web. The word came from the Irish ‘leith phroyan,’ which means ‘one shoemaker.’ Quote: ‘Their clothing is never extravagant. Their footwear, however, is a source of pride, and every leprechaun possesses the very finest he can make. O’Mara was wearing this suit that looks like he bought it for Harry Truman’s inauguration, but you should’ve seen his shoes. They were gorgeous, like some kinda work of art or something.”

“Mulder…”

“Look, the British Isles have always been what, kind of mystical, right. OK, now, don’t most folk legends and superstitions have some sort of basis in reality? People started eating kosher because the pork back then was full of worms and the shellfish would rip you up from the inside. Now it’s a religious practice.”

“So much for Shaw’s Crab House tomorrow night,” Scully said. “Mulder, I could understand if their were some sort of scientific rationale for this. But magic, John? Leprechauns?”

“What would a leprechaun be, Monica? I mean, if there was such a thing? Maybe some kind of genetic fluke or something? Maybe from ‘way back or something, some race or culture that’s been breeding true for centuries.”

“You’re saying you think this ‘leprechaun’ is some kind of psychokinetic genetic mutant? What you’re talking about is the ability to move a human being through time, to control the power of the sun.”

“Like he’s so damned special,” Jen muttered.

**

It wasn’t long into their conversation that the phone rang, and von Flanagan informed them that they had another lead. A building in Cicero, used as a law office, had apparently employed all of the Fitzcarren’s at one time or another, and since Terry met his end, it had mysteriously popped up on Google searches as ‘Chicago’s first mobster house, home to Fitzcarren.’ It was too good to refuse, especially considering there was one employee who had left years ago, but whose name was on the building contract: Cragan O’Mara.

Neither Mulder nor Scully took much notice of the man in front of a central pipeline exposed in the wall of the lobby, tinkering with the temperature controls through a remote connection coming from the boiler in the basement.

They instead got on the elevator at the receptionist’s direction and traveled to the top floor, where the storage lockers were kept. They planned to go through lots and lots of files.

The receptionist at the 10th floor was more than happy to show them the files, but told them how to let themselves out and explained that she was leaving for the day. There was no one else left on the floor. The 10th floor was more like a warehouse with a bathroom and a desk. Rows and rows of filing cabinets lined the massive open space.

“Odd…I always thought the 10th floor was reserved for the boss,” Scully commented as they walked to the building’s files to confirm the Google article that identified O’Mara as the original owner.

“In this building, it’s the 9th floor,” Mulder stated. “I read that on the elevator. It’s a penthouse too, so it looks like the current ‘boss’ lives there part of the time. We need to determine if Terry Fitzcarren might have worked here before he died. I’m willing to bet that something here will solve this case.”

Scully raised an eyebrow as she opened the top drawer and extracted a building plan. “Mulder, that’s an enormous leap you’ve made.”

He stopped, and stepped back before opening the building plan he held in his hand. “Scully, don’t you ever get tired of having the same argument? I mean, we tend to repeat ourselves. Why don’t we just jump to the part where I say that’s it’s not so fantastic, and you say—”

“Shhh,” she held up her hand.

He was silent for a moment, and then asked, “What?”

“Do you hear water running?”

He shrugged. “It’s probably the old pipes in this building and the radiators. Everything here is ancient.”

She frowned at that explanation, but opened her building plan. “Now *that’s* interesting. Mulder, this floor was built to be waterproof. The roof is triple reinforced with the same techniques used in nineteenth century cargo ships at the dawn of the industrial age. It’s old technology but it works. No wonder O’Mara keeps his files up here.”

“Lower humidity and watertight environment. There’s probably enough paper trails and fuzzy math in here to make a politician’s head spin,” Mulder quipped, and glanced at the rows and rows of files as he opened his building plan. “But it’s well-shielded fuzzy math.”

“This is amazing,” Scully ignored him as she put her building plan back and extracted another, and then another. “This entire floor is built to be watertight, fireproof, and earthquake resistant. It acts as a lightning rod for the rest of the building. And this was all done in 1896.”

“But nothing to confirm that O’Mara was the builder.”

“O’Mara couldn’t possibly have been alive in 1896,” Scully said in her typical skeptical tone, but Mulder looked away for a moment and began walking toward the sound of the running water.

“So now you definitely hear that too,” Scully stated.

“Yeah, it’s kind of odd…it sounds too loud to be basic building piping and…” he touched the door to the receptionist area, then looked behind him in alarm. “Scully, this door is vibrating.”

He then suddenly looked down, noticing something wrong around his feet. They were getting wet. He realized that the waterproof seal on the door had broken, and that water was now leaking in at an alarming rate. “Uh-oh,” he said, and ran from the door just as the hinges began rocking violently. He pushed Scully to the far end of the room and said, “It looks like we’re about to get wet.”

Scully’s expression was one of alarm, but it changed to utter shock when the door burst open, wood from the frame splintering in a small explosion around the site while water gushed in at the doorknob level. It quickly dissipated to fill up the room to their ankles, and it was rising.

“Let’s get to the stairwell!” Scully exclaimed, and they ran through the thick, clear water to the staircase by the elevators. It was locked down. “Why is this locked?!” She yelled, getting ready to kick it.

Mulder held her back. “That’s not going to help. Come on, we need to find out the root cause and stop this from getting any worse.”

When they began looking, it didn’t take them long. The bathroom was clearly the source, based on the sound and the flow of the water. The toilet and sink pipes were in the process of severely overflowing, gushing water out at gallons per minute. The pressure was threatening to buckle the system and cause an explosion.

“This is too dangerous to work on—we need to find a way out of here,” Scully told him. The water was now rising to their knee level.

“There should be another staircase…” Mulder said, and grabbed Scully’s hand as he waded through the water. The cold liquid that surrounded them splashed up and they were quickly getting soaked. Scully’s teeth begin to chatter.

They ran around the massive floor but found nothing that resembled a way out. The tenth floor had no windows—it was part of the plan to make the place hurricane proof. They looked around desperately, and then Mulder said, “Go try and save some of O’Mara’s personal files.”

“What are you going to do?”

“I’m going to try to break out of here the only other way,” he said, and began wading through the water toward the fire ax on the wall. Scully watched him for a moment before rushing away herself, trying to find O’Mara’s personal file cabinet in the rows of endless flooding files.

Meanwhile Mulder grabbed a chair and stood on it, wobbling as it was almost completely under water now, and wielded the axe at the angled roof overhead. It was backbreaking work, swinging an axe upwards and not chopping off one’s foot or leg in the process.

**

While Mulder and Scully’s drama played out inside the building, Henry Weems, a local Chicago handyman, had been called to assist the man working on the main boiler pipes.

He had worked with Mulder and Scully before, on a case involving quite a lot of luck and the fortunate outcome of a mobster dead and a little boy the recipient of his liver. Having now knowledge of their location in the building or their dire situation, though, Henry decided that now was a good time to have a snack as he stood in front of the broken zone valve and assessed the problem.

He pulled out a box of St. Patrick’s Day cookies, sugar cookies in the shape of four-leaf-clovers with green sprinkles on top, and ate one as the original plumber looked on, annoyed. “I think you’ve got a zone valve isolation problem,” Henry assessed as he squatted down and proceeded to finish his cookie. “Yes, actually, that’s precisely what’s going on. This zone valve is reading that it’s disconnected from the rest of the system.” He stood. As he did so, sprinkles fell into the crack between the boiler pipe lead and the boiler below. The sprinkles almost immediately attracted a mouse that the building janitor had been trying to catch for weeks.

The mouse sniffed and then ate the sprinkles, which occupied him for just long enough for him to be in the correct location so that when Henry threw the switch and isolated that zone valve, the pipe he rested on began to retain the heat that would have been dissipated through the rest of the system. The sprinkles were gobbled up as the mouse heated up. He leapt off of the hot pipe and scampered away, but on his way down he fell painfully onto the boiler operating switch, tripping it and causing the boiler to gurgle and then chug to a stop.

Of course, with ingress still occurring, the water was not being pumped out and the pipes began to swell under the pressure. It ruptured, exploding the weak point of the pipe outward and puncturing the pipe next to it. Water began to gush out and into the basement, effectively draining the system.

All of this was unbeknownst to Henry, who finished the last of his St. Patrick’s Day cookies and mock saluted to the plumber, who stared dumbfounded at the system. All lights indicated that floors 1-9 were the correct temperature now, which meant his job was done. He closed up the panel and walked toward the locker area to prepare to go home.

**

“Mulder!” Scully yelled, unable to keep her head above the water anymore. She felt her partner’s arm around her as he dropped the axe into the water in favor of grabbing her. He pulled her close to him and helped her grab onto an I-beam secured in the ceiling.

“I think their roof is as well thatched…as we are appropriately matched,” Mulder quipped, and he blew bubbles as his face went underwater for a moment. Scully’s face hugged the ceiling, her arms quivering from the cold and the task of holding herself up.

She chuckled, and looked over to him. This was a desperate situation—one of the most desperate they had been in. They could not get out, and the water was still rising.

“I’m sorry, Dana,” he said over the sound of the rushing water, and didn’t look at her.

“Oh, please,” Scully shot back at him, and smiled. “You have nothing to be sorry about, partner,” her words were labored, and she knew she wouldn’t be able to hold herself up much longer. But that wasn’t the only reason why Mulder didn’t smile back. There was something about the way she said it…some twinge of regret laced in his voice that he wasn’t about to bring up in what looked like their last moments on planet Earth.

Suddenly, the water stopped rising. Then it began going down. Slowly but surely, the water was draining. Vents in the floor opened up and allowed the water to fall back into the piping system that carried it to the boiler. The basement was flooding, but Mulder and Scully didn’t know that.

“Don’t let go of that rod,” Mulder said.

Scully chuckled. “That’s what she said?” she asked, her arms and voice shaking violently at this point.

He laughed back this time, his voice shaking also from the labor of holding themselves up. There was no guarantee that they wouldn’t be swept into something sharp or deadly, so they had to hang on until they could see where they would land. The water went down far enough that a filing cabinet was visible beneath them, on its side. It was just the right height to assist their drop to the ground. Scully easily dropped on top of it, denting it slightly, and then gingerly stepped off.

Mulder, however, dropped and missed it completely, somehow, landing awkwardly on the soaked carpeting. Scully rushed over, but he held up his hand. “I’m okay. I’m just glad I didn’t fall through the floor.”

Scully sighed. “Now we just have to find a way out of here.”

As suddenly as the water began draining, von Flanagan burst through the stairwell door. “There you two are!” he exclaimed. Three uniformed officers were behind him, weapons drawn just in case. “Been tryin’ to call you for the past hour now.” He stopped, and looked around at the devastated storage floor. “What the hell happened here?”

**

“Ah, so good to see you lovely children again,” Cragan O’Mara exulted as the agents and his favorite barmaid/djinn walked into the den.

“I’m going to kick his lucky charms,” Mulder announced.

Scully waved him back as she closed the pocket doors between them and the assembled Scully clan. “Mr. O’Mara, I think we could make a solid case for attempted murder here — we’ll find the man who tampered with the pipes in your building, and I can’t imagine he or Liam Fitzcarren will be willing to take the heat for you. By now, I have to wonder if Fitzcarren doesn’t have some suspicion you had something to do with his nephew’s death. His man William doesn’t seem altogether trustworthy.”

“Well, dear Liam’ll have to send one of his boys to have done with me,” Cragan grinned. “You see, I am no longer in the Fitzcarrens’ employ.”

“What’s that mean?” Mulder muttered. “Don’t tell me he let you just walk out.”

“Liam knows I still have considerable influence,” Cragan murmured, spurring a chill up Mulder’s spine. “In fact, I wished him all the best. ‘May you be full to burstin’ with good fortune and health,’ I told him.”

“Jesus,” Mulder whispered.

Scully pressed on. “I have to know something, Mr. O’Mara. If what my partner believes about you is true, you could have found a far more creative and untraceable way to kill us.”

“Kill you?” Cragan sounded genuinely wounded. “Dear Dana. I knew fate would intervene well before you and your beloved would perish. I can read luck like a gypsy reads the tea leaves. Kill you? Heaven forefend.”

Scully started to protest, then stopped to consider. “Wait a minute. You wanted us to catch you?”

“And you’ve done so, admirably, my dear. I am now totally and utterly in your debt.”

“Took you long enough to work that one out,” Jen snorted. Cragan favored her with a bemused glint.

“I suspected you were a special girl,” the leprechaun nodded. “Only one with a special imagination would have suspected a feeble old gentleman such as myself could singlehandedly three tough customers like Terry and Mr. Fraternelli and Senor DeColta. But you’re no longer special, are you, Lass?”

“Quit loving the job,” Jen shrugged. “That’s what happened with you, isn’t it?”

Cragan templed his fingers and leaned comfortably back into his buttery leather chair. “More than a century I been doing for the Fitzcarrens and their sorry lot. A deal with the devil to save my kin.

“You’ve no doubt heard of the great troubles, when the blight took the potato crop? Well, one day I come home from a morning of wood-gathering to find this odd sort helpin’ himself to my secret store of Irish whisky. I’m ready to finish him right there, and he asks me, ‘How would you like to find your larder forever filled with potatoes?’”

Mulder turned to Jen. “Jeez — a bagful of turnips, a larder full of spuds? You guys really know how to haggle.”

“Had to be there,” the djinn sighed.

“At any rate, folks was dying all around us — I’d just buried my kid brother Joseph — and in my half-starved desperation, I couldna turn down the odd man’s offer. I think you’ve already guessed the rest. I believe the poor fella was wantin’ out of his contract and saw a willing mark.

Cragan’s eyes grew distant. “Like any foolish young hooligan, I tried to turn my newfound abilities to coin. And I was doing quite well for myself down to the village pub and the taverns roundabout. Until I ran afoul of a fearsome sort named Seamus Fitzcarren. He’d accumulated quite a name for himself with suspect enterprises, and he was headed to the States to expand his holdings, so to speak. Fitzcarren was a cruel man but quite an imaginative one, much like our fine Mr. Mulder here. He knew there was but one way I could transform the meager assortment in my hand into a winning pot, and there he had me. I was compelled into his service — it’s like a natural force, a law of physics for me and my kind.

“New York turned out to be a far more ‘provincial’ environment in which to ply the criminal trades, and Seamus decided my skills might be best employed in the courts. I was sent to Harvard on the Fitzcarrens’ dime, under the threat of what would happen to my people should I decide to strike out on my own. When old Seamus died of some bad rotgut in ’32, the eldest boy Sean inherited my services, followed by his ill-begotten spawn Liam in 1974.”

“That’s an impressive resume,” Mulder smirked. “What finally happened, they take away your health plan?”

Cragan glanced sympathetically at Scully. “He’s quite the flippant one, isn’t he? I think perhaps we can have a more constructive conversation if your mister were to enjoy a plate and a game of Frisbee outside.”

“Hey,” Mulder growled.

“Mulder, a few moments,” Scully requested calmly, regarding Cragan O’Mara curiously.

“Hah?”

“Humor me, OK?”

Mulder muttered a distinctly non-Gaelic oath and shoved the French doors open. The dusty door track blunted the drama of his attempted slam.

“Ah, and could you join Mr. Mulder, as well, dear Jen?” Cragan smiled.

The former djinn planted her stylish boots. “I used to practice the trade, Old Man. She needs some experienced representation to make sure her head doesn’t pop off or she grows a third boob.”

“How fanciful,” O’Mara sighed. “I didn’t lure myself into Dana’s trap just to pull some mischievous leprechaun antics. Go, child. And you needn’t worry about Liam and his lot any more.”

“It’s OK,” Scully assured Jen. “I trust him.”

“Your wake,” Jen breathed, following Mulder into the familial din.

“Now,” Scully said when they were alone. “I have a feeling I know what you’re about to tell me. I have to warn you, though — a pot of gold would be tough to explain to the IRS.”

Cragan cackled. “You’re havin’ me on, Dana. I’m sure you know it doesn’t work that way. I just want you to ponder, for a moment, what fortunes might lie before you.

“Y’see, I’ve trucked with swine for the better part of my misbegotten existence. Watched men like Seamus Fitzcarren and his brood swill the best liquor, bed the finest women, line their pockets with gold mined from the blood of others. I’ve aided, abetted, and stood by mutely, as they’ve widowed wives and orphaned daughters and pumped poison into the veins of unhappy children.

“Heaven knows, I’m no longer a spiritual man — I quit the Holy Communion decades ago. But from time to time, I’m left to wonder how in God’s begotten world men the likes of Liam Fitzcarren and Ramon DeColta are allowed to sip from the gilded cup of Life whilst good, pure souls such as yourself are forced to endure a litany of tragedy and loss even the great Mr. Joyce could never have created.”

Scully was silent, still.

“It’s seemed a hard road, hasn’t it, Dear?” Cragan now murmured, eyes filled with empathy and love. “Every turn a path down blind alleys and graveyards, every answer riddled with thornier questions. Mr. Frost’s road less taken has led you into darkness and despair.”

She could hear herself breathing, feeling the dull thud of her soul-weary heart. “Please,” she rasped.

“But there’s good news, Dana, my precious. I have one last bit of fortune stored up, and I’d as soon see it spent for one such as yourself. A pitiful attempt at penitence, as it were. Take a second, child, and look out there.”

Scully followed Cragan’s withered finger toward the open bay window, where her collected kin laughed and feasted and tumbled and embraced on the expansive lawn. Mulder sulked under a hard maple, staring toward her; Jen was sampling a foam plate of berries.

“What are you saying?” Scully croaked.

“Look,” Cragan repeated, and she turned back to the window. And gasped.

A burly crew-cut man in a Navy sweatshirt had a smaller, meeker version of himself in a headlock. The smaller man broke free and punched the hulk in the shoulder. The pair laughed, and a pretty thirty-something woman peeled off from a nearby cluster to see what the joke was. Tara soon joined Bill, Charlie, and Melissa Scully, distributing freshly grilled Chicago dogs.

A petite redheaded child dashed past the group as Scully reeled back against a wing chair. Wetness stung at Scully’s eyes as her lips twitched in elated disbelief. She glanced at Cragan O’Mara, who nodded benignly, and turned back to the window.

Scully’s eyes widened as a somehow-almost-familiar man — handsome, rough-edged, graying at the temples — scooped her from her sneakered feet, sending her into gales of giggles. Tom Colton whirled the girl about, stopping abruptly as his eyes locked with Scully’s.

And then, in a gesture that nearly stilled Scully’s heart altogether, her old Academy buddy brought two fingers to his lips. He puckered and, as she blinked at the glint of the gold band on his second finger, released a kiss aimed directly at the woman on the other side of the glass. Scully grabbed for the drapes, but her trembling fingers could not will the image away.

“No,” she cried harshly. Tugging at the thick fabric for support, Scully searched the yard for Mulder, for some handhold in reality. He’d vanished — no, he’d just. . .ceased.

“The fork in the road,” Cragan’s voice cooed behind her. “You found it again, girl. You found your way.”

“Where’s Mulder?”

“He’s down the road, attending to his own business. He has no place on this path. But you know that, don’t you, girl?”

Scully swallowed air and, gathering herself, tore the curtains shut. She turned to the ancient man in the antique suit and fine shoes. “No,” she said, her voice regaining timbre.

Cragan nodded once, the wrinkles at his eyes deepening in, what, pleasure. “So be it. Your choice, dear. Sorry I couldn’t be of service to you.”

Scully swiped at her eyes, laughed weakly. “I think perhaps you have been. And I suspect you know that.”

“Silly girl. So, what, are we to clamp on the irons now?”

Scully frowned as she peered down at the homicidal elf. “I have to ask. Why? I mean, why now? What made you turn against your mast– against Fitzcarren?”

Cragan grinned bleakly. “The Fitzcarrens had a powerful hold over me these many years — the life of those I held most dear. But the blessing and curse of immortality is that time cures all. Last month, I received a letter notifying me that Ned O’Mara had been struck dead by a taxicab in the streets of Ulster. And thus ended the O’Mara bloodline. And any lasting obligation to Liam Fitzcarren. Well, shall we go now?”

Scully shook her head. “I don’t even know how we’d make a case against you. I’m not even sure we could hold on to you.”

“It’s a dilemma.”

Scully nodded sternly. “I hate to belabor a cliché, but don’t leave town.” She turned and started for the door, then paused. Scully considered and turned back to Cragan O’Mara with a sad, final smile and a parting sentiment.

The old man stared at the agent for a second, then broke into a broad, peaceful grin. His gray-green eyes glistened.

“God bless you, dear girl,” Cragan whispered. “God bless you.”

**

“I said, no souvenirs,” Scully chided as Mulder unsuccessfully attempted an end move behind her.

Her partner grinned guiltily and brought the object of his guilt from behind his back.

“Tell me that isn’t the whiskey Don and Jessie gave Uncle Francis,” Scully sighed. She shrugged and smiled with a bit of her “cousin” Cragan’s mischief. “Put the hotel towel back, though – wrap it in the Trib.”

Mulder nodded happily and located the Sports section. “So you ever going to tell me what happened with you and the old bastard? The tickets still say we’re flying coach, so apparently, the pot of gold was off the table.”

Before Scully could respond, Mulder’s Droid sounded, tuned for the occasion to the Dexy’s Midnight Runners rendition of “C’Mon, Irene.” He punched up the speaker.

“Know you two are headed to O’Hare,” von Flanagan grunted without prelude, “but we got an interesting little development thought you’d want to know about. Liam Fitzcarren blew up.”

Mulder dropped the mummified booze on the bedspread. “Car bomb.”

“You weren’t listening. Liam Fitzcarren blew up. Beat cop found his Towne Car parked in front of Cragan O’Mara’s place about three hours ago. Two of Fitzcarren’s crew inside with what was left of their boss. One had Fitzcarren’s index finger driven into his forehead. The other, well, I can’t even do it justice. Fitzcarren hisself is a permanent part of the upholstery, the dashboard, the roof liner. M.E. hopes to ID him with the teeth he left embedded in the windshield.”

“Imaginative interpretation,” Mulder murmured respectfully.

“Figure William the Barkeep ratted out O’Mara, and Liam and the boys decided to do a little elder abuse. Punchline was on them. When we went up to grill old Cragan, we found him in his bed, laid out like Finnegan at his wake, a shit-eatin’ grin on his wrinkled old puss. He beat ‘em to the punch, M.E. says by at least an hour or two.”

Mulder glanced warily at Scully, who was somewhere else.

“Anyway, not your worry, but I thought you’d like to know what you’d be missing.” von Flanagan breathed. “Say hey to Barack for me.”

“Yeah,” Mulder mumbled as he ended the call. After a beat, or ten, he turned to Scully. “I thought this was supposed to be your wish.”

“Your friend taught me long ago the importance of being careful about what I wished for,” she smiled, faintly. “I have what I want, even if I don’t always know what that is. I simply gave an old man what he couldn’t do for himself. He is family, after all. I think. Maybe.”

“Scully, what did you tell him, my ear to God’s?”

Scully took a deep breath and folded a sweater for the trip home. “‘May you be in Heaven,’” she recited, “‘an hour before the devil knows you’re dead.’ My new Donna Karan suit arrives in D.C. soaked in whiskey and you may meet a similar fate.”

*end

Finnigan’s Snake

Finnigan’s Snake

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J. EDGAR HOOVER BUILDING

WASHINGTON, DC

OFFICE OF THE X-FILES

NOVEMBER 17

Special Agent Dana Scully was by now used to the frequent slide shows complete with Mulder’s narration. She often thought some of her partner’s droll monotone would put her to sleep if it went on past ten minutes, but then she always recalled some of the most boring lectures from medical school. Today, she felt as though she was watching an episode of Biography.*

“Doyle Finnegan is a bartender extraordinaire. His repertoire of recipes exceeds that required of any American bartender’s school or regulatory agency. He had learned the fine art at a community college bartending course and managed to be

as creative as any expert in the art, and just as chefs are required to create a signature dish before leaving, going off to the best of restaurants, he managed to think of a cocktail no one had seen the likes of. He was educated in Dublin,

Ireland, and emigrated to America at the age of 25. The dark brown haired man, with eerily blue eyes, was quite the enterprising young man.

“By the time he was 35, in 1995, he had managed to invest much of his hard earned money into a bar of his own in Framingham, Massechussettes: Doyle’s.

“While most people have an interest in dogs, cats or fish as pets, Doyle prefers the company of a snake. A king cobra. Together, they run Doyle’s. The cobra is quite a show piece.

“And there ya have it.” Fox Mulder ended his slide show and biography of Doyle Finnegan.

“Yeah, those eyes really are ‘eerie’, Mulder. So these people died how? You didn’t say how they died, Mulder.”

“Neither did the Framingham PD. The autopsies were inconclusive. All three died at home after a night out at Doyle’s.”

“What about the cobra, Mulder? If the autopsy results are a dead end, how does it fit into the case?” Strangulation had occurred to Scully, but there would have been marks on the bodies. “The toxicology report shows nothing remarkable, other than a slightly higher than acceptable level of blood alcohol.”

“That’s why we were called in, Scully. Remember, all the tips I get in this depart-ment put food on your table.”

“Did I even say a word this time about off-beat sources, contacts from crazy informants or a call from someone who worked with you years ago?”

“Now this is why I don’t have to tell you anything like this anymore, Scully. You know me very well now. We have a flight in two hours. Got your overnight bag re-stocked?”

“When don’t I these days?” They had been out in the field a lot lately, and things showed no sign of slowing down.

“Just for the sake of curiosity, how did you hear about this one?”

“One of my off-beat sources.” He knew that would cue the eye roll. Yes, right on time.

“I should have known. Well, let’s get a move on.”

***

FRAMINGHAM, MASS.

2:13 PM

Doyle’s was a friendly, warm, neighborhood tavern. For all intents and purposes, people could bring their families there for a meal and feel at home. As this was a weekday, most people were at work and school.

Frank Batista ordered another Scotch at the bar. “Hey, Doyle!” he slurred. “Another one!”

“Easy does it,” Doyle said with patience and care. “You can’t be spending all your unemployment on drinkin’. I know you put a couple under yer belt before you came here. None of you ever learn.”

“Well, I don’t care. I ain’t got no dependents, so it’s my life, the customer’s always r-r-r-right, and get me my damn drink!”

“My God,” Finnegan muttered as he reached for the bottle,

“Crazy bastard ought to be put out of his misery.” As he poured the whiskey, he reached into his pocket and retrieved a vial of a clear liquid substance, and added a few drops into the glass. *Finnegan’s signature drink*, he whispered to himself. “All right, there ya go. But after this, you’re cut off. And just for you, I’ve made me signature drink.”

“Yeah, right,” Batista sneered. “Cut off when the money runs out. Say, why don’t ya bring out that flute and have that snake do a dance for me?”

“Sure.” Doyle bent down and pulled up a basket that housed his cobra. “Entertainment’s on the house.”

To the strangely sad music in a minor key, the cobra rose from the basket as Batista sipped his Scotch. The size of the reptile was massive, and it slowly swayed to the song. After a moment, Batista only saw it as a blur, and within two minutes he had lost consciousness.

Doyle placed his flute on the bar, and the cobra slithered back down into the basket. “Well, Amber, another customer lost. Mind you, the ambiance should return. Can’t afford someone like him ruining business with his behavior now, can we?”

A young man saw Batista with his head on the bar and went to assess the situation. “Hey, what’s happened to him? He only had two drinks.”

“Two that I know of, Ralph. Just go back to your seat. I’ll let him dry out in me back room. Go on.”

Frank Batista was not going to go home that day. Doyle summoned his assistant to handle business while he disposed of Batista.

FRAMINGHAM POLICE DEPARTMENT

FRAMINGHAM, MASS.

4:21 PM

Mulder and Scully had gone straight to the police station to question detectives on the three reported murders.

“All were patrons of Doyle’s,” Mulder repeated. “Detective Burns, we have no definitive cause of death, and these men were found in three separate areas of town. Now, you tell us there are no fingerprints, the forensics experts gave no clue as to whether a weapon was used, yet Doyle Finnegan’s name keeps coming up. He has no criminal record. He’s now an American citizen, but that’s not a crime, so I don’t see how the man fits into any investigation. Well, other than the fact that he is, as you put it, ‘Just about the best bartender in the West’, I really don’t see much of a case yet.”

“That’s just it,” Burns, a balding man in his forties replied.

“We do know that they were all last seen at Doyle’s. There’s something missing here, and I can’t put my finger on it. We do have several accounts of Doyle Finnegan getting out of sorts with the victims, but they were under the influence and getting a bit demanding.”

Scully placed a file on Burns’ desk. “There were no toxins other than alcohol in their blood work, no marks on the bodies and no evidence of any trauma by weapon or otherwise.

We can’t just arrest someone without probable cause or concrete evidence.”

“I know, and that’s what is so damn frustrating about this case.” His thoughts were interrupted with the ringing of his phone. “Excuse me. Burns. Where? All right. I’m on my way. Another frequent patron of Doyle’s was found in a dumpster outside a dry cleaner’s by two high school kids.”

“A dumpster? That’s quite a departure from the first three locations. Had he been at Doyle’s?” Mulder asked.

“Yeah. Scotch on his breath, and a young accountant reported having seen the man at the bar. Swears the victim had consumed only two Scotch’s, and Doyle took him into his back room to sleep it off.”

“I think we should have a look,” Scully announced.

“Then let’s go,” said Burns.

***

ALLEY BEHIND RUTHERFORD CLEANERS

4:37 PM

Cruisers were still on the scene and officers were speaking to the two teen-aged boys who had found the body of Frank Batista. The area had been cordoned off with crime scene tape and the medical examiner was placing the victim in a body bag.

“What’ve we got?” Burns asked.

“Frank Batista, 31, unemployed. No wife or kids, parents live in Springfield, and Zack and Russ here found the body.”

Mulder flashed his badge, as did Scully. “Special Agents Mulder and Scully, FBI. We’d like to ask you a few questions.”

Scully ventured over to get the information from the police.

“Sure,” the tall sixteen-year-old known as Zack offered, all the while looking Mulder straight in the eye and making a grab for his wallet, while Russ linged at Mulder, pushing him into the side of a dumpster.

Mulder wheeled around and grabbed Zack by the collar as a police officer restrained Russ.

“Look, we can either do this the easy way or with charges added”, Mulder warned the one teen. “Now, how did you find the body?”

“Dumpster-hopping,” the shorter boy of the same age answered.

“Zack and me look for broken radios, stereos, things like that and fix them. Then we sell them. Need a motherboard fixed? I can do that.”

Mulder smiled. “I’ll remember that.” Mulder waived the police officer away. “No charges. Yet. You were saying?”

“He was lying pretty far down,” said Russ. “Today they emptied the dumpsters here, so there was hardly anything there but rotten food and a few old rags.”

“I see,” Mulder finished his notes. “So, I know you’re under age, but I think you might know the answer to this one: Where is Doyle’s?”

“Three blocks that way,” Russ answered, pointing west. “Can’t miss it. He has a sign with a cobra over the front.”

“I see. Thanks.” He walked away from the boys and met Scully midway between their car and the cruisers, rubbing his rather sore left ribcage.

“You okay, Mulder?”

“Just a bit winded. Good thing I have you around to keep me in shape. What have you got?”

“Well, the medical examiner is stumped. He’s going to look at the body in more detail tonight. What did you find out?”

“Well, Doyle’s is three blocks west of here, and I think we should find out where the other three bodies were found in relation to the bar. Did you know that these kids are techno wizards?”

“No, Mulder. But do you know how many people die form alcohol poisoning in this country every year?”

“No.”

“Then how could I know they were techno wizards?”

“Point taken. Why don’t we get the locations the bodies were dumped, find out if there’s a pattern, and if there’s another relationship to Doyle’s nobody’s thought of.”

***

FRAMINGHAM POLICE STATION

5:15 PM

Burns, Mulder and Scully studied a Framingham street map taped to the wall of an office. “Now,” Burns said as he pointed a pen to several push pins in the map, “These places are all about a five minute’s walk to or from Doyle’s. The dumpster is quite a bit closer to the bar this time. There’s another difference, even though the man had last been seen at Doyle’s in daylight, the first three murders took place at night, and

the victims succumbed at their own homes.”

“The autopsy reports showed no indication he doctored the drinks, there was no weapon used, no strangulation or suffocation… but it does seem like Doyle was in a hurry to get this guy out of the way. He was likely dragged to a car and thrown into the trash,” Scully surmised.

“Still,” Mulder said, “This count’s on Doyle’s scorecard, so it’s about him in some way. I wonder what Batista and the others did to tick him off?”

“We asked already. Witnesses to the first case reported Doyle was rather agitated that Todd Stranges, 40, had been drinking before he went into Doyle’s. The remark was something to the effect of, “You’re all alike,” or something like it. And he was

said to have been rather disturbed with the second and third victims for their, uh, state when they arrived.”

“But it’s not legal for him to serve people who seem impaired,” Scully reminded the detective.

“Well, a lot still do serve drunk people until they get caught.

They usually refuse them service instead of killing them,” Burns replied. “Doyle’s past is a mystery to us.”

“Maybe not to the Bureau, Interpol or Dublin Police,” Mulder suggested.

“Computer’s right there on the desk. Knock yourselves out. I’m off duty until noon tomorrow, but my home number is at the desk.

‘Night all. Not that I’m in any hurry for the Wednesday night meatloaf.” Detective Burns closed the door to the little room.

Mulder sat at the desk and began to type, then turned to Scully.

“I guess we should get something to eat. C’mon. I can do the same search on my laptop over take-out.”

“Yes, considering we didn’t have lunch, that’s a wise idea.”

“Say, maybe after that we can go out for a drink some place nice and friendly… ”

“With a dancing cobra as entertainment,” Scully finished.

“Yeah. Great idea, Scully!”

Scully avoided his face, choosing to look at the map. “I’m sorry I didn’t think of it myself,” she said lowly. “But let me remind you about that little rule regarding the ingestion of alcoholic beverages while on duty.”

“Not if we go as working stiffs Fox and Dana instead of Special Agents Mulder and Scully, and beer often goes with certain foods quite nicely, Dana. You know: pretzels.”

She smiled and smacked his arm. “It’s Scully to you.”

***

E-Z-REST MOTEL

6:37 PM

Scully sat on the bed going over the autopsy reports regarding the three previous victims, while Mulder sat at the desk looking for any criminal reports about Doyle Finnegan.

“Hey Scully. This guy’s life seems to have begun the moment he left Ireland. His resume outlines his education, but there’s no record of him ever having attended the bartending classes at Trinity College. Guinness and Bushmills Distillery do not have him on record as having been employed, yet his resume says he was at Guinness for two years as a quality control worker, and Bushmills for three. There are no birth records regarding a Doyle Finnegan his age and appearance, and no medical records.

Records here say he was employed at a couple of Boston area establishments in the ten years before he opened Doyle’s. By the way, he currently resides at 462 Nash Street. Other than that, he has no doctor, dentist or podiatrist for that matter.”

“So you’re saying he doesn’t exist before age 25, but that he’s in perfect health and hates dentists? Mulder, everyone is born and lives somewhere. What about aliases?”

“I already ran his picture down at the PD when you were on the phone as we were leaving. His face is memorable, but he doesn’t show up in any database. Not even a school picture.”

“Next of kin?”

Mulder turned to look her straight in the face with a blank expression.

“I didn’t think so.” Scully stuck her fork into a container of fried rice.

“What about the autopsies?”

“I’ve gone over them at least three times and there is absolutely nothing to indicate a cause of death that we can link to Doyle Finnegan or his cobra. It’s possible the second victim died of a stroke, but… ”

“But?”

“But they cremated him two days after his death. Their religious beliefs dictated he couldn’t be buried on the Sunday. The first and third victims were in their early thirties and in excellent health. Cause of death: Unknown.”

“I think it’s time we met the man. Casual attire, Mulder. And one beer. One.”

Mulder closed his laptop. “No problem. Who wants to see double when you’re looking at a cobra?”

DOYLE’S TAVERN

7:14 PM

Mulder and Scully entered Doyle’s Tavern just in time to see Amber the cobra swinging and swaying to the mournful tune Finnegan played.

“That’s something you don’t see everyday,” Mulder remarked. He had chosen a blue tee shirt and jeans for the occasion.

Scully, in jeans and an over-sized white shirt looked at the reptile in both amazement and fear. “Those things are poisonous. I wonder how he manages to control it.”

Mulder looked on in fascination as people applauded and cheered.

The tune came to an end and the cobra found her way back into her basket.

A middle-aged woman sat at the bar with her husband and seemed quite impressed. “Ah, Doyle. For my birthday! That’s sweet.”

“Well, thank you, Edna darlin’. Bill here requested it just for you. He wanted somethin’ special for your birthday.”

Edna kissed her husband and finished her lager. “Bill thinks of everything.”

Bill stood and grabbed Edna’s coat. “Well, c’mon, dear. That movie’s about to begin. Thanks, Doyle.”

“Any time!”

As the couple left, Scully watched Doyle very carefully. “For someone who doesn’t exist, he’s quite the charmer.”

“Who ever heard of an Irish swami? Waiter, two beers!”

Of course, Doyle Finnegan noticed the pair weren’t regulars. He decided to join Mulder and Scully. It was his habit to assess the clientele, and Scully’s fascination with the snake, as well as Doyle’s ‘eerie’ eyes, hadn’t gone unnoticed by the man.

Mulder gave the ‘careful’ look to Scully and she nodded.

“Well, new here?” Doyle pulled up a chair. “I always like to personally welcome new patrons.”

“Yes,” Mulder replied. “My name’s Fox and this is Dana.” He shook Doyle’s hand.

“Odd name for a man, Fox. Dana, well that’s an intriguing name. You’re married, I take it.”

“No,” Scully answered. “We’re co-workers, it’s been a long day, and we decided to stop in for a beer. So, that was quite a remarkable performance.”

“Oh, you mean the flute and Amber,” Doyle said, smiling. “It’s very popular here. Mind you, it’ll never make it to Vegas.” He laughed, Mulder offered a slight chuckle, and Scully checked the man’s hand for a wedding ring.

“So, it looks like you’ve been quite successful,” Mulder remarked.

“Yes, business is good. Framingham’s been good to me. I should get back to work. It was nice meeting you, Fox and Dana. Drop in any time. Come see how amazing Amber can be.”

When the man had left them, Mulder popped a pretzel into his mouth.

“Not married,” Scully informed him.

“And he was sizing us up as much as we were checking him out.”

By about 10:30, there had been a few more performances by Doyle and his snake, but nothing really out of the ordinary other than the cobra’s dance had happened. So, Mulder and Scully decided to leave and retire for the night, Doyle Finnegan

eying them suspiciously until the door closed behind them.

“He doesn’t seem like the type to lose his temper and murder,” Scully said as they walked to the rental car.

“A lot of them don’t seem that way,” Mulder replied. “You know, with all the information we didn’t find on him, I’d think this was an X-File.”

Scully stopped at the car. “Is that just a feeling on your part, or do you have a file on anyone like him?”

Mulder unlocked the car. “No files. Just call it a hunch. And remember, cases like this are why we get assigned to such interesting guys. Don’t tell me you weren’t a bit taken by the man.”

“Well, no, Mulder. It’s just I haven’t seen that shade of blue in anybody’s eyes before. He does seem kind of overflowing with charm.” Scully fastened her seat belt as Mulder started the car.

“That’s just the type to be suspicious of, Scully. It’s late. May as well turn in and get an early start tomorrow.”

DOYLE FINNEGAN’S APARTMENT

462 NASH STREET

FRAMINGHAM, MASS.

1:52 AM

Finnegan carried the cobra and basket into his apartment and locked the door. “Another successful night, Amber. I love me work.” He placed the basket on the carpet in front of the couch, and crossed the room to get to a small desk. As he opened the top drawer, he told the snake, “No sense getting behind on me supply.” He removed a clear vial, syringe and tiny bottle and took them over to the couch.

He carefully reached into the basket, removed the cobra, and injected a sedating substance into his pet. When Amber was sufficiently docile, Doyle Finnegan proceeded to extract venom from her fangs, humming one of his haunting, minor key tunes.

On his coffee table was a notice from his landlord. Finnegan read the paper and crumpled it up, throwing it across the room in a fury. “So he knows what I’m doing, does he? Doesn’t want any exotic pets? Well, I’ll be dealing with him, Amber! Now, just rest for the night and we’ll be safe and sound. Good night, pet.”

FRAMINGHAM PD

8:30 AM

The agents decided to confer with Detective Burns, who they had called bright and early.

“Like he doesn’t exist?” The man showed mock surprise. “Everybody is born, grows up and leaves some sort of history, information or whatever.”

“Well, this man doesn’t.” Mulder set down several pages of the research he had done on Doyle Finnegan. “He begins in America and ends up at his own downtown tavern, it would seem. Ireland doesn’t even have any information on this man.”

“His license is up to date, and there’s been no real trouble at Doyle’s Tavern,” Scully added.

“However,” Mulder interjected, “We’re working on a theory and we’re going to stick around. Maybe it’s about time we checked his apartment.”

“On what grounds?” Burns asked. “We really don’t have enough evidence to implicate him in the murders, and we can’t get a warrant without it.”

“Well, that’s a shame. But, uh… ”

“No you don’t,” Scully warned her partner. “Don’t even think about it.”

“Think about what? I wasn’t going to say a thing. I was just going to tell Detective Burns here we were available in case anything is found — in order to get a warrant.”

“Sure,” Burns chuckled. “Haven’t we all ‘not’ thought about getting into places without a warrant?”

“Hey, I was only doing my job,” Scully said sternly.

“Well, while you’re here anyway, who am I to interfere with the Bureau? I’m not even on duty here until noon,” Burns said.

“Okay,” Mulder sighed. “It wouldn’t hurt to talk to whoever covers for Finnegan when he’s not in. Surely he has another bartender. Scully?”

“Coming.”

“Good luck, Agents. The man you want to talk to is Avery Perkins. He generally opens the place at around 10.”

“We may as well go for a coffee, then,” Mulder suggested.

“I could use one. Thanks, Detective Burns,” Scully replied.

As they were leaving the station, Scully grabbed Mulder’s arm.

“Just what are you trying to do?” she whispered.

“I know you don’t want me picking the lock, Scully. And I won’t. At least not yet.”

His partner shrugged and followed him out of the building.

***

KRISPY DREAMS COFFEE SHOP

9:16 AM

Mulder and Scully were biding their time over coffee and donuts when Mulder’s cell phone went off.

“Mulder. Where? Yes. We’ll be right there.”

“Burns?”

“Yes. There’s been another death. This time, it’s a lot closer to Doyle’s home.”

462 NASH STREET

FRAMINGHAM, MASS.

9:31 AM

Paramedics were working on an elderly man when Mulder and Scully reached the building Finnegan lived in. They hoisted him onto a gurney and into the back of the ambulance.

Burns had already arrived. “Well, now this is interesting. Our latest victim right outside Finnegan’s home.”

Scully hopped into the ambulance. “I’m going with them. If he dies, I’ll do the autopsy.”

“You were saying, Detective Burns?”

“Don’t tell me your partner’s a pathologist.”

“Actually, she’s a doctor. She kind of grew into the work as far as forensics goes. What happened here?”

“Male, age 62. Landlord. Perry Duncan. Wandered out into traffic, collapsed on the road, and the woman over there talking to my men thought she had hit him. As it turns out, she hadn’t.”

Mulder went up the stairs to the century old house and entered the building, pulling his gun in the process. He reached Doyle Finnegan’s third floor apartment and knocked on the door.

“Mr. Finnegan! Federal Agent! Open up!” When there was no reply, He kicked the door open. There was no sign of the bartender or his snake.

***

DOYLE’S TAVERN

10:05 AM

Avery Perkins had just opened Doyle’s for the late breakfast customers when Finnegan Doyle entered through the back door with the cobra. He was unshaven and appeared secretive.

“Didn’t expect to see you until three, Boss. Can I have Bess make you something?”

“No. I’ll be in me office doin’ the books, and I don’t want to be disturbed.”

“But Boss… What the heck. Anybody here want more coffee?”

A woman waved Perkins over to her table and he poured her and her friend a refill, topping up a third woman’s cup.

“What’s with him?” the first woman asked.

“He’s just… in one of those moods. Enjoy, ladies.”

Mulder and Detective Burns entered the tavern and showed their identification to Perkins.

“He doesn’t want to be disturbed. Something about doing the books. When he gets into that mood of his… ”

“Well, he’s not going to be in a better mood any time soon,” Mulder informed the man.

Doyle had opened his door a crack and was listening. He softly closed the door. He opened the lid to Amber’s basket. “I knew this day would come, but not this soon,” he whispered to the cobra. “We’ll meet again.”

Mulder’s cell phone rang as he was about to go into the back of the tavern. “Mulder. What? Look, Scully. Get a toxicology report for me. We’re taking Finnegan in, then I’ll meet you at the hospital.” Mulder turned to Burns. “The Landlord died. There was an injection site found.”

The two men went straight to Finnegan’s office with guns drawn and knocked. “Open up! We know you’re in there!” Burns shouted.

“It’s unlocked,” Finnegan calmly said.

Mulder opened the door, and there sat Doyle Finnegan, calmly closing his ledger.

“Doyle Finnegan,” Burns began, “You are under arrest for the murder of… ”

As Mulder reached for his handcuffs, the blue-eyed, dark haired young Irishman disappeared before both men’s eyes.

“What the — ?” Burns asked, blinking.

“Yeah. What the — ? is right. Talk about a speedy get away.”

“Well what the hell do we do next? Wait for him to show up again?”

“I guess. But I think it’ll be an awfully long wait,” Mulder answered. “I haven’t dealt with anything like this before, and believe me, I have had some very weird cases.”

“So I heard.” Burns placed his gun into his holster. “What do I tell my superiors?”

“He just disappeared. Personally, I prefer to write up exactly what happened, and leave the file open. I’d better call my partner.” Mulder eyed the snake’s basket. “Umm… I DO suggest you call the animal shelter.”

***

E-Z-REST MOTEL

2:15 PM

Scully walked into Mulder’s room as he was typing up his latest information on the Doyle Finnegan case. “All packed, Mulder. Ready to go?”

“The flight’s in two hours, Scully. A new X-File. How about that?”

“Yeah. How about that. I got a call from the hospital lab. No evidence of drugs, toxins or anything else that shouldn’t have been in the man’s body, despite that injection site. Apparently, Burns tells me Mr. Duncan had served Finnegan an eviction notice for breaking the rule stating ‘no exotic pets’. I don’t know if I

believe he just ‘disappeared’, Mulder.”

“Well, we hadn’t been heavily drinking and no, he didn’t have his cobra dance for us or drug us. You saw the look on Burns’ face when we told you.”

“What are you going to say in your report?”

“Case remains unsolved. You should get the autopsy report so we can head for the airport.”

“Gladly. By the way, what happened to the cobra?”

“Oh, that’s right,” Mulder smiled as he teasingly answered his partner. “You were quite taken by Finnegan’s snake.”

“Well, Mulder, she was a charmer.”

“Well, so was Finnegan, and look where that got him. Don’t worry. I’m sure she’s better off without him. Besides, you beat her hands down in any contest. She was taken to the animal shelter.”

“I don’t know whether I should be flattered or insulted, Mulder.” Scully gave Mulder that look of hers that told him to quit while he was ahead.

“What? All I said was… ”

“Don’t. Now, just slither out of that chair and let’s go.”

As Mulder opened his mouth to speak, he thought better of it.

***

TWO DAYS LATER

An article from the Boston Herald arrived on Mulder’s desk, courtesy of Mr. Avery Perkins, Finnegan’s assistant. The article read that Amber the king cobra, who had been residing contentedly in an enclosure at the Framingham animal shelter pending

transfer to an as yet unnamed zoo, had mysteriously vanished. As the shelter had taken precautions to prevent her escape, and there had been no indications of intrusion, Framingham police had no explanation for the disappearance of the cobra.

PRESENT DAY

Mr. Perkins took over the bar and renamed it “Avery’s”. To this day, he has not heard from Doyle Finnegan, and now owns the deed to the tavern property pending payment of a modest mortgage.

Michael Doherty makes quite the cocktail at his tavern in Paloma, Spain. A king cobra by the name of Amber is a popular attraction as Doherty plays mournful tunes on his flute…

END

How Mulder Forgot the Most Romantic Day of the Year (and lived to tell the tale)

How Mulder Forgot the Most Romantic Day of the Year

(and lived to tell the tale)

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He couldn’t believe he’d done it. It was arguably the worst crime he’d ever committed in their 14-year partnership. Even when he was up to his neck in heartfelt guilt over the myriad of agonies she’d had inflicted on her by the consortium, he still had a clear conscience that at least he hadn’t directly been involved. This time, though, the consortium — old Smokey, Charlie, even that goose-stepping Strughold — were nowhere in sight. It had been him, all him and nothing but him.

He’d forgotten Valentine’s Day.

On a good day, a day when he could calmly look back — say twenty or thirty years in the future — he could convince himself that it wasn’t really his fault he forgot. VCS had gone to Skinner, there was a kidnapping in the Midwest that looked like similar kidnappings in recent months. Six and seven year old girls had been taken. So far no bodies had turned up but it was in the back of everyone’s mind that it would just be a matter of time before the body count started. Surprisingly, that had not been the case. So, while Scully waited back in DC for the call to do some particularly gruesome slicing and dicing, he had flown out with a cadre of agents to assist the Kansas City Regional Office in their investigation and hunt for the missing girls.

The fourteenth of February had dawned just one more day in a seemingly endless case. But luck had been on their side and the farmhouse twenty miles outside KC had been raided, all three girls had been found — miracle of miracles, unharmed. The press conference was set up within hours of arresting the perpetrator — a grade school janitor who had been fired months before — and getting the girls to the hospital and the reunions with their families. All agents were required to attend — the Bureau needed all the brownie points it could get with the press in the days of Senate and House investigations. Mulder had showered, still going on only two short catnaps in a little over 48 hours, and put on a fabulous display for the media types. Wolf Blitzer had even joked that the country’s hearts where with the good guys and it still didn’t register with him why hearts would matter so much.

When the press conference broke, he’d found his way back to the hotel. The message light was blinking on the phone on the nightstand, but in his sleep-deprived state he’d ignored it as he collapsed face first on to the bed. He awoke as one of the agents was pounding on his door, telling him they were going to be late for the airport if he didn’t get a move on.

They’d taken the red-eye back to DC. He arrived at Dulles at the unholy hour of 1:25 am. Rather than wake Scully, he’d grabbed a cab — paying through the nose for the ride to Georgetown. He climbed the steps to their townhouse and wearily entered. As he stood at the bottom of the stairs leading to their bedroom all the energy seeped from his body. He turned right, dropped his briefcase on an armchair and with his coat still on, laid down on the sofa and was fast asleep before his head fully rested on the couch pillow.

When he woke up from the light streaming in their front window, he found his shoes off his feet, a blanket thrown over him and the smell of coffee in the kitchen. He wandered toward the wondrous elixir, shedding his overcoat and suit coat and tie as he went. There was a note on the fridge from Scully. She’d been called to Quantico to sub for a pathology teacher out with the flu. She promised to be home on time for dinner. Not a word about the preceding holiday, nothing to clue him in at all.

He showered, thought about calling in ‘asleep’, but opted to go to the office. Before he even got to the elevator, his cell phone had gone off — Skinner’s assistant Kim was calling him up to a meeting to discuss the recently completed case. He pushed the up button on the elevator and rode in silence with the rest of the occupants.

Once in Skinner’s outer office, he noticed a distinct floral aroma and saw a bouquet of roses gracing Kim’s usually tidy but bland desk. “Nice flowers,” he’d commented as she winked and ushered him into the inner sanctum, where he was soon required to report in detail on the actions of the previous four days. All thought of the flowers and their potential meaning were completely wiped from his mind.

The meeting lasted so long that Skinner had Kim send out for sandwiches. They broke once and Mulder high tailed it to the men’s room. Not paying attention to anything but his business, he couldn’t help but overhear a few of the other agents complaining about how long the wait had been at a specific upscale restaurant the night before and how the wait staff seemed to clear the table in a hurry, almost rushing diners out the door. That was the first time it occurred to him that something was amiss. It sounded like the place was overbooked. That usually happened only on the weekends. The night before had been a weeknight, he was sure of it. He even checked his watch and saw that yes, it was Thursday the fifteenth, just as he’d thought. Something about that date tickled against the back of his mind, but he shook his head and promptly busied himself with washing his hands before returning to his meeting.

The rest of the meeting was mind numbing in its attention to detail. Every action, every scrap of data, every lead was agonized over in an attempt to quantify the rare success where everyone was alive. The case against the perpetrator had to be airtight before it was handed over to the Kansas City US District Attorney’s office for prosecution. It was nearly eight o’clock when Skinner finally agreed that they had done enough for one day and everyone was free to go home for the night.

Mulder dragged his body up out of the chair at Skinner’s conference table and headed for the elevators. He thought briefly about making a quick stop at their basement office, but decided against it. Scully had promised she would be home for dinner, he only prayed that meant she was planning on preparing said dinner for the two of them. So, with a mind fogged with repeated facts about a case he would just as soon file away in the drawer and a body still suffering serious sleep depravation, not to mention hunger pangs, Fox Mulder finally found himself on the way home.

Scully indeed had dinner on the table. It was beef stew, canned. She had added some celery and some Worcestershire sauce, but it wasn’t exactly what he had hoped to find. Still, the grumbling in his stomach was loud enough that he finished his plate in no time flat. If Scully had made dinner table talk, he would have been able to pass a polygraph that he hadn’t been present in the room, he was that tired. With a kiss to the crown of her head, he mumbled something resembling ‘thanks’ and headed up to their bedroom where he just barely managed to shuck his clothes before crawling under the covers and falling into a deep and dreamless sleep at just barely nine o’clock p.m.

So it was that Mulder didn’t even come to find out about his most serious of omissions until Friday, the sixteenth of February. Again, Scully was called to fill in at Quantico. Since it would take her a full hour (due to rush hour traffic around the Capitol City) to get to her eight o’clock class, she left while Mulder was still sawing logs. He awoke to the alarm, showered, gulped down a cup of coffee that Scully had left warming in the kitchen and hurried off to work, blissful in his ignorance.

He always hated coming to their office when Scully was off somewhere else, even if he knew exactly where she was. The office seemed darker, colder without her. He looked up through their ‘window’ high on the basement wall — it was gray outside, more than likely a harbinger of snow. He put his coat on the hook, picked up the mail from in front of the door and was sorting through it as he walked around to sit down at his desk. When he sat on something — something that crinkled under his dress pants, he quickly got up and stared down at his chair.

A plain white envelope, not business sized but the kind cards came in, lay slightly wrinkled on the seat of his chair.

Putting down the mail in his hands, he gingerly picked up the envelope. There was no writing on the outside, but holding it up to his nose he detected Scully’s signature perfume — one he’d given her for Christmas. A love note? At the office? They weren’t above such little endearments around the house, but at the office where anyone could walk in and see it?

As if feeling the eyes of some intruder upon him, he glanced fearfully at the door. No one in sight. Still, he walked over and shut the door solidly before daring to open the envelope.

What he found caused his blood to freeze and his heart to stop beating. It was a card. A Valentine, to be exact. And to make matters much worse, it wasn’t a card that she found going through the selection at the local card shop. No, she had made this one, using their computer and color printer at home.

The card was simple. Two heart outlines, interlocked in the corner. A simple red border. No frills. No doves and rainbows. Classic. Even the font for the words was pure, direct. No curlie-ques and lace. Just words that went straight to his soul.

“To My Partner

My Love”

On the inside it continued: “Mulder, you are the joy of my heart, the love of my life, the man of my dreams, the center of my world.

Happy Valentine’s Day.

Love forever and always,

Your Scully”

Valentine’s Day? Oh, shit on a shingle — VALENTINE’S DAY! He’d freakin’ completely forgot about Valentine’s Day! And what was worse, Scully had remembered. When they’d first become intimate, when they took that gigantic step and admitted their feelings to themselves and each other, he’d made a vow to himself. He would never become his father. He remembered running home on Valentine’s Day as a child so that he could present his mother with his own hand drawn creation. He also remembered that his card and his alone was the only way she could mark the occasion. Even before Samantha was taken, his father was never one for public displays of affection. No roses, no cards, no candlelit dinners for two at some quiet little seafood place on the Vineyard. Never for his mother. But he vowed that he would do better by his Scully.

He was torn between rage at himself and grief for what he had done to Scully when there was a loud knock on his door. “Agent Mulder, are you in there?” boomed Skinner’s voice.

Mulder opened the door, card still clutched in his hand. Skinner stood there a moment, regarding him coolly. “Mulder, is something wrong? You look — did someone die? Not Mrs. Scully . . .”

“No, no sir, nothing like that,” Mulder said brokenly. “C’mon in.” He went around to his chair once more and sat down despondently.

“If no one died — Mulder, what did you do?” Skinner asked tersely, his arms crossed.

Mulder handed over the card without a word. Skinner scanned the card, looked his agent over once again and slowly shook his head. “Don’t tell me — you forgot Valentine’s Day?”

Mulder’s answer was to prop his elbows on his desk and cover his face with his hands.

Skinner propped his hip on the edge of the desk, laying the card down on the blotter. “Valentine’s Day was Wednesday, Mulder. You’ve been home for a full day since then.”

“I know,” Mulder whimpered through his fingers.

“It’s the same day every year. I mean it’s not like they hide the date or any-thing,” Skinner rambled on.

“I know, I know, I know. There were clues, I just didn’t pick up on any of them. Kim’s flowers, the guys in the toilet talking about the wait at Michel Richard Citronelle on a Wednesday night, the fact that Scully got home early enough to make dinner and all I got was canned beef stew — ” He raised his face from his hands, his expression one of total dismay. “Walter, I really effed it up good this time.”

Skinner nodded his head in total agreement. “Mulder, you have to do some-thing. If Scully is pissed at you — ”

“My life is in the toilet,” he said, rubbing his face briskly and leaning back in his chair. “I’m fielding all suggestions at this point.”

“Flowers,” Skinner said firmly.

“Total cliche. I refuse to be the guy who has to bring her flowers because he for-got the anniversary.”

“Candy?”

He glared at his boss, who quickly relented.

“Oh, yeah, last year’s near tragic bon-bon poisoning. Forgot about that one. OK, diamond jewelry!”

“Walt, I forgot Valentine’s Day — I didn’t sleep with a Hill staffer! Besides, I have to have something to give her for her birthday in a week.”

Skinner put his hand on Mulder’s shoulder. “Look, you just completed a very im-portant and very stressful investigation. You’re owed some flex time. Take it. Get out of here right now — that gives you most of the day. And don’t show your face until you make this up to her — preferably by Monday at 8 am. Got that?”

Mulder looked up gratefully at his superior. “I’ll consider that an order, sir,” he said with a wistful expression.

On his way home, he panicked. This was more than just a casual ‘oh, yeah, it is February 14, isn’t it?’ This was a screw up that could potentially lead to disaster. Today, Valentine’s Day, tomorrow would he forget to kiss her goodbye or would they tumble into bed and not even touch hands before falling to sleep? It wasn’t the big things that drove wedges between people, it was often an accumulation of little things that built up over time, much like the Grand Canyon started as a little trickle of water. Well, their trickle was going to stop, if he had anything to do with it!

He knew that Scully wasn’t the hearts and flowers kind of girl that a lot of women were. She was no nonsense in her outlook on romance. Lacy black teddies and satin sheets never made an appearance in their sex life. Even so, in Mulder’s humble opinion, she _deserved_ hearts and flowers and rose petals covering the bed and scented baths with candles surrounding —

An idea was starting to form in the back of his mind. He’d have to make a few stops first, but he was sure he could pull it off in the time allotted. But he would definitely need to call for back up.

Mulder and Scully’s residence

6:35 pm

Scully pulled the car into the parking space off the alley and sighed. She’d com-pletely forgotten how tiring teaching could be. She’d been on her feet all day long, and when she’d taken half an hour for a lunch break, one of the recruits had tracked her down in the cafeteria for an impromptu tutoring session on blood splatter patterns. All she wanted to do was crawl into a nice hot tub and stay there until Monday.

She noticed Mulder had beaten her home. Poor guy — he’d been exhausted since his return from the case out in Kansas City. Both of them were going to sleep in on Saturday, if she had anything to say in the matter! She grabbed her briefcase and wondered if Mulder would have had the presence of mind to call for a pizza. No, probably not. She debated dialing as she walked, but decided she wouldn’t be able to juggle the cell phone, her briefcase and the back door all at once. The pizza could wait till she got to the phone in the kitchen.

She was fumbling for the right key when she saw the post it note stuck to the glass of the storm door. “Use the front entrance,” it read in Mulder’s distinctive scrawl. Oh dear. What had he done to the kitchen? It must have been bad if he was shooing her away from the scene of the crime. She sighed and headed around to the front of the duplex by the little sidewalk that bordered the house.

There was another note on the front door. It read “shed your coat and briefcase and follow the hearts — clothing optional” and had a large arrow complete with ‘feathers’ pointing up the stairs. Scully smiled to herself and hung up her coat, placing the briefcase on the little table by the door. Slipping off her shoes, she crept up the stairs, avoiding the step that squeaked. Along the way she took note of several red construction paper hearts with paper lace doilies. They looked like the work of the average 10 year old, but she sensed her partner’s artistic talents in the endeavor. She started to head to their bedroom when she heard the water lapping in the bathroom and saw the very large heart taped to the door. There were several aromas coming from behind the closed door, not the least of which appeared to be roses.

She opened the door and was immediately entranced by the glimmering sight before her. Several dozen votive candles sparkled in tiny glass cups on every flat surface of the room. Rose petals were scattered all over the floor, a vase with at least a dozen blood red roses graced the vanity. There was a champagne bucket with a wine bottle chilling next to the tub. And in the tub sat her partner up to his chest in water, sipping from a wine flute and nibbling a piece of shrimp.

“Scully, lose the clothes. You’re chillin’ the mood here,” he chided. “Hurry, be-fore the water gets cool!”

She didn’t need to be told twice. In just a few seconds she’d escaped the confines of her business suit and had returned to lower herself into the fragrant water of the tub. “Mulder, there are rose petals,” she whispered in awe as her hands skimmed the delicate pink and red blossoms floating atop the water.

He busied himself with her champagne flute. “There’s more food in the bed-room. Some brie, some fruit, nothing heavy. Oh, and for after our bath.” He fished around in the water and pulled up a tube of massage oil, warming in the water.

“You finally remembered Valentine’s Day,” she said with a loving smile.

“The most romantic day of the year? How could I forget? I’m partnered with the most beautiful woman in the world. A guy would have to be a total cad to forget Valentine’s Day when he gets to spend it with you, Scully. Admittedly it’s a couple of days off the calendar — but here, tonight, it’s Valentine’s Day.”

She leaned against him, her back to his chest and sipped her wine. “OK, Mulder. You’re forgiven. This time.”

“I sense a ‘but’ coming . . .” he countered.

“No, I’m just wondering how in the world you’re going to top this — for my birth-day next week.”

She wasn’t sure if the groan was from the kiss she bestowed on him but she de-cided to give him the benefit of the doubt.

the end

First Star to the Right

First Star To The Right

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**

The tickets had been a complete surprise to her when she’d opened the box Mulder had given her on Valentine’s Day. Expecting some sort of suggestive lingerie in the carefully wrapped box from Victoria Secret she’d found instead and elegant negligee and two tickets to this weekend’s performance of Eugene Onegin at the New York Met. He wouldn’t tell her any of the details, only that she needed to dress for a “very expensive” evening on the town and to bring an overnight bag that preferably contained said negligee.

“You ready?” Mulder asked as he stepped into the office and grabbed his coat.

“You’re sure we have everything done?”

“We were supposed to be out of here by noon if you remember correctly. I just handed off the last of the year-end reports to the man upstairs and got his blessing,” he informed her, lifting her coat from its hook and beckoning her into it by holding it open for her. “Let’s get out of here before the phone rings.”

**

“What time is our flight?” Scully asked shortly after they left the parking garage. Though he had never said she assumed they were catching the shuttle up to New York, there certainly wasn’t time to drive up.

“Whatever time the limo gets us there.”

The comment from him was so nonchalant that his response didn’t sink in at first. It wasn’t until she watched a white stretch limo pull away from the curb in front of them that the word “limo” registered.

“Limo?”

“Yeah,” he replied, turning to catch her eye with a quirk of his lip. “I just need to call them after I’ve had a chance to make myself beautiful. But in answer to your question, we need to be in the air no later than four. Our dinner reservations are at six.”

“OK.” She glanced down at her watch; they’d be home in a few minutes. That would give her a good hour or more to primp herself. “Do I get time in the bathroom to make myself beautiful too?”

“How much time do you need? You’re already beautiful.”

She knew he was teasing her. Mulder wasn’t known for comments like that. Most of their relationship was based on assumption. They both knew how the other felt. It didn’t mean she didn’t appreciate a compliment from time to time and it made her smile.

“I hope I’m not going to need hip boots or a towel this evening Mulder…”

“Why whatever do you mean, Ms. Scully?”

“I’m just wondering how thick you intend to spread it on tonight.”

He eased the car down the alley and pulled into the open spot behind their town house slipping it into park. “Let’s just say you need to forget who you are tonight,” he told her, his voice slipping into that soft baritone that made her shiver. “Forget the guns and the conspiracies and the shady informants and pretend you’re a lovely maiden and that I’m your handsome albeit slightly damaged knight in shining armor, sans armor of course, who has come to whisk you off to a land far, far away in his obscenely expensive chartered Lear carriage and — go with it.”

Lear carriage? “Mulder?” She reached across the front seat to take his right hand from the steering wheel. “What have you done?”

“Tonight, Scully,” he told her turning her hand over in his own and meeting her eyes. “We are not who we are.”

She watched as he leaned down and kissed the back of her hand ever so softly.

**

When she came out of the bathroom Mulder was standing in front of her dresser wrestling with his tie. “Have I ever told you how much I hate these things?” he asked when he noticed her observing his frustration. While his attention was drawn to the tie she took a moment to observe him in a different way. He had on a white on white striped shirt and black slacks that on closer inspection of the fabric had a fine gray pin stripe in them. The tie that he finally seemed to be satisfied with was a dark silver gray on gray print. Despite his abundance of t-shirts and jeans, the man or his tailor, she amended noticing the Armani label in the jacket he had carelessly tossed on the bed, had good fashion sense.

“Ta Da!” he exclaimed, turning around to face her with his arms spread out. “What do you think?”

“I think you clean up real well, Sherlock,” she commented with a smile fingering the fabric as she sat down on the bed next to his jacket. “New suit?”

“And one I promise not to wear while diving in sewers, investigating manure factories or being shot at,” he told her reaching to pick up the jacket from the bed.

“I’ll keep you to that promise you know.”

“Good. I’m gonna call and have them pick us up at three-fifteen,” he told her, glancing at the watch she’d given him just a few days ago before picking up his black leather overnight bag. “See you downstairs.”

She sat on the bed for several minutes after he’d disappeared down the stairs wondering if there was something else behind this sudden venture into the extravagant besides a Valentine gift. The disturbing thought that there was something he wasn’t telling her played in her mind but he’d promised a long time ago not to keep things from her. He wanted her to be the fair maiden tonight and the thought made her smile. It was time to become his lady in waiting.

**

The click of her heals on the aged wood floor of their foyer made him look up. He’d been standing in front of the living room window with both hands in his pockets, his suit jacket falling back against his forearms, one foot slightly in front of the other, a perfect pose for GQ magazine she imagined. His lip curled ever so slightly as he watched her set her own bag down next to his. Suddenly self-conscious she could feel his eyes on her as she crossed the floor to where he was standing. “New dress?” he asked.

She’d found it in Saks on an after Christmas shopping expedition with Tara. It was Tara who had talked her into it when she complained she would never have anywhere to wear it. It suddenly seemed like a conspiracy and she chuckled inside herself. The dress, an interesting version of “the little black dress” had a V neck and three quarter length sleeves but it had been the handkerchief tea length skirt that had caught her eye. The black fabric had a slight shimmer to it making it elegant despite its simple style.

“Tara talked me into it,” she told him when he put his arm around her and drew her to his side.

“Remind me to thank Tara.”

“You haven’t told me where we’re staying in New York,” she questioned, a gentle smile pulling at her lips with his compliment.

“I didn’t tell you we were staying in New York did I?”

Just like him…to evade the question she thought.

“Come here,” he beckoned, taking her hand and leading her to the mirror in front in the foyer. “One more thing before the limo gets here. Close your eyes.”

She heard the rustle of his suit jacket and then he was draping something around her neck, the metal falling against her skin just above the V of her dress. “Mulder, what is this?” she asked trying to reach up and touch it but he grabbed her hand, clutching it in his own.

“A very late Valentine or very early birthday present,” he told her. “Ok, open your eyes.”

Twinkling against her skin was a gold circular pendant lined with tiny diamonds.

“It’s the ring you won’t let me buy you for your finger,” he told her softly when the reflection of his eyes met hers in the mirror. She studied him for a moment trying to determine if there was any hurt or regret in that statement. “You know,” he finally continued. “It will be kind of like high school.”

She didn’t know whether to laugh or cry until she saw the mirth in his expression and they both laughed.

“So this means we’re going steady?”

He didn’t get a chance to answer when the doorbell rang announcing their limo had arrived.

**

The limo had brought them to a private hangar away from the bustle of the larger terminal. On the tarmac in front of them Mulder’s Lear carriage was warming up. He hadn’t been kidding when he’d told her about the charter earlier in the car. While their driver was pulling their bags from the car a pristinely uniformed gentlemen helped her from the warmth of the vehicle. “Welcome to Sky Charters Ms. Scully,” he offered as Mulder climbed out behind her. “I’m Jess Humphrey, your co-captain on this flight. We’ll be ready in just about ten minutes, Mr. Mulder,” he said after making sure Scully was safely out of the limo.

“Thank you,” he told the young man turning to look at Scully who seemed to be hesitant to climb aboard the shiny craft. Even after years of crossing the country and half the world enumerable times she still hated to fly. “Just think happy thoughts, Scully,” he told her reaching out to grab her hand. She smiled at the twinkle in his eye. He was having too much fun with this for her not to play along.

Climbing inside the fuselage of the plane was like stepping into a well-equipped motor home. To the left of the door was a small crew quarters. “Welcome aboard, my name’s Katlin,” Scully turned to the young woman who was standing just past the galley to her right. “Can I take your coat?”

Mulder helped her shrug out of the coat and handed it off to Katlin before peeling off his own. Scully took the opportunity to survey the interior of the plane. Two cream-colored leather couches sat on either side of a nice coffee table. There were also two recliner type chairs of the same cream leather and a large flat screen television built into a bar at the back of the compartment.

It surprised her when Jess appeared from behind a door panel just to the left of the television. “I put your bags in the back for you. Everything you requested is on board Mr. Mulder. I’ll go check with Captain Reese; we should be just about ready to taxi out.”

That was two ‘Mr. Mulder’s’ in the past few minutes with no correction from Mulder to ‘just Mulder’. It occurred to her that he was enjoying the royal treatment as much as she was.

“There’s a bedroom and bath in the back if you need to freshen up,” Jess motioned through the door where he had just come before continuing past them heading for the cockpit. “We just ask that you remain seated during take off and landing unless the Captain has the seatbelt sign on,” he advised turning to Mulder with a knowing look.

Scully wandered to the back of the plane. There was indeed a nicely appointed bathroom and in the bedroom, a bed that took up most of the rear compartment.

“Well, what do you think?” Mulder asked, his hands coming to rest on her shoulders.

“I think you have more than the opera up your sleeve.”

“I was hoping you’d say that.” His voice was soft in her ear just before he place a gentle kiss on the side of her neck.

“The Captain asks that you both take your seats.” Katlin’s voice came from behind Mulder. They both turned around a little sheepishly and followed her back through the hall. “I’ll be in the front cabin. If you need anything after we take off just hit intercom 3. Intercom 1 will get you the captain,” Katlin instructed pointing out the buttons on the arms of the chairs and couches. There was a heavy whoosh sound as Jess secured the cabin door and both he and Katlin disappeared into the front cockpit.

It was a short taxi out to the runway and the plane turned into position for takeoff. “Are you happy?” Mulder asked her, reaching over to take her hand.

“I’m having the time of my life, Mulder,” she answered, her eyes meeting his.

“Good, so am I.”

The plane was airborne before either of them suspected, banking gently to the right as the felt the landing gear doors shut below them.

“Good evening Ms. Scully, Mr. Mulder, this is Dale Reese, your captain,” the disembodied voice came from the speakers that lined the bottom of the overhead storage compartments along both sides of the plane’s cabin. “Airtime to New York should be just under forty minutes. That makes our arrival time five-twelve p. m. The limo will be there to take you into the city.”

“Thank you — Captain,” Mulder replied with a wink in Scully’s direction. She could tell by the way he hesitated that he had been about to say ‘Dale’.

“We’re expecting a smooth flight so please feel free to move about the cabin.”

She heard Mulder unclick his seatbelt just before his hand came to rest on her arm. She’d been watching the earth slip away from them from her window. “Should I raid the mini bar?” he asked.

**

Forty-five minutes later Jess was helping her down the steps onto LaGuardia’s tarmac. Mulder followed behind her, taking her arm and escorting her to the waiting limousine. The trip through the city to the theater district took them another forty minutes.

The Lincoln Center had become a landmark of the theater district since it’s completion in 1966. The Metropolitan Opera with its arched facade sat at the back of the plaza. As their limo turned off Broadway and into the drop off area Scully watched the beautiful building come into view. Their driver pulled the vehicle to the curb at the center of the plaza and stepped around to open the door for them. Mulder climbed out first and turned to elegantly offer her his hand. She smiled up at him, his eyes danced with the enjoyment of the moment. After receiving directions from the driver on how to contact him after the performance she slipped her hand under Mulder’s arm as they walked across the plaza. It was a chilly but thankfully dry New York evening and Mulder slowed his pace so she could take in the scene around her.

Once inside the building they opted to climb the sweeping staircase rather than take the elevator up to the restaurant. The Grand Tier Restaurant had the same contemporary elegant feel as the rest of the building. Mulder checked their coats and they were escorted into the restaurant. She wasn’t sure if the heads that turned as they walked across the room were for herself or her partner — all she knew was that together they made a striking couple. The Matre-de showed them to a table with a window view of the plaza. Someone had taken a lot of time preparing for this evening.

“How long have you been planning this?” she asked him after they had been seated.

“I still have connections you know,” he mocked back at her.

“Their names wouldn’t be Larry, Curly and Moe would they? Seriously, Mulder,” she reached across the table and touched his sleeve. “This is absolutely wonderful, I don’t know why I deserve this but right now I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else in the world.”

“You deserve more than this for putting up with me Scully,” he told her, placing his hand on top of hers. “Consider this a make-up for all the Valentine’s and birthdays and any other time I’ve neglected to tell you what you mean to me.”

She was about to reply with much the same comment when the waiter appeared with a bottle of wine and two crystal glasses. “This is compliments of Magic Bullet Publications, Sir,” he told Mulder as he presented him the bottle of wine. “Shall I open it for you?”

“By all means, yes, please,” he replied struggling to keep the smirk from his face.

She knew Mulder was no wine connoisseur but she enjoyed watching him swirl the light burgundy liquid in the glass and take a sip.

“Shall I pour some for the lady?” the waiter asked.

“Please,” he said, tilting his glass towards her.

**

Dinner had been wonderful. She’d declined a second glass of wine. It would have been her third for the evening if she included the one Mulder had poured her on the plane. He however, didn’t hesitate at the offer before their waiter offered to re-cork the bottle so that they could come back during intermission and enjoy the rest with dessert. Not knowing much about wine she figured it was probably a fairly expensive bottle and even the waiter didn’t want to see it go to waste.

Their seats were in on the same level as the restaurant. The usher showed them to the third box to the left of the stage. As she sat down Mulder handed her the binoculars he’d rented and a copy of the program.

Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin was a well-known example of lyric opera; the libretto retaining much of the poetry of Aleksandr Pushkin’s original novel. The story concerned a selfish hero, Onegin who lived to regret his rejection of a young woman’s love, Tatyana, and his careless incitement of a fatal duel with his best friend. It was a very romantic piece.

“This is in Russian; do you want to use the Met titles?”

“Hmmm?”

“I asked,” he said with a soft grin as she pulled her eyes from the pages of the program and watched him tap the small screen in front of her. “Met titles…the English version of the story…you can read along.”

“The music tells the story, Mulder. I’d just prefer to listen.”

“Fair enough.” He turned away from her, settling into his seat as the curtain began to rise.

**

By the end of the first act Scully was thoroughly entranced with Onegin. He reminded her of Mulder. He was not a man who gave his heart easily either; he’d kept it well guarded from her for the better part of the first five years of their partnership. So when Onegin rejected Tatyana’s love she in some respect, understood.

But in the second act Onegin flirted with his best friend’s fiancée, Olga, Tatyana’s younger sister in an act of revenge over some idle gossip. Lensky, Onegin’s best friend and he became involved in an intense quarrel over Olga and Lensky’s challenged Onegin to a duel. Onegin shot Lensky dead. Tears filled her eyes as she had reached for Mulder’s hand. She knew Mulder could never be that cruel.

In the final act, Onegin attended a ball in St. Petersburg. Onegin was reflecting on how empty his life had been since that fateful day when the nobleman and his wife had entered the ballroom. His wife was none other than Tatyana, now a beautiful woman. Onegin was desperate to regain her love.

The final scene takes place in the reception room of the palace after Tatyana had received a letter from Onegin. Onegin entered begging her for her love and pity, adamant that his passion was true. Tatyana, moved to tears admitted that she still loved him and spoke of how happy they could have been. In the end, she told Onegin that she must be faithful to her husband and leaves him alone in his despair.

The curtain dropped to a standing ovation. “Did you like that?” Mulder asked, turning to her and using the pad of his thumb to gently wipe the moisture from her eyelids.

“Did you like it?” she asked him back. He’d shown remarkable restraint in keeping his usual rambling diatribe of comments to himself during the whole performance.

“Yeah, you’d be surprised what a bottle of wine can do for your appreciation of the arts.”

She gave him “the look” and gathered up her belongings. During intermission they’d gone back to the restaurant and while she had savored a remarkable chocolate dessert and a cup of coffee, Mulder had finished off the bottle of wine. She knew it had given him a comfortable buzz.

“I’m glad you let me love you, Mulder,” she told him as she accepted his arm and he escorted her from their box.

While they waited at the coat check Mulder called for their limo. A light snow had begun to fall during the opera and as they exited the building a frosty coating covered the entire plaza. In their dress shoes it was slippery under foot. “If we go down I want us to go down together,” he told her, wrapping his arm around her and pulling her close to him.

“As long as I land on top of you…” She knew the comment was a mistake the moment it left her lips. It didn’t take him long for the comeback.

“I was hoping we could wait til we’re someplace a little warmer for that.”

They made it to the limo and climbed into its warm interior. Mulder wasted no time in unbuttoning his collar and loosening his tie and in a few minutes they were well on their way back to the airport.

**

The plane was already warming up when they arrived. The wind was picking up and it played with her wet hair as they crossed the tarmac and climbed inside. Mulder helped her out of her damp coat and handed it and his own to Katlin while Jess secured the door. “We should be underway shortly,” she told them. “If you need anything…”

“Just buzz,” Mulder finished for her.

She and Jess smiled and left them alone in the cabin.

They were airborne in less than twenty minutes and when the seat belt sign went off Mulder got up from his seat and slipped off his shoes. Scully watched him peel off his suit jacket and then came the tie. As he pulled his shirttail from his pants she decided that she was beginning to like this subtle stripe tease that he was doing and began to applaud him. He stopped short of unbuttoning his shirt and turned around. “Ta Da!” he mimicked again, spreading his arms. She laughed at this playfulness but was a little disappointed when instead unbuttoning the shirt he unbuttoned the cuffs and began to roll his sleeves. Slipping off her own shoes she watched him pop open the small refrigerator and take out another bottle of wine.

“Flight time to D.C. should be just about thirty-five minutes Mr. Mulder,” Reese’s voice sounded through the speakers. “Unless you have other instructions…”

“What do you say, Scully,” Mulder began to ask. “Can I talk you into joining the ‘Mile High Club’ with me?”

Scully didn’t answer, getting up from her seat and stepping to the bar where she grabbed two glasses and the bottle from Mulder’s hand. As she stepped through the doorway of the bedroom she threw a provocative glance over her shoulder. Behind her in the main cabin, she heard the click of the intercom button and then Mulder’s voice, “First star to the right and straight on til morning.”

“Yes Sir!” came Reese’s reply.

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!

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———-

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

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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.

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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.”

clip_image006

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.”

First Timer Blues

First Timer Blues

clip_image001

Skinner’s Office

Monday

“Well, Agents, everything looks in order,” commented Skinner as he closed the report before him. “I’m glad you were able to finish the case before the holidays. What do you have planned for the rest of the week?”

“Well, sir,” Scully began, “since it is a short week and we don’t have any current cases, I thought Agent Mulder and I might take the opportunity to catch up on our paperwork. We have several weeks of expense reports that need to get done and we want to finish the report on the Hodgkins case. I got the lab results back on Friday.”

“Excellent idea. So, what do you two have planned for Thanksgiving?”

Mulder fielded this question. “We’re planning on staying home, watching football, do a little snuggling on the couch.” The last comment earned him a kick from his partner. “Ouch!”

“You’re not going to your mother’s house, Agent Scully?”

‘My sister-in-law, Tara, has taken the kids to visit her family and Mom chose to go on a skiing trip with her ladies club, ‘The Red Hat Brigade’. That leaves Mulder and me without family this year.”

“You’re not cooking dinner?”

“I was going to cook, sir,” Mulder began, “but decided against the hassle of cooking for just the two of us this year. Maybe we’ll order a pizza to be delivered.”

Scully looked at him incredulously. “Pizza!”

“We could make it a turkey pizza with all the trimmings.”

Scully chuckled at the idea of a turkey pizza, covered in dressing and gravy. Mulder would probably love that. Put anything on pizza crust and he was a happy man.

“How about you, sir, what do you have planned?” asked Mulder.

“Oh, the usual. Stay home, watch football, maybe have a nice steak dinner at the local restaurant.” Skinner rattled off his usual Thanksgiving tradition. He was so tired of spending the holidays alone. He would love to have some company. He suddenly had an idea. He had come to think of Mulder and Scully as more than his agents; he thought of them as friends. Maybe he could persuade them to join him for Thanksgiving. Yeah, that was a super idea. He could cook! They could enjoy each other’s company, watch football, eat a real Thanksgiving dinner; it would be fantastic. “I have an idea. Why don’t you two join me for Thanksgiving? It would be great. I’ll cook dinner. We can watch the football game together. Sorry, but I can’t do anything about the snuggling thing.” He added with a smile. “Please, I would really like that.”

Mulder and Scully shared a glance that said everything. They had planned on spending the holiday together and doing nothing, but they would have the whole weekend to do that. This would mean a great deal to the Assistant Director and they could use all the good karma with their boss they could get.

“We’d love to, sir, thanks,” replied Scully. “Can we bring anything with us?”

“Well, yeah, why don’t you bring the beer? I mean what’s football without some brewskis?” Skinner was literally grinning from ear to ear. This was going to be so much fun. This would be a great Thanksgiving.

Basement Office

Tuesday afternoon

“Scully, these reports are so boring. What I wouldn’t give for a good bigfoot case right now.”

“Mulder…you don’t want to be on the road for Thanksgiving…again, do you? Just think, one more day and we have a 4-day weekend.”

“Actually, that’s dinner at the boss’s, then a nice 3-day weekend. You know, I had big plans for us on Thanksgiving.”

“It’s only dinner. It’ll mean a lot to the AD and we could use a few brownie points. Besides, we will have plenty of weekend left for your _plans_.”

Suddenly the phone rang. Mulder uttered a “Thank you, Jesus” under his breath as he jumped to answer the phone. This could be his salvation from the reports. “Mulder.”

Scully could tell by the straightening of Mulder’s stance that it was their boss on the line. It was almost a Pavlovian response to the sound of Skinner’s voice.

“Yes, sir,” said Mulder and then hung up the phone.

“What’s up?”

“Skinman wants to see me…just me…in his office, muy pronto.”

“Why? What did you do, Mulder?”

Mulder feigned a hurt look. “Do? Now, why do you assume I’ve done something?” Her only answer was the now routinely raised eyebrows. Mulder grabbed his suit coat and headed for the door, “I can assure you, Agent Scully, that I have done nothing to draw the wrath of the AD.” As he left the office, she heard him mutter, “At least, I hope not.”

Mulder rapped lightly on Skinner’s office door and entered, when he was beckoned inside.

“Please, have a seat Agent Mulder.” Skinner directed him to his usual chair facing the AD’s desk.

Mulder noted the stern look on Skinner’s face. He had been wracking his brain the entire trip from the basement to here, trying to figure what he could have done to upset him so much. He couldn’t come up with anything; not anything recent.

“Sir, I don’t know what I have done…” began Mulder.

Skinner held up his hand to stop Mulder is mid-sentence. “Agent Mulder. Are you under the impression I’m mad at you?”

“Well, sir, that is usually the case when you call me up here…alone.”

“I called you up here to ask you a question.”

“Certainly, sir, fire away.”

“Have you yourself ever prepared a Thanksgiving dinner?”

Mulder was completely taken aback by the question and the look on his face showed it. This was the last question in the world he would have expected the AD to ask. He stared at the man in a state of shock.

When Mulder didn’t answer the question, but continued to stare, Skinner tried again. “Agent Mulder, it’s not a hard question. Yes or no. Have you ever cooked a turkey dinner?”

Mulder finally brought himself back to reality, answering the question that was posed. “Yes, sir, I have. Several times. In fact, if we eat Thanksgiving at home, I do the cooking. It’s kind of a tradition now.”

“Good!” That was exactly what wanted to hear. A huge grin spread across his face which was contagious, because Mulder couldn’t help grinning too. He had obviously given the right answer.

“What kind of turkey do you usually get? I mean, do you get a fresh turkey or frozen? I read about free-range turkeys…have you ever tried one of those? How big? I need enough to feed 3 people, but I love turkey sandwiches, so I thought I would like to have a lot left over. What should I make with the turkey? I know you have to have stuffing, but what else?”

The questions seemed to be non-stop. Mulder didn’t think the AD took a single breath in between the string of questions. They kept pouring from his mouth.

“Does Scully like apple pie or some other kind? I prefer pumpkin, but I wanted to see what you would prefer?”

Finally Mulder put a stop to the questions. “Sir! Umm, have you _ever_ cooked Thanksgiving dinner before?” Mulder was pretty sure he knew the answer, but he had to confirm his suspicions.

“Well, no, _but, I have seen it done hundreds of times. My mother cooked every year for as long as I remember and, after I got married, Sharon cooked it many times.”

“Did you ever help, sir? Help them in the cooking process?”

“No, not really. I was never allowed in the kitchen. I was always told to stay out of their way,” he said resignedly. “But, I did carve the turkey,” he added as an afterthought.

“Oh, uh, Scully usually insists on carving the turkey. She’s the professional slicer & dicer. She may fight you on that one, sir.”

Skinner formed a mental picture of Scully in her scrubs and mask, standing over a roasted turkey, sliced open with the traditional “Y” incision, removing the slices of meat from the bird.

“Sir? Sir!” Skinner finally broke out of his daydream and looked up at Mulder. “Why did you offer to cook dinner, if you hadn’t done it before?”

“I spend every Thanksgiving alone. I wanted some company. I’ve come to think of you and Agent Scully…Dana…as more than just my agents, but my friends. That’s what friends do…they spend the holidays together. Besides, how hard can it be?”

Mulder thinks back to his first attempt at Thanksgiving dinner. He had managed, but it did not come off without a hitch. Perhaps, he could pass on some tips that might help.

“Buy a fresh turkey. Seeing that it is Tuesday, you won’t have time to thaw out a frozen turkey.” Mulder recalled being up all night changing the water in his attempt to quickly thaw out his frozen bird.

“Make a list _before_ you go to the store. Decide what you want and make a list. You have a better chance of getting everything you need if you make a list first.” That was another mistake Mulder had made. He just went to the store and started buying things. Luckily, he managed without the missing items, but he had never gone to the store without a list again.

“One more thing…check out the Butterball website. It’s full of information for the first-timer. I sure wish I had seen it before I started the first time.”

Skinner wrote all this down. “Anything else?”

“Buy lots and lots of whipped cream. It saved my dinner more than once.” The thought brought a smile to Mulder’s face, remembering how he and Scully had found so many uses for the wonderful stuff, other than putting it on food.

“Whipped Cream? For the pie?”

Mulder realized what he had just said and the thoughts he was having here in Skinner’s office. He immediately straightened in his chair. “Umm, never mind, sir…I don’t think it will help you in this case. Forget I mentioned it.”

Skinner appraised his agent, trying to figure out what he had talking out, but decided it was best to forget about it. He was impressed that Mulder knew so much about cooking. He felt much more confident after their discussion.

“Thank you for all your advice, Agent Mulder. I feel much better now. Please don’t tell Agent Scully about what we discussed. Let’s just keep it as our little secret.” Skinner knew it would be hard for Mulder to keep a secret from Scully, but he didn’t want her to think he couldn’t pull this off on his own, which of course, he couldn’t, but he didn’t want her to know that.

When Mulder got back to their office, Scully was ready for him. “What did Skinner want? Is everything OK? You were gone a long time. I almost thought about coming to your rescue.”

Dammit! He had completely forgot about Scully. He had been so floored by the AD and his apprehension about cooking the dinner, that he hadn’t prepared an excuse for Scully. “He..uh…he wanted..uh,” stammered Mulder. Luckily, this worked in his favor, since Scully simply thought he was stalling, which he was, but she thought it was because he didn’t want to tell her what had happened, which of course, he didn’t. Finally, the light bulb went off. He could have sworn the room brightened with the birth of his idea. “He wanted to talk to me about Sheriff Oates. He said he had gotten several complaints about my behavior during the case.”

Scully had to think a moment. Sheriff Oates. Mulder could tell the moment that she remembered, as her bright smile turned into a dark scowl. “You mean that chauvinistic pig from “Pig Snout”, Kentucky? If any one was out of line, Mulder, it was him. He was rude to both of us.” Her voice had grown louder with each word. “I thought you were on your best behavior…considering. Maybe I should talk to Skinner.” She headed for the office door.

“No!” Mulder shouted, which pulled Scully up short. “I mean, no, everything is OK. I explained everything to Skinner and he was fine with it.” Scully’s expression seemed to relax before his eyes. “Besides, he said he didn’t care much for the sheriff either,” he added with a chuckle.

“OK, Mulder, if you’re sure,” she conceded. “Let’s get this last report finished up and head out a little early.’

“I like the way you think, Agent Scully.”

Mulder/Scully residence

Thanksgiving Day, 6:00 am

Mulder woke to the sound of the ringing phone. He fumbled to answer it before it woke Scully. “H’lo, he slurred sleepily.

“Agent Mulder? I’m sorry to call so early in the morning, but I need your help.” It was Skinner and he sounded panicked.

“One sec,” whispered Mulder, as he slid out of the warm bed and left the room carrying the cordless phone with him. He went into the kitchen, so he could talk to Skinner without disturbing Scully. “What’s wrong, sir?”

“What kind of stuffing should I make?”

Stuffing, thought Mulder. He woke me at 6:00 am from a dead sleep to ask about stuffing. The man was losing it. He cleared his throat, before he began. “What do you mean?”

“I _mean_, what kind of stuffing should I make? I have cornbread stuffing, rice stuffing, and plain bread stuffing and I don’t know what kind to make. What kind does Agent Scully like?”

Mulder chuckled to himself. “Well, Scully is partial to cornbread stuffing, but I’m sure she’ll love any one of them.”

“Ok, cornbread it is. Thanks!”

“Umm, sir, you’re not going to make it now are you? You have to make it right before you use it to stuff the turkey.”

“I know that, Agent Mulder. I’m just about ready to put the turkey in.”

“Sir, how big of turkey did you buy?”

“I bought the smallest I could find, which was 11 pounds. Why?”

“Well, it should only take a little over 3 hours to cook that turkey. If you put it on now, we can eat it for breakfast.” They had already agreed to meet at Skinner’s for dinner at 1:00 pm. “Why don’t you wait until 9:30 or 10:00 to put it on?”

Mulder could hear the disappointment in Skinner’s voice. He obviously wanted to put that turkey in now. “Ok. I’ll wait a while before I put the turkey in. I’m just anxious to get started. Maybe I’ll read the paper for a while. I’ll see you and Scully around 1:00.”

When he returned to bed, Scully snuggled up to him and asked…actually it was closer to a mumble, “who zat?”

Dammit! He had completely forgot about Scully…again. He had been so caught up in Skinner’s plight, that he hadn’t thought about what to tell Scully. At this rate, he was going to have to compile a list of excuses that he could pull out at any moment. He thought she had dozed back off, when she asked again. “Oh, it was Skinner. He wanted us to bring some, uh…butter when we come.”

“‘kay,” she managed and burrowed deeper into Mulder’s arms. Good one, Mulder, that seemed to satisfy her.

An hour later, the phone rang again. Mulder knew who it was before he even picked it up. He slid out of bed, grabbed the ringing phone, and headed back to the kitchen.

“Does Scully like giblet gravy or plain gravy?”

Mulder rolled his eyes in exasperation. “Sir, it really doesn’t matter.”

“I don’t understand how one is supposed to make gravy using the internal organs that were removed from the turkey.”

Yummy, thought Mulder. It doesn’t sound too appetizing when you put it the way. “You boil them to cook them. Dump them all in boiling water for about half an hour. Personally, I only use the liver and throw away the rest, but that’s my preference.”

“Ok, that sounds like a good idea, Agent Mulder. I’ll just cook the liver.”

“And boil a couple of eggs to add to the gravy. Scully likes it that way.”

“Great. Thanks again. See you at 1:00.”

Mulder was just about to crawl into bed next to Scully’s warm body, when the phone rang again. He did an about face and left the room.

“What is it now, sir?” Mulder asked with a hint of irritation.

“Am I disturbing you, Agent Mulder?”

“Uh, no sir, I’m up now.”

“Oh, good. I seem to be all out of eggs. Could you please pick some up on your way over here?”

“Yeah, sure,” Mulder said as he hung up, without so much as a see ya later. “Sure, fine, whatever,” he mumbled as he returned to the room.

He decided against crawling back into bed. Scully looked so peaceful and he didn’t want to disturb her anymore. Besides, he was wide-awake now. He would go for a run instead. He leaned over and gave Scully a peck on the cheek. She asked him who was on the phone. He didn’t have to make up an excuse this time. “It was Skinner. He asked if we could bring him some eggs when we come over later. I’m going for a run. Be back soon.” He gave her another kiss, which elicited a small moan from her. He hesitated a moment, gazing at her sleeping form. With a sigh, he gathered his running gear, and headed for the bathroom.

He returned an hour later to the smell of coffee. Obviously, Scully was up. He had stopped and bought a newspaper and some bagels for breakfast. Mulder followed the smell into the kitchen. Scully was sitting at the table drinking coffee. He put his purchases on the table and headed directly for the coffee pot.

“Skinner called. He wants you to call him”

Mulder stopped in mid-pour. “Did he say why?”

“Nope. He just wants you to call.” She looked up from her coffee, as Mulder sat down at the table with a sigh. “Is everything OK? He sounded a little stressed” Scully asked, her voice dripping with concern.

“Nah, everything is fine. I’ll give him a call and then take a shower.” He took his coffee and the cordless phone and headed to the bedroom. Mulder dialed the AD’s number, while he began to remove his sweaty clothes.

“Skinner.” Wow, he answers the phone with the same tone that uses in the office. He doesn’t even have a home phone voice. “Hello?”

“You called sir?”

“Yes I did. Do you know how to make cranberry sauce? I have a pint of fresh cranberries, but I can’t figure out to turn them into a sauce.”

“Gee, sir, I’ve never attempted to make cranberry sauce. I have no idea how to pull that one off. I always buy the kind in a can. You know, the jellied kind.”

“Oh. Well, then could you pick up some canned cranberry sauce on your way over?”

Mulder better start writing this down. At this rate, he was going to have quite a list of things to pick up at the store. “Sure, sir. No problem. See ya later.”

A couple of hours passed without any more phone calls. Mulder assumed that was a good sign…you know, no news is good news, when all of a sudden the phone rang.

“Mulder,” he said as he answered the phone.

“Mulder. I need your help. Can you come over now?”

“Now?”

“Yes, _now_!” Skinner shouted, then added in a softer voice, “Please?”

Mulder could tell Skinner needed help. He’d never seen him in this state and hoped never to again. It was unnerving. “Yes sir, we’ll be over soon.” He heard Skinner whisper a contrite, “thanks” before he hung up.

“Mulder, what’s wrong?”

“Nothing. Everything’s fine.” At the look she gave him when he used the dreaded “f” word, he added, “Really. He’s just lonely and wants some company.”

She scrutinized him, trying to figure out what was up with him and the Assistant Director. He looked back with such an innocent face, that she decided to drop it. “Let’s head out. Besides, we need to stop at the store to get the stuff on Skinner’s list.”

When they arrived at Skinner’s apartment, he answered the door almost immediately. Almost, like he had been waiting for them by the door. Scully smiled at the sight before her. Skinner had a bath towel tucked into the waistband of his jeans. He and it were covered in flour and other assorted smears.

You could smell the cooking turkey. She took in a deep breath. “Something sure smells good, sir.”

Skinner relieved her of the bag of groceries she was carrying. He grasped her arm and hustled her to the couch, offering her some Chex Mix that was in a bowl on the coffee table.

“Thanks. Can I help you with anything?” she offered.

“No, no, no. Everything is under control,” he said calmly. “You just sit back and enjoy the game. Mulder, you want to put that beer in the fridg?”

Mulder followed the AD into the kitchen. As soon as they stepped in the kitchen, Skinner changed into a different man. He started talking at ninety miles an hour in a hushed voice, so Scully wouldn’t hear.

“Mulder, everything is going to hell! I burned the cornbread stuffing, so I had to make the rice stuffing. Of course, there wasn’t very much rice stuffing, so it all went into the bird. Do you think that will be enough dressing or should I make the bread stuffing? I don’t know if I have enough ingredients for it though. I’m running low on supplies.”

If Skinner hadn’t been in such a state, it would have been funny. Mulder knew how important this had been for him. “Relax, sir. Calm down. Everything will be fine. I think the rice stuffing will be plenty. Is that the only problem?”

Skinner gave him the “are you serious” look and began where he had left off. “The mashed potatoes are done…real done…I didn’t even have to mash them.”

Mulder peeked into the pan and took a spoon to stir the potatoes. Skinner might have just made the first mashed potato soup. “It’s OK. Scully doesn’t really do a lot of starches anyway and she’s been trying to get me to lay off them too. What else?”

“My pie crust turned out pretty well…after the third try, but the pie cooked a bit too long, so it is burnt on the edges.”

Mulder glanced at the pumpkin pie cooling on the counter. It was overdone, with a perfect black charcoal ring around it. “Don’t worry about the crust, sir. No one ever eats that part anyway. Next?”

“I couldn’t figure out the whole giblet thing. All the pieces looked alike; well, except for the neck. I didn’t want to accidentally use the heart or something, so I just threw them all away. Besides, I wouldn’t have had time to boil any eggs anyway. So I settled for plain gravy. It didn’t taste too bad, but it was really thin, so I tried to thicken it up by adding flour; that’s what my Mom use to do. Of course, then it got all lumpy. By time I fished out all the lumps, I have about a cup of viable gravy left.”

Mulder was working very hard not to smile at Skinner’s plight. He knew he would have problems, but a problem with everything was almost unheard of. “A cup of gravy should be plenty for 3 people. Anything else?”

“My salad turned out OK,” he said proudly.

“Congratulations, sir! Scully loves a good salad. Um, sir, do you mind me asking? How did you cook the pie and the turkey at the same time?”

“Well, I put the turkey in early. I know, you said not to, but I knew I needed the oven for the pie. The turkey has been done for a while now. That’s one of the reasons I called you to come over early. It’s ready…everything is ready.”

Mulder looked around the kitchen and didn’t see the turkey. “Where is the turkey, sir?”

“I wanted it to be hot, so I put it back in the oven. It should be hot by now.”

“Sir, you can’t do that,” Mulder said, as he snatched a couple of potholders off the counter and handed them to his boss. “Pull it out now or it will dry out.”

Skinner removed the bird from the oven and it did indeed look dry. It looked a lot worse than when he first took it out of the oven. He deflated right before Mulder’s eyes. “I’m a failure. My dinner is ruined,” he moaned.

“Sir, you are not a failure. Thanksgiving dinner is not as easy as it sounds. Believe me, I’ve had my share of failures in the kitchen. Everything will be just fine.”

Skinner felt slightly better, but not much. He had wanted everything to be perfect. He had no idea how hard that would be. “I’ll put the food on the table and you get Scully.”

Scully was sitting back on the couch, munching on a handful of Chex Mix and watching the game.

“Hey, that’s a good idea,” Mulder said as he grabbed a handful of the snack and began eating them. It might be the most sustenance they would get that day. He sat down next to her and leaned in so he could whisper in her ear. “Skinner had some difficulties with his dinner. You should be supportive and complimentary. Don’t make a big deal out of it. OK?”

“What kind of problems?”

“Typical first-time problems.”

“First time?” Mulder nodded affirmative. He pulled her up from the couch by her hands and led her into the dining room.

Scully had to admit the table looked nice. Really nice. He had some fine place settings, obviously from his wife. Once they all sat down, Skinner stood up to address his company.

“Thank you for coming over and spending Thanksgiving with me. It has been a long time since I have had friends to spend the holidays with. Anyway, thanks.” He took the knife and turned to Scully. “Would you like to do the carving, Dana? I heard you were the best.” He gave a little wink to Mulder at the last remark.

“I’d be honored, sir…um, Walter.” He smiled at the use of his first name. She sliced into the turkey and noticed it was a bit dry, but decided not to comment. “This really looks great, sir.” His smile widened with the compliment. Maybe this wouldn’t be so bad. Once she had cut about a half a dozen slices, she sat down to enjoy the meal.

The bowls of food made the rounds. The turkey really wasn’t too bad, especially bathed in the gravy. The potatoes were thin. You couldn’t eat them with a fork, but a spoon worked just fine.

Between the two of them, Mulder and Skinner polished off the cranberry sauce and Scully had 3 helpings of salad. The rest of the dinner pretty much remained untouched.

“I’m sorry, but this dinner is not exactly what I had planned,” offered Skinner by way of apology.

“Oh, I don’t know sir, mashed potato soup might just become a new Thanksgiving tradition,” Mulder said trying to ease Skinner’s guilt.

“Really, sir,” Scully said, “it really wasn’t that bad, especially for your first try.” Oops, she shouldn’t have said that.

Skinner glared at Mulder. He hadn’t wanted Scully to know this was his first time. Of course, he then realized, considering how it turned out, he should be glad she didn’t think that this was the dinner of an experienced cook. That would be worse. And Mulder had done everything to help him. He really was a good friend to put up with so much. His glare softened into a smile.

“Thank you, Scully. And thank you, Mulder, for all your help. You just wait until next year. I’ll do it better next time. You’ll have to come back year, to see how much I have improved, and I assure you, I _will_ improve. I have nowhere else to go but up.” Everyone had a good laugh at that point.

“Hey, who wants dessert? I made pumpkin pie.” Before they could decline, he had disappeared into the kitchen. He returned a few minutes later, carrying a tray. On the tray were the pumpkin pie, three plates, and four cans of whipped cream.

When Scully spied the cans of whipped cream, she turned to Mulder and gave him a very seductive smile and licked her lips. Mulder’s breath caught in his throat. Finally, once he was able to breath again, he turned to the AD and said, “Um, sir, could we get that dessert to go?”

The End

American Gothic X

American Gothic X

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Trixie’s Truckers Home

Interstate 55

McLean, Illinois

November 23, 2006

4:15 am

I was still pretty groggy when Dan called me and said I could take Lisa’s shift if I hurried my ass up. Oh joy. But at least working the early bird shift meant I could be home eating turkey with Mom and Martin by 12 o’clock, maybe even catch a little of the Macy’s parade on the DVR.

I don’t mind working the early shift. It’s quiet, just the OTR guys coming in, mostly. Since I got this job when I was in high school, I’ve become familiar with a lot of the guys in the rigs. People think truckers are always strangers, but that’s not true at all. Truckers are nomads, most of them have set territories so you get to know them and more often than not, all their heartaches. One thing for certain, once you know them, you are one of them and they don’t take to any one else causing you any trouble.

I grabbed the decaf that had just finished spitting and hustled over to Jake, sitting at the counter. “Fill ‘er?” I asked, holding up the carafe.

“Josey! Girl, where you been? Ain’t seen you in a couple ‘o moons!”

“School started again,” I smiled as he nods toward his cup. “I’m a junior now.”

“You’re up at ISU, ain’t ya?” he asked before taking another swig of coffee. Jake likes his coffee HOT. He’s told me on more occasions than I care to count that he likes his coffee like he likes his women and that’s as far as I want to remember the rest of his analogy. “What ‘er you studying fer now?”

“Same thing — Psychology. Gonna get my degree, get a masters and a Ph.D and then I’m gonna open up an office back where we used to have the smokers lounge. Charge all you guys out the butt to come in and tell me all about your women troubles.” I gave him a wink and he knew I was kidding.

“You’ll be a millionaire, sweetheart. A friggin’ millionaire!”

I went back to the kitchen to get another load of cups when I heard the door chime. Peeking around the corner, I saw a woman in a fur trimmed parka sitting down at one of the window booths. She pulled off her gloves and blew into her hands — a sure sign she needed a cup of coffee. I hurried out with a cup and pot.

“Regular?” I asked, holding up the carafe.

“Yes, thank you,” she sighed. She picked up the menu card and glanced over both sides. “I’ll have an order of raisin toast, butter on the side, please.”

“There’s a special today, eggs, an order of hash browns and toast or english muffin for 2.99,” I suggested.

She smiled and shook her head. “Just the toast. And a glass of water, please.”

Diets — why bother when you can just run a few miles? But I jotted down her ‘order’ and headed to the pass through to call it back. Henry was working the grill and he and I go way back — back when I was just a little girl in pigtails and Dad would bring me in with him when he was off the road. Henry grinned at me as I tacked up the order.

“So, tell me about this young man you’re seeing,” Henry said casually as he pulled the raisin bread out and popped it in the toaster.

“I hardly call it ‘seeing’, Henry. We have a lot of classes together and he gave me a ride home. Saved Martin a trip into Bloomington to pick me up. No big deal.”

“He helped you with your bag,” Henry countered.

“Who told you? Oh, wait, Mrs. Dubois was sweeping her porch when we got in. The old busy-body.”

“Seems to me, a nice girl like you oughta be thinking about settlin’ down, startin’ a family.”

“Henry, despite what everyone in McLean has decided, I’m hoping to go to graduate school — in Chicago.”

Henry shook his head. “You don’t belong in a place like the Windy City, child. You’ll get your fool head blowed off — and that’s if your’n lucky!”

I rolled my eyes. Sometimes it felt like this town was just too tiny — everybody elbowing their way into everyone else’s business. The door chimed again and this time it was a guy — an older guy but still really cute. He had on a leather jacket and no hat. His ears were red from the cold of the parking lot. He sat down at the counter three seats over from Jake.

“Coffee?” I asked, but I’d already plunked down a cup in front of him.

“Yes, please. And I’ll have the steak and eggs special, eggs over easy.”

“American fries or hash browns?” I queried.

“There’s a difference?” he asked back, an amused look on his face.

“American fries are sliced fried potatoes. Hash browns are the shredded kind,” I explained. Not from around here — at least wise not from around Illinois.

“Hash browns. And raisin toast, please.”

I couldn’t help it, I looked over to the woman by the window. It was just too much of a coincidence. But the guy in front of me just kept looking at me.

“Oh, and could I have a side of biscuits and gravy with that?” he asked.

“Sure,” I said with a smile and jotted it all down. I only had to turn to tack it up for Henry. By this time, the lady’s toast was up.

I picked up the plate and was taking it over to her table when he came in. He looked like he’d been driving a flat bed — jeans were torn and dirty, shirt hadn’t been changed in a week and his beard was right at the really seedy looking stage. Now, that’s not saying anything bad about flatbed drivers. They just never seem to have enough time between loads to take showers and change. My Dad drove flat beds for a while before he went Haz mat. He’d probably still be alive today if he’d stayed with them.

I nodded to the guy but he kept his head down and took a table in the center of the room. He was huddled down in his jacket, an old fatigue jacket, the kind hunters used to wear before everything had to be blaze orange. I took him a cup of coffee but he pushed it away.

“Just water,” he growled.

I looked over at Henry, but he was busy fixing the counter guy’s eggs. “You have to buy something to sit at the tables,” I told him.

He lifted his head to look at me and my guts froze. He had the strangest eyes. They were blue, but pale blue, like a lake in January. And when he glared at me I thought I might just turn into a giant popsicle standing there.

“What’s the cheapest thing on the menu in this dive?” he spat out.

“Coffee. Eighty-nine cents a cup, free refills,” I answered. My voice just barely made it out of my mouth, my throat was dry as dust.

He nodded and I put the cup back in front of him, filling it. As I turned to walk back behind the counter, he grabbed my wrist. His hand was like a vice.

“I want cream. Not that half and half shit. Real cream.”

I was trying not to cry. I knew I was shaking like a leaf. I glanced over to Henry but he was still busy. Fortunately, Jake had taken notice of what was happening and he stood up, coming over to where I was standing.

“Is there a problem here?” Jake asked. Now, Jake wasn’t a spring chicken, he’d turned 60 just last spring. But he still stood 6’3″ without his special order cowboy boots and he was built like — well, like a long haul trucker, minus the beer belly. He reached over and wrapped his big bear claw hand around the sleazy guy’s wrist, right above where he was clamped down on mine. “I think it’s time for you to pay your bill and leave,” Jake said and he was using the voice that said he meant it.

“Let go, old man,” the slimeball snarled.

“When you let go of the lady here,” Jake returned. It was the first time in my life I’d ever been called a ‘lady’ by someone as old as Jake. At least without that permanent ‘young’ in front of it. It made me want to cry again, but I was trying hard not to.

“Well, why don’t you just go straight to hell!”

Everything from that point on happened way too fast. The bastard held out his hand and all of a sudden, Jake flew through the air and landed in a heap, knocking over a table and two chairs in the process. I flew through the air in the opposite direction and landed on the floor, too stunned to move. The woman by the window jumped a chair to get over to me, dragging me behind the counter. The guy at the counter pulled out a gun from I don’t know where, but the asshole was faster and the gun flew out of the guy’s hand and crashed into the window, going off in the process and one of the ceiling lights crashed to the floor. Then he ‘pushed’ the guy up against the wall so hard he hit his head and slumped to the bench seat below him.

Sparks were flying from the ceiling light, but other than Jake groaning, there were no other sounds.

The woman and me were huddled behind the counter when I heard what must have been a hundred sirens pulling into the parking lot. Lights were flashing across the white and black tile behind the counter. I looked up to see if Henry was still in the kitchen. I couldn’t hear him back there and I prayed he didn’t try to do anything heroic, like Jake.

“It’s over, Wilson. Just give yourself up,” the woman called out and I covered my ears, afraid of what would happen next.

“I got your boyfriend out here, Agent Scully. I suggest you come up with a way for me to get out of here. Wouldn’t want anything bad to happen to him,” the asshole shouted back.

The woman, who I just found out was an ‘agent’, didn’t look very happy at that comment. She shook her head and chewed on her lip. “Mulder?” she called out. There was no answer.

“Hey, Agent Scully, is it a bad thing when there’s blood comin’ outta yer ear?” asshole Wilson crowed.

That was when Agent Scully started looking real angry. “If you hurt him in any way, Wilson, I will personally rip your balls right off your — ”

“THIS IS THE STATE POLICE! WE HAVE THE BUILDING SURROUNDED!”

“C’mon, Agent Scully. You know I can take all of you with me. You don’t want that, do you?” Wilson yelled back to us. Suddenly, all the ceiling lights started popping and crackling and crashing to the ground. “Scully, you have to the count of three to get your ass out from behind that counter!” Wilson shouted. “One . . . two . . . ”

Agent Scully grabbed her weapon, which I could now see was holstered at her hip and shoved it in my hands. “Do you know how — ”

I nodded an emphatic yes. Dad had taught me to hunt, I could use a gun.

“Just don’t let him get it,” she hissed as she stood up, hand raised, and walked around the counter.

“Where’s the little filly? I want everyone where I can see ’em,” Wilson said with a smart ass chuckle as if he was the funniest guy on the planet. I wanted to plant a bullet right between his eyes, but after seeing what he could do, I was afraid I’d miss and he’d kill us all.

“Leave her out of this, Wilson. You’re trapped in here. You’re in charge. This doesn’t have to end badly.”

From the crack in the front of the counter that Dan never had fixed I could see her eyeing the other guy — Mulder — on the floor. But she was talking directly to Mr. Incredible, or whatever the hell he was.

“Nice, nice. I know what you’re doin’ Agent Scully. Talking me down off the ledge. Real nice. But you see, I’m not gonna be taken again. I’m not gonna let them bastards shoot me full of drugs so I can’t out of that looney bin. No sir, not this time. This time, I’m goin’ out with a bang!”

I heard the wind starting to howl, and then I realized it was coming from inside the diner! The walls were shaking, the pots back in the kitchen were rattling and the hair on my head was whipping around my face. I took that gun Agent Scully had given me and released the safety. The wind was so strong I had a hard time cocking the damn thing. I peered through the crack, looking for a good shot. Finally the asshole was in range. His back was turned to me, his arms raised up and his hands waving with the wind. He was a conductor and he was orchestrating the whole diner. I squinted my eyes, lined up the sight and gently squeezed the trigger . . .

Bang, Bang, Bang – Bang!

I looked down at the gun in my hands — I hadn’t finished pulling the trigger! Where had the shots come from? I looked through the crack and saw that Wilson was lying across one of the tables. There was a lot of blood. Agent Scully was feeling his neck.

“He’s dead, Mulder,” she said and sighed. That was my cue to get up and come around the counter.

“Nice shot. For a minute there, I was afraid you were really out,” Agent Scully said as she helped the other agent off the floor. He had a little gun in his hand and I could now see the holster at his ankle peeking out from under his pants leg.

“For a second there, I was out. Then I just sort of played possum,” he said with a grin on his face and a twinkle in his eyes. Man, he was even cuter than he’d been when he walked in the door!

“Played possum? Mulder, we have been on this assignment way too long,” Agent Scully said, and tried hard to hide her matching grin.

“Think we can get home in time for leftover’s at your Mom’s?”

I lost the rest of the conversation because the entire Illinois State Police District Six out of Pontiac came busting through our doors. Before long I was explaining what happened. Apparently, Henry had snuck out the back door, called in the troops and then went over to Mom’s house to get her. Mom and Martin both hugged me to pieces before I had a chance to tell them I was fine.

Poor Jake ended up with a concussion and a cracked rib, so he was spending Thanksgiving at Bloomington Memorial. He got to ride in the back of an ambulance. Henry assured him we’d watch over his rig.

In all the ruckus, I was afraid they’d get away. I found them standing at the back of a second ambulance, arguing.

“It’s a scratch. Not even a real scratch, look, a band-aid covers it,” Agent Mulder was saying, forcefully, and showing the little bandage just behind his ear.

“You were unconscious. I’m not taking you on an airplane for the next 24 hours and that’s final,” Agent Scully was telling him, in no uncertain terms.

I cleared my throat and that caught their attention. Agent Mulder stepped forward, extending his hand toward me. “Fox Mulder, with the FBI. Thanks for your help in there,” he said. He looked back and smiled. “This is Dana Scully, my partner.” She stepped forward and shook my hand, too.

“My name’s Josey, Josey Hanner and I didn’t help,” I told him. “I wanted to — I was meaning to, but by the time I had him in my sights — you had him already.”

“That’s how we wanted it,” Agent Scully said. “I just wanted to make sure he didn’t get control of the gun, I didn’t expect you to take him down. That was our job.”

I nodded, understanding. “Well, um, I was wondering — ”

“How he managed to do all that with the wind and all?” Agent Mulder offered.

“Yeah! I mean, he looked completely like a — ”

“Normal person?” Agent Scully suggested.

“No, like a complete and total loser,” I finally found the right words.

Agent Mulder nodded. “From what we know of him, he had a . . . power, for lack of a better word. He could control air currents. He had been in a psychiatric hospital until a week ago. When he escaped, everyone assumed he died of the elements. He’d fooled them all into thinking he was incapable of taking care of himself. But it was just an act, a means to get them to let their guard down so he could sneak past them without being detected.”

“So he was smart?” I asked.

“Too smart. He’d killed several people, but was always found unfit to stand trial. He’d wrap the psychiatrists around his little finger,” Agent Mulder added with a disgusted look.

“So if one of them had seen through his act — ”

“He would have been on death row, more than likely,” Agent Scully said.

“Thanks,” I told her. That paper I had due in Deviant Behavior was looking more important by the minute. “Are you gonna be here for a little bit? I’ll be right back.”

“We aren’t going anywhere except a very close by motel,” Agent Scully said, crossing her arms.

I ran over to where Mom and Martin were talking to one of the state troopers. Mom was more than agreeable to my plan. I ran back as the ambulance pulled away, leaving the two agents standing in the cold wind.

“We’d like you to come to Thanksgiving at our house,” I said, chewing my lip. “It’s just me, my older brother and my mom, but Mom can’t figure out how to cook for just three people and we have enough to feed an army.”

Scully was shaking her head. “That’s very kind of you, but we don’t want to intrude.”

I just laughed. “Look, my Mom wants to give you guys a medal or something for saving my sorry life, so you better keep her down to just a plate of turkey and dressing. Besides, the diner’s the only place around that serves dinner, unless you want fries with your chicken nuggets.” I nodded my head toward the McDonald’s in the gas station across the road.

“Scully, a home cooked meal sounds awful nice, and it is Thanksgiving,” Agent Mulder reminded her. “I don’t suppose your family watches football on Thanksgiving, do they Ms Hanner?”

I laughed again and nodded. “Are you kidding? Martin played defensive lineman at ISU. He’ll be glued to the set.”

Agent Scully rolled her eyes. “Who am I to stand between you and a turkey dinner _with_ football?”

I pulled out my order pad and scribbled directions to our place. “The Motel 8 over there is brand new and if you explain the circumstances, I’m betting they’ll let you in early. Mom said the turkey will be ready to come out of the oven at noon.”

Agent Mulder looked at his watch. “That means we have 3 hours.”

“Which you will spend taking a nap,” Agent Scully said and she had the same tone to her voice Mom gets that warns me not to try and argue with her. Agent Mulder rolled his eyes and sighed, but finally nodded.

“We’ll see you in a few hours. Thanks again, Ms. Hanner.”

“The name’s Josey,” I reminded him. “And believe me, it’s our pleasure.”

I watched them get in their car and Agent Scully drove across the road to the Motel 8. Mom was calling my name; something about the turkey would need basting. I hustled over to our car and got in the backseat. I closed my eyes. A nap didn’t sound at all bad, I decided. But first, I had to call Dan. I wanted him to make sure I didn’t have to work any shift on Christmas. One holiday a year was enough, in my book.

The end