Category Archives: Season 14

One Moment In Time Part 2

One Moment In Time Part II

(Continued from Part 1)

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Mulder & Scully’s Townhouse

2:30 a.m.

Next Day

The front door makes a loud snick as I open it. I tromp across the foyer and unceremoniously dump my keys under the little welcome light on the sofa table.

Thankfully, Scully is nowhere in sight.

The unnerving sound of our alarm suddenly fills the house and it’s then that I realize Scully has set a trap for me.

This isn’t like me. I haven’t gone on a drunk since OPR tried to break us up after Dallas.

She set the alarm so she would know when I finally got home. In my drunken haze, I hadn’t even noticed the red ‘armed’ light on the keypad when I walked in the door. The keypad beeps as I key in the access code.

I’m not in the mood for a confrontation with her at 2:30 on a Sunday morning, so I kick off my shoes, and deposit myself in the chair by the fireplace in the hope I’ll pass out.

I know she’s awake. It’s just a matter of time before she gives up waiting and comes looking for me.

Silence fills the house, and I drop my throbbing head back against the chair.

“Are you hungry?”

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Her voice startles me in the darkness. It’s not the question I expected her to ask.

*Do I look hungry?*

I can hardly keep my head up. I lean forward and rest my elbows on my splayed knees and drop my head into my hands.

The mantle clock chimes three times. It took her thirty minutes to give up on me.

I guess I expected a ‘Where the hell have you been?’ type of question, and in the dim light of the room, all I can do is shake my head in reply to the one she actually asked me.

A wave of nausea follows the movement and I swallow the bile that rises in my throat.

What the hell was I thinking?

“What happened to your tie?”

The tie I’d gotten for Christmas. She’s more worried about what happened to the damn tie than what happened to *me*?

No, she knows what happened to me.

I reek of bar smoke, my shirt tail is hanging out, and the stubble on my face is way beyond a five o’clock shadow.

I reach into my pants pocket and pull out the neatly folded tie and hand it to her. It earns me a hint of a smile.

“You want some coffee?”

“God, no,” I answer, raising my head to meet her eyes.

She winces at my appearance as I slouch back into the chair, my arms resting on its big armrests.

I let my head roll back and close my eyes again.

“Just shoot me now — it’ll put both of us out of our misery.” I reach up to rub my forehead with my right hand. God, if only this pounding would stop.

“Mulder, don’t ever talk like that.” Even through the fog in my head, I can detect the anger in her voice. She hates it when I make those self-deprecating comments.

“Sorry.”

“No you’re not.” She says that with too much conviction, and I want to kick myself for being such an ass. “What have you been drinking?”

“Scotch, I think. You know,” I open my eyes again and look at her. “My Father’s poison of choice. You know what they say, ‘like father, like son’.”

“At least your Father did it in the privacy of his own home. You look like shit, Mulder. How many did you have?”

*Ouch.*

I decide from the tone of her voice that it’s probably a good thing I can’t see her face clearly in the dim light.

“I lost count after the third one, but I must have reached my limit, because Casey called me a cab and sent me home.”

“It’s good to know you have friends in the right places, Mulder.”

Yep, I know all the right people. Fact is, I’d spent the better part of the early evening watching the news channel they’d had on in the bar.

The event made the national news, but only to the extent that it was credited to a disgruntled student who called in a fake threat. Nothing about any deaths was mentioned.

Imagine that.

It had only made me drink heavier. “I didn’t hear anything about Georgetown crumbling to the ground.” I let my eyes drift shut again. “What happened out there?”

“The tactical team did find a timed device. It was located in the computer room outside the lab. Kelley thinks Jason must have discovered it when he went to retrieve the back-up on his files. It would have heavily damaged the building.”

“How long…”

“Four minutes, 16 seconds.”

I hear her step away and pad into the kitchen on bare feet. A few moments later she’s back, grabbing my right hand and thrusting something into it.

When I open my eyes, my fingers are wrapped around my black leather wallet, the one with my badge in it. The one I’d thrown at Skinner.

“Skinner thought you might want this back. The Bureau and local law still need your statement.”

I flip it open with that practiced movement gained over the years and stare at its polished gold face.

There are scratches on the surface that I momentarily compare to notches on a gun, as if they would somehow add to its value.

This thing gives me no authority whatsoever.

“As if what I say will make any difference, Scully. Two minutes, Skinner couldn’t give me TWO MORE DAMN MINUTES? Jason was about to hand his gun to Kelley. The three of us would have walked out of there together!”

“I know, Mulder,” she consoles, meeting my eyes when I look up and see the anger brewing within hers. “Kelley told me everything. Skinner was just going by the book. Something I sometimes wonder if you’ve ever read.”

“Fuck the book, Scully!” She steps back when I toss the badge onto the coffee table with a satisfying thunk. “The damn gun wasn’t even loaded! Did anybody happen to notice that? Sometimes you have to be smart, down here,” I tap myself over my heart.

“Yes, I know the gun wasn’t loaded, Mulder.” Scully tells me. “And this probably isn’t a good time to say this, but since you picked up Jason’s weapon, there’s some question as to whether or not it was loaded before he was shot. It was suggested that *you* could have removed the clip yourself.”

“Oh, and let me guess where that astute observation came from, Christ!” I have an uncontrollable urge to rip something apart, preferably Glitz, but he’s not here and Scully doesn’t deserve the brunt of my frustration. “What is it with this guy that everyone believes his story? That could have been Gibson… hell, it could have been *me*! Would you still want Skinner to follow the book?”

“Skinner had to go on the information he had.” She folds her arms over her chest once again in that unconscious defensive manner of hers. “I was in a meeting with Skinner when the call came in. He wanted to address some accusations by Agent Giltner that Jason was actually involved in the deaths of these people, and your possible complicity.”

I want to explode with that little tidbit of information, but I don’t say anything; I just glare at her.

In fact, I think I’m dumbfounded that Skinner would even address the absurdity of the idea.

“Mulder, Skinner doesn’t believe you’d be involved in what Gil is accusing you of, but nobody could reach you. In fact, you’ve been evasive and uncooperative about this whole investigation.” She pauses, as if she expects me to deny what she is saying.

I would, but my brain is having trouble keeping up with her as it is.

“The purpose of the Bureau sending Agent Giltner here from Frisco,” she continues, “was because he was the one who started to make the connections between the case out there, in Delta Glen and here in Arlington.

“People are dying, Mulder — and you’re all wrapped up in some pissing contest over authority…”

I close my eyes again and grit my teeth, I will *not* confront her on this.

“People are *dying*, Scully; and I think it’s pretty damned obvious, by what happened yesterday, that there’s more to those deaths than ‘stress in the workplace’. This is a full-course X-File.” She looks away at my sarcastic comment. “Jason was onto something, and they killed him. You know it as well as I do.”

She turns to face me again. “You know I didn’t have a choice,” she sighs. “What was I supposed to do, Mulder? Skinner was calling the shots, he’s my superior, too. Nobody wanted this to go down the way it did.”

“Are you sure about that? When push came to shove, who did he believe? You or Gil?”

I can tell she’s not sure, but she won’t admit it.

A leads to B, leads to C, which leads to that one moment in time I thought about as the glass shattered around me, when either everything goes perfectly right or gets totally fucked up.

She’s looking at me, posed in this chair like some sort of demented Abraham Lincoln, only I can’t keep my eyes open any longer.

I still believe in the concept of free choice. That the course of our lives is not predetermined, but instead filled with twists and turns determined by the choices we make along the way, all of which are eventually leading us to any one specific moment.

My life, to this point, has been filled with a series of events engineered and influenced by the acts of others.

My moment in time lurks somewhere out there ahead of me, in the future.

It’s time I took control of it.

“Mulder?” I realize, at the sound of my name, that I’ve been sitting here conversing only with myself. “Go take a shower, you’re not getting into our bed like that; you stink.”

At the sound of those wonderful words, I push myself up from the chair, teetering just a little. Scully, bless her heart, reaches out for me as if she could stop me from hitting the floor.

When I make it to the stairs I look over and meet her gaze with a lopsided grin, “I love you, too.”

* * *

1:20 p.m.

Same Day

I wake up to an empty bed and a head like a balloon. Light filters through the drawn blinds but I have no idea what time it is.

I need another shower so I stagger into the bathroom and prop myself in the shower stall and let the water just beat on my head for several minutes.

Doesn’t help much.

When I finally manage to make myself presentable, I find Scully curled on the couch downstairs watching some old black and white movie. She doesn’t say a word as I head for the kitchen and hopefully some coffee.

Like the angel that she is, there’s a fresh pot already brewed and I grab one of the industrial size mugs we have and fill it.

“Your breakfast is in the microwave, if you’re hungry.” Her voice comes from behind me, but I don’t turn around.

The thought of food suddenly makes me gag.

When I do turn to face her, my expression must convey that feeling because she doesn’t hesitate to give me some motherly, or should I say, doctorly advice.

“When was the last time you ate?” She doesn’t wait for me to answer, deliberately punching in the time on the microwave. “Something on your stomach would probably make you feel better, Mulder.”

I want to say “yes, mom”, but I can tell by her attitude that would just piss her off more. So, I graciously accept the plate of sausage and eggs she hands me and plunk myself down at our kitchen table.

I’m hoping she goes back to her movie so I can push the food around on my plate and then dump it down the drain but I hear her pouring coffee into another mug.

A bottle of ketchup materializes on the table and then she sits down in the chair across from me to watch me eat.

Shit.

“Skinner called a little while ago.”

“Let me guess, thirty day suspension for decking that son-of-a-bitch.” I shove a forkful of ketchup-covered eggs into my mouth and wait for her to deny it.

“His exact words were ‘If Mulder hadn’t done it, I would have.’ But he also said that if half the D.C. police force hadn’t seen you do it, he would have looked the other way, despite any claim of a second assault from Gil.

“Second, Mulder, I don’t think I want to know about the first. What is this vendetta you have against him?”

“You mean aside from the fact that he called you ‘ravishing’ and Jason Arman is lying in the Georgetown morgue now because of him? The guy is not who he claims to be, Scully. I don’t give a shit what his jacket says, he’s not FBI.”

I wash another bite of eggs down with the rest of my coffee and get up for another cup, somewhat surprised that she didn’t jump on the ‘ravishing’ comment. “The guys are certain someone doctored his file. We just need to figure out who he really is, and who he is really working for.”

“Well,” she offers me her cup so I can refill hers as well. “You may have to do that from somewhere besides the Bureau.”

I set the pot down on the edge of the table as the sudden thought that decking Glitz was, indeed, the last straw, spreads across my brain.

Did I just earn myself membership in the ranks of the unemployed?

“Here’s the deal,” Scully tells me with a soft smile that eases my panic face. “Skinner’s going to talk with OPR, see if he can get them to agree to waive a hearing in exchange for you voluntarily taking a two week suspension to cool off.”

“Two weeks?” I sit back down and pick up my fork, poking it through the remains of my breakfast like a sulking child.

“I think it’s a good idea, Mulder. Pack a bag and go up to the summer house and fight it out with yourself instead of everyone around you.”

“Including you.” My fork clinks against the plate, I can’t force another bite of food down my throat without the risk of it all coming back up the way it went down.

At first, it surprises me that she even suggests I go up there alone, but then it dawns on me that she knows this is exactly what I need from her — and everyone else.

Trust.

We sit there for several minutes, eyes locked until I finally break the connection.

“This isn’t over Scully, you and I both know it. I don’t know if this has been a set-up from the beginning, or the pieces just fell into place that way, but Jason’s dead and I’m off the case.” I get up and dump my plate in the sink with a satisfying clink. “It all just seems a little too convenient to me.”

I know what she’s thinking — my paranoia has returned with a vengeance, but she doesn’t say anything.

I hope that’s because she knows I’m right.

There are still twenty one names left on Jason’s list. I feel like I’m walking out on them.

I turn the faucet on and rinse the plate. “I want to talk to Skinner and then I need you to do something while I’m gone.” Her shoulders drop at my request and I hear her soft sigh. “Humor me, okay, Scully?

“We need as many DNA samples as we can get from Church members, living or deceased. I know we don’t have the Secare files anymore, but you know enough about what Dr. Carpenter found in that substance to make a connection if there is one.

“There’s something, besides the fact that they were all members of this Church, that makes them a target for whomever I believe Glitz is working for. I need you to find it.”

“His name is Giltner, Mulder.” She informs me again. “What makes you so sure he’s involved in this?”

“I just know, Scully…” I bite my tongue. It’s not her I’m angry with. “Think about it, there was no reason for him to show up at the college yesterday, unless you or Skinner called him, and I don’t believe you did.

“So the question is — how did he find out about it unless he was already there?”

She studies me for a moment, attempting to ascertain how I’ve come upon this reasoning with such certainty and whether or not to call me on it. “You think he was there because he set the bomb.”

“See?” Relieved, I lean over and give her a quick kiss. “That’s why we’re such a good team, Scully. We think the same way.”

* * *

Jefferson Memorial

Washington D.C.

7:12 p.m.

Skinner is reading the inscription on Jefferson’s statue as we climb the stairs.

Either that or he’s hoping if he ignores me, I’ll go away. He hasn’t acknowledged our presence.

“Sir?”

He turns around slowly at the sound of my voice, his hands in his pockets. He always looks the sportsman when I see him in street clothes. Either way he’s always impeccably dressed. The man is built like a rock.

“Mulder — Agent Scully,” his eyes glance over me and come to rest on my partner with a stern look.

Yep, I’m definitely on his shit list now.

“You sure you want me to keep this?” I ask him, pulling my wallet he’d given back to Scully from my jacket pocket.

His face doesn’t change with the question. “You keep this up and that might not be up to me, Agent Mulder.”

Message received.

“I realize that, Sir.” I hand him the report I’d worked on all afternoon. “This is my account of what happened yesterday at the college.”

Neither Scully nor I say anything as he skims over it, his eyes going wide I assume when he gets to the part about Giltner.

“You’re implicating Giltner in this?”

“Yes, Sir,” I tell him with conviction. “Scully talked to Kelley; someone hollowed out all of Jason’s research files. I think Giltner is responsible for that — and the bomb.”

“Well you damn well better have something to back that up,” he glares at me. “You already know he’s come to me with much the same accusation about you.”

“That’s what I hear.” I flash a glance at my partner.

He glances at Scully and looks back at me.

“I asked Agent Giltner not to file a formal complaint about what happened in your office the other day, Mulder, and his accusations against you in the Arman case haven’t gone any further than my office. But I guarantee you, once this report becomes official, things will get ugly.” Skinner stops to glance down at the report, then back up at me, pausing for a moment before his final query. “Are you sure about this?”

Once again Skinner is just trying to cover my ass.

But you know what? I’m pretty damn proud of my ass, and it’s about time everyone else got to see it, too.

“Sir, this Giltner is not who he claims to be. Now, I don’t have any proof of that yet…”

Scully touches my arm. “Mulder, you ran a background check on him, maybe you should…”

I glare at her, “Scully, I have no doubt that Mark Giltner is an FBI agent. Everything in his file is all neat and clean, and that’s the problem. Somebody fucked with the file.”

“So, you’re saying that this man is not Mark Giltner, Mulder? — I don’t have to remind you he came right from the Frisco Bureau…” Skinner acts none too pleased with the look I give him. “So what? A double? Planted by whom?”

I look past him, my eyes focusing on the obelisk of the Washington Monument across the basin, its pyramid top pointing to the heavens, as if trying to tell me where my answers will be found.

“I’m not sure about that either right now.” I look from Scully to Skinner. “The bomb was just a decoy. I don’t think there was any intent to do damage. They knew Jason’s nationality would make him the immediate suspect and what would eventually happen. It was the perfect crime.”

* * *

Quonochautaug, R.I.

Monday, 5:19 p.m.

It’s after five when I pull into the gravel drive of the summer house.

It started to rain when I hit New York and the fine drizzle has followed me all the way here.

Several months ago, this family relic welcomed me home. Now in the fading daylight it looks almost foreboding.

I sit in the warm car for several minutes wondering why I’m here.

After carrying in my suitcase and several bags of groceries, I open a beer and amble through the empty rooms.

In the early days of our childhood, this place made the summer pass all too quickly for Sam and me.

Then, after one unforgettable night in November, it became an albatross.

My Mother would never step foot in here from that day on.

The first time I had come here as an adult was the day after she had suffered her stroke.

I don’t know why I kept this property and dumped the others.

Dad’s house on the vineyard had that beautiful wrap-around porch. There was a time when I had thought it would’ve been a great place to retire, too — should I live that long.

That idea died the same night he did.

As I walk through the cottage and admire all the changes that were done last fall, I can’t help but feel there are still some demons that linger here.

Even with a fresh coat of paint, the memories are still strong.

It’s time to make some new ones.

I wander into my Father’s den and lift from the wall the watercolor I hung here several years ago. It covers the splintered panels from the slugs I fired into the family portrait that used to hang here one horrible night in a Ketamine haze.

God, what an awful time that was in our partnership.

The thought gives me a chill and I look out the back door for some firewood. The old furnace never did a very good job of heating this place.

I need to check in with the missus.

The phone rings several times before she picks up.

I hated the thought of her going into the office with Gil still lurking about, but my G-woman can take care of herself and Skinman and I had a conversation early this morning about where I thought Gil’s talents would best serve the Bureau.

“Scully.”

“Hey, Scully, it’s me.” I can almost see her smile at the phrase. I think that has always been our ‘I’m okay’ signal to each other.

“I was beginning to worry about you, Mulder. You made it okay?”

“Yeah, sorry. I’ve been here awhile, talking to the ghosts.”

“Mulder,” she replies after an uncomfortable silence. “Maybe going up there wasn’t such a good idea after all.”

“No, no. I’m okay, Scully.” I watch a couple of squirrels romp across the yard and think that maybe there’s enough room out back to add on a porch or something. “I’ve actually been sitting here envisioning what else we can do with the place…”

“Please let me know before you do anything,” she says after another uncomfortable silence.

“Don’t worry,” I chuckle. “I just want you to know everything’s okay here. How about you? Any sign of Glitz?”

I hear her sigh heavily into the receiver. She knows I call him that because it irks her.

“No. I didn’t see him today.”

“Hmm, maybe he’s smarter than I thought.”

Later, after we finish our call, I watch the Knicks lose and then fall asleep watching one of SciFi Channel’s awful movies.

It’s after ten in the morning before the sound of thunder wakes me. And it takes another ten minutes for me to struggle off the couch and stand upright.

I can’t believe I slept on one of those for the better part of my thirties.

I make some coffee and dig out my laptop hoping the guys have found something more on Katsuhiru.

When my email opens up there are several messages from the boys, one from Fro with a link to ‘Leggy Ladies’, damn him. And another titled ‘To your good health’ from Byers. Somehow I manage to steer my pointer to the second one.

Did a little more digging for you, G-Man. One of the data SOURCES, INTERMEDIA, is using is a company called ‘Nature’s BEST’. They produce Natural fiber cereal, nutra-grain health bars and cooking oils like safflower and corn oil.

Seems your survivor out in California said Mr. Renford was really hooked on their ‘Natural energy Power Bar’. So we did a little digging into Nature’s BEST. THEIR HQ used to be located just outside of Dallas…

*Can’t be…*

The final email contains a back door link into the Bureau’s mainframe.

*Langly, your kung fu is the best.*

* * *

8:10 p.m.

The sound of my phone makes me jump.

I’ve been glued to my laptop for the better part of a day trying to find out all I can on Nature’s Best.

Funny thing is, just about everything I find on them in the Dallas area comes to a screeching halt in the summer of 1998.

Their processing and packaging plants then moved to Canada.

*Big Japanese population up there,* I think to myself.

“Mulder, it’s me.”

“Tell me you’re on your way up here, Scully.”

She chuckles into the phone. “I can’t find that information you wanted up there, Mulder. And, I think I might be on to something. Do you know what Mitochondrial DNA is?”

“Biology was not one of my better subjects. You know that.”

“It’s a haploid gene. Passed to offspring only through the egg — in which case it only has one dose of chromosomes, mtDNA only shows the female lineage of a person.”

I have no idea how this relates to our case. My mind has been back in Dallas all day and the possible connection between the Church and what we saw back there in 1998.

Scully keeps rambling in my ear.

“Every cell in our bodies contains thousands of these tiny organelles.

“The mitochondria process glucose into a useable form of energy for all body functions. They are believed to be an evolutional form of bacteria that adapted into a symbiotic relationship with multi-celled life forms.”

“What kind of bacteria?” Something clicks in my brain and pieces of a phone conversation I had with this woman years ago flash like the slides in my projector —

— ‘Some kind of bacteria, each containing a virus’ … ‘they’ve never seen anything like it here’ … ‘the only reason why you clone a virus inside a bacteria — is in order to inject it into something living. It’s called gene therapy and it’s still highly experimental’ …’Bacteria like this — it may have existed, but not for millions of years, not since before our ancestors first crawled out of the sea.’

“Therefore, the mitochondria have their own unique DNA, which is much simpler and easier to analyze than the DNA found in the nucleus.” It dawns on me that she ignored my question and is still trying to answer the question she asked me. “mtDNA is categorized into types and groups.”

I blink, thinking. “You’re talking about haplogroups.”

“Yes, see, you’re smarter than you thought, Mulder,” she chuckles. “There are approximately 39 groups and variations of those groups into which all humans fit. It’s enabled researchers to trace the lineage of specific racial groups.”

“This is how they were able to confirm the migratory legends of many Native peoples,” I add. “How they traced modern humans back to Eve, the first woman who walked out of Africa.”

“Basically, yes. Are you familiar with A.R.E.?” Scully asks.

“The Association for Research and Enlightenment? Edgar Cayce’s group?” I respond. “They’re highly involved in the search for Atlantis? Scully — what have you been reading while I’ve been gone?”

“Kelley’s research,” she says matter-of-factly. “Kelley tells me that Cayce hypothesized that large groups of Atlanteans migrated from their homeland prior to the demise of their civilization somewhere around ten thousand B.C.

“He specifically stated that these survivors went to places like Central America and Egypt, and even parts of Europe; Ireland for one.

“All areas where there were unexplainable advancements in human evolution about that time.”

“Scully? What are you wearing?” We chuckle at each other. “The idea being — that these remarkable advancements came about because of the knowledge brought to these areas by refugees from Atlantis. I’m familiar with Cayce’s theories. Where are you going with this?”

“I’m not sure yet, Mulder,” Scully admits. “Kelley tells me that genetic research on excavated remains in these areas indicates a high presence of haplogroup X. This is the group Cayce is trying to prove originated in Atlantis.

“Mulder, she’s already done some genetic research on some of the Church members. They can all be traced to this haplogroup X.”

I realize almost immediately what she’s getting at, but I don’t believe my Scully is even suggesting it. “Are you suggesting that the Church members could be descendents of the people of Atlantis? Dear Diary.”

“Well, the problem being that, while the geographical origin of haplogroup X is unknown, there’s also no proof that Atlantis or its people ever existed,” she chuckles into the phone.

An eerie feeling passes over me, “Scully you said Ireland right? You didn’t by any chance check…”

“No, Mulder, I did not,” she interrupts.

My mind starts to wander down a different path. “Scully imagine for a moment if you could prove… What if everyone we’ve encountered in the X-Files could be traced to this haplogroup? It would explain everything.”

“The operative word being IF, Mulder — but I understand what you’re saying.”

“You know it’s also hypothesized that the people from Atlantis were not exactly ‘native’ to this planet,” I kid her.

“And you’re suggesting that the members of the Church were also aliens?” she asks.

“You know the name ‘Odin’ comes from Norse mythology, Scully. One of his attributes was his ability to shapeshift…”

“Don’t even go there, Mulder. I think what we’d be more likely to prove is that this food additive Jason was trying to break down is somehow lethal to members of this haplogroup — why, I don’t know.”

I think back to Jason’s tirade in the lobby of the Reiss building, “Jason seemed to think these people’s violent actions were caused by some sort of food additive.”

“Yes, I know. Kelley mentioned that he thought he had narrowed it down to some health bars his father was hooked on. It’s very possible this was caused by something as simple as an allergic reaction…”

“Scully, this unidentified toxin in the autopsy reports…”

“Is the more likely cause — but without his research and samples, it’s going to be difficult to prove anything at this point.”

“Natural Energy Power Bar.”

“What?”

“I think I might have an idea on that, and it just might go back to a cornfield in Texas.”

* * *

5:43 a.m.

Next Day

I kept thinking about this Mark Giltner wannabe all night.

Somehow, he is the key to all of this.

The picture in Giltner’s file is at least five years old, and whoever this guy is, he looks enough like him not to question the likeness.

Someone went to a lot of trouble to try and weave him into our confidence.

The question is — what was the agenda?

Right now, my mind is struggling to fit the pieces together.

The kids back in Delta Glen had been treated by a doctor who was injecting them with what I believed to be alien DNA to test their reactions.

If my mind stills serves me correctly, the results then had been of a violent nature also.

One of the few things Scully and I did agree on back then was that we thought the Church members were the control group — only now I’m beginning to think it was for a different reason then we originally surmised.

Scully would be abhorred to hear me say this, and I respect her faith in God as much as anyone else’s, but would it really make that much difference in the whole scheme of things if we were to find the proof that life did not originate here on this one little world, but elsewhere?

I mean, if God created the universe, then he certainly must have created *other* life in the universe as well.

I have to believe that.

I read an article in Newsweek not too long ago about the science of human evolution. How it’s undergoing an evolution in its own right.

It seems that the story of our species is not only more complicated than the Bible would have us believe, but also more complex than science ever suspected.

New research is beginning to show that what we call ‘progress’ and ‘evolution’ are only occasionally combined.

Our species has traveled through time not in a steady level march, but rather through calm valleys followed by mountainous ‘eruptions,’ the cause of which has yet to be determined.

Which leads me back to the question I’ve been asking for the past decade and a half of my life — what is the truth?

I start to think about this mtDNA link Scully was rambling on about yesterday and its theoretical link to Atlantis.

Maybe science and archaeology are getting too close to actually proving its existence, and if this group of people are a direct link, and that link points to an extraterrestrial origin, then it stands to reason that said extraterrestrials may not wish to have themselves discovered.

Especially if their agenda is to take over the planet.

There has to be millions of people linked to this haplogroup. What I don’t understand is why only these Church members have been affected.

Unless they, themselves, are the subject of another experiment.

For years I have fought for every scrap of evidence I could find on a program I believed was created to engineer a human-alien hybrid.

A new form of human who could survive the coming apocalypse that I still feel is coming.

Kelley seems to believe that, through some sort of bizarre gene therapy, I am one of the products of that program — I’d prefer to believe the jury is still out on that one.

The brain, more than any other organ, seems to reap the advantages of genetic manipulation.

Depending on what ingredients are introduced, changes can be made in the neurochemicals that underlie perception, behavior and memory.

Considering what I’ve been through in the past year or so, I’m afraid to admit that the evidence might be stacked in Kelley’s favor.

Scully and I are fairly certain we know the players on this side of the game, one of them being my own Father.

In the long run, what they were attempting to accomplish was a way to preserve the human race, which would have been a good thing if not for the heinous way they went about it.

This — this I feel is something else.

There are always two sides to any conflict. And while the Consortium seems to have been dissolved, there now appears to be something else taking its place.

I’m still faced with too many questions and one thing is certain, I’m not going to find the answers sitting up here.

What we’re looking for is not only the evidence of a murder that someone is trying to cover up, but also the possible evidence of one of the biggest clean-up operations in human history.

I have to expose Giltner.

He’s involved in this far more than that stooge Thomas ever was, and I refuse to have him end up dead in a meat locker like that nameless assassin.

I want answers.

While the coffee perks, I do a little more digging into Agent Giltner’s file and discover that young Mr. Giltner graduated from, of all places, San Diego High School.

Well, at least the real Mark Giltner had.

I must have glossed over that the first time around, and, if memory serves me well, my partner has spent some time in the halls of that establishment in her youth.

What the hell did I do with my phone?

“Mulder, this better be good.” Her sleepy voice comes through my cell and I look at my watch to see it’s only ten after six.

Oops.

“Hey, Scully, you went to high school in San Diego, right?”

There’s nothing but dead air on the other end of the connection and I wonder for a moment if she’s hung up on me. Maybe I should have at least led into the question with at least a “Good morning, sunshine”.

“I think you just asked what high school I went to,” she finally comments. “Why are you asking me that at six o’clock in the morning?”

“Because I need you to answer me.”

She sighs in my ear, “My dad was stationed in San Diego then, Mulder. Yes, I graduated from San Diego High School.”

Well, it’s nice to know some brain cells are still intact.

“So did our friend, Gil, from San Francisco.”

“So did a lot of other people, Mulder.” Her voice has an irritated quality to it. “What are you getting at?”

“Is it safe to ask what year you graduated?”

“No, but you ought to be able to figure that out yourself.” I hear the bedding rustle as she probably sits up and I find myself wishing I was wrapped around her. “1982, why?”

“Well, lookie here,” I stare at the number in front of me. “So did Mark Giltner.”

“You’re kidding.” I hear the covers rustle again and then she sounds like she’s walking across the room.

“It’s right here in black and white. You don’t remember him?”

“Did you know everyone in your graduating class, Mulder?”

I fight the urge to brag, “I went to a very small school.”

“And you were the star of the basketball team.” I can hear water running and the clanking of glass through the phone. She must be making coffee. Lucky for her she doesn’t have to drink mine this morning.

“I was the class geek, Scully. You don’t have an old yearbook handy do you?”

I hear nothing but silence in my ear.

“You’re serious about this, aren’t you?” she finally asks. “I don’t even know if my mother still has it. They must have a website. See if you can do a search on the class of ’82. You still haven’t answered my question, Mulder.”

I’m Googling San Diego High School as I listen to the coffee perk through the phone.

“What question?”

I hear another heavy sigh in my ear, “What brought this on at six in the morning?”

“This guy is not Mark Giltner, Scully. And if there’s something in his past that I can catch this imposter on…”

“Mulder, don’t…”

“Just hang on a minute, Scully.”

I’m scrolling frantically through the school’s web links.

“What are you doing, Mulder?” She finally snaps after some heavy irritated breathing into the phone. “Might I remind you again that you are off the case?

“Based on his file, Giltner’s had an exemplary record with the Bureau for the last five years. If you think you have something that contradicts that, Mulder, give it to me and let me work on it. We can’t go to Skinner on a hunch…”

“Damnit, Scully, will you just give me a minute?” I have the immense urge to beat on my laptop as if that would make it search any faster.

“If there’s anything bogus about his file, Skinner will find it,” she continues to ramble into my ear. “If you insist on pursuing this, you need to let him go by the book on this.”

“Skinner’s too busy covering my ass.”

My search complete I discover that Mark Giltner was quite the athlete in his school days, Varsity football and wrestling. Probably explains why Scully never heard of him. I don’t expect she was much of a sports fan back then.

“I’m sure Mr. Giltner is doing his job, Scully,” I tell her. “I’d just like some clarification as to what that job is.

“Doesn’t it bother you in the least that he showed up at just the same time as Kelley contacted us? He conveniently stops in the office when neither of us is present and then suddenly runs off to question Jason — someone he shouldn’t even have known was involved.

“He also seems to have the uncanny ability to show up in places he has no business being in at the most convenient times. When’s the last time you saw him?”

“Saturday, at the crime scene. He handed me your jacket.”

“You haven’t seen him and he hasn’t been in touch with you since then? Well, then, you can add the convenient way he can disappear to that list, too.”

Shit, the contact list for Jason was in my jacket pocket.

“Scully, where’s my jacket?”

“It went to the cleaners with that raunchy pair of bar-smelling slacks. Why?”

“The list, did you check the pockets? The list for Jason was in my breast pocket.”

“I ALWAYS check the pockets, Mulder. There wasn’t anything in them.”

“Damnit, Gil took it. He’s probably crawled back into the woodwork with it by now…”

“Mulder, please stop this!” Scully snaps at me. “I’m willing to believe that this man is not who he claims to be, but we need more proof that he’s involved in this. I am not going to let you lose your job over this!”

“Like hell! You don’t get it, do you?” I yell at her. “He used me, Scully. And I’ll get you your proof. Whomever he’s working for sent him in because they knew working with us would be the fastest way to get the information they needed.

“I think they fed Kelley my files so she would contact us. They were looking for Jason and I handed him over on a silver platter.

“If you won’t believe me, Scully, then go back and look at the evidence for yourself. Look at what’s happened over the past few days. I’ll prove it to all of you.”

* * *

Office of The Lone Gunman

Washington, D.C.

“Hey, Mulder,” Frohike hails, ushering me into the Gunmen’s sanctum. “Heard you pulled a Harry Callahan on old Skinner.”

I smile despite my own black mood and the gravity of the situation. Leave it to Frohike to inject an irreverent note of sanity into the proceedings.

“Not sure it took. Besides, Clint tossed his badge into the river after ventilating Andrew Robinson. I threw mine at Skinner with a not-ungirl-like flourish, and it boomeranged back to Scully.”

“Gotta love that crazy crypto-fascist. Dirty Harry, I mean, not Skinner. C’mon in, think we got a few slices of jalapeno-and-anchovy left.”

“Youch, thanks for the heads up,” I tell him, wincing at the thought. “I’ll call the EPA SWAT squad. Got anything new?”

Langly’s straggly locks appear from behind his monitor. “Guess who’s been feeding Nature’s Best some organic, sustainable UPC data? Intel about Natural Energy bar sales?”

I frown. “I had a private lab I trust — Chuck Burks recommended it — run a couple dozen bars through the mill. Nothing but good, wholesome grain, vitamins and micronutrients.”

“Ugh,” Frohike grunts, snagging a slice of rapidly desiccating pizza from a box nearby.

Then it hits home.

“Unless Renford and the other fitness freaks got into the special reserve,” I suggest. “Intermedia IDs Nature’s Best’s preferred customers — the real power bar addicts — and Nature’s Best solicits them to try something new and improved.

“Ponce de Leon’s fountain in one dry block of forage. Of course, they jump on it like Minutemen on an illegal.”

Langly nods as if I’m not nearly the moron he’d presumed. “I told you I couldn’t get past Intermedia’s firewalls. Same was true for Nature’s Best.

“But I managed to hack into a few of the ‘preferred customers” hard drives and plant a trojan. Their mail was protected, but one cautious consumer in Maine cut-and-pasted an e-mail from Nature’s Best into Word, probably to check out the company, the offer.

“This new and improved bar was supposed to contain 10 times the antioxidant power of the original, boost metabolism three times, and promote healthy ‘gut flora,’ whatever that is.

“They wanted a sampling of ‘exceptionally physically educated consumers’ to test-drive the product before it hit the market. I checked the return addy on the invitation, traced it back into a black hole.”

The clouds are reforming over my mood. “Gut flora help the human digestive tract break down carbohydrates and other compounds. They’re bacteria.

“And I’m gonna guess the good folks at Nature’s Best — i.e., Katsuhiru — planted their own little trojan.”

* * *

Georgetown

3:40 p.m.

As I pull down the alley, I notice a black SUV parked behind our townhouse that I don’t recognize.

Driving on by, I notice the back gate is also unlatched and wage a silent war with myself on the intelligence of investigating this on my own.

As usual, my reckless side prevails and I pull into the first available space I can find and start to get out of my car.

As I turn towards the house, I see Gil come back through the gate and carefully throw the latch. I draw my weapon. “Hold it right there, Gil!”

He freezes and looks in my direction and then makes a beeline for the SUV before I’m even two steps from my car, firing it up and pulling out.

The idiot barely misses me, forcing me to jump back as he flies past.

Dammit!

It takes me a second or two to get back in my car and peel off after him, frantically dialing Scully’s cell in the process.

I catch up with him at the end of the alley when he stops for traffic but he pulls out to the right almost immediately.

I follow him, not even stopping to check for oncoming traffic myself. Tires screech behind me and I can almost hear the driver cursing at me.

“Scully.” The sound of her voice is music to my ears.

“Where are you?!”

“In Skinner’s office — I’m about to confess to him that I think you’re right about Gil. What was that?” She must hear the tires screech.

“Shit!”

“Mulder?”

Gil takes an unexpected hard left at the next intersection just as the light turns red. I stay on his tail swerving around a group of college students as they step off the curb in front of me.

I can’t do this one-handed and hit the speaker button and drop the phone on the seat beside me.

Why don’t FBI agents have those neat little magnetic flashing lights like Starsky and Hutch used to have?

“Scully! Can you still hear me?”

“Mulder! Yes, what the hell is going on?”

“I just caught Gil making an unexpected stop at our house. Have Skinner send a team over there and check it out!”

“Our house? Where are you?”

“Pretending I’m Steve McQueen. Chasing Gil through Georgetown!”

I get air at the top of the hill and when the car bottoms out my head hits the roof liner and I feel the impact travel all the way down my spine.

I’ve probably blown the shocks but I don’t give a damn. I want this son of a bitch so bad I don’t care if I’m driving on the rims.

We make another turn and head across the Key Bridge and on to GW.

“Mulder! Mulder, answer me!”

“We’re on GW heading south Scully. I could use some back-up here!”

“Mulder! Are you insane?”

More like lucky.

It’s the middle of the afternoon and most of the governments’ finest are still surfing You-Tube from the comfort of their own cubicles.

He takes the ramp to I 395 and I have to cut off some gray-haired woman in her Beemer to follow him.

It takes a few minutes for me to pick him up again as I watch his over-sized load of tin from Detroit weaves through traffic ahead of me.

It’s got government plates but I’m sure, just like him, they’re bogus.

I keep on his tail until we get ahead of the congestion and then I accelerate until I’m almost door to door with him. He might be bigger but I guarantee you, I’m faster.

The muzzle of a gun in his open window registers in my brain just a second too late. My passenger window shatters as I try and swerve away from him and I actually hear the bullet whiz past my head before it shatters the window behind me on its way out.

My phone has grown silent and I hope that’s an indication that Scully and Skinner and a host of Virginia’s finest are lurking somewhere back there behind us and not that I forgot to charge it again.

I wonder what the possibility is that I could blow out a tire or two on this urban assault vehicle Gil is driving?

If I remember correctly, that didn’t work too well on an RV a few years back, and that thing was traveling in a circle. I never was very good at moving targets.

My next car is going to be big and black so I blend in with all the other government types who use these roads.

He can’t miss me in this damn little yellow car and it’s ruining my element of surprise.

We hit 95 and, once again, Gil takes the south ramp.

Civilization has thinned out a little bit here and it occurs to me that I need to put this chase to an end before we’re back in suburbia and I end up chasing him down residential streets again.

We’re already going 80 and I ease down on the accelerator until the needle is just on the high side of 90 and pull up along side him. The whole car shakes underneath me, so much for the alignment.

The back end of a Yellow Freight truck looms into view in front of me and I’m quickly running out of time as we gain on it.

I do the only thing I can think of to do at the moment and swerve into Gil’s lane between the back end of the truck and the front end of his SUV.

I flash my lights hoping he’ll fall for the old trick and slow down but the next thing I know, my left rear tire explodes and the steering wheel jerks out of my hands.

I squeeze the wheel and try and turn the car back in the other direction but, at this speed, everything is happening too fast.

Before I know it, I’m face to face with the grill of a Peterbilt and trying to keep myself from wetting my pants.

I hear the air brakes and crunching gears and then my rack and pinion responds and I’m spinning in the other direction, back into Gil’s lane, off the front of the SUV and on into the guard rail.

As I pry my face from the exploded air bag and cough out the dust, I see the back end of Gil’s SUV backing towards me on the shoulder — fast.

He can’t possibly be coming to see if I’m okay. He stops a few feet from the crumpled front end of my car and sits.

It’s hard to see through the lingering dust and the SUV’s tinted windows, but I think he’s on the phone. I’m certain he’s not calling the police either, but I hear sirens in the distance.

I don’t even wait to stop shaking before I get out of the car. With my gun drawn I walk up along side the SUV, hoping to stay in Gil’s blind spot.

His window is still open.

Without even thinking, I reach in and grab the collar of his jacket and shove the muzzle of my gun under his chin. “Who are you, you son of a bitch?! Who sent you?” I thrust him back against the headrest, “What were you doing in my house? I want to know who you’re working for and I want to know it now!”

He doesn’t answer, lashing out for my gun and forcing me to let go of him.

We wrestle through the window until I begin to feel the vehicle moving away from me.

He’s trying to pull back out into traffic. “It’s about time you figured out who you’re working for, Mulder!”

It’s at this moment that I do possibly the dumbest thing I have ever done. I reach up and grab the roof rack and climb onto the running board, my gun flying from my hand and bouncing onto the blacktop behind us as he accelerates back onto the road.

Shit!

I grab the doorframe with my left hand as he swerves back and forth into the outside lane in an attempt to throw me off.

If I let go now, I’m dead.

I hope he doesn’t decide to open his door, in which case I’ll be a hood ornament on the car behind us, whose driver is frantically blowing their horn.

Yes, Scully, I am insane.

The wind whips at my jacket and my hair is plastered to my head. I try and reach through the open window to grab the wheel but he thrusts his elbow out and catches me in the cheekbone.

Tears fill my right eye from the pain. A moment later he swerves in front of another semi, across two lanes and down the ramp into Woodbridge and onto Richmond Highway.

I lose my grip on the roof rack when we make the turn and grab frantically for the doorframe with my left hand.

With all my weight on my left arm, I feel a pop.

Pain radiates across my chest and back and down my arm. It takes my breath away with the intensity.

He opens the door in a final attempt to dislodge his unwanted cargo but I swing back and then somehow vault through the opening and into the seat with him.

My foot catches him in the face, but without the use of my left arm, I can’t out-wrestle him. He pins me against the steering wheel with his hand shoved under my chin, I gasp for air.

The vehicle veers hard to the right and bounces several times over the curb before the front end goes straight up in the air as we hit the concrete bridge abutment.

With nothing to grab onto on the way down, I’m thrown from the open door when the vehicle lands hard on the slope on the other side.

It careens down the hill on two wheels until the front end makes contact with a fallen tree, launching it into the air once again until if finally comes to rest, with a resounding boom, against a huge tree.

Pulling myself upright, I stagger down the hill after it. I can hear sirens growing louder in the distance but there isn’t time to wait for help.

I need Gil.

There doesn’t appear to be any movement from inside the vehicle, but the smell of gasoline is overpowering.

When I get within a few feet I can see Gil slumped over the steering wheel.

The engine is no longer running, but I can hear a clicking sound coming from under what is left of the hood. I’m acutely aware that at any moment the whole thing could burst into flames.

I try yelling at him but there is no response.

I yank my jacket off and toss it behind me. Pain radiates from my shoulder across my back taking my breath away.

Just as I’m about to open the door, the inevitable happens.

Flames erupt from the crumpled engine and lap up from the wheel well. I jump back; the overwhelming fear from my childhood paralyzes me once again.

The sirens I hear won’t be the fire department.

As the flames spread underneath the vehicle, I realize that the only way to get him out before the entire vehicle is consumed is if *I* pull him out.

I feel myself holding my breath. The heat is incredibly intense.

The sirens have gone silent and I can hear car doors slamming from the road above me.

As I attempt to get closer again I can see flames start to lick from under the dash.

“Mulder, STOP!!” Scully’s voice bellows from the bridge above.

“Mulder! Get the hell out of there! That’s an order!” Skinner’s voice booms from the hillside behind me.

“NO! Giltner’s the answer to this! We need him!”

“It’s not worth your life!” He yells back to me.

“It’s not just MY life!”

I watch him corral Scully with both arms as she tries to charge towards me.

Suddenly, the left front tire explodes from the heat and the SUV lurches; the heat scorches my arms and face. I pace back and forth, trying to find a way to get to Gil through the flames.

Unexpectedly, something strong and solid wraps itself around my midsection.

“Mulder! What the hell are you doing?” Skinner yells angrily into my right ear. “Get the hell away from there!”

I try and wrestle myself from his grasp. “Dammit, let me go! Giltner’s a key in all this!”

“And you can’t prove that if you’re dead!”

As I finally pull away from him, he grabs my left arm in an attempt to pull me back.

I feel the bones in my shoulder grate together and pain shoots through my shoulder and across my chest so intense it drops me to the ground. Tears fill my eyes.

Next thing I know, I’m being hauled backwards and away from the flames.

Skinner dumps me on the ground. I’m coughing and gasping for air. My exposed skin suddenly feels chilled and I shiver uncontrollably.

As my vision clears, two large polished shoes come into my view, and I look up at a seething Walter Skinner.

Scully is at my side then, I see the compassion in her face as she helps me into a sitting position. But then her demeanor changes almost instantly. “Jesus, Mulder!”

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Her hands are on my shoulders as she wraps a blanket around me and she shakes me hard. “You could have died!”

I want to scream from the pain that radiates through my left arm with the action, and I pull it tightly against my side shaking from the cold and probably shock.

The SUV is still in flames. “Gil, where’s Gil?” I yell at no one in particular.

“They’ll get him out of the car Mulder, let it go.”

“No, dammit! Who? Where’s the fucking fire department?”

The SUV is wracked by another explosion. This one envelopes the whole vehicle in an enormous ball of flame.

I close my eyes.

Fuck.

Someone wraps another blanket around me and I open my eyes again to find Scully fussing over me with shaking hands.

“How — did — you find….?”

“Everyone on I95 was calling the Highway Patrol, it wasn’t hard. What the hell were you thinking?”

She is livid but her eyes are filled with tears and I find I can’t meet her accusing gaze. I’m shivering harder now. I try and pull the blanket tighter around me.

“No, Mulder, let me see.” I let her ease the blanket away from my arms and I can’t stop the shaking as she gently examines the reddened skin on my forearms. I know my face must be just as red.

“Christ!” I hiss when she moves my left arm. “I think it’s dislocated.” I tell her in apology at her startled look.

“We need some help down here!” I hear Skinner yell behind us.

A few minutes later, the EMTs are swarming all over me. I search out Skinner in a vain attempt to distract myself from their ministrations.

“Where the hell is the fire department?”

* * *

X-Files Office

3 Days Later

I don’t know what drugs they gave Scully at the hospital Friday morning when they finally booted me out of there, but whatever they were kept me oblivious to the happenings of the past two days.

I have the sneaking suspicion Scully wanted it that way.

I won’t say our house had an unusual chill to it, but I do know that I have been on her shit list since this whole affair with Jason started.

I awakened this morning a new man — or at least one that has the desire to approach things in a more — civil manner.

Thanks to Skinner, my attempt to fry myself in the car fire didn’t amount to anything more than a few scorch marks.

My shoulder however, has left me on desk duty for a few weeks.

So far, Scully hasn’t chastised me for depositing that ever-fashionable blue sling on top of the desk as soon as we walked into the office. I’ve only been checking email, how strenuous can that be?

This is my ‘official’ email, the one that’s filled with messages from Uncle Sam on his latest plan for fucking up my retirement. I give up on that in short order and log into an account I hope will be a little more interesting.

When the page opens up I’m faced with something that takes me right back to where this all started over a week ago, an email from Kelley.

By the headers I can tell the message has been forwarded several times which makes me suspicious of its origin.

Neither Scully nor I have been able to contact Kelley for over three days.

Considering the circumstances, we’re both worried. “Scully, come here…”

As she leans over my shoulder, I read the text out loud.

AGENT MULDER,

I KNOW YOU PUT YOUR JOB AND EVEN YOUR LIFE IN JEOPARDY TO HELP JASON AND ME, AND FOR THAT I AM GRATEFUL. I DON’T THINK ANY OF US ANTICIPATED THE OUTCOME OF THE EVENTS I PUT INTO MOTION THE DAY I MET YOU.

I MISS JASON TERRIBLY BUT PLEASE DON’T FEEL THAT I HOLD YOU IN ANY WAY RESPONSIBLE FOR HIS DEATH. I REALIZE NOW THAT WE WERE DEALING WITH FORCES BEYOND ANY OF OUR CONTROL.

JASON BELIEVED HE WAS DOING THE RIGHT THING, MR. MULDER. HE WAS ONE OF THESE RARE IDEALISTIC SOULS WHO FEEL THE NEED TO TAKE IT UPON THEMSELVES TO RIGHT THE WRONGS OF THE WORLD.

I THINK YOU AND HE ARE A LOT ALIKE. PLEASE BE CAREFUL MR. MULDER AND TAKE CARE OF AGENT SCULLY, TOO.

It sounds too much like a warning. Scully squeezes my shoulder. “Do you want to file a missing person’s report on her?”

“We don’t really know that she’s missing,” I answer her with a sigh. “I don’t dare contact the Senator…”

“Mind if I come in?” We both jump at Skinner’s deep voice and the accompanying knock.

Oh boy, here it comes.

“Good morning, Sir.” Scully has the sense to invite the man in as he makes his way across the floor to stand right in front of my desk.

I just sit here, dumbfounded that we’ve only been here an hour, and he’s wasted no time in coming down here to warn me not to let the door hit me in the ass on the way out.

“I — ah, I came down here to tell you that I owe you an apology.” He reaches into his pocket for a handkerchief, removing his glasses with the other hand and begins to clean them in what I take is an effort to find something to do with his hands.

It reminds me of the time he came down here in response to that resignation letter I sent him while Scully lay comatose in Northeast Georgetown’s ICU.

“For what?” I don’t know what else to say to the man, he’s caught me completely off-guard.

“I suppose you know that there was no trace of a body in the wreckage of the SUV. There were reports that Giltner was seen being helped from the vehicle, but no one seems to know how he left the area, and a search of local morgue and hospital records didn’t turn up anything.”

“Imagine that,” I respond blandly. “I don’t suppose anything else was recovered?”

Skinner just bites his lower lip and shakes his head with a ‘no’. Of course not, even if there were something, we’d never see it.

“Mulder, the fire burned so hot there would have been nothing left to find,” Scully says, the exasperation evident in her voice, her tone having that ‘here we go again’ ring to it.

“Something’s not right. I think someone ignited that vehicle, Scully,” I tell my partner, not really surprised. “To cover up or destroy whatever he took from the lab. Dead or alive, either way, I’ll guarantee you, you won’t find him.”

“Actually Mulder, we did find him.” Skinner’s comment is followed by a noticeable wince. “I almost called you last night. I was working on the information you gave me and contacted Giltner’s AIC at the Frisco office.

“He called late yesterday to tell me that the body of the *real* Agent Giltner was found in the trunk of his car in the parking garage at Frisco International.

“The coroner estimated he’d been dead about a week.” Skinner studies my face as I return the wince. “I think it’s safe to assume that you were right about the identity of the agent working here…”

“He was murdered before he left the city?” Scully asks.

“There was obviously a plan in place here, agents. This man *wasn’t* Giltner.”

Skinner turns away from us and surveys the office, as if he’s hoping the answers to life’s deepest mysteries will be found here.

*Trust me Skinman,*, I think to myself. *They’re not here.*

They weren’t in my apartment either despite the number 42 on the door.

To this day, I wonder if that was some cruel twist of fate that the only apartment vacant in my building at the time I went looking matched Deep Thought’s answer to the Great Question — of Life, the Universe and Everything.

Maybe I was hoping my answers would be painted all over the walls.

“What I’m trying to tell you is that I’m sorry for not trusting your judgment, Mulder.” Skinner glances at Scully and then back at me. “I’m sure you’re aware your actions since you’ve returned to the field have been under some intense scrutiny.

“I’m sorry for being a part of that, but I’m sure you also understand that I have to continue to take a neutral stand or I can’t be of any help to either of you.”

“‘The enemy of my enemy is my friend.'” I tell him thoughtfully. “A very smart man once told me that if I kept digging through these files,” I motion to the cabinets behind Scully and me. “That the powers that be would bury me.

“The fact that I’m still here is evidence of that friendship. You were just following orders, Sir.” Scully has made that point to me on several occasions and she’s right. “Something I don’t do very well. Jason’s death was my fault as much as it was yours.”

He doesn’t know it, but I’m staring at a screen full of names and adding an ‘X’ next to Jason’s name. “I guess the question is — at what point do the casualties of war get to be too many?”

And no one has more blood on their hands than myself.

“One is too many, Agent Mulder. There has to be a way to stop this.” He turns and takes a few steps towards the door and then stops, turning back around to face me. “And as for that stunt you pulled on I95 — what the hell were you thinking?” His expression is that of utter disbelief.

I don’t believe I did it either, but I had my reasons.

Something Marita said to me as she lay dying on the floor of a cold Arizona laboratory two summers ago sits at the edge of my consciousness.

She insisted then that I was the one man who could change the future.

There might have been a time in my life when I thought that myself, that I could save the world, one person at a time.

In fact, I spent the better part of my first few years on the X-Files digging through the past in hopes that it would change my own future.

It almost killed me.

What I uncovered in that search led me to understand that I wasn’t the only one who had been the victim of some unearthly plot, and I selfishly made it my job to put to an end to the elaborate conspiracy against the American people I was certain existed.

But, if there is anything I’ve learned in my partnership with Scully, it’s just the opposite.

The fate of the world is *not* in my hands.

What happened to Jason in the lobby of a Georgetown University science building is proof of that.

*Mulder my man, you have been a fool.*

And if a fool who believes in his folly does, indeed, become wise, I am a genius.

The conspiracy is out there.

Scully and I have been reluctant participants in it more times than I care to remember, and if we step back and let fate or whatever unknown force one cares to believe in guide our course, then we continue to be as much a part of it as those who are behind it.

Faith can bring a person to move mountains but it can also be a crutch.

We all need to take responsibility for our own actions, and my exemption from that is no greater than anyone else’s.

Man must save man.

Skinner is still standing in front of the desk, courteous enough to let me finish this debate within myself before I answer his question.

I glance at Scully as if asking for approval. Her eyes tell me to go on…

“What I’ve always been thinking, Sir.” I get up from my chair to meet him eye to eye. “I just want it all to stop.” I glance away from him for a moment and my eyes meet Scully’s again before I turn back to Skinner to finish my thought.

“Only I’m tired, tired of chasing my tail for the past ten years. I’m tired of the bullshit and the deceit and obfuscation.

“And I’m tired of taking the risks and always coming up with nothing. I may not have the faith in God that Scully has,” I flash a glance in my partner’s direction again. “But I’m pretty damn sure that the final objective of creation was not so we could evolve into beings that have no greater purpose than to find ways to eliminate one another. And I’m also pretty damn sure I’m not the only one who feels that way.

“All I need is one little ounce of proof. One fucking little piece of tangible evidence…” I shake my fist in front of Skinner’s face, my fingers barely an inch apart. “That ties everything Scully and I have witnessed or been an unwilling part of…

“There’s got to be a way to make it all stop. To find a way to get to these men and make them accountable for what they’ve done — to me — to Scully — to these people…” I wave at my monitor. “To everyone who’s been an unwilling participant in a war they don’t even know exists.”

I watch him mull over my words. Yep, Skinman, even God-like possession hasn’t changed me.

“Three years ago, I stood before a Senate subcommittee and testified in an investigation into allegations that the government was involved in the manufacturing and testing of a vaccine designed to treat a virus they wouldn’t even acknowledge existed.

“That investigation came to a stand still because of lack of evidence. I think what we had here was evidence of the same thing but with an altogether different agenda.”

I turn to look at Scully again and am momentarily struck by the way time has changed her. I remember her child-like appearance when we first met and admire the beautiful woman I’ve watched her turn into.

Those years should mean something for both of us.

“I’d just like to think that some day when you and I walk out of here we’ve actually accomplished something.”

Skinner nods ever so slightly then turns to Scully after a long pause. “There’s something else I want you to know. Nature’s Best has begun a silent recall of all lots of their Natural Energy bars. They’re telling the media the product’s being discontinued — that they’re looking at ‘newer and improved health delivery systems’.”

I shudder slightly at what I imagine to be a bit of pointed irony on Katsuhiru’s part.

I’d think twice before I snarfed another soy-and-alfalfa bar or chugged another jug of grape-flavored electrolyte-enhancing horse piss.

As it is, I try not to ponder why Nature’s Best didn’t simply let their “regular” bars languish on the clearance shelf with the past-its-date whey protein…

I start to protest, to map out our next move, whatever that might be.

Frohike and the guys have established a trail, or at least the markers indicating that trail.

With time, resources, certainly they could illuminate the black hole where the trail ended…

This DNA link Scully uncovered makes me wonder how far whoever is behind this will go to achieve their goal. She made a point to mention Ireland in the conversation and yet she refuses to find out if either of us could be at risk.

I could find out myself, a few strands of red hair from the brush on the bathroom sink…

I have spent years looking for the proof of alien life on this planet. And now with this information I’m beginning to think that we won’t find it in the discovery of my little gray men but instead in ourselves, locked inside the tiniest of cells.

“Ah,” I falter instead. “Thanks. I mean, for having my back with Giltner and everything. I know sometimes, I may seem kind of…”

“Impulsive?” Skinner interjects. His expression is unreadable. “Impetuous? Perhaps a little reckless at times? I’m sure you’ll sort that out, Agent Mulder. In the meantime, this is something that I should have expressed months ago. It’s good to have you back on board.”

I start to add something. I don’t know what. To explain? To seek counsel? Help?

“That’s all, Agent,” Skinner murmurs with a curt nod before he turns and leaves the office.

Summarily dismissed, I return to the world — the world as it is.

Another dead end, another trail terminating in a 40-foot granite wall.

Again, I feel disoriented, struggling for direction.

I need a compass.

She’s standing right beside me.

* * *

Sedona, Arizona

6 Months Later

Sweat running in rivulets down her high, chiseled cheekbones, Katie marveled as Ted, dry and seemingly unfatigued, rested his spine against the face of the mesa, staring meditatively out over the desert landscape.

He’d always been fit — it’s what had first attracted her to the young grad student — but somehow, he’d found a deep new wellspring of health and vigor.

Ted had slowed the pace of his ascent only to accommodate her, and he’d seemed slightly impatient at her panting and grunting as she navigated the rock façade.

“Here,” Ted called, breaking suddenly into a broad grin and extending a bottle of fluorescent energy juice. Katie guzzled greedily as he burrowed into his pack and pulled out a small white parcel.

“Got one for me?” she inquired.

He ripped the package open with his teeth. “Last one, babe. You want it?”

Katie eyed the conglomeration of grain and nuts. “Nah. Just make me thirstier. I’ll hold out for those organic fish tacos you told me about.”

“Best in town,” Ted pledged through a mouthful of the bar. He slowed down, savoring it.

There apparently wouldn’t be any more where it had come from, not with Nature’s Best getting out of the power bar line.

They hadn’t returned his e-mails asking where he might buy more of this, well, this miracle. Ted had never felt quicker, smarter, more alive, more immortal.

He rose, adjusting his pack. “Ready to do it?”

Katie puffed her cheeks. “Jesus, already?”

Yeah, I’m ready to do it, she thought, inspecting his sculpted biceps, the tanned abs. Just wait ’til we get back to the hotel.

Ted laughed harshly. “I don’t know — think you can keep up with me?”

One look at the shock on her face and he realized she hadn’t said it aloud.

-End-

Notes: References are made in this story to past episodes of The X-Files and to the Virtual Season mythology. This story arose from my occasional need to get into Mulder’s head. My thanks to Chuck, Vickie and Nubie for all their wonderful beta assistance and especially to Martin for sticking with me on this.

One Moment In Time Part 1

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One Moment In Time

AUTHOR: Traveler & Martin Ross
FEEDBACK: Always appre-ciated.
RATING: PG-13 for a few bad words.
ARCHIVE: Two weeks exclusive to VS 14, anywhere thereafter.
SUMMARY: A series of unrelated deaths become the focal point for an investi-gation
that links a case from Mulder and Scully’s past to a possible conspiracy involving a
food contaminant. This story is told from Mulder’s POV.

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TEASER

McGarry and Tate Advertising

San Francisco, California

9:08 a.m.

Bryan Renford ripped the plain white plastic wrapper from his third bar of the day. He tore into its blend of grains, nuts, and micronutrients, and a cool sensation seeped into every crevice of his 31-year-old brain.

Bryan washed the first bite down with an enervating shot of steaming green tea.

Like everything else he put into his body, the antioxidant brew was organic, functional, and directed at staving off his too-imminent death. Without intervention, Bryan Renford expected a mere five, six decades at most. The daily run along the lakeshore, the pre- and post-work sessions at Gold’s, the rigid dietary regime…

What he didn’t know, of course, was that someone was compiling gigabytes of data on virtually every move Bryan made, every meal he prepared, every new grail he pursued in the quest for immortality.

The approach was plotted with military precision, the psychology unerring. Bryan’s single-minded focus on his every heartbeat, his every ache and pain, had made monitoring his progress effortless.

“Dude.”

An earthy stench wafted into Bryan’s workspace, and he turned instinctively.

Matt Jurasik grinned, his paunch sloshing disgustingly against the cubicle entryway. A Krispy Kreme hung from his coworker’s meaty paw, contributing a cloying saccharine sickness to the growing perfume of institutional office coffee. The pastry shit greasy crumbs onto Bryan’s oatmeal carpet.

“Hey, donuts in the breakroom,” Matt drawled. It was a joke — Bryan knew because Matt repeated it at least a few Mondays every month, and Matt knew Bryan was unwilling to subject his digestive bifidobacteria to the horrors of fried, laminated dough.

Matt affected a loose, friendly air around Bryan, but Bryan realized the puffy copy editor envied his health, his vitality, and sought every opportunity to taunt him.

Bryan hated birthdays, especially at the office. Each celebration brought another bloated layer cake, another stained box of these dough rings into his universe.

“Thanks, Matt,” Bryan chirped in his standard response. “I’ll see if I can’t break away before they’re all gone.”

“No prob.” Matt shifted, and an 11-by-17 sheet materialized in his clean hand. “You really want to run this past McGarry? ‘Cause I’m guessing this isn’t quite what he was looking for.”

Bryan spread the layout he’d finished the afternoon before on his blotter. A juicy burger, draped in bacon and American cheese, dripping with mustard and ketchup, was impaled on a tall granite gravestone. The stone was emblazoned with the legend “3.99.”

“‘You’re going to die someday,'” Matt read over Bryan’s shoulder, in a tone of incredulous amusement. “‘Why not go out with a bang and three strips of pepper bacon?’ Cute.”

“It’s in-your-face,” Bryan muttered. “The people who’d inject this wad of cholesterol into their system don’t care about their mortality. It’s like a fraternity dare — they’ll buy a bagful of this shit just to show the rest of us who’s the boss.”

“I’m misting up here, Bry,” Matt said dryly. “But despite your acute, and, frankly, misanthropic evaluation of our client’s major demographic, McGarry’s gonna blow an embolism when he sees this.”

“You don’t blow an embolism. Jesus, you’re a copy writer?”

Matt perched his flabby ass on the edge of Bryan’s desk. The graphic artist’s bifidobacteria rumbled. “Look, Bryan, buddy, I’m trying to do you a solid here. This whole health thing of yours is becoming an obsession. It’s like, you know, ODC.”

“OCD. And, no, it’s not. I’m simply trying to live long enough to see the Bush sisters in the White House.”

Matt sighed and waved his donut at the burger layout. “Worship your little religion on your day off. We all have to shake our moneymakers every once in a while, sell our soul for a few dinero.” Bryan batted a crumb from his creation; a gray stain remained. Matt sprayed sour coffee odor over Bryan’s neck. “Just suck it in and come up with something appropriate. And grab a fucking donut, OK? — be a human being for a change. I mean, look at this.”

Matt plucked the remains of Bryan’s snack bar from the desk and eyed it. “I mean, c’mon, this looks like one of those things my grandma used to hang on the side of her bird’s cage. Petey. Petey the Parakeet. Pecked at his little seed thingie all day. That’s what you remind me o… AAAAAUGGGHH…..”

Matt’s observation was cut short as Bryan’s arm arced abruptly up and his Xacto knife pierced the tender skin of Matt’s throat, puncturing his trachea. The huge man slid from the desk, fingers flailing toward his gushing wound. His eyes bulged, and his face turned cyanotic.

“Let’s see,” Bryan smiled, oblivious to the blood spraying onto his shirt. He re-rolled his layout and stood, stepping over his dying compatriot. “Let’s see what McGarry thinks. I think he’ll go for it. And if he doesn’t…”

He didn’t.

* * *

“Fuck,” Lt. Gordy Turman breathed as he staggered back against the break table. A chocolate donut jumped from the half-empty Krispy Kreme box and rolled across the beige carpet into a puddle of mingled O, A, and AB blood. The receptionist’s mangled hand seemed to reach for the cruller. “Al-Qaeda go on maneuvers here?”

The responding detective tore his eyes from McGarry, who lay on his stomach beside a potted palm his head severed in such a way as to allow him to stare blankly up at the ceiling. “The survivor – sales guy out in the hall – says it was one guy, artist named Bryan Renford.”

“Temperamental artist, I guess,” Turman swallowed, wiping a bead of sweat from his brow. He glanced around. “No APB, no sirens, so I assume he did himself?”

The detective looked away, then nodded soberly. “In here.”

Turman stepped gingerly over blood, fingers, organs, following the cop into McGarry and Tate’s staff workroom. Framed posters for past campaigns hung on the wall, spattered with crimson streaks. A man’s body was crumpled next to the worktable, his blonde head a few feet away next to a water cooler. The clotted blade of the paper cutter bolted to the edge of the table told the story.

Turman stepped around the room, glancing behind the table, next to the file cabinets. He frowned at the detective. “Ok, I give? We got the invisible man here?”

“I, um, I checked his wallet,” the detective mumbled. “And I asked them to print the handle.”

“The handle…?” The lieutenant stopped, his eyes widening. Turman turned slowly back to the paper cutter and the decapitated man. “He, he couldn’t. He didn’t…”

“He did.”

* * *

X-Files Office

8:32 a.m.

I hear the click of her heels as she leaves the elevator and when she steps into the office laden with breakfast peace offerings I can’t resist telling her that she’s late.

“I suppose you want to write me up on that.” She lays her laptop case on the corner of our work table and then turns around to offer me the coffee carrier and a paper sack that dangles precariously from her fingers. “Keep this up and I won’t stop for breakfast anymore.”

“Saving me from my own poison again?” She’s always hated my coffee. Not that she ever told me that face to face but I could tell by the pained looks I’ve gotten over the years when she’s been forced to gag it down.

I’ve survived on that coffee, Scully. Before I met you it was the only thing that kept me going when my body was way past the point of exhaustion. I think it kept me alive on more than one occasion.

Now as I watch her pop the lid off her latté and savor the rich flavor, I decide a decent cup of coffee is the least I owe her.

“No Mulder, I’m saving myself from YOUR poison. I keep thinking I can teach you to make a decent pot of coffee…” Her voice trails off as she suddenly realizes I’m not paying attention. “Why did you need to come in so early?”

I’d rolled out of our bed a little after 5:00 this morning with the excuse that I’d neglected some things from the day before that needed to get done before we had our monthly progress meeting with the Skinman. She knows I could care less about those damn meetings but she let it drop.

I’ve noticed her doing that a lot lately. She used to call me on everything, now she tends to cut me a little more slack. Either she’s softening in her ‘old age’ or she’s decided I’ve lost my mind and she might as well live with what’s left of me.

She knows I’m still having ‘issues’, things I haven’t been able to come to terms with from my trip to the dark side of the force last summer.

I still can’t shake the realization that it wasn’t me she found in that laboratory. I’d become something else and there are still times when I look in the mirror when I’m not really sure about the man I see looking back at me. I find myself wanting to keep things from her again.

Psychologist, heal thyself. I know it isn’t working, but on the other hand, it’s better than the Bureau’s alternative. I need something of my old life to pull me back, which brings me to the real reason I came in here so early this morning. When I look up, Scully is still sipping her latté waiting for an answer.

I got an email last night in one of my Hotmail accounts. One I leave attached to message boards I often frequent.

Well, I got one last night that lit the fire again, a fire that’s been nothing more than dying embers since I was returned to field duty. A hard copy lies on the desk in front of me. I’ve been running a background check on the author. I used to be good at that.

Dear Agent Mulder,

My name is Kelley Matheson. I believe you know my father’s uncle, Senator Matheson. I’ve been reading the series of articles you’ve written on the possibility of alien influence in human evolution. As a geneticist, I have found your theories fascinating. But that’s not why I am writing you.

I’m writing for a much more personal reason because, I feel you are the only one who can help.

I have a friend, his name is Jason Arman. We’re both graduate students at Georgetown. He’s a very troubled young man. Since the death of his parents several months ago, he’s become obsessed with a correlation he believes exists between their deaths and other unrelated incidents across the country.

The scary thing is, is that he’s starting to convince me of the possibility. I know how ridiculous that might sound, but I also know that you understand that it could be anything but ridiculous.

Jason doesn’t know I’ve contacted you, but if there’s any way we could get together, I’m sure I could convince him to let you look at the evidence he has gathered.

Kelley

555-887-1013

I hand Scully the paper. “Kelley’s father is Robert J. Matheson, Jr. Esq., a prominent attorney here in D.C. His father was Robert J. Matheson, Sr., brother of someone you know I once considered a confidant and friend.”

“Did you call her?”

She surprises me with the question. I’d expected to get one of her patented “Mul — der…” comments.

“Not yet,” I look up to meet her eyes and find them remarkably understanding.

“But you’re going to.”

“Of course I am. This has that certain ‘conspiracy’ flavor to it and I don’t know about you, but I’m starving.”

I watch as her eyes scan the copy of the email with a somber expression. She knows that the articles are just another method I’ve been using to purge the past from my brain.

I let her read each one before it goes to publication but she doesn’t exactly approve of the idea. I’m not exactly sure she approves of this one either.

“I don’t get the impression you’re very hungry, though.”

“I guess it depends what’s on the menu, Mulder,” she says it with a hint of a smile, but I can tell there’s a hidden meaning to her words.

“It’s very easy to get into your head, when it comes to food, Scully.” It comes out before I realize what I’ve just said. She sets the email down and then comes around the desk and leans against it, crossing her arms across her chest in a challenge.

“You say that like you’re speaking from experience, Mulder.”

We both know we’re not talking about dinner plans here, “I can’t read minds, Scully,” I look up and meet her eyes again, trying to determine if she believes me. “You don’t think, after all these years, I’ve learned to read every nuance of your body language. It’s what they pay me to do, you know.”

I don’t say anything more as she searches my face.

“I just want you to be honest with me, Mulder,” she says when she evidently accepts what she sees there. “I know what it means for you to be back here and you’ve worked so hard to be cleared for field duty. I just want to know you’ll confide in me if any of your — symptoms come back.”

“I *am* being honest with you.” Our eyes meet again.

Oh Scully, if you only knew. I hope for our sakes they never do, but if I subscribe to Scully’s theory that everything happens for a reason, I have to believe there had to be a reason for what happened to me over the past year or so. I still need to know what that is.

I suddenly notice that Scully is staring at me, waiting for me to finish the thought I’d started. I lean forward in the chair and put my hands on her hips. She’s still leaning against the desk with her arms folded across her chest. I wonder if she realizes how often she goes into that defensive posture during our conversations. “I assure you, there are nobody’s thoughts in this head anymore but mine and if that doesn’t frighten you then we’re okay.”

She pries her arms loose, reaching for me and running her fingers through the hair at my temples as I lean into her. I close my eyes and tilt my head up, rejoicing in the feel of her nails as they gently massage my scalp.

“You, I can handle,” she tells me softly. When I open my eyes I find her grinning at me.

“If I can get ahold of this gal,” I tap the copy of the email sitting on the desk. “You want to come with me?”

I watch her search my face again and then glance at the email. “Not just yet. She’s asking you, not us. If we show up together that might scare her off. If you think there’s something to this then we’ll take it to Skinner.”

I want to let out a sigh of relief. Since my return to the field, I’ve had this disturbing feeling that every agent in the Bureau is keeping an eye on me, even Scully, though for much more personal reasons.

Most would label that paranoia; I prefer to think of them as a school of shark waiting for the wise old fish to make a mistake so they can eat it. I’ve never felt the need to prove myself, until now.

* * *

Starbucks Coffee

1:40 p.m.

I realize now, as I sit here with probably fifteen or so pairs of eyes glued to the back of my skull, that walking in here in my designer suit was probably not a good thing. In this neighborhood my attire and neatly cropped hair are screaming ‘government issue.’ This Starbucks sits on a corner just opposite the college and most of its customers spend their day in classes there. I should have gone home and gotten comfortable.

A young, dark-haired woman stops to glance up and down the street before she enters the coffee shop. Stepping inside, she scans the shop and, after a few seconds, her eyes catch mine and she makes her way through the tables. “Agent Mulder?”

“Isn’t it obvious?” I give her a weak smile acknowledging my stupidity and rise, motioning for her to sit down. Right now I wish we’d met in a bar because I could use something stronger than coffee.

“Can I get you something to drink?”

She plops her bag and purse on the floor and glances quickly at the list of coffees on the board above the counter. “A White Chocolate Mocha would be fine.”

I wince and make my way to the counter. While I wait for the drinks I watch her out of the corner of my eye. She looks uncomfortable, like she’s about to bolt.

Thankfully, the wait isn’t long and when I sit back down across from her she eyes the Venti that’s sitting in front of me. It’s a perfect match for the empty one already on the table. “I missed breakfast.” I tell her with a shrug.

“And lunch evidently…”

“So,” I acknowledge with a closed-lipped grin. “Tell me about your friend.”

“I met Jason when he transferred to Georgetown to complete his masters in Biotechnology,” she begins to tell me, glancing nervously around the coffee shop. “He moved here from Wisconsin when both his parents and several co-workers died in a terrible incident at a meat processing plant in Delta Glen. A place I think you may be familiar with, Mr. Mulder.” She takes a sip of her mocha and gives me a meaningful look.

The only case I can remember that involved a processing plant was in Dudley, Arkansas. To this day I still won’t eat anything from the Colonel.

And then it dawns on me, it was in Delta Glen that Scully and I shared probably the best ribs I’ve ever had. It sounds to me like she should be contacting the FDA instead of us. “What kind of incident? How many workers were involved?”

“Five. The witnesses said that Jason’s father killed his mother and then three other co-workers with a bone saw before using it on himself. Jason doesn’t believe it. His parents were anti-violent, in fact, they lived a very — what you would call, natural lifestyle. He couldn’t get the local police to look into it and they closed the case, labeling it a murder-suicide.

Paula Gray attacked her supervisor with a knife the day we arrived in Dudley. Scully later attributed her actions to something called Creutzfeldt-Jacob disease. I get the feeling this could be something similar.

“But Jason believes otherwise?”

“Yes, all the incidents that Jason feels are related to his parents’ deaths involve people who used to be members of an organization called the Church of the Red Museum.”

My pulse starts to race a little faster when she mentions the Church. “But the Church no longer exists.”

“No, not in an organized sense it doesn’t. After it was disbanded at the end of your investigation, many of the members left the area. These five members were the only ones who had remained. Jason’s been trying to convince me that these deaths were not accidental, that for some reason, someone is targeting the former members.”

“You sound like you don’t agree, and yet you stated in your email that he’s starting to convince you.”

“I’m sure you know about this horrific incident in California where a man murdered several of his co-workers before killing himself?”

“Happens all the time at the Post Office; what makes him think there’s a correlation?”

“Jason knew Bryan Renford,” she says with a sigh.” Both Jason’s family and Bryan’s family were members of the Church.”

She doesn’t have to say anything more and she knows it. As we’ve been sitting here I’ve been mentally paging through the case notes.

The case back in ’94 revolved around the deaths of local teens that had been used as test subjects in what turned out to be the beginning of a bizarre experiment to create human-alien hybrids.

At the time, Scully and I believed that the members of the Church were the control group, but what if that wasn’t the case?

“Why would Jason believe the members of the Church are being targeted?”

She doesn’t answer me directly, momentarily playing with the stirrer from her coffee while she glances out the window. “These articles you’ve written, where did the research for them come from?”

The question catches me off-guard as she turns back to face me.

“I mean there has been a lot of information published on the subject of human evolution, very little of which mentions alien intervention. You were speaking from experience in your articles, weren’t you?”

I frown at her assumptions and she wraps her fingers around her cup as if she were trying to warm them.

“Plato, Nostradamus, Edgar Cayce, and a myriad of other visionary philosophers were thought of as freaks by their peers…” She pauses momentarily and it takes a minute for what she is implying to sink in.

“Wait a minute, Kelley.” I put my hands up in a ‘stop the presses’ motion. “I haven’t made any predictions about anything.”

“No, but you’re plagued by one; so is Jason.”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” I snap. Kelley is starting to irritate me with this suddenly cryptic conversation.

Aside from the fact that her comment is a little too personal, I just wish she’d get to the point of all this, because the two gallons of coffee I’ve consumed have made their way through my system and are begging for release.

“This information isn’t something you’ve spent months, even years, researching is it? It’s something you just know — because you’ve experienced it all yourself. You don’t think you’re the only one, do you?” When she asks me the question I find I already know the answer. Scully and I have been investigating the others for years.

I pull my eyes away from her intense gaze and study the surface of my coffee. “You — you mentioned in your email that you study genetics…” Suddenly, what she just asked me sinks in, “One what?”

“Hybridized human.”

I unconsciously raise my eyebrows. It’s an interesting term and I let it roll around in my brain for a second or two. It’s beneficial when you’re talking about flowers or tomatoes, but I’m not sure I like the idea in humans, especially when I’m the human.

“It’s been going on for decades, Mr. Mulder,” is her answer to my somewhat bewildered look. “Hitler and his quest for a Master Race, our country’s search for a superior soldier through the Litchfield experiments. You know all this, so why do you look at me like that?”

Because I wasn’t aware that my genetics were common knowledge, and I find it very disturbing that my PCR scans might be floating around on the web.

I glance around the coffee shop and lower my voice, “Look, I thought we were discussing your friend here. You said he had evidence…” Before I realize what I’m doing, I reach across the table and grab her left wrist.

“But first — I’d like to know — what you know about me,” I hiss, meeting her gaze once again.

She studies my hand wrapped around her wrist and I let her go. “To answer your question, yes, I’m working on my Doctorate at Georgetown. Several years ago, some encrypted data was sent to the National Institute of Health that described advanced human genetics.

It got filed away because at the time no one even understood what it was — until someone brought the files to my attention. You see, my grandmother is Navajo so it didn’t take me long to recognize the characters. It’s taken some time to decipher it, but I’m beginning to understand that the information in those files relates to you.”

“Recently brought to your attention?” I don’t know whether to be worried or furious that she has gained access to this information.

Scully was never certain that she had deleted the files she found on Kritschgau’s laptop. This makes me very uncomfortable. “By whom?” I ask her, unable to keep the fury out of my voice.

“I know how you must feel.” She flattens her palm against her chest. “And I’m sorry, but it was Jason. He was the one who showed me the articles. He said your theories were similar to those of the man who founded the Church, a man named Richard Odin. You knew my father’s uncle, Senator Matheson?”

I nod almost imperceptivity.

“There was a time when he was a great help to your investigations into the paranormal and — other things, am I right?”

“Go on.”

“‘They,’ whomever THEY are, got to him eventually; they get to everyone who draws objection or questions the reasoning behind this madness. He can’t help you directly without drawing attention to himself, Agent Mulder; but there are ways he can be of help to the situation.”

“What ‘situation’ are you referring to here?” The conversation has turned a complete one-eighty and I’m not sure if she’s talking about the deaths or this hybridization project that she seems to know so much about.

“A life-and-death situation, Agent Mulder. Jason has started to compile a directory of the Church members. Besides Bryan, his parents and the other three co-workers at the plant, there have been other deaths in the last five months. Jason’s afraid he’s on the list.”

Five months ago — about the time I returned to the human race I think to myself. I really have no way of knowing if one event led to the other.

I search her face, trying to determine if I’m being conned. I can verify this information myself when I get back to the Bureau.

“When Jason told me about the Red Museum and what happened back in Delta Glen, I started to wonder if there was any connection between those experiments and the information I was pulling from those encrypted files. Mr. Mulder.” Her eyes scan the shop again. “You’re familiar with the term ‘gene therapy’?”

“Yes, I’m following you, go on.”

“The gene codes I’ve been examining contain proteins that are not known to exist here on earth — in other words they’re extraterrestrial…”

She pauses to study my face for any hint of disbelief. “I think what’s been happening here is an attempt to create a human-alien hybrid. And I think they’ve been successful,” she finishes her statement by looking pointedly at me.

I must be as white as a sheet because I certainly feel as cold as ice. It isn’t that the idea hasn’t been bantered around, but it’s the thought that someone outside my little circle of friends has come up with the possibility…

“Agent Mulder?” A warm hand on my arm draws me back. “The Senator admires you. For your tenacity and for the risks you’re willing to take that his position has always prevented him from doing himself. I’m sure by now you’ve probably realized that it was he who funneled those encrypted files to me, and I’m sure from your past association with him you know he had a very good reason for doing so.”

“He was a great help to me in my early investigations into the paranormal, Kelley, but I think you know his continued association with me probably would have led to his death.”

Actually, the last contact I had with the Senator turned out to be a very unpleasant one. He warned me then that my continued pursuit of the men who created these projects would probably get me killed.

Ah, hell, what else is new? It was Skinner’s unwillingness to allow Scully and me to continue the investigation at the time that probably saved both our lives.

Her expression goes from earnest to sadness. “Jason and I don’t want anymore people to die. We need your help, Agent Mulder.”

I lean back in the chair and glance quickly out the window. “I don’t understand what you want from me.”

“I told you about this directory that we’ve compiled. We need help in locating these people. With your Bureau resources it would go much faster.”

I toss the thought around in my head. I’ve been used in the past. The possibility exists that locating these people would have just the opposite result. It could turn out to be a hit list. “What happens when you find them?”

“We’re not entirely sure, something like a witness protection program perhaps,” she looks at me hopefully. “There has to be a way to protect them.”

“I want to meet Jason.” It occurs to me that there might not even be a Jason and that all this is just an elaborate setup. First, I want to know the reason Jason feels the Church members are being targeted.

Kelley’s relationship to Matheson gives me pause. The last time I saw the Senator, we didn’t exactly agree over the merits of questionable Senate resolution. In the end, I realized Senator Matheson was no longer my friend.

“I — I don’t know if he would agree to that.” Kelley suddenly becomes very distant.

“Well then, you’re going to have to go find another government stooge you can con into working with you.” I get up from the table and grab my two empty coffee cups. The caffeine is now racing through my bloodstream and I need to move.

I push the chair back with a little more zeal than I’d intended and it makes a loud noise as the legs scrape on the tiled floor. Kelley jumps at the noise. I can feel all those eyes on me once again.

“Look, you know how to get ahold of me,” I tell her, taking out a business card and my pen and jotting our home phone number on the back of it. “Talk to your friend. I understand his reluctance, but if he wants to meet me and discuss this, my partner and I will make some arrangements.”

* * *

My phone rings as soon as I hit the pavement. I don’t even have to look at the caller ID to know it’s Scully. I swear the woman is psychic.

“Mulder, where are you?” The question has a slightly annoyed tone to it. Now what did I do?

“Walking off the caffeine high, what’s up?”

“Skinner was here looking for you,” she sighs. “He just came back from the annual budget meeting.”

“And?” The wind has picked up and I have to press the phone close to my ear to hear her. I cross the street almost without looking, heading for home.

“He said he had some news that concerned both of us and he wanted to know where the hell you were.”

“Well, that could be good news or bad news, I guess. Tell him — never mind. I’ll call him, you’ve done your dirty work for today.”

“You haven’t answered my question.”

“Home — walking up our front steps actually, I was going change and head over to the guys’. I need them to dig up some information for me. I think I might be on to something.” There’s a silence on the other end of the line for longer than I would like before she finally speaks.

“I know, don’t wait up…” She sighs in resignation.

I stop before I slip the key into the lock and turn around, leaning against our front door. She has no idea how good it feels to have someplace to call home, someplace warm and cozy and full of life — a place that, in reality, I haven’t had since I was twelve.

My apartment was never a home to me. I lived in my office if for no other reason than because Scully was there. My phone beeps in my ear and I glance at it to see that damn little battery signal flashing at me, dammit.

“Well, if you insist on going to bed before I get home, just promise me you won’t fall asleep. I won’t be late, Scully. I’ll grab us something to eat. This involves something I think you’re uniquely familiar with…”

“OK, I’ll bite, and that would be?”

“Purity Control.”

* * *

Mulder & Scully’s Townhouse

7:50 p.m.

I open the back door and dump the bags from Chen’s on the table. The kitchen is dark except for the light over the sink and it’s unusually quiet in the house. I wonder for a moment if Scully really has gone to bed without me.

When I get to the living room, I find her propped against the sofa shuffling through what appears to be a case file spread across the coffee table. Her hair is tied back in a ponytail and she’s given up her work clothes for some cozy yellow sweats.

“That better be from Chen’s Gourmet,” she warns me.

“Is there anyplace else?” She gives me ‘the look’. “What are you doing?”

“This is a case file that Skinner gave me on my way out the door this evening,” she replies, glaring at me from under her hair as I walk over to see what she is so involved in. “Evidently he was going to give it to you, but you never showed up.”

Busted.

“Yeah, I called him, told him I’d be in to talk to him, but I sort of got wrapped up in something with the guys.”

“You’re only giving them fuel for the fire, Mulder.” I watch her toss the pile of papers she has been reading onto a file at the end of the coffee table and glare up at me. “You could have at least called him.”

I ignore her first comment and shoot for the second, “No, I couldn’t. Just like I couldn’t call you or Chen’s to have the order ready when I got there; cell phone’s dead. What are you looking at anyway?”

“Police and autopsy reports on a murder-suicide case on the west coast he would like us to look into. There’s an agent coming in from the San Francisco office to work with us on this.”

“The case is on the west coast and an agent is coming here to assist us? Pardon me if I’m a little confused by that piece of information.” I hear the little alarm bells starting to ring and toss the files I brought home from the Gunmen’s down on the table with the other.

Scully picks up the folders and flips through them before looking up to catch my eye.

“What are these?”

“Autopsy reports, on Jason Arman’s parents and a police report indicating his father was the perp in a murder-suicide case involving his mother and five other co-workers from a meat processing plant in Delta Glen, Wisconsin,” I reply as I slip out of my coat and wait for her to make the connection.

“Clay’s Barbeque?”

“That’s the place. Why are they sending an agent in here from Frisco?”

“Because the latest case is local,” she informs me as she paws through the papers for several minutes obviously looking for something. “Why didn’t you go through the Bureau to get these?”

I loosen my tie and start to pull it off. “Because it’s not a Bureau matter.” At least not yet, I think to myself.

“Evidently this agent from Frisco believes these cases are all related somehow. This could be an opportunity for Skinner to appoint you SAC in this…”

“Yeah, right.” Who is she kidding? More than likely he’s another in a series of watchdogs that have been assigned to shadow me under the guise of something else since I returned to work. Scully catches my sarcasm and looks up.

“Mulder.” Her face changes from concern to what I take as sympathy and I don’t think I like it. “I know you feel like Skinner has you on a short leash…”

“More like a choke chain and it’s starting to cut off my air.” I wrap both hands around my own throat and pretend to gag myself. She doesn’t laugh so I turn away from her and take a few steps towards the stairs.

I’m tired; I want to change into comfy clothes like she has on and share the dinner I brought home with her.

“Skinner’s your friend. He’s only looking out for your well-being.”

“Skinner’s our boss, Scully. He has to answer to someone just like we do,” I turn back to face her and toss my trench coat over the end of the couch. “I’ve passed every fuckin’ psych test they’ve thrown at me. The Bureau physicians and YOU, I might add, have certified that I’m physically fit for field duty. Why can’t they just let me do my damn job?” I shake my head and start up the stairs. “Dinner’s in the kitchen.”

* * *

Casey’s Bar

11:21 p.m.

I finish my beer and set it on the table with an unconsciously loud thump. The sound makes Scully jump involuntarily. We’re both tired and just a little on edge.

While she and I were going over the notes from the Delta Glen case, between bites of Chen’s, the phone rang. Kelley wanted us to meet her and Jason immediately.

As I sit and watch Scully doze in the seat across from me, the image of her sitting across from me in that rib joint in Delta Glen with BBQ sauce on her face suddenly makes an appearance in my mind and a smile she doesn’t see spreads across my face.

I had rather boldly wiped the sauce from her lip that night and had gotten the impression she was about to make a comment on my actions when we were interrupted by that bunch of morons out on the street.

It was during my interrogation of Gerd Thomas that she had come in with the bombshell that the substance found in the vials from Dr. Larson’s case had been the same substance or a substance containing the same chemical makeup as what she found in the Erlenmeyer flask.

Something we both came to know as ‘Purity Control.’

Our evidence from the Secare case, like that of many others, has long since disappeared, or so we’d believed.

The Church of the Red Museum had forty-two members back in 1994. From what the guys were able to dig up so far, seven members have passed away due to ‘natural causes’ while another twelve deaths have been attributed to ‘unexplained causes’. This included Jason’s parents, their five co-workers, this Bryan Renford and the entire Garrett family who had also been members.

Scully and I both agree, those are rather alarming statistics and definitely worthy of some sort of investigation.

It’s late, well after eleven, when I see Kelley come into the bar with a dark haired, dark skinned young man about her height. She spots me and I get up to slide onto the bench next to Scully, but before I can sit down Kelley touches my arm.

“Agent Mulder, this is Jason Arman. Jason, this is Agent Mulder.”

“Agent Scully,” I offer as I shake Jason’s hand and motion to my partner who, at the moment, is struggling to return to conscious awareness. “And you can drop the ‘Agent’ for both of us. Can I get you something to drink?”

We’re sitting in a bar, the crew at Casey’s knows Scully and me and they know we often come in here for something other than a drink after work, so it’s very rare that anyone comes over to take our order. I feel the need to make this meeting appear as casual as possible; therefore, somebody should be drinking something.

Kelley slides in across from Scully. Jason has a canvas briefcase slung over his shoulder that he sets between himself and Kelley before he sits down.

“I’ll have what you’re having.” Jason informs me, motioning to the empty Sam Adams sitting on the table in front of me.

“Is that coffee?” Kelley asks, nodding to Scully.

I come back a few minutes later with two beers and a basket of popcorn and Linda in tow with another coffee cup and a fresh pot. “Help yourself,” she motions with the pot after she fills two mugs and sets it on a warmer a few tables away.

I take a few moments to study Jason. His complexion suggests he’s of Middle-Eastern descent, something that is probably working against him in this day and age.

I try and go through the faces I remember from Delta Glen, but it’s been twelve years and a lot of scrambled brain cells ago. There were three Armans listed in the files I got from the guys.

“I don’t know if it’s a good idea that I’m talking to you, Agent Mulder.” I watch him slide his fingers up and down the condensation on the beer bottle. He’s extremely nervous. “Kelley told you about my connection to the Church. You probably don’t remember my Father but my Mother was the woman who would read Odin’s messages to his congregation, I’m sure you both remember her.”

I catch Scully out of the corner of my eye turning to look at me and flash her a quick glance. Yes, we both remember. The woman’s words skip across my memory.

“Today is a blessing from our lord and master, who awaits his flock in this time, the dawning of the Age of Aquarius…”

This is the dawning of the Age of Aquarius — the lyrics play in my head.

I wonder how many people actually know that through a rather elaborate explanation of the constellations of the zodiac and backward celestial movement called “procession of the equinoxes,” the earth actually is about to pass from the age of Pisces into the age of Aquarius.

One has to wonder what that might mean. And here everyone just thought it was funky song from the ’70s.

“Even though Odin and his Church were cleared of any wrong-doing in your case,” Jason continues. “The Church disbanded shortly thereafter and Odin disappeared. I don’t know what your investigation uncovered about the Church or anything else, but I think that whatever it was, it is somehow related to all this.”

“Kelley told me about your parents,” I try and keep my voice neutral. Jason’s body language gives me the impression that he’d up and run given the opportunity. “You don’t believe he was responsible for what happened up there?”

“My Father would never hurt anyone, Agent Mulder, especially my Mother. Someone or something made him do what he did.”

“I understand you’ve been conducting your own investigation into their deaths,” Scully finally joins the conversation. “We were able to pull the police and autopsy reports on the incident. There’s no indication that another party was involved.”

“Did you look at the toxicological on my Father?” Jason blurts out. His eyes keep flashing over my right shoulder every time the door behind us opens and a new customer walks into the bar. “I think you’ll find that it lists an unidentifiable substance. I think it was a toxin of some sort.

“I’m a biochemical engineer, Agent Scully; we –” he glances quickly at Kelley. “Kelley and I managed to get a copy of the report, but the breakdown of the substance doesn’t make any sense. It contains some sort of synthetic corticosteroids that, without an actual sample, make it impossible to analyze. I think if I can find out what that was and where it came from, it will lead me to who killed him and the others.”

It’s something I’d already thought about, but I wanted to hear him say it. “You’re suggesting they were murdered.”

“Yeah, them and a lot of other people. How else do you explain the deaths of nineteen people from the same town in just five months? It’s fucking impossible and what’s even more fucking impossible is that nobody is looking into it!” His eyes flash back and forth between Scully and me.

“Here,” he says, reaching into his canvas bag, pulling out a piece of paper. He slides it across the table. “This is a list of everyone who was a member of the Church back in 1994. Those are the dates of death next to those nineteen names. I’ve only been able to locate six others.

“Joel Martin pushed three people off a commuter platform in Arlington yesterday and then stepped in front of the train himself. You already know about Bryan. We need to find out who or what killed them and why, and more importantly, we need to find the rest of the members and warn them — or — or something!”

Joel Martin, the local case. I look at the list. All of them, even the seven who apparently died of natural causes postdate my abduction. Not that there’s any correlation there, but it still bothers me. I guess the kid has a right to be paranoid. “Alright, look, you let Scully and I do the investigating…”

“Like hell, you remember what happened back in the ’50s? This is some kind of government thing and you work for the government.” Jason grabs Kelley’s hand and pulls her to her feet. “Just because I’m asking for your help doesn’t mean I trust you.”

“Hey, how can I reach you?” I yell after them as they head for the door.

“Email Kelley!”

Dammit! I get up from beside Scully, grab the pot of coffee and another cup and slide back into the seat across from her.

“What did you make of that?” she asks as I fill our cups.

“I think he’s scared and more paranoid than I ever was,” I tell her with a hint of a grin. “And I think they’re right. Whatever was going on in Delta Glen is still going on somewhere, only now, over ten years later, someone is trying their best to cover that up. You heard what he said, the tox screen contained some sort of synthetic substance. Where have we heard that before?”

“I agree with you, but what I don’t understand is why now?”

“Five month ago Scully, do you remember what happened five months ago?”

“I’d rather not, Mulder.”

I watch her expression darken a little and reach across the table to take her hand.

“We’re okay, Scully. And wherever this journey we’re on eventually leads us, this is something you and I are meant to do together. That’s why you found me last summer, it’s why you brought me back to who I’m supposed to be, it’s who I want to be.”

Please believe me Scully.

When she squeezes my hand I smile at her.

She holds my hand for longer than necessary and then apparently comes to the decision I’d hoped for.

“You’re suggesting there’s a connection — between what happened to you and this hybridization project that Kelley seems to feel has been going on?”

We both know what’s been going on, but I keep my mouth shut for once. Scully had nearly hit the roof when I told her about my conversation with Kelley in Starbucks.

If Kelley was able to obtain the information in those files, God only knew who else was using it. I’m sure we both had the same idea.

“What if she’s right, Scully?”

“Right about what, Mulder?” She sighs.

“Cassandra was the result of hideous experiments. I’m not really sure what my excuse might be, but what it if certain segments of the earth’s population have been hybridized through nothing more than inherited genes?”

Her head cocks slightly to the left and she looks at me for a long time before I watch her eyebrows rise and she finally looks heavenward as if asking for divine intervention.

“What about Gibson?” I ask.

“Mulder,” her eyes return to mine. “Gibson is an anomaly, just like math wizards or two-year-olds that can play concertos. You can’t surmise that everyone who has an unusual ability is genetically alien. Besides, if I remember correctly, I told you a few years ago that, in a way, we’re all genetically alien.”

Her hands come away from massaging the coffee cup in a ‘listen to me’ motion.

“What Kelley explained to you is an experimental program that you and I both know has indeed been going on for years. If the former members of the Church are being singled out, the question we should be asking is ‘why’?”

I scratch the stubble on my chin for a moment and then finally acknowledge her. “You’re right, Scully. But first we need to find out what killed these people. I think that will give us the ‘why.'” I swig the rest of my coffee. “I think the boys need to do a little kung fu on some government files.”

“I don’t know that I’m comfortable with you working outside the Bureau like this, just be careful…” She touches my arm, “I’m going to see if this man in Baltimore has been autopsied yet. If I can get a look at the body, maybe it will give us some answers.”

* * *

Office of The Lone Gunmen

3:20 p.m.

When I can’t reach Scully on her cell, I dial the office. The phone rings several times before a male voice I don’t recognize fills my ear. “Agent Giltner.”

I look at the LED display on the guys’ phone in disbelief and see that I definitely didn’t punch the wrong number.

My cell is currently sitting where I left it, in the charger on the kitchen counter. “Who did you say you were?”

Fro turns to look at me with a puzzled expression.

“This is Agent Mark Giltner, who am I talking to?”

“You’re answering my phone Agent Giltner, this is Agent Mulder.”

“Ah, Agent Mulder, I’m looking forward to meeting you, but I already gotta tell ya, I think you’re in the wrong profession.”

“How’s that?” How the hell did this guy get in our office and where the hell is Scully?

“I’ve been doing some homework waiting for you. These case files you have down here are a piece of work, Mulder. You could certainly give Steven King a run for his money. Some of this is damn good science fiction.”

I decide this jerk is not worthy of an answer and the silence on the line lasts a little longer than it should. “Have you seen Agent Scully?” I finally ask.

“No, I’m afraid she’s not in the office at the moment. Can I take a message?”

Thank God for that and no you can’t.

Fuck, Skinner, who is this asshole? And then it dawns on me that this is probably the jerk that Skinner said the Frisco office was sending in to work with us.

Who let him in my office?

“No thanks, Glitz, I’m on my way in.”

“What the heck was that all about?” Langly asks after I slam the receiver down.

“And then there were three,” I tell him gathering up the autopsy files they’ve pilfered and heading for the door. “Keep digging guys, I’ll be back later.” I use my back to push the door open and wave, “Thanks.”

* * *

4:53 p.m.

When I finally reach Scully, I discover she’s been at the morgue slicing and dicing Joel Martin. That’s my girl.

“What did he die from?”

“Mulder, he was hit by a train…”

“Ouch.”

She snorts into the phone, “I won’t be able to tell you anything until I get the blood and tissues samples back, but I’m reasonably sure his death can’t be attributed to natural causes. Joel Martin was the picture of health.”

“How long will that be?”

“I’m going to send them to our lab, put a rush on them; I should have some answers tomorrow. Where are you now?”

“Heading for the office to check on a few things, you want to meet me there?”

“Mulder, it’s almost five…”

I glance at my watch. Yeah it is, but I’d still like to catch this Glitz character. Find out how the hell he got access to my office. “Our contact from the Frisco office is here; thought maybe we could touch base with him.”

“How do you know?” I can hear the sound of clinking utensils and a drawer or two slamming.

“I tried to reach you in the office, he answered the phone.”

“I’m on my way.”

* * *

X-Files Office

5:50 p.m.

The office seems empty when I enter until I see Scully glued to a monitor in the back room.

“Where’s Glitz?” I lay my coat across the desk and head back to give her a quick kiss. “You already send the new student home for the day?”

“He evidently thought class was over,” she reaches up to brush her finger across my lips to wipe the moisture away. “You can’t do that when he’s in the office, Mulder,” she tells me with a seductive smile. “I caught him turning out the light and closing the door when I got here.” She flashes me a concerned look. “He said he had a few leads of his own he wanted to chase down before we got together. And by the way, his name is Giltner, Mark Giltner, not Glitz. He says to call him ‘Gil’.”

I can tell by her evasiveness that she’s irritated about something. “But you’d like to call him something else…”

“No, it’s nothing Mulder; he was just a little presumptuous. Asked me to dinner so we could get better acquainted…”

I’d like to call him a few other things myself, but instead I just purse my lips and nod. “So, no introduction from Skinner, he just shows up?”

“I asked Skinner; he didn’t know he was here either, which leads me to believe that Agent Giltner has a problem with procedure. The two of you should get along just fine.” Her tongue flicks across her lower lip and the she bites it rather provocatively. “I tried to call you to see how much longer you were going to be but you didn’t answer. Where’s your phone?”

“Sitting in the charger in the kitchen.” I turn away from her and walk back toward the desk.

“I’m going to make you wear it on a chain around your neck, Mulder.”

I toss my coat over the chair in front of the desk and sit down. “Wouldn’t help, most of the time I don’t know where my head is either. He couldn’t wait?”

“Evidently these were important leads or…” When she doesn’t finish her line of thinking, I look over and notice she’s pawing through the stack of files I dumped on the corner of the table.

“Those are autopsy reports on Renford, the three other victims from the packing plant and the Garretts.” I inform her. “If you look at the toxicological results on Bryan and David Garrett, you’ll see basically the same information that was in Mr. Arman’s report — an unidentified toxin in the bloodstream. But you’ll also notice that the same toxin was also found in their digestive tracts indicating that whatever it was probably ingested.”

“Well, you’ve learned how to read autopsy reports, Mulder. You evidently don’t need me,” she stops flipping pages and turns to look at me with a smile.

I smile back and then ask, “Wouldn’t that have suggested poisoning?”

“It should have…” I watch her open the first report again. “Unless whoever did the autopsy was also involved.”

“I like how you think.”

“But — the reports on Bryan and David Garrett also show decreased serotonin levels. Decreased serotonin levels have been associated with violent behavior, Mulder. We’ve seen that before.”

“Drugs?”

“Or a chemical imbalance.” She logs off her computer and gathers up what she’s been working on and then comes over and sets it on the corner of my desk. “Come on, lets go home,” she grabs my coat and hands it to me. “We can work on this just as well from there — without any interruption.”

I wag my eyebrows at her and log off the computer on the desk, noticing too late that it was logged on with another ID. “Gil have a key?” I ask pulling the door shut tightly behind us.

“I hope not.”

* * *

X-Files Office

10:13 a.m.

When Jason called last night asking why I sent another agent over to talk with him, I didn’t know what the hell he was talking about until he informed me it was this Agent Giltner.

He then proceeded to burn my ear with obscenities and accusations that Scully and I were more intent on proving that he was somehow involved in these deaths than finding out who was really responsible.

Scully got on the line and somehow managed to calm him down enough to convince him that Giltner came to see him with no authority from either of us. She told him that I would have the contact information for the rest of the Church members today.

Scully headed off to Quantico to see if she could push the reports on Martin a little faster.

She thinks I have a meeting with John McKinley and some investment dudes this morning to talk over some new stock options. Our stash was severely depleted with the withdrawal she took to mount my rescue operation last summer.

She just shook her head when I came down to the kitchen this morning wearing the tie I’d gotten for Christmas with the little green alien heads on it. No way in hell will she let me wear it to work so I have to get some use out of it. I love the thing.

It wasn’t really a lie. John went to meet the investors. I’m about to head over to the Gunmen’s to see what they have for me, but first I need to confirm a suspicion I have about the elusive Agent Glitz.

I figure if I’m being watched, then somebody will know I came into the office and if this Giltner is somehow connected to that somebody, and they’re dumb enough to send him in here, it’s a sure way to tell.

I’ve been surfing through Gil’s personnel file. He’s been with the Bureau five years; transferred to Frisco from Denver two years ago. He’s divorced, no surprise there…smart woman. No children. He’s 42.

About half past 11:00, I hear the elevator doors slide open. A few moments later, a man I assume is Gil saunters into the office and feigns surprise at seeing me here.

“The workaholic himself, you’ve got to be Agent Mulder.” He extends his hand and I feel a Krycek moment coming on. “I’m Mark Giltner from the San Francisco office.”

“But I can call you ‘Gil’,” I reply standing to accept his handshake. Gil smiles at the response. He’s a few inches shorter than I am but he probably outweighs me. Doesn’t mean I couldn’t take him in a fight. He has short reddish brown hair that has a tight wave to it and blue eyes.

“I understand you just go by ‘Mulder’.”

I have a sudden dislike for the way he says my name but Scully’s conscience in my head tells me to play nice. Doing otherwise will only get me in trouble. “Works for everyone else.”

I walk around the desk and pretend to look like I’m after something in the back office. “It’s Saturday Gil, Scully and I won’t have anything to work with on this latest death until Monday.” Gil follows me so I start digging through old photos that are piled in a file basket on the shelf giving him my back.

“Ah yes, the ravishing Agent Scully. I met her yesterday. Unfortunately, it was only briefly. You got a real looker there, Mulder.”

I bite my tongue almost to the point of drawing blood and glare at him. “You didn’t come all the way in here just to make my acquaintance did you?”

“Actually, I was hoping I’d find you here, Mulder. I’m kind of excited about working with the ‘legend’.” He makes those annoying little quote marks in the air around the word ‘legend’. “Thought maybe you could give me some advice.”

“On what?” The man’s been in my face for less than five minutes and I already have a strong dislike for him. He’s a little old for the dumb rookie routine.

“You know, on how I can develop the magic touch like you have. Pull those wild theories out of thin air and solve the case just like that.” He starts to finger through some files on the corner of the table. “If we’re going to be working as a team on this case, I don’t want to get left on the bench.”

Technically, I’m the senior agent in this department but I’ve never pulled rank on Scully; she and I have always been a team. Gil on the other hand, is about to learn why they say three’s a crowd.

“You want some advice?” I throw the photos on the table and turn around. When our eyes meet I realize by his emotionless expression that he’s accomplished his goal. He’s gotten under my skin.

“You may have been assigned to this case but it wasn’t because there was any request from me for assistance. And to be honest with you, I don’t think Scully and I need any. If you think that makes you unwelcome here, you’re right. Bureau policy dictates that I play nice, and I’m willing to do that, but only if you and I come to an understanding.”

“And what would that be, Agent Mulder?” He takes a few steps closer and crosses his arms over his chest.

“That you understand that I’m the SAC on this. And being such, I make the assignments. You went to see a grad student named Jason Arman at Georgetown yesterday. I don’t remember giving you that assignment.” I take a few steps closer to him myself. We’re standing almost toe-to-toe. “I want to know why.”

“Because I looked through the background check you did on him. I think he’s playing you for a fool, Agent Mulder.”

I resist the urge to deck him for calling me a fool and glance around him to the computer on my desk, suddenly remembering that someone else had been using it yesterday when I shut it down.

I can feel my temperature rising. “That information was password protected.”

“Oh come on, Mulder, you use the dumbest passwords. Anyone can figure them out.”

I bite my tongue again and swallow the words I was about to say.

“This kid Arman is doing research on food additives, did you know that?” He sneers. “The autopsy reports you brought back from your ‘informants’ showed a toxin was found in the victims’ bloodstreams and digestive tracts. Did it ever occur to you that he’s the one who might have poisoned them and that this list that your friends are putting together for him will lead him right to the rest of his victims?”

Christ! I lose all semblance of control and push him hard against the glass partition between the rooms and hold him there. He passively splays his arms against the wall, making no attempt to fight me off.

“Who sent you here?” I demand, getting right in his face. “Who are you working for?”

“I work for the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Perhaps the proper question, Agent Mulder,” he says coolly. “Is who are YOU working for?”

I feel my hand curl into a fist almost involuntarily. I want to slug him so bad it hurts, but I don’t and I step away from him trying to control my breathing.

“I could file assault charges on you, Mulder,” he informs me as he straightens his ugly sweater. “This isn’t over.”

“No, you’re wrong, it *is* over,” I unconsciously shake my fist at him. “I hope you won’t have a problem getting a flight back because you could be going right back where you came from.”

“I think you over-estimate your authority here, Agent Mulder. You had nothing to do with my assignment,” he throws over his shoulder as he heads for the door.

I want to throw something at him or, better yet, I want to hit myself with something for losing control like that. Instead, I grab my jacket, turn off the lights and lock the door.

I hope the guys have lots of beer.

* * *

Office of The Lone Gunmen

Washington, D.C.

12:37 p.m.

Byers hands me a printout with about ten names on it. “Those are the only ones we could locate.”

“But we think someone else might be lookin’ for love in all the same places,” Langly adds.

“Three words, Mulder,” Frohike offers.

I study my three pasty friends. “Not enough sex?”

“UPC scanner data, dude,” Langly amends. “Barcodes, lasers, overweight checkout babes data-entering our asses into capitalistic indenture.”

“Orwell meets Walmart,” Byers intones somberly.

“Seriously, I mean it,” I respond. “Not enough sex, guys.”

Frohike snorts. “USDA’s used retail grocery scanner data for years to track domestic red meat and poultry prices, you know, make sure the mega-slaughterers aren’t screwing over the farmers? Every time you buy a bag of Cornnuts or a roll of Charmin or a copy of ‘Juicy Jugs’, somebody out there knows it.”

Byers leans on the PC. “A.C. Nielsen – the TV ratings people? – sell household level scanner data that links UPC data from individual customers to retailers and manufacturers. It helps them determine consumer preferences, shelf space allocation.”

I signal for silence. “Before you three savvy marketing geniuses roll out your Powerpoints, could we–”

“Katsuhiru,” Langly states.

“That’s a showstopper,” Byers continues. “For decades, the Japanese corporate dynasty has had its hands wrist-deep into pharmaceuticals, electronics, robotics, nanotechnology, and, quite possibly, genetic manipulation and extraterrestrial experimentation.”

“Katsuhiru,” I echo.

“They’ve been buying up butt loads of scanner data through a U.S. subsidiary, Intermedia Demographics Ltd. I red-flagged everything Katsuhiru after, you know, Devil’s Fork?

“Melvin had some theory about the Republican Party and Nielsen, so I was, uh, exploring the flow of scanner data, who was buying it. Intermedia’s been hitting major metro centers across the U.S. — L.A., New York, Chicago, Seattle, Albuquerque, Portland, San Francisco. Katsuhiru’s got a whole marketing arm, makes Madison Avenue look like Darren Stevens. The dorky Dick York one. Ask yourself, why do they need scanner data?”

I mull the possibilities. “To shop for guinea pigs. They wanted a certain type, a certain demographic, for what?”

A flicker of dark anxiety crosses Frohike’s face. “You remember your guy out in San Francisco, the one that made stir fry out of a bunch of ad people? Redford, Renfro…”

“Yeah. Dismembered six coworkers, then somehow managed to decapitate himself. Kinda stood out from the rest of the workplace massacres that day, why?”

Byers steps in. “Well, we were curious about the Katsuhiru thing, and Langly sort of…”

I smile. “I’m gonna have to move you boys into the living room where Scully and I can monitor your surfing. You hacked into Intermedia’s data?”

“Actually, the company that sold Intermedia the data — Katsuhiru’s got some fierce firewalls up around Intermedia, which is kind of a red flag in itself, you know? We wanted to see if there were any outstanding patterns, anything that stood out.”

“Was there?”

“Das herrenvolk,” Frohike grunts. My head snaps around. “Not the real Master Race.” He explains. “The fitness fascists — no smoking, no caffeine, no pesticides, no red meat, no refined sugar, that whole bit. We noticed the datasets were heavy on whole food markets, GMCs, sporting goods joints. Katsuhiru was tracking health food, organics, nutritional supplements, running gear, books on diet and physical culture. And guess whose ‘household’ we ran across?”

“Bryan Renford,” I breathe.

“The name stuck from CNN. Guy made Lance Armstrong look like Louis Anderson. Everything he swallowed was raised or cooked under a microscope, he bought a palette of spring water a week, and Renford read everything written by every whack-job fitness guru out there. Turns out he did every marathon and charity 10K in the city.”

“Guess he had a good head on his shoulders, least ’til he lopped it off. So you think Katsuhiru somehow spiked Renford’s wheat germ? Why him?” I ask.

“I’m not sure it was Katsuhiru,” Langly murmurs. “My guess is someone is using their data to locate dudes like him across the country. You know, health food nuts, people that are living ‘nature’s way’ — more guinea pigs.”

“Or congregation members,” I suggest. “You guys are going to need to do some more guinea pig hunting.”

* * *

Georgetown University

4:20 p.m.

My call to Kelley was met with a rather icy response. Evidently Jason had already told her about his visit from that asshole Glitz.

It isn’t bad enough when they’ve electronically bugged our office in the past, now we have a living one crawling around in there.

To say I’ll get rid of that jerk if it’s the last thing I do is probably all too true.

There are too many holes in his file not to suspect that he really isn’t FBI. I left the information I had on him with the guys. They’re better at background checks than I ever was.

Kelley finally agreed to meet me outside the Starbucks where we had originally met. She said Jason was at the lab and probably wouldn’t let me in without her.

She must recognize a Bureau car when she sees one because she steps to the curb when I turn the corner. She sizes up my G-man attire when she slides into the front seat. “You’re a little overdressed for a Saturday, aren’t you?”

“Is that a compliment?”

“Actually, I was thinking that you probably wanted to make a good impression on whomever else you were giving this information to.” Her voice drips with sarcasm and I’m not in the mood for it.

“Actually,” I flash an angry glare in her direction. “Jason is the only person I was planning on giving this information to, only some things have come to light that make me wonder it that’s really a good idea. What do you know about a company called ‘Katsuhiru’?”

“Nothing, who are they?”

“A corporate giant out of Japan. They seem to be interested in the same information we are.”

She turns to look at me with eyes wide, “The Church members?”

“Not specifically, but people living that life style. Kelley, we’re going to need Jason’s research. I think this could all be an elaborate setup and he very well could be the next victim…”

“What the Hell?” Kelley asks as we turn the corner, throwing open the door and exiting the car before I have a chance to finish.

I look in the direction she’s headed and see what appears to be some sort of commotion in front of Reiss Science Building. I slam the car into park, yank the keys from the ignition and go after her.

She’s running up the steps like a fish swimming upstream against the students who are exiting the building. “What’s going on?” I hear her ask worriedly when she grabs the arm of one young man.

“That crazy Arab friend of yours is running around in there with a gun!”

“Kelley wait!” I yell after her as she throws a frightened glance back in my direction and grabs the door. I catch up with her by the elevators where she’s frantically beating on the UP button as if it will make the car arrive any sooner.

“Something’s wrong! Jason wouldn’t have a gun, he hates guns!”

I can hear sirens already and grab my cell. I don’t know how many people are still in the building and right now a swarm of locals might only escalate the situation. Scully answers on the second ring.

“Dammit Mulder, where are you? Something’s happening at the college.”

“I know, I’m — I’m here. It’s chaos here. Kelley and I are trying to find Jason…”

“The police are responding to what they believe is a terrorist situation. You have to get out of there, Giltner went to Skinner with some wild accusation that you’re involved in this somehow,” her voice starts to quiver towards the end of the sentence and I grind my teeth with the realization that once again I’ve made her a bystander to one of my random acts of unpredictability. “You could be considered an accomplice!” She yells in my ear.

Something doesn’t make sense. Why would I be… “Skinner would never believe…”

“No, Skinner wouldn’t…” She leaves the rest of her thought hanging in the air.

“Look Scully, someone called the locals. Tell Skinner to give me some time on this, Jason has nothing to do with… Shit, hang on…” Kelley darts for the stairs and I make a break to try and grab her.

“Mulder! Jason called in a bomb threat…” I don’t hear the rest of what she was about to tell me.

The door to the stairwell bursts open and someone charges though it colliding with Kelley and me and sending my phone airborne until it collides with the brick wall across the hall and pieces of it rain down and slide across the polished floor.

When we untangle ourselves I realize it’s Jason and he does have a gun. “You! This is all your fault!” he yells pointing the gun at me as I stagger backwards towards the foyer of the building.

“Jason — wait!” Kelley tries to reach out for him but he pulls back.

“You!” He waves the gun at her and I reach for her, grabbing her arm and pulling her towards me. “You got me involved with this guy!” he yells, flashing the gun at me again. “Look what happens! He sends one of his goons over here to destroy everything. There’s a bomb in the lab, Kelley!”

“Jason, I didn’t send anyone over here, I told you that. Look, I have the information you wanted…” I raise my right hand and point towards my jacket pocket.

“Throw it here,” he commands. As I start to reach into my jacket he takes a step towards me. “No, your jacket! Take off the jacket and throw it here!”

I wriggle out of my jacket and toss it at him thinking that when he goes to grab it I can pull my own gun. But he makes no attempt to catch it and it slides past him on the floor. “I want the gun too,” he demands when he sees my gun clipped to my belt.

“I can’t do that, Jason.” I raise both my arms in an attempt to get him to understand that he’s already in charge of this situation.

It’s not a good move. I know there’s an army of police in the street behind us now and if they see me standing like this they’re going to assume I’m being taken hostage.

“The list doesn’t mean anything now, don’t you understand?!”

I drop my arms, “Jason, all I understand is that there’s a bomb in this building and we need to get everyone out of here. You have to help me do that.”

“Everyone is out. I got them out!”

“Then we need to get out of here too, Jason,” I look deliberately at Kelley and then extend my hand towards the trembling young man. “Give me the gun so we can just walk out of here.” If this is a timed device, we may only have minutes to get out of here. “There are men out there behind me who can take care of the device. No one has to die here,” I glance at Kelley again. “Do the right thing.”

“No way! I walk out of here with you and they’re going to arrest me!” He motions with his head to the army on the street behind us. “You’ve got them thinking I’m responsible for all these deaths!”

“That’s not true, Jason!” Kelley pleads desperately with her friend obviously having a change of heart from our earlier conversation. “Mulder just wants to help you.”

“No! You don’t understand, Kelley! He’s part of it.” Jason waves his gun towards the force behind us. “They all are. They masquerade under the cover of law enforcement so no one will know what their real agenda is!”

“Jason, please, I’m scared,” Kelley reaches a shaky hand towards her friend. “Give Mulder the gun so we can get out of here!”

Kelley’s pleas aren’t helping to talk Jason down. Even though my heart is trying to beat its way out of my chest, I have to try and get control of this situation. I have to stay calm. “What is the real agenda, Jason?” He turns to me with a bewildered look.

“To cover up what you don’t want us to know! But I do know. I figured it out! I know what killed them. It was in something they ate. Some kind of food additive! The proof is up in the lab!”

Shit.

“Then you don’t want that bomb destroying it.” I wave at Kelley trying to get her to step back. “Agent Scully and I have evidence that may help you to prove that your parents and the other Church members were murdered. I think your research may help to substantiate that. But we need you, too. You can stop this.”

Something like acceptance washes across Jason’s features and I relax for just a moment to glance over my shoulder.

Scully is standing next to A.D. Skinner who appears to be in a heated conversation with one of the locals. He’s pulling rank, letting them know that the nutcase currently engaged in these negotiations is one of his own.

Give me some time Skinman, I’ve earned Jason’s trust now let me earn yours.

Sweat trickles down the center of my back. Jason’s hair is sticking to his forehead and perspiration has soaked through his T-shirt. It’s fear sweat and I watch him shiver with it.

Being Saturday, nobody has any idea how many people were or could still be in this building. Any moment those fools in the parking lot could decide to come charging in here and we’ll all go down.

“Jason, listen to me, don’t put Kelley through this,” I glance in her direction, she’s crying silent tears. I want to reach for her but I need both hands free.

“Those men out there are trained for these situations,” I point to the men lining the parking lot behind me, trying to keep myself between them and Jason. “They don’t know what’s going on in here. One wrong move from you and no one will hear your story.”

“It doesn’t matter!” Jason yells. “You know no one will believe me. Nobody believes you either, isn’t that why you’re here? Trying to ease your own conscience — it’s not a crazy story if someone else is telling the same one!”

“Jason stop it!” Kelley screams to my left. “If there’s a bomb in this building, we have to get out of here!”

Behind me, out on street the FBI has amassed a multitude of SWAT and tactical personnel. It’s an obscene gesture but I understand it considering recent events.

But this young man is no terrorist.

I turn my back on him, acknowledging my trust and observe the mass of officers outside. Scully is still standing with Skinner, but she’s been joined by the jackass, Giltner.

Where the hell did he come from? He and Skinner are talking with the head of the F.B.I. tactical team and I suddenly don’t like the look I see on Skinman’s face. The team won’t act without his consent but he knows he’s running out of time here.

“Jason, give me the gun, or set it down and step away,” I turn back and plead with him. “They’re assuming this is a hostage situation and they’re going to proceed accordingly.”

“You don’t get it. I’m one of them, they want me dead, too!” Jason screams, continuing to wave his gun around erratically. “It doesn’t matter what you do!”

“Jason, give me the gun, lay it down and step back,” I glance at my watch and then back over my shoulder again. Jason keeps dancing about in front of me as he speaks. I try my best to stay in his line of fire.

Even though I can feel the sight of a weapon trained on my back, I’m fairly certain they won’t shoot through me to get to him, but I also know Skinner can’t wait forever.

Kelley must realize it too because her voice is the next voice I hear.

“Jason, give it to me.” Out of the corner of my eye I see Kelley step forward, extending her right hand.

“Agent Mulder is telling the truth, he cares about you, I care about you. You know that. We can all walk out of here alive if you just put down the gun”.

“Kelley, no!” I yell at her as she takes another step towards her friend. Jason hesitates, his gaze flashing wide eyed between both of us and then he moves, slightly towards his right, extending the gun toward Kelley.

With a sickening feeling, I know how this looks from the street.

Instinct makes me cringe even before the glass shatters behind me … and it’s at this one moment in time that I’m suddenly stuck with the realization that despite what I want to believe, we may really have no control over our own lives.

Kelley screams and Jason’s body jolts with the impact of the bullet. It knocks him from his feet and then he lands with a sickening thud on the polished floor in front of us.

I turn back around, an incredulous look on my face, and see Scully rushing toward me through the mayhem of officers.

Kelley is still screaming as she kneels over Jason’s body. I stand here, frozen, watching Scully press her fingers against the boy’s throat. She looks up at me and shakes her head.

It hits me then with the same impact as the slug had hit Jason: I never had any control over any of this.

The anger at that realization begins to boil within me as I walk over broken glass and pick up Jason’s gun that came to rest at the base of the window frame.

“He’s dead,” I hear Scully inform the other officers, rising to her feet, her gaze then falling on me, standing lethargically between them and the shattered window of the building’s lobby.

“Mulder, come on, let’s get you out of here,” she touches my arm, trying to get me to look at her but I still can’t take my eyes off the scene in front of me. Jason’s chest is covered in blood.

As the bomb disposal unit thunders past us, I watch a female SWAT officer trying desperately to pull Kelley away from him.

“Leave me alone, Scully!” I erupt, pulling violently away from her and turning towards the door. “Leave me the fuck alone!”

I know her, the urge to follow me must be strong but she hesitates, watching me head out the door and bolt down the stairs to where Skinner and that damn Glitz are standing with the head of the tactical team.

I hand Skinner Jason’s gun and turn to face Gil.

“Agent Mulder, are you alright?”

You talk about stupid passwords… I don’t even think, I just act and my fist connects with Gil’s jaw so hard it goes numb. Gil goes down in a satisfying heap.

While Gil is gathering himself up off the ground and trying to shake the stars from his brain I hand Skinner my own weapon, even though it hasn’t been fired, and fix him with a bitter look.

I hope that answers the question.

No, dammit, I’m not alright. Why the hell couldn’t they let me do my job? I turn to walk and away from them.

“Agent Mulder!” I hear Skinner yell after me. “We’re going to need your report on this!”

I stop dead in my tracks, fury I can’t control building within me.

How dare he!

He refuses to give me control of the situation and now he wants my report?

I don’t need this!

I turn back to Skinner and pull my badge out of my right back pocket and hurl it at him. He catches it with surprise in his left hand but says nothing.

Message received.

I turn and walk away.

TO BE CONTINUED in Part 2!

Notes: References are made in this story to past episodes of The X-Files and to the Virtual Season mythology. This story arose from my occasional need to get into Mulder’s head. My thanks to Chuck, Vickie and Nubie for all their wonderful beta assistance and especially to Martin for sticking with me on this.

Double-Play

Double Play

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“Batabatabata…SUH-WING, batabatabata!!”

Charles Fishbein closed his eyes for a nanosecond as the crowd took up the sacred incantation, taking in every sensory stimulus the park had to offer.

The smell of popcorn and burgers flavored the late summer breeze (no dogs here — major sacrilege here in the Western Burbs). The disgruntled murmurs and backseat coaching of fathers and grandfathers; the laughter and whispers of mothers and sisters oblivious to the drama being played out on the dirt and grass beyond.

The occasional crack of the bat and attendant crowd reaction that touched Charlie’s spine as he sat silently in a remote corner of the bleachers, scribbling in his broad, wirebound ledger.

He’d done some scouting, and he knew he’d hear that sharp shot of ecstasy more than a few times this afternoon.

Charlie glanced across the rows of fans, toward the far end of the stands. He cursed instantly to himself — the boy had made another friend, and the pair were yukking it up. Had he missed the entire inning?

Angrily, Charlie shoved his hand into his superfluous windbreaker and thumbed the key on the radio walkie-talkie. He suppressed a vindictive smile as the boy jumped — Charlie’d jerry-rigged an ear bud receiver. The boy recovered quickly and pretended to swat a non-existent mosquito (this particular village fumigated the yuppies on a regular basis).

The boy made eye contact guiltily and, Charlie thought, resentfully. He’d talk to him in the car, though God knows, he knew all too well how strong-willed the boy was.

The boy nonetheless directed his attention to the game, grunting replies out of the side of his mouth to his new “buddy.” Thankfully, the local was as attention-deficit as most 10- or 11-year-olds, and he quickly moved on in a dark huff.

“Batabatabata!!” Charlie returned to the game with a sigh of relief. The player, a lanky lad with thick glasses, jumped back as a high, hard one ripped past.

“GOOD EYE, CHRIS!!”

Charlie’s blood froze as the roaring baritone registered, and his capped head swiveled slowly toward Rusterman, one of the lab’s public information guys. Like all the flacks, he didn’t keep the late hours of the postdocs and PhDs. Somehow, Charlie had pictured Rusterman as the eternal bachelor — a cynical, ungainly loner. But the PIO was with a petite but leggy blonde, and Charlie could see Rusterman’s crooked grin on the batter’s face as he accepted the accolade.

The grin vanished as the ball streaked through “Chris'” strike zone, and Charlie couldn’t help but shake his head in disgust as he scrambled from his seat, clicking the mike key twice in a prearranged signal.

As he reached ground level, the bat cracked, and Charlie halted, frozen momentarily in time. Then he shook it off and hightailed it to the SUV, two blocks away.

* * *

“¡Buenos dias!”

Renaldo Ortiz smiled back broadly and waggled a leathery hand as Dr. Klamath passed, thankful the pompous scientist did not stop to pass the day in halting, language tape Spanish. Despite the sleek black Infiniti in the parking lot beyond the Oppenheimer National Energy and Biologics Laboratory’s double-secured doors, Klamath fancied himself a champion of the night crew and a fervent immigration rights advocate (Renaldo had been naturalized 20 years ago, and he hid in doorways whenever the physicist approached).

Klamath was the last to leave, and Renaldo relaxed as he pushed the mop cart toward the third floor breakroom. It was the only room he was assigned on the floor — everything else was top-secret, high-clearance, no janitors allowed, though he always pondered why the third-floor labs were equipped with plate glass windows as well as complicated security hardware. Not that Renaldo had any idea — or, frankly, cared — what the huge machines and consoles inside did.

Instinctively, he glanced through the double-paned glass of 342 — Dr. Fishbein’s lab. Nope, no idea, Renaldo thought happily. Then, a blur of blue and red, back behind a tall, broad metal case, caught his eye. He staggered back as the figure caught his own eye and froze, brown eyes huge and terrified.

“Holy shit,” Renaldo whispered hoarsely as the boy dived out of sight, and he stumbled down the hall toward Security.

* * *

“Ghost?” Mulder perked, turning from the retinal scanner.

“I’m being facetious, of course,” the NEBL’s director snapped. “I’m certain there must be a rational explanation for this.”

“Not if he can help it,” Scully muttered, drawing daggers from her partner. “The obvious answer, Doctor, is that one of your scientists simply brought his son to work. Even physicists dote on their children’s admiration.”

“Impossible,” the stocky federal researcher grunted. “This is a secure lab — Chuck Fishbein’s. Only he and his assistants — Randy Petersen and V.K. Musli — and myself have clearance. That requires a retinal scan. And, no, no one can simply sneak into the lab behind an authorized staff member — the entry system is biometric, locks down if it scans more than one body in the entryway without multiple retinal scans.

Post-9/11 measure — guards against domestic terrorists coercing our scientists to give them access to classified materials or projects.”

“And each retinal scan is recorded and time-stamped?” Mulder ventured.

“No one was recorded as entering or leaving this lab Tuesday except Dr. Fishbein,” the director stated definitively. “Chuck left more than two hours before Mr. Ortiz witnessed the boy. Ortiz has no clearance for any of the labs on this floor, so he had to summon Security to investigate the intruder. Security found no one in Chuck’s lab, and the system showed no one left between’s Ortiz’ call and Security’s arrival.”

“What about Mr. Ortiz?” Scully inquired. “Does he take any medication? Have you had any incidents involving alcohol?”

“Renaldo Ortiz has been with us for years — he’s a solid citizen, a wife and two kids, member of the Batavia Kiwanis. Besides, as an employee, he submits to monthly drug screenings, and he’s consistently checked out clean.”

Mulder frowned. “What’s Fishbein say?”

“He’s as mystified as the rest of us. In fact, Chuck demanded we inspect his equipment to ensure no vandalism had taken place.”

“And what kind of equipment would that be, Doctor?”

“Oh, mostly cryonics technology — state-of-the-art freezing equipment. Chuck’s working to identify thermophilic microorganisms. Bacteria, fungi, and yeasts that can survive extreme temperatures. Chuck’s research is twofold: Thermophilic organisms could be used in fermentation processes for bioenergy or industrial applications. Or they could withstand conditions in outer space. Chuck has suggested that could be useful in experimentation or sustainable food production on deep-space missions.”

“Cool,” Mulder murmured. “Or hot, whichever the case may be.”

“Yes,” the director sighed, either missing Mulder’s humor or crossing the street to avoid it. “Mr. Ortiz is in the staff lounge, as you asked, and Chuck’s consulting on a project downstairs. Who would you like to interview first?”

“I’m sure Ortiz has better things to do with his time off — let’s take him first,” Mulder said.

* * *

“Weird thing is…” Ortiz began. He looked to the poster of Einstein on the lounge wall behind the agents.

“Mr. Ortiz?” Scully prompted. “Anything might be important here. We’re here to pinpoint any breach in security that could constitute a terrorist risk.”

The night custodian smiled microscopically, as if he were considering the terrorist risk posed by a middle school-aged boy. “Well, it’s just you’re gonna think I’m crazy or something. But there was something about that kid. Familiar-like. I didn’t know him, but it was like I did. Crazy, right?”

“Crazy’s my business, Mr. Ortiz,” Mulder deadpanned.

From the look on Ortiz’ face, Scully could see he was convinced.

* * *

Dr. Charles Fishbein looked precisely like a Dr. Charles Fishbein should. Lab rat-white, blue-gray smudges under the eyes under a pair of decade-outdated wire rims, Sears brown tie anchoring a yellow short-sleeved shirt accessorized with a trio of Bic pens. Behind him, a Sikh in an incongruous turban-lab coat combo affixed vials to a centrifuge.

“Children have no place in a scientific facility,” Charles Fishbein stated, sounding precisely like a Charles Fishbein. “The potential for damage — I’m not sure we have a piece of hardware here that retails under $10,000, and the cryonic unit… And, oh my God, imagine the liability — caustic chemicals, transgenic pathogens, high-voltage equipment…”

Mulder nodded empathically, Scully sympathetically. Then Fishbein frowned, laughed, and relaxed, looking suddenly like far less of a Charles Fishbein. “Wow, you work in a place like this long enough, closed up all day with brilliant but socially challenged researchers — present company excepted, Kalil…”

Kalil nodded somberly and launched the high-tech Tilt-a-Whirl. Mulder turned, in need of a Dramamine.

“– you can really start to sound pompous and irascible. What I guess I mean is, kids should be outside on a day like this, playing slow-pitch or skateboarding. My mom was a bacteriologist and Pop was a molecular biologist. Science, academics — they were everything to those two. Not much time for recreational photosynthesis, you know what I mean?”

Mulder smiled meditatively. Scully glanced fleetingly at her partner. Charles Fishbein morphed back into Charles Fishbein.

“Honestly, Agents, I have no idea how anyone could get past the scanner, much less a child. Dr. Musli has only infant children, and Dr. Petersen and his, er, life partner, well, you know…”

“I think I do, Dr. Fishbein,” Mulder said. “Fascinating field you’re in. I’ve done a little reading on thermophilic organisms. You ever read the reports of silicon-based life forms identified in the volcanic substrata of–”

“Pure urban legend,” Fishbein tsked. Mulder knew better — knew all too well — but he caught Scully’s cautionary stare.

“Probably. Hey, you ever work with Lisa Ianelli at M.I.T?”

Fishbein’s eyes grew momentarily wary behind his lenses, then he recovered. “I think I’ve heard the name before, but she’s not really in my discipline. Why do you ask?”

Mulder shrugged. “Ianelli did some work with cryonics, that’s all. Just thought. Hey, Scully, why don’t we just let Dr. Fishbein get back to work. I want to look at that retinal scanner data again.”

“Sure, Mulder,” Scully drawled dubiously. “Dr. Fishbein.”

Charles Fishbein nodded curtly, in a very Charles Fishbein sort of way. “Agents. Good luck.”

“Don’t work too hard, Doctor,” Mulder grinned. “Beautiful day out.”

Fishbein paused. “Oh. Yes,” he stammered.

* * *

“Wait up a second! Hey! Agents!”

Mulder and Scully turned as the large man trotted across the lab’s rose marble lobby floor. His hand was out 10 feet before he panted to a halt.

“Jake Rusterman,” the man breathed, squeezing Mulder’s hand. He nodded to Scully. “You two are looking into Tuesday’s ‘sighting’ in the thermophilic research lab, right? Well, I hesitate to speculate, but given all the crap you see in the news, I feel like I’d be remiss…”

Mulder held up a palm. “If it would help, Dr. Rusterman, I could invoke the Patriot Act and hit you a few whacks with a nightstick.”

Rusterman chuckled. “OK, sorry. And it’s Mr. Rusterman. Jake. I’m in communications for the lab — probably the dumbest guy on staff. But I was a reporter, up in Wauconda, and I’m maybe a little better at putting things together than some of the big brains in residence. Thing is, when I heard Renaldo saw a boy in Chuck Fishbein’s lab, it clicked with something kinda hinky… Oh, gee, if I’m wrong, though…”

“Mr. Rusterman, it is the duty of all free Americans to come to the aid of local, state, federal, and mall law enforcement when the security of our homeland and the sanctity of the republic…”

“Yeah, all right. Sorry. See, Chuck’s single, a loner — nothing unusual among some of these hard science types. But a few weeks ago, I saw him at a Little League game — my sister’s kid was playing. Great fielder, but he could use a little focus at the plate, you know? Anyway. I’m thinking, this isn’t like Chuck. He isn’t really, you know, athletically inclined, and he’s got no family in the area anymore. So I decide to see what’s up, if anything’s hinky. But Chuck spots me and skates, like the Mob’s after him or something. Then I see this boy at the other end of the bleachers watching him leave. Two seconds later, the kid follows Chuck. It seems hinky, and, well, you know journalistic instinct. I follow the kid, and he gets in a car with Chuck and the two of them drive off. I’m thinking it seems kinda hinky.”

“What do you think?” Scully asked, a spark of anxiety in her voice. “Are you suggesting Dr. Fishbein and this boy…?”

“Wait,” Rusterman sighed, with mingled reluctance and reportorial fervor. “I didn’t want to think Chuck might be some kinda pedophile or anything, so, well, I’ve been tailing him after he gets off work here. He’s been leaving right on the dot, which is weird for him because he usually doesn’t clock out ’til eight or nine. Guess where he’s been going?”

“To the old ballgame,” Mulder sang.

“Yeah. But not to the same park. He picks up this kid at his house, takes him to the park, sends him to the opposite end of the stands, and then they leave separately. But get this. They’ve been going to different ballparks each time, all over Chicagoland and the Western Burbs. Not once at the same park, not once where the same teams were playing. Hinky, huh?”

“H to the hizzle,” Mulder agreed. “You think you could ID this boy, if we got a sketch from Mr. Ortiz?”

“Sure, I guess. Wish I’d kept up the tail Tuesday, but my sister had me over to dinner. You think old Chuck brought the kid here? Cause it would be bad enough if Chuck was a chickenhawk, but if this hit the Chicago Trib…”

“We don’t know what to think yet, Mr. Rusterman,” Scully pre-empted. “But thank you for coming forward with this. We’d ask you, though, to keep this to yourself. For the time being.”

“Jeez, that’s my job.” Rusterman saluted and lumbered off.

Outside the lab, Scully looked quizzically at Mulder.

“Hinky,” he responded.

She nodded, pursing her lips. “But I bet you know what to think. Right?”

“I do, my little prescient soulmate. But I have to warn you…”

“I may not believe it. Yeah, yeah, blah, blah. Hit me with it, X-Man.”

“I don’t think we’re dealing with pedophilia, man-boy love, or anything else, Wolverine. Chuck and his young friend have been hitting different parks, different teams, nearly every night, with no interaction. I think they’re scouting.”

“Scouting? What’s that a euphemism for? Do I want to know?”

Mulder laughed condescendingly. “At the risk of a left testicle, Scully, it’s a guy thing.”

* * *

It took a few calls, semi-official threats of federal invasiveness, and a lot of Googling. But two days later, Mulder shared a cup of java and a FAX with Renaldo Ortiz and Jake Rusterman. Rusterman’s chair squeaked back on the lounge tile.

“Yeah, maybe a little older, but that’s the kid. Why’s the name blacked out?”

“Protect the innocent. Jack Webb.” Mulder turned to Ortiz, who looked up curiously from the photocopied school photo from Ohio. “Is it him?”

“Absolutely,” the custodian nodded eagerly. “Like I said, it’s crazy. But he looks so familiar, you know?”

“Can Agent Scully and I have a moment, guys, mano a mano?” Mulder requested. The pair filed out, and he smiled triumphantly. “Remember how hinky Fishbein got when I asked him about Lisa Ianelli?”

“Quit using that word. Yes, I remember.”

“Well, I found out he did some post-doctoral work where Ianelli’s teaching now, out west. Even after her little misadventure in time and cryogenics, she couldn’t totally let go of her work with Yonechi and Nichols. She started communicating with ‘Chuck,’ bouncing her theories off him. I think Fishbein managed to put it all together and finished Lisa’s work. His thermophilic research may only be a cover for developing the cryonic means to withstand time travel Ianelli merely suspected.”

Scully’s jaw worked. “But Mulder, that would be a Nobel-prize-winning breakthrough, not to mention the societal implications. Why would he keep something like this secret?”

Mulder smiled. “I think maybe Fishbein is more thoughtful, more cognizant of risk and consequence than Lisa was. I think he reasoned out the potential harm his discovery could wreak in the infamous wrong hands. And I think he had much smaller fish to fry.”

“Smaller fish? Mulder, where are we going with this?”

“Buy me some peanuts and Crackerjacks…” Mulder crooned.

* * *

It was just before six when Mulder and Scully cruised past Charles Fishbein’s SUV toward the parking lot of the nearby city park. Mulder watched as a man and boy climbed from the vehicle and parted company. Fishbein was in his seat near the home team dugout within minutes; the boy settled in on a line with the mound.

“The Eagle has landed,” Mulder announced, emerging from behind a port-a-john. “We’ll reconnoiter at the seventh inning stretch for corn dogs.”

“Yum,” Scully murmured.

* * *

The boy jumped as Scully squatted next to him on the sun-warmed aluminum bleacher. She flashed her ID low and quickly, and he slumped, eyes filled with fear.

“Am I, is he, are we, am I in trouble?” he croaked. “I just knew we were gonna get in trouble.”

Scully placed a hand on the boy’s shoulder. “You’re not in trouble…Charles?”

* * *

Fishbein nearly choked on his last bite of hotdog and bun as he spotted the petite redhead settling next to the boy. He dropped his Coke and started to rise, but Mulder placed a hand on his shoulder and dropped onto the bleacher.

“Relax, Chuck — it’s just the bottom of the second,” the agent smiled. “Scully will keep, ah, you busy while we talk a little sports.”

“I don’t know what you’re–” Dr. Fishbein sputtered.

“You ever read any Sherlock Holmes when you — he was growing up?” Mulder asked, nodding toward the boy conversing with Scully. “Well, Holmes postulated that if you were forced to eliminate every logical solution to a problem, whatever remained, however improbable, had to be the answer. The problem here was how our mysterious boy managed to bypass a retinal scanner and enter a restricted laboratory, then leave the lab without setting off every alarm in the joint. Well, the answer is, our boy didn’t bypass anything.

“I reexamined the biometric and retinal scanner data the night of the ‘visitation.’ Turns out the scanner ‘read’ your retinal signature twice before disengaging the electronic lock. Why twice? Because the scanner scanned both you and the boy, whose retina was identical to yours. You both scanned through because you were afraid the biometric system would ‘see’ two bodies outside the lab. If there were two bodies and only one retinal scan, the folks at the lab could just figure something was off with the equipment. You needn’t have worried, though: You two only left one signature.”

Fishbein’s forehead wrinkled, and for a second, the scientist was back. “Really?”

“You forgot one of the primary rules of physics, Doctor. Matter cannot be created or destroyed. Somehow, through some hinky little law of nature, the biometric scanner could only read one Charles Fishbein. See, once I discovered you’d been in communication with Lisa Ianelli and had a lab full of cryonic equipment, I reasoned you were having a little fun with the space-time continuum.”

Fishbein’s bravado had been building as Mulder speculated. “I’m interested in how you plan to explain this to the director.”

“I asked myself, if I could go back in time, what would I do? Kill Hitler? Stop Oswald? Buy Microsoft stock? Tell Bill Clinton to hire the intern with the unibrow and the prominent Adam’s apple? No. I’d go back to my tender adolescence and kick my sorry butt into shape. And I think that’s what you decided to do. I talked to your sister, back in Cleveland. She said your folks put a lot of pressure on you, demanded perfect grades, had your degree program pretty well figured out by the time you were eating paste in kindergarten. Not a lot of time for fun. For baseball.”

Fishbein studied his hands, clasped in his lap. “I had to go to friends’ houses just to watch the Indians play — Mom and Pop thought television was an instrument of the ignorant masses. And they thought even less of sports. ‘Narcissism for the imagination-deficient,’ Pop said.”

“My dad was a scientist, too,” Mulder said quietly. “The day they announced baseball tryouts at my junior high school, I asked Dad to buy me a fielder’s mitt. He very calmly asked me why a young man of my ‘aptitudes and intellect’ wanted to play ‘silly games in the dirt.’ He suggested I go out for rugby or lacrosse if I ‘felt the need to flex my physical confidence.’ Instead, I joined the astronomy club and the debate team. Quit the team when they told me to argue against life in outer space.”

“My P.E. teacher said I had promise, wanted me to go out for junior varsity,” Fishbein mumbled. “Dad caught me at tryouts and told the principal to order Mr. Todson to quit ‘harassing’ me. I was a pariah after that.”

“Someday, maybe I’ll show you what I looked like with Spock ears. I’m lucky I ever got laid.” Mulder leaned back, propping his elbows on the riser behind them. “You decided to correct the course of destiny, what, get back the Major League career your parents cheated you out of? Except if you went back to ‘coach’ Little Chucky, they’d only be in the way again. You had a better idea. It’s like in the majors — today’s kids make the Little Leaguers of our day look sick. You brought Chuck the Younger to the future to teach him a few 21st Century moves he — you — could use to get noticed, get on the varsity team, get a scholarship. My guess is, you return him a couple of minutes after you pick him up, so Drs. Fishbein and Fishbein won’t notice he was missing. Right?”

Fishbein’s eyes were locked on the batter, a tubby kid with his uniform shirt half-untucked.

“Was that what he was doing in the lab when Ortiz spotted him? Heading back before his folks found out? How’d you ever hide the technology from your assistants?”

“Got a good stance for a large kid,” Fishbein murmured. “What? Oh. You’d be amazed how simple the technology really is, once you grasp the principles and the cryonics element. The actual technology can be hidden in a–”

“I don’t want to know, Doctor,” Mulder interrupted.

“Of course. I understand. Don’t be concerned — I’ll dismantle the equipment and eliminate all the documentation when I’m done.” The scientist laughed. “If this works, the technology won’t even come into existence.”

Mulder thought about Scully’s university thesis on time and quantum mechanics, her theory that multiple possibilities are conceivable in multiple universes but that only a single outcome is possible in our own, even if we achieved the means to tamper with the dimension of time.

“It won’t work,” Mulder said. “Look, is he happy about this? Does he seem excited?”

“He was at first,” Fishbein said, sneaking a glance as the batter ignored a high foul that whistled past his ear. “Good eye. Uh, sorry. He was excited at first, mainly about the whole time travel thing. Of course, he didn’t know how his whole future would work out, but once I convinced him he could make the majors… But he’s been distracted lately, and, well, I should’ve set things up at home, I guess. After seeing everything at the lab, all that’s coming, everything we’ll achieve.”

“Lemme guess,” Mulder ventured. “He wants to be just like you.”

Fishbein sighed. “Yeah.”

“It’s the ineffable forces of physics at work, Chuck. This is the future, right here. Take him home, leave him alone. Let him be a kid, for better or worse, Chuck. He deserves it. You deserve it.”

Fishbein’s response was pre-empted by a rifle-like shot. The crowd came to its feet as the ball arced toward the outfield gate and the plump boy puffed down the first base line.

“Holy shit,” Fishbein murmured, his dejected expression transformed into something nearly beatific.

“Going, gooooing…” Mulder muttered, eyes widening.

“Crap,” Fishbein sighed as the ball came to Earth mere feet from the chainlink fence. The outfielders converged, and the portly batter bolted.

“He’s taking second!!” Fishbein shouted.

“Yes!” Mulder cheered, his voice merging with the crowd chorus. The boy took second as the right fielder hurled the ball toward second. Then the batter crouched and dove into a flat run for third.

“C’mon, c’mon,” Fishbein urged as the boy and the ball hurtled simultaneously toward the baseman. The boy arrived first, and the third baseman bobbled the ball. Without pausing, the batter regained his stride.

“Oh, yeah, baby!” Mulder yelled.

The pitcher threw his mask as the baseman’s arm arced. The plump runner accelerated, then disappeared in a cloud of brown dirt. The catcher snagged the ball as the batter hugged home plate, and the stands erupted. The dugout cleared as the large boy climbed to his feet and submitted to the exuberant pummeling and headlocks of his teammates. Mulder raised a palm, and Fishbein delivered a hearty slap.

“Wow,” the scientist panted.

“Yeah,” Mulder laughed.

Fishbein dropped back onto the bleacher. “I ask you, does it truly get any better than that?”

Mulder was silent for a moment, regarding the researcher’s melancholic rapture. “Actually, Chuck, it does,” he suggested gently, glancing down the stands at Scully, who was nodding, grinning, as an excited child recapped the last game-clinching play. “You just have to quit living in the past — or trying to change it. Why don’t you find an adult league? Or maybe start a team at work? Though I’ve seen your coworkers — you might need to quit your day job.” He stood. “Enjoy the rest of the game. And, Chuck, drive safely — very safely.”

“Hey, Agent,” Charles Fishbein called. Mulder turned. “William Mulder? That was your dad?”

The agent nodded.

“Wow. That must’ve been hell.”

Mulder smiled. “Purgatory, Chuck. Just purgatory.”

*end

A Day At The Races

A Day at the Races

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A.D. Walter Skinner’s Office

F.B.I. Headquarters, Washington, D.C.

Fox Mulder sat on the opposite side of the desk from his superior. It was an uncomfortable feeling, sitting there in the ‘hot seat’ without adequate backup, i.e., his partner, and today more so than usual.

Today was Scully’s annual oncological checkup. This November it would be ten years since her cancer went into its unexplained, but welcomed remission.

Neither of them had any reason to believe she would receive anything but a clean bill of health, but, even after all this time, the anxiety still played on his mind.

Mulder was determined that this summer they would celebrate, that they wouldn’t spend it chasing unmarked tanker trucks or mounting a rescue.

He was going to take her to one of those places she’d always hinted she wished they could go on a case — like Hawaii.

Skinner opened the file on his desk and studied his rogue agent while Mulder studied his fingernails. The A.D. also knew where Scully was today and, therefore, knew that Mulder’s mind was a million miles away from the task at hand.

The case he had before him was something he would normally have blown off, just from the absurdity of the initial police report.

But knowing Mulder, that absurdity would only pique his interest.

His agent had spent the last several months reestablishing his credentials as a top investigator — this — this, if it were the least bit true, had “X-File” written all over it.

“I was going to hang onto this until tomorrow when Agent Scully will be back, but I thought I’d give you the opportunity to turn it down before she had a chance to look it over,” Skinner began.

A sly grin spread across Mulder’s face as he looked up. He knew what his boss was alluding to.

This had to be a doozy if he was being given the opportunity to opt out before his partner could question his sanity.

“This case came down from the Baltimore PD. They’re a bit stymied by where their investigation has taken them on it.” Skinner told him.

“Go on, Sir…” Mulder urged when the A.D. hesitated.

“Pimlico Racetrack, the horse racing park, just outside of Baltimore, had contacted them regarding a rash of high payouts which had given the officials there cause to believe they might be the victims of a betting scam,” Skinner continued doing his best to maintain an official tone. “Over the past six months, payouts on winners, perfecta and trifecta wagering have already surpassed the 2006 totals.”

“Ouch, I’d say that’s something they didn’t bet on.” Mulder deadpanned.

Skinner’s lip curled slightly in response to Mulder’s pun. “I don’t know how familiar you are with the wagering system at horse tracks, but most people have a hard enough time picking one horse to finish first, second or third — let alone do it on a regular basis…”

“Therefore, the odds of picking a perfecta, the first and second place horse in the same race or a trifecta, the first three finishers in the same race, once again on a regular basis, are — astronomical,” Mulder added.

“Not to mention the dollars involved.” Skinner concluded.

Mulder was intrigued but not quite sure what this had to do with the X-Files. “The locals have any suspects?”

“Baltimore police started an investigation two months ago that has, so far, led to only one arrest. And a not very reliable one at that…”

“Can I see the file?” Mulder asked leaning forward to accept the file that apparently Skinner did not want to give up just yet.

“Two weeks ago, they arrested Ulysses Bailey, a previous employee at the track.” Skinner told him. “Mr. Bailey has been working with horses for the better part of his sixty-two years. He started out as a hot walker and groom and later became an exercise boy. He’s worked at tracks up and down the eastern seaboard. Bailey suffered a bad fall a little over five years ago and is no longer able to ride. So, now he spends his time moving from stable to stable, training grooms for cash.”

“You said he was a ‘previous employee’…”

“He was employed at Pimlico when he took the fall — he’s been back there for the past six months lending his ‘expertise,’ if you will, to the young talent.”

Mulder smiled again. “Why did the Baltimore P.D. arrest him?”

“They received several anonymous calls that he might have another side job — tipping bookies for a cut of the winnings.” Skinner told him bluntly.

“There’s a fair amount of that going on in any sport, Sir.” Mulder replied dryly.

“I’m well aware of that, Agent.” The A.D. responded. “According to the Baltimore detective assigned to the case, tracks up and down the eastern circuit have been experiencing a marked increase in high cash disbursements which seem to coincide with Mr. Bailey’s appearance.”

Mulder was confused. If the Baltimore P.D. already had a suspect in custody, why were they looking to the F.B.I. for assistance? There was obviously a catch here, but he’d also obviously missed it.

“I don’t get it, Sir,” Mulder commented, leaning back into his seat. “Is he still in custody?”

“No, they had no physical evidence to hold him, especially when he confessed to his method of picking winners…”

“Which is?” Mulder asked with a raised eyebrow and a slight shake of his head.

“He says he can read the horse’s mind.” Skinner closed the folder and passed it across the desk to Mulder. He watched his agent’s eyes brighten as he slid the folder from the desk and opened it.

Mulder perused the file for several minutes.

Ulysses Bailey was a whimsical-looking African-American man, originally from the bayou country of southern Louisiana.

Mulder bit his bottom lip. There was a Horse Whisperer joke here somewhere. Finally he closed the folder and stood. “Are you a betting man, Sir?”

Skinner nodded, “Just between you and me, I’ve been known to play the horses now and then. Why?”

“Well then, I wouldn’t bet against him.”

***

X-Files Office

Mulder spent the rest of the afternoon running a background check on the gifted Mr. Bailey.

He’d drifted, most of the last thirty years or so, from tracks in Miami to Saratoga, New York and everywhere in between.

Bailey’s current residence was located in a rundown area of Baltimore. It was not the area where you’d expect someone who made a living playing the ponies to reside.

Whatever he was doing with his winnings, it certainly didn’t include creature comforts.

Mulder had placed a call to the detective listed on the report, but so far, there’d been no reply to his message.

When the phone finally did ring, he found himself hoping it was his partner instead of a cocky detective.

“Mulder.”

“Agent Mulder, this is Detective Johnson, Baltimore P.D. You left me a message regarding this betting scam case I’m working.”

“Yeah,” Mulder answered. “My A.D. brought it to my attention. I wanted to get your personal take on Mr. Bailey’s claim, Detective.”

“You mean if he gets his tips right from the horse’s mouth?”

Mulder smiled, knowing the detective couldn’t see him, but kept his voice neutral. “Or mind.”

“Yeah, so he claims. Mr. Mulder. Look, I don’t know if you remember me,” Johnson paused. “You worked a case in Baltimore back in ninety-four. A case involving a man named Eugene Tooms…”

Mulder’s mind raced back to the overbearing detective who had no interest at the time in any of his theories. Yes, he remembered him. It had almost cost him and Scully their lives.

He was puzzled, but intrigued, as to why this man who had dismissed him so readily at that time would now turn a complete about-face and seek his help.

“Detective Johnson, if I remember correctly, you didn’t have much confidence in mine or my partner’s investigative skills at the time…”

“Well, let’s just say that, after that case, I learned that things aren’t always what they seem. I was hoping this particular case would find its way to you.” Johnson admitted.

There was a time when Mulder would have taken offense at the systematic shuffling of cases like these which sifted their way down through channels to end up in the X-Files basket.

Now, however, he looked at them as a challenge, because, more often than not, since his association with his now partner-in-life, his theories were often proved right.

He and Scully had had run-ins with Tooms twice early on in their partnership.

It was the first time she’d witnessed his knack for pissing off the locals with his leaps of logic.

It was also the first time he’d had a partner who was willing to give him the benefit of the doubt.

Evidently, now so was Johnson.

“You interrogated Bailey, Detective Johnson. What do you think of his claims?” Mulder asked.

“You mean, do I think he can read a horse’s mind?” The detective snorted into the phone. “Lots of handicappers have good horse sense, especially ones that have been doing it for a career. There’s a science to it, if you want to call it that. Some of them just do the math, but no handicapper I’ve ever talked to has ever claimed he’s gotten the information right from the horses themselves.

“So you’re saying that Mr. Bailey is just lucky?” Mulder concluded. “What led you to arrest him?”

“Well, Agent Mulder, I would say he was lucky… *if* he had a reasonable amount of luck. But Bailey, he hits ’em *every* time. Anyone who wins more than six hundred dollars gambling, well, the IRS wants to know.” Detective Johnson took a deep breath. “So, we traced some of the higher payouts. Everyone we contacted told us they had gotten their tip from Mr. Bailey. We can’t find any connections between these individuals and anyone connected with the horses they cash in on, but, there’s *got* to be something more at work here than just luck…”

Mulder played some thoughts around in his mind.

Ulysses Bailey came from a part of the country steeped in mystique and “black magic”. Any number of things could lead to his remarkable luck.

Evidently Johnson suspected where his thoughts were going.

“Now, don’t get your hopes up Agent Mulder,” Johnson warned, “We’re still operating under the suspicion that there’s more than just Bailey involved here. Everyone wants a cut of the action, you know. Could be that the owners and trainers are at the heart of this thing themselves.”

“Thanks, Detective,” Mulder told him. “I’ll look over the case with my partner and we’ll get back to you.”

After a hasty “goodbye,” Johnson disconnected the call.

Mulder studied the file for a few minutes after speaking with Johnson.

He knew what it was like to find your head filled with other human voices — certainly hearing the thoughts of horses couldn’t be as horrifying.

Mulder wanted to meet Mr. Ulysses Bailey.

***

Mulder & Scully’s Townhouse

Georgetown

When Mulder opened the door to their home, his nostrils were immediately filled with the aroma of Scully’s cooking.

It wasn’t often they had a home-cooked meal during the week. Evidently, the results from her doctor visit were a cause for celebration. He dumped the case files on the sofa table as he shed his jacket and went in search of the source.

He found Scully in the kitchen, stirring a pot of pasta. She looked up at him when he entered, a soft smile easing the corners of her lips.

It was all the answer he needed. He crossed the kitchen and wrapped his arms around her. “Everything was clear,” she told him as she pulled his warm arms tighter around herself.

“Ten years, Scully; we’re gonna celebrate, I promise you.”

The conviction in his voice made her swallow hard. She wouldn’t hold him to it but she knew how much the news meant to both of them. “This year’s MUFON convention in Roswell, Mulder?” she teased.

“Nah,” he chuckled. “I was thinking someplace a lot more — tropical, actually.”

She gave the pasta another quick stir and turned in his arms to face him, “You’re serious, aren’t you…?”

“More serious than I’ve been about anything in my life. We’re both tired, Scully. We need a break.”

“Thank you,” was all she could think to say. He leaned down to kiss her. When he moved in closer and started to deepen the kiss, she pulled her lips away, “Mul — der…”

“What?”

“We’ll have burnt pasta,” she attempted to say around his persistent lips.

He pulled back finally and let out a soft sigh. “Okay — but raincheck?”

“Anytime.”

Me mouthed ‘later’ and then asked, “Do I have time to change?” He reached up to loosen his tie and slowly stepped away.

“Ten minutes. There’s some wine in the refrigerator you can open, too.”

When he returned a few minutes later in jeans and a gray t-shirt, he was carrying a couple of Bureau folders.

*Nothing like spoiling the moment,* she thought.

“It’s not what you think,” he quipped when he saw her face fall. “You’re gonna love this one.”

She caught the mischievous look on his face as he handed her a file. While he opened the wine, she leafed through its pages.

It wasn’t long before she looked up, wide-eyed, and asked “You’ve got to be kidding? Skinner gave you this? Mulder, please tell me you don’t believe…”

“Came right from the Baltimore P.D. And no, I don’t — not exactly,” he surprised her as he turned to offer her a glass. “But I’d sure like to know how he does it…”

“So, tomorrow we’re going to the races?”

“Too bad it’s not Derby Day at Churchill Downs…Scully. I bet you’d look ravishing in one of those hats…” He waggled his eyebrows at her.

Scully punched his arm. “Not in a million years.”

“Ow!”

Scully smiled as she turned away.

***

Pimlico Race Course

Baltimore, Maryland

Their Bureau badges had gotten them past track security and into the barn area the next morning.

As they crossed the paddock area, Mulder pulled the photo of Bailey from his jacket pocket and flashed it at a young man hot walking a sleek, black horse that had just come off the track from a morning exercise.

These days it was sort of unusual to find someone actually walking the horses to cool them down.

Most stables now had mechanical walkers similar to those contraptions you saw used for pony rides at county fairs.

Mulder approached the young man. “Excuse me, can you tell me where we might find this man?”

The young boy took a quick look at the photo. “You mean the General?” he glanced back and forth between the two agents.

Mulder turned to his partner and raised an eyebrow, then turned back to the boy. “Is that what they call him around here?”

“Old enough to be,” the young man snorted. “You’ll probably find him in Barn 9, talkin’ to the animals.”

As they wandered up and down the rows of stalls, horses whinnied and poked their heads out to tease each other.

It was a warm, breezy morning and it brought back memories to Scully of riding on family vacations, and of her sister dragging her through the horse barns at county fairs.

That had all been so long ago.

Missy had always been the horse lover of the family, but Scully admired their beauty just as much.

Mulder caught her far away expression. “They do have quite an aroma, don’t they?”

“I kinda like it, actually,” Scully told him as she stopped to stroke the head of a chestnut horse that had poked his head out and nuzzled her as they passed. “Haven’t you ever heard the expression ‘the outside of a horse is good for the inside of a man’?”

“Well, the horse might be, but I’ll guarantee you, the saddle wouldn’t be good for my backside.” The horse tossed his head as Mulder stepped closer and reached up to scratch the horse’s head between his ears.

“Little Green Man,” Scully commented.

“What?” Mulder looked at his partner strangely.

“Look at the halter, Mulder; his name is ‘Little Green Man.'”

A goofy grin spread across Mulder’s face, “You suppose that’s a sign, Scully? Wonder if he’s running today?”

“This horse?” The heavily-accented Hispanic voice came from inside the stall. Neither Mulder nor Scully had any idea there was someone else present.

When they both looked into the stall they noticed a Mexican gentleman briskly brushing the horse’s coat. “The only place this horse will run today is back to the barn.”

Mulder chuckled, “You’re saying I shouldn’t waste two bucks on him then, huh?”

“No, Señor!”

The horse stepped back in the stall and turned his head sharply to nip at the groom who wisely jumped out of the way. “No, sassy!” he yelled, shaking the dandy brush at the horse.

“Eduardo! You speakin’ unkindly about my man again?” The deep baritone voice came from behind the agents.

When they turned to investigate its source, they were face-to-face with an elderly African-American man, Ulysses Bailey, whose demeanor didn’t seem to fit the voice.

Ulysses wasn’t much taller than Scully, and probably didn’t weigh much more, either.

He was dressed in a finely-tailored suit, wingtip shoes and an impeccably creased fedora. He leaned heavily to his left on a finely-carved black cane.

When he snapped his fingers, the chestnut horse came back to the stall door, tossing his head almost as if in greeting.

“Today’s gonna be your day, my man,” he addressed the horse before turning back to the agents. “You must be the folks I hear are a lookin’ for me.”

“Ulysses Bailey?” Mulder asked as he flashed his badge. “This is my partner, Agent Scully.”

“My pleasure,” Ulysses tipped his hat in Scully’s direction.

“Backstretch grapevine?” Mulder asked, certain that’s how Bailey knew they were coming to see him.

“We take care of each other’s backs here. They’re all wonderin’ what the F.B.I. wants with an old man like me.” Bailey explained.

Mulder sized up the man. He looked frail underneath his expensive clothing. “There seems to be some question as to how you’re such a lucky man, Mr. Bailey.”

Ulysses took something from his jacket pocket and offered it on the palm of his hand to the horse.

“Seems to me there’s a lot more important things the government ought to be spendin’ their time with than wonderin’ ’bout somethin’ like that.” Bailey said, fondly scratching under the horse’s chin as the animal chewed his treat.

“Yes, we have to agree with you Mr. Bailey,” Scully countered. “Nevertheless, we’re here to question you.”

“Law already questioned me, Ms. Scully.”

Ulysses stepped back from the stall door and Mulder moved over, placing himself between the man and the horse. “And you told them you get your information right from the horse’s mouth?”

“Well now, I didn’t exactly put it in quite those words. You see, they don’t actually talk to me,” the African-American man chuckled. “You spend your life around somethin’, you get to know it pretty well.”

“The General has good horse sense,” the groom spoke once again from inside the stall. “But I think this one, he just be joking with him.”

Mulder glanced over his shoulder at the groom, “Evidently, he doesn’t share your confidence in Ol’ Red here.” He said as he turned back to address Mr. Bailey.

Suddenly, Mulder was shoved hard from behind, causing him to stumble into his partner, almost knocking her off her feet.

He reached out to steady her and then turned to look at the culprit.

Little Green Man bared his teeth and tossed his head again. Ulysses and the groom both laughed. “He knows you’re talkin’ unkindly about him, Mr. Mulder,” Bailey said.

“You okay?” Mulder asked his partner. When she nodded he turned to Bailey again. “How about if we all take a walk, you can tell us what they actually do say…”

As they walked away, Little Green Man whinnied and Mulder turned around. “Oh, he’s not talkin’ to you, Mr. Mulder, he’s got his eye on your partner,” Bailey chuckled.

“I understand you’ve been working around horses most of your life, Mr. Bailey,” Scully commented, ignoring Mr. Bailey’s quip and, thereby, forestalling any comment Mulder might make as they walked up the row of stalls.

She and Mulder slowed their pace as Bailey limped along beside them. “Ridin’ was a good job for a man my size. ‘Course there wasn’t much opportunity to move up for a black man back when I was ridin’, you understand. So, I did a lot of other jobs as well. Pretty much got to know all there was to know about horses and the racin’ business.”

“What happened to your leg, if you don’t mind my asking?” Scully inquired.

Bailey looked down at his left leg. “Workin’ a horse one morning and she went down on me, busted it up pretty good. But, they were able to put it back together good enough so I could walk on it again. Filly wasn’t as lucky.”

Scully bit her lip in acknowledgement.

“Don’t have the strength in it to ride anymore, but there isn’t anything I wouldn’t give to be able to climb back on a horse and feel that physical power under me. God gave the horse somethin’ special, Ms. Scully. When you’re sittin’ up there, and they’re movin’ underneath you, *so* fast, it’s like bein’ a part of the wind.”

Bailey’s poetic description made both the agents smile.

As they continued on down the long row of stalls, a dark bay horse poked his head out of a nearby stall and whinnied. “Forget it ol’ man, this lady’s taken,” Ulysses joked.

Mulder turned to the horse as he strode past and then glanced in Scully’s direction, breaking into a chuckle at her annoyed look. “Must be your red hair,” he whispered to her. “Catches their eye,” he finished with an over-exaggerated wink.

Scully said nothing, giving her partner “The Look” instead.

Bailey turned back to look at the agents, his face breaking into a warm smile as well. “All males know a pretty lady when they see one.”

“Mr. Bailey,” Mulder made an attempt to change the subject. “As you may well know, it’s been brought to our attention that you’re the subject of an investigation of what the Baltimore P.D. believes is a gambling ring. It’s been suggested that you’re tipping bookies for a share of the winnings. Do you have anything to say about that?”

They reached the fence that separated the backstretch of the track from the barns.

Several horses galloped past, urged on by their exercise riders. “Detective Johnson tell you that?” Ulysses asked as he reached up to steady himself by holding onto the top rail of the fence. “He’s the one been tellin’ everyone that I get my tips by readin’ the horses’ minds,” the elderly man let out a deep laugh and shook his head. “Ain’t nobody can do that, Mr. Mulder.”

Mulder flashed a glance at his partner. “Then how is it you’re so lucky at picking the winners, Mr. Bailey? We have several statements indicating that *you* are responsible for the information winners have used to place their bets.”

“Whoo-eee — if I was *that* lucky, I’d be a rich man, that’s for sure. You see, it’s not *me* that’s the lucky one, Sir. It’s the person who places the bet.”

Scully watched a group of horses being led off the track by their grooms. The brisk morning breeze ruffled their manes and tails and tossed her own hair in front of her face.

She turned slightly away from the wind. “Let me see if I understand this correctly,” she began. “Somehow you know what horse is going to win a race, so you pass this information on to an individual who, in turn, places a bet on that horse and wins big. Some might consider that illegal, Mr. Bailey.”

“It *would* only be illegal, Ms. Scully, if everyone else out there on the track knew which horse was going to win the race and made sure that happened. I’m not exactly sure how I know, Ms. Scully,” Bailey answered keeping his eyes on the horses as they left the track.

Bailey shrugged and continued. “Some of them are just due. You know that sayin’ ’bout havin’ your fifteen minutes of fame? Everybody gets one in their lifetime. I just gets the feelin’ when an animal’s about to have theirs.

“And then some of them — the ones everyone thinks are at the top of their game, just aren’t ready,” he nodded towards a bay horse that was being led alone from the track. “Now take ‘Seek the Truth’ there; she’s the favorite in the stakes race this Saturday, she’ll go off as the favorite but she won’t win, she’s tired.”

“But *she* didn’t tell you that?” Scully asked, somewhat annoyed by the conversation as she watched the horse being led away.

“No, Ma’am. I mean she’s fit and everything, but her heart’s just not in it right now.”

Mulder studied his partner but said nothing.

“So, that’s what you base your tips on? And yet you say you *can’t* read their minds.” Scully gave her partner an irritated look.

“It’s not hard, Miss. I sees it in their eyes. Sometimes you just have to know where to look.”

“Yes, well,” Scully hesitated at the memory the elderly man’s comment brought to mind. “I think it’s more a matter of someone tipping you to the fix for the day, Mr. Bailey.”

“Lot of that goes on at the tracks, Ms. Scully.” Bailey suddenly didn’t seem so pleased with the direction the conversation was going. “Even if I knew what the fix was, I wouldn’t be a part of it. My Mama didn’t raise me that way.”

“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to imply…” Scully started to say. “Then what exactly *is* your explanation?”

Bailey glanced at Mulder. There was a certain twinkle in the elderly man’s eyes. “I don’t rightly know, Miss. I don’t think it’s up to me. You see, I was raised on the bayou. There’s a magic down there not many can explain. I just sees when a horse is going to have his moment and I sees someone who needs the benefit of that moment and I just tell them. I think the magic takes over from there.”

Mulder had been watching the horses on the track and seemed distracted, and, being so, was now the subject of Scully’s exasperation.

It was almost as if he wasn’t even interested in the conversation, and yet, she knew he often distanced himself from her interrogations to toss his own theories about in his head.

She could only imagine where he would go with this one.

Finally, Mulder turned to Bailey. “Like a horse whisperer, or a dog whisperer, a cat whisperer?”

Bailey laughed. “Ain’t nobody can figure out a cat, Mr. Mulder.”

Scully had had enough. “I’ll see you in the car, Mulder,” she said abruptly and then turned to walk away.

“My partner’s not exactly open to all kinds of possibilities, Mr. Bailey,” Mulder apologized. So, what about ‘Little Green Man’? You said today was his day.”

Bailey smiled widely. “Yes Sir, Mr. Mulder; ninth race. You bet him for your lady.”

Mulder smiled and reached out to shake Bailey’s hand. “It was interesting meeting you Mr. Bailey,” he said and then decided he just had to know something else. “By the way, how did the horse get his name? The owners aren’t U.F.O. buffs or something, are they?”

“What? Oh — THOSE people? No, Sir. Owners are Irish,” Bailey winked.

***

Mulder caught up with Scully at the gate. “Hey, Scully! What’s your hurry?”

“‘Cat whisperer,’ Mulder?”

“Interesting, interesting character, Mr. Bailey, isn’t he?” Mulder asked as they headed across the lot to their car.

“Bailey? I think he sips a little too much out of that flask he carries in his pocket.” Scully told him. “I wonder if he spikes the sugar cubes he passes to the horses while he’s talking to them. He’s not connected to this gambling ring, Mulder; someone’s just fingering him to draw officials away from those who are really involved.”

“I think you’re right,” Mulder replied nonchalantly and Scully turned to him with a surprised look on her face. “I mean about someone else being involved.”

When they reached the car, Mulder hesitated. “Hey Scully, how about a day at the races?”

“Mulder, we’re on the clock.”

“So, now we’re off the clock. Come on, it’ll be fun.”

Scully looked at her partner standing on the opposite side of the car. The wind tossed his dark hair and then he broke into one of those goofy grins she couldn’t resist. “You must have something in mind.”

“A hunch.”

***

Mulder treated Scully to lunch in the clubhouse as a payback for dragging her out there.

It was a beautiful May afternoon. The crowds from last week’s Preakness Stakes, the second leg of the historic Triple Crown series, were long gone and it felt good to just relax and enjoy the day.

“What are you going to tell Skinner if he calls?” Scully asked after a sip of wine.

“Nothing, he’ll go right to voice mail.”

“You have your phone *off*? Mulder…”

“You let me deal with Skinner,” he told her around a bite of marinated chicken. “Where’s yours?”

When she pulled it from her pocket he reached across the table and snatched it out of her hand, quickly turning it off and then handing it back to her.

Her eyes went wide. “Mulder, what has gotten into you?”

“Life,” he told her straight-faced. “I think it’s time we started living it. Besides,” he glanced around at the rest of the business crowd who also seemed to be playing hooky for the afternoon. “I think I could get used to this.”

Scully smiled. This was a side of her partner he rarely let other people see: those times when he let his guard down and became the gentle man she knew he was.

Turning to look out at the sun-baked track she had to admit the afternoon was turning out better than she had thought it would this morning. “What are we going to do about Mr. Bailey?” She finally turned back and asked him.

His brow creased as he took a swig of his beer. “Nothing, Scully. I don’t think there’s anything we need to do. If he’s tipping people, it’s not for profit; at least not his own. I think he’s right; something else is at work here.”

“Magic, Mulder?”

He snorted. “Well, that’s not what I was about to say, but I think there’s a little of that, too.”

The call to the post came for the start of the first race. Mulder finished up his beer and waived the waiter over to ask for the check. “Come on, you want to go sit outside?” he asked his partner and she nodded.

While he waited for Scully to use the restroom, Mulder bought a couple of seats in the lower boxes and a program for the afternoon’s races.

When she joined him, he led Scully through the door and out into the early afternoon’s mild air.

The breeze was still stiff out of the south and ruffled their hair. Scully noticed that Mulder didn’t seem to mind that his was almost standing straight up. They took their seats and Mulder handed the program to his partner. “Pick one for the first race.”

“I don’t know anything about picking horses,” she replied as she leafed through the track program.

“Neither do most of these other people,” her partner answered. “Doesn’t seem to be stopping them.”

“Little Green Man is fifty-to-one in the morning line.” Scully read from the program.

“What?” He answered her without taking his eyes off the track. She watched him dig in his breast pocket for his sunglasses and slip them on. He then loosened his shirt collar and tie and shed his jacket, tossing it over the empty seat in front of them.

“You comfortable now?” Scully asked, eyeing him.

Mulder turned to look at her with a smirk on his face. “Yeah, I am.”

“According to the program, Mr. Bailey’s pick was listed at fifty-to-one odds this morning, Mulder. Evidently he knows something the rest of the handicappers don’t.”

“The ‘Man’ isn’t running in this race is he?” Mulder looked at her, somewhat concerned.

“No, ninth race. I was just looking ahead.”

“You going to give me a pick for this race?” He asked snatching the program from her and leafing through it himself.

Scully leaned against his shoulder. “Can’t we just watch?”

“Where’s the fun in that?” He asked her with a smile. “Just pick a number, Scully.”

Scully watched the horses walk by the grandstand one more time. She liked the gray and gave Mulder the horse’s number. He whisked himself off and came back a few minutes later to hand her the ticket. “Here you go. Good luck.” She took the ticket from him and tucked it into her pocket.

Gazing out towards the backstretch where the moveable starting gate was for this race, Scully wished she had brought along her shades as well.

Race fans used to need binoculars to see the other side of the track. These days most tracks were equipped with closed-circuit television.

Now, along with keeping track of the odds on each horse in the race, dollars wagered, and other information, you could watch the entire race perfectly from the giant screen on the infield tote board.

The race began and Mulder laughed silently as he listened to his partner cheer for her horse. The filly had gone off as the favorite; she wasn’t going to win much. At two-to-one odds his partner would only win two dollars for every dollar she had bet.

They both watched the screen until the horses came around the clubhouse turn and started down the stretch, heading for home.

As they came down the stretch and past the grandstand the gray filly slipped in along the rail and caught the field at the finish line to take the race.

“Oh my God, Mulder, she won!” Scully pulled the ticket from her pocket and excitedly waived it in his face.

“See. Must be magic,” he chuckled at her enthusiasm.

The afternoon went quickly; Scully found herself enjoying the excitement of each race. Mulder was just enjoying watching his partner.

However, by the seventh race, Scully’s beginner’s luck had disappeared.

In an attempt to cut her losses, she had gone from choosing her selections from win to buying show tickets in hopes they would at least come in third. She had only picked three out of the first seven races.

When her pick for the seventh race had finished fourth she tore up the ticket and turned to her partner. “I give up. *You* pick this one.”

The sun had come around the grandstand warming their seats. Mulder stood and pulled off his loosened his tie altogether, stuffing it in his jacket pocket and then rolled up his shirt sleeves.

Scully noticed the group of elderly ladies sitting in the box to their right eyeing his fine form. She laughed to herself. Mulder had that effect on women of all ages. “You want something to drink?” he asked her and she nodded.

Mulder was gone so long Scully was afraid she would be watching the eighth race by herself.

When he finally returned, he handed her a tall iced tea and a ticket to win on number 3.

“Where were you?” she asked, watching him gulp down his own tea.

“Went to see a man about a horse. I went to the restroom, Scully” he amended at her bizarre expression.

Scully looked at the ticket she held in her hand and then at the program. ‘It’s Magic,’ Mulder? Our horse’s name is ‘It’s Magic’? This is a ten dollar win ticket!”

“You told me to pick one, so I did. Seemed appropriate, don’t you think?” He chugged the rest of the tea and set the empty cup in the holder on the seat back in front of him, then leaned back in his seat to put his arm around her shoulders.

Three minutes later, Scully was crumpling the losing ticket and tossing it aside. “Well, I’d say it’s NOT magic. I think it’s time we quit while we’re *not* ahead, Mulder. You ready to leave?”

Mulder looked disappointed. “You don’t want to stay and see how Bailey’s horse does?”

“I don’t, but I can see you do,” she replied with a sigh.

Mulder leaned forward and grabbed his jacket off the seat in front of him. “Come on, admit it, Scully: you’re having fun. We’ll go down and watch from the rail.”

Scully arose and Mulder followed her out of the box, tossing his jacket over his shoulder.

As they climbed the few stairs out of the box and turned to head downstairs, she glanced back at the women who had been eyeing her partner earlier.

All four pair of eyes were glued on him. “You’re making quite an impression on the senior set, Mulder.”

“Excuse me?” He asked leaning down to catch what she had just said.

Scully motioned to the box of elderly ladies, “They’ve had their eyes on you all day.”

She watched him stop and turn around to look at the women she was referring to. A sexy smile played across his lips and he then gave them a slow wink.

They both watched the women giggle and turn various shades of red.

“Can’t take you anywhere, can I?” Scully tried not to laugh.

“What, I didn’t do anything…” he told her innocently as they made their way down the stairs.

Mulder slipped his jacket back on as they stepped out into the sunshine, steering Scully towards the finish line where they could get a better view.

The crowd, such as it was, had thinned out and he was able to find her a good spot where she could have an unobstructed view of the track. Her red hair glistened in the sun.

The bugler came out and called the horses to the post. Mulder pulled the program from his jacket pocket and handed it to Scully. “Last race, you pick.”

“You’re not going to bet ‘Little Green Man’?”

“He’s seventy-to-one now, Scully. You don’t seem to have too much confidence in my choices anyway.”

“You’re right,” she told him snatching the program from his hand as the horses paraded past. ‘Little Green Man’ was number eight.

As he pranced by Mulder noted how his chestnut coat glistened much the same color as his partner’s hair.

*It *has* to be a sign,* Mulder thought, and he reached in his pocket to finger the ticket he had placed in there before the previous race.

While Scully studied the program and the horses, he scanned the crowd.

It didn’t take him long to spot Bailey wobbling down from the paddock towards the rail.

Mulder watched the elderly man stop for a moment beside a young couple with a stroller. Bailey pointed to something in the program and they all laughed.

Something made Bailey look up then, and he caught Mulder’s eye and gave him the thumbs up.

“You pick a horse yet?” Mulder asked, turning back to his partner.

“Get me number 4 to show,” she told him and then turned around to watch the horses trot past on their way to the starting gate.

Mulder wandered off to get her ticket, stopping on the way back when he spotted Bailey. “Your magic better be working, Mr. Bailey,” he told him with a chuckle.

“It is, Mr. Mulder, it is. I can guarantee ya.” The elderly man grinned broadly as Mulder walked away to join his partner.

Scully’s horse broke from the gate first.

They watched the backstretch action on the tote board screen again. Bailey’s horse was on the outside in fifth place.

As the horses rounded the clubhouse turn, Mulder listened to the call of the race over the loudspeaker. His heart pounded in his chest.

He hadn’t done anything this spur of the moment in a long, long time.

Scully’s horse had dropped back to sixth but Mulder could see the flashing red mane of ‘Little Green Man’ close to the front of the field of horses as they came down the stretch.

He heard the announcer say that his horse had moved into the lead. “Run, Red, Run!” he yelled, losing his composure completely and banging his fist on the rail.

Scully turned around to look at him in disbelief just as the horses thundered past them across the finish line, ‘Little Green Man’ pulling ahead of the rest of the contenders.

“YES!!!” Mulder roared, then wrapped his arms around his partner and lifted her from her feet.

“Mulder! Put me down!” *God, what has gotten into him today?* she wondered.

Someone squealed with delight from the crowd behind them and Mulder turned, Scully still in his arms, to see the young couple whom he’d seen Bailey talking to before the race, hugging each other excitedly.

When he set her back down on her feet, Scully looked up at him. “I don’t believe it,” she said, tossed her losing ticket on the ground.

Okay, it was kind of exciting to see the long shot horse win the race, but the whole affair left her a little bit suspect.

Mulder had a very suspicious grin on his face. “Can we go now?” she asked.

Mulder searched the crowd for Bailey but he didn’t see the elderly man. “Yeah,” he smiled. “But not before we cash in our winning ticket,” he told her, producing the ticket he had purchased earlier in the day and handing it to her.

“You didn’t…” she said, accepting the winning ticket on number 8 from him. Suddenly her eyes went wide as she scanned the ticket. “Mulder, this is a five hundred dollar *win* ticket!”

“And he went off at eighty-to-one.” Mulder watched her do the math in her head.

He bit his tongue when he saw the realization hit her.

“Mulder … that’s for — oh my God!” He leaned down as her arms flew up to wrap around his neck.

***

At 10:00 A.M. the next morning they were both seated in their customary positions in the Assistant Director’s office.

This time, Mulder felt much more comfortable with his backup once again seated next to him. They both watched as Skinner thumbed through the report Mulder had typed with flying fingers earlier that morning.

“You know, agents, your recommendations for a sting operation to identify the operatives in this gambling ring reads like a movie script. You found no evidence that Mr. Bailey might be involved?” Skinner looked annoyed.

Hey, it had worked for Paul Newman and Robert Redford. “No Sir,” Mulder replied.

“I tried to reach you yesterday,” Skinner commented looking up to meet Mulder’s eyes.

“Sorry, Sir, I must have forgotten to charge the battery on my phone,” Mulder squirmed.

Skinner studied his wayward agent and then looked pointedly at his partner. “Both of you?”

“Ah — no, Sir,” Scully looked uncomfortably at her partner. “I must have forgotten to turn mine on yesterday morning…”

“Might I suggest that you both make sure at least one of you has a working phone before you leave the house in the morning? It might have prevented you from wasting the entire day.” Skinner scolded them.

Mulder glanced at his partner, then back to Skinner. “Excuse me, Sir?”

“Detective Johnson called. Baltimore P.D. got a much more lucrative lead they’re following up on.” Skinner closed the file. “He wanted to extend his apologies and hoped that I hadn’t pulled you off of something that would have been a lot more productive.”

Beside him, Scully was secretly *very* happy that ‘Little Green Man’ had crossed the finish line mere seconds after 5:00 p.m., the Bureau’s regular weekday quitting time.

“Oh, I don’t know, Sir,” Mulder replied, the corner of his lip curling into a wry smile. “Yesterday was a pretty productive day.”

The End

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Killing Me Softly

Killing Me Softly

AUTHOR: Foxglove
RATING: PG in places.
ARCHIVE: Two weeks VS14 exclusive
DISCLAIMER: No copyright infringement intended.
SUMMARY: F.B.I. agents are dying. Are they accidents or murder and what is the
connection between them and Fox Mulder?

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F.B.I. Office

Rochester, Michigan

February 21st, 1987

12:13 a.m.

The ballpoint pen executed a perfect arc through the air before bouncing off the far wall and falling to the worn carpet of the large, nearly deserted room.

Muffled cursing, which grew in volume, could be heard as the lone occupant of the room searched fruitlessly for another pen to replace the one that had taken on new life as a projectile.

“Shit, shit, godammit!” The words echoed through the empty space as a desk drawer was violently yanked out and upended on the surface.

Long fingers scrabbled through the paper clips, rubber bands, Post-It notes, staples and enough rolls of tape to keep a professional gift wrapper happy for another five years.

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“I don’t fucking believe this.” The same fingers were run through thick brown hair, leaving it standing up in places. Hazel eyes roamed around the room searching for a solution to his predicament.

He had investigated the only desk in the room, however, the two long tables stacked with reports and photos yielded no stray pens either.

A flash of inspiration hit and, stalking across the room, he wrenched the door open. His eyes alighted on the neat secretary’s desk outside.

It was the second drawer that delivered his salvation; a lone pencil, nicely sharpened, lay there ready for the taking. Holding it aloft like a trophy, Fox Mulder strode back through the door and happily settled down in front of his scribble-strewn legal pad.

He was hard at work, the pencil flying back and forth when the unthinkable happened.

Snap.

The lead skittered across the paper leaving the word unfinished and his thoughts unwritten.

Mulder leaned his elbows on the desk. “I don’t damn well need this.” He groaned in frustration as he clenched his fingers in his hair, leaving it in even more of spiky disarray.

Making another foray to the secretary’s desk, he began rifling through the drawers again. As each subsequent recess generated no success, anger began to creep in.

“Oh for fuck’s sake, all I want is something to write with! A felt pen, hell, I’ll even settle for a crayon or a piece of chalk right now!”

Mulder jerked open his last chance and peered in. His hopes plummeted as his eyes were met with envelopes and notepads neatly stacked together. Lifting them up in vain expectation, a long slender package caught his eye and he reached in. With a thumbnail he slit the tape that sealed the box and lifted the flap.

“Yes!” He crowed in delight as twelve sharply pointed No. 2 pencils were revealed. He selected one perfect implement and resealed the box.

As he bent to replace the pack, a thought crossed his mind and, instead of returning the pack, he straightened, pushed the drawer shut with his foot and dropped the box into his coat pocket.

Contentedly whistling out of tune, he returned to the other room and lost himself in work.

* * *

6:35 a.m.

Agent Daniel Ferguson’s heavy footfalls as he strode into the room failed to rouse the sleeping man sprawled across the desk.

He removed his coat and draped it over a nearby chair. Deciding to leave his co-worker for the time being, Ferguson moved instead to the table where the coffee was situated.

The pot was thick with the sludge of yesterday’s leftovers, so he grabbed it and left the room.

Fifteen minutes later, he returned and began the first of the many pots that would be consumed by the task force today.

Before long, the strong rich aroma of a fresh brew began wafting through the room. Ferguson poured two cups, one he took a sip from and the other he placed on the desk in front of Mulder and stood back to watch.

Mere seconds elapsed before his efforts produced a result.

The sleeping agent’s nose began to twitch and without opening his eyes, he reached out and unfailingly grabbed the handle of the mug.

Ferguson stifled a snort of laughter and took another sip of his own drink.

“Don’t laugh at me, Danny — at least not before I’ve had some coffee.” Mulder’s words were thick with drowsiness.

“If you had the brains that God gave a gnat, you wouldn’t be in this condition.” Ferguson retorted. He pulled a chair around and sat down. “I assume you that you didn’t leave again last night?”

Taking a deep swallow of the hot drink, Mulder finally opened his eyes. “Time sort of got away from me.”

“It has a habit of doing that where you’re concerned. I think that unless you want Madison to read you the riot act, you’d better get yourself cleaned up. You’ve got half an hour before the briefing starts, go down and grab a shower. Have you got a clean suit here?”

“Got a bag in the car; I think there’s a clean one left.” Mulder finished off his coffee and turned in search of more.

“Uh uh, Spooky.” Ferguson grabbed the still warm mug and lifted it over his head. “You’re cut off until you’ve had a shower.”

“You are an evil man.” Mulder stared at the other man with red-rimmed eyes. “But you’d make someone a wonderful wife; you’ve got the nagging bit down pat.”

“Get going now, before I go looking for Madison myself.”

* * *

7:28 a.m.

The room was buzzing with half a dozen different voices when Mulder returned. The noise level dropped slightly as agents looked up to see who had arrived but resumed when they saw it was one of their own.

SAC Bernie Madison eyed the latest entrant; he had been concerned about the young agent’s propensity for putting in excessive hours and had made a decision to address Mulder on the issue.

Looking at Mulder now, however, no one could tell he had been working sixteen to twenty hour days for the last week. He looked refreshed, relaxed and his suit was cleanly pressed. He had obviously come straight from his hotel room.

Madison watched Mulder as he made a beeline for the coffee table, poured himself a cup and took a seat next to Danny Ferguson.

“Gosh, don’t you clean up well.” Ferguson smirked.

Mulder made a non-too subtle gesture with his fingers. “Haven’t missed anything have I?” He asked.

“Nope, you made it before Madison sent out a search party.”

Mulder shuffled the papers he had carried in and stacked them. He had spent most of last night working on an amended profile but he was still drawn back to one individual whom he’d identified as a primary suspect.

The voices died away as SAC Madison rose to his feet and cleared his throat. “Good morning gentlemen, I hope that today we will find the resolution that you have all been working toward.” He held his hand out to his left. “Carlson, we’ll start with you this morning.”

The agent read his updated findings. As soon as he had finished, another agent took his place and so it went around the table until it reached Mulder.

“Stephen Vance.” The two words were said with a surety born of cockiness and inexperience.

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A chorus of groans met his announcement and various opinions were offered. Madison held up a hand to quiet the grumbling. “I thought he had been ruled out; doesn’t he have a water-tight alibi?”

“His mother has vouched that he was not in town that day. That doesn’t mean though…”

“Jeez, Mulder.” A voice cut across his explanation. “His mother is saying it wasn’t him. We haven’t got any witnesses who can verify it was Vance. Can’t you just accept that you’re wrong?”

“That’s enough, Sawyer.” Madison turned to look at his youngest agent. “Explain it to me Mulder; why are you fixated on Stephen Vance?”

His reasoning was so clear to him, but Mulder felt as though the rest of the task force was just barely tolerating him.

He spoke for a few minutes and finished up with a final comment.

“A mother will do just about anything to shield her children from danger and I think that is what’s happening here. I’m curious; was Mrs. Vance informed in what her son may be involved?”

Madison looked around the table waiting for an answer from one of the other men present. None were forthcoming.

“I’ll take that as a no, then.” Mulder turned to the SAC. “Sir, I’d like to interview Mrs. Vance again, this time giving her a little bit more information on the investigation.”

Agitated murmuring broke out around the table again. “Give me one good reason why.” Madison demanded.

“I think Mrs. Vance is lying for her son. He’s her only child and if he’s convicted of this crime he’ll be facing a lengthy jail term. Mrs. Vance is a single parent, Stephen is still lives at home, and I think she doesn’t want to take a chance that she’ll be alone.”

Madison pondered Mulder’s reasoning for a few moments before deciding. “All right, you’ve got eight hours; if by the end of the day, you haven’t managed to get her to recant, then you’ll move on and not touch on the subject again. Do I make myself clear?”

“As crystal, sir.” Mulder muttered.

“Ferguson, you go with him, keep him from being beaten to death by a irate parent.”

“Gee thanks.” Ferguson rolled his eyes as the rest of the agents at the table snickered in amusement.

Mulder was on his feet and eager to get going. “Come on, Danny.” He urged the other man.

“Are you in a hurry to be proven wrong or something?” Ferguson caught up to his young partner.

A stubborn look passed across Mulder’s face. “I’m not wrong.” He asserted.

“Everyone in there believes you are.”

“I’m not in there and I’d like to point out that neither are you.”

“I didn’t say I thought you were right though.”

Mulder stopped in his headlong rush and sighed. “Danny, I can’t explain it, I just get these feelings and I know they mean something. Right now I’ve got one that’s telling me Stephen Vance is up to his neck in this child pornography ring and if we don’t take him down, then there’s going to be a whole lot more very damaged kids out there.”

“Okay, but if you’re wrong, do I get to say I told you so?”

“Danny, if I’m wrong, you can take out a full page ad in the Michigan Daily News for all I care.” Mulder resumed walking towards the parking garage.

“Sounds reasonable.” Ferguson nodded before running to catch up with his partner. “Hey, I’m driving! You can sit and think what you’re going to tell this little old lady.”

* * *

9:10 a.m.

A muffled voice called out in answer to Mulder’s knocking. “Coming!”

The door was opened by an elderly stoop-shouldered, gray-haired woman. She eyed them before speaking. “Yes?”

“Mrs. Vance, Mrs. Ida Vance?”

“Yes that’s me, who are you, what do you want?”

“My name is Mulder, Special Agent Fox Mulder, this is Special Agent Daniel Ferguson, and we’re with the F.B.I.”

Mrs. Vance tensed visibly and her knuckles went white on the doorframe. “I’ve already spoken to someone.”

“Yes we know, Mrs. Vance; we’d like to ask you some further questions if you have some time, ma’am.” Mulder was smiling kindly and using all the manners his parents had instilled into him.

“I’ve already told them everything I know.”

Mulder tried again. “We would really like to clear up a couple of issues. Would you mind terribly if we came in for a bit?”

“Stephen isn’t here.”

The old woman started to shut the door, but Mulder gently placed a hand over hers on the door frame. “That’s all right, we’d much rather talk with you, Mrs. Vance.”

A blush arose on Mrs. Vance’s cheeks at Mulder’s words. “I suppose so, then.” She opened the door and gestured for both men to enter.

She led the way into a small room crowded with furniture waving both men to a flowery couch. “Would either of you boys like some coffee?”

“No thank you, Ma’am.” Ferguson answered.

“Oh, very well.”

“Unless you are going to join us.” Mulder spoke up quickly.

“Well, I was going to make myself one, but it is so much nicer with company, don’t you think?”

“Indeed it is, Ma’am.” Mulder smiled at her. “Would you like some help?”

The old woman ducked her head shyly. “If you would be so kind as to lift a tray down from a shelf. Stephen forgets and he’s always putting things out of my reach.”

“It would be my pleasure, Mrs. Vance.” Mulder offered the woman his arm and walked her slowly into the kitchen.

Ferguson watched in amazement as Mulder charmed Mrs. Vance with his words and gestures. Mulder’s behavior was poles apart from what he had become used to over the last week.

He listened as his partner conversed with the suspect’s mother in the kitchen.

The conversation was littered with idle chatter but it was obviously what the elderly woman liked as she responded willingly.

Once the coffee was poured and they were all sitting down, Mulder steered the conversation to where he wanted it. Several oblique references to the case were made and with each one, Mrs. Vance’s complexion paled.

Suddenly, she climbed to her feet and motioned for the men to follow. She led them to a very cluttered.

Pointing to a cabinet secured with a padlock, she dropped her shoulders in defeat. “Mr. Mulder, I have always believed what Stephen told me. A mother likes to think that her child would never be deceitful, but the more I think about what you have told me and some of Stephen’s behavior over the past few months, the more uncertain I am.”

She fingered the lock and sighed. “My son always keeps this cabinet locked. Once I walked in here when he had it open, he shouted at me to leave him alone. You can open it if you like.”

Mulder’s fingers itched to do just that and he glanced at Ferguson who shook his head in negation. “I’m afraid we can’t do that Mrs. Vance, we need a warrant.”

“Oh, I see.” The old woman looked around the garage before walking to the far side, she returned with a hammer in her hand and swung at the padlock with feeble strength.

Mulder put a hand out in alarm. “Mrs. Vance! Stop before you hurt yourself!” His words had no effect. The woman continued with seemingly inadequate blows until finally the lock snapped and fell off.

Gingerly she opened one door and a sharp exclamation was cut off as her hand flew to her mouth. Her face turned an alarming shade of white and Ferguson sprinted forward in support as her legs threatened to collapse.

Mulder grabbed an old chair and held it as his partner assisted the elderly woman to sit. She turned her face away from the cabinet’s interior and spoke shakily. “I think you boys will find enough evidence in there for your case.”

Ferguson stepped up to the door and, using a pen, pushed it open. The shelves were filled with videotapes and photos, and more photos had been stuck to the inside of the doors. “Shit, Spooky, we’ve struck the mother-lode here.” He whispered.

Wide-eyed, obviously scared children in various forced poses and states of undress peered back at the two men from a multitude of photographs.

Mulder felt sick to his stomach as he ran his gaze over the contents, including stacks and stacks of more photos. He felt a feeble hand tug on his sleeve and he looked down into Mrs. Vance’s tearful gaze.

“Young man, would you mind terribly if I changed my story?”

He knelt on the floor beside her and gently held her hand. “I’m sorry you had to see this, Mrs. Vance.”

The woman closed her eyes and seemed to draw on some inner strength. “My husband and I always trusted our son, but it seems that our trust was sadly misplaced.” She opened her eyes and gazed solemnly at the young agent. “Ask your questions, Mr. Mulder; I can assure you having lied for my son once, I will never do it again.”

* * *

4:30 p.m.

Mulder sat off to one side of the room watching as Danny Ferguson held center court. He did not feel like joining in with the other agents as they celebrated the close of another case.

The door opened to admit SAC Madison who made a beeline for the despondent agent.

“Stephen Vance was taken into custody half an hour ago. He was not the least bit happy.”

“Neither is his mother.” Mulder replied unhappily.

“Mulder, you’ve done your job and you’ve done it very well. Don’t take blame upon yourself for which you’re not responsible.”

“Sir, single-handedly I’ve wiped out a woman’s happiness, I’ve eroded the trust she had in her child and I’ve made sure she will spend the rest of her life alone.”

Madison crouched by him. “You did nothing of the sort. Stephen Vance did all that when he decided to get involved in that filth. All you did was take someone’s blinders off.”

“Maybe she’d have been happier if she had been left ignorant of what her son was doing.” Mulder muttered.

“Maybe she would, but at what cost to how many children?” Madison laid a hand on Mulder’s arm. “Weigh the results of your endeavors against the children who are going to stay innocent for just that much longer.”

He climbed to his feet. “We parents are quite a resilient bunch, you know. We have an amazing capacity to understand and forgive our children for their transgressions. No matter what they do, we still love them and I have the feeling that although Mrs. Vance will never forget what her son did, she just one day may forgive him.”

Mulder sighed sadly. “I wish I could say that about my parents.”

“What was that Agent?”

Realizing that he had said more than he intended, Mulder sat up in his chair. “Oh, nothing sir, just wool-gathering.”

“Well when you’ve finished, come on over and join in. You deserve to get recognition for your efforts.”

Mulder smiled at the other man. “Yes sir.”

* * *

Basement Office

F.B.I. Building

Washington D.C.

May 21, 2007

Scully adjusted the lamp on her desk aiming the glare away from her eyes.

When only an average of two-thirds of the light fittings in the ceiling worked, it was an absolute necessity to have an additional source of illumination. She bent again to her task, drafting a rough copy of her report on their last case.

Sparing a moment to glance across at her partner, she noticed him delving deeply in one of the filing cabinet drawers, pulling out a file, giving it a cursory examination and thrusting it back into place again.

She cupped her chin in her hand and sighed quietly.

It had been sometime since they’d had a really decent case. The report she was writing now was from a case that should never have been sent their way. A first year rookie would have been able to do a better job than the Sheriff’s department in Greenwater, N.Y.

Talk about a waste of taxpayers’ money! Mulder had solved the case before they had left D.C. and was quite content to email his findings to the appropriate person.

Unfortunately, once the town’s mayor found out that one of the F.B.I.’s premier profilers had solved their nasty little case, nothing but an appearance of said profiler in the town square would appease him.

So, at the behest of Senator so-and-so who had the Director’s ear, Agents Fox Mulder and Dana Scully were pointed toward Greenwater with strict instructions for Mulder by A.D. Walter Skinner to be nice to the locals.

She had witnessed Mulder on his Sunday best behavior; he had answered all questions asked without letting on how inane he thought some of them were.

He had played nicely with the locals and even managed to earn himself several compliments on his attitude towards smaller towns and their law enforcement capabilities.

Scully had been amazed at his conduct; she had fully expected his temper to get the better of him, but it hadn’t.

Upon their return to D.C., they’d reported the successful conclusion of their efforts to Skinner.

He’d seemed almost as nonplussed as Scully over how well Mulder had comported himself and had received a fistful of messages from the Greenwater officials, complimenting him on the caliber of his agents.

Consequently, Scully was expecting a breakout of bratty child syndrome any time now. To further convince her of this theory, she had awoken to an empty bed, only to discover an empty apartment.

Mulder had gone to work without her.

She had arrived at work to find Mulder present and acutely busy in decorating the ceiling with pencils. He’d offered her his typed report without any comment and then busied himself searching the filing cabinets.

Picking up her pencil, Scully turned her attention back to her dull and unimaginative report.

As she pressed the tip to the paper, the lead gave way with a crack. She bit her lip wryly, remembering they’d been waiting interminably for Supply to send a new electric pencil sharpener, and opened a drawer in search of another. Surprisingly, for being so organized, her hunt left her empty-handed.

Giving the pencils in the ceiling a longing look, she pushed her chair back and took a breath. “Mulder…”

“Bottom drawer, Scully.”

“Huh?”

“Of my desk, bottom drawer.” His nose buried in a file, Mulder didn’t turn to look at her.

“Oh, okay.” Scully gave herself a small shake, stepped over to Mulder’s hope-lessly untidy area, sat down and pulled open the bottom drawer.

Scully was surprised at the contents. “Mulder, five boxes? An obsession based on a previous shortage is one thing but this…”

The ringing of Mulder’s phone interrupted her. Scully looked across at her partner whose shrug gave her permission to answer it.

“X-Files Office, Agent…” She pulled the phone away from her ear, held it out to Mulder and said, “it’s for you, Mulder.”

He took the handset from her and answered, “Mulder.” A look of surprise crossed his face before being replaced by a wide smile. “Hey Ferguson, how’s it going?”

Scully watched the emotions play over his face as he listened to the caller.

“Sure, I remember him, why?” Mulder stood suddenly.

“What…are you sure? Yeah, I know, stupid question. God Danny, what hap-pened?” Mulder ran a hand through his hair as he began to pace the office. “I…it’s just so hard to believe. Yeah, sure, let me know the details, I’ll be there.”

He wiped a hand across his mouth before dropping the phone back onto its cradle. He did a circuit of the office before stopping to look at his partner. “I can’t believe it.” He pressed both hands to his mouth.

Scully arose from his chair and rounded the desk. Placing a hand on his arm, she spoke gently. “What is it, Mulder?”

“An old case I was just thinking about, a child porn ring in Michigan. The phone call was from Agent Danny Ferguson. He just told me that the SAC from that case, Bernie Madison, is dead.”

“You knew him well?”

“No, I only worked with him on the one case, he was…he understood me more than he let on, I think.” His voice hoarsened by emotion; he drew in a deep breath. “I can’t believe I was just talking about the case and then, Danny calls, the timing is downright…”

“Spooky.”

Mulder rolled his eyes. “Uncanny, eerie, creepy, you name it.”

Scully soothingly stroked his arm. “How did he die, did Agent Ferguson say?”

“Yeah, an accident. He ate poisoned mushrooms.” He huffed out a bitter laugh. “Some accident, huh?”

“More common than you might think, Mulder.” She replied. “Amanitas are a family of fungi that have both edible and inedible. If you’re not sure about them, it’s very easy to make a mistake.”

“Remind me never to have ‘fungi’ on a pizza again.”

Scully frowned at him. “You never have ‘fungi’; they’re always on my half.”

“See, I knew there was a good reason for that. ‘Fungi’? Gah!”

“Hmm.” Scully changed the subject. Pressing a neatly-manicured nail against Mulder’s chest, she looked up at him. “Mulder.”

Her husky voice drew his attention. She licked her lips and slowly draw a pencil out of the box. Holding it by the end, she allowed it to slip through her fingers until she held just the very tip of the pointed lead.

Mulder ran a tongue over unexpectedly dry lips, his eyes fixed on the pencil. Slowly, he raised them until he was looking directly into her vivid blue gaze.

Suddenly, Scully moved swiftly, flicking her wrist and jerking her hand upwards.

Both of them slowly lifted their heads and looked up at the ceiling.

The pencil Scully had held was now stuck in solitary splendor in the ceiling above their heads.

Mulder opened his mouth to speak, then paused as if considering his response. He cleared his throat. “I’m…ah…impressed.” He admitted.

“*You’re* impressed.” Scully spoke softly, still staring at the ceiling. “I’m stunned.”

* * *

Mulder and Scully’s Townhouse

Georgetown

May 25, 2007

The atmosphere of boredom that had taken over their jobs lately had begun to bother Mulder and no doubt was having the same effect on Scully. His trip out of town to attend Madison’s funeral had only added to the burden he felt, and he was determined to break the cycle of tedium.

Pushing the front door closed with his foot, Mulder slumped against the doorway to the living room for a few seconds before trudging up the stairs and dumping the files he carried onto his desk in the office.

Passing by their bedroom, he looked into it for a moment, his exhausted body wanting desperately to curl up on crisp cotton sheets and luxurious satin comforter.

But other things took priority. Lifting the lid on the aquarium, he scattered food into the water. The occupants were clearly uninterested, telling him that Scully had already fed them.

He’d missed seeing her waiting for him as he came down the jet way, but knew she was having fun helping Tara take Matty camping with his cub scout troop.

There wasn’t much for him to do but try to make the best of her absence.

Shrugging off his trench coat, Mulder gauged the distance between his location and his coat rack down by the front door, deciding it was too far away.

Instead, he tossed it over the back of the futon, which doubled as a bed when Gibson crashed at their place for a night.

Weariness dogged his every movement, slowing his progress to the bedroom where he undressed and donned a well-worn pair of sweats and a t-shirt.

Barefoot, Mulder trudged back to the desk and picked up the first folder on the pile he had brought home. All were possible X-Files, so he was prepared to spend the remainder of his weekend finding them a case worthy of sinking their teeth into.

Mulder settled himself on the futon and propped his feet up. He laid the file in his lap and, taking up a pencil, began to read.

Hours later, he was on the second to last file; six he had dismissed completely and two he had separated into a ‘possibilities’ pile.

He opened the cover and made a quick lunge for the contents as they began to slide to the floor. He clenched his teeth around the pencil in his mouth as several sheets slid to the floor.

An aggravated sigh escaped him as he knelt on the rug and gathered the papers; one white corner peeped from under the couch.

Reaching in to grab the escapee, he was startled by a loud thud and much banging at the front door downstairs.

Mulder regained his feet and ran down the stairs, papers still clutched in one hand, pencil held firmly between his teeth.

He cocked his head to one side as smaller, more indistinct noises were heard made themselves heard from the front stoop. He grabbed the door knob and swung the door open.

The sudden movement startled the man who stood at his doorstep.

“Shit man, you tryin’ t’ gimme a heart attack or somethin’?” The words were growled around a mouthful of wood screws.

“Sorry.” Mulder apologized taking the pencil out of his mouth. “I heard noises.”

“…a course you heard a noise, I’m workin’ here!”

The man wore faded gray overalls and stringy unwashed gray hair poked out from under a dirty baseball cap that was pulled down low over his eyes. He held a screwdriver in one hand.

“I’m doin’ maintenance ’round here, I seen this loose molding here and was puttin’ a screw in it.” He gestured to the board next to Mulder’s door.

“Oh, okay, thanks. Did Mr. Timmons hire you?” Mulder asked.

“Yeah. Last week. Been going to all his properties, checking on things. You need anythin’ doin’ in there?” The man waved at the interior of the townhouse. “Stuck windows, faucets need replacin’, stuff like that?”

“Not that I can think of.”

The man grunted and swiped his hand against his pants before sticking it out in front of him. “Well, if you do, lemme know, name’s Ned.”

Mulder quickly swapped the paper in his hands and popped the pencil back into his mouth. He gave the man’s hand a brief shake before agreeing and closing the door.

Ned eyed the door for a few seconds before pushing his cap back. He took a screw out of his mouth and finished fastening the loose number onto the door.

His eyes narrowed in thought and he rubbed his hand over his bristly chin before dropping his tools into his toolbox and moving on down the steps.

* * *

F.B.I. Headquarters

May 30, 2007

“…Agent Mulder!” Halfway across the foyer, A.D. Skinner’s deep voice stopped the agent in his tracks.

Mulder turned and waited as his supervisor approached him. Skinner had a file in his hand and held it out to him.

“Sir?” Mulder queried.

“I was on my way to your office. I need you to take a look at this for me, agent.”

Mulder took the folder, his eyebrows rising in curiosity.

“SAC Forrest in Scranton sent it about a week ago, Mulder, but I knew you were unavailable at that time.” Skinner straightened his glasses before continuing. “They’re having trouble the profile and need a fresh perspective. Have a look and see what comes up. I don’t think there will be any need for you to head up there, though.”

Mulder nodded in acknowledgement. “I’ll get onto it right away, sir.”

“What are you and Agent Scully working on at the moment?”

Mulder hesitated before answering. “Actually sir, honestly, the well is dry right now. Scully’s been fine-tuning some paperwork and I’m keeping an eye out for any possible cases.”

“Scully has been doing the paperwork?”

“Yes sir. She seems to like that sort of thing and besides…”

“*All* the paperwork?” Skinner directed his gaze at his subordinate.

“Well, I have helped a little.”

“Please Mulder, don’t help too much. At least when Scully fills in the expense reports they make sense and I have a better chance of being able to read them without having to resort to using a handwriting analyst to translate.”

Mulder opened his mouth to counter Skinner’s accusation but closed it without saying anything when he saw the hint of amusement in his A.D.’s brown eyes.

Skinner’s amusement increased at the thought of actually rendering Mulder speechless.

He gestured to the file. “You can contact SAC Forrest directly if you need any clarification on any issues. He can put you in contact with the agent working the case.”

“Uh, yeah, I mean yes sir.”

“Good, carry on.” The A.D. turned on his heel and made his way back directly across the F.B.I. crest in the huge expanse of marble floor.

Mulder stared at the retreating figure before shaking his head at Skinner’s unexpected facetious banter.

He dropped his eyes to the file in his hands and shivered at the familiar feeling that swept over him at the thought of profiling.

Straightening his shoulders, Mulder shook the sensation off and headed back down to the office.

* * *

Basement Office

May 30, 2007

Scully looked up as her partner came through the door. He rounded his desk, sank into his chair and slapped the file onto the desk.

“What’s that, Mulder?” she asked when no information was forthcoming.

“Oh, I just ran into Skinner. He’s asked me to consult on a profile that the guys up in Scranton are having trouble with.”

“Is there a trip in the near future?”

“Skinner said he didn’t think there’d be any necessity, but I won’t really know until I give it a good read.”

“Okay.” Scully turned back to the report in front of her.

Privately, she was pleased that Mulder had something for that brilliant mind of his to latch onto, even if it was a profile. His antics lately had been totally distracting and several times she had come close to losing it with him.

She knew, categorically, what the trouble was: Mulder was bored, pure and simple. Without something to keep him stimulated, his behavior tended to degenerate to the level of a pre-schooler.

At the sound of him calling her name, Scully sighed in irritation and looked up.

Mulder was leaning back in his chair, one foot propped up against the desk, the other dangling inches off the floor. He had the file in his lap and was sucking on the end of a pencil.

“What?” Her reply was brusque.

“You like doing the paperwork don’t you?”

Scully shot him a disbelieving glare. “About as much as I like chasing flukemen and liver-eating mutants, Mulder. Why?”

“Oh, just something Skinner said.”

Narrowing her eyes, she waited for him to continue but he didn’t. Curiosity over his statement finally won and supporting her chin in her hand, she broke the silence. “What did Skinner say, Mulder?”

“Huh?” He dragged his interest away from his report. “Oh, Skinner, well he made a comment about how he prefers it when *you* do the reports. Something about not being able follow my math.”

“I’m not surprised, Mulder. Your mastery of addition and subtraction is feeble at the best of times.”

“Well, there you go then; it sounds to me like Skinner wants you to do the reports from now on.”

“*What?*” Scully’s eyes saucered in shock.

“You know, it kinda makes sense, too, when you think about it.” He tapped the pencil idly against his teeth. “*You* do the reports, Skinner doesn’t get stressed trying to make the numbers add up and we don’t suffer the fallout. I think it’s a darn good idea.”

“You would.” She snapped.

“It can only benefit us in the long run.”

“Don’t you mean benefit *you*, Mulder?”

“Well yeah, but it’ll benefit you too Scully. Indirectly.”

“Indirectly.” Scully pushed away from her desk and stood.

She walked around his desk and rested her hand on the shoe lodged against the scarred wood. “Please explain how *me* doing all the paperwork will benefit *me*?”

“Well…Skinner won’t be on our case over redoing reports. In fact, he’ll probably be thrilled to get information that’s clear and concise.”

Scully nodded. “Go on.”

“And, well, he won’t be stressed.”

“You’re repeating yourself.” Scully told him.

“I am? Oh, um…” Mulder’s explanation floundered for several seconds before he brightened visibly. “You’ll be less stressed too, Scully.”

“How did you come to *that* brilliant deduction, Mulder?”

“Because you won’t have to be on *my* back about finishing reports.” He concluded, smiling happily at his train of logic.

Internally, Mulder’s stomach plummeted when The Eyebrow went up.

“Uh huh.” The small hand resting upon his shoe suddenly swept his foot away from the desk. Mulder lost his balance and his chair’s legs came back down with an abrupt and shaky jolt, Mulder’s arms flailing frantically to keep his seat.

Once settled, Scully leaned over her partner, one hand on each armrest. “I’ll make a deal with you, Mulder.”

His interest was instantly stirred at her sudden proximity. “A deal? Please elucidate, my dear Dr. Scully.”

“For every case that we have where you don’t sustain *any* injuries of *any* sort, I will do *all* the travel reports.”

“Really?”

“Really. But understand Mulder, I mean anything, a headache, a cold, even a hangnail will render this deal null and void, and when you have recovered from said injury, *you* get to do the paperwork — all by yourself.”

Mulder smirked. “You’ve got a deal.”

“Are you sure?” Scully asked. “You know the propensity you have for acquiring injuries of any sort.”

“I haven’t been injured in months,” he claimed.

“Yes you have.” Scully frowned. “You fell down that sink hole at Wild Gardens in Florida just two months ago.”

“Ah, but I didn’t get *hurt*. You implied I was injured.”

“Oh, I see! Falling down a sinkhole and spending hours with two corpses is a fun day for you now, is that it?”

“You made the deal, you can’t go changing the rules to suit yourself, you know.” Mulder wagged his finger in her face.

“I’m not changing the rules, I’m just stating the facts.”

“The fact seems to me, Agent Scully, that you owe me one.”

Scully leaned even closer to her partner. “How do you work that out?”

“No injuries, I wrote up my share of reports!”

“Try again Mulder, the deal was only made today, that incident was two months ago.”

Mulder rubbed his chin. “All right; I’ll grant you that one.” He cocked an eyebrow. “All good deals need to be sealed with a promise, handshake, cross your heart, hope to die, stick a needle in your eye.”

Scully nodded thoughtfully. “I agree, what do you suggest?”

“Handshake; it seems a bit extreme to do the stick a needle in your eye thing.”

“We could always seal it with a kiss.” She proposed.

“Hmm, yeah I think that would be acceptable under the circumstances.” He sat up as Scully moved in. Just as their lips were about to touch, Mulder spoke. “You’re sure about this?”

Scully drew back slightly and eyed him. “About the kiss?”

“Yeah, I mean no, I mean the whole deal thing. I wouldn’t want to take advan-tage of you.”

“I’m a big girl now Mulder, in case you hadn’t noticed.”

“Oh, I’ve noticed Agent Scully, in fact I sometimes have trouble *not* noticing.”

“That’s very reassuring, Mulder; now be quiet and pucker up.”

“I’m puckering.” He mumbled as their lips met gently. The kiss deepened and Mulder’s hands came up to grasp Scully’s arms. Several seconds passed before the necessity to take a breath separated them.

Scully opened her eyes and licked her lips as she lifted her head. Reaching out, she cupped her hand against Mulder’s cheek for a moment before smiling. “Better start practicing your times tables.”

“You think? Personally I’m wondering what I’m going to do with all my free time while you’re busy writing up the reports.” Mulder said smugly.

“Need I point out the fact that on the last four, no five cases we’ve been on, you’ve managed to acquire an injury on almost each and every one?”

“I have not!” Mulder declared.

Holding up her hand, Scully ticked each case off on a finger. “Last fall, the knife wound received at the Presidential Wash-a-Teria, four weeks later the werewolf attack that left you with two dozen stitches, that little incident involving a ladder, Christmas decorations and a gallon sized Zip-Loc baggy full of ice chips…”

“Yeah, yeah, I get it. Most of those weren’t my fault, though — except maybe the ladder thing, but that wasn’t a case!”

“I didn’t say all of them were your fault, Mulder, but you must admit, more times than I care to consider — you’ve been hurt in one way or another.”

“So, starting today I am turning over a new leaf and promise not to get injured or ill.” Mulder crossed his heart solemnly with an X gesture.

“That would be absolutely wonderful — if only it were possible.” Scully told him, not at all convinced he could do it.

“Don’t you have any faith in me?” Mulder pouted.

“Of course I do.” She reassured him. “And I’m going to do everything in my power to help you avoid any mishaps and to prevent you from catching anything. To that end, you’re going to accompany me to Mom’s tonight for one of her hearty home-cooked meals.”

Anticipation lit up the colors in Mulder’s eyes. “Mmm, we haven’t eaten at your Mom’s meals in ages!” His enthusiasm quickly fled when he looked down at his file. “Oh I can’t, I need to get on to this for Skinner.”

“What if I make sure it’s an early night?”

Mulder was tempted. “Will it include dessert?” He asked hopefully.

“Of course! My Mother would never leave you without dessert.”

“Okay, I’m in, as long as you’re sure your Mom won’t mind us cutting out early?”

“I’ll call her and let her know we’re coming but that you’ve got work to finish.” Scully brushed her lips across Mulder’s forehead before returning to her own desk.

Mulder picked up his discarded pencil and, after giving his partner a fond glance, commenced reading through the file.

* * *

Mulder and Scully’s Townhouse

10:30 p.m.

His stomach was contentedly full from a wonderful meal, his heart was filled to overflowing with love for Scully and he was comfortably ensconced in their living room.

The recently purchased flat screen television, though muted, was turned to a classics movie channel and he had a cup of piping hot coffee on the table next to him.

Mulder squirmed until his shoulders were raised to his liking, then pulled his knees up and opened the file.

Time passed unnoticed as he read, occasionally pulling the pencil from his mouth to jot down a thought.

A yawn took him by surprise and he stretched his limbs in response.

A quick glance at his watch showed it to be well after midnight.

He had read through the file twice and was beginning to get a handle on the problem that the Scranton agents were experiencing.

Deciding to clear his mind for a moment, Mulder let the flickering images on the TV screen capture his attention. “The Maltese Falcon”; he hadn’t seen that movie in ages.

He let the movie draw him in. At a commercial break, for a second, he closed his eyes and dropped off to sleep instantly.

* * *

3:45 a.m.

Mulder burst out of a strange dream as a vicious pain gripped his stomach. Clenching his arms protectively around his belly, he pulled his knees up to try and ease the cramping ache.

Biting down harshly on his lip, he felt perspiration breaking out across his forehead and clenched his eyes shut as wave after wave of agony rolled through him.

After what felt like hours, the pain seemed to ease and he was able to uncurl himself slightly.

Tentatively, he took a few slow breaths and then rolled to his side and sat up. Lifting his hand to wipe his forehead, he was alarmed to see his hand shaking.

Slowly, Mulder climbed to his feet, pushing himself upright with his hands on his knees.

The pain that had almost incapacitated him had disappeared as swiftly as it had come, leaving him wondering what had brought it on to begin with.

Something he ate? Maggie Scully’s cooking had been wonderful, as usual, and he had not hadn’t eaten anything else during the day other than coffee and a pastry.

Careful, measured steps took him to the downstairs bathroom where he blinked in the harsh light.

His reflection in the mirror echoed his earlier illness. His face was pale with dark circles under both eyes.

Mulder opened the door behind the mirror and wondered again why Scully insisted on two fully-stocked medicine cabinets for just two people.

He tipped two Tylenol out of a bottle and swallowed them with a handful of water.

Mulder stumbled back to the couch and sat down to steady himself. Finally feeling sure his legs would carry him, he rose to his feet and staggered up the stair to their bed.

* * *

9:15 a.m.

For the fifth time, Scully looked up at the closed office door wondering where Mulder was.

The ‘quick breakfast meeting’ of the Association of Medical Examiners that Skinner had suggested she attend had turned into a turf battle and taken much longer than she’d anticipated.

She’d arrived at the Hoover fully expecting a scolding from her partner over her tardiness. Surprisingly though, the office was dark when she opened the door.

She had waited for half an hour before calling him at home but got their machine and assumed he was on his.

Finally, unable to wait any longer, she dialed his cell phone; Mulder responded after two rings.

“I’m here; give me five minutes.”

Sure enough, about five minutes later he walked in the door.

“Sorry.” He replied guiltily, not quite meeting her eyes. “I fell back to sleep after you left.”

Scully studied Mulder as he walked to his desk.

His suit and shirt were fresh, but his whole bearing had a somewhat worn around the edges appearance, as if he had spent the whole night working.

“Mulder, what time did you come to bed last night?”

Her question stopped him as he reached his desk. She could see his shoulders tighten before he turned around.

“Um, I didn’t look at the clock. Why?” He replied uneasily.

“Because you look like you’ve spent most of the night doing something other than sleeping.”

“Honestly Scully, it wasn’t that late. I was dead to the world long before sunup.”

“Did you go for a run this morning?”

“No, I told you, I fell back to sleep.”

She stood and moved to stand next to her partner. Reaching up, she placed her hand against his forehead.

Mercifully, she found no indication of fever; he just looked extremely tired.

“Come on, I’m not sick.” He brushed her hand gently away. “You’re looking too hard, Scully; we don’t even have a case yet.”

His comment made no sense and Scully frowned at his response. “What?”

“You’re already trying to get out of the paperwork, aren’t you?” He teased lightly.

“Actually, that thought hadn’t occurred to me. I was more concerned about your sudden preference for sleeping in — without me.”

“I drooled on your pillow, does that count?”

Scully backed away and returned to her own side of the office. “Great. Now I have to change the pillowcase when we get home tonight.”

“The thrill is gone, Scully. You think I have ‘cooties’,” he feigned dismay.

“I’ll just have to drool on your pillow tonight and we’ll see how you like it,” she replied smartly.

“Oooh, Scully. Could we change that to you drooling on *me*?” Mulder glanced down toward his belt, then back up at her, eyes twinkling.

Scully chuffed out a laugh at his nonsense. Sitting back down she gestured at the file he had brought with him. “How did it go with the profile.”

“I finally managed to make some sense of it last night,” he told her, “but I haven’t finished yet.”

“Okay, Mulder. I’ve got some errands to run, I’ll leave you to it.” She picked up several files and grabbed her purse before leaving the office.

Mulder waited until he heard the faint chime from the elevator doors closing before dropping his head onto his arms crossed on the desk.

He wondered whether he was doing the right thing by not telling Scully that he actually felt lousy.

He’d been astounded when he had woken this morning just after eight; he’d had no more strange pains but he felt completely wiped, like he’d been going constantly for days.

He had only a vague memory of Scully rousing and kissing him goodbye before she left for her meeting.

Maybe it was just a side effect of whatever he’d been dreaming, somehow transposing itself into genuine symptoms.

The more he thought about it, the more confident he became that was what had happened.

Finally, Mulder lifted his head and forced himself to concentrate on the work in front of him.

After some time, he began to make headway and managed to put the finishing touches to his amended version of the profile moments before Scully returned.

“Brought you some lunch.” She smiled, depositing a white bag on his desk.

Mulder glanced quickly at his watch, the time had somehow flown past without him noticing, indicating just how deeply he’d been focusing.

Removing his glasses, Mulder pinched the bridge of his nose before reaching for the bag and opening it and sniffing appreciatively at the aroma.

“Didn’t realize what the time was.” He said before taking a huge bite of his Philly cheesesteak.

“How’s it going?” Scully waved her free hand at his paper-covered desk.

“Just finished; Skinner put me on to the agent handling the case.”

“How much does your profile differ from theirs?” Scully leaned across his desk and swiped at his chin with a napkin.

“Not a great deal. I’m convinced the guy works in a blue-collar industry, not white and I think he’s slightly older than they’ve proposed. Apart from that, we match up pretty much the same.” Mulder answered around a mouthful of his lunch.

“I’m heading out to Quantico this afternoon, Mulder.” Scully told him. “I had a call about consulting on an autopsy.”

Mulder made a face at Scully’s conversation topic and decided to steer it to something more to his liking. “So, your movie or mine tonight, it is Friday after all.” He watched as a beaming smile lit up his partner’s face.

“So it is. How about we make it mine; which means you cook.”

“Suits me fine. Do you want to call me when you’re leaving Quantico? I can stick around here if you have to file anything before you go home.”

Scully finished her lunch and aimed her rolled up wrapper at the trashcan. “No, you might as well go home when you finish work. I don’t think I’ll be late.” She demurely peered at him over her shoulder. “If you start to miss me, you can run me a nice hot bath.”

Mulder swallowed his last bite of food and theatrically pressed the back of his hand to his forehead “Relegated to the role of bath boy, and at my age.” He declared in a put-upon tone.

Scully turned and gave him the benefit of a full wattage smile. “You do know that bath boys have certain privileges don’t you?”

“I *have* heard rumors. Are you telling me that I get to find out?” Mulder waggled his eyebrows at her suggestively.

“The truth is out there.” She batted her eyelashes at him and ducked out the door as he threw his lunch wrapper her direction.

Mulder grinned and grabbed the phone. Dialing the number for the Scranton field office, he waited to be connected to SAC Forrest.

Four rings later, a gruff voice sounded. “Forrest.”

“Sir, Agent Mulder from D.C. A.D. Skinner asked me to look at a profile for your office.”

“Yeah, you finished it?”

“Yes sir, I don’t know the name of the agent handling the case though.”

“You’re going to have to deal with me. What did you say your name was?” the SAC asked.

“Mulder, sir.”

“Right, fax it through to this number then.” Forrest reeled it off.

“Sir, if it’s at all possible I’d like to speak to the agent handling the case; there’s a couple of details I’d like to go over with them.”

“That’s not possible Mulder; Agent Sawyer passed away three days ago.”

Mulder was shocked silent for several seconds as the news sank in. “I’m sorry to hear that, sir.”

“Yeah, so were Warren’s wife and kids.”

“Warren Sawyer?” Mulder blurted, shocked even further.

“Yeah, you knew him?”

“I worked with a Warren Sawyer a few years back; late forties, dark hair, had a slight limp?”

“That’s him, where’d you know him from, Mulder?”

“Michigan, I used to be in ISU.” Mulder told him.

“He transferred here about six years ago.”

“What happened, if you don’t mind my asking?”

“Respiratory failure, middle of the night.” Forrest said. “By the time the paramedics got him to the hospital it was too late.”

The two agents discussed the profile for a few more minutes and then Mulder again offered his condolences before ending the call.

* * *

Mulder and Scully’s Townhouse

7:15 p.m.

Only a single light was burning as Scully let herself in. Taking her coat off, she hung it in the closet, then moved into the living room where she stopped and smiled at the picture before her.

Mulder was sprawled in the recliner chair he’d claimed as his own shortly after they had bought it.

Citing the fact that her/their couch was too short for him, he was captivated with the way the chair could be adjusted and could easily accommodate the length of his rangy limbs.

She stood silently and observed her soundly sleeping partner.

As usual he’d extended the chair to its fullest, only this time he had slumped so far down that his ass was on the very edge of the seat and his shoeless feet were dangling in mid-air.

One hand was lying on top of an open folder that held several sheets of paper; the other was resting on his chest with his fingers curled around his glasses in a loose grip.

She crouched by his side, taking the opportunity to observe him in a state that he rarely achieved.

Tempted to leave him where he was, she realized that his head was twisted at an awkward angle and, if left to sleep that way, he was going to have an extremely sore neck in the morning.

A sore neck meant a grouchy Mulder.

Scully reached out, his hair-trigger responses firmly in mind, and gently brushed the hair carefully off his forehead.

She frowned as her fingers encountered the slight dampness of perspiration and so she laid two fingers lightly against his neck, relieved when a normal slow but steady beat was detected.

“…’m alive.” A rough, sleep-filled voice informed her.

“That’s good. I’d hate to think how I was going to get you out of that chair otherwise.”

Mulder shifted slightly, grimacing when he flexed the muscles in his neck. “Ow.” He complained, lifting his hand off the folder and rubbing the sore neck area.

Scully grabbed the folder, which, when released, had immediately begun sliding towards the floor.

She gave the folder a mildly curious glance as she placed it on the coffee table and turned her attention back to her partner who was executing a stretch that rivaled the best effort any feline could ever have produced.

Mulder’s eyes popped open and he peered blearily at the smiling visage beside him. “Whassa time?”

“Half past seven.”

“Oh.” He pushed himself further up in the chair.

Although Scully would never admit it to him, she fully enjoyed the moments after he had just woken.

His brilliant mind always took longer than his body to wake up and for the first few minutes he was incapable of uttering any more than the most basic responses.

She ran a single finger down the front of his shirt. “So, do you mind telling me why you are lolling around in luxury instead of keeping my bath water warm?”

Mulder blinked slowly, incomprehension on his face. Then, his sleepy countenance was graced by a slow smile. “Oh yeah.” He took a deep breath and reached for her fingers. “Your bath boy decided that you needed company tonight.”

A raised eyebrow met his statement. “Did he now?”

“Yup.” Mulder pushed the chair back to its upright position and climbed to his feet. He pointed her in the direction of her bedroom and headed off to run the bath.

Scully watched him as he walked away. His pants rode low on his hips, his sleeves were rolled up and the tail of his shirt hung out on one side. Even sleepy and rumpled he was delectable.

The water sounded in the pipes and she hurried up to their bedroom to undress. She slipped into a light robe and pinned her hair up just as Mulder called for her.

As Scully entered the bathroom, she noticed immediately the sweet smell of bath oils permeating the warm air. She also noticed that Mulder had shed his shirt and socks and stood next to the bath waiting for her.

“I approve of the topless look, bath boy.” She remarked, her eyes twinkling.

Mulder did not answer instead placing his hands on her shoulders he assisted her in removing her robe. Strong hands supported her as she stepped carefully into the steaming, fragranced water, lowered herself with his help and leaned back, a smile of ecstasy on her face.

The water was the perfect temperature and felt silky against her skin.

A low voice caught her attention. “If you like the bare-chested look, then you’re gonna love this.” Scully felt a gentle hand on her shoulder. “Scoot forward a bit.”

She did as instructed and felt the water move as Mulder climbed in behind her. She’d somehow missed him removing his pants and boxers, darn it. It was one of her favorite things to watch.

Strong arms wrapped around her waist and pulled her body back against his. His long legs stretched out to each side of hers and she leaned her head back on his shoulder and sighed in true contentment.

Warm lips brushed her ear as he spoke. “I’m going to smell all girly.”

“Mm…hmmm.” Scully hummed in agreement.

“I wouldn’t do it for anyone but you, Dana Katherine Scully.” He continued, lifting his hands from her waist.

He poured some bath gel on a cloth and slowly but reverently began to wash each shoulder, covering every square inch of creamy skin with gentle strokes.

One arm and then the other received the same attention, right down to individual fingers. He leaned away to gain access to her back. His slow movements pro-ducing a purr of quite erotic feminine satisfaction from her as he tended to every inch of her body, giving her the utmost pleasure possible

He nipped at the curve of her ear and whispered. “Oh God, you are so beautiful.” A bead of perspiration rolled down the side of her face; Mulder caught the drop on the tip of his finger and then swiped at it with his tongue, savoring the salty taste. Scully shivered in reaction.

Unwrapping his arms from around her now almost boneless body, Mulder lifted himself out of the tub.

Scully leaned back in the still warm water letting her mind float, tiny traces of pleasure still sparking across her skin.

A soft touch on her arm brought her out of her comforting haze and she looked up to see Mulder, a towel draped low around his hips, holding another in both hands.

“Your humble bath boy offers his assistance.” He bowed ever so slightly, looking at her from under his lashes.

Raising both eyebrows at his statement, Scully reluctantly climbed out of her warm cocoon. “Humble?” The word was laden with skepticism. “Somehow I am having trouble putting ‘Mulder’ and ‘humble’ together in my mind.”

Mulder stepped forward, enveloping her in the soft thick towel as she climbed out of the water. “Open your mind to extreme possibilities, mistress.” He whispered softly as he proceeded to meticulously dry her, paying attention to every crease, every finger and toe.

Scully hummed in satisfaction at Mulder’s actions, the lavish care being shown her was just the balm she needed after a singularly trying day.

All too soon, however, he finished, dropping the used towel and wrapping another tightly about her body.

A soft touch at her lower back prompted her to move into the bedroom where Mulder pulled the covers back on one side. He reached for her towel and she allowed it to drop away.

Scully raised her arms, locking them about his neck, and drew him down into another kiss. Dipping his head, Mulder sucked lightly at her bottom lip before abandoning it to nuzzle behind her ear, one of her most sensitive, erogenous areas.

His voice muffled from where he was lavishing attention caught her by surprise.

“What kept you so late tonight, mistress? Your bath boy was beginning to think you’d found greener pastures.”

Scully shivered as he bit gently on her ear lobe. “I got caught up with another case that came in just as I was about to leave.”

“Yeah, something interesting?”

“Out of the ordinary at any rate.”

Mulder moved until his full length was pressed up against her left side. Propping his head on his hand he began tracing idle patterns on the skin of her stomach with his fingers. “Talk to me.”

Scully’s voice hitched slightly at the feel of his fingers, but she proceeded anyway.

“Dr. Latham asked for my opinion on the victim of a single MVA. The deceased had suffered a heart attack while driving which caused him to run off the road.” Scully told him. “Only problem was there was no underlying reason for the heart attack. He was fit and healthy, non-smoker, forty-seven years old; his heart was probably equal to that of a thirty year old, and it was obvious he’d kept himself in good shape. No evidence of arteriosclerosis, in short…”

“Okay, so the guy was healthy. What has you puzzled?”

“In simple terms, this guy should not have had a heart attack, yet he did.” Scully lifted one hand, tangling her fingers in Mulder’s hair. “So, we went looking for what would have caused him to suffer a heart attack.”

“Did you find anything?”

“Yes, an overdose of Physostigmine.”

“Which is?” Mulder prompted.

“Physostigmine is a compound used in the treatment of glaucoma,” Scully explained. “It can also be used as a muscle injection to reverse the effects of toxic overdoses of some medicines.”

“Did this guy have glaucoma?” Mulder prompted.

“No.”

“I take it he also wasn’t on any medication either.”

“You guessed it.”

“So, why did he have this physi…stuff in him then?”

“Physostigmine, and I don’t have a clue.” Scully actually seemed somewhat stunned at herself at having not found an answer.

“Foul play, do you think?”

“It’s a possibility Mulder, I left it in Dr. Latham’s hands. But regardless, it was a nasty way to die. I wonder what Mr. Harper’s history is?”

Mulder’s body stiffened, his hand stopping its gentle motions. “Harper? Scully what was his first name?”

“I’m not sure, I don’t think I even looked Mulder, why?” Her curiosity piqued, she frowned at her partner’s interest.

Mulder scrambled off the bed and, unconcerned about his nakedness, hurried down to the living room.

Seconds later he returned with the file he had been reading earlier.

“Mulder!” Scully’s plaintive voice sounded slightly aggrieved as he threw himself back on the bed and began shuffling through the papers inside the manila folder.

“Just a minute.” He found the information he was after and handed her a sheet of paper. “I’ve been working on this for a week or so.”

Resigned to the fact that Mulder’s interest was not where she wanted it, Scully eased herself up against the headboard and took the proffered page; six names were typed one under another.

“Recognize any?” Mulder asked.

“Yours of course.” She replied petulantly. “And the top one, Bernie Madison.” She placed the page on the bed beside her. “Mulder, what is this all about?”

“Two of those men are dead, with the possibility of a third.”

“And this concerns you how?” Scully queried.

“We were all on the task force that took down a kiddie porn ring.”

Scully huffed out an breath impatiently. “That doesn’t make it any clearer.”

“Doesn’t it sound a bit too coincidental, Scully?” He asked, his eyebrows rising in question.

“Mulder, people die all the time.”

“I know *that.*” He snapped, before lowering his eyes and biting his lower lip. “I’m sorry, Scully; I didn’t mean for it to come out like that.”

Scully reached out and laid a hand on his shoulder, feeling the tense muscles under her fingers. “All right, Bernie Madison died from poisoned mushrooms wasn’t it?”

“Yes.” Mulder told her.

“Who else?”

“Warren Sawyer.”

“How?” Scully wanted to know.

“Respiratory failure.”

“That’s fairly common, you know.” Scully stroked her fingers softly over his shoulder. “Besides, you have no way of knowing if the Mr. Harper I saw is the…” She glanced down at the names on the page beside her. “Andrew Harper that you know.”

“I know that.” Mulder’s reply was subdued. “It’s just that…oh, I don’t know, I’ve got one of those feelings, you know my ‘Spooky Radar.'”

“All too well.” Scully increased the pressure of her fingers. “Tell you what, on Monday I’ll check up on the name for you. For all we know Mr. Harper may turn out to be a Zachary.”

“Can you do it tomorrow?”

“It’s the weekend Mulder.” She reminded him.

“Yeah I know…”

“Monday.” Scully’s tone was firm.

“Please, it’s just a phone call.” Mulder adopted his best-kicked puppy look. “Scullee?”

“Oh for goodness sakes.” Her resolve crumbled under the onslaught of his pouty bottom lip. “All right — tomorrow, in the meantime…” She passed him the sheet from the folder. “You take this file back out there, because I don’t want work interrupting what I’ve got planned for you.” Scully grinned evilly at him.

* * *

A.D. Skinner’s Office

Monday

June 4, 2007

“I’m sorry Agent Mulder, without more evidence I can’t authorize the time or manpower.” Skinner pushed the manila folder back across the desk towards his agent.

“*More evidence?*” Mulder was incredulous. “Sir, three people from the same task force have died within a remarkably short space of time.” Mulder’s fists clenched in frustration.

“Could be classed as coincidence.” Skinner shrugged.

“With all due respect sir, that’s a cop-out. Three agents have died in suspicious circumstances and no one is willing to give it any time?”

“There’s the catch Mulder; your interpretation of ‘suspicious’ differs widely from everyone else.” Skinner told him. “I agree with you that Harper’s death is unexplained, but in Madison’s case, it was classed as an accident. Sawyer suffered from asthma, which is a primary cause of respiratory failure. I’m sure Agent Scully has explained that to you. There is no definitive connection between their deaths other than the fact that they all worked on the same case years ago, along with you.”

Skinner placed his elbows on the desk and steepled his fingertips. “I assume you have checked up on the other agents from the task force, Agent Mulder?”

Mulder’s jaw worked back and forth. “I’m in the process of doing so, sir. I know Agent Ferguson is still alive, he contacted me about Madison. But, I’m having trouble finding any information on Anthony Carlson. He retired five years ago and seems to have dropped out of sight.”

“I’m sure you have your sources working on that for you.” Skinner commented.

“Yes sir, I do.”

“I presume that you’ve also looked into why these agents are allegedly being targeted?”

“My main theory is that one or more of the members of the child pornography ring that we took down is after some form of revenge.” Mulder explained. “All the individuals involved in the ring have been released from prison and I also have my sources looking into their whereabouts.”

Skinner leaned back in his chair. “If your hypothesis is correct, Mulder, you *do* realize that makes you a target as well?”

“Yes sir.”

Skinner touched the tips of his fingers together and sighed. “I’m sorry I can’t offer you the assistance you’re seeking, Mulder; however I don’t have a problem with you looking into this yourself, just as long as you remember where your priorities lie.”

Mulder picked up the file from Skinner’s desk. “Thank you for your time, sir.” He spun on his heel and left the office, closing the door quietly behind him.

Skinner took his glasses off and rubbed at the bridge of his nose.

He hoped to God that Mulder was truly off-base. A killer stalking and murdering F.B.I. agents was a scenario that he did not want to even remotely contemplate.

* * *

Basement Office

Mulder came through the door and slammed it behind him.

Startled, Scully looked up from the report she was reading and eyed her partner as he sank dejectedly into his chair.

“No go, huh?”

“Nope, he can’t or won’t see the connection.” Mulder lifted his briefcase off the floor and opened it, dropping the file inside.

Lifting a pencil from inside the case he absently placed it in his mouth and leaned back in his chair; staring off into the distance, his eyes focused on nothing.

“So, what now?” Scully asked.

Mulder turned and looked at her, taking the pencil from his mouth, he heaved a deep breath and let it out slowly. “I’ve got the guys looking into the whereabouts of Anthony Carlson.”

He paused and an unreadable expression crossed his face. “How morbid am I to be sitting here pinning my hopes on finding out that he’s dead? What does that say about me, Scully?”

“It says to me that you are an empathic man who is dealing with something that is entirely outside of his control.” Scully told him gently.

Mulder dry washed his face before running his hands through his hair leaving it standing up in spikes. “God, I hate waiting.”

“Spoken like a true man.” Scully smiled softly at him.

Mulder flicked his eyes across to his partner. “Excuse me, is that statement a crack at me?”

“Not necessarily, Mulder, just men in general.” Scully replied serenely.

“I’ll have you know I have the patience of a saint.”

“All right; here’s a test of your famous patience.” Scully narrowed her eyes. “There’s a new restaurant that has opened just off Wisconsin Avenue and I want to go there for dinner tonight. I’m not going to tell you what type of restaurant it is and I can guarantee that before the day is over you’ll ask.”

“Let’s make it interesting.” Mulder declared.

“How so?” Scully frowned in question.

“If I ask you outright what type of restaurant it is before the day is over, I’ll cook for the rest of the week, if I don’t then you cook.”

Scully considered his offer. “Sounds fair.” She agreed, silently congratulating herself at diverting his mind away from the agents’ deaths.

They worked in silence for an hour or two before Mulder leaned back in his chair twirling his pencil around in his mouth with his tongue.

“Hey Scully, did you know that in Thailand the mole cricket is considered a delicacy?” He watched her carefully.

“No Mulder, I had no idea.”

“Oh, just thought it might interest you, with your fondness for crickets and all.” Mulder grumbled.

“If I’m ever in Thailand, it might.”

“Hmm.” He went back to reading the information on a potential X-File.

Half an hour later the silence was broken again. “Scully?”

“Yes, Mulder?”

“I’ve heard that in Greek folklore, if men eat lettuce it’s supposed to cause impotence.”

“That’s interesting if you’re a Greek male.” She lifted her hand to rub at her nose effectively hiding the smile she was unable to restrain.

“Yeah I thought so, too. Kinda puts you off lettuce. Not that I’m Greek or anything…”

Peace descended again until Mulder once more lifted his head and stared in her direction. “This is interesting.”

“What is?”

“There’s a documented report of a creature, half wolf half child in the Koroglu Mountains.” He let his statement sit for a moment before adding helpfully. “That’s in Turkey.”

“Mulder, I refuse to go to Turkey. Let the Turkish authorities deal with it.”

She had to grant that he had effectively skirted asking outright about the restaurant’s cuisine; his resourcefulness was original for sure.

“Scully?”

“Oh, for goodness sake Mulder, just ask me already!” She blurted in exasperation.

“Okay.” He shrugged. “Want some coffee?”

She hissed an exclamation under her breath and frowned at the totally ingenuous look upon his face.

Scully took a couple of deep breaths before answering. “Yes, actually, that would be nice.” She pushed away from her desk. “I’m just going to make a quick run to the bathroom.”

“Sure.” Mulder leaned back in his chair as Scully straightened her skirt. He didn’t smile but his eyes lightened in enjoyment as she shot him a glare before leaving the office.

The afternoon continued in the same vein; numerous times Scully had her concentration interrupted by Mulder’s continual references to absurd matters dealing with food from varying countries.

“Scully,” Mulder asked, “Have you wondered why the Scots eat haggis? I mean, sure it’s traditional, but why would anyone want to stuff a sheep’s stomach with…”

And so it went.

Finally, half an hour before they were due to finish work, Scully snapped.

“All right, I give up, you win, it’s an Indian restaurant, I’ll cook for the rest of the week, just please stop.”

Mulder raised one eyebrow and peered inquiringly at his aggravated partner. “Not like you to give up so easily, Scully.” He smirked. “No patience, huh?”

“There’s only so much I can stand and you have well and truly taxed my limit.” She retorted, shutting down her computer and standing up. “And because of that, you can make the reservations.”

Scully waved a finger admonishingly in his direction. “Fair warning though, if you utter one more bizarre remark about sardine flavored baby food from Japan, or Lucrezia Borgia pasta or sucking the juice out of the heads of crawfish for the ‘extra Cajun flavor,’ I’m walking out.”

Mulder mimed a cross over his heart. “I promise. What time do you want to eat?”

“Seven will do fine.” She brushed up against the arm of his chair and caressed the hair at the base of his neck. “Are you going to call now? I hear they fill up the dinner hour pretty early.”

“Shortly. I’m just going to call the Gunmen and see if they’ve come up with anything.” He reached for the phone.

Scully bent and placed a kiss at the side of his mouth. “Okay, I’ll see you later.”

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Scully tossed him a fond glance but he was already dialing and didn’t see; she was gratified, however, to see his lips up in a faint smile and press his fingertips to the side of his mouth where she’d kissed him.

* * *

Mulder and Scully’s Townhouse

Georgetown

10:45 p.m.

“I’m heading upstairs, Mulder. Are you going to work in the office?” Scully asked as she followed him in the front door.

“No, I think I’m going to work down here tonight. Maybe catch the game I TiVOed.

“OK, but *do* come up. You look really tired.” She stood on the bottom step, making it all too easy to kiss her.

“Get going, Scully, before I change my mind and come to bed now,” he said with a playful swat on her behind.

His eyes followed her swaying backside all the way up the stairs before he grabbed his briefcase and reluctantly headed for the living room.

The light on the answering machine was blinking. Hitting playback, Mulder sat as he listened to Frohike explain that, so far, they had not had any luck in finding out anything about Anthony Carlson.

The message ended with a promise that they would keep looking, as several channels were untried.

Mulder picked up a pencil and opened the file on the task force agents and slipped the pencil between his lips before turning the top page over.

He grunted irritably as he reread the remarks he had written in the margin. “*I* can see it.” He spoke around the pencil. “Why can’t anyone else?”

A sudden look of disgust crossed his face and he pulled the pencil out of his mouth and examined it. The end, apart being wet with his saliva, had several teeth marks in it that had gone through the paint and into the wood below.

Screwing up his nose at it, he tossed it at the trash can, shrugging when it bounced off the edge and hit the floor.

Mulder grabbed a new pencil, retreated to the couch and started in on his notes.

Halfway through, he could feel a headache building behind his eyes.

When he had to squint to read the words, he knew he’d had enough.

Removing his glasses, Mulder pinched the bridge of his nose, trying to ease the pounding that was rapidly building into a migraine.

He closed the file and got stiffly to his feet. However as he straightened a sudden cramping in his stomach bent him over again.

He thought of the unexplained pain he’d suffered several nights ago, Mulder carefully eased himself back down on his side. Wearily, he closed his eyes, willing the pain to subside.

He didn’t remember falling asleep but he was certainly aware of coming awake when his stomach rolled with dreadful nausea.

Mulder jerked upright, clapped his hand over his mouth and gagged.

Stumbling blindly to his feet, he ran to the first floor bathroom, falling to his knees as his stomach rebelled violently.

He retched continuously for the next several moments until he was bringing up nothing but bile.

Weakly, Mulder flushed the toilet before slumping back against the cool, tiled wall of the bathroom. His head pounded incessantly, his stomach ached and the vile taste in his mouth forced him to his knees where he cupped his hand under the faucet and drank deeply of the cool water.

As he tried to find the strength to climb to his feet, his stomach spasmed and once again he found himself bringing up every last drop of the water he’d just swallowed.

Sometime later he feebly lifted his head grunting as strained stomach muscles complained against the slightest movement.

Slowly, with great care, Mulder eased himself to his feet; he rinsed his mouth, careful not to swallow any water.

Locking trembling knees into place, he leaned heavily on the counter and peered at his reflection.

He was not a pretty sight; hair matted with sweat and stuck to his forehead, his face was so pale it was almost white. The huge dark circles under his eyes made him shudder.

Mulder knew he needed to lie down, so he cautiously turned, resting one hand on the wall for balance.

The distance from the bathroom and up the stairs to their bedroom seemed too far, so he decided to try for the couch.

One arm wrapped around his stomach and hunched over like an elderly man, Mulder slowly tracked one foot in front of the other.

Halfway across the floor, he felt his stomach turn over once more.

“No, not again.” He whispered despairingly, stopping and turning back to the bathroom.

He barely managed to cross the threshold before the spasms drove him to his knees. He crouched in misery, retching incessantly.

He had nothing left to bring up and the heaving made bile burn the back of his throat.

Eventually, he collapsed in an exhausted heap, his eyes watering, his nose running and his head throbbing in time with his pounding heart.

The floor was cold and Mulder shivered. But without any energy, he had no option but to lie in a miserable heap; his arms wrapped tightly around himself, his legs pulled up to his chest.

Despite the pounding migraine and the tremors rocking his body, exhaustion took him and Mulder dropped into an uneasy sleep sometime during the early morning hours.

* * *

Mulder and Scully’s Townhouse

June 5, 2007

6:00 a.m.

Prying open eyes sticky with the residue of tears and perspiration, it took Mulder a few minutes to get his bearings.

He had a view of old and worn black and white linoleum. He realized he was still lying on downstairs bathroom floor when he caught sight of the floor covering around the pedestal of the toilet.

Shakily, he lifted a hand to wipe at his eyes. They were dry and sore, like his throat.

He pressed both hands to the floor wincing as every muscle in his body, especially the ones across his stomach, protested at the movement.

Mulder was in desperate need of a drink. He swallowed several times, but there was nothing there.

Somehow, he found the strength to crawl the couple of feet between him and the counter, his head hanging and his breath coming in short pants.

Mulder levered himself up, resting his elbows on the counter. The faucet was dripping and he stared at each drop as it fell before he reached out and turned the tap.

The water was cool and tantalizing and, without thinking, he cupped his hands under the flow and brought them up to his mouth.

He repeated the motion again and again until he was satisfied. He rubbed a handful over his face before shutting the water off.

Fatigue overwhelmed him again and he slumped back down to the floor.

Mulder leaned against a cabinet, one cheek pressed to the cool surface, trying in vain to draw enough strength to make it out of the bathroom.

His brain felt like it was packed in cotton, but one thought kept whirling around in his head:

Food poisoning.

Years ago, he had been afflicted with it. Some bad salami on a pizza had nearly put him into the hospital.

The symptoms were the same; abdominal cramps, nausea, vomiting and fever.

It had to be the food from last night. His head jerked up causing him to wince from the sudden motion.

Scully! Was she in the same condition?

The thought propelled him out of the bathroom crawling across the floor on shaky hands and knees.

Midway through his journey, the stomach cramps set in again, growing stronger, and nausea returned.

He knew he’d never make it up the stairs to their bedroom so he fumbled for his cellphone, still in his pocket.

He listened to the ringing, both on his cell and in the room upstairs, trying to keep the nausea under control.

*Come on! Answer please,* he pleaded frantically to himself.

Worry hit him sharply when Scully didn’t answer. Then suddenly her voice sounded on the other end.

Relief surged through him and he blurted out her name. “Scully!”

Why did the phone always have to ring when she was in the shower, Scully thought crossly as she grabbed a large towel.

Wrapping it around herself, she hurried into the bedroom cursing whomever was calling at this time of the morning.

And where was Mulder?

Probably passed out on the recliner. She wasn’t too pleased with him for going MIA again.

“Scully.” She snapped.

The unmistakable tone of her partner’s voice gasping her name sounded on the line followed immediately by the sound of him being violently ill.

She heard a thud, as if he had dropped the phone. “Mulder?” She called out anxiously.

The only sound coming through the line was the agonized sound of gagging coupled with frantic gasps for breath.

Scully hurried to the top of the stairs where she could hear the same sounds coming from somewhere below.

“Mulder, if you can hear me, I’m on my way!” Scully dropped the phone and ran down the stairs.

She searched the living room, calling her partner’s name. She could hear whimpering as she approached the half bath.

As she rounded the table, she saw his crumpled form lying on the floor.

“Mulder!” She gasped running to and dropping by his side, her hand automatically going to his forehead to check for fever, the dry skin under her fingertips telling a story of fever and pain.

Mulder’s eyes were clenched shut and the skin around them was pinched and mottled with a plethora of broken capillaries that hinted at an extended period of vomiting.

“Mulder, I’m here.”

Her hand was cool on his forehead and Mulder sighed at the sensation. When it disappeared he whimpered at the loss until he felt a damp cloth wiping his face.

Mulder shivered as water ran down his cheek and under his shirt collar. His head was gently lifted and a cup pressed to his lips.

The first slide of water down his parched throat was sheer bliss, however Mulder soon regretted it when minutes later it forcibly made a return journey.

“All right, take it easy, Mulder; try to breathe through your nose, don’t pant.” Scully ran her eyes over him; his shirt was stained with perspiration and flecks of vomit.

“How long have you been feeling sick?” Scully asked trying to get some sort of timeline.

Mulder’s voice was thin and she had to lean closer to hear his words. “…this morning…early.”

“Did you eat anything after I went to bed?”

He shook his head “Musta been…dinner…Indian…was worried.”

“About the food?”

“No…you.” His eyes shot wide open as the nausea rose and he began to heave again.

Thankfully, this series of convulsions was short-lived and less than a minute later, Mulder lay on the floor gasping for breath.

His gray face and sunken eyes prompted Scully to reach for her phone. “Mulder, I’m calling the paramedics…”

A surprisingly strong hand reached out and grasped her wrist. “No…no hospital…”

“Don’t give me that!” She snapped, calming her tone almost immediately. “Mulder, you need more than I can do for you, an anti-emetic for a start, to stop the nausea, and an IV to ward off dehydration.”

A vicious cramp twisting through his stomach muscles made Mulder’s decision for him, leaving him curled in on himself, groaning in absolute agony.

Within a minute, Scully was connected to 911 and was relaying necessary details.

Mulder didn’t realize he’d closed his eyes until the feel of the damp cloth made him jump.

“Steady now, love.” Scully bid him as she wiped the cloth over his face, cleaning away saliva and vomit.

* * *

North East Georgetown Medical Center

1:30 p.m.

Mulder restlessly scratched at the IV site attached to the back of his hand.

“Stop that!” Scully hissed, batting his fingers once again.

“It’s itchy.” He complained.

“I don’t care.” Scully replied. “You need it and it stays until the doctor says otherwise.”

He sighed and leaned back against the bed, turning to look at Scully. “How long do I have to stay here?”

“As long as it takes to get your fluid and electrolytes back up and results of your blood work.”

“I don’t think that doctor believed me when I said it was the Indian food.” Mulder scowled.

“You don’t think the phrase ‘lousy Indian cooking’ would have had anything to do with it, do you?” Scully folded her arms and glared at him.

“Well, it’s true isn’t it?”

“Mulder, have you ever heard of the word ‘tact’?”

“Of course.”

“Maybe you should employ some occasionally.”

“I was just telling the truth, Scully. Is it my fault if Dr. Whatisname is so sensitive?”

“Dr. Jandhylah, and it’s not a case of being sensitive, it’s more a case of knowing when to keep your mouth shut.” Scully vividly remembered how the doctor had stiffened at Mulder’s accusation.

“It wasn’t intentional.”

“Oh please! You had an attitude as soon as you were aware enough to realize that the doctor treating you was Indian.”

Mulder pulled at the neck of his hospital gown. “If I say I’m sorry, will you stop being angry with me?” He pouted.

“Put that lip away, it’s not going to work.” Scully informed him firmly. “And I’m not angry, I’m disappointed. Besides, it’s not me you should apologize to. I know you’re sick and in pain, but that’s still no excuse for taking it out on an innocent person.”

He sighed and shifted position, wincing when the movement pulled at his extremely overworked stomach muscles. “You’re right, I’ll apologize as soon as he comes back.” He finished his statement with a wide yawn.

Scully rose from her seat and rubbed her hand up and down his arm. “Why don’t you try and get some more sleep; it’ll be a few more hours yet before they’ll let you go.” She moved closer and began running her fingers through his unruly hair.

Her action had an immediate soporific effect on Mulder and his eyes closed; slumping further down in the bed he turned on his side and curled his hands up under his chin. “Hmm, ‘s prob’ly a good idea.”

Scully deftly untangled the IV line with one hand while keeping up the soothing motion in his hair with the other. She listened as his breathing slowed and deepened.

A sigh broke the silence and then Mulder murmured. “I gotta numb ass.”

“Go to sleep.” Scully soothed, shaking her head in amusement at his muddled thought processes. “I’ll look after your ass when we get you home.”

“Yeah.” Mulder whispered as he dropped into a sound sleep.

* * *

3:15 p.m.

“Dr. Scully?” The soft hesitant voice of Mulder’s admitting doctor turned her attention away from her slumbering partner.

Climbing to her feet, she brushed her disheveled hair out of her eyes. Dr. Jandhylah stood just inside the curtain, clutching a sheaf of papers. His deep brown eyes peered at her from behind frameless glasses and he gave her a small smile.

“I have the results from Mr. Mulder’s blood work.” He looked down at the papers in his hand.

“What type of bacteria was it?” Scully reached out for the report.

“There isn’t any.” The doctor replied bluntly.

“I beg your pardon?” Scully frowned. “Are you sure you ran the correct tests?”

An embarrassed blush rose in her cheeks. “I’m sorry, that was a stupid thing to say. I don’t understand, are you telling me he doesn’t have food poisoning?”

“Yes, that is correct.”

“So what does he have?”

“Ah, now there we have a little mystery.” Jandhylah gestured for her to step outside so as to avoid waking her partner.

As Scully followed the doctor into the corridor, he began talking. “I’m sure you are familiar with the different types of bacteria that can cause food poisoning?”

“Yes, I assumed it would be Clostridium Perfringens for it to affect only Mulder, I had no meat in my meal. A more remote possibility was Bacillus Cereus, although I had the rice, too.”

“That also was my first assumption, but as you can see here,” He handed Scully the relevant report, “Neither of those, or any others, have shown up in the tests.”

He pushed his glasses back up his nose. “I have also heard back from the health department, there have been no other instances reported and the restaurant has been cleared by their officer.”

She scanned the paper swiftly. “So, if it’s not food poisoning, is it some form of gastroenteritis?”

“A small but distinct possibility, although the absence of diarrhea is an intriguing aspect.”

Scully looked up at Jandhylah. “Well, I suppose that’s good news, in a way.”

“Being a doctor, I’m sure you are also aware of the varied reasons for stomach upsets.”

Scully smiled. “You can rule out indigestion, Mulder has a cast iron stomach.”

“It would appear so; his choice of meal is not something the faint-hearted would select.”

“Dr. Jandhylah, I apologize for my partner’s earlier statement.” She started.

Jandhylah held up a hand. “Please, Dr. Scully, it is quite understandable. Mr. Mulder was feeling quite out of sorts. The coincidence was perhaps slightly unfortunate. I did not take any offense, I can assure you.”

Scully looked back where Mulder lay, sound asleep. “How much longer will you keep him?”

“The dehydration is under control, as I hope is the nausea.” He gave her a questioning look. “He has had no more instances of vomiting?”

“Not since the anti-emetic was administered. I think his only complaint will be tiredness and sore stomach muscles.”

“He certainly gave them a good workout. In that case, once he wakes, I will have the nurse run through the standard checks. If everything is satisfactory, I will discharge him.” Jandhylah checked his watch. “Maybe you will beat the rush hour traffic.”

“That would be a blessing.” Scully smiled sincerely.

“Very well, I shall leave you then. Please contact the nurse as soon as Mr. Mulder is awake.”

Scully nodded and shook the doctor’s proffered hand.

Tucking her hair behind her ear, she slipped back into the ER cubicle. She took her position at Mulder’s side and gazed at him contemplatively.

She was close to nodding off when he stirred and opened red-rimmed eyes.

“Hey.” He swallowed thickly. “Can I have some water?”

Scully stood and brushed his cheek with the backs of her fingers. “How’s your stomach?”

Mulder thought before answering. “Sore, but I don’t feel nauseous at all.”

“Okay then, but just a sip to wet your mouth.” She reached for the jug beside the bed and poured a small amount into the cup. Holding it to his lips, she let him take a tiny swallow before pulling it away.

Mulder sighed and closed his eyes. “God, that’s good.”

“If that stays down, you can have some more.”

He glanced up at the IV bag above his head. “How much longer do I have to be connected to this?”

“Until it’s empty; not too long.” Scully and gave him a light kiss on the forehead. “I’ll be back; just going to tell the nurse you’re awake.”

“Okay.” Mulder shifted on the bed and watched as she walked away.

* * *

Mulder and Scully’s Townhouse

5:45 p.m.

“Gas, my ass.”

Scully smiled at his unintended rhyme.

“I’m more inclined to think it was a minor viral infection. Mimics the symptoms of food poisoning exactly; treatment is the same, plenty of fluids and rest.”

Mulder grimaced. “I don’t think I’ve ever been that sick before.”

“It’s not something you’d want a repeat performance of, Mulder.” Scully told him.

“That’s for sure.” Mulder leaned back in the recliner and pushed the footrest out. “Man, I’m wiped.”

“That’s why you need to rest.” Scully propped herself on the armrest and stroked his hair. “I thought something very light for dinner, some clear soup.”

Mulder closed his eyes and yawned. “Hmm, sounds good, can I have crackers?”

She nudged his shoulder. “Are you going to sleep?”

“Think so.” He replied drowsily.

“I want you to have a drink before you do.” She reached over him and picked up a bottle of bright lemon liquid and handed it to him. “You’ve got to keep the fluids up.”

He eyed the lurid color and pulled a face. “If I drink much more, I’m going to overflow. Didn’t they have any of the blue stuff?”

“It was a very popular convenience store, Mulder. They were all out of blue, so you have to make do with this. You need the electrolytes so don’t argue.” Scully crossed her arms and glared at him. “You know one of the possible side effects of dehydration is a kidney infection. Believe me, you don’t want that.”

Mulder lifted the bottle to his mouth and took a tentative sip; he shuddered in an exaggerated manner.

“Gah! That’s awful, why do they still make this flavor? Why can’t I have an iced tea?” He peered up at his partner hopefully, then dropped his shoulders as he noticed with both eyebrows raised and her lips pressed together in a thin line.

“Not going to work Mulder, drink it. And the reason you’re not getting iced tea, is you don’t need the caffeine on top of dehydration.”

He three big gulps, pulling a face with each one. When he had drained nearly half the bottle, he wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. “Oh god, no more.”

Peering at the label, he scowled. “Lemon flavor, what a load of crap.” Offering the bottle back to Scully he asked. “How’s that?”

“Good, keep it up and you’ll be back on your feet in no time.”

“What if I said I want to be back on my back?” A mischievous grin lit up his face.

“Oh you’ll get there, I promised you I’d look after your ass.” She returned his look before settling herself on the arm of the chair.

The expression on Mulder’s face was one of priceless incomprehension. “Huh?”

“In the hospital, you were worried about your ass.”

“I was?”

“You were quite concerned that it was numb.”

Mulder looked at her quizzically. “Scully, I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

Scully took his hand between hers and smiled at the confusion in his expression. “Don’t worry, all your secrets are safe.”

Intense hazel eyes fixed themselves on her face. “Did I make a fool of myself?” He asked apprehensively.

“Mulder with all the medication you had running through your system, nothing you said was taken seriously.” She pressed a gentle kiss against his lips. After a few seconds, she pulled back and laid her hand gently on his cheek. “I love you.” She whispered.

Mulder reached to brush the hair off her cheek, but as he leaned forward his stomach muscles objected and he winced, slumping back in the chair. The frustration of his body being under par showed in his eyes. “Damn, I want…”

“Sshh.” A finger was gently pressed against his lips. “The only thing you have to do is rest and regain your strength, I’ll be here.” She reached out and tangled her fingers in his hair smoothing the strands.

The tiredness Mulder had been valiantly keeping at bay finally settled over him and he closed his eyes in surrender.

Scully watched as his body settled more comfortably into the chair, muscles relaxing, hands uncurling and lying limply in his lap. She kept up the stroking for a little while as his breathing deepened into sound sleep, watching as his lips parted slightly and his head dropped to one side.

Carefully she slid off the arm of the chair, casting a fond look at her partner and headed off to the kitchen to start dinner.

* * *

Three days recovering from the mysterious viral infection had left Mulder feeling antsy and thoroughly sick of the sight of four walls.

Even though the majority of the time Scully had been there to keep him company, he had begun to feel an almost desperate longing to be outdoors.

By Thursday, he had managed to convince Scully that he was feeling well enough to go for a walk, though the short distance they’d gone exhausted him to the extent that he slept through the rest of the afternoon.

When Friday evening rolled around he was feeling almost normal again, the occasional twinge from his overused stomach muscles was the only sign that he had been ill.

When Maggie Scully had called late Friday night asking if Dana could run some errands with her Saturday, Mulder had assured his partner he’d be fine if left on his own for a day.

* * *

Saturday, June 9, 2007

10:30 a.m.

His chest heaving and drops of perspiration running down his face, Mulder pushed the door shut behind him and slumped it.

Maybe going for a run hadn’t the brightest idea he’d ever had, but at the time it had made a lot of sense.

The fact that his strength and endurance were nowhere near back to normal had been slammed into him when he had nearly collapsed a mere quarter of the way through his normal run.

Gathering his energy, he pushed away from the door and trudged wearily to the kitchen. He opened the refrigerator, grabbed a bottle of water, twisted the cap off and gulped nearly half the contents before taking a breath.

Checking his watch, he decided he had enough time for a shower and, stripping off his sweaty clothing, made his way to the bathroom.

The hot water beating down on him cleared his head a little and, mentally, he began to work through the information he had connecting the three agents’ deaths.

It still seemed too contrived, too coincidental to be anything other than intentional; he just wished Scully and Skinner could see it, too.

Stepping out of the shower, Mulder felt the cooler air of the bathroom hit his overheated skin and for a moment his vision grayed out.

Blindly, he reached out to support himself and planted both hands on the counter. He dropped his head and took several deep breaths before raising his eyes to the mirror.

Wiping the steam away with his hand, he studied his reflection: the pallor of his face highlighted the shadows under his eyes making them look darker than usual. Straightening up, he gazed critically at himself.

The virus had stripped pounds from his lanky frame and the outline of his ribs was clearly visible, his stomach was flatter than normal and he looked badly in need of a good meal.

Mulder’s stomach did a slow lazy roll at the mere thought of food. He could handle another drink but swallowing something other than liquid was beyond him.

Even Scully’s culinary efforts, which were of a much greater standard than his own, had not been enough to tempt him into eating anymore than absolutely necessary.

He dried off, then walked back to the bedroom shivering as cold brushed over his naked body.

Mulder slumped lethargically on the edge of the bed gathering the energy to get dressed.

Finally, realizing his shivers were becoming worse, he pulled on a sweat suit and drifted back down to the living room.

The steady blinking of the answering machine’s light caught Mulder’s attention.

The message froze him in place as he listened to Frohike’s message urging him to check his email.

* * *

Mulder and Scully’s Townhouse

4:20 p.m.

Scully let herself in and closed the door, the silence raised her hope that Mulder was getting some much-needed rest.

Her lips turned up in a smile as she discovered him stretched full-length on his recliner, his mouth open and snoring gently.

Soon, however, the smile turned into a frown when she noticed the state of the coffee table.

File folders were laying open, their contents mixed with numerous sheets of paper covered in Mulder’s distinctive handwriting.

Pencils littered the table, all bearing evidence of his frustration in their chewed ends.

Scully shook her head at his stubbornness as she picked a paper at random and read through his notes.

The connections he had made intrigued her and Scully found herself reaching for the file folder. She sat down between the table and the couch and flipped through the report, her eyes widening as she finally began to reach the same conclusion that Mulder had over a week ago.

A conclusion that meant Mulder was also undoubtedly a target.

Scully was deeply involved in reading when a touch on her shoulder made her jump. Turning, she saw Mulder sleepily blinking his eyes.

“You frightened me.” She accused lightly.

He tangled his fingers softly in her hair. His eyes flicked towards the papers in her hands. “What do you think?” He asked in a sleep-heavy voice.

“I think you’ve been working when you should have been resting.” Scully chided. As a frown began to grow on his face, she continued. “I also think you could be onto something.”

Mulder stared at her in surprise as he pushed himself upright. “You do? I thought you were convinced it was all a big coincidence.”

“I was — until I read this.” She waved the sheaf of papers in her hand. “Anthony Carlson makes the fourth agent from the task force, although he was the first one to die.”

“Yeah, three weeks before Bernie Madison.” Mulder nodded.

“His death was ruled as suicide, though.” Scully picked up another sheet of paper and read from it. “Victim was in a state of depression because of the break up of his twenty year marriage.”

“You didn’t read far enough.” Mulder countered, shuffling through the papers until he found what he was looking for. “His marriage may have broken up, but he’d just bought him and his girlfriend tickets on to a month-long Caribbean cruise. I don’t know about you Scully, but that doesn’t sound too depressing to me.”

Scully’s eyebrow rose. “No, I agree with you, Mulder. I can’t see anything depressing about a Caribbean cruise.” She sighed. “So what now, are you doing back to Skiner with this new information?”

“I’ve got to.”

“You couldn’t persuade him last time, Mulder. What makes you think this time will be different?”

“More facts.” He stood up, leaned over and, unerringly, from the mass of papers, picked up the one sheet he wanted. “Here.” Mulder shuffled papers aside before handing a manila folder to his partner.

Scully perused the contents. Mulder watched as she read through the top copy, then the next.

“That’s not possible.” She stated reaching for the third set of papers.

“What isn’t?” He asked leaning over her shoulder.

“This information, it doesn’t tally…” Her words trailed off and Mulder’s curiosity escalated.

Scully leaned forward and spread the reports out on the coffee table. “Okay, three out of four of these men died in circumstances which were ruled as accidental.”

“Yeah, but I don’t believe that for a minute…”

“I agree with you.”

“You do?” Mulder eased himself down onto the floor next to Scully. “Why?”

She tapped a fingernail on a sheet of paper. “Bernie Madison, cause of death was deemed to be poisonous mushrooms. The only problem with that is the type of mushroom.”

“I thought you said it was easy to make a mistake if you didn’t know what you were looking for.”

“I did.” Scully agreed. “The Amanitopsis is edible and it looks quite similar to the Amanita, but the Amanita or Death Cup, as it is more widely known, only grows from June until Fall. If you remember, Bernie died weeks ago and we had a very cold spring this year.”

“Shit.”

Scully pointed to the next report. “Warren Sawyer, respiratory distress.”

“That was put down as a complication of asthma.”

“Might have been true except for trace elements of aconite.”

“Which is?” Mulder prompted.

“A plant, belongs to the crowfoot family, it has poisonous roots, leaves and seeds.” Scully told him. “A small amount of this plant can cause a severe reaction in an adult. With the added complication of asthma, Sawyer virtually had no chance.”

“So why didn’t the coroner pick up on this originally?” Mulder asked.

“Don’t know; one possibility is that aconite is used in liniments.”

“You don’t ingest liniments, Scully. Sounds more like it was easier to just blame it on a complication of asthma and have done with it.”

“Now, Mr. Carlson,” Scully continued, “Straightforward overdose of sleeping pills. Ruled as suicide, however as you said, strange action to take for a man going on a cruise.”

Mulder had been sucking on one of his well-chewed pencils as Scully spoke. He drew it out of his mouth and tapped it on the table.

“They were targeted.” Mulder pronounced.

“If that’s true, then what about your friend and, for that matter, yourself?” Scully asked. “Your hypothesis is that *all* the task force members have been singled out.”

“I spoke to Danny last week, warned him about my suspicions, told him to keep an eye out for anything or anyone unusual. Then I checked up earlier today, he’s still okay. He said there’s been nothing out of the ordinary going on and he hasn’t been sick at all.”

“So, that leaves you, Mulder.”

“And I’m fine.”

“Apart from a mysterious stomach virus.”

Hazel eyes, wide open in disbelief, came to rest on Scully’s face. “You think there’s a connection between me being sick and these deaths?”

“I don’t know.” Scully admitted.

“But…the hospital ran tests, wouldn’t something show up?”

“I would assume so.”

“You looked at all the results, Scully, what did you see?”

“Nothing.” She admitted. “Apart from a lowered blood sugar reading, to be expected with the amount of vomiting you did.” She toyed restlessly with the papers on the table. “In fact, your results were surprisingly normal for someone as sick as you were.”

“Betcha don’t get to use those words much in relation to me do you?” Mulder quipped.

“It’s part of your charm Mulder. You’re not as boringly pedestrian as the majority of the male population.”

“And that’s a good thing?” He asked, eyebrows raised.

“Oh, yes.” Scully pressed up against his warm, lithe body. “It’s a very good thing.”

* * *

Hoover Building Gymnasium

June 11, 2007

6:15 a.m.

Wiping the slick perspiration from his face, Skinner dropped the towel and began his next round of stomach crunches. The gym was blessedly empty this morning and he felt comfortable enough to extend his workout a little longer than usual.

Ten minutes later, he finished and lay back, eyes closed. As he reached for the towel his fingers brushed against another person’s and his eyes jerked open to see Mulder staring back at him.

“Sorry sir, didn’t mean to startle you.”

“I didn’t hear you come in.” Skinner sat up, grabbed the towel and wiped it over his face and shoulders, then reached for his water bottle.

“You were occupied.” Mulder shrugged.

Skinner swallowed some water before cocking an eyebrow at his agent. “Is there something you wanted Mulder? I don’t normally see you here.”

“Yes sir, to both statements.”

“It’s too early to confuse me with Mulderspeak.” Skinner frowned as he drank some more water.

An infinitesimal quirking of his agent’s lips told Skinner that his comment had been taken as intended.

“You’re correct sir, I do need to see you about something and, yes, I don’t use the gym, I prefer to run outdoors.” Mulder followed his superior across the vast room until they stopped by the treadmills.

“All right, what is it that couldn’t wait until office hours?” Skinner programmed the apparatus and stepped up.

“I’ve uncovered more evidence pertaining to the case I was pursuing.” Mulder glanced at the settings on the computer.

Skinner gestured toward the adjacent treadmill. “Come on, you can talk and run at the same time can’t you, Mulder?”

Mulder looked down at his suit. “I’m not exactly dressed for the gym, sir.”

“So, go and change, I’m sure you have a sweat suit handy don’t you?”

“Well yes, but…”

“Mulder, you’re not going to stand there and watch. If you want to intrude on my personal time with work-related matters, the least you can do is join me.”

Reluctantly agreeing, Mulder moved to the locker room. A few minutes he returned dressed in shorts and a sleeveless shirt. Stooping to tuck in a wayward shoelace, Mulder indulged in some warm up stretches.

Skinner was pacing himself as he waited for the other man. “What distance do you run?” He asked.

“Most days I do a round trip of six miles, I try and do an eight minute mile.” Mulder replied.

“Not bad; I’m afraid I’m not quite in that league.” Skinner replied.

“That’s okay sir, I’ll give you a head start.” Mulder stepped up and adjusted the settings to his preference. Like Skinner, he started out at an easy walk and slowly built up to a steady jog.

“Now, what is it you wanted?” Skinner felt his heartbeat accelerate as he increased the speed on the treadmill.

“Agent Scully pointed out some anomalies in the autopsy reports on three of the deceased agents.”

“What sort of anomalies?”

“One of the deaths was supposedly caused by eating poisonous wild mushrooms, except that the mushrooms ingested don’t grow in the wild at this time of year.” Mulder told him.

Skinner mulled that over for a moment. “Go on.”

“Agent Sawyer’s death was put down to complications from asthma, however the autopsy report listed a substance that, combined with asthma, guaranteed Sawyer’s death.”

“The coroner didn’t pick up on this fact?”

“I pointed that out as well sir. Scully said it’s quite…possible that it was overlooked as the substance…is also used in some liniments.”

Skinner glanced over at his agent; almost unconsciously he had picked up on the subtle strain in Mulder’s breathing.

He noted the flush to the agent’s cheeks and the inordinate amount of perspiration coating Mulder’s face. “Agent Mulder, are you feeling all right?”

Hazel eyes widened in surprise at the question. “Yes sir, I’m just…a little out of…practice.”

“Very well, you were saying?”

“Ah…where was I…oh yeah, Agent Carlson…he allegedly committed…suicide…over his marriage break-up. What people didn’t…realize was…shit…” A sudden stumble made Mulder fling out one hand to the treadmill’s railing. He corrected his movement, somehow managing not to trip himself up.

“Mulder, perhaps you should ease up a little.”

“I’m fine…sir.” The words were spat out through gritted teeth.

Skinner eyed his agent warily but did not comment.

After a few minutes, where the silence was punctuated only by the sound of feet pounding the track, Skinner spoke again. “You were saying about Agent…Carlson…was it?”

“Yes, the police report…listed suicide, an alleged overdose of sleeping pills…as I pointed out…to Scully, why would he take an overdose…when he had just paid for…a month long…South Pacific cruise for himself and…his girlfriend?

“Good point.”

“I’ve said all along…there was something not…quite right about…these deaths…now I…have the proof.” Mulder’s breathing was noticeably strained and his flushed face was dripping with perspiration.

Skinner glanced down at the distance readout on the control panel; he was surprised to see they had run the equivalent of nearly three miles.

Casually, he reached out and turned the speed down. “That’s enough for me.” He panted. “I can’t believe you do this every day.”

“Helps me…to think.”

“Well, I’m thinking that’s enough for one day,” Skinner said. “Come on, I’ll treat you to breakfast and you can tell me more about this case.”

“Haven’t…finished yet…sir.”

“No one’s going to mind if you don’t go the distance, Agent.”

“I’ll mind…sir.”

Skinner noted that Mulder was steadying himself as he ran with one hand on the railing and his breathing was little more than gasping wheezes.

He decided on another, more personal approach. “I don’t know about you, Mulder, but I’m hungry.”

Chest heaving with exertion, Mulder panted. “You…go ahead…I’ll catch…up. I’m…nearly…done.”

Deciding to take a stand before his agent ran himself into a heart attack, Skinner reached over and attempted to dial down the speed of Mulder’s treadmill. “Enough!” He barked.

His hand was brushed away with a gasping growl. “I…haven’t…finished.”

“Yes you have, Agent Mulder. Ease off *now* — before I haul you off.” The A.D. threatened.

Mulder’s eyes widened at the prospect and he reached out to the controls. Just as his fingers touched the switch, the blood suddenly drained from his face.

Then, as if he was a marionette whose strings had unexpectedly been cut, his knees folded underneath him, pitching him forward far enough for his chin to crack painfully against the panel, forcing a muffled exclamation past his lips.

Mulder’s long-limbed body was propelled off the track, landing in a tangle on the floor, knocked unconscious.

Skinner slapped at the switch and cursed loudly. Crouching next to the fallen man, he quickly assessed that Mulder was still breathing, albeit shallowly.

However, blood pooled slickly on the floor from the deep gash under his chin.

Thanking his fortune that two weeks previously he’d completed a first aid refresher course, Skinner arranged the limp form into the recovery position then grabbed his phone from his bag.

“Shit, Mulder.” He said softly. “Scully’s going to kill you — and then she’s going to come after me.”

* * *

North East Georgetown Medical Center

June 11, 2007

8:20 a.m.

The hurried tap of footsteps drew Skinner’s attention away from his clasped hands and down the hall. Flame colored hair announced her presence as did the noticeable increase of energy in the air as she drew closer.

“Where is he?” Scully had no time for pleasantries.

“In there.” Skinner jerked his thumb over his shoulder at the closed doors behind him.

Neatly skirting his bulk, she slipped around him and was pushing at the doors before Skinner grabbed her arm. “You can’t go in there!”

“I have to.” She brushed his hand away, her eyes boring through the doors.

“No, you have to let the doctors do their job.”

Scully lifted her head and pinned Skinner with ice-blue eyes. “I *am* a doctor.” She said quietly.

“I know.” He guided her over to the couch on an adjacent wall. “But you’re also too close.”

Sitting down next to her supervisor, Scully closed her eyes and drew a deep breath. “I don’t understand, he was fine when he left this morning.”

Skinner’s tone was remorseful. “I’m afraid it was my fault.”

“Your fault?” Scully echoed in confusion. “Why?”

“If I hadn’t badgered him into joining me, he wouldn’t have collapsed.”

“Sir, as much as you may think that, there’s no way that you could’ve made Mulder do something he didn’t want to. Stubborn should have been his middle name.”

“I just didn’t realize that he would keep going like he did. I knew I should have made him stop earlier.”

“What was he doing?” Scully asked softly.

“Treadmill. I could see he was having trouble, so I called it quits after three miles, but he wouldn’t stop.” Skinner replayed the events in his mind. “I threatened to haul him off. That seemed to make an impression, but it was only seconds later that he collapsed.”

The doors that Scully had barely taken her eyes off since arriving suddenly opened, cutting Skinner’s account short.

Both of them stood up to meet the harried-looking doctor who entered the waiting room.

“Are you here for Fox Mulder?” He asked.

Scully stepped forward. “I’m Dana Scully, Agent Mulder’s next of kin and partner. I’m also a medical doctor. Can we see him?”

“In a minute, I just need a couple of things cleared up.”

“Like what, Doctor…?” Skinner’s deep voice sounded.

“Sorry, Kent. Joshua Kent. First, Mr. Mulder is dehydrated; we’ve put him on a drip to assist with that. Second, I’ve put eight stitches in the gash under his chin.”

Scully flashed a reproachful look at Skinner.

Kent continued. “Now third, and most important, Mr. Mulder is severely anemic.” He fixed his eyes on Scully. “Any idea why?”

“Anemic…no, he’s just come through a viral infection, but his blood work checked out.”

“When was this?”

Scully counted the days back. “A week ago. He was brought here with severe vomiting, first thought to be food poisoning, but that turned out not to be the case.”

“Do you remember who was the attending physician?”

“I remember his face, he was Indian, Dr…”

Kent smiled. “That’s okay, Dr. Jandhylah is well-known, one of our best attendings. I’ll look up the report; save us all a lot of trouble.”

“That doesn’t clear up why he’s got anemia, however.” Skinner broke in.

“Quite correct sir, and you are?”

“Assistant Director Walter Skinner, Agents Mulder and Scully’s supervisor.”

“Please, Dr. Kent.” Scully broke in. “Can we see him?”

Dr. Kent considered them both, then nodded.

“A nurse will be in soon; we need a complete blood workup to be done to find out what type of anemia he has and why.” Kent told them. “There’s still a couple of other tests to run, but I’m sure you’ll understand if you’re asked to leave.”

He turned and led the way back through the double doors, finally stopping outside a curtained alcove. “I’ll be back in a few minutes.”

Skinner pulled the curtain back and ushered Scully in ahead of him. In the center of the room, surrounded by monitors and equipment, Mulder lay on a bed, the head slightly raised.

He was attached to a heart monitor that was signaling an unusually rapid heartbeat. Mulder’s chin was covered in gauze almost the color of his complexion.

Scully’s exclamation when she saw him alerted Mulder to their presence. His eyes slid open and settled on his partner. “Hey.” He smiled, taking a shallow breath.

Scully moved to stand next to the bed, took his hand in hers then pressed a gentle kiss to his lips. “How are you feeling?”

“Very tired and suffering from a major case of embarrassment.” His gaze traveled across to Skinner. “I’m sorry, sir.”

Skinner shrugged off the apology. “I’m as much to blame. I shouldn’t have coerced you into running in the first place.”

Mulder returned his attention to Scully. “They haven’t told me what’s wrong and, apart from jabbing me with a needle…” He offered the inside of his arm as proof. “And hooking me up to that,” He tipped his head in the direction of the IV. “No one has said anything.”

Scully sat forward on the chair Skinner had procured from somewhere. “Someone will be in shortly, Mulder. They need to take some blood for further tests.”

“More! Why can’t they do the tests with what they already took? Jeez, Scully! Do they think I’ve got an endless supply of the stuff?” Mulder sounded aggrieved.

“Don’t worry, you’ll have plenty left over.” Scully soothed, running her thumb over the back of his hand.

“Why didn’t you tell me you weren’t feeling up to scratch?” Skinner directed his question at Mulder.

“You didn’t let on to me either.” Scully admonished him.

Mulder shifted and turned onto his side facing them. “Honestly, I thought I was okay.”

“Mulder, you’re dehydrated again; that means your fluid intake hasn’t been sufficient.” Scully stopped and frowned thoughtfully. “Have you been throwing up again?”

Mulder shook his head. “No, Scully, I haven’t.”

“I don’t understand it.” She caught sight of her partner’s somewhat guilty face. “Mulder?”

“I wasn’t lying before when I said I hadn’t been throwing up.” He considered his words carefully before continuing. “I went for a run on Friday when you were out with your Mom, or at least I tried to.” Their silence urged him on. “I felt really good and I was going a bit stir-crazy.” He shrugged. “I…um…was only able to do a short distance.”

“Why didn’t you say something?”

“Because I was so tired of being sick and I wanted to do normal stuff and I…” His words degenerated into mumbling.

“What? I didn’t hear that bit.” Scully leaned forward.

“I said I didn’t want you to worry.”

“Oh, Mulder.” She sighed in exasperation. “Isn’t that what partners are for?”

The curtains behind them were pushed back and a nurse wheeling a tray walked in. “Sorry to interrupt.” She smiled brightly. “I need to borrow some of Mr. Mulder’s blood.”

Mulder eyed her. “Does that mean you’re going to give it back when you’ve finished with it?”

Skinner snorted and Scully aimed a smack at his arm. “Mulder!” She scolded.

“Depends on whether you behave yourself or not.” The nurse held the IV tube up and out of the way. “Can you roll back over here for me?”

Skinner decided it was a good time to take his leave. “Keep me apprised,” he instructed Scully gripping her shoulder reassuringly. “And you,” he pointed at Mulder. “Behave.”

They all watched him leave, then the nurse turned a smile upon her patient.

“Something tells me he’s been down this road before.” She fiddled with her equipment for a moment. “I’m Jess by the way.”

Scully returned the smile. “I’m Dana, he’s Mulder.”

Jess glanced at his chart. “Mulder huh, not…”

“No, not.” Mulder declared.

“Okay, well let me get this fixed up.”

Mulder turned his head away and concentrated on Scully as Jess went about her task. “So, is it the same thing, the viral infection?”

“Doesn’t look like it. The doctor I spoke to had some concerns about anemia, that’s why Jess is taking more blood.”

“Anemia?” A frown wrinkled Mulder’s forehead. “That’s a lack of red blood cells, right?”

“A decrease in the quantity of hemoglobin or number of red blood cells.”

Out of the corner of his eye, Mulder noticed Jess nodding her head in agreement.

“Red blood cells carry oxygen, Mulder.” Scully lightly traced her finger over his cheek touching the nasal cannula. “Because your RBCs have been reduced, you’re not getting enough oxygen, that’s why you’re hooked up to this.”

“So how did I get it?”

“It depends on the type of anemia you have. There are several, some more serious than others.”

“There, all done.” Jess announced.

“How long before you get the results?” Scully asked her.

“No idea. These are going straight to the lab stat. I’m sure Dr. Kent will be in as soon as he knows something.”

Jess discarded the needle and gloves in the proper containers. “You be good.” She grinned at Mulder as she slid the curtain shut behind her.

Silence interspersed with the sound of Mulder’s shallow breaths filled the treatment room. “I want to go home.” He announced suddenly.

Scully turned to him, her eyebrows arched. “Why do we go through the same song and dance routine every time? Just in case you hadn’t noticed, you’re hooked up to an IV.”

“Oh, I noticed all right, I’m the one who got jabbed after all.”

“Good, I’m glad you were paying attention.” She eased herself up onto the edge of the bed and began working her fingers through his thick, glossy hair. “Why don’t you get some rest?”

Within minutes, Mulder was yawning, his eyes growing heavier. “That’s fighting dirty.” He mumbled. “You know doing that is guaranteed to put me to sleep.”

“I’ve always said, if you’re on to a good thing, stick to it.” Scully smiled as she continued with her gentle caresses.

* * *

North East Georgetown Medical Center

3:30 p.m.

“Acquired hemolytic anemia.” Scully lifted her shoulder to hold the phone in place as she leafed through the papers in her hand. “Could be several days. He was started on a course of medication this afternoon. We’ll know in the next day or two if it’s having any effect.”

A small smile lightened her eyes at what she heard next. “Yes sir, I will.” She hung the phone up and returned to Mulder’s room.

His eyes were glued to the television, but turned to see who entered the room. He smiled before looking back at the TV. “Hey Scully, did you ever get to watch this show?” He gestured with his IV free arm.

Glancing up at the small screen, she was surprised to see huge creatures lumbering around. “Dinosaurs, Mulder?”

“It’s a series, some really interesting facts, too.” His eyes brightened with mirth. “Did you know that the Diplodocus was constantly passing wind?”

Scully tilted her head to one side and stared at him in bemusement. “No, Mulder, I didn’t know that; in fact I don’t think I have ever given the intricacies of a dinosaur’s digestive system much thought at all.”

“See what you’re missing out on?” He waved at the TV again.

“I’m sure I’ll live.”

The door opened again, this time admitting Dr. Kent. “Agent Scully, Mulder.” He nodded as he crossed to Mulder’s side and took his pulse. After a moment he grunted in approval and made a notation on the chart. “So you’ve had your first course of iron tablets?”

“Yeah.” Mulder responded. “How long will I have to take them?”

“Ideally, at least three months. The tablets will replace the iron stores in your blood, which means that your bone marrow will start making red blood cells with a normal amount of hemoglobin. The reason for the three-month timeline is to give enough time for the supplies of iron in your body to build back up as well.”

Kent tapped his finger against his chin. “Your hemoglobin levels are way too low for my peace of mind. I hope to see an increase in the readings in the next two or three days. Once that happens, you’ll be fine to go home.”

“And if it doesn’t happen?” Mulder inquired.

“There are other avenues open to us, I hope we won’t have to go there, of course, but you shouldn’t worry; anemia is extremely treatable.”

“What are the other avenues?”

Scully laid a hand on her partner’s shoulder. “You don’t need to worry Mulder; everything is going to work out fine.”

Mulder twisted around and gazed into sincere blue eyes. “I just want to know what my options are.”

Kent cleared his throat. “Okay, we’ve ruled out medication and infection as the causes of your anemia. Also, you don’t have a stomach ulcer, bowel or colon cancer or piles.”

Mulder screwed up his face at the topic.

“There are a couple of other alternatives: a poor diet, which I am informed has not been the case, except for the last couple of days.” He frowned at his patient. “Another is an overactive spleen. This condition is called hypersplenism; basically it means that your own spleen is destroying your red blood cells. This is fixed quite easily by removing your spleen.”

Mulder shook his head adamantly. “Oh no. No, no, no, I’m rather attached to my spleen, thank you very much. Don’t know what it does, but I think I’d rather keep it.”

“You may not have a choice.” Kent informed him. “Hemolytic anemia is seldom fatal in and of itself, but if left untreated, complications could possibly arise ranging from liver problems to heart failure.”

The doctor folded his arms and stared at Mulder. “I’m not telling you any of this to frighten you, but to make certain that you are fully cognizant of all possible outcomes.”

“So I take it that’s the worst case scenario?” Mulder asked.

“Preferably, we don’t even want to go there, Mulder. But if it were a choice between liver damage and the removal of basically a superfluous organ, that’s the path I’d choose.”

Mulder considered Kent’s words for a few moments; he slid his gaze across to Scully who was standing with her hand resting on his forearm. “Okay.” He said finally. “But only if absolutely necessary.”

“Of course, I don’t perform surgery unless it is absolutely essential.” Kent smiled reassuringly, said goodbye and headed for the door.

“Doctor Kent?” Mulder’s voice stopped him mid-stride. He turned around and raised his eyebrows questioningly.

“Can I have Agent Scully bring me something to work on?”

“Mulder, no.” Scully told him.

Kent moved back into the room, his eyes moving from patient to partner, noting the defiant expression on one and the reluctant countenance on the other. “What sort of work?” He asked carefully.

“Just some notes I’m trying to sort out.” Mulder replied vaguely.

“Does it involve getting out of bed?”

“No.”

Kent eyed Scully. “You’re not happy with this request, Agent Scully?”

“I’d rather see Mulder rest.” She replied.

“And I’d rather keep my mind occupied.” Mulder retorted.

Kent considered his options. Mulder’s illness wasn’t life-threatening, at least not yet.

Also, it did make sense for him to keep himself busy. The doctor himself would detest lying in bed with nothing to do but watch television for days on end.

Finally he made his decision. “I’ll give conditional approval with the stipulation that you don’t spend all your waking hours on this work, Agent Mulder.”

He gave Mulder an uncompromising look. “Plenty of rest, fluids, food and more rest.” Kent frowned at the triumphant look that Mulder shot Scully. “Just remember, what I give I can just as easily take away.” He reminded the smirking man.

“I’ll make sure he doesn’t overdo things, Doctor.” Scully assured him. “I know how to handle him.”

“You sure do.” Mulder piped up cheerfully.

“Mulder!” Scully’s eyes flashed and Kent made decision never to get on her wrong side if he could avoid it.

She gave her partner a firm admonition to behave and then accompanied Kent from the room.

Once the door had closed behind them, Kent turned to her with a twinkle in his eyes. “You’ve certainly got your hands full.” He quipped.

Scully nodded. “Permanently.”

Both their eyes widened at the same time as they realized the dual meaning of the doctor’s words. “Oh excuse me.” Kent said in embarrassment.

Scully’s expression lightened with amusement and she shook her head. “I understand completely.” Extending her hand, she gave another warm smile as Kent shook it.

“I don’t envy you in the least, Agent Scully. You’ve got your work cut out for you.”

Kent returned to his duties and Scully to Mulder’s side.

* * *

North East Georgetown Medical Center

June 12, 2007

11:30 a.m.

“Put it down.”

Unsure if her instruction went unheard or was just plain ignored, Scully reached out and whipped the report out of Mulder’s hand.

“What…Scully, give it back!” He protested glaring at her.

“After lunch.” She turned and placed the report well out of his reach and then collected all the other sheets of paper on the bed. She brushed a strand of hair off her face and returned to his side.

Mulder sighed deeply. “I’m not hungry.”

“I don’t care, you need to eat.”

“I’m not hungry.” Mulder repeated peevishly.

“Why, Mulder?” She asked gently.

“I don’t know, my stomach feels funny.”

Scully was alarmed. “When did this start?”

“After breakfast.”

Scully thought back to what he’d eaten that morning: toast and jelly, cereal and a small carton of milk. There was nothing that should upset his stomach so she had to look elsewhere for the cause.

“Uh, Mulder, delicate issue I know, but when you go to the bathroom, are your…um…is anything a strange color?”

Mulder blanched at the question and nodded. “What does it mean?”

“It could mean that the iron tablets are too strong. Dr. Kent needs to know, he might need to prescribe a lighter dose.”

Mulder dropped his pencil to the bed tray and leaned back. “I’m tired.” He announced rubbing at his eyes.

A hand gently stroked the side of his face. “Close your eyes for a bit then, Mulder.”

He did as told and Scully watched Mulder’s eyes slowly slipped shut, however less than a minute later, they popped open again.

“I can’t.” He sighed.

“Why?”

“I keep thinking about this case.” He waved his hand at the papers on the bedside table. “Things need checking up on and I can’t do it lying here.” Mulder sighed in irritation.

“Let me do it then.” Scully suggested.

“You’d do that?”

“Of course, you do realize that I’m quite capable of investigating things without you.”

A crooked grin lit Mulder’s face. “Yeah, but I much prefer it when we investigate things together.”

Scully sighed. “Switch that innuendo gland off and tell me what needs doing.”

Mulder spent the next few minutes informing Scully of his thoughts up to date, his earnest and repeated appeal for a telephone in the room so he would be able to do the checking himself was resolutely ignored.

“I know you, Mulder; as soon as an idea occurred to you, you’d be on the phone regardless of what time it was. You’d never get any rest.”

Mulder had the grace to look abashed. “I can’t just switch my brain off.”

“And I’m not asking you to. But you need to learn to let other people help.” Scully leaned over and pressed a kiss against his forehead. “It’ll be lunch time soon. Do you want me to stay?”

Mulder shook his head.

“All right then, I’ll go make these phone calls for you.” Scully paused as she reached for the door handle. “Try to eat your lunch, okay?”

Mulder nodded. “Say hi to Danny for me.”

* * *

North East Georgetown Medical Center

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

3:15 p.m.

Scully walked swiftly down the hall towards Mulder’s room.

Deep in thought, she barely noticed before colliding with a nurse. “I’m sorry, I didn’t see you.” Scully regarded the slender dark-haired woman. “Jess?”

“Hello, Dr. Scully.”

“I didn’t realize you worked this floor.”

“Moonlighting.” Jess explained. “Money’s too good.” She nodded towards Mulder’s room. “He’s been very good up to a point, didn’t eat much of his lunch though. Last time I looked, he was sound asleep.”

Scully nodded. “Did Dr. Kent adjust his iron?”

“I’m sure I saw something…” She flicked through the patient charts. “Yes, here it is.”

Scully took the chart, scanning the notes. She saw Dr. Kent’s entry ordering the lower dose.

Thanking Jess, she handed the chart back and headed to Mulder’s room.

Quietly opening the door, she found Mulder was still sound asleep, his head turned away to the window. Scully took the opportunity to observe him.

In spite of his markedly improved color, he still wore the nasal cannula. The smudges under his eyes were not as obvious as they had been.

Scully settled into a chair to gather her thoughts. She’d been shaken upon receiving the latest information and had wasted no time in returning to the hospital.

Passing the news to Skinner had been her first thought, apart from getting back to Mulder’s side.

Skinner, like her, had at last seen the undeniable connection and had been on the telephone making arrangements for Mulder’s protection when she left.

Mulder had been right all along.

Scully sat silently staring at her hands until a tired voice lifted her head.

“Must be some profound thoughts you’re having there.”

Scully reached out and clasped his hand. “Sleep well?”

“I slept.” He answered. “Did you bring me something to eat?”

“What was wrong with your lunch?”

“If that’s what you want to call it.” Mulder pushed himself upright. “It had vegetables in it.”

“Haven’t you learned by now, Mulder, that hospitals work on the theory that if it tastes good, then it can’t be good for you?”

“If I had my way, I’d put your Mom in charge of the kitchen.” Mulder stated.

Scully smiled weakly. “I’m sure she’d be impressed with that.”

“I know I would be.” Mulder gave her a searching look. “So what did you find out?”

Scully took a deep breath, held it for a moment and then blew it out slowly, unable to look directly at him. “I’ve been trying to think of the best way to tell you.”

Mulder stared at her, a sudden fear prickling down his spine. “What…tell me what?”

Scully felt tears forming and forced herself to look up at him.

“I made the calls, as you asked, Mulder. I couldn’t contact Agent Ferguson, he…” Her words faltered and she looked away from Mulder’s expectant expression.

“No, Scully…please…” Eyes wide, he fixed them on her face.

“I’m so sorry, Mulder.”

“No, no…” As the consequence of Scully’s words sank in, Mulder felt his chest constrict.

The feeling of being unable to breathe caused the rate of his inhalations to increase as he gulped rapid, shallow breaths one after another.

Scully got to her feet and laid a hand against his cheek. “Easy does it, Mulder.”

“I told him…Scully, I…told…” Panting now, his face covered in perspiration.

“I know.” She soothed.

Suddenly light-headed, Mulder lifted his shaking hand and stared at it as his fingers began to tingle. “I can’t…”

Swiftly Scully lowered the bed and pulled the nasal cannula away from his face. She heard the door open behind her and footsteps hurrying across the room.

“Dr. Scully?” Jess’s questioning tone reached her ears.

Scully pressed one hand to Mulder’s chest and another against his stomach.

“It’s okay, Jess; he just got some upsetting news.” She concentrated on trying to calm Mulder down. “Slow your breathing down, Mulder; you’re hyperventilating.”

Jess reached behind the bed and uncurled a small device attached to a slender line and slipped the pulse oxymeter onto Mulder’s index finger.

Moving around to the far side of the bed, she placed both hands over his legs. “Mulder I want you to raise your knees.”

His panicked eyes settled on Jess’ face for a moment before flicking back to Scully, but it was enough. Slowly, with Jess guiding him, his feet slid up the bed.

“Good, that’s good.” Scully pressed her hand firmly against his belly. “Mulder, I want you to breathe and try to push my hand up.”

A frown appeared between his brows as Mulder tried to comply. Scully and Jess watched as her hand rose a fraction and then descended. “Yes, that’s good, now again.”

This time, he managed to lift her hand higher. Scully turned her brilliant smile on him. “Okay, again, Mulder. But I want you to breathe in through your nose and then out through your mouth.”

Both women watched the figures on the oxymeter as Mulder’s oxygen saturation climbed back toward acceptable levels.

As his pounding heartbeat began to slow, moving back towards normal, Mulder felt the tightness in his chest start to ease.

He concentrated on Scully’s face, watching as each time her hand lifted, her lips curved upwards.

“You’ve got it now, Mulder.” Jess told him. “I’ll leave you to it.”

Keeping her eyes fixed on Mulder’s, Scully nodded her appreciation. “Thanks for the help, Jess.”

Jess nodded, smiled at them and headed for the door.

As soon as the door snicked closed, Mulder spoke in almost a whisper. “Sorry, Scully.”

“Don’t be, it wasn’t your fault. If anything, I should apologize. I knew you’d be upset.”

“I had to know.” Mulder assured her hoarsely. He lowered his legs and Scully sat back, moving her hand away. “No, stay please.” He appealed.

A bright smile lit her face as she replaced her hand, this time burrowing under the sheets until the flimsy gown Mulder wore was the only barrier.

“What happened to me back there?” Mulder asked.

Scully rubbed her hand gently back and forth across his stomach. “That was a cross between a panic attack and hyperventilation.”

He shook his head. “I gathered that, I meant to Danny.”

Scully dropped her eyes as her fingers stilled. “He was poisoned Mulder, someone contaminated every food item in his house with nitrobenzine.”

“Oh, God.” Mulder’s eyes slid closed then jerked back open. “Was…did he suffer?”

The truth wouldn’t help, so Scully skirted it. “It would have been quick. Nitrobenzine paralyzes the central nervous system; he’d have been unconscious in minutes.”

Mulder started to sit up only to have Scully press him back. “Stay still, Mulder.” She used the bed control and raised the head. “You need to relax, you’ve just had a bad shock. Let yourself rest.”

Mulder’s hands twitched as he fiddled with the oxymeter. “What about the guys, Scully? Did you talk to them?”

“Yes, Frohike is after some loose ends. He said he’d have something soon.”

“I’ve gotta find this guy Scully, he’s not gonna get away with this.” He tightened his fingers on the sheet.

“You will, Mulder — but *not* at the expense of your own health.” Scully reminded him.

Mulder’s breath hitched and he bit his bottom lip. He blinked furiously as a tear slid down his cheek. “I’m the only one left, it’s up to me.”

“Hush now.” Scully pulled him into her arms rubbing soothing circles on his back as he valiantly attempted to keep the tears at bay. “Together, we’ll work on this together, you’ll see, Mulder.”

Eventually Mulder pulled back, staring at her with reddened eyes. “You and me against the world, huh?”

“You, me, Skinner, the guys, my Mom.”

Mulder chuckled weakly. “Yeah.” He reached up and ran a finger across her cheek. “Together.”

* * *

Wednesday

June 13, 2007

Mulder closed the file and heaved a disgusted sigh. “Damn it! This is going nowhere!”

Scully looked up from her reading. “What’s wrong?”

“I’m going around in circles, Scully! There’s not enough information here to do anything with.” He threw the file at the tray table and watched it slide off the side, spilling paper and photos all over the floor.

Scully glanced at the mess before eyeing her partner. “Did that make you feel better?” She bent down to collect the documents.

“Yes, no, oh I don’t know.”

“Talk to me, Mulder.” Scully lifted herself onto the bed and took his hand in hers. She could feel his tension in the tightness of his muscles and gently she began stroking random patterns over his skin.

“I can’t seem to get a feel for this guy,” he sighed. “Usually, by now, things have started to fall into place, but for some reason I can’t get a handle on this one.”

“You need to take your current health situation into consideration.” Scully reminded him.

“I would if it was an issue, but I’ve been in poorer health and still managed before.” He rubbed his forehead with his free hand. “Did Frohike give any idea when he’d have that stuff?”

“No, he just said soon.”

The knock on the door caught their attention. “Come in.” Scully called.

A bespectacled face peered around the side of the door. “Hey, how’s my favorite Fibbies doin’?”

A grin lifted the corners of Mulder’s mouth. “We were just talking about you. Were your ears burning?”

Frohike closed the door and leered at Scully. “Depends on what you were saying about me and who was sayin’ it.”

Scully smiled gently at him. “In your dreams.”

“Can’t fault a guy for tryin’.”

“What have you got for me?” Mulder saw the package clutched in his friend’s hand.

Frohike held the package out. “The whereabouts of all the people involved in the porno ring, their prison records, parole details, bank accounts,” he announced, handing the package to Mulder.

Scully frowned. “That’s illegal.”

“I didn’t hear that.” Frohike told her.

Mulder was eagerly devouring the information, his eyes scanning the words faster than Scully believed possible.

Suddenly, he looked up, his mouth a grim line and swallowed convulsively. “Scul…” In a quick movement, Mulder shoved the papers off the bed a split second before he began to vomit.

“Damn!” Scully spun on her heel, placing one hand on Mulder’s back for support as the spasms shook his body. “Call the nurse, Frohike!”

Distantly, she heard Frohike calling for help, but her attention was on her partner whose body seemed determined to rid itself of every morsel of food he’d ever eaten.

* * *

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Whispers floated at the edge of his consciousness, voices, formless and anonymous tickled his curiosity, he wanted to know who was talking but he was too far away and down too deep to do anything about it…

* * *

As awareness crept around, Mulder could make out words and recognize the voices. Scully’s comforting pitch…the doctor’s assertive tone and…Skinner…he would recognize that distinctive rumble anywhere.

“…lead to internal bleeding…liver failure…” Dr. Kent’s tone was solemn. “I’ve already…”

“…transplant…?” That was Skinner.

“…in my opinion…” Ah there she was, Scully riding to his rescue.

“Mmm…” His throat was dry, his mouth foul.

There was silence for a few seconds and then he felt a gentle touch.

“Mulder, are you awake?”

He didn’t have the strength to answer the question, but he closed his fingers around hers.

Her hand was deliciously warm against his, a shiver raced through his body as Mulder suddenly realized he was freezing.

Weakly, he turned his head on the pillow. “C…c…col…ddd.” He managed to rasp through tightly clenched teeth.

“Yes, I know.”

The warmth from her hand traveled up his arm and all Mulder wanted to do was curl around the source of the heat. If only he could figure out how to move.

Sorting out the dilemma took the meager amount of energy he possessed and he never even noticed when the world slipped away again.

Scully’s eyes never left her partner’s face as she stepped back and sank into a chair. A hand clasped her shoulder.

“Sleep is the best thing for him.” Dr. Kent’s voice drew her attention.

“This doesn’t make sense. It’s like a domino effect. As soon as we get one condition under control, something else crops up.” Scully commented, extraordinarily upset at the turn of events.

Dr. Kent stood at the foot of the bed, arms crossed. “We’ve ruled out any external factors and his blood tests show no foreign substances.”

Scully looked up. “Everything points toward lupus, but it’s not possible to have such a rapid onset.”

“What is lupus? I’ve heard of it before.” Skinner moved over from the door.

“It’s a condition where the body becomes allergic to itself, the immune system attacks healthy cells and destroys them.” Scully answered.

“And Mulder could have this?”

“SLE.” Kent nodded hesitantly. “It’s possible, I suppose. Rapid onset is quite unusual, but everything points to it. ” He reached for the chart and rapidly wrote some instructions. “I’ll get back to you as soon as I’ve organized the tests.” He left the room in silence behind him.

Scully returned her attention to Mulder as Skinner sank into the chair next to her.

“SLE? What does that mean?”

“Systemic lupus erythematosus.” Scully explained. “It’s an autoimmune disease commonly known as Lupus.”

“Autoimmune? Is it contagious?” Skinner asked.

“It’s not a communicable condition, sir.” She brushed the hair out of Mulder’s eyes. “It’s a condition that affects more women than men, and it can affect any tissue or organ. No two people will ever experience the same manifestations of the disease.” She pressed her hand over Mulder’s.

“So, what’s the cure?”

Stricken blue eyes looked up at him. “There is no cure, sir; it can be managed but not cured.”

“And this condition could cause all these symptoms Mulder’s been experiencing?” Skinner’s brow furrowed.

“Yes, joint or muscle pain, low grade fever, nausea, vomiting and tiredness. All of which Mulder has experienced in the last week or so.” Scully paused. “I don’t know why we didn’t think of it before, it’s so obvious.”

“How do you find out if Mulder actually has it?” Skinner asked gently.

“Lupus is diagnosed by its clinical features and a high presence of certain anti-bodies in the blood.”

“So, will there be a light at the end of the tunnel if it turns out that he does have lupus?” Skinner regarded his agent.

“Mulder may not think so.” Scully replied. “And, it will no doubt aggravate him terribly to find out that he won’t be able to take his health for granted as he is used to doing. But, with a bit of planning and thought, he shouldn’t have any undue problems.”

“I hope Mulder appreciates all you do for him.”

Scully’s eyes shone. “Oh, he does sir. I have no doubt about that at all.”

* * *

North-East Georgetown Medical Center

Monday, June 18, 2007

“Come on, you’ve barely made a dent in this.” Scully held up a spoonful of pureed apple.

Mulder turned his head away from it. “I can feed myself you know, Scully; been doing it for a long time.”

“That’s the problem Mulder,” she sighed. “You’re *not* feeding yourself.”

“Because I’m not hungry.”

Scully placed the bowl back on the tray table, pushing it away. “What am I going to do with you?”

“Take me home?” He answered hopefully.

“Oh, funny man.”

Mulder crossed his arms over his chest and frowned. “Jeez Scully, I’ve been here for what…six days?”

“Seven.”

“Seven days, and apart from a bang on the chin and one instance of tossing my cookies, there’s nothing wrong with me.”

“That’s what we’re trying to find out, Mulder,” Scully explained patiently. “A healthy adult male in his thirties does not just ‘toss his cookies,’ as you put it, for no reason.” Scully mirrored his stance, crossing her own arms. “Besides, that one instance knocked you around enough that you were unconscious for over twenty-four hours.”

“It was probably Frohike’s aftershave that set me off.”

Scully frowned at him as she fussed with the sheet. “I wish it was that easy. Dr. Kent said he’d be by this afternoon with the results of some tests he ran.”

“Tests, what kind of tests?”

“A whole alphabet of tests.” The doctor’s voice announced his arrival. He placed the folder he was carrying on the table and did a rapid check of Mulder’s vitals. “How’re you feeling?”

“I’m fed up and bored out of my head.” Mulder eyed the doctor.

“Hmm, sorry to hear that, because you’re going to be with us for a bit longer.”

“You’re really milking my insurance company, aren’t you?”

“Mulder!” Scully rebuked.

Kent took Mulder’s attitude with good grace. “Contrary to what you might think, we’re not keeping you here because you’ve got a good health plan.”

“Well, there’s got to be some other reason why you won’t let me go home, because I don’t feel sick.”

“Regardless of how you feel right now, Mulder, you *are* sick.”

“Excuse me?” Mulder glared at him. “You want to explain that?”

Scully laid a calming hand on Mulder’s shoulder.

Kent pulled up a chair and laid the folder he carried on the edge of Mulder’s bed. “I had several tests run. Our first diagnosis was Lupus.”

Mulder paled and reached for Scully’s hand.

“That explained why you were experiencing such a great range of symptoms.” Kent continued. “But, the test for Lupus revealed none of the distinguishing anti-bodies.”

The doctor turned to another sheet in the file.

“The main issue is that your liver is struggling, and we haven’t been able to find the exact cause yet. It’s possible it’s related to the anemia, but, we don’t know what is causing the anemia.”

Mulder dropped his head back against the pillow in despondency. “So, regardless of how I feel right now, I’m stuck here for the duration.”

“You’re better off being here than out in the field somewhere, Mulder.” Scully soothed. “If something else was to go wrong, at least you’re in the right place.”

Kent closed the file and returned the chair to its place by the wall. “I’m sending a nurse in to draw some more blood, Mulder. I’m also going to consult with a colleague, to see if looking at this puzzle from a fresh perspective might come up with something new.”

Mulder shrugged. “Sure, why not. I just hope that you do find something before you drain me dry.”

Kent turned as he reached the door and grinned at the comment. “No fear of that, if it looks like your tank is getting a little low, we’ll just top you off again.”

* * *

North-East Georgetown Medical Center

Tuesday June 19, 2007

7:00 a.m.

Skinner arrived at the hospital in response to Scully’s early morning call.

As he exited the elevator, he saw Scully pacing back and forth in front of Mulder’s room. She held her tightly clenched hands in front of her and her lips were moving soundlessly.

“Scully?” He called softly so as not to startle her.

She turned to look at him. “Oh, sir. Thank you for coming.”

“What is it? What’s wrong?” Skinner drew his agent over to a couch and watched as she sank against the cushions.

Taking a deep breath, Scully turned worried eyes up to her superior and friend. “I’m sorry for disturbing you so early, I just…I couldn’t think…”

Skinner laid his hands over the top of her smaller, trembling ones. “You know the saying about a trouble shared, Agent?”

A watery smile graced Scully’s tired eyes. “Yes sir, thank you.” She sighed and straightened. “Mulder suffered another complication early this morning, he experienced a major bleed and went into hypovolemic shock.”

Skinner drew in a sharp breath. “How is he?”

“He’s on a ventilator and transfusions. The doctor was ‘cautiously optimistic.'”

Catching a movement from the corner of his eye, Skinner looked up to see a nurse gesturing to them from the door of Mulder’s room.

He squeezed Scully’s hand to draw her attention and smiled as she flew to her feet.

They entered the room together. Scully, in an anxious hurry, moved straight to Mulder’s bedside. Skinner cast a glance at the new equipment that surrounded the bed before moving to stand by Scully’s side.

“How is he?” She turned to Dr. Kent who stood at the foot of the bed.

“As stable as can be expected after losing so much blood.” The man responded. “It made a huge difference that you were here at the time.” He closed the chart he had been writing in and placed both hands on the file.

The unsettling sounds of the ventilator and the various monitors drew Skinner’s attention back to the man in the bed.

Mulder’s eyelashes provided the only color in his almost ashen face. Even his lips looked bloodless around the ventilator tube.

Without ceasing her light caress of her partner’s whiskered cheek, Scully turned to the doctor. “Now what?”

“This complication has unfortunately weakened Mulder’s liver even further.” Kent sighed. “Our only option is to put him on the waiting list for a transplant.”

Skinner’s head lifted at the comment. “How long?” He asked.

“At any given time there is upwards of one thousand people on the list, but that doesn’t mean that Mulder will have to wait that long. Blood type and compatibility could move him higher in a very short time.”

“Did your colleague have any success with a diagnosis?” Scully asked as she stroked Mulder’s hair.

“No, I’m afraid he’s as stumped as we are.” Kent thrust his hands into his pockets.

“This just doesn’t make any sense.” Scully ruminated in a low voice. “There *has* to be something that we’re not seeing.”

“I’m sure I’m stating the obvious here,” Skinner broke into her musings. “But what about poison?”

Scully turned toward her boss. “We thought of that but his blood work is clear and he hasn’t eaten anything from home for the last week…” Her words trailed off.

“Scully?”

“It’s not something he’s eaten.” She said slowly.

“What’s not?” Skinner frowned.

“The poison.”

“But you just said that his blood work was clear.”

“Yes, I did.” Scully almost whispered.

Skinner’s eyes swept from the doctor to Scully to Mulder and back again. “I don’t understand.”

“I see where you’re going.” Dr. Kent folded his arms and tapped his fingers against his lips.

“Would one of you please like to fill me in?” Skinner finally asked.

Scully grabbed her purse. “Certainly, sir. Do you mind if I do it on the way?”

“On the way to where?” Skinner was seriously out of his depth.

“Our townhouse sir, where hopefully I’ll find what I’m looking for.” She looked down at her partner and tenderly kissed his cheek before scooping up her coat.

Skinner followed suit, sparing a glance at his agent and then the doctor, as Scully strode out of the room. “Is he going to be all right?” He asked.

“I’m beginning to think so.” Kent replied.

Skinner caught up with his diminutive agent as she hurried past the nurses’ station. It never failed to amaze him how fast she could move for someone so small.

“Scully?”

“Yes sir?”

“What’s going on?” Skinner asked.

She looked up at him as they entered the parking garage. “What you said back in Mulder’s room, it got me thinking.”

Skinner looked puzzled. “All I asked about was poison. It stood to reason, considering the other agents.”

“Yes sir, and it was just the catalyst I needed.” They reached her car, and after deactivating the lock, they got in.

“We’d discarded the poison angle because nothing had shown up in the tests, but we didn’t look far enough into it.” Scully continued.

“But if there was nothing in Mulder’s system,” Skinner wondered, “Why are you suddenly revisiting the theory again?”

Scully pulled out into traffic and said, “There are many substances that don’t show up in regular tests. I think that because Mulder’s symptoms were such that we couldn’t pin down as being definitively caused by poison, we looked in another direction. The *wrong* direction.”

“And what made you turn back, Scully?”

Scully continued to stare at the road. “When I realized that there was a distinct possibility that whatever has made Mulder so sick was not ingested, but it still could be within the environment of the townhouse.”

“Are you saying that your home is poisoning him?” Skinner’s eyes went wide behind his glasses.

“Not exactly sir, but you’re on the right track. Something in our home, whether it be a gas or an item he has come into contact with, could be the reason behind his illness. We just have to find it.”

Skinner frowned. “But you said he’s been in the hospital for a week, wouldn’t this substance have left his system by now? And why wouldn’t it have show up in any tests?”

Scully spared her boss a glance as she drove toward Alexandria. “That’s what we’re going to find out.”

* * *

3605 N. Street N.W.

Georgetown

Scully had collected a veritable array of items that she thought could have been contaminated: toothpaste, shampoo, shaving cream, even the cleaning goods from under the sink.

Skinner stalked around the living room, his sharp eyes peering everywhere.

He stopped at the coffee table Mulder had been using as a desk and eyed the mess. His attention caught on papers lying flat.

He reached out a gloved hand, lifting the papers to find a couple of pencils underneath.

Replacing the papers, Skinner moved away only to stop in mid-stride and return to the table. “Scully?”

“Yes sir?” She hurried into the room balancing a half-filled box on one hip.

Directing her attention to the desk, Skinner lifted the papers again.

As soon as she realized the significance of what Skinner was pointing out, Scully let the box slide to the floor. “Oh my God!”

She reached out and lifted two very well-chewed pencils that had been hidden from sight, holding them carefully.

Skinner eyed his agent. “Could they be the cause?”

“It wouldn’t surprise me, sir.” She placed the pencils in an evidence bag and turned her attention back to the table. “If they *have* been tampered with, it will go a long way to explain why Mulder wasn’t getting any better.”

Scully began to go through the paraphernalia covering the table, unearthing another two pencils in the process.

Pulling open the table’s single drawer, Scully found an open box. She counted them and saw several were missing.

Skinner dropped to one knee and reached behind the trash can. He held out another pencil, paint missing on one end and teeth marks.

A distressed whimper left Scully’s lips as she took in the state of the pencil in Skinner’s hand.

One after another, images flashed through her mind: the pencils in the ceiling, Mulder twirling them in his fingers, watching him concentrate on a report with a pencil clamped firmly between his teeth.

Even lying in his hospital bed, trying to construct a profile of the unsub who was responsible for the poisonings, he had been chewing on a pencil.

“Could it be lead poisoning?” Skinner inquired.

Scully almost laughed in hysteria at her boss’ statement, but caught herself in time. Instead, she placed the last pencil into the bag. “I have a fear that it’s something more insidious than that.”

“What about this other stuff?” Skinner pointed to the box that Scully had abandoned.

“If I’m right, and I have a very Mulder-like feeling about it, I think we’ll find exactly what we were looking for right here,” she said holding up the evidence bag of pencils.

She looked up at Skinner. “Sir, we have to find out from Mr. Timmons, our landlord, who would have had access to this townhouse. It doesn’t matter if Mulder knew about it or not.”

She held the up the bag. “I’ve got to get back to the hospital. Mulder’s been working on a profile and his briefcase probably has more pencils in it. I also need to get these to the lab, to find out if our suspicions are correct.” A chagrined expression crossed her face. “I don’t want to leave you stranded here.”

Exasperation colored Skinner’s voice. “I know how to dial for a cab, Agent.”

A fleeting smile graced her face. “Of course, sir.” She handed over Mulder’s apartment key and headed for the door. “Wish me luck.”

“And God speed, Scully.”

* * *

Hegal Place

Super’s Apartment

“I’m not in the habit of letting just anyone into my tenants’ homes, you know.” Jake Timmons had been shocked to hear of Mulder’s illness and hospitalization, and even more so when Skinner had mentioned their suspicions.

“Sir, it is imperative however that I find out just who has had recent access to Agent Mulder’s home.” Skinner told him.

“No one that I can say.” The man sucked his bottom lip between his teeth, thinking. “No wait!” He turned away from the door and rummaged on a table behind himself. “Don’t know why I didn’t think of this before!”

He held out a piece of paper. “Mr. Mulder put in a request with Ned last week to have some faucet washers replaced. I’m pretty sure Ned did them right away.”

“Who is this Ned?” Skinner felt his heart rate increase slightly.

“Ned? He’s a good guy; does some light maintenance around the place.” Timmons explained.

“Do you happen to know where Ned might be at this moment?” Skinner clenched his fists at his sides.

* * *

North-East Georgetown Medical Center

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Outside Mulder’s Room

“Say that again.” Skinner requested, shaking his head.

“1 methylnaphthalene.” Scully replied.

“The stuff you use to get rid of moths?” Skinner’s eyebrows rose.

“2 methylnaphthalene is the common crystalline form that is used in moth repellent, moth balls and air freshening blocks; 1 methylnaphthalene is the liquid form.” Scully looked at Dr. Kent for confirmation.

“That’s correct.” The doctor nodded. “The liquid is odorless, colorless and tasteless and is as highly toxic as the crystalline form.”

“And it’s what was on the pencils that Mulder has been chewing on.” Scully continued. “That’s why his symptoms continued and got worse, even after he came into hospital.

Skinner shook his head. “So what’s the cure?” He looked hopefully at both doctors. “There is a cure, isn’t there?”

“Yes sir.” Scully smiled. “And it’s wonderfully simple.”

“What is it?”

“Food.” Dr. Kent stated simply.

Skinner blinked. “Excuse me, did you just say *food*?”

“Yes, I did.” The doctor smiled.

Scully felt her superior’s confusion and took pity on him. “Sir, when a person ingests or inhales a small quantity of naphthalene, it is stored in their body fat. It can make children quite sick but that has to do with their body size. Normally this wouldn’t be a problem, because an active person like Mulder burns proteins and carbohydrates for energy, and the naphthalene would stay stored in his body fat. But, because he had been sick and, as a consequence, had not been eating and exercising as much as usual, he began to lose weight, his body began to burn the fat, thus releasing the toxin into his system.” She paused for a moment considering her words.

“And unknowingly, he was continually dosing himself with more poison by chewing on the pencils, creating a vicious circle; he felt sicker, wouldn’t eat, his body used up more of his fat reserves which in turn released more naphthalene.”

“And it explains the constant nausea, the hemolytic anemia, even as far as the imminent liver failure.” Kent explained.

“So you cure Mulder by feeding him.” Skinner stated, looking back and forth between them.

“That’s right, sir, lots and lots of calories. But the catch is in *what* we feed him,” Scully announced.

“I don’t understand.” Skinner admitted.

“You’ve been in the hospital yourself, sir, you know that while the food is nutritious, it’s not always to a patient’s tastes. We have to feed Mulder what he likes and will eat without any problem.”

“Fast food?” Skinner asked in disbelief.

“Well, there is that.” Scully agreed. “But I’m going to bring in a secret weapon.”

At Skinner’s puzzled look, she elaborated. “My Mother.”

* * *

North-East Georgetown Medical Center

Friday June 22, 2007

4:00 p.m.

An enticing aroma gently filtered through his consciousness and Mulder turned his head toward the source.

Opening his eyes, he stared at Scully who was setting food out on the tray table. “I’m delirious.” He moaned. “I swear I can smell your Mom’s meatloaf.”

“That’s probably because you can.” Scully raised the head of the bed. “Now take it easy, Mulder; you’ve been out of it for awhile.”

“I have?” Mulder looked around him, finally noticing the two new IVs he sported, as well as other equipment that had not been in the room the last time he’d been awake.

“Yes, you gave me quite a scare.” Scully placed another pillow behind Mulder.

“What happened?”

“Just let me finish this, Mulder, and I’ll explain.” Scully continued dishing food from containers onto a plate for him.

Grateful that the smell of the food had not aggravated the constant low-level nausea he had been experiencing, Mulder pushed himself more upright. “Okay, my next question is, *why* can I smell your Mom’s meatloaf?”

“Because you like it.” Scully pushed the table to him.

Pulling it over his lap, Mulder hurriedly unwrapped his silverware. “You didn’t take my suggestion to heart did you and get your Mom a job in the hospital’s kitchen, did you?”

A fond glance preceded Scully’s answer. “No, Mulder, my Mom isn’t working in the kitchen, but she is going to be supplying your meals for awhile.”

Mulder was too busy shoveling food in his mouth to ask why, but his raised eyebrows asked the question for him.

“We found out what was causing all the different problems you’ve been having.” Scully reached over and placed a napkin on his chest.

“And…?” He asked around a mouthful of food.

“There are certain things that children learn not to put in their mouths, pens and pencils for one.”

“I don’t get it.” Mulder frowned.

“Your oral fixation with your pencils…”

“But I’ve been chewing on pencils for years.” Mulder broke in. “How come they’ve only just recently started making me sick?”

“It’s not the pencils themselves, but what’s *on* them.” Scully held up her hand to forestall his questions as Mulder opened his mouth again. “Just eat your food, Mulder, and let me finish.”

“You were right; you were a target of the unsub. Those pencils that you enjoy so much had been soaked in a liquid solution of naphthalene.”

Mulder stopped chewing and swallowed hurriedly. A look of revulsion crossed his face. “Who?” He asked.

“Do you remember seeing a handyman/maintenance guy at our townhouse?” Scully asked, then motioned toward his plate. “Come on, don’t let it get cold.”

“Um, yeah, there was a guy … he was fixing the loose trim by the front door.” Mulder forked up another mouthful of meatloaf.

“Did you ask him to fix a couple of leaky faucets?”

Mulder shook his head at the question. “No, he did ask if I had anything that needed doing, but I told him no.”

“You’re sure?”

“Positive.” Mulder took another healthy bite of Maggie’s cooking.

“Did you recognize the person?” Scully asked.

His brow furrowed in concentration, Mulder shrugged. “No, should I have?”

“We think that he’s the unsub.”

Mulder’s fork clattered to the plate, food instantly forgotten, and he shoved the table away. “Where are my clothes, Scully?” He edged his legs over the side of the bed.

“Mulder, what the hell do you think you’re doing?” Scully held onto his arm as he struggled to climb to his feet.

“Scully, if he’s the unsub…?”

“Agent Mulder!” A stern voice drew both agents’ attention to the doorway where Skinner stood, a forbidding frown on his face.

“Sir, Scully just told me that you think you know where the unsub is.” Mulder continued to try and move his partner aside.

“You are staying right where you are, Agent.”

“But, sir…”

“But nothing! Agent Scully and I have the matter under control.” Skinner told him. “You will best aid the situation by finishing the meal that Mrs. Scully went to so much trouble preparing for you.”

“He’s right, Mulder.” Scully ran her fingers up and down his arm. “You’re not in any condition to go running off anywhere.” She stroked down over his hand where one of the IVs was situated. “Besides, did you forget this?”

Mulder looked down at the tube running along his arm and then turned beseeching eyes on his partner. “Scully, you don’t understand! This guy has killed five men, one of whom I considered a good friend.”

“I *do* understand, Mulder, and so does Skinner. But until we find the guy, there’s nothing that any of us can do.” She eased him back into the bed, folded the bed covers neatly over his legs and pulled the tray back up. “You better finish eating. You don’t want my Mom to think you don’t appreciate her cooking, do you?”

Retrieving his utensils, Mulder grudgingly resumed his meal. “I’ll always appreciate your Mom, Scully, and not just because of her cooking.” He reached out a hand and took hers. “Mainly because she’s part of the reason that you’re here.”

Scully blushed at the compliment and bent to press her lips to Mulder’s forehead.

Skinner turned to open the door. “I’m gratified to see that you are feeling so much better, Agent Mulder, and seeing that such is the case, I’ll head back to the office. I’ll inform you, Agent Scully, as soon as I hear anything.”

“Yes sir, thank you, sir.” Scully turned to see the door close behind Skinner, but not before she heard a snort of laughter.

Placing both hands on her hips, Scully glared at her chuckling partner. “Just wait until I get you home, Mister.

“Bring it on.” Mulder leered.

* * *

Interview Room

Tuesday July 3, 2007

11:00 a.m.

Mulder settled into a chair on the other side of the square table. For a few minutes, he stared at the disheveled man before speaking. “Why, Stephen?’ He asked.

“Don’t call me that! Stephen Vance is dead.” The words came as an angry growl.

“What do you mean?” Mulder puzzled.

“You should know, you and your friends, you killed him.”

“How did we kill him? Can you explain it to me?”

“Why the fuck should I do anything for you?” The man lurched to his feet, his teeth bared in an angry grimace.

Mulder stayed in place watching calmly as Vance was forced back into his seat by the muscular deputy guarding him.

“I want to understand why you killed five good men.”

An ugly laugh erupted from the man’s mouth. “Nearly made it six didn’t I? Damn pity I didn’t, that’s what I think.”

Steepling his fingers, Mulder regarded the prisoner. “You’ve admitted to killing five men and attempting murder on a sixth. You’re going back to jail for a very long time.”

“Yeah well, there’s nobody who cares what happens to me.”

“Your mother died?” Mulder asked. “I’m sorry to hear that.”

“Oh sure you are.” Vance sneered. “You and the others, you really feel for everyone don’t you? You ruin people’s lives and go on to the next poor sap.”

“We did our jobs.” Mulder replied softly. “And that was all.”

“You ruined my life, you ruined my Mother’s life.”

“And how many children’s lives did you destroy?” Mulder’s eyes narrowed.

“I don’t give a fuck about the little bastards! All I care about is that my Mother wouldn’t acknowledge me! As far as she was concerned, she never had a son!” Vance snarled.

“She never forgave me!” Vance reared up again. “I had to fuckin’ read about her death in a six month old newspaper! She didn’t even leave instructions to anyone to let me know she’d died!”

Once more, the stern-faced deputy forced the irate man back into his seat, only this time Vance broke down and dropped his head onto his arms. “She never forgave me.” He repeated. “Not after you poisoned her mind against me.”

Lifting his head, he stared at Mulder. “That’s why I did what I did. *You* used *words* as your poison, I just went one better and used the real thing.”

Shakily, and without another word, Mulder climbed to his feet and exited the room.

He closed the door behind him and, leaning against the wall, Mulder bowed his head.

A light touch that he identified immediately drew a sigh from deep within. “He’s right you know.” He mumbled.

“About what?” Scully asked.

“I ruined his life.”

“Mulder, you did nothing of the sort. Stephen Vance managed that all by himself the minute he began exploiting those poor children.” Scully rationalized.

“Yeah, but I was the one who wanted to go and see his mother. I effectively destroyed that relationship.” He drew in a shuddering breath. “I seem to be good at that sort of thing.”

“Mulder, not all parents are the same.”

“I don’t know, Mrs. Vance wouldn’t forgive her son and refused to speak to him. My mother never forgave me and killed herself.” He shrugged.

“Mulder, Mrs. Vance had her reasons, not any of which can be placed upon your shoulders. As for your mother…” She let her words trail into silence.

“Yeah, my mother had her reasons, too.”

“And you can’t blame yourself for those, either.” Drawing her partner into a loving embrace, Scully ran her hands up and down his back, feeling the tightly clenched muscles. “Come on, you need to get out of here. I have plans for you tonight.”

“The humble bath boy is making a return engagement?” he asked hopefully.

“No,” she replied, almost smirking as his face fell. “I was thinking we might find you a humble bath ‘girl’.”

His eyes lightened with merriment. “Well then, bring it on.”

* * *

The End

Semper Fi

Semper Fi

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‘Loyalty means nothing unless it has at its heart the absolute principle of self-sacrifice.’ –Woodrow T. Wilson

========

TEASER

========

“Come on, Joel! This isn’t fun anymore – they could shoot us on sight!”

“Don’t be so silly, MB. There are laws against them doing that.”

“But they *are* the law! It’s a military base–”

“Which is why we’re here!”

“And they could shoot us for trespassing!”

Joel Hollins gave a dismissive shake of his head and continued onward through the moonlit brush – not bothered either way if his girlfriend, Marybeth Wooke, followed or not.

Curiosity was getting the better of him, of course. If it hadn’t been for that he wouldn’t have felt compelled and daring enough to drive the fifty-three miles to the outskirts of Andel, New Hampshire in the middle of the chilly April night to

carefully stalk through the wooded area surrounding the top secret naval base, in search of what he’d been promised by some drunken friends was the ultimate spot for watching UFOs. In his own defense, he had been dubious of what they’d said at the time and brushed it off as nothing more than BS – only intending to drive here and drive home again for face sake. But as he weaved his way through the bushes and low-hanging tree branches, there was just something in the air forcing him ahead.

“Seriously, Joel, I wanna go home!” Wooke whined again, crossing both arms across her chest and nervously turning in a circle to check for anybody that may be watching them.

“So go walk back already,” came the hushed, sharp reply from the darkness. “Why d’ you have to bitch so–”

Hollins’ words were cut short by a sudden sonic boom as a blinding shaft of light struck into ground not four feet ahead of him – illuminating the sky for only a second, but long enough for the startled trespasser to see the severed body of a

uniformed man lying where the unknown white object from the heavens had impacted. He stumbled backwards, falling onto his butt as the naval base to his right came to life; sirens wailing and officers running out of the buildings. Everything became a blur and he was paralyzed for a moment before he finally frantically tried to scramble away – Marybeth’s fleeing scream and the image of the dead body embedded firmly in his brain.

“Halt! Stay where you are!”

There was the sound of a gun being cocked and Joel, terror and adrenaline pumping so fiercely through his veins that his heart was finding it difficult to cope, looked up, blinking several times against the flashlight beam before focusing on the soldier

aiming an assault rifle at him.

Only a matter of seconds later there was a large circle of troops surrounding him and he knew all hope was gone. All he could do now was pray that the blood of the mutilated officer would be the only flow staining the soil tonight.

========

ACT ONE

========

With a deep sigh, Dana Scully folded the dog-eared sheet of paper and cast a dubious glance in her partner’s direction as their rental car crossed the New Hampshire state line. She’d already read the printed e-mail through four times since he’d handed it to her and then hastily ushered her out of their basement office early this morning, but she was still unclear on 1: why Mulder was so eager to investigate this case – eager enough to not even submit a 302 to Skinner before their butts

were on the plane out of Dulles, or 2: …Actually, she didn’t really have a 2 – 1 encompassed pretty much all the questions buzzing around in her head. Over the years, Dana had come to not be too shocked by any trick Mulder chose to pull out of his hat, but this one was a little too vague and unbelievable even for him.

“So, how did we get roped into this again?” she asked, breaking the stretch of companionable silence and crossing both arms across her chest.

A wry smile broke out on Mulder’s face, but he kept his gaze focused on the road ahead of them. This had become a perfunctory dance between them: he whisked them away and she struggled to find the rational reason for their involvement with

the breadcrumb of a case he’d been thrown – that was just the way it always had been and, more than likely, the way it always would be. He was just surprised it had taken her so long to pipe up.

“You’ve read the e-mail, Scully – several times in fact. The abduction of a twenty-four year old male in the woods? Why shouldn’t we be ‘roped’ into this?”

“Outside a ‘top secret’ naval base no one’s ever heard of?”

The fact she’d never even heard of the town Andel was no big surprise as it was just another in a long line of Podunk, no-name places they’d passed through over the years, but her father had literally been a walking, talking encyclopedia on every

naval base in America who’d always been sure to impart some of his knowledge to his four growing children as he’d tucked them into bed each night. Her memory may not be as eidetic as Mulder’s, but Andel Naval Base had definitely not been one Bill

Senior had mentioned.

“And since when do we investigate any old drunken claim of alien abduction? Come on, Mulder, you gotta admit this is a bit hinky sounding, even to you.”

“‘Hinky’?”

“Mulder…”

The cautionary tone cut short his snort of laughter and wiped the smile from his face. “My gut, Scully,” he shrugged, “Just an old-fashioned hunch, and when has that ever let us down?”

Scully’s eyebrow lifted and she fought to keep the mirth from her voice as she curtly replied, “You really want me to start counting them off?”

“Okay, okay. But Laura’s a level-headed person and she believes–”

“‘Laura’?” Her brow lifted even higher.

“Agent Balk, who sent the e-mail.”

“Which leads me to my next question: how do you know this woman? Her message seemed very pally – all these women keep crawling out of the woodwork…Is there something I should know?”

The warning lights in his head begun to flash as the palpable level of pissed-offness in her voice hit home, and his mouth frantically moved in silence for a second as he shifted uncomfortably in his seat and tried to think of a way to back-pedal the conversation a little. This would teach him for not just telling her properly about the case from the start instead of waiting for her to query.

“She…She’s an agent from the Boston field office… She likes to dabble in cold cases and stuff with an unexplainable slant… She’s contacted me a couple of times for an opinion on anything she’s been investigating… You know you’re the only woman–”

His voice trailed off at the sound of movement and a sniffle from beside him. With Panic Face firmly in place, his head swiftly snapped around to glance at her, only to find Scully a mere few inches away from him and a smug grin lifting her cheeks.

The eyebrow was still firmly in its raised position, though.

Dana faltered and lingered for an instant – his warm, deep breaths stroking across her skin – as she took in his worried expression. Pulling his leg every now and then was fun, especially considering how much he liked to rib her, but that look of terror and pain chilled her to the bone.

“I had you,” she whispered gleefully, leaning in to place a chaste kiss against his lips and hoping it would be the instant cure to soothe his over-anxious soul. “Big time.” Nodding her head toward the windshield, gesturing for him to return his attention to the road, she rested back down in her seat.

Then again, even if she hadn’t on her own accord, the force of the rush of relieved breath that shot of his mouth would have undoubtedly blown her back.

“Scul-ly…” he groaned, wiping a hand down his face as the other tightly gripped around the steering wheel. “That’s not funny!”

“Oh, come on, Mulder! You usher me out on some pointless case without filling me in on what’s going on and don’t expect me to have a little payback fun?” Scully playfully pouted and shrugged a shoulder. “What side of the bed did you get out this

morning?”

There was a pause for a moment of contemplative silence, and then – shifting a little yet again in the driver’s seat – wryly smirked, “Your side, rolling off of you after an exhausting-but-wonderful session of great wake-up sex.”

Scully gave an agreeable, affirming nod. At least he remembered the important things in life. “Exactly, so stop acting so guilty. Besides, we’re together pretty much every second of the day: I think I’d know if you were sniffing elsewhere. The only

other place you frequent without me is the Gunmen’s office and… Well, I don’t even think I wanna know if there’s something going on ther–”

“Scully!”

At his hurt exclamation they both burst into laughter, and – though it hadn’t been at all heavy before – the atmosphere in the vehicle suddenly felt at least ten times lighter. They remained silent for the next mile or so, enjoying each others’ company, and then Scully reached down to pick up the printed e-mail that had slipped to the floor, giving it yet another cursory glance before placing it safely on the dashboard.

“Soooo,” she sighed, a thin hand reaching up to brush an errant strand of copper hair away from her eyes, “getting back to the question I know you’re trying to avoid: how did we get roped into this?”

“I spoke to Agent Balk just before you got to the office this morning, and she didn’t have much else to say from what she’s put in her message: she was driving back late from the federal building in Portsmouth when this young woman, screaming at the top of her voice, blindly ran out in front of her car. Laura stopped and gave Miss Wooke a ride, listened to her story and tried to calm the woman down. Wooke insists a bright light struck the ground and then she couldn’t find her boyfriend.”

“And your gut is saying that we should investigate this?”

Mulder considered her question for a second, and then – as a hand dipped into his pocket and then pulled out again to slip a sunflower seed between his lips – he gave a slow nod of his head. “Yeah.”

“Well, alright then.”

Double checking the way ahead was clear, Mulder glanced at his partner, who returned the gaze and gave a reassuring nod of her head and quirk of her lips. Yes, he regularly dragged her along without thinking to fill her in on where or why they were going, and – of course – more often than not they were cases she would

have otherwise dismissed as preposterous and a big waste of time… But his gut instinct really had helped a lot in the past, no matter how much the scientist in her tried to argue to the contrary, and if he believed that there was more to this

than met the eye, she would just have to trust him on that.

“What?” Dana shrugged dismissively, as if that was enough to answer the unspoken question creasing his features.

“Really?”

“Mulder, pay attention to the road.”

Pausing only a millisecond, he turned his head back to the tarmac road and smirked, “Well, alright then.”

~~~~~

OUTSIDE ANDEL NAVAL BASE

ANDEL, NEW HAMPSHIRE

12:42 PM

Three quarters of an hour later their rental pulled up near the crime scene…

Where a news reporter van and two police cars were parked, and a bunch of curious people were gathered, desperately hoping to see what lay well beyond the line of yellow police tape.

Mulder frowned and slowly stepped out of the vehicle, resting an elbow on the door and examining the unexpected scene. His partner did the same, ending with a glance at the naval base to her right, where she could just make out the figures of six seaman firmly pressing their noses against the chain-link fence surrounding the compound, much to the chagrin of the beckoning Chief Petty Officer approaching from behind.

“When you told me a story of alien abduction, Mulder,” she started, only affording her partner a brief glance over the roof of the car before the congregated mob demanded her attention again, “did you, by chance, leave out any key information?”

“I told you everything I was told, and – from what I could figure – everything Agent Balk was told…” came his hesitant, slightly awed reply as he shook his head.

They approached the crowd, and were about to slip under the tape when the sheriff and deputy quickly moved to step in front of them.

“Sorry, Mister, but you and the missus can turn right ’round and go back in the direction you came from – this, here, is a crime scene and no one’s getting past,” the elder of the two remarked smugly, as if he’d recited the line from his favorite movie.

Judging by the hands-on-hips and lifted chin posture, that was exactly what he’d done.

The misconception of their matrimonial and professional status was an old one that hadn’t phased them for a long time and had actually become a kind of badge of honor since their relationship had become a lot more personal, but Scully was

eagerly vying to wipe the know-it-all grin from Wyatt Earp’s pasty face.

“Actually, Sheriff,” she quickly piped up before a sound managed to pass Mulder’s already opening mouth, pulling out her ID wallet, “we’re Agents Scully and Mulder from the FBI, so how about you and Deputy Dawg here let us do our job?”

The sheriff’s smirk disappeared and he took a step back to let them pass, muttering a barely-audible apology. Mulder struggled to keep the smile from his face as he lifted the tape and let his fiery partner go under it first. As they carefully made

their way down the steep, muddy embankment, the deputy’s laughing, squeaky voice sifted its way through the air they left in their wake.

“Must be a slow day for the feds if they’re all down here! Who’s next? CIA?”

The sheriff’s deep chuckle mingled with Dawg’s, and Scully half-turned to go back and ask what he was talking about, perhaps with the help of her brandished gun, but Mulder rested a gentle, calming hand on her arm and slightly shrugged his shoulders.

“You were saying about wrong sides of the bed to get out of?” he joked, lightly nudging her with his elbow. He knew full well how annoying clueless local law officers could be, so he fully sympathized, but at the moment his curiosity to see what lay just beyond the line of trees ahead of them took precedence over

everything else – even putting dumb deputies in their place.

What actually lay beyond the trees was possibly the last thing either of them had thought to consider: a dead, mutilated body was sprawled unceremoniously on the leafy ground, and half-a-dozen people with NCIS emblazoned on their navy blue jackets and caps were milling about the scene, taking photos, gathering evidence and examining the aforementioned body.

“NCIS?” Mulder queried in a hushed tone, staring at the other team like a dog whose territory has been stolen from him by a smaller mutt.

“Naval Criminal Investi–”

“I know what it stands for. What I mean is ‘What are they doing here?'”

It was Dana’s turn to shrug. “Well, obviously,” she started, pointing toward the top half of the uniformed corpse, where three of the investigators were crouched, “things have gone a lot further from just a drunken–”

“Hey!” a sudden voice called out. They both looked up to see one of the team moving toward them. The stranger was tall, topped by a short crop of dark hair that stuck out from beneath his issued hat, mid-to-late thirties, and carried himself with a

self-confidence that far exceeded anything Mulder had ever shown, even in the very early days of their partnership fourteen years ago – a cockiness that settled naturally

on his features, and Scully figured was kind of endearing.

And then he eyed her up, flashed the cheesiest grin, and she knew she hated him completely.

“Hey, you’re gonna have to turn back,” he continued, once again focusing on her. “This is a closed-off scene.”

“Special Agent Mulder, and this is my partner Special Agent Scully – we’re from the FBI,” Mulder snarked, putting emphasis on the word ‘partner’ that reeked of testosterone. He withdrew his badge for good measure, but Scully was busy watching the smile that had suddenly faded from the younger man’s face.

“FBI?” he frowned. “Did Fornell send you or something?”

Both agents glanced at each other briefly.

“Who’s Fornell?” Mulder queried, re-pocketing his wallet. “We were called in to investigate the disappearance of a male in this very area.”

Dana gave an agreeing nod, but then noticed as the gray-haired man who had been crouching beside the lower half of the torso with what appeared to be a polystyrene cup from Starbucks in his left hand, looked up at them and authoritatively strode over.

“DiNozzo! Get those people out of here immediately and tell the sheriff to get it through his thick skull that no one should be getting down here!”

The NCIS agent turned to face his approaching superior and gestured towards Mulder and Scully. “They say they’re from the Bureau, boss.”

“I don’t care! Get rid of them!” With a dismissive wave of the coffee-cup-filled hand, the much older man turned away again.

Always knowing the best time to stick his foot in the biggest pile of crap, Mulder chose that moment to pipe up. “We’re here investigating a crime and have as much right to be here as you!”

The gray-haired man came to an abrupt stop, and his back straightened. The man only identified as DiNozzo for now pulled a shocked face and then hastily took a couple of steps away from them. The remaining four members of the investigative crew looked up with aghast faces. The older man sharply turned on his heel and pinned Mulder with a deadly stare as he took the four steps required to bring them face to face.

Scully could only watch with worry as the turf war began.

“Why don’t you go back to Fornell and tell him he sent the wrong agent to try stand up to me on the wrong day, Agent–?”

“Mulder. And, as we’ve already told your Agent DiNozzo here, we don’t know a ‘Fornell’. There was a report of someone going missing in these woods after a shaft of light hit the ground. An agent from the Boston field office asked us to find out what happened.”

“And why didn’t your fellow agent investigate himself?”

“Herself. Because my partner and I investigate…strange cases, and there was a slant on this that warranted our attention.”

‘Strange’?” the gray-haired man spat out. “A marine is dead! Does any of this look *strange* to you?” The hand tightly gripping on to the cup, as if drawing life from it, shot out to gesture toward the body.

Straightening his back to gain the extra millimeter that matched the other man’s full six foot height, Mulder cleared his throat and just as vehemently retorted, “Seeing as your marine is laying there in two halves, I’d say that’s pretty strange.”

“Actually, my dear fellow, mutilation is far from strange. Sad, yes, but not strange,” another of the men who had been closely examining the remains sighed, standing up and brushing down his dusty trousers. “And there are so many degrees of it, some

fatal, others not so much. This type of severing through the midsection is not so common as it takes a great deal of arduous work sawing through the meat and…and spinal column.” With every description the medical examiner made demonstrative

gestures with his hands. He paused for a second in thought and then, “Actually, now I think about it, I did once have to autopsy a body that–”

“Ducky!” the team leader quickly cut in, not breaking eye contact with Mulder. “You got everything you need there?”

“What? Oh, oh yes.” The man with the British accent glanced down at his assistant for a supportive agreement – which he received in the form of a slightly nervous nod. “We’ll know more when we get him back, as always.”

“Bag him, then. Ziva, McGee, you go with them. Tony, you and our two friends here can come with me on a little trip to get this smoothed out.”

“You can’t stop us from completing our investigation,” Mulder spluttered, refusing to move his feet from where he’d firmly planted them.

“Mulder,” Scully whispered, gently touching the sleeve of his jacket, “let’s just do what he says and get this sorted out with Skinner. At least then we’ll be able to proceed without any problems.”

He looked down at her, lost himself in the pools of her understanding blue eyes, and let out a deep, resigned sigh.

“Okay.”

Sharing one more stare with the older man, both wordlessly yelling at each other ‘we’re not done’, he turned away and guided his partner back toward their parked car.

XxXxXxXxX

NCIS HEADQUARTERS

WASHINGTON NAVAL BASE, WASHINGTON D.C.

Getting things ‘sorted out’ had not worked entirely in anyone’s favor, and much to his chagrin, Skinner had also been roped into the case to ‘keep an eye’ on his agents.

Basically, the final agreement between Director Shepherd of NCIS and Director Gardner of the FBI was that both teams needed to work together – both had jurisdiction, and the melding of the different expertise would help wrap things up a lot quicker.

No one had won the turf war, especially not him, and as Special Agent Leroy Jethro Gibbs sat at his desk mulling that fact over and over, it only made him more determined to get this solved before the Bureau mob returned from the woods in Andel.

Wiping a frustrated hand across the top of his gray, marine crew-cut hair, the team leader glanced at the three of his group who sat at their own desks, either on the phone or tapping away at their computer keyboards. This past year had been tough enough trying to fully regain their trust after he’d retired last Spring, only to return and disturb the new balance that had been found several months later. The last thing he needed right now after a string of cases that had hit each of them on some

personal level was to have to baby-sit some annoying, alien chasing feds – Agent Tobias Fornell was a handful enough, and he was a friend!

“Boss, I managed to track down Commander Kexlar’s work schedule for yesterday,” Agent Tim McGee, the ‘junior’ member of the team (though he’d been a field agent for three years now) started, examining the printed sheet in his hands as he carefully stepped around his desk. “Apparently Commander Kexlar clocked in at

nine-hundred hours and left at eighteen-twenty-two. He was not due in again until tomorrow morning.”

“His wife, who seemed a little hesitant to talk to me, said he arrived home, had some dinner, and then muttered something about having to go out,” Tony DiNozzo added, hanging up the phone but remaining in his seat. “She tried to ask him where he was

going, but he just kissed her and left.”

Gibbs soaked in the information and started trying to recreate Kexlar’s last steps in his head. “Do we know what the commander’s actual station was?” His head turned to look at the Israeli woman to his right, who looked up at his question and quickly covered the mouthpiece of the phone handset.

“The Navy seem to want to stay tight-lipped about that,” Ziva David shrugged. “Apparently they don’t want anybody to know what they’re doing there.” With an irritated shake of her head, she returned to the conversation on the phone.

Slamming his hand on the desk, Gibbs sharply stood and moved round to her. “You tell them I don’t give a damn what petty war games they’re planning behind those walls, I just want to know what Kexlar was in charge of so I can find out if there was a reason for him to be lurking outside the perimeter hours after he’d left for the day!”

David gave a nod, and watched as her superior turned away. His fire for finding the truth had always been this hot, but since his return it had seemed as if he was trying to prove something…To them, to himself or both she couldn’t tell, but she just wished he’d get it through his head that they were working just as hard as him, and that they would still follow him wherever he led.

“You can’t seriously think he was murdered, boss?” McGee slightly chuffed. “The blood at the scene was consistent as if Kexlar’d died from being cut in half…” His voice trailed off as Gibbs fixed him with an icy stare, and the next thing he knew

was the feel of a hand hitting him across the back of the head.

Not from his boss, though.

He turned to see Tony standing right beside him, grinning smugly. “You know better than to dismiss all possibilities before the case is wrapped up, probie!”

Gibbs watched them both and then slapped DiNozzo’s head.

“Ow! What was that for?” came the defensive yelp as the senior agent rubbed the stinging spot on the back of his skull.

“For telling him that before I got back,” Gibbs shrugged, sitting back down in his seat.

Ziva fought to hold back a chuckle.

“Tony, you and McGee go talk to Mrs. Kexlar, find out if there’s any possibility her husband was having an affair, or even if she knows what he was working on at that base.”

“She didn’t exactly seem forthcoming on information over the phone,” Tony remarked, doubtfully, gesturing back toward his desk.

“Well, why don’t you convince her to be more forthcoming – we’re constantly hearing how good you are at winning women over with your charms, so prove it.”

“Yes, boss.”

XxXxXxXxX

1:11 PM

As the afternoon breeze kicked yet another cloud of dirt into his face, Mulder shook his head and continued scraping away at metal object he’d found embedded in the ground right in the middle between where the dead marine’s two halves had been laid. Flat on his belly, pushing the damp soil away from the possible murder weapon, he was in that position when Skinner slowly stepped up alongside him.

“Please say you’re doing something and not just taking a rest.” the assistant director half-joked, removing his spectacles and wiping them clean with the end of his tie.

Mulder looked up and smiled warily then gesturing toward the crevice in the ground. “I think I found treasure,” he quipped.

“Sadly not the type that’ll bring me enough riches to whisk Scully and I away on some exotic vacation, but it may be enough to help us find out what’s happened to our Mr. Hollins.”

“Speaking of Agent Scully, where is she?”

“Oh, she went to help the NCIS M.E. with the autopsy on the seaman.” Mulder paused for a second before adding in a wistful tone as a grin lifted his cheeks, “Something tells me she may take over, though.”

Skinner smiled also and crouched down beside Mulder. He liked being out in the field, especially considering the rarity with which the opportunity arose, but he hated being sent on moderator duty just because his best agent and friend insisted

on working an alien abduction case and getting in the way of those that had full rights to the investigation. He just hoped both team could find a mutual ground to work together on. “So, what you got?”

“I dunno…It looks like a metal plate of some sort. Judging by the trajectory, I’d have to say it came from directly above us.”

The wind picked up again and both men quickly lifted a hand to shield their eyes from the onslaught of dusty debris.

“Do you think this could have killed the commander?” Walter hypothesized, noticing the blood spatter marring the metal that had been revealed.”

Mulder let out a deep sigh and sat up. “Possible, but like I say the way it’s embedded in the ground, it would have had to drop straight down…” He demonstrated using his hand to mimic the metallic disc’s descent. “But to chop Kexlar in half–”

“He would have had to have been lying on the ground already.”

“Probably dead already.”

Both stared at each other for a thoughtful moment, before Mulder reached for his phone to call Scully.

XxXxXxXxX

Dana Scully stood next to the metal gurney where Commander Martin Kexlar’s body had been placed, silently but a little impatiently waiting for the NCIS’s medical examiner to arrive. She’d been sorely tempted to go ahead and start the autopsy herself, or at least give the remains a cursory glance, but with the assistant who’d introduced himself as Jimmy Palmer milling around here and there, she’d had to bite her lip and let the body be. Maybe she shouldn’t have trusted Mulder’s gut after all…

Two minutes later the autopsy bay doors slid open and Doctor Mallard briskly walked in.

“Honestly, Mr. Palmer, someone should really see to those bathrooms – the filth–” He trailed off as he finished tying the back of his scrubs and looked up to see her. “Oh! You’re…You’re the lady from this morning, aren’t you? The, uh, FBI agent?”

She smiled and took a step toward him, outstretching her hand.

“Special Agent Dana Scully.”

“I remember pretty faces, but unfortunately I’m not as good with names anymore. The name fits the face, though. Do you know Dana actually means ‘from Denmark’ in old English, and yet it’s become very popularized in Ireland, I believe. I wonder what our ancestors would make of that.”

clip_image003

Scully wasn’t sure what to make of this man. He seemed exceptionally friendly – which was definitely nice considering the cold welcome they’d received from the team leader – but he also seemed a little eccentric, and she feared an autopsy she

couldn’t wait to be done with would take forever. “I’m a medical pathologist – I’m just here to help, not get in your way…” For some reason she couldn’t think of what else to say, as if the M.E. had made her feel so relaxed and welcome in an environment where she’d always had to keep the utmost professionalism that anything she said did not need explanation.

“Fascinating!” Mallard beamed, genuinely interested. “But you’re a field agent, too?”

How to tell a lifetime’s story in the fewest possible words…

“Well, yes. Um, I was assigned to counter Agent Mulder’s ‘out there’ theories due to my medical background – to expose the science shielded behind the otherwise unexplainable. It hasn’t always delivered the answers, but it’s certainly helped us a lot over the last fourteen years.” She couldn’t conceal the wistful smile as she reflected in stark Technicolor on the myriad of cases and emotions over the years.

“You love what you do and your partner very much…”

Dana snapped back to reality and blinked several times at the words.

“I’m….I’m sorry, my dear,” Ducky quickly apologized, waving a dismissive hand in the air. “I took my Masters in Forensic Psychology at the start of the year – seems you really can teach old dogs new tricks. Anyway, I know it’s not the same thing

and, of course, you’re far from dead, but it’s helped me pick up on certain nuances in people… When you were talking, there were just so many emotions washing over your features and your eyes” – again he used his hands by pointing at his own eyes to express what he was saying more demonstratively – “filled with this far-off glint… I’m sorry, I’m rambling again. Jethro keeps–”

“No, you’re very correct,” she quickly but quietly assured – hoping to keep what she was saying as between them as possible without Palmer overhearing too much. “I–…They mean everything to me.”

Mallard smiled, gave a knowing nod and winked. “Good. Just don’t let the work ruin the better things in life for you both.”

“We won’t, Doctor.”

“Oh, my!” he suddenly jumped, as if he’d just remembered that he’d left the oven on at home. “I completely forgot, I haven’t even introduced myself yet! I’m Doctor Mallard, but you can call me Ducky like everyone else, and I take it my assistant has

already–” He paused and turned to frown at Palmer with both hands resting on his hips. “Please say you had the manners to introduce yourself, Mr. Palmer!”

Jimmy looked up at the doctor from what he was doing with a flustered expression and rushed to splutter out, “Yes, Doctor Mallard – when Agent Scully first arrived.”

Ducky turned to face Scully again, an eyebrow lifting to silently ask if Jimmy was indeed telling the truth. At her nod, he moved to his desk and the box of latex gloves. “Excellent! We can get started then!” He snapped on one of the

prophylactics and then hobbled toward the metal gurney. “And hopefully then you can tell us what you were up to, Mr. Kexlar, wandering around the woods late at night.” The second glove slipped on easily and the bespectacled doctor took the offered scalpel from Palmer as he glanced at the Marine’s slack face before leaning in to examine where he had been severed on the top half of the torso. “Maybe you were star gazing, looking up at the night sky and feeling as free as when you were out at sea. Maybe you heard a noise outside the base and went to investigate, lungs filling with breath in short, shallow bursts as you carefully made your way through the brush.”

Bemused, Scully approached the gurney also, listening to the doctor ramble on as if their patient was still alive. She’d always considered Mulder’s approach to work as kooky, but this guy took the cake!

“Or maybe you were secretly in the arms of another lover when she suddenly turned and sliced you in two.”

Scully’s cellphone chose that second to ring to life.

XxXxXxXxX

“Scully.”

“Hey, Scully, it’s me.”

“Hey there, Me. How’s it going with the boss?”

Mulder smiled at the familiar greeting as he slowly rose to his feet and paced away a little from where Skinner had taken over with the digging. She’d only left his side a couple of hours ago, and yet it felt as if he hadn’t seen her all weekend. “Aw, you know, we’re picking out china patterns and planning to have me moved into his place by next week!”

“I hope he’s ready to fight me for you,” came her mock-stern response over the line.

“Now *that’s* something I’d like to see! …Wonder how much I could sell the tickets to the showdown for…”

“Not enough to buy me back if I lost.”

“Ouch! I felt that one!” He laughed and glanced up at the maze of branches that loomed above him. “Seriously, though, he only got here about five minutes ago, so our love is far from sealed just yet…Maybe if you call me back in an hour–”

“You were the one who called me, Mulder.”

That caught him off guard. He frowned, and then remembered why he had, indeed, called her to start with. “Oh, yeah! First, I gotta know, though: how’s it going with the Navy feds?”

At the other end, Dana shrugged and moved to the far corner of the autopsy bay, casting a brief glance over her shoulder at where Ducky and Palmer were still examining the body. “They’re okay, if not maybe a little eccentric. We’ve just started the autopsy.”

“I found a metal plate of some sort, about forty-inch diameter, buried in the ground right in the middle of where the commander’s body parts were found, and there’s blood on it, but for it to have hit him he would have already had to have been lying on the ground.” Mulder paused and pulled the phone away from his ear a little as he curiously focused his gaze on the broken tree limbs directly above where Skinner was crouched.

Misunderstanding the silence, Scully queried, “You think he was already dead, don’t you?”

“That’s what I need you and your NCIS buddies to find out – you know me, at the moment I’m happy to believe he was abducted along with Joel Hollins and then returned unconscious, only seconds after which the ship that took them was shot down by the military and chopped him in half.”

Dana let out a deep sigh. Only her partner could come up with a theory like that. Then again, in the absence of any other ideas, she knew she had no reason to knock him for it, though. “If that were the case, where’s the elusive Mr. Hollins?”

“That I’m still trying to figure out, as well as where his piece of the puzzle fits in with all of this. Apparently Agent Balk and Hollins’s girlfriend gave statements in at the county sheriff’s office earlier this afternoon. Your beloved friend Sheriff Mayway was supposed to be bringing copies of them to me, but he hasn’t shown up yet – you must have made such an impression on him he’s scared to come by.” His deep chuckle filtered its way down the line and lovingly tickled against the walls of her ear canal. “Look, I’d better let you go. Let us know what you find with the autopsy, okay?”

“When don’t I? You be careful out there – no heroics.”

“No, ma’am! And you be careful of that DiNozzo guy…I saw him checking you out! Slimy bastard…”

“Jealous?”

“No.” By his tone, it was obvious he really was. “Just ready to pummel his face in if he tries to make the wrong move. Love you.”

“And you.”

And with that they both cut off their ends of the call – as always never ending with a goodbye, as if that would bring fatal fortune their way.

“Aliens, Mulder?” Skinner chided, looking up from where he was carefully shifting the soil away from the metallic object.

Mulder shrugged a shoulder and then moved to climb one of the old trees behind the assistant director. “Why…Why not?” he huffed, hoisting himself up and reaching for the branch above his head. “I didn’t insist on following this lead just because

things were slow in the office.”

Higher and higher he climbed, strong hands gripping expertly at the right holds and branches while athletic feet carefully moved this way and that across the bark to best support and lift the rest of his body. When he reached as far as he could go before the limbs became much denser but more fragile, Mulder carefully diverted to stretch out along the limb that had caught his attention whilst he’d been on the phone to Scully.

Directly below him, Skinner looked up and watched the agent apprehensively. Scully was so gonna kick his ass if her partner came back with a scratch on him. “Mulder, what the hell are you doing up there?” When his question was met by silence, he tried again, becoming more worried. “Mulder?”

The agent stopped moving and looked at the twigs that must have been broken by the falling object…Except their undersides were snapped instead of the tops – as if they’d been attacked from below – and he could just barely see some crystals of ice

resting where the ends were hanging on. Balancing precariously with both legs hooked around the bough, Mulder reached out and broke one of the questionable branches off an inch or so away from where they’d been damaged with one hand whilst the other pulled an evidence bag out of his jacket pocket.

Suddenly, though, a wave of dizziness hit him, and a pressure started to grow inside his ears. “Agh!” he groaned, quickly covering both ears with his hands – the newly-bagged twig fluttering to the ground twenty feet below. “What the–”

Something greater than gravity was pressing against his body, and before he had chance to move back Mulder was plummeting to the ground.

XxXxXxXxX

Dazed, scared…

The figure stumbled on a clump of deadwood, but then quickly reasserted his balance as best as possible and forged on ahead.

They were going to get him unless he got away as fast as possible.

Adrenaline pumped through his blood.

Terrified.

‘Nobody’ll believe you, so just remember you saw nothing here.’

Something made a sound in the brush to his left and he quickly veered away – his heart skipping a beat as he struggled to find his breath.

‘You were drunk and seeing things.’

He repeated the phrase over and over in his head like a sacred mantra. He *had* been drunk – his friends had gotten him drunk and then told him some stupid story about aliens and spacecrafts…Just because he’d been out of his head enough to

believe them didn’t mean anyone would listen to what he had really seen there at the base!

‘You saw *nothing*!’

The voice kept shouting in his brain like an abusive, overpowering father, and he nodded, as if that would appease the invisible torturer.

Cold. Tired. Lonely.

As he breathlessly whimpered “I didn’t see anything, honest!”, a cut and bruised Joel Hollins burst through the final barrier of trees and stepped out onto the main road into Andel. He blinked against the blinding, unshielded sunlight and staggered left and right, completely confused as to where he was.

By the time his eyes adjusted to the light and his vision cleared, there was the sound of a loud horn, screeching tires…

And the last thing Hollins knew was the force of a forty-ton Kenworth truck slamming into him.

========

ACT TWO

========

NCIS HEADQUARTERS

WASHINGTON DC

4:32PM

The door slammed open, closed, and there was the barest sound of the assistant’s protest in between as Agent Gibbs stormed into the director’s office.

Shepherd looked up at him, unsurprised by his unannounced arrival. “I was expecting this outburst earlier, Jethro,” she remarked, resting back in her chair. “You must be getting slower in your old age.”

“This isn’t about the FBI,” came his sharp retort as he quickly approached her desk, “I’ve dealt with enough of them this year alone to know how to play fair every now and then.”

She quirked an eyebrow at that.

“What I want is to know what they’re doing at that base, *now*.”

“It’s not that easy.”

“Yes it is – you go up to MTAC and tell them to spill the beans!”

“I’ve tried that, but they refuse to open video contact with us.”

“I have one dead marine already with Ducky, Jen, and now the missing guy that caused the FBI’s involvement in the first place is dead as well Kexlar’s wife is too scared to talk, and two statements given to the local LEOs have ‘mysteriously’ gone

missing. What more needs to happen before the call of silence is lifted?”

Jenny Shepherd sympathized with Gibbs’s frustration. She’d just spent an hour and a half at the alert center being diverted from video feed to video feed, hoping that she would eventually be hooked up to Andel’s, to no avail, and then a further hour on the phone trying to contact as many officials as possible for information.

The only thing she’d received were threats.

“They want you off this case,” she finally confessed, watching as he frowned and waiting for the volcano to erupt.

“*What*?”

“They insist they can handle this themselves and want both NCIS and the FBI away from their base.”

Gibbs stared at his ex-partner long and hard, trying to gauge if there was any trace of a lie in what she’d just said. When he found nothing but truth in her eyes, he wiped a sweaty hand across his mouth. None of this made sense… How had the find

of a body that could have easily been caused by an accident turn into such a dark cover-up scenario? Maybe it really was time to start conversing with those agents after all.

He turned, not willing to let her order him off the case yet, and was slowly making his way back toward the exit when she softly called out his name. With a hand resting on the door handle, Gibbs glanced over his shoulder to see her stand up and

slowly approach.

“You know I won’t pull this from you, Jethro,” she assured in a hushed tone, “but you need to work under the radar a little…”

She hesitated and considered for an instant, before finishing,

“Find out what’s going on by…less obvious means.”

After another brief staring match, Gibbs opened the door and left the office.

“Ziva, Tony, you’re with me,” he called, running down the open staircase to meet up with his team. McGee looked up from his computer, waiting for his own orders, and was not disappointed.

“McGee…” Gibbs paused and waited until he was face-to-face with the MIT graduate before continuing in a conspiratorial whisper, “I want you down with Abs finding a way to confirm what Kexlar was paid to do.”

“Probably something to do with this.”

The four NCIS members sharply turned at the unfamiliar voice to see Skinner and Mulder (whose legs had managed to save him from truly falling from the tree, though only just), both holding onto something that was concealed by a large, thick blanket.

“Is that what I think it is?”

Their heads snapped round in the opposite direction as Scully and Ducky entered the bullpen to join the group. Dana gestured toward the covered object and Mulder gave an acknowledging nod of his head.

Gibbs frowned in complete confusion. “Somebody wanna tell me what’s going on here?”

“Our inter-planetary visitors may be covering up for human attacks,” Mulder wryly joked. He carefully placed his end of the heavy disc onto the carpeted floor and took an awkward step back (something his partner picked up on but would wait until later to scold him about) to pull off the blanket. “Either that or they’re training for the next Olympics and this just happened to coincidentally hit a dead body.”

“Wow, there actually is somebody weirder than you, probie!” Tony snorted over McGee’s shoulder.

“The commander was dead before whatever that is hit the ground,” Scully cut in, overhearing the remark but ignoring it.

“He was slowly and methodically smothered,” Mallard elaborated.

“With a large hand covering his mouth and nose, and a steady knee used to pin his chest…It’s an old method known as ‘burking’, but I haven’t seen it used since the early Nineties… Whoever did it didn’t want there to be too many external signs. That” – pointing toward the metal object – “must have hit just seconds after his heart stopped beating, or at least after he lost consciousness, because the sudden loss of blood stopped there being much bruising. Thanks to the lovely, observant Agent Scully here, we found faint marks around the mouth and across the sternum.” The doctor paused and smiled at Dana, letting her reveal their final finding.

Mulder watched the exchange and couldn’t stop that ever-present doubt wriggling its way to the forefront of his brain. Scully’s past was riddled with older men, father figures…Surely she wouldn’t–

He quickly gave himself a mental slap. Fourteen years together and more declarations of love than anyone else would say in a whole lifetime…How long would it take for his tumultuous past to let him be and that doubting self-loathing to disappear forever?

“We managed to lift a thumb print.” Scully’s voice cut through his thoughts and Mulder quickly re-focused his attention on his partner. “He wore a glove on the hand he used to kill Kexlar, but he must have stumbled and had to steady himself when he quickly moved away because we found the print on the body’s wrist.”

“There’s an OJ Simpson joke in there somewhere,” Mulder and DiNozzo cracked at exactly the same time. Surprised by both the identical joke and timing, they glanced at each other – unsure if the mutual ground was a good thing or another reason for them to hate each other.

“Mulder…” Skinner cautioned in his low, deep voice.

Gibbs shot a sharp stare in Tony’s direction and nodded in approval as the senior agent slapped his own head.

“Sorry, boss.”

Skinner watched, curiously fascinated by the team leader’s discipline tactics.

Ziva frowned. “How do you know it was a man?” As a trained Mossad agent she knew how to inflict as much damage as a well-built six-foot-five male soldier, if not more.

“The spread of the fingers used and size of the bruises were undeniably male,” Dana explained.

“There were boot prints by the body, but they matched Kexlar’s,” DiNozzo suddenly started, remembering the photographs he had taken earlier. “If they’re Navy issue, there could be fifty people with exactly the same size and track impressions there.”

“It would help if we knew who his divisional colleagues were,” Ziva shrugged.

It was McGee’s turn to look confused. “But there were no signs of struggle at the scene…”

“Ahh, good question, Timothy,” Ducky interrupted, stepping forward, “except our commander had been given a paralytic drug to render his limbs useless – Mr. Palmer’s taken a sample to Abby to find out exactly what that was.”

“Smart really is sexy…” Tony mused, flashing a seductive grin in Scully’s direction – much to her disgust and Mulder’s annoyance.

Soaking in all the information, Jethro crouched down to closely examine the silver plate. “You dug this out of the ground by the base?” he queried, glancing up at Mulder and then back at the blood spatter on the surface. “You removed evidence from a crime scene?”

Mulder shifted uncomfortably, suddenly afraid of giving the wrong answer. “Umm… Yes, sir.”

Gibbs stood, stared at the FBI agent long and hard for ten seconds, and then a wide smile broke on his face. “Excellent work!” he grinned, patting Mulder’s cheek affectionately.

Before the younger man had chance to reply, though, he started to walk away, calling out over his shoulder, “Everyone down to Abby’s lab. DiNozzo, you can give the assistant director a break and help Agent Mulder bring that thing down.”

“What?!”

XxXxXxXxX

Music filled the forensics lab and enveloped Abby Sciuto as she carefully placed the vial Palmer had delivered into her spectrometer machine. She was zipping back to her computer workstation on her wheelie-chair when the Magnificent Seven walked in, one after the other. She lifted an eyebrow, but Gibbs shook his head and pulled a large Caf-Pow! cup from behind his back to offer her – which she instantly accepted.

“Are we having a party?” Sciuto smirked, taking a sip of the beverage. “If I’d known I would have worn my other collar!”

“Abby, these are Agents Scully, Skinner and Mulder from the FBI,” Gibbs introduced, pointing to each as their name was said.

“FBI? Really? Haven’t we had our quota of them for the year?”

Tony lowered his head to try to muffle the chuckle that escaped past his lips. Mulder shot a sharp glare over his shoulder, but was waved off by DiNozzo before anything could be said.

“Agents, this is Abigail Sciuto, our forensic specialist extraordinaire.”

Abby eyed Gibbs skeptically, wondering what he could be about to ask of her. It was getting late, and Late was when Jethro’s outlandish attempts to get as many answers as possible came out to play. “Wow, who you trying to impress?” she snickered, reclining in her seat and looking from one member of the group to the next – their bodies blocking her view of the thing draped by an old dusty blanket. “Not even my priest calls me Abigail!” She paused and glanced down at the plastic cup in her hand. “You want something badly…” she finally surmised.

“Have you got that tox analysis back yet?” he asked, concealing his own smile with military precision.

“Gibbs, Gibbs, Gibbs! I’ve only just put the sample in – you have to let my baby do its work and percolate, like a good coffee.” She paused and cocked her head to the side. “That’s what it is! You haven’t had a coffee in the last five minutes, have you?” At his head shake, she outstretched the cup of Caf-Pow!. “Here, you can have mine.”

“I wanna keep my brain alert, not freeze it,” came his slightly impatient response.

Mulder and Scully watched the chatter in awe. These people were like a big family – work colleagues, but much, much more than that as well. They’d been so used to only relying on each other for so long, with only the occasional help of Skinner, the Gunmen and Danny, that the idea of anything greater than just two working well had slipped them by.

“So, what’s this?” the Goth scientist finally asked, standing and weaving past everyone to get to the mystery object. She pulled back the cover, her eyes and mouth going wide and the sight that befell her. “You dug up a flying saucer?” she gasped in wonder, looking up at Mulder quickly before gazing at the metal surface again. “That is *so* cool – so War Of The Worlds-ish!”

“Not quite,” Tony objected. “Technically they weren’t ‘dug up’ – they rose–” The rest of his sentence became nothing more than a string of muffled unintelligible words as Abby stood and covered his mouth with her hand.

“I’m not even going to begin going through the list of why this isn’t a spaceship, Abs,” Gibbs groaned, shuffling his feet a little. “But I do need you to find out what it is, and how it was programmed to slice a marine in half.”

The word ‘programmed’ triggered a memory in Mulder’s brain and his head snapped upright as he started searching through his pockets. Finally his left hand snagged out the bagged tree branch he’d collected in the woods before his near-fall. “I also found this directly above where that was,” he started, stepping forward and holding the bag out for the tall, dark-haired tech geek to take. “All the branches that fell in this thing’s path were the same, except they’re broken on the bottom instead of the top.”

Everyone’s eyes fell on the polythene-wrapped item.

“That makes no sense,” Scully abhorred, resting both hands on her hips. “Are you sure you didn’t get confused when you were hanging upside-down from that tree?” Time to start sliding in those reproaches now.

“I–”

“Get on it, Abs,” Gibbs sighed, turning to leave.

“Yes, sir!” Sciuto replied, military style. “A fingerprint, strange substance, tree twig and UFO all in two hours…Did someone forget to tell me it’s my birthday?”

“Answer the questions they pose and it might just be!”

“Boss, what…what should we do?” McGee stammered, nodding his head toward the other team members.

Gibbs stopped in his tracks. “You’re gonna track down Kexlar’s personnel file like we discussed before,” he asserted. “AD Skinner and I are going to go grab a cup of coffee–”

Skinner perked up at that.

“Agent Scully and I are gonna fly back out to Andel and keep an eye on that base,” Mulder quickly added in.

Dana definitely didn’t perk up at that.

“I have an autopsy on Mr. Hollins to do,” Ducky proclaimed, quickly making himself scarce.

“Ziva is gonna contact the eyewitness to find out what she put in her statement, and Abby has her stuff to do here,” Gibbs finished.

Tony looked between McGee and his boss, waiting for his own orders. When his name wasn’t said he suddenly became worried that there was something he should be remembering to do but couldn’t. It was Friday night and he was supposed to have had plans with Jeanne. He had no doubt those were now out the window, but he hoped somebody would tell him what he was supposed to be doing instead…

“B-but what about Tony?”

‘Ah, bless you, probie!’

“Tony…” Jethro paused, looked at DiNozzo, and smiled enigmatically. “Tony’ll do what he needs to do to help solve this case – he knows what that is.” With that, he left.

XxXxXxXxX

ANDEL, NEW HAMPSHIRE

It was well past ten that night when Mulder and Scully arrived back outside the naval base in the deepest, darkest dwells of the Granite State. Turning the rental’s ignition off, Mulder glanced lovingly at the form of his sleeping partner beside him and then carefully reached to lift the cumbersome night-vision goggles he’d ‘forgotten’ to give back to the Gunmen the last time he’d borrowed them off of the back seat. Over a thousand miles worth of traveling to-and-fro in one day was beginning to take its toll on his body, but he was just clinging to the last of his stamina – hoping he could hold out, at least, until Scully woke up.

He blinked back the sleep beginning to blur his vision, and slipped on the goggles.

“They’re really not much of a fashion statement or turn on, Mulder,” Dana sighed, yawning and stretching her muscles as best as possible in the small confines of the vehicle.

He smiled, turning back to face her but not lifting the equipment from his face. “If I thought that were the case I’d never let them, you and Frohike be alone in the same room for more than a couple minutes.”

Comfortable, friendly silence fell between them as Scully wiped at her eyes and Mulder vigilantly surveyed the tree line bordering the base.

“Just like old times, huh?” he cracked, not diverting his attention. “Could probably do with some iced tea, though.”

“Holed up in a car at god-only-knows what time, chasing aliens and men that wish to keep their secrets secret? When isn’t it like old times?” she grumbled.

Mulder fought the urge to glance at her – he knew what she was working up to.

And she didn’t disappoint.

“And what stupid-ass trick were you trying to pull climbing that tree?”

There it was! At least she’d waited until they were on their own instead of erupting in front of the NCIS crew.

“I saw something that needed investigating, Agent Scully, so that’s what I did,” he rejoined, still not looking at her.

Scully considered her next words carefully, shifting in her seat until her spine was upright against the seat’s back. “Skinner said you blacked out…That for no reason you just lost your balance…” Hard swallow. “Did…Did you have a relapse?”

The extra activity in his brain had been pretty much dormant since last summer… Why, whenever he came over queasy did she think–

That train of thought swiftly came to a halt as he remembered the overpowering pressure that had wracked his body as he’d clung on to the limb directly above the unidentified metallic dish – as if he’d been trapped in some kind of vortex like the one in Oregon at the start of their partnership…The faint but undeniably-present dissonance just milliseconds before he’d started to fall…

“Mulder?”

“No…” he replied, a little distantly before, snapping out of his thoughts.

“I just worry,” the small voice beside him sighed. “It’s like a ticking bomb, and I’m scared if it fires up again we won’t be there to help you.”

Now he did turn to face her and lifted the goggles so that he could see her properly. It still amazed him that such a strong woman like his Scully could be so fragile when she let her guard down, specifically over any threats to his health. He stared at her for a long while, his eyes silently conveying as much comfort as she needed to draw from them, and then he lifted a hand to gently stroke her cheek. No words were spoken, but the gesture and look spoke volumes, and after another minute Dana gave a grateful nod.

“I can’t and won’t deny that I felt something because I did,” he confessed, “but I don’t want us jumping to any conclusions until we know what that thing is for definite, okay?”

She gave a small smile. “You mean you’re actually conceding that it might not be extraterrestrial?”

“I wouldn’t go that far…” His head shook and then turned away as he lowered the goggles yet again.

“But why kill Kexlar?”

“You mean besides the fact he sounds like a Klingon soldier?”

Mulder chuckled almost to himself. “I can just see all his colleagues calling ‘Qapla’!’ as they walked past. …What the–” His voice died in his throat. There was someone running, staggering toward their rental with a hand frantically waving in the air.

“What is it?” Scully queried, unsure what her partner could see.

The running marine tripped and fell to the ground.

And then the chasing figure came into view.

“Time to move,” he quickly exclaimed, jumping out of the car, throwing the expensive night-vision equipment onto the back seat and drawing his gun.

XxXxXxXxX

‘RESTRICTED – YOU DO NOT HAVE THE CORRECT

LEVEL OF AUTHORIZATION TO ACCESS THIS CONTENT.’

McGee slammed his head against the keyboard as the flashing window appeared on the screen for the hundredth time to stop him getting any further in his search for Martin Kexlar’s details. Abby looked up at the sound, but then returned to her studious examination of the spaceship.

“Gibbs is gonna hate me unless I can hack into this information,” he groaned, tapping blindly at the computer keys.

“Aw, he won’t hate you, McGee – who could ever hate you?”

The junior agent felt hopeful at that and lifted his head enough to glance at her.

“No guaranteeing that he won’t kill you, though.”

“Ohhh, Abby! How can he expect me to do this?”

“Because he has faith in you.”

“But I’ve never seen these codes before…”

The lab door unexpectedly slid open and three strange men strolled in.

“That’s because the government doesn’t like coming up with firewalls that any average hacker can knock down,” the tall, long-haired one remarked coolly, marching purposely to the console McGee had been slaving at in vain for the past four hours.

The male agent jumped to his feet. “Who are you?” he demanded, trying to sound as authoritative as possible.

Frohike cast a glance around the whole area before letting his eyes fall on Sciuto. “You must be the chick…Mulder didn’t say you were hot!”

“My name’s John Byers, and these are my two associates Melvin Frohike and Richard Langly,” the tall, well-groomed member of the Lone Gunmen introduced, outstretching a hand. “We’re friends of Agent Mulder; he said you might need our help.”

Abby considered the new people for a second, and then, “Frohike? Byers? Langly? Are you…Are you the Lone Gunmen?” she asked.

“That’s us,” Melvin grinned.

Suddenly the forensic specialist pulled the leather-clad dwarf into a bear hug – almost lifting him off the ground. “You guys *so* rock! I read all your issues!” She promptly let Frohike go and ran over to a filing cabinet in the corner of the room.

“See?” she smiled, pulling a newspaper out of one of the drawers and waving it in the air for them to see.

McGee stared doubtfully at Langly.

“We’re computer geeks – hackers…Send us to any government site and we can get in,” Ringo shrugged. “How do you think we got our security passes for here?”

Ecstatic the gods had been kind enough to deliver him a possible reprieve from the wrath of Gibbs, Tim turned back to the keyboard without asking any further questions and moved aside a little so that there was room for Langly to sit beside him at the workstation. Frohike shuffled up behind them, whilst Byers oversaw Abby’s inspection area.

XxXxXxXxX

Scully followed behind Mulder as fast as she could, both of them keeping low with their weapons tightly clasped at their sides.

In the darkness it was practically impossible to see anything, but the crescent moon provided enough of a glow to highlight the shapes of the towering trees so that they didn’t run into any of them, and the figure that was still charging toward the fallen marine.

They reached the man on the ground first and helped him to his feet.

“We’re FBI, it’s okay,” Scully assured.

The marine shook his head. “I know – *they* know – but that…won’t…s-stop them…” he choked out.

Mulder glanced over his shoulder in time to see the chasing figure suddenly draw a gun. He quickly shifted the weight of the body clinging to him and raised his own weapon. “FBI! Freeze!”

“We’re all dead.”

Dana frowned at the marine’s words and looked over at the chain fence surrounding the base, where she could just barely see the silhouettes of armed men beginning to gather.

“Mul-der…” she started, her heartbeat thumping in her ears but not enough to block out the sound of multiple SMGs being lifted and aimed. “*Run*!”

XxXxXxXxX

“He was drunk, and…and you just sent him out there?”

Tony watched from the dark side of the two-way mirror as Ziva interrogated the woman the New Hampshire police had flown to them at the late hour as some kind of apology gesture for ‘losing’ the witness statements. He’d give anything to be the one in there doing the questioning right now, but at the same time he just couldn’t resist the opportunity to appease the perverse enjoyment he got out of watching Agent David reaming people a new one.

Gibbs was good, but Ziva just had that edge.

On the other side of the glass, she silently paced the room as Shelley Callahan – one of the group that had encouraged Joel Hollins to go to the woods in Andel – struggled to put together a coherent reply.

“We were all drunk,” Callahan croaked, combing a shaky hand through her bleached hair. “It was just a bit of fun…Joel was always so gullible, and such a sucker for UFO stories – we didn’t think the guy’d kill him!”

Ziva instantly stopped pacing, and Tony’s head sharply lifted to attention from the notebook he’d been perusing.

“What ‘guy’?” David sniped, sitting back down at the table in the middle of the room and resting a hand on the folder she’d brought in with her – prepared to use it if the woman didn’t spill.

All Shelley could do was wash her hands over and over and mutter nonsensically to herself, though.

“Your friend is dead,” the female NCIS agent barked, pulling autopsy photos of Joel Hollins out of the manila file and laying them in front of the weeping woman. “He was captured, drugged and then let loose to run in front of a truck. The most you can do is help us find out why and by who.”

Shelley tentatively picked up one of the pictures with her left hand as the other quickly lifted to cover her mouth. “Oh, my God, Joel…” She closed her eyes, but the grill marks of the truck that had ended his life slashed through the darkness and burnt the image of his mangled body onto the backs of her eyelids. The photo fluttered out of her grasp and onto the black tabletop.

DiNozzo waited patiently. This was it – the move that would either draw the answers out or drive them away forever.

“Just one name and Joel will be able to rest in peace.”

“I do–…It…” Callahan shook her head. Last night had been pretty wild – Hollins leaving the bar with his girlfriend was the last lucid memory she had before the drinks had really started to flow. Anything that had happened during the day had

been mixed and diluted by the alcoholic shower. “I think–…No, I c-can’t remember…”

“Remember!”

“I can’t–”

“*Remember*!” Palms slammed down on the table as Ziva sharply stood up and leant over so that her face was close to the other woman’s when she shouted the order.

Shelley’s sniveling stopped and she looked up at the agent, the command jogging her memory enough to bring yesterday afternoon’s events into focus a little. “He was tall…Local accent…D-David Ten–…No…David Townshend… He asked if we knew anyone trustworthy, preferably someone who’d believe the most outrageous of tales. We said we knew someone who worked for the Andel Enquirer and wouldn’t be surprised if he bumped into an alien down the street. The guy said that was more than he could hope for, that he had some classified information that he wanted to leak, and asked us to tell Joel to go the this spot outside some base I can’t remember at ‘twenty-three hundred hours’…I figured he must be someone out of the Corps or something to be using military time, so I didn’t find anything too strange or dangerous in it. Ray – my boyfriend – is the one who told Joel some spiel about a good viewpoint for spaceships last night…”

“David Tonwshend?” Ziva frowned. “Definitely David Townshend?”

Callahan ran the name over her in head several times and then nodded.

“Not Martin Kexlar?”

“No, definitely not that. It was David Townshend.”

Tony quickly pocketed his notepad and left the observation room.

XxXxXxXxX

Mulder implicitly trusted Scully’s radar (which he secretly thought of as ‘Scullydar’) for danger, so when she yelled ‘Run!’ with every ounce of emotion and energy pumping through her body, you can bet he twisted his body, re-holstered his weapon and steadied his hold on the marine he was supporting as fast as humanly possible, following his partner as she ran toward their parked rental.

Before they were even halfway back, though, a dozen semi-automatic submachine guns opened fire in their direction.

One bullet came too close for comfort to Mulder’s head, and as he was still letting out a sigh of relief at that Dana stumbled – both arms instinctively going out to balance herself as she tried to forge on ahead.

“Scully!” There was an almost-unconscious dead weight impeding his ability to move too fast or particularly well, there were bullets whizzing past him, hitting the ground right in front and behind him…And yet the only thing he knew to worry about was if his partner was hurt.

“I-I’m okay,” she panted.

But she was limping, and had he had the energy to force anymore air into his lungs he would have asked her again. All he could do was focus everything he had into making it back to the car – which was also now beginning to take some hits by the gunfire.

Scully finally made it to the car and quickly flung open the driver’s side front and back doors before running around to the other side to get in. Three more steps and Mulder would be there.

Two.

One.

He carefully shoved the marine into the vehicle along the back seat, slammed the door shut and then quickly jumped into the front, not bothering to fumble with the seatbelt as his foot stamped down on the accelerator pedal and he turned the steering wheel as far as it would go right – both partners ducking their heads down out of the way of the ammunition continuing to pepper the rental’s bodywork.

“What the hell are they doing?” Mulder yelled as one of the bullets penetrated the windshield and hit the seat’s headrest just a few inches above where he was hunched.

Dust and stones kicked into the air as the wheels frantically spun, trying to find purchase of the ground. When the car finally lurched onto the road at high-speed,

Suddenly everything went quiet.

Mulder lifted his head first to see the clear road that opened up ahead. Scully followed suit, and was about to open her mouth to say something when there was an almighty crash and the car slammed forward – careening almost out of control as the male FBI agent fought with the steering wheel to keep it on the road. When it righted, both shot a brief glance over their shoulders to see the large Humvee following and preparing to ram them again.

“I think the question should be ‘what are we going to do?'” Dana nervously gasped out, reaching across the console to pull and fasten Mulder’s seatbelt over him before doing her own.

“Ford Sedan versus armor-plated Humvee?” came his panted, tired reply. “I don’t think there’s much we can do except drive.”

And so they did, with the military vehicle making countless attempts to bash and PIT maneuver them off the road, which Mulder managed to successfully steady every time the car fishtailed.

Five miles later, for no apparent reason, the Humvee disappeared without a trace.

“They want me dead…They won’t stop there…” the whispered statement groaned from the back seat.

XxXxXxXxX

“Yes!”

McGee jumped up off seat as the computer easily logged into Andel Naval Base’s database. What had taken him four hours to fail at had taken the new visitors ten minutes to crack. He glanced at Langly in awe.

“You actually did it!”

“See, I said these guys rock,” Abby grinned, carefully removing what appeared to be a mini onboard computer from the flying dish.

Just seconds after the system logged on, the large plasma screen on the wall that had been displaying the constant search for a match to the print that had been lifted from Kexlar’s flashed up a ‘Positive Match’ message.

“We have a problem,” DiNozzo’s voice suddenly filled the lab as he walked in. He faltered at the sight of the three strangers, but then added, “Kexlar wasn’t the one who called Hollins out to the woods.”

“Oh, no…” McGee choked out, stepping away from the keyboard and hesitantly glancing at each of the people in the room. “We…We could h-have an even bigger problem than that…”

All eyes fell on him.

“The print Agent Scully found on the body matches Commander Kexlar’s…And his picture doesn’t match the one of our dead marine.”

========

ACT THREE

========

ANDEL NAVAL BASE

ANDEL, NEW HAMPSHIRE

6:01 AM

Spotless black shoes came to a halt in the underground corridor, waited as their owner used the retinal scanner to gain entrance to the control center, and then continued on their path as the large two-inch thick steel doors slid open.

The room was large, cavernous, like something out of a James Bond movie. One whole wall was devoted to a massive screen displaying a global map with submarine co-ordinates marked on it, in front of which was a wide control station for communication, navigation etcetera. An assortment of communication electricians and specialists, maintenance and electronics technicians, engineers, controlmen milled around, not seeming to notice the new figure’s arrival.

…At least not until a systems tech looked up from his workstation in the center of the area and jogged over to him.

“Commander,” the technician started, saluting, “are we still go for Project Bullet this afternoon?”

Returning the salute, the taller figure pulled the Top Secret-stamped folder from under his arm and handed it to his colleague. “Yes, we are. We’ve had enough delays.”

With that, Commander Martin Kexlar turned and left.

XxXxXxXxX

FORENSICS LAB

NCIS HEADQUARTERS

6:22 AM

Abby started awake from her position on the floor to see McGee curled up fast asleep on the bean bag beside her. She smiled, watched him for a moment longer and then shifted to sit up, but as she did Bert the Hippo – her ever-present beloved toy and handy pillow – trumpeted to life.

“Oh, dude, please say that wasn’t you!”

“Come on, did that actually *sound* like one of mine?”

“Well, it definitely didn’t smell like one of Byers’s!”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“That must mean it was you, then.”

“I didn’t do anything!”

The three Gunmen stopped squabbling and slowly looked over toward the NCIS agents, to see Abby curiously staring back.

She stood, dusted down her lab coat and then snatched up Bert, who once again let out a rip-roaring fart. Realization dawned on the men’s faces, and they visibly relaxed.

“Even hippos need to let loose sometimes, too,” she remarked matter-of-factly, hugging the stuffed animal to her chest and squeezing him a few more times to accentuate the point.

“Yeah, we hear Frohike every morning, so we know that,” Langly snarked, turning back to the keyboard.

Sciuto smiled at the insult and then approached, circling behind them to get a better view of what they were doing with her computer. “What’s that?” she queried, gesturing toward the screen filled with fluctuating line patterns and text.

“We found a microchip inside the control board you took out of that dish last night,” Byers explained. “and there’s definitely some kind of programming on it…We’re just trying to make sense of it.”

“You didn’t sleep?”

“We…No.”

“How can we, with a pretty lady like you around?” Frohike smiled flirtatiously..

“Man, leave the lady alone” Langly groaned. “The last thing she needs is some dirty pervert stalking her!”

“Oh, go cry to your mommy – you sound like a jealous husband!”

The blonde-haired geek balked and silently lowered his head.

“We’ll sleep later,” Byers shyly assured.

Abby regarded them for a moment longer and then moved to pick up the print-out of Kexlar’s personnel file. “Why the misdirection, though?” she mused. “Why make us believe that that was the commander?”

“Why even let the body be found at all?” Gibbs’s voice suddenly questioned from behind them as he and AD Skinner walked into the lab – both with a cup of coffee in their left hand. “Unless they wanted to cause enough of a diversion to give the very undead Kexlar enough room to do whatever they’re doing at that base.”

“Gibbs!” Abby exclaimed, running up to the superior and throwing her arms around him. “Where have you been?”

“The assistant director and I went for a chat and then we tracked down an old marine buddy who actually worked at Andel a few years back,” Gibbs casually relayed, stepping out of the hug. “Sadly he couldn’t help, but if there’s anything I’ve learned from Walter, here, it’s that the twists are used to cover what’s hiding in plain sight. There’s something we’re missing, but it’s nothing to do with IDs or spaceships or strange trees or whatever else.”

The forensic scientist’s face suddenly lit up and she disappeared into the back half of the lab for a second. “I did an analysis on the branch Agent Mulder brought back,” she started, skipping back with the bagged twig held up. “And he was right – the UFO–”

“Abby…”

“Spoilsport. Okay, the *dish* didn’t cut through these…But they were sucked upwards – like in a vacuum.”

“What?”

“Right, you *do* know what a vacuum cleaner is, don’t you Gibbs? Or do you still use just a broom?” At his silent stoic glare (which, for some reason, gave Frohike the impression the agent was constipated), Abby let out a deep sigh and shake of

her head. “Imagine dangling a vacuum nozzle over a slab of turf that’s at a ninety-degree angle–”

“So, you’re saying we’re looking for a massive vacuum?”

The Lone Gunmen glanced accusatorily at the metallic plate for a second.

“Mulder said something made him feel extremely ill up there,” Skinner suddenly cut in, noting the three hackers’ point of brief focus and eyeing it also.

On cue, Gibbs’s phone beeped to life, which he promptly answered.

“Yeah?…Okay.” He hung up and about-turned to leave. “We’re off to autopsy. That includes you McGee.”

McGee shot upright out of sleep and blinked several times in a daze from his position on the floor, much to Gibbs’s and Abby’s amusement. “Wh-wh-what?”

XxXxXxXxX

Somehow the conversation had digressed to the topic of the quirkiness of parents.

Mulder and Scully sat on the edge of an autopsy table whilst Ensign Paul Grace, the marine they’d narrowly saved from outside the base in Andel, sat on another. To put as much distance between themselves and their pursuers, the agents had kept on driving through the night all the way back to DC, the weeping cuts and swelling bruises riddling their bodies sapping the energy out of them but ignored until it was safe.

“I’m sure your mother would be a fascinating woman to meet,” Mallard smiled, finishing the stitching on Dana’s ankle where a bullet had just nicked the skin. “What about your parents, Agent Mulder?” He stood, grabbing another disinfectant-soaked cotton ball.

The two agents shared an uneasy glance, before Mulder finally relayed, “Both my parents are dead.”

Ducky froze, suddenly feeling out of place and like the biggest fool on the Eastern seaboard. “Ohhh…” he hesitated, moving to clean one of the major glass wounds on Mulder’s arm but not making eye contact. “I’m sorry.”

Palmer, who was tending to the marine, yawned and lowered his own head in embarrassment.

“It’s okay,” the male agent assured, sharply wincing at the stinging sensation caused by Ducky’s cleansing ministration.

“It was a long time ago.”

The pathologist brightened a little and gave a shrug. “My mother’s ninety-eight and still kicking, though her mind went wandering years ago – Dementia, corgis and me are the only things she has left. I think it was Henry Miller who once said….Now, what was it again?…’Madness is tonic – it makes the sane more sane. The only ones who cannot profit by it are the insane’? Something like that. I guess that must make me the sanest person in the world…Or the maddest…I’ve never really considered the full implications of the quote, but my reason for saying it is if we could profit from Mother’s insanity, we’d be millionaires.” He let out a small chuckle and Mulder smiled, despite the pain tearing up his arm. Scully’d been right when she’d used the word ‘eccentric’ earlier, but the fact she got on so well with Mallard gave him hope that she would never tire of his own eccentricities. “I don’t know what I’d do without her, though. I’ve lived with her so long and been subjected to her wandering aimlessly out of the house with no clothes on after getting out of the shower too many times. It’s experiences like that that define us, and I’m pretty happy with who I am, so I should be grateful for those little…quirks.”

“Amen to that,” both agents beamed together.

Jimmy Palmer looked up and dared to join the conversation. “My mother onc–”

The autopsy bay doors slid open to give entrance to Jethro Gibbs, Walter Skinner and Timothy McGee, and any further words died in Palmer’s throat as he hurriedly returned his attention to checking Grace’s vitals.

“What we got, Ducky?” Gibbs asked as he moved up alongside Mallard.

“Three very unusual patients,” the doctor cracked, crossing both arms across his chest.

Skinner frowned in puzzlement. “What do you mean?”

“He means they’re alive.”

“Really, Jethro, must you always spoil my fun?” Ducky pouted, shaking his head in mock despair.

“What have we got?”

The repeated question let Mallard know his friend was far from in the mood for jokes right now, so he quickly swung into doctor mode. “Multiple lacerations from broken glass, some bruises and mild cases of whiplash from the impact of the chasing vehicle, and Agent Scully took a flesh wound just above her left ankle, but doing okay nevertheless. Just as–…What was the word again?”

“‘Spooky’,” Mulder provided.

“Ah, yes! Just as spooky as ever.”

A smile lifted Skinner’s cheeks and he quickly lowered his head to conceal it.

Gibbs nodded and then gestured toward the perplexed marine.

“What about him?” The question was almost a snarl. His voice had been fractionally tinged with concern when he’d asked about the FBI agents’ condition, but now he sounded genuinely pissed.

“Ensign Grace had a much smaller dose of the Pancuronium we identified in our Lieutenant Townshend running through his system,” Ducky explained, turning to look at the marine.

“Townshend?” Mulder questioned, his features creasing in confusion.

“It turns out the man we thought was Commander Kexlar is actually somebody else, and Kexlar was the actual killer,” McGee quickly explained.

“The ensign seems to have slept off the effects of the poison, though,” Palmer told Gibbs.

“Good. That means he can start answering a damn lot of questions!” the head agent barked, turning and storming toward the exit. “McGee, I want him in Interrogation as soon as he’s cleared here, you got me?”

“Yes, boss.”

“Do you think you can do that without falling asleep?”

“Y-y-yes, boss.”

With that the autopsy bay’s doors slipped shut.

“Does he hate you, or something?” Mulder half-joked, flashing a brief glance at his own boss who he’d numerous similar run-ins with over the years.

“There’s no medium with Jethro,” Ducky sighed, ambling toward the hazardous waste bin to dispose of his latex gloves. “The thing to remember is that he either hates you or likes you, and even then he shows it in his own masked kind of way. He’s a very complex man.”

McGee stepped toward the marine and helped him to his feet.

“And when he says ‘as soon as he’s cleared here’, he means ‘Now’, doesn’t he, Ducky?” he asked, hesitantly.

“Oh, most definitely!”

“…Just checking…”

Ducky watched as the younger agent hurriedly escorted Grace out of the room and then moved to lean against the gurney opposite Mulder, Scully and Skinner.

“So, Mr. Skinner,” be smiled, lifting an eyebrow with interest, “what about your mother? Any stories of embarrassing forgetfulness, nakedness or incontinence problems to share?”

XxXxXxXxX

From the darkness of the observation room, DiNozzo and David watched as the marine twitched nervously in his seat, waiting for Gibbs to arrive. When the interrogation room door swung open, Grace almost literally went through the ceiling.

“He’s going to kill him,” Ziva remarked, seeing the fire burning in the boss’s eyes.

Tony grinned. “Like you almost did with that woman last night?”

“I did what I needed to get the information.”

“By the way, it’s ‘the least you can do’, not ‘the most’.” At her defiant stare he quickly speculated, “…Unless you were meant to say that…?”

“My English is not that bad, Tony,” she nodded, “but I needed her like potty in my hands.”

He wasn’t even going to try correct her on that one.

“What’s going on at that base?” Gibbs started on the other side of the mirror.

“You wouldn’t even be able to comprehend the technology if I explained it to you,” Grace sighed, shaking his head.

Jethro felt his temper rising even further, but bit on his lip and attempted the calmer approach as he sat down opposite the sailor. “I know an overzealous lab technician who uses nothing but scientific jargon to explain things, so try me.”

“I don’t mean the terms used – I mean the technology itself,” Grace snorted. “For years the US has tried to find a way of making more powerful, faster military machines, specifically underwater…When we heard the Russians had developed a torpedo that could travel almost three times faster than the normal missile by using supercavitation, you can bet your ass we wanted to use it in our own favor. The base in Andel was built to handle trials and tests to develop a fully-manned submarine using the technology after a remote-controlled prototype commissioned by the Pentagon crashed into and almost sunk the USS San Francisco, south of Guam.”

“The San Francisco ran aground,” Gibbs retorted, shaking his head.

“That’s the official story. Go online and you’ll read a lot more interesting ones. None of them come close to the truth, though.”

“Nothing like a little conspiracy-loving Navy scout,” Tony chuckled, leaning in close to Ziva’s ear. “Believes every shadow’s out to get him, that everyone in the government has a darker agenda…Though that one I can kind of understand and empathize with, especially when the medical bills arrive…

Sounds like that show that used to be on the TV…”Oh, damn, what was it called again? It had aliens and this guy with a sexually explicit name, and it was so cool, but…”

Skinner quietly stepped into the dimly lit room, closing the door after him and bringing Tony’s rambling to an end – much to Ziva’s gratitude

“Where are Agents Mulder and Scully?” she asked, glancing at the balding man.

The assistant director glanced at her and then through the glass panel to watch the interrogation. He got on well with Gibbs and it had turned out they were very alike, both on professional and personal levels – though Walter had to admit he still had no plans on building a boat of his own (…not that he was ruling it out completely, but for the time being the idea was not in consideration). Maybe it was because they were both ex-marines, but it was just nice to be able to have a decent chat with someone other than Mulder and Scully or the directors at the Bureau for a change. “Scully went down to see how the Gunmen and Abby were doing. And Mulder…” His voice trailed off, and he let the scene that was about to unfold in front them say the rest.

“The premise is that the sub uses an air bubble around itself to propel forward easier through the water…Everything went fine on that early test until the San Francisco came too close, half its bow was sucked off in the vacuum of air surrounding the prototype and debris from that caused the vessel to explode.” Grace continued.

Suddenly the interrogation room door opened and Mulder casually strolled in – a little worse for wear and tired, but ready to work nevertheless.

Both Tony and Ziva’s eyes went wide.

“Did he just…Did he just walk in on Gibbs’s interrogation?” DiNozzo choked.

“Why?” Skinner quizzically enquired.

“This is very, very bad,” Agent David spluttered. “Nobody does that and comes out alive – ask McGee, he’ll tell you.”

“Let’s say it’s like taking, depriving or spilling Gibbs’s coffee,” Tony added. “It’s just not done.”

In the other room, the gray-haired agent stared long and hard at the other agent with so much contempt any court would have immediately locked him behind bars. The instinctive urge to instantly escort the other man out of the room pushed him out of his seat and forward a step, but then he saw the cuts on Mulder’s head and arms and softened

“The base was built and we had all the equipment and technology we needed, but then… Then we got this lot of extra stuff – ‘new’ technology, they said, to test and incorporate into the designs we were making,” the Ensign continued, becoming more nervous as the depth of his story deepened. “We weren’t allowed to question what it actually was or where it came from, but some of the crew on the primary test team did start sniffing around for answers, and that’s when the bodies started disappearing.”

“You mean Townshend,” Mulder sighed.

“No, well before then! Since last year.”

Gibbs sat back down. “If that’s the case, why have no bodies turned up until now?” he asked.

Grace hesitated, wiping a sweaty hand down his face. “Because Project Bullet has been completed and it’s ready for test launch. Dave got cold feet and wanted to spill the story, but the Commander found out somehow and disposed of the problem.

They captured the civilian and were going to use him as the test subject in the vessel, but for some reason – I don’t know what, that’s not my area – he wasn’t viable, so they let him go.”

“That still doesn’t explain why Lieutenant Townshend’s body was left for us to find,” Jethro noted, impatiently.

“*You* weren’t supposed to find it,” Grace ground out. “*He* was.” His head nodded in Mulder’s direction. “It was supposed to be a simple little paranormal case scenario to rope him and his partner in…I don’t know who tipped NCIS, but you were never supposed to be in the picture, that’s why nobody’s been in contact with you – why there have been attempts to get you pulled from the case. The commander’s ID wasn’t slipped onto the body until you pulled up in your truck – the thinking being that you would never find out he was anybody but Marty and…I don’t know…” His head lowered and solemnly shook.

Mulder ran what he’d heard of the story over and over in his head and kept coming back to the same question: why was and Scully’s involvement so integral that what was going on at the base?

“Because you’re both perfect candidates for test subjects,” the younger man replied as if it had been the stupidest question imaginable when the agent gave it voice. “Your exposure to the black oil, the chip in her neck… To put two people with alien technology and DNA in their bodies inside a part-alien driven vessel? It’s ideal!”

“They shot at us – they wanted us dead!” Mulder stated dryly.

Gibbs remained silent, the description of the technology used to propel the experimental submarine niggling at him.

“If they’d really wanted you dead, we wouldn’t have gotten away at all – nobody’s *that* good at driving. When NCIS became involved and showed no signs of budging, countermeasures had to be put in place, and that’s when I started to get cold feet too…When I overheard them talking about your car surveilling the base, I saw my chance to get out.”

Confused, perplexed and unsettled silence ensconced the three figures behind the mirror.

“What…What were the countermeasures?” Mulder finally asked after two minutes, swallowing hard to moisten his very dry throat.

Grace glanced up at the agent and then, closing his eyes in defeat, whispered, “To collect any civilian off the street to use for when Project Bullet is launched this afternoon.”

“It’s still going ahead?” Gibbs exclaimed, standing up.

“Why not use one of their own crew? A technician?” Mulder queried.

“You’re kidding, right?” Grace snorted, looking at the FBI agent in disgust. “We’re not the Corps, but ‘Semper fidelis’! They’d never do that to one of their own!”

Mulder returned his own look of disgust as he pulled open the door, growling, “What a shame they didn’t think that when killing off anyone who objected.”

Agent Gibbs left the room also and chased Mulder down the hall, calling out his name. The younger man kept walking until he felt a hand suddenly land on his shoulder and turn him around.

“Where do you think you’re going?” Jethro snapped, frowning.

“To stop that sub launching.”

“It’s a trap.”

“No, it’s no–”

“It’s a *trap*!” Gibbs shook his head and his expression filled with something akin to assurance, understanding, and determination.

Mulder shifted, unwillingly to stand around and debate this when an innocent life was in danger. “H-how can you be sure?”

“My gut,” came the simple, un-hesitant reply. “My gut instinct, which AD Skinner tells me you know a little about. Your gut got you out here, and now my gut is saying there’s no way you’re going alone.”

The two stared at each other – unsure of what the other would do next. Mulder felt his wall of stubbornness beginning to crumble. “What?”

“He said it himself in there – ‘semper fidelis’. Whether he chickens out or not, that sailor is loyal to the men he worked with to the end. They want you in that sub, and they’ll do anything to get you there.” Gibbs paused as he heard the observation room door click open and the shuffle of feet as DiNozzo, David and Skinner also stepped out into the hallway, but he never broke eye-contact. “Well, I say ‘screw him’ and ‘semper fi!’ ten times louder – I’m there to be loyal to those men that really don’t want to be at that base, and the members of my team who are under threat, and right now you’re a member of that team. You got me?”

Scully rounded the corner to see the stand-off in the passageway and looked on in concern.

“You got me, agent?”

Mulder opened his mouth in protest, still stunned by what the NCIS agent had said, but nothing came out.

“Maybe you didn’t hear clearly after all that gunfire last night,” Gibbs shrugged, reaching up and quickly slapping the back of the other man’s head. “That better?”

“Yes, sir,” Mulder coughed out, standing bolt upright.

Even though she wasn’t clear on what had transpired, just the image of somebody so easily knocking Mulder into submission brought out the largest unavoidable smile on her face.

“Now, come on – we’ve got a sub to stop,” the gray-haired ex-marine ordered, brushing past Dana and leading the way back through the bullpen and to the elevator.

“Uh, what about Grace, boss?” Tony called out after him.

“Leave him there to boil and wonder what we’re doing.”

XxXxXxXxX

The mixed team of seven arrived in Andel in two sedans – Mulder, Scully and McGee in the lead vehicle, and Skinner, Gibbs, David and DiNozzo in the one not far behind.

All of them in Navy uniforms.

They didn’t have much of a plan beyond getting inside the base with the fake cards the Gunmen had made for them and finding some way of at least delaying the launch until Jenny was able to find someone high enough in the chain of command to pull the plug completely, but it was all they had after all other methods had failed them.

It wasn’t until they approached the front gate, though, that they realized they weren’t even going to make it inside the perimeter.

“Welcome back, agents,” Commander Kexlar smiled smarmily, one hand casually resting on the chain-link fence whilst the other was strategically placed on top of his holstered pistol. “This must be your…What? Fourth visit in the past thirty-six

hours? Is there something interesting about our surrounding wilderness we should know about?”

“You mean besides the dead bodies?” Mulder asked, Kexlar’s grin widened and he focused his stare of the FBI agent. “Ah, our Ensign Grace has been talking…And yet you’re not here on your own, Agent Mulder…” His eyes regarded the rest of the group. “Chief Harlan said you seemed a little more mellow than he remembered you, Gunny Gibbs, but I doubt even he would be able to conceive the idea of you depending on others.”

Both Skinner and Gibbs froze at the mention of Jakob Harlen’s name; he’d been the friend they’d visited late last night to talk the case over with. Surely…

“Surely you know the phrase ‘Trust no one’ by now, assistant director?” the commander finished, shaking his head in shame.

“It’s okay, though – you won’t need to worry about the deceptive Chief much longer…he booked a one-way seat on the new revolution in Navy vessels. If you look over there” — he pointed to the gap in the tree line directly opposite the base, beyond which was the sea — “you should see it hitting the horizon very shortly.”

“Gibbs, he’s telling the truth,” Abby called into the earpiece her boss was wearing. “The sub launched ninety seconds ago, and it’s heading directly for Rockport.”

Mulder had had enough and stepped toward the taller man.

“You’re under arrest for murder an–”

“I don’t think so,” Kexlar ground out, quickly drawing his weapon and aiming it at Mulder’s head.

Within a heartbeat, Scully, Tony, Ziva and McGee all had their weapons drawn also and aimed back at the commander – each in their ready-to-shoot stances.

“I’d say you’re outnumbered,” Skinner pointed out in the same sarcastic tone Kexlar had been using.

Suddenly, at least fifty men ran out of the nearby barracks and up to the gate, behind the commander, with guns cocked.

“I’d rethink what you’re saying,” was the only retort necessary as fifty machine guns were aimed at the group of federal agents.

~~~~~

NCIS HEADQUARTERS

At the other end of Gibbs’s line of communication, in her lab at the headquarters, Abby listened to the sound of safety catches being lifted and started to pace the room in panic. Langly looked up at her in concern from where he and his two colleagues were fruitlessly trying to hack into the supersonic submarine’s navigational computer, but quickly returned to work when Director Shepherd rushed into the room.

“I heard,” she simply stated, gently touching Abby’s arm in comfort. “Are they en route?”

Sciuto stopped pacing and looked from Jenny to the large plasma screen. “They are, but…but–”

“Don’t worry, Gibbs’ll be fine.” The director paused, wondering briefly if she was trying to reassure the scientist or herself, before quickly slipping back into her authoritative persona and asking, “What about the sub?”

“It’s on it’s way to Rockport, and…Wait…” Abby took a step toward her workstation, gazing at the computer display in disbelief. “Did you get in?” she breathed, only affording the Gunmen a brief glance.

“Nada,” Frohike sighed.

“We can’t get in at all,” Langly affirmed.

Jenny frowned in confusion and stepped up behind the geeks. “What is it?”

“The submarine. It’s changing direction!” Abby exclaimed excitedly.

Except then she saw where its new destination was.

And her face fell.

~~~~~

Scully and the NCIS agents kept their guns drawn and aimed, unwavering.

“Drop it, or I will shoot him,” Kexlar insisted, his finger slowly beginning to add fractional pressure to the trigger as he kept the gun pointing at Mulder’s head.

Gibbs waited, waited for the right instant, and when that came thirty seconds later he drew his gun at light speed and fired, directly hitting the commander’s raised arm and causing him to drop his weapon.

“Agghhh! Sh-shoot them!” the fallen man yelled. “Sh–” His voice trailed off as the air was filled with the sound of quickly approaching sirens and car engines.

Thirty seconds later half a dozen black fleet sedans pulled up in front of the base and FBI agents poured out of each one with their guns drawn.

“I think that settles that,” Gibbs shrugged, sliding his sig sauer back into its holster and turning to approach the short gray-haired agent that was watching him. “You took your time, Tobias,” he joked. “Were you hoping I’d get shot?”

Special Agent Fornell smiled and watched as his men moved to disarm the sailors. “No, I was just trying to time it so that we were here as that bullet hit,” he returned playfully. “You know, it’s not exactly a short stroll for us. That and Director Shepherd had difficulty deciding if she should really authorize the squad arrest or not.”

“That wouldn’t surprise me.”

“Gibbs, you’ve got to get out of there!” Abby’s voice yelled into Jethro’s ear. “The submarine’s turned and heading directly back towards you!”

The supervisory agent pressed a hand to his ear and turned away from his friend. “What was that, Abs?”

“The supersonic whadyamacallit is heading straight for you!”

Gibbs took several quick steps toward the road, saw the approaching white streamline on the watery horizon and turned back as fast as he could, yelling at the top of his voice, “Everybody get away from the base!”

“What is it, boss?” DiNozzo called out over the din. Fornell looked worried also.

“The sub’s coming back at full speed!”

A large claxon-like alarm started blaring behind the base’s border, and bodies started charging out of the buildings. On their side of the fence, all the FBI’s tactical team members rushed back to their cars, while Tony and Mulder lifted Kexlar’s unrelentlessly kicking form into the back of their car.

Before either Mulder and Scully or the NCIS crew were able to put their cars into reverse and skid away, the submarine impacted the cliff face fifty feet below them. The ground shook, making it difficult to remain standing, and several of the gas cylinders at the base erupted into large balls of fire -causing a violent chain reaction that engulfed all the above-ground buildings.

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EPILOGUE

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NCIS HEADQUARTERS

TWO DAYS LATER

“You mean my spaceship’s nothing more than an airborne version of their submarine prototypes?” Abby Sciuto pouted, sitting back in Gibbs’s chair and glaring at McGee as if he were the biggest liar in the world.

Thanks to wind direction and the location of the gas tanks, enough distance had remained between the erupting inferno and the fleeing agents for long enough to give them chance to escape. Commander Kexlar had been in NCIS’s custody for only

one hour before Lieutenant Commander Coleman from JAG and two military police had arrived to take over.

Mulder and Scully had immediately gone home to sleep for fifteen hours straight.

Today they, and Skinner, were back to hand in copies of their reports to Director Shepherd and say their goodbyes.

“I’m afraid so, Abs,” Tim sighed.

“Oh, well… Nobody else has to know that – it’s still pretty cool,” the Goth shrugged, not completely beaten. “It’ll look great in my bedroom.”

“Are you sure the military well let you keep such a sensitive piece of equipment?” Ziva piped up, frowning dubiously over the top of her computer monitor.

“They didn’t,” Gibbs’s voice boomed from the top of the large open staircase. “They just took it away.”

Abby banged her head against the desk’s edge, but then looked up with a smile on her face again a second later. “At least I have photos.”

Gibbs, Mulder, Scully, Skinner and Shepherd made their way to the bottom of the stairs, and then Dana made her way over to where Ducky stood, whilst Mulder headed for Sciuto.

“The guys apologized for not being back,” he started, “but they did want me to give you this…” He paused, reached into his bag and pulled out an issue of the Lone Gunmen’s newspaper with the headline ‘NCIS SCIENTIST HANDLES FALLEN UFO’ and color picture of her on the front page. “They also made sure to put their e-mail addresses on a card that’s in there somewhere – especially Langly.”

The fake spaceship long-forgotten, Abby jumped out of the chair and pulled the FBI agent into a grateful hug. She saw Gibbs sign a message to her over Mulder’s shoulder, and signed back her response without hesitation.

“What was that about?” Jen asked, leaning in to Jethro a little.

“She knows,” he replied, enigmatically. “That’s all that matters.”

“It’s been such a pleasure working with you, Agent Scully, no matter how short the experience was,” Mallard sighed, holding out a courteous hand.

“The same with you, Ducky,” Dana smiled, accepting the hand and shaking it. “Hopefully our paths will cross again sometime.”

He fumbled and then pulled a small bag from his jacket pocket, in which was a ballpoint pen. “I accidentally stumbled across this in an auction house yesterday…It made me think of you for some reason, I can’t remember why, and I’d like you to have it. It belonged to Dr Stephen Lynn and was used by him to sign John Lennon’s death certificate in 1980…Maybe it was the talk of dead family members the other day, but it just reminded me that even the greatest stars die and need someone to sign their death certificates, but they’ll always live on within us.”

Tears streaming down her face as the memory of something similar her father had once said flashed to the forefront of her mind, Scully accepted the gift and then shook the doctor’s hand again.

“Any news on what remains of the base?” Skinner asked, looking fro Gibbs to Shepherd.

Jenny shook her head. “No, they won’t say.”

“You know they’ll just continue the testing elsewhere.”

“Then we’ll just have to do this all over again there,” Gibbs replied off-handedly.

“If you ever need anything, just give us a call,” the assistant director said, suddenly very serious.

Jethro stared at the taller man for a moment, studied him and the depth of his promise, and then nodded, “And the same from us to you.”

“Semper fi.”

“Semper fi!”

Tony walked over and tapped Mulder on the back as the FBI agent stepped out of Abby’s embrace. “Hey.”

Mulder turned on his heel, surprised by DiNozzo’s closeness.

“Hey.”

“How hot is Tea Leoni in person?”

“Wh-what?”

“Tea Leoni, you’ve met her – how hot is she in real-life?”

Mulder shifted from foot to foot, suddenly feeling very awkward. “How–… Who told you I met Tea Leoni?”

“Oh, come on, man! The Lazurus Bowl! It’s a classic!”

Skinner quickly turned at the sound of the infamous movie name from many moons ago.

“I thought I recognized your names when you introduced yourselves, and it kept bugging me through the whole case until I went on IMDB and typed in your names and that movie popped up!”

“Wait,” McGee started, leaning across his desk. “Are you saying they were in a movie?”

Tony shook his head in exasperation. “Don’t be stupid, probie – does this man actually look like a film star?”

“Well….”

“No. So, shut up. Garry Shandling and Tea Leoni were in a movie *about* Mulder and Scully’s work.”

Skinner slowly made his way toward the agents, with Gibbs in tow, like predators crawling up on their prey.

“Well, I actually wanted to be played by Richard Gere,” Mulder pouted, wanting to get off the subject but knowing the only way to do so was to laugh it off. “But they cast him as Skinner.”

“He doesn’t even look like your boss!”

“Exactly.”

“An–”

Both voices abruptly stopped as AD Skinner and Agent Gibbs slapped their agents across the back of the head and then walked away inwardly smiling.

END

AUTHOR’S NOTES: Hugs and thanks to Lisa and Keith for the wonderful encouragement and for checking this over/betaing when it was finally done, and Vickie for the extra beta. This is my first ever crossover and writing of any other TV characters besides XF, so please be gentle with feedback LOL

Judgment Call

Judgement Call

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The long goodbye. That’s what Raymond Chandler called it. The big “it,” to be precise.

Like everything Ray ever wrote, it has a sweetly melancholic ring of truth. Dad’s jarring voice on the answering machine two weeks after the funeral. The grocery list Aunt Dorothy left on the fridge minutes before taking a header down the basement stairs. The shoebox full of cash and Polaroids found on the top shelf of the senator’s closet a year after he’s lowered into the sod with twenty-one guns blazing.

When we go gently into that good night, more often than not we leave a few breadcrumbs along the way, a few nasty surprises for the rest of us to dirty our shoes on. Wave bye-bye, shed a few tears, and box everything up for the Salvation Army. Chances are, Dad or Aunt Dotty or the Honorable Senator will pop back for a few more posthumous curtain calls sooner or later.

I’d had more than my share of long goodbyes lately, which is ironic considering the ghost of Chandler brought me to L.A. in the first place. Turned out he’d vacated the place, or at least wasn’t offering any new tips for aspiring young writers. I’d had to create my own ghosts.

“Fear and Self-Loathing in Los Angeles,” Charlie mused as I looked out over the moonlit Pacific. Some kids had lit a fire up ahead, using God knows what and, probably, smoking the same.

“Gonna have to quit taking you to counseling with me,” I muttered.

“Nice trick, you can pull it off. But I think Samantha expects you to bring your subconscious.”

“Couldn’t have dementia without it, right?”

“Hoo boy, here we go,” Charlie said, playing an invisible violin. I suppose I could’ve imagined a real one for him, maybe a Stradivarius, but he didn’t seem to take to props.

I jumped as an electronic melody pierced the cool California night. I glanced at Charlie.

“Must be yours’,” my dead partner grinned. “You know it ain’t mine.”

**

“I pray to God the press doesn’t get hold of this crime photo,” The Honorable Judge Rina Getchel breathed, staring disgustedly at the body on the rug. Judge Getchel’s vintage Sarouk rug. Her body, too, actually.

I ignored her, glancing anxiously around the judge’s chambers at the clutch of uniforms, techs, and fellow detectives. Judge Getchel (the one on the floor) had died horribly (if there was any other way), her judicial robe snarled around her thighs, her face contorted in agony. Poison, I ventured.

I looked back at Judge Getchel (the one still standing), who merely shrugged. Like the others, she was a product of my literarily deficient imagination. Except now, I was thinking metaphorically, like some bad independent movie. My Judge Getchel was swathed in blood-red robes, and her face was pinched and lined, unlike the supremely self-confident, unflappable magistrate I’d testified before dozens of times. What was I thinking? Had something been worrying the judge? Had Getchel been into something illegal, gotten a little blood on her robes, on her hands?

“Ha,” Judge Getchel barked. “Little Miss Decorum?”

I frowned up at her. Usually, if my victims deprecated anybody, it was me, not themselves. I looked back at the body, at the scenario.

“Nice legs for a middle-aged broad, huh?” Getchel inquired. “Why don’t you take a picture?”

“Shh,” I admonished, a finger to my lips.

“I didn’t even say anything. Detective Raines?”

I jumped, then swiveled toward the man behind me. Pleasant-looking guy, crooked grin. Staring at where I’d just been staring, at Getchel the Figment.

“Hey,” I smiled, climbing to my feet and taking his outstretched hand. “Sorry. Like a nice, quiet crime scene, you know?”

“Doesn’t everybody?” He flashed an ID. FBI.

“Terrific badge flipping technique, Agent, uh, Mulder. Very Jack Webb. Say, you guys move awful fast.”

Mulder shrugged. “The judge had just been nominated for the federal bench. She was controversial — I understand she got a bag of hate mail every day. Judge Judy’s the Little Mermaid by comparison.”

“Nice,” Judge Getchel snorted.

“Hey, hey, Agent Mulder,” I hastened, trying to drown out my own imagination. “What say we grab a cup of joe and a couple high-fiber muffins down the street?”

Mulder’s eyes narrowed, and he nodded slowly. “Sure.”

**

“You’re not from the L.A. field office,” I ventured, waggling a finger at Mulder’s watch. “The time seemed to be flying by so delightfully, I checked your watch. Either you’re in from the Right Coast or you like to be reeeally early for your appointments.”

“D.C.,” the agent grinned, sipping his macchiato. “My A.D. asked me to check out the judge’s murder. Out here for a conference.”

“Homeland security, forensics?”

“Satanic Ritualism and its Correlation to Rural Serial Fetishism.”

“Yeah, yeah, right. Read about it in the Times. Shatner’s the keynoter, right? Just what do you do for the Bureau, Agent?”

Mulder explained in no small detail.

“Ah, paranormal phenomena. Good stuff – had a cousin go into that.” I wondered if Dr. Kohl would give me a referral discount if I brought a buddy to our next session.

“The man’s certifiable,” Getchel the Red-Robed Adjudicator sighed from across the table. “Ask to see his badge again.”

I shot a dagger or two her direction. When I turned back, Mulder again was staring curiously at where my adjudicating avatar had materialized. “So, honestly, you really think some crazed con or aggravated activist offed our judge?”

“Verry cold,” Getchel murmured.

“Your CSU guy tells me there was no food or beverages in chambers, and her clerk said she’d been working solid since 8 this morning and was planning to grab some dinner on her way home. How’d anybody slip her the deadly dose?”

“Who was she planning to dine with – with whom was she planning to dine? She’d just heard about her nomination, right? Was she going to celebrate with someone special?”

Out of the corner of my eye, I spotted Getchel studying my muffin.

“I’m sure you knew she was getting a divorce.”

I nodded. “Bigshot celebrity lawyer. Bitter divorce, real Michael Douglas-Kathleen Turner stuff.”

Mulder frowned. “Jewel of the Nile?”

“War of the Roses. They’d been separated for months – in fact, she got a TRO on him after he drove his Hummer over her front lawn. He couldn’t get less than 100 feet from her.”

“Pigs,” Judge Getchel hissed. I held up a finger, then swatted a similarly imaginary fly. Mulder smiled, an eyebrow raised. My chair squeaked on the tile floor as my cell phone shrilled.

“Raines. You need to haul ass back here.”

“Officer Boyer? You sound out of breath. You really ought to try inhaling through your nose.”

“Yeah, right. I been dumpster diving.”

“You should’ve said something. I could’ve brought you a piece of carrot cake.”

“I think maybe we found the murder weapon. Her flunkie, the clerk, whatever, said she went down the hall just long enough to throw something away just before he left for the day, and I figured – well, Lance and I figured –”

“Shut up, shut up,” I interrupted. “You had me at ‘murder weapon.’ What is it?”

“Jeez, I don’t know. Clerk didn’t see what it was. I just bagged everything up, like a little Christmas gift just for you.”

“Gee, and all I got you was, well, you’ll probably find it in your wheel well in a few weeks.” I flipped the phone shut. “Agent, you ready to roll?”

Mulder stood. “Let me hit the boy’s first.” He headed toward the back of the nearly empty coffeehouse.

“He thinks you’re insane, too,” Judge Getchel suggested.

“Shh.” I leaned back, shutting my eyes. “What did you throw away? And why down the hall? You have to have a wastebasket in your office. Maybe, maybe you didn’t want your clerk to see what it was…”

“Little Miss Decorum,” Judge Getchel sighed.

“Yeah, yeah. It wasn’t just the clerk – you didn’t want the night crew to find it in your trash, in your chamber.”

I opened my eyes. Agent Mulder was smiling down at me, our bill in hand.

“Well, hi,” I smiled back. “You got some little cat feet, don’t you?”

**

It took three bags before I found it nestled amongst the remains of the day. With gloved hand, I lifted it by the neck and deposited it on the lab table before Officers Lance and Boyer and my new friend the crazy fed.

“Wow,” Boyer grunted. “Now tell me who’s gonna win the fifth race at Hollywood Park.”

“Judge Getchel was a stickler for decorum, a regular doyenne of decorum,” I began. “She’d just found out she was up for a federal judgeship, so a bit of the bubbly was in order.” I smacked Boyer’s paw as he reached for the nearly depleted Dom Perignon bottle. “But champagne in chambers, that was out of order.”

“So why’d she have it there in the first place?” Lance asked, pursing her lips. “The judge was going out to celebrate. Why’d she pop the cork at the office? And why alone? Wouldn’t she want to share the moment?”

“Like Raines said,” Boyer snorted. “She didn’t wanna be seen getting a snoot full.”

“1970 Dom Perignon’s an awfully pricey ‘snoot full,’” Mulder pointed out. “But Officer Lance’s point remains. Why drink a celebratory toast alone? And an apparently illicit one at that?”

“I think the question is who tainted the toast,” I suggested. “Boyer, bag the bottle and tell the lab to express it. Lance, check any recent deliveries to the courthouse. Go. Scat.”

“Now what?” Mulder asked.

“Got a disgruntled widower cooling off upstairs,” I offered. “Wanna play good cop, weird cop?”

**

“Guys, I didn’t care enough to kill her,” Jason Getchel sighed, hooking an arm over the back of his chair. “I was getting out, and none too soon. Another week, and I’d’ve been a free agent.”

I nodded as the entertainment lawyer granted me his best “Don’t sweat it” grin. “Ah, but without all that lovely California community property, right? Nothing says lovin’ like a warm pre-nup? Shrewd gal, the judge. You weren’t going to get squat in the divorce. But she apparently didn’t factor in premature death, and the agreement doesn’t preclude your inheriting the house in Bel Aire or the family stock portfolio.

The grin vanished into a flash of snarling crowns. “She was a fucking ice queen, OK? Wouldn’t talk to her own sister, even after she offered her an olive branch? Rina didn’t even bother to go to her funeral last year. Her own sister.”

“Pigs,” Judge Getchel spat from behind her widowed spouse’s shoulder. A tear rolled down her cheek into the folds of the red robe. I frowned. Where was I coming up with this stuff?

“Hello?”

I blinked.

“Detective Raines?” Mulder asked.

“Yeah, yeah,” I mumbled, heading for the interview room door. “Just don’t leave town.”

I didn’t actually think he would. It’d always just sounded kind of cool on TV, and I couldn’t think of a better exit line.

**

Nothing sounded good on TV that night – even the Food Network seemed hackneyed and clichéd – so I poured myself a couple of fingers and sat down at the dining room table for a chat with Her Honor.

Getchel’d changed into her black robe for the cocktail hour, and she was now the same cool, patrician judge I’d quaked quietly before on many an occasion.

“You’d been waiting years for the federal bench,” I frowned. “You should’ve been celebrating your brains out. Instead, you’re drinking alone in chambers.”

The judge grimaced, crossing her leg and smoothing her robe over her knee. “You make it sound so pathetic, like I was a closet lush. I may have been an ‘ice queen’ at home — wouldn’t you be one if you were married to Jason? — but I had many friends on the bench and at City Hall.”

“Sorry. So why drink alone?”

“Who says I was?” Judge Getchel posed with a haughty hitch of her brow.

“Don’t talk in riddles.”

“It’s you talking in riddles, actually. Maybe you shouldn’t have had that third drink.”

“Touché,” I murmured, raising my glass to the dead judge. It stopped in mid-air, and amber liquid sloshed over the lip. That was it. Or a big part of it.

The doorbell rang, and my drink made it over the lip and onto the table. I left the mess and fumbled with the door.

“The sister,” Mulder stated.

“Yeah, I know.” I stepped aside. “It’s who Judge Getchel was sharing her toast with. Her dead sister. It’s why she was drinking alone. Oh, I’m sorry. You want a drink?”

“I’m good,” Mulder said, landing on the couch. “Rina and Geraldine Carroll had a falling out more than 35 years ago — I talked to a cousin in Bakersfield who thought it was over a guy. The upshot is, they haven’t communicated since the ‘70s. Geraldine became an interior decorator, Rina a lawyer. Even when their parents died in the ‘80s, they both stayed away from the funerals to avoid each other.”

I nodded, excited. “The champagne, it must’ve been a peace offering from the sister — the olive branch Jason Getchel was talking about. That’s why Judge Getchel was drinking it in chambers after hearing about her nomination. She was toasting her late sister. But wait — that’s right. Geraldine’s dead.”

“Hit by a drunk driver as she was coming out of church, of all places,” Mulder confirmed.

“So when did she send Judge Getchel the Dom Perignon? Would had to have been a special occasion. Getchel was named to the county bench in 1986.”

Mulder leaned back. “I’m betting it was in 1977, when Rina graduated law school. She was still angry with her sister, so she kept Geraldine’s gift without opening it. Whatever came between them must have been powerful, ‘cause she didn’t open it in ’86, either.”

“What makes you think it was in ’77?”

“Because their parents died in ’84,” Mulder said simply. He looked to me for a response. It took a second or five.

“Of course, of course. The family had money, and there was no love lost between the sisters. Geraldine sent Rina a spiked bottle of champagne under the guise of a peace offering. It was like a time bomb that didn’t go off until yesterday. And all for nothing — the estate was split 20 years ago, and Geraldine was dead.”

“Only thing is…” Mulder started.

“What?”

The agent leaned forward, elbows on his knees. “Why don’t we come clean, Detective Raines? How long have you been seeing them?”

“Them?” Good God, how did he know? “What, did you talk to my captain, Boyer? It’s really nothing, Agent Mulder — just an investigative technique. It helps me identify with the victims.”

“So in Judge Getchel’s chambers, at the coffee shop, that was supposedly just you talking to yourself?”

I flopped into a chair with a sheepish grin. “Thought you caught that. Here’s a secret, agent.” I leaned closer to Mulder. “I don’t see dead people. They’re figments of a probably fevered imagination.”

Mulder fell silent. “OK, then. I just have one question, Detective. How come I saw your ‘figment,’ too?”

I stared at him, then laughed. “You had me for a second, you really did.”

“Red robe, thought you were scoping the judge’s legs, ‘Little Miss Decorum’?”

I opened my mouth, shut it again. “God. You saw the judge, too?”

Mulder shook his head. “That wasn’t Judge Getchel you saw. Didn’t you think she was dressed a little funny?”

“Well, I wondered why her robe was red. Figured it was probably some kind of metaphorical symbolism, blood, death…”

“Rina and Geraldine were twins,” Mulder informed me. “Geraldine was killed coming back from her church choral practice, wearing her choir robe. Her red choir robe.”

“But, but I didn’t know anything about that case,” I protested. “I didn’t even know the judge had a sister until her ex told us.”

Mulder shrugged. “Your coworkers tell me you’re an extremely empathetic, compassionate detective. Geraldine probably honed in on that. And I’m…”

“Insane?”

“More receptive to the paranormal,” the agent clarified. “One of the tipoffs to an apparitional encounter is that the spirit rarely interacts verbally with the live subject. Geraldine commented on the crime scene, on Jason Getchel’s behavior, but at no time did she respond directly to a comment or question from you. Wow, you must’ve thought I thought you were nuts when I caught you talking to her. And I assumed you’d had previous experiences with, well, you know…”

“Ghosts,” I whispered. “Great. Now I’m Jennifer Love Hewitt without the bad hairstyle.”

“I wouldn’t be too worried. This was probably a one-time thing. I’ve only talked to four or five myself.”

“Very reassuring. So what, Geraldine was trying to point me to the fact she’d killed her sister so, what, her soul could move on, into the light?”

“Now you’re just being ridiculous. No, I think there’s more to it than that, or she wouldn’t have come on so directly to you. In cases of violent death, apparitions often are seeking vengeance, retribution, or to correct an injustice.”

“But she gave Judge Getchel the champagne — she must’ve. It’s open-and-shut, if I can figure out a way to tell the D.A. without being put on mental disability.”

“Geraldine Carroll was married briefly in the late ‘70s to a Lewis Braeburn. They divorced in 1985, shortly after her father died. Braeburn’s a used car dealer with a few near-scrapes with the law. Petty larceny, attempted credit fraud, that kind of thing. Maybe he had his eye on the family fortune and talked Geraldine into doing something rash.”

“Wow,” I marveled. “Dr. Phil could’ve helped those two with their ‘Guy-Qs.’ They knew how to pick ‘em.” Then it bubbled to the surface of my cerebrum. “Pigs.”

“Beg pardon?”

“Pigs. She said ‘pigs.’ Plural. Holy crap. I think I know what Casper the Friendly Sibling wanted to tell us. C’mon, I want to round up a pair of piggies.”

**

“You ever read The Long Goodbye?” I asked.

“Elliott Gould? Robert Altman?” Jason Getchel ventured.

“The what?” Lewis Braeburn sputtered. The paunchy, combed-over car merchant looked to his attorney, who looked to Getchel’s attorney. Getchel’s lawyer looked to Agent Mulder, who nodded back to me. I could feel Boyer’s brain cells straining beyond the interview room’s one-way mirror.

“The Long Goodbye. Raymond Chandler, Philip Marlowe. Possibly, the greatest work of American fiction ever. It’s a story about friendship and loyalty. Marlowe the detective gets mixed up with Terry Lennox, kind of a lost soul, who has Marlowe drive him to the airport in the middle of the night so he can hop a plane for Mexico. Turns out his wife had her brains beaten in, and the law thinks Lennox did it. Marlowe doesn’t, and winds up going through all kinds of fun and hijinks trying to prove it. Long story short–”

“Thank God,” Braeburn muttered. I waggled a finger.

“Long story short, Lennox tries to offer Marlowe some moola to help him lam, but Marlowe won’t hear of it. So instead, Lennox slips a $5,000 bill into Marlowe’s coffee can. Marlowe doesn’t feel he can spend it, but he holds onto the bill to remember this lost soul who got him in such deep doo-doo. Because they had a connection.

I turned to Braeburn. “Now, your ex-beloved sent her sister, Judge Getchel, a bottle of 1970 Don Perignon. That had to put a crimp in the newlyweds’ budget, huh?”

“Her idea,” Braeburn grunted. “Wanted to bury the hatchet with Rina, some such shit. I told her it was too expensive, especially after the way her sister treated her. I didn’t want anything to do with it.”

“Yes.” I pulled out the plastic bag with the note I’d found in the bottom of Getchel’s locked bottom desk drawer. “‘To let you know I’m proud of you. If you can find it in your heart, raise a glass in celebration and forgiveness. GB.’ Judge Getchel couldn’t bring herself to open it, but like Marlowe’s $5,000 bill, she couldn’t part with it, either. Oh, and look — Judge Getchel saved the envelope that came with the champagne. Bottle was wiped clean — just the judge’s prints. Same with the note. But, oh, oh, look.”

I slipped the yellowed gift envelope from the bag, and lifted the flap. “Look at that. That’s what we call a partial print, actually a pretty good partial. Wow, that adhesive really picked it up good. You know what, Lewis? I bet if we went back into your old arrest file, we’d find a match for this.”

Braeburn’s eyes shifted around the room, but he clamped his jaw shut.

I nodded. “Yeah, we’ll get back to you.” I turned. “Hey, Jason, buddy.”

“What am I doing here?” Getchel demanded. “You got your killers. I didn’t even know Rina ‘way back then. Can I get outta here? I got a lunch client.”

“After Judge Getchel survived your sister-in-law’s congratulations gift, Geraldine figured she’d thrown the champagne in the garbage,” Mulder said. “But about a year or so ago, Geraldine had a spiritual reawakening. Her minister told me she’d regretted the hatred she’d borne for her sister, sins she wouldn’t discuss in detail. Then she began to worry that, maybe, Rina had kept the Dom Perignon, that it was sitting on a shelf like some kind of time bomb. She had to warn her sister, no matter what the personal risk.”

“But Geraldine couldn’t face Rina, could she?” I suggested. “Not after what she’d tried to do to her. She knew Rina would never forgive her. So she called you. Right, Jason? She asked you to retrieve the bottle. Your rocky marital status has been all over the papers — your sister-in-law thought you’d understand what drove her to attempted murder. You assured her you’d defuse the bomb, but then you saw your way out, with a share of the judge’s loot. All you had to do was shut your mouth: Judge Getchel got a bagful of hate mail every day, and sooner or later, either out of judicial stress or success, she’d crack that bottle open.”

“That’s just nuts,” Getchel sneered, shaking off his lawyer’s hand.

“The question is whether you decided to get rid of the only potential monkey wrench in your plan. We’re checking the mechanic who coddles your Lamborghini to see if he did any unusual body work around the time Geraldine met up with her hit-and-run driver.”

“Hey, good luck with that,” Getchel laughed, shoving his chair back. I pulled the second bag from my jacket and dropped it before Getchel’s attorney. The lawyer glanced at the letterhead on the enclosed document and seized Getchel’s sleeve.

“Yeah,” I smiled. “Figured that would get your attention. See that line there, the one I circled? That’s the call from Geraldine Carroll to your home. Twenty-one minutes. Three days before Geraldine caught the Roadkill Express. And that date? Your beloved was at a conference on constitutional law in Chicago. Gee, that’s sad, isn’t it? They had so much to catch up on.”

A red-robed Geraldine Carroll caught my eye as I stood. I glanced at Agent Mulder, who blinked, scanned the room, and look confused. I sighed with relief as my self-manufactured “apparition” smirked down at her brother-in-law.

“Looks like he’s seen a ghost, doesn’t he?” “Geraldine” chuckled.

*end

Another Piece of Cherry Pie

Another Piece of Cherry Pie

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Forest outside Twin Peaks, WA

Sheriff Harry S. Truman stood at the base of a large and still growing sycamore tree. Sighing, he looked down at the body on the ground before him. The neck was broken by the way the head was angled. Deep slashes across the torso were near black from the blood pooling on the ground. If not for the eye patch, he might not have recognized the victim.

“I’ll call the doc. You want to go over and give Ed the bad news?” The voice of Deputy Hawk Hill almost startled the Sheriff.

“Yeah,” he said, shaking his head. “I’d hoped it wouldn’t come to this.”

Hawk nodded slowly. “Are you going to put in a call to — is there anyone back there who would even care?”

“We have to call the FBI, Hawk. It’s what Coop would want.”

Hawk, a tall graying man of obvious Native American heritage, shook his head. “It’s just like Windom Earle, isn’t it, Harry?”

Harry nodded in agreement. “But this time, maybe we can get to the bottom of it sooner rather than later. We have a good idea who we’re lookin’ for. We just have to find him before he kills again.”

FBI Regional Office

Seattle, WA

April 23, 2007

Skinner looked around the assembled group of agents. Mulder and Scully were seated to his immediate right, along with two other members of the Seattle office, Agents Morrow and Klein. The local ASAC, Tim Watkins, sat to Skinner’s left next to a member of the Marshall’s Service, Frank Haglund.

“Thank you all for coming,” he started the meeting. “The file in front of you is very delicate for the Bureau. I appreciate all the help given to us by the other agencies in this matter.” He nodded to Watkins, who dimmed the lights and turned on a slide projector. A dark haired man, good looking, with serious eyes stared down at the assembled from the screen at the end of the room.

“This is former Special Agent Dale Cooper. Cooper was a ten year veteran of the Bureau, an exemplary agent who was being considered for supervisory positions until he came to Twin Peaks, Washington to investigate a murder with possible serial markers.” Skinner clicked the remote and the image changed to a young girl with blond hair, smiling for a graduation picture. “This is Laura Palmer, the murder victim Cooper came to investigate.” Images flashed quickly on the screen. “Cooper spent a little over a year in Twin Peaks, to the exclusion of any other cases. He stumbled on drug deals, other murders, eventually jailing several suspects but it was finally discovered that Laura was murdered by Cooper’s former partner at the FBI, this man, Windom Earle.” The screen showed another stock Bureau shot of an older man with gray hair.

“Earle was an escapee from an institution for the criminally insane. He has never been found. However, Cooper, after a mysterious disappearance, was found in the forest by the local Sheriff. It was the day after this disappearance that Agent Cooper was found also to be mentally unstable and was remanded to the Washington State Hospital where he remained a patient until three weeks ago.”

A final picture, this time of a crime scene, flashed on the screen. “This is Nadine Hurley. She was found in the same woods that Cooper disappeared in 16 years ago. She was murdered in the same manner as Laura Palmer. There was a piece of paper found under the nail of her left ring finger — similar to the letters found on the bodies of Palmer and the first murder victim, Theresa Banks.” Skinner turned off the projector with a flick of the remote. Watkins brought up the lights. “That letter was a ‘C’. Questions?”

“How positive are we that Earle killed the first two victims?” Agent Morrow asked.

Skinner drew in a deep breath. “We aren’t. Since he was never apprehended, there was no trial. But all evidence points to him, including several eyewitness accounts, most notably a young woman by the name of Annie Blackburn, who was abducted by Earle. Cooper was actually in the process of tracking and arresting Earle and freeing Ms. Blackburn when he disappeared. Ms. Blackburn was found with Cooper the next day, both were unconscious. It was Ms. Blackburn who correctly identified Earle and said he confessed to the killings.”

“So who are we looking for — Earle or Cooper?” Klein asked.

“Earle would be in his early 70s right now,” Mulder spoke up. “The UNSUB who killed Mrs. Hurley had to have been able to drag her through the woods. Footprint casings also point to a man who wears a size 10 and a half shoe. The same size as former Agent Cooper. According to Earle’s records, he wore a 9.”

“In all likelihood, Windom Earle is dead. It’s even been speculated that killing him, while defending Ms. Blackburn, was what drove Cooper out of his mind. Right now, it appears that Cooper is reliving this case that took so much of his life. Our job is to find him before another murder,” Skinner intoned.

Great Northern Hotel

Twin Peaks

11:21 pm

Scully nodded to the young desk clerk. “Hello. My name is Agent Dana Scully. I believe my partner checked me in this afternoon. I need my room key, please.”

“Certainly, Agent Scully. You’re in room 303. You’re partner requested an adjoining room.” The young woman winked and smiled. Scully sighed, took the key with a nod of thanks and headed off to find their rooms.

“Mulder, I really think we should try to be a little less conspicuous. Especially with other agencies staying here at the hotel,” she said as she entered his room through the connecting door.

“Let ’em get their own girls,” he quipped without bothering to move from his slouched position on the bed. “Find anything in the autopsy?”

“Aside from the fact that Nadine Hurley looked like she’d been ‘rode hard and put away wet’, as my dear Aunt Laura used to say?” Mulder snickered and moved over so she could join him on the bed. “Basically, she was stabbed repeatedly and strangled. But she was dragged through the woods, I think he might have dragged her by her hair.” Mulder winced but didn’t interrupt. “I put the time of death somewhere between midnight and 5 am.”

“Latents?” he asked hopefully.

“Gloves were probably used. I did find one print, we’ll see if they can make anything out of it. Sorry. I picked up some fibers, but it could have been while she was being dragged. She was not sexually assaulted, but she’d had intercourse within the last 12 hours before death.”

“Maybe this isn’t Cooper. Maybe it’s a lover’s quarrel,” Mulder suggested.

“But I thought Laura Palmer was strangled and there was the letter found under the nail,” Scully countered. “Mulder,” she asked, picking up a small tape recorder. “What are you doing, auditioning for American Idol?”

He grinned at her and started the tape. “Get a load of this Scully. Just listen.”

A disembodied voice filled the room. It was masculine and well modulated — easy to listen to. “Diane. They were out of cherry pie today. I think I got the last piece yesterday. Norma made a blueberry pie and it was out of this world. Josie Packard has been acting strangely lately. I believe this visiting cousin of hers is more than he appears. Could be tangled up in the Renault drug cartel. I have to contact Agent Bryson in the next day or two and ask him-slash-her if there are suspected dealings in the Far East. In addition to the pie, I had the blue plate special — meatloaf, mashed potatoes with gravy, corn, roll and butter and coffee. Came to 5.95 with tax, I left a dollar tip. No time for dinner.”

Scully stared at him, one brow cocked and demanding an explanation.

“Dale Cooper has hundreds of these, Scully. Skinner said they were with his belongings locked up at the mental hospital. Little audiocassettes documenting almost every move he made while he was investigating the Palmer murder. He even marked them with the dates!”

“Who is Josie Packard? Was she a suspect?”

“Listening to these tapes, I think every resident of Twin Peaks was a suspect at one time or another. But no, he suspected her of being involved in a drug deal on this side of the border with Canada, not of the murder. Scully, these tapes are a gold mine! Don’t you see — his thoughts are right here, in his own voice. I would have killed for this kind of insight back when I was profiling full time.”

She frowned and rolled off the bed. “And with those words, I’m going next door and getting some sleep. Don’t stay up all night, Mulder.”

As she made her way across the room he looked up. “Hey, I could always use a break. Wanna wrestle?” He wiggled his eyebrows and patted the pillow next to him in invitation.

“When we get home,” she responded with a yawn. “Or if you catch me in a good mood in the morning. I’m setting the alarm for 6:15. If you’re there by 5:30 — you might get lucky.”

Twin Peaks Sheriff’s Office

8:15 am

Mulder schooled his features into a more professional mask as he guided Scully through the door to the Sheriff’s Office. The woman behind the receptionist’s desk was talking on the phone. Her high-pitched voice reminded Mulder of nails on a chalkboard.

“No, I told you, Daddy is on his way to pick you all up to take you to school. No, Andy Jr. can NOT drive you — he only has his permit, not his license. Well tell the twins they’d better get their shoes on — Mommy said so. Look, there’s somebody here, I have to go. Get your book bags and be ready when Daddy gets there. Love you. Bye!” She wiped a strand of curly blond hair out of her eyes and smiled at the two agents. “Hello. You must be Agents Mulder and Scully. Everyone’s already in the conference room, it’s the door right over there.”

“Thank you, um . . . ”

“Lucy. Lucy Brennen. Nice to make your acquaintance,” she smiled brightly.

The conference room table was longer than either agent had expected and covered with . . . donuts? Every possible variation — glazed, powdered, cinnamon, chocolate glazed with sprinkles. They were lined up in straight lines almost like little soldiers. Mulder’s eyes lit up as he reached for a chocolate covered circle sans sprinkles and snatched it off the table. Out of the corner of his eye he caught Scully’s warning glare before quickly stuffing half the object into his mouth.

“Coffee?” asked the good-looking man with dark hair just graying at the temples.

“Yesh,” Mulder mumbled around the confection he was still attempting to chew.

The other agents were indeed already seated around the table. From the breaks in donut formation, it appeared that Mulder and Scully were considerably late, or the others were just particularly hungry. Scully accepted the coffee mugs handed to her, passing one over to her partner while giving him a strong kick to the shins which he chose to ignore.

“Well, seems some introductions are in order,” said the man replacing the coffee pot. “I’m Sheriff Harry Truman. This gentleman to my left is Deputy Hawk Hill. Our other deputy, Andy Brennen, will be with us shortly, he has the school run today.” Truman looked expectantly at Mulder and Scully. Since Mulder had yet another donut in his mouth, Scully smiled wanly and introduced them both.

“Great!” Truman said enthusiastically. “Great to have you all here. Now, I know this is your show, but Hawk and I are at your complete disposal. Real sad what’s goin’ on. It’s been a few years and things have finally settled back into normal around here. We’d just as soon keep it that way.”

The agents went around the table, dividing up avenues of investigation. Haglund asked Morrow and Klein to join him in interviewing the staff at the mental hospital, some 40 miles from Twin Peaks. Mulder and Scully agreed to interview the victim’s family and other residents of the town. They would all join up again that night. Truman offered to drive them around to their interviews. Before they left the station, Lucy called out to them.

“Agent Scully, you got a fax. I think it’s from the mental hospital.”

“Oh, thank you, Lucy,” Scully said with a smile as she collected the pages and followed Mulder and Truman out to the squad car. She settled in the back seat and started to read while the two men in the front seat talked.

“I understand the victim was divorced, Sheriff — ”

“Harry, please, call me Harry. Yeah, Nadine and Ed called it quits, well, I guess it’s been about 6 years now. Nadine got the house and all. Ed, poor Ed, he just wanted out of that loony bin.” Harry looked up startled, “sorry, but Nadine had her faults. Sure didn’t deserve this, though.”

“No, of course not,” Scully agreed sympathetically. “But do you think her ex-husband might have been capable of — ”

“No, not in a million years. Ed is the salt of the earth. He and Norma run the diner. It’s a bit of a puzzle, how Ed and Norma took so long to get together. Some people just make bad choices,” he said wistfully. “But in the end, it all works out. Don’t you think?”

Mulder smiled and looked over his shoulder at Scully in the back seat of the squad car. “Yes. Yes, I have to agree with that statement. But could you fill us in a little more? About Ed and Norma and Nadine?”

Harry sighed, but nodded. “Ed and Norma were high school sweethearts. But Norma, well, she had a wild streak back then. Hooked up with Hank Jennings, a total loser. Dumped poor Ed right before the Spring prom. Ran off to Seattle and married Hank. On the rebound, Ed took up with Nadine. Back in those days, Nadine was a looker. But after they got married, Ed found out the truth.”

“Nadine was unfaithful?” Mulder supplied.

“Oh, heck no. Nadine was an abuser! She used to pop off and smack Ed around from time to time. I could never get him to press charges. He got in a few — shot her eye out on a hunting trip.” Harry didn’t see the look of abject horror that appeared on Scully’s face as she and Mulder exchanged glances.

“Maybe this was just Ed’s way of tying up a loose end?” Scully suggested, looking up from the fax pages.

“No,” Truman countered. “See, as much as they fought, Ed really did have a soft spot for Nadine. But after a while, well, her crazy antics just got the better of him. After she got hit in the head and thought she was back in high school and he and Norma had a shot at a life together — but then Nadine got in a car accident and came back to herself, well, it was the straw that broke the camel’s back for Ed, so to speak.”

Scully’s left eyebrow had disappeared completely into her hairline and Mulder had a perplexed look on his face.

“No, I would say Ed definitely didn’t do this,” the Sheriff continued. “Besides, he and Norma were over at Shelley and Bobby’s babysitting all night the other night. His whereabouts are confirmed.”

“If his alibi is Norma, couldn’t she be covering for him?” Mulder asked hesitantly.

“Oh, Norma isn’t his alibi. Andy and Lucy live right next door to Shelley and Bobby and Lucy’s a light sleeper. If Ed pulled out of the gravel drive at any point during the night, Lucy would have heard him.”

“Bobby? Would that be Bobby Briggs? His name comes up a couple of times on Cooper’s audio journal entries,” Mulder interjected. “Where was he the night Ms. Hurley was killed?”

Truman chuckled and shook his head. “Delivery room B, if I’m not mistaken. The reason Ed and Norma were babysitting over there was Shelley’s water broke at the diner and Bobby and her had to hightail it to the hospital. Little Elizabeth, that’s their youngest before this one, was almost born in the back of Bobby’s Suburban. They weren’t taking any chances this time. But Edward Andrew Briggs took his own sweet time coming out. He was born just after dawn — not more’n an hour before we found Nadine’s body in the woods.”

The squad car turned into a parking space in front of a typical small down diner. “You’ll find most of the people you’ll want to talk to here,” Truman assured them as he got out of the car.

Mulder held the door for his partner and then leaned in close as they walked to the diner. “Scully, I think my inner Jung is wrestling with my inner Skinner on this one — ”

“AD Skinner?”

“No, B. F. From a strictly clinical perspective, this town is a loony bin. No wonder Agent Cooper went nuts.”

“Mulder, it’s just a small town, like so many others across the country. Sure, it seems sort of . . . well, I guess you could say crazy, to us. But if we were to give someone a five-minute summary of our lives — we’d both be wearing straightjackets less than a minute later. The question is: did any of these people kill Nadine Hurley and try to make it look like Agent Cooper? For all we know, Agent Cooper is dead.”

He stared down at her, his brow wrinkled in confusion. “OK, Scully, what did you find out that you haven’t told me?”

“Mulder, Agent Cooper was indeed hospitalized but what Skinner hasn’t mentioned is that it was for early onset Alzheimer’s. His health has deteriorated at an alarming rate. The reality is he couldn’t survive outside the hospital. His bone density is so low that even a minor fall would have resulted in serious injury. According to the fax I got from the hospital this morning, his doctor’s prognosis is not good.”

“Then why didn’t Skinner tell us that yesterday?”

“I don’t know what to tell you, Mulder. I would have assumed someone would have checked with the hospital.”

“Or someone at the Bureau wants to lay the blame on Cooper,” Mulder mused. “But why?”

They realized they’d been standing outside the diner and Truman was standing by the door waiting for them. With Mulder’s hand to Scully’s back, they entered the building.

The interior was knotty pine and Formica. Booths lined the left wall with a counter that curved around to enclose the kitchen. A woman with long blond braids was filling coffee cups for the customers already seated in several of the booths. Another woman, mid-forties but still very pretty, was taking an order at the counter. She finished jotting down the request, handed it back through to the kitchen and then greeted Truman with a smile.

“Sheriff, how’s Josie feeling?” she asked, filling three coffee mugs and placing them in front of the agents and Truman.

“She’s fine, fine. Catherine’s a handful sometimes, but, well, you know how that goes.” He sipped his coffee. “Norma, these are Agents Mulder and Scully. They’re here to investigate Nadine’s murder.”

Norma’s sunny expression clouded over immediately. “Oh. I better get Ed.”

“If you can spare him,” Truman nodded. He picked up his coffee cup and pointed to one of the booths along the front of the restaurant. “We can talk over there,” he told Mulder and Scully.

In a moment a tall man with a full head of luscious brown hair, just flecked with gray came out from behind the counter. “Harry,” he said, taking a seat as Truman scooted over.

“Ed,” Truman replied. “This is Agent Mulder and Agent Scully with the FBI. They came all the way out from DC to look into Nadine’s murder.”

Ed nodded and shook hands across the table. “Thank you. Thank you for coming. I just . . . my poor Nadine,” he choked out and grabbed out a handkerchief from his back pocket. “To end up like that — ”

Mulder glanced over to Scully and she nodded. As upset as the man was, the interview needed her touch. “Mr. Hurley, had you seen your ex-wife at any time the day of her murder?”

“Uh, no. Not that day. She came by the diner the day before. She got some new drapes for her place and asked if I’d come by and help her hang ’em. She loved her drapes . . . ” he trailed off. “I never did get over there,” he sobbed anew.

“Mr. Hurley, was there anyone in town who might have wanted to hurt Nadine — besides Agent Cooper?” Scully continued.

Ed looked up and frowned. “That’s the thing. Nadine didn’t win any popularity contests, that’s for sure, but I can’t think of anyone who would want to kill her. She was the sweetest thing alive — when she put her mind to it.”

Truman coughed a little into his coffee mug, but covered quickly. “When she was of a mind, that’s true, Ed.”

“No one ever threatened her, was angry at her . . . ” Scully continued.

“Oh, well, Hank got sort a mad at her when she testified against him in court. See, that’s what I mean. Here was Hank, the only thing standing between me and Norma, after I asked Nadine for a divorce, you see, and she goes and testifies against him because she saw him dealing drugs out of the back of his pick up. She knew the minute Hank was in jail I would convince Norma to divorce him and marry me, yet she still testified against him. Now, would a mean or spiteful person do something like that? No, not in a million years!”

Mulder and Scully exchanged glances and Scully bit her upper lip. Mulder cleared his throat and pulled out one of his business cards from his coat pocket. “Thank you, Mr. Hurley. I think that’s all the questions we have for now. Here is my cell phone number and we’re staying at the Great Northern if you think of anything else. We’re very sorry for your loss.”

“Sheriff Truman, has anyone checked on Hank Jennings?” Mulder asked pointedly.

“Hank served his time down in Tacoma, got out about two years ago. No ones seen or heard from him since,” Harry admitted.

“Is it possible that Hank Jennings came to town, killed Nadine Hurley and made it look like the Palmer and Banks murders just to throw off the trail?” Scully asked.

At that moment, an elderly woman carrying a cut log in her arms like a baby stepped up to their table.

“One that was two is now one. The one you seek is not the one you will find. That one is gone. Find the one; help him go to the white place. The log has spoken.” She nodded once and left the diner.

Norma came out not a minute later carrying a tray laden with slices of pie. “Just out of the oven. Cherry. I’ll grab the coffee pot and get you all some refills.” She was gone before Scully could utter her objection.

“Sheriff Truman, what was that all about?” Mulder was scowling, but he managed to pick up his fork and take a bite of pie. The look of near rapture took some of the sting out of his growl.

“Cherry pie. Norma makes the best pie — ”

“The woman with the tree baby,” Mulder interrupted, around a mouthful of pie. “Scully, if you don’t want your pie, I’ll be happy to take it off your hands,” he added.

Scully had managed to taste a bite of the pie and immediately pulled the plate toward her, protecting it with her fork. “Try it and die, Mulder,” she hissed. “Sheriff, was that woman . . . um, shouldn’t someone look after her? She left alone.”

Truman shrugged. “We call her the log lady. She’s been like that for — well, I can’t even remember when she wasn’t around. She used to appear a lot more back when Coop, er, Agent Cooper was investigating the Palmer killing. He generally tried to heed her advice.” He smiled and dug into his own slice of pie.

“That was advice?” Mulder quipped. Norma had returned with the coffee pot and refilled their cups. He downed half of his and finished off the pie. “Sheriff, I think we need to go out and see the crime scene.”

“Sure.” He gestured toward the counter and Norma hurried with the checks. Mulder took Scully’s bill and paid, then headed after the Sheriff.

They traveled several miles through the mountain passes before coming to a dirt track between the trees. As they got out of the car, the wind died down and a thick cloud cover lowered over the canopy.

“I think we’re gonna get a storm soon,” Truman said as he lead them toward the forest.

The pine trees were tall and the canopy thick so that the trail wasn’t hard to follow. Mulder guessed they’d only gone about half a mile from the trailhead when they came to a stand of a dozen or more sycamore trees arranged in a circle. There was a fire pit of white stones in the middle. Off to the side was a chalk outline of a body. The pine needles and sycamore leaves were stained a rusty brown.

“That’s where we found her,” Truman said solemnly. He took off his hat and held it respectfully at his side.

Mulder crouched down to look at the ground leading up to the stone circle. “I know you got casts of the footprints, Sheriff, but I see more than one set of prints here.”

Truman hurried over and looked more closely. “Those weren’t here before,” he said, shaking his head.

“Who else would come out here? Ed?” Scully asked.

“No, Ed wouldn’t come out. Norma wouldn’t let him even if he tried. No, besides, those aren’t big enough to be Ed’s shoes. He’s a big fella,” the Sheriff countered.

“Well, if it had been Morrow and Klein or any of the others, there would be more prints. You didn’t make those when you found the body?” Mulder asked Truman.

“No sir. We didn’t go around that side of the fire pit. Besides, those are too recent. I’d say they were made the last couple of hours, maybe even sooner.”

As they spoke, a thick fog settled in around the trees. Before long, it was impossible to see more than a few feet. “Sheriff, I think we need to head back. We can’t see anything in this.” Thunder rumbled in the distance, reverberating off the mountaintops so that it was hard to tell where it had originated.

“Yeah, I think you’re right, Agent Mulder,” Truman agreed. “Let’s head back. The trail head is over here.”

“Wait,” Mulder ordered, searching around. “Scully? Scully where are you?”

“She was right here a minute ago,” Truman said needlessly.

“I know,” Mulder growled. “Scully! Answer me!” Only the sound of the approaching storm returned to him. He hastily dug in his trench coat and came up with his miniature mag-light. It cut a small slice out of the fog, but the beam bounced back at them. “Damn it! I can’t see a thing! SCULLY!!”

“I have a stronger flashlight back in the squad car. I’ll go get it,” Truman offered. Mulder nodded gratefully and the Sheriff hurried off into the trees and fog.

“SCULLY!!!” Mulder shouted again. Again, thunder was the only reply. But as he tried to calm his harsh and frantic breathing, he heard something else. It came on a the softest of breezes, barely disturbing the thick blanket of mist.

” . . . mulderrrrrrrrr.”

Nearly hysterical now, Mulder twisted one way and then another, trying to make out which way the voice had come.

“Scully!” he called again, almost hoarse from the yelling. “Scully, say again! Where are you?”

” . . . twin trees . . . ”

The wind had picked up, swirling the fog around him. He shook his head, trying to understand what she was saying. Twin trees? They were in a forest, for gods sake! But then the wind cleared a path through the fog and he noticed that two of the sycamore trees were mirror images of each other, down to the lowest protruding limbs. He ran off between them and suddenly encountered . . . fabric?

Velvet. It appeared to be red velvet. Hung in drapes, almost like a stage curtain of some sort. Mulder didn’t give himself any time to ponder the ridiculousness of a stage curtain appearing suddenly in the middle of a Washington State forest. He dove in between the curtains.

Truman was running back from the squad car when he all but smacked into Scully, running in his direction. She grabbed him by the shoulders and shook him. “Where is Mulder?” she demanded.

“He was right there, by the fire pit,” Harry shouted over the wind that had suddenly kicked up. “You go back to the squad car, radio Lucy to get Hawk and Andy and the others. We’ll find him, Agent Scully, I promise!”

Back behind the curtain, Mulder discovered a hallway. The floor was a zigzag pattern of black and white tiles that would have made him dizzy if he’d stopped to look at it for long. Instead, he called out again. “Scully! Are you in here?”

“Mulder! I’m here!” came the reply and he almost wept with relief. The voice came from the far end of the hall, near a bust of Roman styling. He ran to the bust and called again. “Scully, which way?”

“I’m here, Mulder. In HERE!” The voice was coming from the left. He found a part in the draperies and stormed into a room.

It was empty, save for two arm chairs and a tall floor lamp. He turned around slowly, searching for his partner. “Scully? Come out!”

“Thank god, you’ve come,” came a voice from behind him but it wasn’t Scully. He twirled around, drawing his weapon and aiming it at the person standing in the corner of the room.

“You don’t need that. It won’t work here even if you tired to fire,” said a man near Mulder’s age, dark haired, not overly tall. Good looking. He wore a dark suit and a narrow tie.

“Who are you?” Mulder demanded. “Where is my partner?”

The man shook his head. “I haven’t seen any else here. At least not anyone else alive. As for who I am — I’m Dale Cooper.”

Mulder shook his head in disbelief. This man looked nothing like the picture faxed to them from the mental hospital. This man was strong, healthy. And in the fax, Dale Cooper’s hair was complete white, unlike the man before him.

“No. You’re not Dale Cooper. Who the hell are you and what have you done with Agent Scully?” Mulder growled, raising the gun so that it was aimed directly at the other man’s head.

The man held his hands up. “You don’t understand. I’ve been here — stranded here, for years while he . . .” His eyes went wide as he looked at something over Mulder left shoulder. “Look out!”

Mulder turned and saw a short man with wild long gray hair rushing toward him. The shorter man tackled Mulder, taking him down hard on the tiled floor. Mulder struggled to bring his gun up and finally had it between them. He fired once, twice, but only clicks resounded amid the grunts and gasps as the two men fought. The short man favored Mulder with a feral grin before lunging forward and biting the agent’s neck.

Mulder yelped and brought the gun up, using it to bludgeon the other man on the head. The crazed man feinted back and lunged again, this time sinking his teeth into Mulder hand that held the gun. Mulder tightened his grip on the gun and brought his other hand up to punch the man in ear as hard as he could.

The man rolled off and crouched, rubbing his ear, but still grinning like a madman. He opened his mouth, but the noise that came out was no language Mulder had ever heard. Mulder looked around for an escape, but before he could get to his feet, the maniac attacked again, pouncing on Mulder, his feet pile-driving into the prone man’s stomach. All air rushed out of Mulder’s lungs and he gasped for breath through the pain. Hands encircled his throat, crushing his larynx, cutting off all air —

There was a sickening crack, and suddenly, the gray-haired man’s eyes went wide and then rolled back into his head. As he fell to the side, he loosened his grip on Mulder’s throat. Mulder tried to suck in air, but nothing was happening. He clutched at his neck, gasping and abruptly air flowed into his lungs. He sagged back on the floor, glancing over at the man who had tried to kill him and then up to the man who had saved his life.

Dale Cooper, if that was who he was, stood over the still body of the gray-haired man, holding the floor lamp as a staff. He was breathing heavily and sweat was running down his face. Slowly, he lowered the lamp to the floor and stretched out his hand to Mulder. “C’mon, we have to get out of here.”

“Scully. I won’t leave until I find her,” Mulder croaked out. He was bleeding from the bite on his neck and his hand and he was feeling woozier by the moment. Still he was determined to find his partner.

“I told you, she’s not here. It was a trick. Bob tricked you into coming here. I fell for it once, too, many years ago. Now we have to leave before he comes around.”

Mulder swallowed thickly. He was having a hard time making his eyes focus. “How do we get out?”

“Here, lean on me.” Cooper grasped Mulder under the arm and around his waist, taking most of his weight and moving forward. Mulder’s head lolled to the right and he saw the man Cooper had called Bob twitching on the floor. In an instant, the body erupted into flame.

“Fire!” Mulder cried out in a panic as the curtains flared and caught. “Fire!”

“Walk with me,” Cooper soothed as the blackness engulfed Mulder. “Walk with me.”

Great Northern Hotel

afternoon

His mouth was as dry as dust. His throat felt like it had been held in a vice and crushed over a number of hours. His hand hurt, his neck hurt. He wanted nothing more than to sink back into oblivion and never open his eyes again. But he couldn’t, because he smelled her perfume.

“Scul . . . leee,” he rasped out, barely a whisper. Not since his run in with the dreaded tobacco beetles had it hurt as much to attempt speech. But he had to know.

“Easy, Mulder,” she cooed. He opened his eyes, relief overriding his aches and pains. “Here, just a few sips. We probably should have taken you to the hospital, but your injuries, although painful, are really superficial.” She held the glass to his lips and helped him take a few sips before putting it back on the nightstand.

“Cooper,” he croaked out.

“Agent Dale Cooper is currently giving his statement to Agents Morrow and Klein. Mulder, it’s amazing. It’s like — it’s like it’s not even the same man! His doctor from the mental hospital came up last night to examine him and he’s dumbfounded. Not only that, Cooper has no recollection of ever being committed. He claims he’s been someplace called the Black Lodge. Deputy Hill seemed to know all about it. He and Sheriff Truman explained some of it to me last night, while the doctor was bandaging your wounds. It’s sounds like something right up your alley. I’m sure they’d be more than happy to tell you all about it later, if you want.”

“Nadine’s murderer?” He was rather proud of himself for managing so many syllables at one time.

“The casting of the shoe print did not match Agent Cooper’s — from the shoes at the hospital nor the wingtips he was wearing when the Sheriff and I found him carrying you out of the forest. Nadine’s body did produce one latent — a thumbprint. It didn’t match Cooper, either. Without some sort of evidence linking him to the crime, it will be hard to charge him with it.”

“He was trapped there, Scully,” Mulder whispered. “It was a place, really. A strange, horrible place.”

“Well, when you two first showed up, there was some thought that he might have hurt you. But the finger spread of the bruising on your throat is considerably smaller than his. That falls in line with the story he had of this Bob character — ”

“Bob is evil, Scully. Pure evil,” Mulder said harshly. “I think Bob killed Nadine.”

“They’re matching the print we found on Nadine with the ones on your neck, Mulder. If they are from the same man — Bob, as you say — Agent Cooper will go free for sure.”

“Wake me when the results come back,” Mulder sighed and drifted off to sleep.

The late afternoon sun was warm on his face when he next awoke. Scully was sitting by the window, reading from a file folder. He groaned and tried to sit up. She was by his side in an instant, helping him to his feet.

“Bathroom,” he grunted and she helped him steady himself enough that he could make it into the room unassisted. When he came back to the bedroom, he was looking much happier. “Results come back?”

“Yes. And you were right, Mulder. The fingerprints on your neck match exactly the thumbprint found on Nadine Hurley’s body. She was killed by Bob, whomever Bob is. Morrow and Klein are working with Haglund to search the woods for him.”

“They won’t find him, Scully.”

“Well, there is some thought that he might make it into Canada by foot — ”

“No. He doesn’t exist on this plane. I hope he doesn’t exist at all anymore. He was in that fire, Scully. The whole place went up like so much kindling.”

“You did suffer from minor smoke inhalation and you did smell like you’d been in a blast furnace. The strange thing was there hasn’t been any forest fires reported within a hundred miles of here over the last week. I still don’t understand it.”

“Don’t try. It’ll only make your head hurt,” he assured her. Stiffly he lowered himself back into bed and she covered him up tenderly. There was a knock on the door just as she was leaning over to give him a kiss.

“Shhh, if we’re quiet maybe they’ll leave,” he whispered. She ruffled his hair and went over to open the door. Dale Cooper was standing there with Sheriff Truman and Hawk.

“Agent Mulder, good to see you awake,” Truman said affably as they three entered the room on Scully’s invitation.

“Yes, finally,” Mulder replied. “I think I owe you a debt of gratitude, Agent Cooper.”

Cooper looked at Mulder for several minutes before he shook his head. “No, not at all, Agent Mulder. You saved me. I had about given up hope of ever finding a way out of there.” Cooper continued to stare at Mulder. “Agent Mulder, you wouldn’t happen to have a relative — a cousin maybe, in the DEA?”

Scully raised an eyebrow and Mulder shook his head in the negative. “No. Not that I’m aware,” he assured Cooper.

“Oh, well, never mind.”

“So, what are your plans, Agent Cooper?” Scully asked, slightly confused by the sudden tension in the room.

“Well, for one thing, it’s not Agent Cooper anymore. Beyond the fact that the Bureau officially put me on disability, I’ve decided to not seek reemployment. I’m going to settle down here, make a life for myself.”

Truman patted his shoulder. “I still have your deputy’s badge in my desk drawer, Coop,” he said with a wink.

“I don’t think I want to continue in law enforcement, Harry. I think — well, I think I might pursue a life long dream of mine.”

“And what would that be?” asked Hawk cautiously.

“I think I want to become a writer, Hawk. Fiction, actually.”

Truman and Hawk exchanged glances and Mulder and Scully continued to give each other confused shrugs.

“Well, it’s definitely worth sticking around here — for the cherry pie, if nothing else,” Mulder spoke up to fill in the silence.

“Did you have the pie, Agent Mulder?” Cooper lit up with excitement. “I couldn’t believe it the first time I bit into a slice. Nothing I’ve ever tasted could compare! And the coffee! Oh, my!”

“Speaking of pie and coffee, we should probably let Agent Mulder get some rest, Coop. C’mon, let’s head over to the diner. My treat,” Truman offered.

“Harry, that would be splendid!” Cooper stepped over to the bed and extended his hand. “Agent Mulder, I can’t thank you enough. If you two are ever in the area, please stop in.”

“Thanks, uh, Cooper, but I think we’re going to try to stay on the East Coast, at least for a while,” Mulder replied evenly, but gave the man a firm handshake. “Sheriff, Deputy, thanks for all your help with the investigation.”

“You folks take care,” Truman said as he shook first Mulder’s and then Scully’s hand. The three men left and Scully sat down on the edge of the bed.

“OK, Mulder. This is all well and good. But how do we write this up in a field report?” she asked.

“You know, Scully, my throat is killing me. I think I might have to just take a rain check on this report. I mean, I’m in so much pain, I don’t know how much I can remember.”

“Be careful, Mulder. Next time I take you out to the forest, I might just leave you there.”

the end.

Mack’d

mack'd

Mack’d: A Law & Order: Criminal Intent/X-Files Mystery

AUTHOR: Martin Ross
CATEGORY: Crossover/ casefile
RATING: R for language, gruesome images.
DISCLAIMER: The story you are about to read is fictional, and the characters were
created with criminal intent by Chris Carter and Dick Wolf.
SUMMARY: Broadway’s hit of the season becomes the “hit” of the season for the
NYPD’s Major Case Squad and the agents of the X-Files. Has the Curse of Macbeth
struck in the heart of the Big Apple?

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“In New York City’s war on crime, the worst criminal offenders are pursued by the detectives of the Major Case Squad. These are their stories…”

Home of Clifton and Yvonne DeBow

Crown Point, N.Y.

Sunday, December 31

“Once upon a time, two brave knights named Macbeth and Banquo were out on a mission for the king. It was a dark, stormy night, and Macbeth and Banquo stopped to talk to three witches who were making a potion in a big pot. ‘Double, double, toil and trouble,’ they sang as they stirred the magic potion.”

The children cackled at Lisette’s Margaret Hamilton-style interpretation of the Weird Sisters. The Great Bard would roll over in whatever old British boneyard they’d planted him in if he could hear her mangle the tale of Macbeth. She should’ve picked Dr. Suess or one of the other old classics piled beside the guest room beds, but Lisette was home seldom enough, and she wanted to share something more personal with her nieces.

“The witches could see the future, and they told Macbeth he would be very famous and powerful (the title Thane of Cawdor would mean little to Eliza or Shera), and said Banquo’s grandchildren and great-grandchildren would be kings. Well, soon, the witch’s prediction about Macbeth came true, and everybody in the kingdom knew who he was. But what the witches had said about his friend Banquo bothered him, because he wanted to be king. And Mrs. Macbeth wanted him to be king, too…”

A soft purr interrupted Lisette’s narrative. She looked down; her angelic nieces had already slipped away.

That’s OK, babies, Lisette smiled. Has the same effect on everyone else in the family.

“You’d’ve made a wonderful mother, Lisey,” Yvonne whispered as her daughter eased the door shut.

“Subtle, Mama,” Lisette smirked, heading for the stairs and the New Years celebration downstairs.

“Oh, c’mon, baby, don’t be so touchy. Your father and I told you how proud we are about the show. He’s already gone on-line to see about tickets.” Yvonne stopped at the landing. “I just hope—”

Lisette turned. “Now what?”

“Well, last night, I saw a show about that man, that Big Noisy man’s going to be in the play.”

“Elliott. And they call him Big Noyz. What about him?”

“He sounds like bad news. Guns and drugs and that whole gang thing.”

Lisey shook her head and leaned on the banister. “Mama, that man scarcely even acknowledges the rest of us – he’s too impressed with his own media coverage. Even if he did, he ain’t exactly my type, which you ought to know.”

“Don’t have a stroke, now,” Yvonne sighed. “Let’s just forget I said anything. Your father and I just worry about you in that city.”

“Mama, I know what I’m doing.”

At least I think I do, Lisey mused as she headed toward the joyful noise below.

The Shiban Theater

Manhattan, New York

Wednesday, April 15

“On today’s Entertainment Spotlight, we visit a rap legend who hopes to bring the Noyz and the funk back to Broadway this season,” Jacqui Moussard sang as the cable news anchor seated beside her waited with a flash-frozen smile to get out of camera range. “One of the biggest surprises on the Great White Way this season is Mack’d, a musical saga of gangsta life and death starring Elliott Forester, better known to international audiences as rapper Big Noyz. Last night, in Times Square, we caught up with the hip-hop king, who hopes to add a Tony to his shelf-full of awards.”

Darrell Ives leaned forward on his dressing room couch as his co-star – co-star! – materialized on a red carpet outside the city’s hottest new clubs, in a matching, gold-braided tux and his trademark fez with the hand-stitched Mets logo. Youthful screams and a dozen flashes erupted as Forester gave the camera the one-handed “peace-love” gesture with a gloved hand.

“Critics be saying Noyz ain’t ready for Broadway,” Forester sneered as the scene shifted to the floor of whatever club he’d graced the night before. “Well, Broadway best be ready for the Noyz. Forget Beauty and the Beast – I’m both in one fine package. Les Miz gonna be in for some misery. Rent, y’all’s lease is up.”

Moussard, who was spilling out of the top of her strapless black gown, laughed delightedly. “You’ve conquered the world of rap and become one of Hollywood’s newest box office draws. Why the stage? Why Broadway?”

“All my life, people been saying I’m nothing, jus’ some gangsta street punk. Well, all y’all old school, Julliard-trained, Evian-suckin’ haters, you been served. There’s a new king in town, an’ his name is Big Noyz.”

“Jesus,” Darrell spat. This fool was going to scare away the patrons, the out-of-towners. Stanford would probably love it — he’d told the Times Magazine Forester was “a blast of cool urban permafrost.” What did that make Darrell, the rest of them who’d put the aging playwright back on Broadway?

Moussard reappeared in the newsroom, her breasts tucked back into a silk blouse and blazer. “Mack’d is created and produced by Stanford Grant, the controversial black playwright acclaimed for his powerful visions of African-American life in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Noyz joined the production last month after a successful off-Broadway run. The rapper, who captured headlines two years ago following his arrest on gun charges–”

Darrell fired his remote and the screen went black. He leaned back and sipped his Evian (the actor realized with a curse). He’d also graduated cum laude from Julliard, the son of Hudson University’s first black studies department head and a mother who’d been on first-name terms with Maya Angelou. The man who’d replaced Darrell as the hip-hop Macbeth (Stanford had adapted and scored Shakespeare’s classic tragedy, as if that brain-dead cable entertainment bunny could grasp the distinction) might just as well have been calling his predecessor out on the street.

The young thespian heard laughter in the hall. “Lisette?”

The laughter stopped, and a heart-shaped, heart-stopping face appeared in his doorway. “Hey,” Lisette deBow murmured. “What’s up?”

“Watching our diva on ZNN. You know when he plans to grace us with his presence?”

“He had some kind of interview for VH1 or something. Stanford said to just hang loose, we could work on some of the second act blocking.”

Darrell studied the show’s streetwise Lady Macbeth. Her tone had been artificially casual, diffident, with an undertone of defensiveness. “What’re you up to tonight? Heard about a new Thai place down in the Village.”

“Darrell…”

“Yeah, yeah, I know. Nothing involved, Lis — just dinner. What do you say? Be a nice change.”

The actress glanced uneasily down the corridor. “I got a family thing tonight. Sister’s in town. Maybe some other time.”

And that was when Darrell knew.

West Avon, Connecticut

Wednesday, April 15

Connie finally located his father in the basement, poring as usual through his clips, the effusive local reviews of his performances. The local rags had never been anything but effusive: The community theater bought several dozen column inches of ad space a year, and the would-be thespians who trod upon its boards – mostly area merchants, community leaders, and their idle spouses – were good for a few hundred more each.

But for 40-plus years, Errol had bought wholesale into his own press, and as his body and mind began to lapse and the parts became more infrequent and miniscule, the retired jeweler spent more time here in his paneled cellar rec room, dirtying his fingers with old newsprint and clearing his mind of unpleasant reality.

Errol glanced up at his burly son, and grinned. “Conrad, do you remember

Oliver? That was your first performance – our first performance together.”

Connie took a breath. His father and his late mother – who’d been equally enamored of hayseed theatrics – had dragged him to auditions and dress rehearsals instead of Little League games, and by adolescence, he rejected the stage with a vengeance (fortunately, Errol was as influential with local law enforcement as he was with the press). When Errol had decided to leave the family business to his now-diligent and rather stodgy son 15 years previous, Connie had felt a shadow fall away from his life.

Until the craziness. Or at least Connie’s discovery of it.

“Pop,” Conrad now interrupted. “You’ve been at it again, haven’t you? You even left the soldering equipment plugged in. You’re gonna burn us to the ground some day.”

Errol set his scrapbook aside, eyes refusing to meet his son’s stern eyes. “I have no idea—”

“We talked about this. After that Baldwin thing, you promised to knock it off. Someday, this is going to boomerang on all of us. Somebody’ll sue, the cops’ll be around, and there’ll go the shop. You want that?”

The old man struggled out of his recliner. “There’s nothing illegal about what I’m doing. It’s—”

“Yeah, I know, Pop. The family legacy. Great-grandpa, grandpa, you. Well, the crazy train stops here. This is 2007. How many this time? Tell me they haven’t gone out.”

“I still own the shop,” Errol quavered. “On paper.”

For the first time, Connie grinned, but utterly without filial warmth. “Not if I have to get power of attorney. You think if I tell a court what kind of loony horseshit you’ve been up to down here, I couldn’t get you shipped off to Shady Acres somewhere?”

Errol’s eyes filled with fear, and his square jaw quivered. Then he snatched up his scrapbook and dived back into the yellowed clips, dismissively.

Connie stood for a moment, contemplating another threat. Then, wearily, he started back up the stairs. Errol already was smiling again, secretive, immersed in his memories.

The Shiban Theater

Manhattan, New York

Wednesday, April 15

“I don’t know,” Simon Yates rumbled, adjusting his designer glasses and tapping the latest set of proofs. “‘Elliott Forester’…Who knows Elliott Forester is Big Noyz? Shit, I didn’t even know who Big Noyz was ‘til my kid busted my stones for some SNL tickets to see him strut around and grab himself on stage. ”

Stanford Grant waited patiently. Yates was one of the production’s major backers, and the most hands-on. He was a real estate whiz, a few significant notches down the ladder from Trump but with cultural pretensions and an ego that made The Donald seem like St. Francis of Assisi. Simon Yates constantly dropped names — African-American literati and laureates and playwrights with whom he’d shared brief chats at fundraisers and with whom Stanford had shared years of cultural struggle and social evolution.

But Stanford’s socialistic fervor had faded over the decades as his Pulitzer gathered dust and the capital of poseurs like Yates become increasingly crucial to realizing his vision. He nodded and smiled sagely when they’d show up unannounced, offering an occasional anecdote or literary reflection for his patrons to lap thirstily up.

“Now, Cindra and I used to catch Ailey’s company from time to time. There was an artist…”

“Muthahfuck—?”

Stanford’s bifocals dropped into his lap as his eyes were drawn to the stage and the source of the outraged cry. He’d called a brief break after the reading had started to go stale, and the actors and crew had reformed into murmuring cliques and couples. Now, the Shiban auditorium had gone silent save a few echoing scuffles and angry upraised voices, and the assembled players were a single knot upstage left.

“Excuse me, Simon,” Stanford rumbled, shoving out of his seat and sprinting up the proscenium stairs. The throng parted for the legendary playwright/director, who stopped dead as he stared at the two men on the stage floor.

Eliott Forester, in the hockey jersey and doo-rag from Act 2, had Darrell Ives pinned to the floor with one muscular forearm. Ives’s fists flailed at the rapper, and the veins stood out on his broad forehead.

“What is this shit?” Stanford roared, and the entire company backed away as one. Except for Forester.

“Listen,” “Big Noyz” growled, almost inaudibly. “Ain’t no ballet class here, biatch. You best back up off my tip.”

“Elliott!” Grant shouted. Elliott looked up blandly, his arm still in place across Ives’ trachea.

“’Sup, Chief?”

“Let him up,” Grant ordered. “I mean right now, son.”

Elliott’s eyes turned to obsidian. Then he smiled and released the young actor and climbed to his feet with a grin. “Sho, Pops. Need to blow this fag stand anyway.” Grant’s Mac B. launched into a James Mason dialect. “However, you might talk to this mizark about some simple civility, what, old bean? Later.”

Elliott strolled casually from the stage and up the aisle. As the auditorium door echoed shut, Grant turned to Darrell, who was massaging his Adam’s apple.

“All I said—”

“No,” Grant boomed, his voice subarctic. “I do not want to know.”

“Hey,” Darrell protested. “This wasn’t my—”

The playwright glanced at Yates, who was craning to understand the encounter he’d witnessed from the bleachers. “Why don’t you just step outside, take a walk around the block?” he suggested calmly. “When you come back, son, take a look at the marquee. See whose name that is up above the title.”

Grant stalked off, and Darrell staggered to his feet. He caught Lisette’s eye, and she disappeared into the shadows.

Residence of Elliot Forester

Manhattan, New York

Wednesday, April 15

Ian Pryce sighed in exasperation at the gaping loft door. He was used to dealing with prima donnas – he’d handled hotel-trashing rockers in the ‘70s, Prozac-munching grungers in the ‘80s, and hair-triggered divas for most of the ‘90s. Hip-hop was no different. But the transplanted New Yorker was getting older (“The Royal Mutha,” Forester had homophobically dubbed him after watching a Biography segment on Prince Charles), and at times, Forester challenged even his managerial skill.

Pryce had agreed at Forester’s agitated summons to drop the script off at his “crib.” Same old rubbish – lots of guns and by-the-numbers martial arts. When he heard about Stanford Grant’s hip-hop comeback attempt, Pryce had steered Simon Yates and the others toward “Big Noyz” in an effort to broaden the rapper’s portfolio, open some new doors, but old habits, as they say.

“Elliott?” Pryce inquired. He could hear a baseball game on Forester’s 60-inch plasma – the Mitts, or whatever their names were. He waited for a response and then, fuming, nudged the heavy steel-reinforced door further open. The odor hit him first – acrid, smoky, and organic. Pryce tensed. Forester did some coke – who didn’t, right? – as well as that nauseating “syrup” he mixed up, but he hadn’t started freebasing, had he? After what happened to Rich Pryor? Jesus, this wasn’t what meth smelled like, was it?

Formulating a stern lecture on the evils of drugs – at least, low-rent, flammable drugs – the manager squared his shoulders and marched into the loft.

“Oh, my–” Pryce gagged, his stomach seizing. He fired a stream of cherry Riesling duck and fennel onto the hardwood floor and fell to his knees, unable to tear his eyes from the grisly tableau before him.

As Pryce tried to work up a serviceable scream, Forester’s corpse seemed to be grinning over his plight…

**

“I heard this was the hottest show on Broadway,” Det. Alexandra Eames breathed as she took in the corpse. “Looks like the critics really hit the mark for once.”

A momentary twitch of the lip was the only indication of Robert Goren’s appreciation for his diminutive partner’s dark quip. He moved swiftly past the uniforms and techs who now crowded Elliot Forester’s loft and kneeled before the late actor. Even crouching, the hulking detective was able to stare directly into Forester’s eyes – at least, the charred holes where they had been. He frowned, then surveyed the victim’s unburnt left hand, dangling over the side of the thick leather recliner and sporting a huge gold ring encrusted with a diamond monogram.

“‘BN,’ ” Eames observed.

“Big Noyz,” Goren supplied. “Forester was a rapper, East Coast. Won a couple Grammies, made the cover of Time five years ago. For a while, he was up there with Snoop, Diddy, Flava Flav…”

Eames smirked, again astonished by the breadth of Goren’s eclectic and esoteric knowledge. “You’re into rap?”

He looked up, a boyish smile momentarily brightening his intense features. “I’m fascinated by hip-hop language – the economy, the punch. The outgrowth of a subculture plagued by poverty and violence – volumes of expression and emotion condensed into a single word or phrase, in-your-face onomatopoeia.” Goren’s hands were now flailing and chopping at the air. “And constant evolution. Forester was a casualty of an industry in perpetual flux – while a new generation of gangstas was coming on, he was still kickin’ it old school.”

“Well, he’s not kicking any more,” Eames reflected soberly. She glanced around Forester’s loft, decadently furnished and stocked with a pair of pool tables, a Jacuzzi, three pinball machines, and a bank of retro arcade games. “Doesn’t look like he was on hard times.”

“He had his own reality show on VH-1, and he’s been in a couple of films. Street Noyz got some pretty good box office last year, and he landed a role in a new hip-hop version of Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Mack’d.”

“That oughtta pack in the visiting Illinoisans,” his partner mused.

“Look at the chair,” Goren murmured, cocking his head as his attention returned to the crime scene. “Hardly any damage. The charring is confined almost exclusively to the body.” He leaned back, gazed into the corpse’s face. “I’ve seen something like this before – well, at least photos of it.”

“What?”

Goren turned. “Ever heard of spontaneous human combustion?”

“Sure,” Eames nodded, non-commitally. “I’ve read several accounts, waiting at the supermarket checkout. Along with alien abductions and Brad and Angelina’s latest adoption.”

Goren didn’t hear her jibe – he now was displaying a small, dark brown object between his gloved thumb and forefinger. Eames’ nose wrinkled.

“It was under his chair. Looks like a chocolate-covered almond. Dark chocolate.” He turned to a tech dusting the doorknob. “You wanna bag this? Looks like a partial.” Goren grunted as he climbed to his feet, then bent over the end table next to the corpse. He waved the tech back. “Looks like a drink ring, but it’s too, uh, too viscous. Tacky – hasn’t fully dried. Test it, too.”

He turned back to Eames. “You like dark or light chocolate?”

“White.”

“Most people like one or another,” Goren explained, scanning the room. He stepped around a tech analyzing a ball of fuzz on the hardwood floor and reached into a bowl on a fully stocked mahogany bar. “M&Ms.” He popped a blue candy into his mouth. “Pure milk chocolate.”

Eames shrugged at the crouching tech as her partner disappeared into the kitchen beyond. She found Goren leaning into a vault-sized, brushed steel fridge. He emerged hefting a parcel wrapped in butcher paper. “Burger wrappers, takeout ‘que in the garbage; cabinets are full of sugar and empty calories. Bag of Snickers, bag of Kit Kats – more milk chocolate.” He extended the package toward Eames. “This was the only ‘fresh’ food in the refrigerator. Salmon.”

“So he died of what? Poor nutrition? Mercury poisoning?”

Goren’s lip again twitched in appreciation. He crossed back though the main room and into Forester’s bedroom.

Eames blinked at the threshold. “Who was he expecting? The entire Laker Girls squad?”

“I saw it on Cribs a few years back,” Goren murmured, stepping around the huge canopied bed. He entered a walk-in closet the size of a Fortune 50 corporate conference room, glancing at a staggering array of streetwear, a rack of European suits no doubt reserved for premieres and awards shows, a tall jewelry armoire loaded with Forester’s bling, and a collection of footwear worthy of the late Imelda Marcos. “See that area over there?” Goren indicated. “Most of the racks are packed tight, but you can see the clothes are spaced out evenly on this one.”

“Somebody moved out, and recently,” Eames observed. “And tried to cover it up. A woman would probably have had all her clothes in one section. There’d either be one single gap, or Forester would’ve spread out his other stuff, filled it in.”

“If she’d moved out under ordinary circumstances, why would she try to conceal that she’d even been here?” Goren asked. “Presumably, nobody would even come in here except Forester.”

“Except us,” Eames concluded, grimly. Her head jerked toward the main room. “You think Forester’s squeeze did that? I’ve heard of a woman scorned, but this…” She paused, crossing her arms and leaning against the closet doorjamb. “Were you serious about that spontaneous combustion thing?”

Goren stared at Forester’s wardrobe as if it suddenly would provide illumination. “I don’t know. That’s why I think I’ll call in a second opinion.”

Major Case Squad

New York Police Department

Thursday, April 16

Capt. Danny Ross had taken over the squad only a few months before, after Jim Deakins put in his papers under circumstances that weren’t widely discussed in the department. But after a three-year stint with the Joint Task Force on International Money Laundering, Ross was able to read “feds” on this pair the minute they’d stepped into the squadroom. He sighed and moved to intercept.

“Captain Ross, Major Case. Help you folks?” he smiled tightly.

The man, a fortysomething male in a standard-issue black suit, returned the greeting with a warm, if wary, grin. “Special Agent Fox Mulder, FBI.” He nodded toward his much shorter female partner, who was not grinning. “This is Special Agent Dana Scully.”

“Ah,” Ross commented, imparting volumes with a single syllable. Mulder’s smile faltered.

“Uh, is Bobby Goren around?”

“Ah,” Ross repeated, still smiling but with an entirely different tone.

**

“There are some unusual dimensions to this case,” Goren explained.

“So I heard,” Ross said neutrally. Eames stood beside the captain’s file cabinet, silent but supportive.

“The fire that killed Forester caused nearly no damage to the crime scene,” the detective continued. “His left hand also was undamaged. That’s consistent with cases of what’s called spontaneous human combustion.”

Ross looked to the two FBI agents for some sign of the bureaucratic incredulity that normally greeted Goren’s arcane theories. There was none. “Hold up. You mean like when somebody just bursts into flame for no reason?”

“Not necessarily for no reason,” Agent Mulder protested, drawing a strange look from Ross. “Maybe just reasons we haven’t come to fully comprehend. But SHC has been extensively documented by reputable scientists. Medieval literature’s full of references to spontaneous combustion. One of the more prominent modern-day victims was George I. Mott, about 20 years ago. Mott was a fireman who burned to death in his home outside Crown Point, New York. His body was consumed along with the mattress he was lying on, except for a leg, an implausibly shrunken skull, and a piece of rib cage.”

“I remember the case,” Goren nodded. Ross sighed. “The fire investigators suggested his death may have been caused by an electrical arc that shot out of an outlet, or a gas leak.”

“And he wasn’t wearing his medically prescribed oxygen mask,” Mulder added. “Mott was 58 – many reported SHC victims are elderly. Was the ceiling in the victim’s apartment burnt?” Goren nodded. “SHC victims usually are burned more severely than others, and the high, localized heat often burns objects well above the victim. The age bothers me a little – you say Noyz was 32?” Ross’ brow rose at the fed’s use of Forester’s rap moniker. “But if he was a celebrity, heavy drinking is probably a factor, right?”

“Oh, yeah,” said Eames, who’d inspected Forester’s lavishly stocked bar and wine cooler.

Ross turned to Scully, who’d remained mute. “What about you, Agent? You buy this spontaneous combustion theory?”

“Well,” she drawled, somewhat reluctantly, “the very definition of an accident is the convergence of freak circumstances. Here, we’d need two basic circumstances: Something that precipitated the fire that killed the victim, and an accelerant – a combustible substance that caused the fire to spread. Supporters of SHC suggest a link with what’s called the ‘wick effect” – the combustion and melting of body fat, the way people used to use animal tallow to light or heat their homes. Without arguing what may have precipitated the fire, I’d suggest the human body’s like an insulated furnace – an environment full of potential fuel but not enough oxygen to allow fire to spread beyond the body cavity.”

“There goes today’s prime rib,” Ross grimaced. “OK, it’s a legitimate avenue. But the arson investigator’s office is already on the case, right? No offense, but why do we need the FBI?”

“Fox — Agent Mulder – is an old acquaintance of mine, from some time I spent at Oxford,” Goren said. “He has some specialized areas of expertise that could help our investigation. He’s an expert in folklore and the occult, and the play Macbeth – the basis for Mack’d – is steeped in theatrical lore.”

“Wonderful.”

“Even to this day, classically trained actors consider it bad luck to mention Macbeth by name while inside a theatre, they usually refer to it as The Scottish Play or sometimes, ‘The Scottish King,’” Mulder explained. “Because it was such a familiar work, productions that failed to draw a crowd frequently were replaced with Macbeth. Thus, to say the name of the play inside a theatre was believed to doom the production to failure, or even precipitate injuries or worse to cast members.”

“In 1882, on the closing night of a production, an actor named J. H. Barnes was engaged in a scene with another actor when Barnes accidentally thrust his sword directly into his partner’s chest. In 1926, actress Sybil Thorndike was almost strangled by an actor, and during the first modern-dress production at the Royal Court Theatre in London in 1928, a large set fell, injuring some of the cast seriously, and a fire broke out in the theater.”

“In the early ‘30s, grande dame Lillian Boylis died on the day of final dress rehearsal portraying Lady MacBeth,” Goren continued. “Her portrait was hung in the theatre, and when another production of the play was having its opening, the portrait fell from the wall. In 1934, actor Malcolm Keen turned mute onstage, and his replacement, Alistair Sim, had to be hospitalized with a high fever. In 1936, Orson Welles’ so-called ‘voodoo MacBeth’ production, the cast included African drummers and a genuine witch doctor who were displeased after critic Percy Hammond slammed the show. Supposedly, the shaman placed a curse on Hammond, who died within a couple of weeks.”

Mulder nodded enthusiastically. “Don’t forget Olivier. In 1937, Laurence Olivier was rehearsing the play at London’s Old Vic when a falling stage weight missed him by inches. If that wasn’t enough, the director and the actress playing Lady Macduff were involved in a car accident on the way to the theatre, and the theater manager died of a heart attack during dress rehearsal.”

“Hey, and remember Alec Baldwin?”

“And now for ‘Best Actress in a Musical,’ ” Capt. Ross intervened. “This little Broadway moment have any significance to the case at hand? Shakespeare’s been on the Top 40 for what, nearly 400 years or so? That’s about, oh, a good 350 years on ‘Hello, Dolly’? Stands to reason there’d be a few more pratfalls in the wings over the years. I know I’ve about fallen out of my seat a few times myself ‘enjoying’ the Bard. This ‘curse’ is probably just the odds playing out.”

“But it’s a powerful, enduring piece of theater lore,” Goren said. “It could be a colorful media cover for a seemingly supernatural death. The Post had a sidebar on the Macbeth curse just this morning. The killer’s got a built-in smokescreen.”

“If there was a killer,” Mulder suggested. “Throughout the Middle Ages into the 1800s, its been suggested that spontaneous human combustion was a punishment for sinful or evil acts. From what I’ve seen on E! and MTV, Big Noyz knew how to part-ay reasonably hearty.”

Ross exchanged looks with Eames, who looked to Scully. Scully shrugged.

“Just spitballing,” Mulder smiled.

Ross reached for the knob. “Exit, stage left.”

**

Dr. Elizabeth Rodgers regarded the charred corpse on the steel table with one last dispassionate shake of the head, wiping her palms on her morgue scrubs. “Lenny Briscoe took me to a production of Macbeth one time, back when he was at the Two-Seven. Trying to impress me, I guess, and he did, ‘til he started snoring during the second act.”

“What did the lungs look like?” Scully gently prodded her fellow pathologist. She’d resisted Mulder’s suggestion to mix-and-match partners: Scully had run afoul of Goren about a year ago on a case with personal implications, and she’d picked up on his suspicion she’d been holding back. Which she had been. But Scully was determined not to allow this brutishly brilliant cop control the entire case.

The middle-aged M.E. looked to Goren, who nodded toward Scully with a bemused smile. “Soot and scorching in the throat, lungs, and stomach – what’s left of them, that is. He was alive, God save him. Really freaky – the esophageal and digestive tract appear to be the point of origin. Was he with the circus?” the lean redhead mused.

“Not in the conventional sense,” Goren said. “You think he was forced to swallow the accelerant?”

Rodgers leaned against the counter, shrugged. “Tissue and organ damage was so extensive – most of the evidence probably went up in flames. But I don’t see any sign of restraint – no ligature marks, cuts, or defensive wounds. If he were drugged or drunk, maybe…”

Goren glanced at the now-covered remains of Elliott Forester. “Alcoholism’s a pretty common factor in SHC cases, isn’t it?”

The pathologist arched an eyebrow, and Scully felt a spark of triumph. “Spontaneous human combustion? I don’t know.” Scully’s spark extinguished. “I talked to one of the guys investigated the Mott case a few years ago – you know, the Crown Point fireman went up in his bed? I guess there are some similarities, like Forester’s hand — except it was a leg in Mott’s case. Mott was a smoker and a drinker, I remember tight. Guess I’ve seen stranger things. You might want to be careful broadcasting that theory, though, Bobby, especially with the feds involved.”

“Oh, I’ve heard pretty much everything,” Scully breathed. “You have the victim’s personal effects?”

Rodgers nodded and retrieved an evidence bag from a table near the body. Goren examined its contents. “A little pocket money, cell phone – we’ll want to check the call log – and Forester’s keys.” The cop frowned. “What’s this?”

Scully peered at the small object in the corner of the suspended bag. An eagle’s head floated above an armored helmet, which topped a shield. A black, scalloped ‘X” or diagonal cross was emblazoned on the shield. “It looks like a family crest or something.”

“What’s the legend say?” Goren squinted. “‘Regardez mon droit.’ It’s, ah, French. Respect my right.”

“Heraldry and rappers?” Scully pondered.

“It’s a strongly hierarchical subculture – grandiose, almost regal titles; heavy use of symbolic devices; an emphasis on respect and a sort of internal honor. You can order your family genealogy and coat of arms from any number of websites. Strange…”

“A little.”

“No, I mean, it’s hand-crafted. Metal setting, ceramic inlays. Cheap-looking materials, but some obvious skill went into making it.” Goren turned the evidence bag. “And look — you see any pin, any eyelet for a necklace or bracelet? What’s its function? A lucky charm?”

Rodgers nodded toward Forester’s ravaged remains. “Then he should get a refund.”

Apartment of Stanford Grant

Central Park West, New York

Thursday, April 16

“Wow, an Edmund Dulac.”

Stanford Grant turned, greeting Mulder’s boyish enthusiasm with a sudden smile. He regarded the poster that had attracted the agent – a chilling depiction of a redheaded warrior watching stoically as three witches watched over their roiling cauldron.

“Reproduction, of course. Bought it in London years ago. It’s from a 1911production at His Majesty’s Theater. It’s my favorite – the most expressive rendering I’ve ever seen.” Grant set Mulder and Eames’ steaming mugs on a long African teak table flanked by three leather club chairs. “You a fan of Shakespeare or of Victorian graphic arts?”

Mulder settled into his chair, glancing out the penthouse window at Central Park. “Just all things mordant and macabre. I did see the Scottish play once when I was at Oxford. I think maybe Ian McKellen was the lead.”

“Oxford? Edmund Dulac?” The producer lowered himself into the thick leather. “I hope this doesn’t offend, but you surprise me.”

Mulder grinned, sipping his Kenya AA. “Well, I’ve always had a fascination with MacBeth. At least, the folklore surrounding it. By the way, love the new title. ‘I love the ladies and they love me back. Now who’s the Mack?’” He turned to Eames. “Ice T.”

The detective smiled tolerantly. The ride over had been enough of a trip.

“My, you are eclectic,” Grant chuckled. “It was a fortunate accident of linguistics. As you noted, in hip-hop argot, a ‘mack’ is a ladies man. It also refers to an uzi, and to get your mack on, well, Agent Mulder, I’m going to guess you can surmise that one. Sex and violence and power – the gangsta life encapsulated. And if that wasn’t enough, to put your mack on means to dance, to get your groove on. Perfect for Broadway’s next hit musical, eh?”

“Plus, it’s a nifty way to get around the Macbeth curse,” Mulder suggested.

“The curse?” Grant stroked his gray brush mustache with amusement. “Surely you don’t subscribe to that old superstition, do you, Agent?”

“The play does contain very strong occult themes, and its history is riddled with controversy,” Mulder suggested before Eames could divert the conversation to matters less ethereal. “Every major playwright or author strikes a few nerves. I’m sure you flared a few tempers writing about American race relations, poverty, Vietnam in the ‘70s. In Shakespeare’s day, the Catholic Church was still pretty worked up over Jacobean witchcraft. In the late 16th Century, Scotland’s King James accused a group of Scottish witches of trying to kill him by raising storms at sea and casting spells with wax images. He even wrote a tract called Daemonologie to wake the public up about the evils of witchcraft. The play already was loaded with controversy: Shakespeare’s inspiration for Macbeth was the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, when Catholic conspirators tried to blow up King James and his entire Parliament.”

“So what, the Catholic church put a whammy on Old Bill?” the producer chuckled. “Or maybe just a pissed-off witch or two? I’m guessing you’ve read the speculation Shakespeare used real incantations in the text of the play, and that that didn’t sit too well with some of the more serious black arts practitioners of the day.” Grant’s smile disappeared. “Actually, Macbeth’s been my life’s blessing — I’d likely have never seen my 18th birthday if some liberal actor hadn’t decided to bring Shakespeare to Chicago’s inner city schools. Where I caught the bug, so to speak. I owe The Bard a debt I can never repay. That aside, as much as I’m enjoying dissecting the Scottish Play with you, I have to assume you’re seeking a more earthly culprit for that poor man’s murder.”

“We do understand there were some tensions among your cast,” Eames ventured.

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Grant laughed. “That’s like saying there’s an air of competition at a Knicks game. Tension – interpersonal antipathy, thespian rivalry, even sexual tension — makes for good theater. Sometimes, you throw a grenade into the mix, and you get something truly phenomenal.”

“Forester was the grenade?”

“Poor turn of phrase, sorry. But, yes, I suppose he was. When we brought the show to Broadway, the feeling was that a recognized member of the hip-hop community would bring a raw veracity to the lead.” Grant spotted something on Mulder’s face. “And, yes, we realized his, ah, notoriety couldn’t hurt sales – could maybe even bring a new audience to Broadway. Look at the box office popularity of Queen Latifah, Sean Combs’ success in the 2004 revival of Raisin in the Sun. Of course, Elliot’s professional and personal style sometimes clashed with the rest of the cast. He was somewhat more autonomous than formally trained actors.”

“I heard he got fairly autonomous on Darrell Ives’ ass the day he was killed,” Mulder suggested.

Grant was silent for a moment. “Well, I know it was difficult for Darryl when the decision was made to cast Elliot in the lead. I mean, Darryl was the primary force behind taking the production to Broadway. Plus, Elliot wasn’t accustomed to the team dynamic of the theater. He had the moves down – lot of choreography in his concert routines – and he could do the lines. But he wasn’t used to taking direction and working with classically trained performers. There was a fairly deep cultural rift, absolutely. But nothing that would lead to what…happened to Elliot. If anything,…”

“What, Mr. Grant?” Eames coaxed.

The playwright sighed. “Well, I just can’t see anyone in our production being capable of this kind of violence. If anything, and I hate to contemplate this, but if anything, I wonder if Elliot’s world didn’t catch up to him. Drugs, his old gang ties. I don’t know. ‘Things bad begun make strong themselves by ill.’”

“‘Just when I think I’m out, they pull me back in,’” Mulder responded in a bad Pacino.

“Or as they used to say in my old ‘hood, ‘What goes around comes around,’” Grant murmured.

Tri-B Studios

Brooklyn. New York

Thursday, April 16

“Bobby G!” The lanky young man leapt from his seat at the mixing board and pulled Goren into a bear hug.

“Sorry about your cousin,” the cop murmured, returning the embrace. Tyrese Forester pulled back with a somber expression, acknowledging his sympathies with a curt nod.

“You gonna get the man did this?” Tyrese turned to Scully. “Man here saved my skinny ass, sholda than show. My brother and me was with a crew outta the Bronx – shit, I was, what, 13? — and Bobby started gettin’ all up in my face.”

“I was working Narcotics then,” Goren smiled, as if they were swapping family reminiscences.

“Yeah, this Frankenstein-lookin’ cracker come around, on our turf, pumpin’ all this mad shit to my boys how he’s gonna shut us down, put us up north? Well, he finds out the feds, they gonna crash our shit, and rousts me right on the street ‘side my mama’s house. I was ready to bust a cap in his cracker ass, but one of our boys been bangin’ this bitch ran with one of the southside crews, and they beat the Dee-Eee-Ay boys by a couple hours. Execution style, straight up – El hadn’t drove Mama to my aunt’s funeral that day, been me haulin’ his coffin. Didn’t have much of a crew after that, and Bobby here gets me on cleanin’ up the studio. They taught me how to work the board, got me a union card, and now I don’t have to worry ‘bout getting’ my ass capped.”

“You think that’s what happened to your cousin?” Scully inquired.

“Naw, El been outta that shit for years, ever since he went platinum,” Tyrese responded. He was a player – gettin’ crunk, flamboastin’ like Snoop. Truth, he loved the gangsta life but never had the heart for the rough shit. Party, that was El.”

Goren glanced into the booth, where a burly man was arguing animatedly with an older man who’d adopted a patient ref pose, hands on hips. “Tyrese, I listened to some of your cousin’s tracks last night. He was fond of screwing mixes, wasn’t he?”

“Yeah, I guess,” the younger Forester answered softly, with a slightly defensive tone. “You askin’ was he sippin’?”

“Was he?” the detective prodded, eyes locked on Tyrese’s. The young man sighed and nodded. “Screwing means to play a record slow – makes the bass come out better, and it’s easier to mix with ballads. It’s especially popular with people who ‘sip syrup’ – blend promethazine or other codeine-based cough suppressants with Sprite, 7-Up, other drinks, to get a psychedelic feel when they listen to ‘screw mixes.’ There was a fairly new ring on the table next to the chair where Elliott…died. The lab reported it was promethazine mixed with codeine. But we couldn’t find any syrup anywhere in the apartment.”

“So El wasn’t no Mutha Teresa. What’s that got to do with this shit?”

“It may have to do with how he died. I think maybe the killer took the bottle away. Tyrese, he have anything going on? I mean, a woman?”

“Like I said, El was a player. Girl was a bobblehead, you know?” Forester offered an illustrative gesture, ducking his head repeatedly. Then he glanced at Scully. “Sorry. She was like Baskin-Robbins – always after the flava of the month, and El was Deluxe Rocky Road. But it got El sprung, idea of getting’ his mack on with some debutante Meryl Streep wannabe. He was a player, and he was gonna hit that long as he could.”

“Ah, the romance of the theater,” Scully rhapsodized.

Langston Hughes High School

Harlem, New York

Thursday, April 16

“Of this dead butcher and his fiend-like queen, who, as ’tis thought, by self and violent hands took off her life; this, and what needful else that calls upon us, by the grace of Grace. We will perform in measure, time and place: So, thanks to all at once and to each one, whom we invite to see us crown’d at Scone.”

Darrell Ives bowed with a flourish, and the quintet of students that comprised Langston Hughes’ Drama Club burst into a brief smattering of applause. As he jumped from the cafetorium “stage” with a stiff smile, the club’s faculty sponsor offered an effusive expression of gratitude as the club’s members nodded perfunctorily. He offered the usual platitudes about hard work and focus and persistence, and bid a hasty adieu.

Halfway across the scuffed linoleum, Ives slowed. In the doorway were the cops who’d come around asking about Forester that morning, the quiet redhead and the devious giant. The giant beamed welcomingly, and Ives’ guard went up.

“Nice,” Goren observed as the actor approached, warily eyeing the pair. “I mean, giving back to the community that way.”

Ives smiled tightly, trying to figure out whether this was a dig at his Long Island upbringing. “Stanford says it’s my responsibility as an artist – to bring my art to the people, to the streets.” He glanced back at a couple of snickering teens. “Personally, I’m not so sure I stimulated any young minds today – can’t imagine Jacobean theater’s really relevant to them — but it’s important to Stanford.”

“Good to see you don’t bear any ill will toward him,” Goren interjected. “Grant, that is. I mean, him replacing you with Forester and all…”

“Forester had marketing value,” Ives sighed, as if he’d memorized the line. “Stanford made a savvy marketing move. Besides, I don’t expect Forester would’ve been around forever. Lot of the reason guys like him get into the gangs is they’re ADD – attention deficit. He’d have had his fun and moved on to the next CD or action thriller.”

“And then you’d be back in the lead,” Scully suggested. “Congratulations, by the way.”

“Isn’t the way I wanted it. Now, if you’ll excuse me…”

Goren turned toward the front entrance to the aging school, glancing past the stoic security guard. “Oh, your cab isn’t here yet. We could give you a ride back to the theater, you want.”

“Uh, no. Thanks. It should be here any second,” Ives said longingly.

“Sure it makes things easier for you, though,” Goren contemplated.

“What?”

“Forester being gone. I mean, we heard about the little scuffle between you and Forester on stage the other day.” Goren smiled sympathetically. “Must’ve been pretty humiliating.”

“He only humiliated himself,” Ives snapped without much conviction. “It was stupid, juvenile.”

“Like a schoolyard fight. Probably a woman involved, right?” Goren grinned and looked to Scully, who arched an eyebrow. She was beginning to get used to his antics.

“There it is,” Ives announced, pushing past Goren. “You got any more questions, I gave you my lawyer’s card yesterday. Good luck.”

The actor practically flew down the front steps of the school, past the concrete schoolyard, and into a cab driven by a white-bearded Sikh. Goren and Scully watched the taxi lurch from the curb.

“I don’t know,” the agent murmured. “Burning Forester alive for a part? Or a woman?”

Goren nodded absently. “You saw how uncomfortable he was in there with those kids. He couldn’t wait to escape. But Grant said it was ‘important.’ He worships him, like a son worships a father. A prodigal son.”

“Ives killed Forester because of some kind of Freudian displacement complex?” Scully challenged. “Methinks you doth read too much Shakespeare.”

“The whole killing had a melodramatic, almost staged aspect,” Goren countered. “And if Ives felt Forester were somehow desecrating Grant’s play, he might’ve been subconsciously inclined to imbue the murder with the trappings of the Macbeth curse.”

Scully shook her head. “I bet you and Mulder were a blast at the frat house.”

West Avon, Connecticut

Thursday, April 16

Errol’s cup rattled on its saucer with the impact of Connie’s moist, meaty palm. His son’s face was florid, distraught, dangerous.

“You did it, didn’t you?” Conrad had always approached Errol’s obsession – his family’s obsession – with cold rationality. It was impossible, imponderable. But at the same time, he pondered the possibility, dug into dusty and digital archives, exhaustively researched it. It peeked from beneath the mental door behind which Conrad had securely confined it. It was unbelievable but somehow undeniable.

“Listen to yourself,” Errol sneered, daubing his spilled coffee with his napkin. He was an absurd figure of antiquated gentility. A cloth napkin for breakfast? And who used a saucer any more? “The man’s death is unfortunate. But even if I accept responsibility for what happened, do you honestly believe the police are intelligent enough – open enough – to grasp the significance of my ‘gift’?”

“Jesus, Pop,” Connie whined. “The guy was famous, and the way he was killed. If they can even trace it back to us, there’ll be questions. And if they look back, Jesus.”

“It’s done.” Errol folded his Times to the daily crossword, and not for the first time, Conrad considered choking the life from the old man, throttling the smug delusion from him. His knotted fingers straightened as realization hit home.

“You didn’t send just the one, did you?” he asked, voice tinged with dread.

“I followed the traditional custom,” his father mumbled, scratching at the boxes on the pages.

Conrad dropped into a chair, jaw slack, mind racing, as Errol drifted away…

Residence of Todd Frankel

Brooklyn, New York

Friday, April 17

“Old Dungeons and Dragons partner?” Eames asked, eyeing the array of swords, shields, crests, and medieval figurines lining Todd Frankel’s cramped and cluttered Brooklyn apartment.

Mulder grinned at Eames’ jibe. She had Scully’s sardonic wit, but with a streetwise cynicism she likely had inherited from her cop father and honed during her tour in NYPD Vice. “Todd’s helped me out on a couple of cases — genealogy, Druidic lore, stuff like that. Besides programming games, he’s written four or five books on the Middle Ages and the Carolingian Renaissance. Besides, I was into Tetris and Galaga — Dungeons and Dragons was for geeks. How’s it coming, Todd?”

“Hold your ass, Mulder,” the balding gnomish young man growled in a thick Big Apple patois, rapping keys with one mustard-stained finger while grabbing another bite of Big Mac and washing it down with a supersized Coke. A speck of ground beef fell from Todd Crichton’s lips as they curled into a triumphant smile. “Fuckin’ A — I thought so. C’mere.”

Mulder leaned over Todd’s shoulder, Eames less so.

“Thought I recognized the family legend, that engrailed saltire — the cross thing there — looks like piranhas been workin’ on it. Middleton crest. Whatcha call a habitation name — geographical, like middle town, you know? It’s some pretty ancient Anglo Saxon shit — there’s a lotta Middletons, like Chins in a Chinese phonebook, you know? You know the joke, right?”

Eames uttered an impatient response.

“There’s a couple famous Middletons. Lilly Munster — Yvonne deCarlo, cacked a few months back? — her real name was Middleton. Then there was Tommy Middleton — Thomas Middleton. Wrote plays back in the 17th Century, kinda Shakespeare light.”

“Todd,” Mulder drawled. “Were Shakespeare and Middleton contemporaries?”

“They were homies, kinda — if you consider Shakespeare Tupac and Middleton Kool Moe Dee. Both of ‘em could write both comedy and tragedy, which was kinda unusual back in the day. But you only hear about one of Middleton’s plays today — The Changeling? They did it as a movie a couple of times, I think. Otherwise, nobody much ever hears of him no more. Oh, and Middleton was kinda a Jacobean script doctor, too. Even gave Shakespeare some help one time.”

“What play?” Mulder asked anxiously.

“Macbeth. Most of the Weird Sisters shit — you know, ‘double, double, toil, and trouble’ — was from Middleton’s The Witch. Wasn’t even part of Shakespeare’s original story, but old Will gets all the credit.” Todd retrieved his dripping burger. “I was Middleton, I’d be royally pissed.”

**

“And the purpose of this little academic exercise was….?” Eames inquired.

“To address the anomaly,” Mulder said, eyeing the prodigious double cheese slice the counterboy’d deposited before him. It was early, and Angie’s Little Pizza Heaven was empty save the pair.

Eames gathered her slice and Diet Pepsi and followed him to a corner table near the Simpsons video game. “Glad we cleared that one up.”

Mulder grinned crookedly. “Anomalies clog the investigative process. You have to clear out the puzzle pieces that don’t fit, the odder odds and ends, the divergences from everyday routine and personal psychology. Then, you can see the bigger picture – the true pattern of the crime. Besides,” the agent added, tearing into his slice, “anomalies are bitchin’ cool.”

Eames studied the anomaly across the table. He made Bobby look like the picture of stodgy conventionalism, and with her partner, the weaving, meandering ride inevitably wound up somewhere worthwhile. “I’ll admit, I am curious what Bog Noyz and medieval heraldry have in common.”

“The crest wasn’t a piece of jewelry – it had no hardware. And it wasn’t Forester’s crest. Instead, it belongs to a family with whom Shakespeare was associated. You’ve heard of sampling, right?”

“’It’s a hard knock life…’” Eames sang off-key.

“You go, Sister, though I’m not sure whether what Jay-Z was doing wasn’t more of a remix than sampling,” Mulder laughed. “But you’ve got the idea. You insert a familiar lyric or musical passage into a song as an homage or for ironic effect or just because you’ve hit the creative wall. It wasn’t so entirely different in the bad old days of Wild Bill Shakespeare. There’s already enough speculation about which works Shakespeare actually wrote and what might actually have been penned by Marley or Francis Bacon or some schmuck we’ve never even heard of. Add to that all the copying and ‘borrowing’ and blatant plagiarism that went on during the period. What if Thomas Middleton didn’t voluntarily add the Weird Sisters to Macbeth, or even if he did, if his descendants somehow came to believe Middleton had been cheated out of his fame by the John Grisham of the Jacobean Era.”

Eames’ face was lined with concern. Bobby’s friend was a lunatic. Worse yet, a lunatic with a badge and a gun.

Mulder was oblivious to the detective’s expression. “And what if Middleton’s fiction was based on an actual knowledge of witchcraft? What if his characters were developed from real-life models? What if that crest you found on Forester wasn’t a charm, but something quite the opposite?”

“What the hell?” Eames’ sudden exclamation startled Mulder as well as the boy behind the counter. “What in the hell are you talking about? Curses? Jesus. I know you’re a friend of Bobby’s, but this is just, just insane.”

Mulder leaned forward, his brow knit in grave sincerity. “But what if it isn’t? What if it isn’t?” He burst into laughter, and leaned back. “Look, Det. Eames, I know it sounds unorthodox, but how would you explain Elliott Forester coming into possession of such an unusual object?”

“Ebay? He finds out it’s associated with Shakespeare, with Macbeth, and he figures it’ll bring him luck. The guy loved his bling.”

“OK,” Mulder acknowledged. “That’s a legitimate avenue of investigation, and we should follow it. I’d like to follow an additional avenue.”

“And that avenue starts where?”

“Alec Baldwin.” The indignation drained from Eames’ face, to be replaced with mute astonishment. “C’mon, Detective – you drive. I already adjusted the seat for Scully.”

The Shiban Theater

Manhattan, New York

Friday, April 17

“Don’t know what we’re going to do now,” Lisette deBow sighed, hooking a slender arm over the back of her chair as her reflection in the makeup mirror did the same. In the corner of her makeup table was a photo of a much younger and more carefree Lisey, beaming under the muscular arm of a gray-haired black man in T-shirt and suspenders. “Stanford says the producers aren’t pulling the plug yet, but most of the press, the programs, the advertising — well, Elliott was pretty much the big draw.”

“What’s the old saying?” Goren asked from his perch on the dressing room couch. “‘The show must go on?’”

The young actress grimaced. “Can’t go on without the money.”

“Yeah, but you’ve still got Darrell Ives. I mean, he’s done some stage, a little TV. I think I saw him on HBO a week ago.”

“Yeah,” deBow nodded unenthusiastically. “It was an adaptation of one of Stanford’s early plays — Brother Act. Darrell’s kind of Stanford’s protégé.”

Goren’s brow wrinkled in feigned confusion. “He was Mac B. — Macbeth — in the original production off-Broadway, wasn’t he? Now, he’s what, Banquo, basically, right? That bother him?”

“Darrell’s a trooper,” deBow stated flatly. “He understood.”

“In fact,” Goren continued, building momentum, “one of the crew said you used to date Darrell, right? I mean, during the original production?”

DeBow blinked stonily. “Things happen all the time backstage — all the adrenalin and tension. It just didn’t work out. Probably our artistic egos.”

“Zocor?”

DeBow, rattled by Goren’s line of questioning, glanced quizzically at Scully, who was now behind her, holding a pill bottle taken from her makeup table. “What?”

“I’m sorry,” the agent smiled apologetically, shaking the bottle like a castanet. “I recognized the color and shape. My cousin has a cholesterol problem, and they just switched her from Lipitor to Zocor. Working for you?”

The actress appeared relieved by the sidetrack. “Genetic thing, high LDL. Both my sisters and my mom. Yeah, a little soreness in the joints from time to time. But my count was down some last checkup.”

“Janet says diet’s important, too,” Scully added. “She’s eating a lot of salmon, tuna — the dark-fleshed fish.”

“Omega-3s. Yeah, me, too — I’ve learned to love sushi.”

“Almonds, too — supposed to help lower the bad cholesterol.” DeBow swiveled back to Goren, who was reaching into his jacket pocket. “And dark chocolate — it’s like an antioxidant.” He held up a bag full of chocolate-covered nuts. “You want some?”

Lisette deBow studied the bag warily.

“C’mon, have one. It’s the same brand you like to snack on. You dropped one at Forester’s, and left some salmon in the fridge. Big Noyz didn’t appear to be very health-conscious — salty carbs and milk chocolate and caramel.”

“It wouldn’t have been the first stage romance ever,” Scully murmured sympathetically. “Why the big secret?”

“Big Noyz didn’t live up to your artistic standards?” Goren prodded. “Afraid of what the gang at Elaine’s might say?”

“It wasn’t me,” deBow finally whispered. She looked up, pain in her eyes. “It was him. In retrospect, I guess I was just a resident bootie call for him. He said it was bad for his image for us to be out together. His image.”

“That why you packed so abruptly, on the spur of the moment?”

DeBow’s defiant demeanor suddenly deteriorated into one of despair. “OK. OK. But you have to believe me. I found him like — like…” The actress looked as though she might vomit. “I didn’t kill him. I couldn’t, especially not like–”

“I know,” Goren nodded, touching her forearm sympathetically. “The freight elevator has a security cam. You came up on it to avoid being seen, right? Then the video got you rushing out with two armfuls of clothes. Less than 10 minutes. You couldn’t have done it. So who did? Your old boyfriend? Darrell?”

DeBow’s eyes widened. “He couldn’t have done…that.”

Doubt lingered in her reply.

**

“Stanford?”

Stanford Grant looked up from his script revisions, expression neutral. Darrell had perceived a certain detachment from the playwright since the decision had been made to put Forester on top of the marquee. Now, his mentor sat back, templing his fingers.

“Glad you came by. We want you back.”

Darrell was speechless. He assumed the show would close, or they’d go shopping for another name.

“What about the marquee value?” he finally asked, drily. Stanford sighed.

“Look, Darrell. I know you feel you got a raw deal. But this is your opportunity, and I would seize it. As distasteful as it may be, we’ve gotten a lot of media exposure. You know the show; you’ve mastered the part. We have complete confidence in your ability to carry the production. If you want it, of course.”

“Of course,” Darrell croaked, too quickly. “When we reopening?”

“Two weeks. Think you can get back up on your lines?”

“Yeah. Absolutely.” Darrell fell silent.

“What?”

“It’s just…Those cops were by earlier – they talked to the crew and Lisette. They know about me getting into it with Forester the day he was murdered and, uh, about Lisette and I. I’m pretty sure I’m a prime suspect.”

Stanford studied his protégé. “They can’t believe you’d be capable of that kind of savagery.”

“I’m probably, I don’t know, convenient for them.”

The producer nodded gravely. “Good thing you and I were doing lines the night Elliott died.”

Darrell stared at him, then looked away. Stanford returned abruptly to the script on his desk.

“Good to have you back,” the playwright said simply. It hit Darrell, then — the old man suspected him. He hovered for another few seconds, searching for an appropriate line. Then, like any good actor, he took his cue and made his exit.

New York University Department of Physics

Manhattan, New York

Friday, April 17

“Is that it?” Theodor Koscyk asked boyishly, his gnarled fingers twitching toward the evidence bag dangling from Mulder’s hand. “Gimme.”

Eames stared on frowning as the agent passed the Middleton crest to the septuagenarian physicist. Mulder had dragged her around three boroughs, consulting geekish shop owners, a Hasidic jeweler, and the public library on what had seemed to be some kind of bizarre goose chase.

“It is karmic that Chuck Burks told me of your query,” the old man said. “I’ve been close to a breakthrough in validating kirlian photography over the past 15 years.” Koscyk turned to Eames. “You are familiar with kirlian photography?”

“Ah…”

“In 1939, Semyon Kirlian discovered that if an object on a photographic plate is subjected to a high-voltage electric field, an image is created on the plate. The image resembles a coronal discharge, a halo. The image is said to be a physical manifestation of the spiritual aura or ‘life force’ which allegedly surrounds each living thing.” Koscyk led the investigators through his lab to a device similar to a microwave. He placed the bagged trinket inside, closed a transparent door, and punched shakily at a keypad mounted on the side.

“I maintain the aura is no more than a form of quasi-electromagnetic energy that has yet to be quantified,” Koscyk continued. “This energy can be conveyed by living organisms to inorganic objects or even locales. Just as they are attuned to sounds outside the human auditory range, so can animals sense this energy. Why else are canines repelled or enraged by certain people or places? Of course, I don’t commonly share my theories with the academic community at large. Provincial thinkers, most of them.”

Eames clucked sympathetically, willing an escape from the madman’s lair. Mulder appeared fascinated.

The faux-microwave began to hum, and lights began to flare and flicker under the glass beneath the Middleton crest.

“Do you believe in curses, Doctor?” Mulder asked. Eames stared at him.

“Again, energy,” Koscyk snapped. “It’s all energy. You’re very fetching for a policeman, by the way.”

Eames and Mulder both perked. To Mulder’s relief and Eames’ consternation, the scientist was favoring her with a broad yellow grin.

“Ah, here it is,” Koscyk sighed happily. “Observe.”

Eames peered inside the box despite herself. The trinket inside the plastic bag “glowed” – black, if that were possible.

“Energy,” her admirer murmured at her elbow. “Very strong energy.”

**

“I’ve got dinner plans tonight,” Eames said as they hit the street outside the NYU lab. “Are we planning any more excursions down the rabbithole?”

Mulder merely grinned.

Residence of Lisette deBow

Greenwich Village, New York

Friday, April 17

“Shit,” Lisette muttered. The actress glanced anxiously at Simon Yates, to see how he’d reacted to the curse. The producer been staring into her cleavage as she climbed into his Mercedes coupe, and he looked quickly away.

Lisette wasn’t surprised, and indeed was slightly pleased. She’d felt Yates appraising her ever since the show moved to the Shiban, and if he wanted to put on the pretense of discussing career opportunities, well, then, he’d have to produce an opportunity or two, wouldn’t he? Lisette had long ago lost her taste for takeout rice and pizza.

“What’s wrong?” Simon asked, an impatient smile on his face. He planned to take her to a place here in the Village — a place where he would never take his wife — and then, hopefully, come back to her apartment. He was on a timeline.

“My bag,” Lisette said apologetically. “Just a minute, I swear.”

“I’ve got dinner–” he began, but it was too late — his Lady M. already was ascending the stoop.

**

Lisette knew something was wrong the second she nudged the door open. She’d left the light on over the kitchenette sink, and a shadow flitted into the hall.

Lisette gasped, then disobeyed the New Yorker’s No. 1 Edict, stepping toward the shadow rather than running like hell. “What are you doing here? You come out.”

The air in the apartment was still, and then she heard it. Low, labored, frightened breathing.

Lisette eschewed New Yorker’s Edict 2. “I’m calling the cops, you son of a bitch.”

And, as if completing a spell, she flushed Edict No. 3 and flipped the light switch.

“The hell,” she muttered, looking into the terrified eyes of her intruder. Lisette spotted her purse on the coffee table and started toward it. The room exploded, and she was thrown back against the living room wall.

“Ohfuckohfuckohfuck,” her intruder sobbed, staring at her crumpled body, the blood spreading onto her rug. Lisette looked up imploringly, blood on her lips, and the intruder bolted toward the firescape window that had provided entry moments before.

As the cold overtook her, Lisette deBow listened curiously to the metallic, retreating steps….

Major Case Squad

Saturday, April 18

“My money’s on Ives,” Eames said, setting her coffee on the interview table. “It’s like Shakespeare wrote the script: Forester bumped him from the lead, then knocked Nikes with his leading lady. The killing has revenge all over it.”

“And, unfortunately, very little evidence I can take to Carver,” Capt. Ross noted. He turned to Goren. “What do you think, Detective?”

The burly detective frowned, looking up from his open laptop. “There was a photo in Lisette deBow’s dressing room –Lisette I assume with her dad. He was wearing suspenders and a T-shirt. Odd combo, right?”

“Unless you’re a fireman,” Eames supplied. Goren began to nod vigorously.

“Exactly. Did you know Lisette grew up in Crown Point, N.Y.?”

“Crown Point,” Ross considered. “Why’s that familiar?”

Eames breathed. “George Mott, the alleged spontaneous combustion case. DeBow’s father worked with Mott?”

“Mott turned in his papers before Harold deBow joined the company. But every firefighter over 30 knows the Mott case, chapter and verse.”

“You think she faked the spontaneous combustion element?” the captain inquired. “Fireman’s kid, she could’ve picked up a few tricks. Could’ve known about the cameras on the freight elevator, too.”

Goren held up a hand and pointed to his laptop screen. Eames stepped around the table and spotted a beaming Darrell Ives.

“Village Voice,” Goren explained. “They did a piece on Ives a few months back, before Forester replaced him in the show. Ives apparently has aspirations of writing as well as acting. He’s been trying to round up backers for his own play, Ignition.”

Ross perked.

“Ives’ says it’s ‘an absurdist satire about a young, middle-class African-American man caught between his affluent upbringing and modern cultural pressures, who eventually exploded amid social friction and endemic racism.’”

“Write about what you know,” Eames said, dryly. “Or at least what your ex-squeeze knows. Carver ought to like this.”

“How would he like a two-for-one?” Mulder asked from the doorway. Eames’ jaw tightened; Goren looked up with interest. “I finally got hold of Alec Baldwin’s people, and one of them remembers getting one of those Middleton crests in the mail back in 1998. They threw it away — thought it was some kind of promotional junk mail — but it stuck in his assistant’s mind because it was so unusual.”

“Hold up,” Ross protested, perplexed.

“In 1998, in an off-Broadway production, Baldwin accidentally sliced open the hand of his Macduff with a sword,” Goren related. “Some attributed it to the Macbeth curse.”

“That’s not all,” Mulder reported. “I googled up every professional, community, and Shakespeare production of Macbeth I could find and canvassed a couple of dozen Macbeths and Lady Macbeths all over the country. At least eight of them remembered receiving crests. I think our Shakespearean avenger is using the web as a curse mailing list.”

Capt. Ross stared at the agent. “You gotta be kidding.”

“And I have reason to believe this is some kind of multi-generational tradition. I found an estate catalogues for Ian Galsborough, an actor who died during a production in 1946, and the Middleton crest turned up in one of the odd lots of jewelry. I bet if we dug deeper, we’d find out the Middletons have been sending these ‘gifts’ for decades, maybe even centuries.”

“Call the History Channel,” Ross smirked. “How’s this help us?”

“I checked around the jewelry district to see if anybody could identify the work on the crest you found in deBow’s apartment. A wholesaler remembered a Connecticut jeweler who tried to pitch a line of heraldic jewelry to him back in the early ‘90s. Errol’s Fine Jewelry. Current owner is Errol’s son, Conrad. Conrad Middleton.”

Ross looked to Goren, who nodded. The detective was emotionally erratic, but his intuitive instincts were unerring.

“OK,” the captain sighed. “Time for a little jewelry shopping. Just check in with the locals and proceed with caution – I’m still not sold on this whole curse mishegoss.”

“Uh, I want to float a theory past Rodgers,” Goren said. “I’d like Agent Scully to sit in, too, in a forensic capacity.”

“Look’s like I’m your man,” Mulder chimed.

Neither Ross nor Eames appeared euphoric about the prospect.

**

“It’s possible,” Rodgers murmured skeptically. “I suppose that’s why they call it an accident, though this one would be more freakish than most. And you were right – wasn’t much undamaged tissue to sample, but we did find traces of promethazine and codeine.”

“Alcohol would enhance the sedative effects of the promethazine,” contributed Scully, who’d been briefed on the ride to the lab. “Promethazine’s well-absorbed by the gastrointestinal tract, but the syrup carrier could have temporarily bound the alcohol to the esophageal lining.”

“The wick,” Goren said, grimly. “Or you might say, the fuse. The alcohol was the accelerant.”

Rodgers’ eyes narrowed. “Awful iffy as a murder method. Lot of factors have to come together.”

“Did you find anything on the body?”

Rodger nodded the cop and the agent to a laptop on her lab table. She punched up a graphic photo Goren and Scully recognized as charred skin. “I can’t be sure – again, too much damage – but it looks like it could be a taser mark. About the right distance between prongs. So you think your killer used a stun gun to light the wick?”

“I think it was an accident. I think the murderer was trying to subdue Forester, maybe take him somewhere else to kill him. Maybe stage a gang killing. The ‘spontaneous’ combustion was a lucky accident. It provided a red herring while covering the killer’s tracks.”

“But the hand,” Scully protested, despite herself.

“Forester was a big Mets fan,” Goren explained. “It was his signature – he hung with the players, wore a fez with the Mets logo and wore a game-used batting glove, gift from Carlos Delgado about a year ago. Forester was probably wearing it when he was killed – it insulated his hand from the fire.”

“The murderer pulls off the glove, and you’ve got all the classic earmarks of SHC,” Scully considered.

“So who lit the fuse?” Rodgers posed.

Errol’s Fine Jewelry

West Avon, Connecticut

Saturday, April 18

“Wow,” Mulder laughed helplessly. “All this crap looks pretty much the same to me. Sorry.”

Conrad Middleton smiled perfunctorily. This schlub probably couldn’t tell a bezel facet from a girdle plane unless it was on a Superbowl ring. They’d been at this for 20 minutes.

But the girlfriend, despite her size, looked like a world-class ball-buster, and he’d close on Joe Sixpack before they left for dinner at Sizzler’s. She already seemed pissed at him. No power like the vice-like iron grip of a good woman.

“No problem, sir,” Connie assured him. “That’s what I’m here for. I’ve got something here I think you might like.”

Mulder reached into his windbreaker. “That’s funny. So have I.”

He placed a small Ziploc bag on the display case. The middle-aged jeweler examined it, then looked quickly up at the agent, eyes wide. Then, Conrad recovered. “What is this?”

Eames, who’d been pretending to study sapphires a few yards behind Mulder, perked. They were supposed to be sizing Middleton up. Was Mulder playing free agent?

“Don’t you recognize it?” Mulder continued, beaming amicably. “I mean, your name is Middleton, right? This is your family crest.”

“Ah,” Connie nodded robotically, heading toward the front of the store. “Sorry, not into all that genealogy stuff. You want it set as a ring? We do some very fine custom work, right here on site.”

“So we see,” Mulder murmured, trailing Middleton. “This is yours’, isn’t it?”

“Honey,” Eames began warily.

“You’ve been misinformed,” Connie said coolly, reaching the cash register. “But I can show you a couple of settings that would look great with it.”

Mulder nodded toward the security camera mounted above the front door. “You know Lisette deBow’s building had a setup like that?”

Connie had scanned the building for cameras for making entry. “Bullshit—” His lips clamped shut. Eames stood mute, attempting to comprehend the situation. The jeweler’s eyes darted toward the detective, then to Mulder, and he dived for a drawer under the register. Connie’s trembling arm came up with a .38, and he backed toward the door.

“Put it down!!” Eames bellowed. Connie broke for the door, pursued by Mulder, as she fumbled her weapon from her purse. This was supposed to be a purely exploratory call, and she’d dressed tourist, sans shoulder harness.

Middleton’s shop was in the center of West Avon’s three-block business district, and the jeweler dodged a scattering of screaming, cringing mid-afternoon pedestrians. He started across Main and Welton, skidding to a stop as a pickup nearly sideswiped him. Mulder caught up to him, panting, and grabbed his forearm. Connie leveled his .38 between the agent’s eyes.

“We saw you’d been robbed twice last year,” Mulder said calmly. “You’re an amateur – I was hoping you wouldn’t get rid of the gun. But you’re also an important local businessman, and your old Kiwanis buddy Judge Peary wouldn’t give us a search warrant. Now we don’t need one.”

“Back off!!” Connie yelled. “Just, just, just lemme go, or I swear I’ll blow your fuckin’ head off.”

Suddenly, the merchant heard a click and felt cold metal against his temple.

“Drop it,” Eames growled quietly from his blind spot. “I mean now.”

The revolver clattered to the concrete. Eames muscled the paunchy man to his knees. “Got something in a bracelet you might like, Connie,” she muttered, closing the cuffs on his wrists.

“Thanks,” Mulder murmured. The cop’s eyes snapped up, and he reeled back at what he saw in them.

Residence of Errol Middleton

West Avon, Connecticut

Saturday, April 18

After Conrad Middleton’s performance on Main, Judge Peary was far less reluctant to issue a search warrant for his father’s home. Mulder and Eames were astonished to find the elder Middleton somewhat befuddled by their arrival with two West Avon officers but otherwise garrulously amiable.

“That’s me, third from left,” Errol informed Eames, tapping a framed black-and-white shot of obvious ‘60s vintage. “The Man Who Came to Dinner. My first role. Say, you’ll want to see this…”

As the former jeweler searched for one of the many scrapbooks littered about the rec room, Mulder scanned the crowded bookshelves flanking the old man’s TV. The agent could see the senility in Errol’s unfocused and oblivious demeanor – it was likely what Mulder was seeking would be in plain site.

He found it between an autographed script of Camelot and a buyer’s guide to antique broaches. The thick album was stuffed with clippings dating from the 1920s to the present – newspaper advances, calendars, and reviews and a more recent section of Internet printouts, all featuring productions of the Scottish Play. A Times story on Elliott Forester was glued neatly on the last full page.

Smiling, Mulder tucked the book under his arm. Then he spotted it – a triangular carving in the poured concrete floor, projecting from under the room-length braided rug. He nudged a toe under the edge of the rug and rolled it back to reveal a five-pointed shape similar to a Star of David.

“Mr. Middleton,” Mulder called. Errol looked up from the memories he was sharing with Eames. “You a religious man?”

The actor frowned disapprovingly. “That’s a little personal, don’t you think?”

“I’m asking because of the pentagram, sir. Are you by any chance Wiccan?”

Errol’s jaw tightened, and then he shrugged. “Well, I don’t advertise it. It’s a tight-knit community, and not everybody respects – what do you call it these days? — religious diversity.”

“People don’t understand the Old Religion – the unfamiliar frightens them,” Mulder said. “Like the Wiccan Rede says, ‘An it harm none, do what thou wilt.’ You got a Book of Shadows? I’ve always wanted to see one.”

The old man smiled warmly. “Well, you seem to be a fairly enlightened young man. Let’s go upstairs.”

Major Case Squad

Saturday, April 18

“The boy’s a cretin,” Errol sighed, spreading his hands and subtly checking himself in the interview room’s two-way mirror. The senior Middleton’s attorney was on his left flank, ready to pounce. His son sat on his other side, sullen and childlike despite his bulk.

Goren suppressed a grin – Errol’s every gesture was theatrical, in a cheesy dinner theater sense. When Mulder and Eames called on him, he’d failed to comprehend that he was under arrest along with his offspring. Though for what, precisely, no one was sure. Conrad clearly acted alone in murdering deBow. The Wiccan literature in Errol’s study, the pentagram carved into the basement floor under the old man’s Persian rug appeared to confirm Mulder’s arcane theory, but if it wasn’t laughed out of court, Errol’s lawyer would play the religious freedom card.

“You’re a patron of the arts,” Goren invited. “He doesn’t understand, does he?”

“Thank you,” Errol said precisely, smiling broadly. “He rejected every effort by his mother and I to enrich his cultural experience. He viewed the business I’d crafted over 50 years as some kind of cold cash enterprise. No sense of artistry.”

“He didn’t understand the injustice, the insult. Why it was important to remind the world of Thomas Middleton, his contributions.”

Errol’s eyes shone with madness. “Our birthright was stolen by that…that overrated hack. All I was doing, trying to do, was get back a little of our own.”

Connie snorted. Errol’s eyes narrowed.

“Regardez mon droit ,” the actor/jeweler recited venomously. “Respect my right. It was about respect. The Middleton name. You could never understand that.”

“Everybody’s gonna know the Middleton name now, you crazy old bastard,” Connie mumbled. Ross arched his brows at Goren, and the detective exited.

Eames didn’t look up from her paperwork as he approached her desk. “Hey, you OK?” Goren prodded.

Finally, she sighed, spotting Mulder on the other side of squadroom consulting with Scully. “I’m done with him, Bobby. I’m not doing this. Your friend’s little cowboy play could’ve gotten civilians hurt. If he’d gotten himself killed, IAB would’ve flayed me alive.”

Goren shrugged. “He was right, you know.”

“I’m done with him,” Eames repeated.

O’Faolan’s Pub

Midtown, Manhattan

Saturday, April 18

“Just how well does Det. Goren know Mulder, anyway?”

It was a gambit at rousing Eames from her smoldering funk. Scully had gotten an earful about Mulder’s “stunt” in Connecticut, as Capt. Ross had described it to Skinner. The assistant director had been concerned – her partner’s behavior had become more sporadically erratic over the past few months – but he trusted her to monitor the ongoing situation. Scully had left that job to Goren tonight, begging off dinner with the eccentric detectives to take Eames out for a much-needed and hopefully soul-cleaning drink.

Eames glanced grudgingly up from her second mojito. “Bobby didn’t say much – he never does – except he was at Oxford on a two-month fellowship back in the ‘80s and he and Mulder shared more than a few pints over serial killers and psychopathology. They make a good pair, I guess – the Brothers Grim.”

“He’s an acquired taste,” Scully smiled unconsciously. “I’m guessing you might say the same for Det. Goren…”

Eames sparked momentarily. “Hey, Bobby’s a great cop and a great partner.”

Scully caught the jab. She could hardly fault the detective’s indignation at Mulder – his maverick improvisations had caught her off guard a few times. And Scully could empathize with Eames, the daughter of a venerated NYPD veteran, frequently working in the shadow of an eccentric genius. Goren’s quirky brilliance didn’t seem to bother her, but she had no idea what drove Mulder, what demons lurked at his doorstep.

“I’m sorry about what happened today,” Scully sighed, sipping her Chablis. “That wasn’t typical for Mulder. It’s just, lately, he’s been dealing with a lot of issues, questioning himself, I think. What happened today may have been some kind of overcompensation.”

“That what you call it?” Eames muttered, draining her drink. “I didn’t have time to psychoanalyze him when that crazy jeweler almost blew his brains all over Main Street.”

So much for girls’ night out, Scully thought.

Lupo’s

Brooklyn, New York

Saturday, April 18

Goren obviously was a regular – the maitre de, the server, the roaming manager all were solicitous and deferential; the detective ordered in perfectly pitched Italian without glancing at the menu. And he was obviously a solo diner – the staff reacted to Mulder first with surprise, then with suspicion, then with the polite deference due any friend of “Mr. Goren’s.”

“I sense your partner’s displeasure with my investigative technique,” Mulder began, once everyone had scurried off to do Mr. Goren’s bidding. “I guess I can’t blame her – it was kind of spur of the moment.”

Goren shrugged, sipping his wine. “She’s a cop’s kid, respects procedure, teamwork. Hell, it took her months to get used to me. Look, Fox, your partner told me you’d been through a lot recently. It gets to all of us.” His expression darkened. “I almost walked out a few months ago – I told you Mom’s got lymphoma. I had to move her into a facility in the city, and the disease on top of, well, you know… It gets to you, especially when we do what we do every day. You know?”

Mulder sat back with a resigned smile. “Message received, Bobby. Scully’s been shrink-rapping me for months. I’m OK, really. Fine. Subtle change of subject: We sure Conrad Middleton’s alibied for Forester?”

“Phone records verify the conversation he claimed to have had with that wholesaler out of Florida. No way he could have made it into Manhattan and back in time. He had no motive, anyway. DeBow was an accident, so to speak – Middleton was trying to cover his dad’s tracks. The sins of the father.”

Mulder chuckled as the waiter deposited the linguine ala vongole before him. “Was I wrong, or did the old man seem annoyed at him?”

Goren picked up his fork. “Errol Middleton’s been escaping his mundane life onstage for as long as he can remember, soaking up the adulation of his ‘public.’ He probably resented Connie taking center stage today – a boy who’d rejected the theater, who placed no value on his family’s legacy.”

“Guess everyone sees themselves as the star of their own little drama,” Mulder mused as he speared a mussel and began twirling it in pasta. The fork stopped.

“What?” Goren inquired.

“I think,” the agent drawled, “that we may need to recast the lead.”

Park Southwest Plaza Hotel

Manhattan, New York

Saturday, April 18

As Mulder emerged from the bathroom in his boxers, he was surprised to see Scully fully dressed, perched on the edge of the queen bed.

“That’s just going to make it tougher for me, Scully,” he warned.

“No banter, Mulder, please,” his partner said quietly. “This is already going to be difficult enough.”

Mulder fell silent, a coldness forming in his stomach. “Sure.”

Scully sighed sympathetically, sensing his anxiety. “What happened today, Mulder, frightens me. I’ve become used to your maverick independence, to your impulsive, quixotic little quests for the truth. But lately… I know what you’ve been through, what it’s done to you. But this – it can’t go on, Mulder.

“Do you know how hard it was to trust Krycek, to put your life in his hands? But I knew I couldn’t do it alone, that I had to place my faith in others, in forces beyond my control. You said it yourself: No one gets there alone. I can’t, and neither can you, despite your delusions of immortality.”

Mulder stared mutely at his partner, breathing slowly, his throat twitching. “I know that,” he croaked, almost imperceptibly. “You know, don’t you? That I need you?”

“Do you?” Scully regretted it instantly. She reached for his dangling fingers, squeezed them in hers’. Scully smiled. “This is not an ultimatum, Mulder. I hope – scratch that – I pray it’s a wake-up call.”

Office of Assistant District Attorney Ronald Carver

Manhattan, New York

Monday, April 20

“This is like something from a Shakespearean tragedy,” Assistant District Attorney Ron Carver murmured behind templed fingers, his dark, intelligent eyes troubled.

Carver was one of District Attorney Arthur Branch’s top prosecutors, with a conviction rate second only to the mercurial, Melvillean Sam McCoy. He’d worked with Goren for years, and had learned to trust the intense investigator’s instincts – at least to the point where Goren’s sense of ethics and justice diverged from the interests of the State. ADA Carver was acutely aware Goren and Eames were responsible in large part for his high convict rate, and equally cognizant that Goren’s maverick style – not racial preference or personal allegiance — was a prime reason Sam McCoy likely would succeed Branch.

“We’ve broken the alibi,” Eames pointed out. “He’s open game. He was attacked on the street a few years ago. Stun guns may be illegal in the city, but I’ll bet he was connected enough to get one. Somebody at the theater might know.”

“And we have motive,” Goren added.

“Motive?” Carver mused. “Detective, I’m trying to imagine how a jury will critique this melodramatic tale of yours.”

“That’s why we need a dress rehearsal,” Goren stressed, seizing onto the metaphor.

Carver looked to Mulder and Scully, who’d been silent during Goren’s discourse. “And you two buy into this?”

“It was his idea,” Eames said.

“Ah. I’m feeling better and better about this.” The ADA sighed. “However, Detective, your track record has earned you some benefit of the doubt.”

Goren started to rise.

“Some,” Carver added.

The Shiban Theater

Manhattan, New York

Monday, April 20

“I first met Lisette at a casting call for James Baldwin’s The Amen Corner at the Classical Theatre of Harlem, back in 1998,” Darrell Ives began somberly, holding a glass of Chablis in tribute. “She’d come to the city a year earlier, just like a lot of you made the pilgrimage here to discover your artistic essence, discover yourselves. Lisette failed to land the role of Sister Margaret, and I went home without the part of Luke, but as we waited to audition, scripts in hand, we talked – Lord, we talked, about acting, about the African-American theater, about everything. She had a boundless enthusiasm about her craft, and I knew I’d be seeing her again. Little did I know that someday, Lisette and I would share the stage under the direction of the great Stanford Grant.”

Grant nodded thoughtfully, glancing at Lisette deBow’s portrait on an easel in the center of the Shiban’s stage.

“As they say, the show shall go on, and some other talented young woman will fill the role Lisette assayed as her own. But we’ll all remember that Lisette was Lady M., that she helped bring us here, that whatever immortality this production may enjoy is in no small part due to Lisette’s boundless enthusiasm and artistic essence.” Ives raised his glass toward the walkway. “Lisey, if you’ll allow me the curtain line, bravissima, baby!”

Mack’d’s surviving cast and crew lightly applauded the actor’s eulogy, then adjourned to the catered spread Grant had ordered for the memorial. Darrell turned to catch Grant’s appraising eye, then spotted the huge man and the small woman at the lip of the stage.

Goren stepped forward. “That was a nice tribute, Mr. Ives. I’m sure Ms. deBow would’ve appreciated it.”

“Thanks,” Darrell responded, uncertainly. “And I appreciate your catching Lisette’s killer. What senseless stupidity.”

“All murder’s senseless,” Goren smiled. “Satisfying, profitable? Maybe. But in the end, senseless.”

The actor’s jaw tightened. “Look, why don’t you just cut the bullshit, Detective. You seem to think I killed Forester. For what – to take back the lead?”

“Interesting turn of phrase, ‘take back,’ ” Eames said. “How would you like to come downtown for a screening?”

“What’s going on here?”

Stanford Grant had materialized at Darrell’s elbow, arms crossed.

“Mr. Ives has the lead in a little documentary footage we’ve uncovered,” Goren informed the producer.

“Is he under arrest?” the playwright demanded paternally.

“Well, for right now, we’d just like a few answers.”

Grant turned to his Macbeth. “You got an attorney?”

Darrell blinked. “Ah, Dad’s lawyer, I guess.”

“You call him,” Grant directed. He raised a brow at Goren. “Mind if I tag along?”

“Yeah, sure,” Goren smiled. “Tag away.”

Major Case Squad

Monday, April 20

“Mr. Grant. Sorry to keep you waiting.”

The producer glanced up at Goren, tossing the folded Ledger onto the scarred bench beside him with a sigh. “The production’s at a standstill – I’ve lost my male and female leads, and you’ve rousted my new star. I have little else to do.”

The detective tilted his head to examine the front page of the Arts section. Elliot Forester scowled at him from the page. The deck headline – “Whack’d” – was in 72-point type. Goren grinned at Grant. “What do they say? No such thing as bad publicity? I mean, Mack’d’s probably’ll be the top ticket on Broadway once you get going again.”

Stanford Grant regarded him disdainfully. “What do you need from me?”

“Just a few questions.” Goren jerked his head toward the interview room. “C’mon in.”

Darrell Ives looked up wearily as the producer and the cop entered. Grant nodded to the young actor, then surveyed Eames, Mulder, and Scully with a frown. “They treating you all right?” he asked the actor. “You people can’t possibly believe Darrell is capable of such violence. He’s an artist, not some….” His voice trailed.

“Street thug?” Eames inquired. “Like Forester?”

Grant blinked. His jaw tightened. “I’d expect nothing less from you people. You have no concept of the primal artistry of rap.”

“Actually, there’s a fan in the room,” the policewoman smirked, rolling her eyes toward Goren. Scully glanced impatiently at her watch.

Her partner smiled sheepishly. “She’s been giving me crap all week. Det. Eames doesn’t appreciate the form.”

“Please,” Eames breathed.

“No, really,” Goren persisted. “Mr. Grant knows what I mean, right, sir? Shakespeare and Forester, they had a lot in common — Shakespeare took his view of human frailty and folly to the street, busted his own rhymes in iambic pentameter.”

“Bullshit,” Ives spat. “That man treated everything we did like a contemptible joke — swaggering around the stage half-stoned, firing off homophobic cracks at the male cast and trying to get his ‘game on’ with every actress and female crew member in sight. Forester had no more relation to Shakespeare than some punk gangsta scratching a record has to Stokowski. Visceral poetry, please. He was a freak show.”

Goren nodded. “But an extremely lucrative freak show, though, right? I mean, while you’ve been shlogging away off-Broadway and in experimental theater, scratching to pay your rent and cab fare, Forester’s been on the Billboard charts, scooping up Grammies and the ladies, livin’ large in his Manhattan crib.” The detective tapped Ives’ wrist; the actor yanked his arm away in alarm. “That Timex — it set you back, what, maybe $50-$60? You should’ve seen the Rolly — the Rolodex — Forester was wearing when he got torched. It ate at you, didn’t it? All the acting classes, busting your hump, kickin’ it old school up there on stage? Forester was fresh, raw — he was the future, you a thespian dinosaur. Even your mentor here, Mr. Grant, he realized it. Why else would he kick you to the curb for Forester?”

“That’s not–” Grant started, mocha eyes flitting anxiously, guiltily toward Ives. The former stand-in studied the grain of the interview table. “Darrell, you are an artist of immense, inestimable talent. But you know the business today — the play’s no longer the thing. You need brand recognition to sell a show. It wasn’t me — it was the others…”

“The money people,” Eames clarified. “He did stand up for you, Ives. They pressured him to get Forester, add some sizzle to the marquee. Talent didn’t matter — they wanted to pull in the MTV crowd, Generation X-Box.”

“Spoken like a true WASP princess,” Goren sneered. “My partner thinks the theater died with Rodgers and Hammerstein. She likes that Jurassic Park stuff — Les Miz and singing cats. Don’t apologize for your vision, Mr. Grant. Forester was a brilliant choice — a virtual 21st Century Macbeth.”

Grant’s brow arched. “What?”

“Forester was raised in an urban fiefdom where violence and authority defined power and success. An imposing man who did whatever he had to do to rule his domain. Like Macbeth, ambition was his fatal flaw.” Goren turned to Ives. “But the roles were reversed, weren’t they?”

“All right,” Ives’ attorney announced, tossing his papers into his open case. “I’m bringing the curtain down on this little melodrama before it even starts.”

“This production, it was Forester’s shot at another 15 minutes, a lark, another world to conquer before moving on to the next,” Goren persisted. “To you, it was more, wasn’t it? This was your world, and Forester was merely a pretender to the throne. Your throne.”

“He was a fool,” Ives snapped.

“A fool worshiped as a prince. A jester who put the moves to a princess. Your princess.”

Ives’ eyes blazed, but he remained silent. Goren planted a palm on the table, his face inches from the actor’s.

“Forester wasn’t playing the role of Macbeth, was he? He was Banquo, the true heir. You’d been supplanted on the throne and cuckolded by this ‘fool.’ But the worst part –” the detective laughed bitterly “— was the realization that Forester was the rightful heir. That you were the pretender, the old school fossil.”

The lawyer stood abruptly, turning to ADA Carver. “Ron, I’m astonished you’d stand for these histrionics. At best, your man’s case is circumstantial.”

“Maybe not so circumstantial, Counselor,” Eames interjected. “Night Forester was killed, one of the crew members remembered asking your client for some cab fare, but he said he was strapped. We took a chance and ran his debit and credit cards through every ATM system within a mile of the Shiban. Ives withdrew $100 at a kiosk at 6:35 p.m., nine blocks from the theater and right in the middle of his ‘reading’ with Mr. Grant here. And just about dead center between the Shiban and Forester’s crib. We’ve got video — real cinema verite stuff.”

Ives closed his eyes. Grant looked straight ahead.

“That’s why I asked you to come down, Mr. Grant,” Goren grinned. “How about it? You really want to perjure yourself for Ives? I mean, under the circumstances?”

Grant looked to Ives, seemingly torn between loyalty and the legal consequences. The actor sighed and nodded to his mentor.

“I knew how it would look, with Lisette and everything,” Ives said. “And especially after Forester and I got into it on stage. I knew I’d be top of your list. I asked him to back me up. Sorry, Stanford – I shouldn’t have put you on the spot that way.”

“I’ll make sure the Tony awards committee hears about this performance,” Goren chuckled, turning to Grant. “It’s a shame you weren’t casting Othello – Darrell would have made an ideal Iago. He manipulated you into providing him an alibi. You were his dupe, his cat’s paw. Don’t feel bad, Mr. Grant – he’s a professional actor. Dissembling’s his stock and trade. You can go now.”

Grant twitched, as if awakened from a trance.

“You’re free to go,” Goren repeated, already shuffling folders. “Unless, of course, ADA Carver wants to press charges.”

“I don’t see that that’s necessary,” Carver said softly, avoiding eye contact with the playwright/producer.

“Good, good,” Goren breathed. He glanced up, his heavy brows arching at the immobile man. “What? We don’t need you any more, Mr. Grant. If you want, I can have a uniform drive you back to the theater, your apartment, wherever.”

“That, that won’t be necessary,” Grant mumbled, rising. He stood stiffly, turning uncertainly toward the door.

“How’s that make you feel, Ives?” Goren prodded as Grant crossed the threshold. “Betraying an old man who’s invested so much in your career?”

Grant stopped.

“You know,” the hulking detective continued, “I read Grant’s memoir. He turned to writing after washing out of drama school. You know that? You were the vicarious realization of all his dreams, his heir, in effect. What happened? It come home to you that you’d been disinherited? That Forester was Grant’s true heir, just as Banquo was King Duncan’s?”

All heads turned at the harsh laughter from the corridor.

“Yes?” Goren inquired.

Grant stepped back into the interview room, his lips curled in contempt. “You see yourself as quite the intellect, don’t you? You hit a few shows each season, brag to your cop buddies how you read the Arts Section instead of the sports, and you parrot the rhapsodic ramblings of every critic and self-proclaimed pop culture analyst. I don’t need your condescending defense, Detective. And your clumsy attempts at psychoanalysis are laughable. This…this boy…wouldn’t have had the ambition, much less the stomach, for what you’re talking about.”

Ives’ head snapped up. “You’ve never seen what people are capable of when their world’s crashing in on them,” Goren protested. “Factor in the artistic ego, and–”

“I’ve been in the theater for 50 years,” Grant boomed. “You lecture me on the artistic ego? You know what I’ve had to do to survive, to gain my rightful place, to give whining young prima donnas like this one a shot at their own narcissistic fantasies?”

“All to realize one day that you and your vision had become obsolete. That people wanted a fresh vision…”

“You mean Forester? Macho posturing and mindless verse? His vision extended no further than getting his next hit of coke or piece of ass.”

“Poe had his laudanum, Faulkner his whisky,” the cop disclaimed, glancing with faux anxiety at his colleagues. “And Jimi Hendrix? Surely, you, as an artist, understand that. Even at your age.”

Fire filled the playwright’s eyes. “You dare compare Faulkner and Hendrix to that, that street corner gangster?”

“Eye of the beholder, I guess,” Goren fired back.

Grant staggered back, a foam of spittle on his lower lip. “Eye of the–? When he wasn’t ‘busting a rhyme’ or doing interviews on E, Forester could barely get his lines out. He was so coked up most of the time, we practically had to nail him to his marks.”

“But it was his name on the marquee,” Goren concluded, crossing his arms with smug satisfaction. “Wasn’t it?”

“They had no sense of the theater – its power, its relevance.” Grant’s breathing was now ragged; scarlet infused his expresso features. “They told me no Noyz, no cash. This was my vision, my life’s vision realized. This was Shakespeare. I mean, my God, you should’ve seen the man. So wasted he couldn’t comprehend half of what I was telling him, even what was about to happen to him. He barely tried to defend himself.”

Ives’ attorney gasped. Carver’s eyes dropped to the table.

“Forester?” Goren asked, his tone changing. The Grand Inquisitor disappeared; the father-confessor materialized.

“Big Noyz,” Grant jeered, tears spilling down his cheeks. “He was like a catatonic mental patient.” The dramatist laughed and sobbed. “His breath was sweet, reeked of cough syrup. Like a sick child.”

That was it. The promathezine hadn’t been released to the media.

“My God, Stanford,” Ives whispered.

Goren pressed quietly. “You were going to stun Forester with the tazer, take him somewhere, maybe make his death look like a gang execution. But instead, the tazer spark ignited the alcohol and cough syrup. Then you remembered Ives’ play, the story Lisette told him about George Mott and spontaneous combustion. It was an implausible smokescreen, but it was all you had to work with. Take his batting glove and promathezine away, and, voila, a textbook case of SHC.”

“Staging,” the playwright chuckled, his eyes red and wild. “Always my strength.”

“Stanford,” Carver interrupted solemnly and uncharacteristically. “You need to wait for your attorney.”

Grant nodded, but it was clear he hadn’t heard a word. He began to mumble incoherently. Mulder perked, and stepped around the table.

“Mr. Grant?” the agent prompted, anxiously. “What did you say, Mr. Grant?”

The old man stared up, and Mulder inhaled sharply. Grant whispered harshly, his eyes inflamed. Then, the flame was extinguished, and the playwright blinked at the agent.

“Please,” he requested wearily. “I’d like my lawyer.”

**

“Incredible,” Carver murmured as a pair of uniforms escorted Grant across the squadroom, toward Processing. “A Pulitzer prize, two Tonys, a Grammy. His works have been studied in classrooms and performed around the world. I sat on several boards with Stanford. He was a brilliant, creative man…”

“Apparently, a few demons got in with the muses,” Eames suggested.

Carver nodded absently, then smiled sadly as he plucked the folded Ledger from the bench and stared at Forester’s grim visage. Then he looked pointedly up at Goren as he tucked the paper under his arm. “Nice touch, Detective,” the ADA added coolly.

“Grant was a powerful voice of his generation, his culture,” Goren said as he watched Carver trail Grant. “It’s like the death of a legend.”

“Maybe he can still help Grant,” Mulder suggested quietly.

“Help him?” Scully inquired. “Mulder, how?”

Goren’s face darkened. “Fox? What did he say to you?”

Mulder looked straight into the detective’s eyes. “I honestly have no idea. But I’m not so sure Grant was in full possession of his faculties when he killed Forester. Can I use your computer, Bobby?”

“What?” Eames demanded, but Goren held up a meaty palm. “Don’t, Bobby. You couldn’t make out what he said, but you’re ready to plead him out on diminished capacity?”

“I don’t speak Scottish,” Mulder told her simply. “Bobby?”

Goren waved him toward his desk.

“Perfect,” Eames grunted, fuming. “He burns a man alive, and his lawyer’ll bring in a couple dozen shrinks to get him off. And your buddy there? What’s he going to testify? That Grant was possessed by the ghost of Macbeth?”

“Grant’s identification with the character was nearly complete,” Goren considered. “The play, it was his salvation – it became his life’s obsession. The idea of Forester co-opting the role must have seemed like sacrilege. And then the ‘star’ became bigger than the vision Grant had been shaping his entire adult life. It must have been unbearable.” He watched the elevator doors draw closed on Grant and his escorts. “‘Life is but a walking shadow. A poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more.’”

“In other words,” Eames summarized dourly, “that’s showbiz.”

*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