Category Archives: Season 16

Bari Trasadi

Bari Trasadi

Author: Starfleetofficer1

Artwork: Truthwebothknow1 & Starfleetofficer1

Category: X-file

Rating: PG-13

Summary: Mulder and Scully enter a war zone to investigate a weapon of possible extraterrestrial origins.

Disclaimer: Two weeks exclusive with VS16. No copyright infringement intended.

Trailer:

Original web date:04/07/2010

Bari Trasadi

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3 MILES OUTSIDE VILLAGE

VILLAGE OF HANDARI, PAKISTAN

FRIDAY, JULY 2nd, 2010

1400

“Alam! Get the ball!” Eight-year-old Alam Taymur turned at the sound of his name. He wore an old t-shirt that had once belonged to his brother, Sabir, and a pair of pants that were much too short for him. He had brand new shoes, however. The lime green Crocs had come in with a shipment of relief supplies for their tiny village of Handari, which was roughly around ten miles from Hangu and fifty miles from Peshawar, but surrounded by mountainous terrain.

At their current high altitude, they could see Handari three miles away, and could see the tiny dot that was Peshawar, just over the horizon.

Alam was with five other boys playing football while two of the boys’ fathers had a meeting of some sort. An old, rusty Jeep Cherokee sat about a quarter mile away from the boys, where the two men were discussing something important. Their expressions looked intense, and Alam had been staring in their direction, concerned.

“Alam!” an older boy yelled, and walked over. Alam turned to face him. “Get the ball,” Hafid said forcefully.

“What do you think they’re talking about?” Alam asked, and watched as one of the fathers looked at his watch, and glanced in their direction.

“Nothing that concerns you,” the older boy told him, getting annoyed that Alam wouldn’t go get the ball.

“The last time they took us out here, there was a bomb,” Alam stated, undercurrents of worry in his tone.

“Alam, just get the ball,” Hafid implored him, and Alam faced his older friend. He saw the same worry on his Hafid’s face as he imagined was on his own. Hafid had lost his mother in that bombing, Alam had lost his brother. They shared something of a bond. For now, though, there was nothing they could do. And it was the youngest boy’s job to retrieve the ball. Alam resigned to his duty with a nod, and ran after the wayward football. As he kicked it back, he felt a rumble deep within in the earth. He stopped, placing one foot on the ball. He nearly lost his balance as the rumbling grew, and he spotted a cloud of dust in the distance. It was moving right toward him and the others. He looked back at his friends’ fathers, who were now shouting for the boys to get back in the Jeep. But Barr, one of the other boys, was standing stock-still, apparently frozen. Hafid had started running back with the others but when Barr didn’t move, the thirteen-year-old turned back and ran back to grab him.

“Hafid! No!” Alam yelled, and started running toward his friends. “Come on, Barr!” he shouted, the wind from the cloud starting to whirl the sand around. He coughed and squinted, pulling his shirt up to block his nose and mouth. He could barely see now, but he could make out Hafid’s larger form plucking Barr’s smaller one from the sand and starting to run back toward them. Suddenly, he was lifted off his feet and hauled backward in the arms of someone much larger than himself. It was one of the fathers. “Hafid!” he yelled, and saw the shadow of Hafid and Barr lose their footing and suddenly become airborne. He heard a tremendous scream, and then lost sight of his older friend. “Hafid!” he cried.

The wind whipped around them, and he was thrown into the crowded Jeep. They huddled together, pulling the shirts over their faces to filter the dust and sand.

Only moments later, the gale-force winds stopped. There was dust everywhere. It stung Alam’s eyes as he cried, staring into the manila-colored cloud where his friend had been. They couldn’t see anything. “You children stay in the car,” one of the fathers said, and he got out of the Jeep. Alam didn’t listen. He followed the man, keeping him in sight so he wouldn’t get lost. He stared into the area where his friend was, but still could see nothing. The man looked down, and saw Alam. Alam backed away, momentarily frightened, until his friend’s father said, “I have an idea—come with me.”

Alam followed the man back to the Jeep, where they both climbed on top of the roof. “Climb on my shoulders,” his friend’s father ordered him, and the boy complied. When the man stood, Alam gasped, and promptly coughed from inhaling the dust.

“What, what do you see?”

Alam squinted. “Nothing. There’s nothing but a cloud. As far as you can see.” A tear rolled down his cheek. “Just a cloud…” No Barr. No Hafid. No Handari.

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PEP BOYS

WASHINGTON D.C.

SATURDAY, JULY 3rd, 2010

1500

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“You’re not done yet?”

“They haven’t even gotten to my car.” Mulder sat in the drab waiting area of a local Pep Boys, glancing out the window casually at the parking lot filled with cars of customers in similar predicaments to his own. The waiting area was packed, and many of the drivers’ cars sat untouched. The shop was full, and the Pep Boys was backed up. Scully had called a few moments ago to check on his ETA. They were due at Maggie’s house in two hours for dinner.

Scully sighed. “It’s a holiday weekend,” she said, offering some explanation.

His expression dissatisfied, he nodded. “But we just want the snow tires taken off.”

“Well, you’re the one who put it off till July, Mulder. If it takes too long, you’ll just have to wait for another weekend.”

“Yeah, we don’t want to miss dinner,” he said absently, distracted by the ‘Breaking News’ segment interrupting the game on the waiting area’s TV.

“We interrupt this program to bring you breaking news from India, where four major terrorist attacks have been launched and are now in progress. Ted Kusak is in Mumbai, where one of the largest attacks took place. Ted?”

“Thank you, Kelly. Three hours ago, approximately ten heavily armed, self-proclaimed ‘Pakistani defenders’ entered the Central Bank of India just as twenty other armed men with the same self-identification entered the Mumbai Airport. They immediately began shooting, and it is estimated that four hundred people may have been killed from those attacks alone. At the same time, a total of eight suicide bombers successfully set off bombs in hotels, popular shopping malls, and apartment buildings. A thousand people may have been killed in this city alone, and similar attacks are occurring in three other cities. The most gruesome of the attacks is undoubtedly the Indian Military Hospital massacre. It is reported that thirty armed terrorists entered the hospital and began shooting, slaughtering every patient and worker on two floors before an elite tactical team was finally able to enter the building. At this time, they set off a suicide bomb and demolished half of the hospital.”

“Scully, are you watching this?”

“No, I’m in the car headed to Target to get candy for Matt and Claire. What? What’s going on?”

“There was a terrorist attack—there were several terrorist attacks in India. They’re estimating a thousand people were killed in Mumbai alone, and there are three similar attacks in India as we speak.”

“That’s horrible,” Scully said, her tone concerned. “This can’t be unrelated to the attack in Pakistan yesterday.”

“That’s what I’m thinking, too. I know Pakistan isn’t all that fond of India but I didn’t realize they thought India was responsible.”

“It was on the news last night. Some commentator was saying that the Pakistani government had traced the hit to a military complex in India, but that the Indian government had responded that they had no idea where the attack had come from and that they were willing to offer aid if Pakistan was willing to accept.”

Mulder snorted. “Right. I think they’d rather have us in there than India, and that’s really saying something.”

“Well, is there any indication that the government is responsible for these attacks?”

“The Pakistani government? Not that I can see. The news seems to be referring to them as ‘terrorists’. They’ve got feed from a Pakistani news channel and an Indian one, and they’re both condemning the attacks.”

“I don’t think anyone wants an all-out war,” Scully said. “Especially not with India. There’d be no contest against them.”

“But that doesn’t mean the Pakistani government isn’t responsible. Hiring terrorists to do your fighting for you can’t be hard when they’re a rupee a dozen.”

They had been following the conflict since it started the previous day, with an enormously powerful weapon strike hitting a small village in Pakistan and flattening three square miles of land. There was less left of the village than there was of Hiroshima after the bomb, and the weapon had been powerful enough to cave in a small portion of a mountain, causing a rockslide that buried any microbe that had managed to survive the initial blast.

The reason why this catastrophe was interesting to them was because the weapon left no apparent energy signature and seemed to simply vaporize everything in its path. The only thing it left behind was a detectable ‘tunnel’ of wind, similar to a tornado, traveling from the apparent source. It was nearly identical to the Bari Trasadi, an ancient Indian weapon Mulder had given a lecture on two months ago for Georgetown University’s archaeology department. Mulder believed the archaic weapon’s calamitous results were due to alien technology.

Evidence of the existence of such a weapon were only mentioned in a few Indian texts, but Mulder had reason to believe the Indian government had recently discovered the device in an archaeological dig around a year ago. He also had sources that told him there had since been questionable communications between the Indian government and possible extraterrestrials.

“Anyway, let me know when you’re done at Pep Boys. And call me if anything else happens in India.”

“Will do. Love you,” Mulder said just as his phone beeped.

“Love you, bye.”

He switched the call and spotted Skinner’s name on the CID. “Hello, Sir,” he greeted his boss.

“Mulder, I’m sorry to bother you on a weekend. I need you and Scully in my office as soon as possible.”

Mulder frowned. “Sir, it’s the day before July 4th. Can’t this wait till Monday?”

“No, Mulder, it can’t,” he said forcefully. “I’ve got a representative from the Indian military on video chat and he doesn’t have all day. We need both of you here, within the hour if you can. Where are you?”

“Pep Boys,” Mulder said, and stood up as he saw a man walk toward his car. Now they decide to change the tires.

He started out the door, as Skinner said, “It’s about the attacks in India. I take it you’ve been following the news?”

“Hey! Hey, don’t take the car yet! Sorry, Sir, hold on a minute.” Mulder waved his arm and tried to get the single-minded mechanic’s attention. “Hey, don’t take the car yet—I need my keys back. I need to leave.”

“I’ll see you soon, then, Mulder,” Skinner said.

Mulder shook his head, and said into the phone, “No, wait, Sir, I want to know what this is abou—” Skinner hung up, and Mulder sighed. He turned back to the mechanic. “I need my keys back. Is there any way I can take a raincheck for the tires?”

“You already paid?” the man asked.

“Yeah, when would be a good day to come in? When aren’t you this crowded?”

The mechanic snorted. “When we’re closed.”

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J. EDGAR HOOVER BUILDING

WASHINGTON D.C.

SATURDAY, JULY 3rd, 2010

1600

“So let me get this straight. You think the weapon design from the legend was copied by the terrorists, used against one of their own villages from a location close to the military base in India, and then the attack was used as an excuse to launch this complicated series of attacks they’ve been planning for months?” Mulder leaned back in his seat and folded his hands against Skinner’s desk. “Forgive me for asking, but are you familiar with Occam’s Razor, General?”

The Indian Army General looked relatively insulted, and US Army General Bill Hager gave Mulder a sharp look over the video chat screen. Mulder looked to Scully, who was now leaning to one side of her chair, rubbing her eyes with her thumb and forefinger. Mulder looked back at the Indian General and shrugged. “It just seems overly complicated,” he said. “A much simpler explanation is that someone in India has found the real Bari Trasadi, didn’t understand how to control it, accidentally hit Pakistan, and instantly created about two thousand terrorists who were told where to go and what to do.”

“We have no evidence either way, Agent Mulder. That’s why we’re talking to you,” General Himmat said with a slight Indian accent. His English was impeccable. “You were recommended to us by American intelligence as someone who may be able to track this weapon down and stop it before it causes any more terrorist attacks. Whether someone has built the weapon to align perfectly with our legend of the Bari Trasadi, or whether the 4,000-year-old weapon somehow exists and is now in use, it doesn’t matter. Although, admittedly,” he said with a small smirk that Hager matched, “we are leaning toward the former explanation.”

“We would be happy to help in any way we can, General,” Scully answered for Mulder, hoping to smooth over the public relations. Mulder was notorious for pissing off people in high places and Scully didn’t want to spar with two generals on a holiday weekend. With luck, she thought, they’d be out of there by midnight and still get to spend Sunday with her mom, Tara, and the kids.

“Good,” Himmat said with a nod, and glanced at Skinner. “How soon can they be in Pakistan?”

Mulder and Scully’s eyebrows shot up. Simultaneously, they said, “Whoa, what?” and “Wait a minute—”

Skinner ignored them. “They can be on a plane by this afternoon. They’ll arrive tomorrow. I’ll brief them on the specifics. Do you want to send any material for them to read on the way over?”

“We’d rather not,” General Hager stated. “This is sensitive information and we have concerns that releasing specifics over the phone or Internet might result in a breach in national security, for both our countries.” General Himmat nodded his agreement.

“Very well. Is there anything else, gentlemen? My agents deserve an explanation and I’d like to be able to give one to them.” He didn’t seem entirely happy with this plan, but he was acting like grudging acceptance of it was the only appropriate course of action.

“That will be all for now, Assistant Director. Thank you for your time,” Himmat said gratefully. He turned to Mulder and Scully. “I will see both of you in Pakistan.”

Himmat cut off his video, and Hager turned to the AD. “Assistant Director, I want to make myself perfectly clear,” the general explained. “The Army does not want this to turn into an investigation into alien technology, a hunt to find ET in Pakistan, or some kind of twisted Stargate episode.” He glanced at Mulder. “You’re not looking for the Bari Trasadi. You’re looking for a weapon that was built to terrorize the people in this region, that manages to copy the supposed characteristics of the weapon from the legend.”

“Your point was well-understood, General,” Skinner said, and then added, “Before, after, and during our conversations with General Himmat.”

“Thank you, AD Skinner. I trust you’ll relay that point to your agents,” Hager said, and cut his video off. Himmat shortly followed, and Skinner deactivated the line altogether.

The AD turned to Mulder and Scully who looked ready to throw in about a hundred protests. He held up his hand. “I know it’s a holiday, and I know you had plans.”

“It’s not even that,” Mulder started, and glanced at Scully. “Sir, we can’t go to Pakistan. It’s a warzone. We’re two Federal agents, not—”

“You’ve received the proper training, Mulder, and this is important to national security. Who do you think the terrorists are going to attack next? They tend to lash out at their enemies and any allies their enemies collect. When they learn we’re giving India humanitarian aid, they’re going to take it as a military presence. Look at Haiti.”

Scully shook her head. “Isn’t there any way we can analyze this without going to Pakistan?”

“No, not if we want to keep the weapon classified. The last thing we need is the world knowing that someone has a weapon of mass destruction on their hands. Half the population in the US will be calling for a military operation in India to find out who it is, and everyone else will be panicking that the Apocalypse is coming. Many people in India would think it’s the actual Bari Trasadi. It would add vulnerability to the infrastructure of the Western world that could lead directly to a terrorist attack.”

Mulder looked dissatisfied with this explanation.

“You’ll be protected by a contingent of US military officers permitted to enter the country for the express purpose of examining ground zero. It shouldn’t take more than a day or two, and then you’ll head to India in protective custody, where you’ll visit the archaeological dig site where it’s suspected that an object of similar appearance to the Bari Trasadi was unearthed.”

“Suspected, huh?” Mulder said wryly.

Skinner went on as if Mulder hadn’t spoken. “And I expect you to be on your best behavior, Mulder. I don’t have to tell you international relations are at stake here, and it isn’t time to be accusing the Indian government of conspiring with extraterrestrials.”

“My sources indicate that the Indian government has been contacted by extraterrestrials, but there’s no evidence here that extraterrestrials are playing any role in the use of the weapon. The Bari Trasadi was never intended to destroy three square miles of land, Sir,” Mulder said, ignoring the tired expression on Skinner’s face. “It was intended to target multiple locations at once with precision ‘beams’. Though the ‘beams’ are more like massive, concentrated gusts of wind that utilize the elements already in the atmosphere, destabilizing any structure, including living beings, in the area targeted.”

Skinner was getting impatient, and Mulder quickly concluded with, “So it’s fairly obvious that whoever is using the Bari Trasadi was not trained how to properly fire it.”

“Your job,” Skinner continued, “is to get in there, give the Indian and Pakistani governments any information they need on the Bari Trasadi in order to track the people who have built this weapon, and then you are to leave. You are not to attempt to expose any conspiracies overseas. It’s doubtful Secretary Clinton wants another Beijing on her hands.”

“I’ll make sure that’s all we do, Sir,” Scully jumped in. “Trust me, I want to get home as fast as possible.”

“Good.” Skinner stood. “Then I wish you good luck.” His features softened somewhat, and he glanced at his two agents. “You two watch yourselves over there.”

With that, Mulder gave his boss a definitive nod and led Scully out of the room.

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C-17 CARGO AIRCRAFT

SOMEWHERE OVER EASTERN EUROPE

SUNDAY, JULY 4th, 2010

1030 (LOCAL)

“We shouldn’t have told them,” Scully said with a sigh. She thumped back into her seat, a printout of Mulder’s lecture on the Bari Trasadi half-read in her lap. They were sitting in two of the only open seats on the cargo plane, the rest of the space taken up by bulky cargo going to Pakistan and then India for the relief effort.

They were the only passengers on the massive utilitarian plane, and their seats were padded but not intended to make the ride comfortable. Tired of looking at the side of an enormous package of hygiene supplies, Mulder and Scully had long ago turned to the materials they brought with them.

Mulder looked up from his file and glanced at Scully. “Hm?”

“My mother and Tara. We shouldn’t have told them.”

“Well, what were we supposed to do?” Mulder asked rhetorically. “Not show up for dinner and then not show up for the 4th? If you were missing from mass this morning,” he glanced at his watch, “or ‘tomorrow’, their time, your mom would’ve had her neighborhood watch group marching through the city with guns and dogs.”

“I’m not saying we shouldn’t have told them we weren’t going to be there. I’m saying we shouldn’t have told them we’re going to Pakistan. My mother had that look on her face like she did after Bill’s funeral.” She shifted her glance to Mulder, her expression painful. “I don’t want to put her through anything else, especially not during a holiday.”

Mulder slipped his hand into hers. “I know. I’m sorry, Scully. She was going to find out, though. This isn’t a three hour tour.”

Scully smiled slightly, and shook her head. “I just wish we could’ve lied and told her it was some mission in Hawaii.”

Mulder chuckled. “Then she’d expect us to call.”

Scully was about to reply when the plane veered sharply off-course and began a steep climb. Mulder and Scully were nearly thrown into the cargo containers, and as they scrambled back into their seats and reached for their seatbelts, they saw Air Force Colonel Brown making his way back from the cockpit.

“What’s going on?” Scully asked as she fastened her seatbelt.

“There was just another attack, this time in Afghanistan. It’s a big one. And it took out a US Army base. We’ve been ordered to get out of the strike zone and wait until we receive the OK to land. It’s gonna be another five, maybe even ten hours, folks.”

Scully gave Mulder a worried expression, and Mulder asked Brown, “Any trace on where this one originated?”

“Not yet, but as soon as I know anything, I’ll let you know.” Suddenly, he tapped the radio in his ear and listened intently. Then he nodded. Turning back to the FBI agents, he said, “We’ve got the source. It was India again. And the Indian government has just launched an offensive to figure out who’s doing this. They’ve closed off their borders—no one in or out. Looks like we’re gonna be stuck in Pakistan for a while.”

Scully looked down, and shook her head. “That’s just wonderful,” she muttered.

“Try to get some sleep. You’re gonna need it,” Brown said as he turned and made his way back toward the cockpit.

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TEMPORARY UN CAMP

HANGU, PAKISTAN

SUNDAY, JULY 4th, 2010

1545

They rode in an Army Humvee along a dirt road in the middle of the desert. They had been in the vehicle for what felt like hours. They had gotten little sleep on the C-17, the hot sun in the cloudless sky made the temperature at least 20 degrees hotter, and they were wearing full battle fatigues and armor. They had landed in Peshawar and met a large contingent of UN, Air Force, Army, and Pakistani forces who ushered them into the Humvee where they now sat. They were tired, hot, and hungry.

The political significance of the American presence was huge, and the only way the Pakistani government would allow an American military ground operation to take place in their country was if the UN supervised. Of course, Americans had been sending drones into Pakistani villages for months, conducting surgical strikes to eliminate insurgents. However, that was assisting Pakistan with their counterterrorist agenda. This was an investigation into an attack that occurred on Pakistani soil. Most, if not all, of the Pakistani people would find it an inexcusable intrusion. Mulder, of course, believed that the only reason why the Pakistani government had allowed them in at all was because they truly thought the Bari Trasadi was in use.

Mulder and Scully caught about an hour of sleep in the Humvee before their Army and UN escorts woke them up and told them they needed to be briefed on the situation. Neither of them had ever interacted with the tribal areas of Pakistan. There were many cultural nuances that they were told to observe, most of which they would no doubt unintentionally break.

“Agent Scully, you’ll need to keep your head covered while questioning any witnesses or while walking outside.”

“That won’t be a problem with this sun,” Scully answered.

“We’ve got clothing for both of you to help you blend in a little, but for security purposes you’ll be expected to wear vests underneath the clothing and wear your helmets at all times. It will be highly uncomfortable in this heat, but that’s the way it has to be,” UN representative Schaeffer told them with a German accent.

“One thing you should be aware of when talking to these people is that you’re probably going to get ‘The Answering Machine,’” Army Colonel Young explained.

Mulder and Scully glanced at each other, and then inquisitively looked back at the blonde-haired man. It seemed that the Air Force colonel and UN representative both knew what he was talking about, as they nodded in agreement with Young.

“’The Answering Machine,’” the colonel continued, “is when they give you their ‘schpiel.’ They’ll start off with something like, ‘you are Americans,’ and then they’ll get into it. ‘America has no reverence for Allah, it is an inherently sinful country, if it wasn’t for America, there would be no war, the West is an evil influence, corrupting the minds of the pure, Allah instructs us to combat anyone who threatens His rule, I refuse to talk to you, for you are corrupting my mind as we speak.’ Yaddah yaddah yaddah.” He adjusted his position in his seat. “When they start that, which you can guarantee that they will, just be quiet and listen, and don’t respond directly to what they say. Do not try to argue with these people. If you need to convince them to talk to you, explain that the reason why you’re asking these questions is that you want to find out who attacked them. And then ask your question again. Hope they don’t start ‘The Answering Machine’ all over again.”

Mulder frowned. “If you think they’re going to be uncooperative, why don’t you send someone to question them who’s a little more familiar with them? They may be more comfortable with a journalist.”

“Or a missionary,” Scully suggested.

“If they’ve never seen us before and they’re as hesitant to talk to American strangers as you say they are, then we’re probably not going to get valuable information from them, anyway,” Mulder stated. This was just basic interrogation technique, and he thought an Army colonel should know this.

“It doesn’t matter who we send, Agent Mulder,” the colonel stated. “These people live in the middle of nowhere. They’re probably uneducated and they’ve probably been indoctrinated from early youth. Trust me—I’ve dealt with tribal areas before.”

“Well, Colonel, begging your pardon,” the Schaeffer started, “You haven’t dealt with this particular area before. And my reports indicate that the few witnesses we will be questioning are surprisingly educated for the area where they live.”

“I’ll believe it when I see it,” the colonel said, and turned around in his seat once more.

Mulder was still frowning, and Scully could tell he didn’t like the direction this was taking. It was something they had encountered before—preconceptions getting in the way of the facts, especially when dealing with hard-headed people. The colonel seemed to be one of those.

“Also,” Schaeffer continued, “it’s not always because they believe what they’re saying, when they give you ‘The Answering Machine.’” He held up his hand. “I’m not saying you won’t get it—you probably will, at least once. But especially in such a rural area, the people have often not had exposure to outsiders and their tribal leaders will tell them what to say if they encounter someone. It is a way of protecting them from harm.”

“Or keeping them brainwashed,” the colonel muttered.

The UN representative rolled his eyes, and the Air Force colonel shrugged, and turned around.

They finally pulled into the small, temporary UN camp. It was fenced off and guarded by US military, and it was largely just sand and dirt surrounding a few tents and one barrack. It wasn’t a typical military base. There were no young men playing basketball or football outside, there were no drills being run, and there was no one underneath a Humvee giving it repairs. There was practically no one outside at all. There was no exterior show of force besides the guards at the entrance, and the base housed two Humvees, two UN vehicles, and no tanks.

“There are only officers here,” the Air Force colonel stated. “We’ve got four translators, one archaeologist, a blast site forensic team, eight diplomats, the Pakistanis, and then there’s us. We don’t plan to be here more than another week.”

Mulder and Scully nodded. “When do we get out to the site?” Mulder asked.

“We plan on splitting you up. Agent Scully will go to with the forensics team to the blast site to conduct a scientific analysis, and Agent Mulder will come with us to question the survivors. They’re staying in another tribal area about thirty minutes from here.”

Mulder and Scully looked uncomfortable with the Army colonel’s plan.

“Unless we were misinformed about your respective specialties?” the man asked.

“No, that’ll be acceptable,” Scully said. She took a drink of water from her canteen.

The Humvee stopped, and they exited. “You can head on in with us. We’ll get you something to eat and introduce you to the translator. I’m sure General Himmat will want to have a few words over the video chat before we take off,” the Army colonel said. “He planned to be here but was called back to India early this morning.”

Mulder nodded. “When will we leave here?”

“1700 hours, sharp,” the colonel said, and led the way into one of the tents. Schaeffer fell in step beside Mulder and Scully, and said, “We’ll all meet back here no later than 1930 for dinner, and then if we need to go out again, we’ll do so only if it’s deemed safe. There were reports of Pakistani insurgent activity in the tribal area where we’re going to question the witnesses.”

Scully suddenly looked worried. “Would it be safer to wait until morning? Don’t more attacks happen at night?”

“Honestly, Agent Scully,” the Air Force colonel said from behind them, “your biggest worry out there is an IED or an RPG. Neither of which depend on whether it’s dark or not.”

Mulder wanted to take her hand, but didn’t want to give Schaeffer and the colonel the wrong idea. Instead, he placed his hand on her shoulder and said quietly, “It’ll be okay.”

They entered the tent, and Mulder and Scully were led toward a table with bottles of Gatorade and granola bars laid out for them. Mulder immediately ripped his granola bar open and began eating. Although Scully hadn’t eaten anything substantial in hours, she had suddenly lost her appetite. “Mulder…” she started to say, once the others had walked away.

Mulder interrupted her. With a full mouth, he said, “I know, Scully. I want to have dinner with you too.”

She smiled slightly, and he smiled back. “Just watch yourself out there, okay?” She ordered quietly.

Mulder gave her a brief salute, and finished off his granola bar.

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GHANIM FAMILY FARM

15 MILES OUTSIDE HANGU

SUNDAY, JULY 4th, 2010

1730

Three little boys played soccer in the dusty parking area, using a broken down, wheel-less, door-less, ’92 Chevy Pickup as their goal. They were barefoot, and although they seemed to play vigorously and competitively, Mulder didn’t hear the cheerful shouts and petty arguments that usually came with such play. Of course, a bit of depression wasn’t out of the ordinary when one’s village had just been wiped off the map, along with everyone they had ever known.

Four men sat on the porch of a small cottage, and a small boy with lime green Crocs on his feet sat in the dirt not far away, digging a hole with a rock.

The men rose when the Humvee pulled into the area. There was another Humvee not far behind, but it stayed back. It was armed with a gun turret and loaded to capacity with Young’s men, ready to jump in if insurgents happened to stop by.

Mulder’s Humvee came to a halt near the house. Schaeffer got out first, his blue UN ribbon hopefully identifying him. They were in a different tribal area than Handari was in, but apparently one of the men with the rest of the witnesses knew this family and trusted that they would be safe with them. The Pakistani government hadn’t taken them to Peshawar for questioning because it would have upset what was left of their small tribe. Handari’s destruction, along with the leveling of three square miles around the small village, had knocked out 70% of the tribe’s population.

Schaeffer bowed to the man who had stepped to the front of the crowd, and the translator approached after the bow was complete.

“This is UN Representative Daniel Schaeffer,” the translator explained in his native language. “He brings with him US Army Colonel Hal Young, and Agent Fox Mulder,” the man indicated Young and Mulder. “I am Humd, their translator.” Humd, Mulder thought. This guy must’ve gotten it worse than me in elementary school.

“I am Jabir. I spoke to UN Representative Howard, and he said you would be coming. The witnesses are here and ready to speak with you,” the man said, continuously shifting his gaze to Young.

The translator did his job, and Young nodded. “Great, let’s get ‘em out here.”

After the translation, Jabir frowned. “These are them,” he said to the translator. “These two men, and these four boys. They are all that is left of Handari.”

After hearing that, Mulder felt his stomach twist. This weapon had erased so many people in just moments. He knew there were few survivors, but the realization of what he was seeing really hit home. Three little boys playing soccer, one digging in the dirt, and two men standing together, their arms folded defensively.

“They won’t need you to translate, though. They all speak English,” Jabir explained to the translator. “They’re extraordinary people, Mr. Humd. They, like us, believe in peace. It’s because of this belief that they were saved from the destruction.” With that, Jabir bowed slightly, and turned and walked away. The other man who had been on the porch entered the house before Jabir, and shouted an order to those inside. Women in black head covers immediately started closing the wooden shutters on the house. Mulder counted four of them.

Jabir’s body language, the fact that they were harboring the only survivors from Handari, the complete lack of “The Answering Machine” Mulder had been warned of…it wasn’t adding up to a typical encounter at a typical farm in a tribal area of Pakistan. “What is this place?” Mulder asked Young.

“A farm, I’m pretty sure,” Young stated as the adult witnesses walked toward them.

“This is no average farm,” he countered, and looked to Schaeffer for answers. Schaeffer simply gave him a ‘look’ that was the German equivalent of ‘be less American for two minutes and sit still.’ Mulder frowned, dissatisfied.

One of the men called the children over, and all but the boy with the rock obeyed.

“My name is Jabir, and I am their translator,” Jabir stated in English, and bowed slightly. Then he introduced everyone, and concluded by saying, “I am apparently not needed here, so I will go.”

Mulder caught his arm. “Stick around, Jabir. There could be something cultural you can help us interpret. I don’t want any misunderstandings here.” He turned to the survivors in front of him. “I wanted to begin by saying how sorry I am for your loss.”

They both nodded solemnly.

“I don’t want to intrude any more into your private lives,” Mulder continued, respectfully. “So my questions will be as brief as possible, and then we’ll be on our way.”

“We understand, Agent Mulder,” one of the men spoke in accented but fluent English. “I am Quadir, and this is my cousin Mutazz. My son, Nafi,” he finished, placing his hand on one of the boy’s heads.

“And this is my son, Jarir,” Mutazz told them. He indicated the other, slightly taller boy. “This is Kashif, one of the boys with our group when the weapon detonated. And that boy over there, that is Alam. Alam may not give you what you need—he hasn’t spoken since the destruction.”

Mulder nodded. He intended to speak to Alam, but he first needed to ask his questions of those willing to answer. “Should we step inside?”

“It is better that we speak out here, in case they are listening,” Quadir said. He glanced at Young before he looked back to Mulder. “You are no doubt wondering why we are here, and who might be listening. You probably know nothing of the conflict that is happening in our tribal area. Or was…it may not even matter now.”

Mutazz glanced at his cousin, and then looked to Mulder. “We are the Jeser. It means ‘Bridge’ in English. My cousin and I went to university in America. We returned to Handari to bring change. Our mission was to bring our people out of poverty, help them reach their potential. Understandably, this means fighting the insurgents who want to gain control of the Pakistani government.”

“We do not fight them with weapons, though,” Quadir stated. “We fight them with words. We fight them with publicity, what little of it we have. We fight them by sabotaging their own terrorist plans. We try to stop them from getting elected into public office.”

“And we pay dearly for it,” Mutazz said. He pursed his lips. “Our wives have been slaughtered. We have both lost children. The children you see here have lost parents and siblings before this heinous attack. Alam and Kashif have no one left.”

“The Ghanim family farm is one place where we are welcome outside Handari. It is a haven for those like us, who wish to bring education and hope to this land, not war and coups. So you understand, Agent Mulder, that we want to help you find whoever did this. We will answer your questions, but you must be efficient. We don’t know how much time we have before we must leave here.”

Mulder nodded. How wrong Colonel Young had been about these people. And what about Pakistani intelligence? Mulder thought. Surely the country knew of the Jeser’s existence? Why wouldn’t they offer their assistance? Set up an official program to protect the Jeser from the terrorists? He knew the answer, but it still bothered him. “You’re very admirable for what you do,” Mulder told them honestly. “I’ll be quick. The first question is easy. What did you see?”

“We felt it at first,” Quadir said. “It started with the ground shaking, and we saw in the distance a large cloud. It soon enveloped us. It was worse than a sandstorm. We could not see, and we felt a force pulling us toward it.”

“It was like a tornado,” Kashif spoke. Mulder was surprised the boy knew what that was. But, with the educated mentors that he had, he was certainly going to be more knowledgeable than a typical tribal boy.

“It was terrible,” young Jarir said quietly. “We lost Hafid and Barr.”

“Hafid, my older son,” Mutazz nearly whispered. “And Barr, a young boy who came along.”

“I’m sorry,” Mulder said sincerely. So far, their description was almost identical to other eye witnesses of the Bari Trasadi, who witnessed its destruction thousands of years ago. “I know this may seem insensitive. But who was the last person to see either of the two boys?”

“That would be Alam,” Quadir told him, and glanced at the little boy behind him. “I’m sorry. He really has been traumatized. He probably won’t speak.”

“If it’s all right with you, I’d like to try,” Mulder said. Neither Quadir nor Mutazz protested, so Mulder turned to Schaeffer. “Can you keep talking to them? Make sure your recorder’s on.”

Schaeffer nodded, and Mulder walked towards Alam. “Alam, let this man speak to you,” he heard Quadir call, and Alam looked up. His eyes grew wide as he saw Mulder coming toward him, and he dropped his rock.

“Hey, Alam, it’s okay. I’m not going to hurt you,” Mulder said in a soft voice. He approached Alam slowly, and then eased himself down in the dirt next to the eight-year-old. He took off his helmet, despite the fact that he was told not to. He wanted to appear as non-threatening as possible. His clothing was loose and sand-colored, and his weapon wasn’t visible. He was dressed in traditional tribal robes, though now they were getting fairly dirty.

Alam, seeing that Mulder was yet another adult who wanted to ‘talk,’ picked up his rock and continued his quest of digging a hole.

Mulder, ever the psychologist, couldn’t help but profile the child. His skin was extremely dark, indicating that he spent a lot of time outside. His clothing was worn and old, his pants too small and his shirt too big. The only new item on the boy’s body were his shoes, the lime green Crocs that would identify him a mile away. “My name’s Mulder,” he said, and picked up a nearby rock. He began digging in the dirt as well.

Alam glanced at him, and then went back to his task.

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Mulder continued digging. “The dirt’s pretty firm here. Not a good spot for digging. Makes it harder, you know.”

Alam shrugged.

“I like a challenge, though,” Mulder said. He continued digging. He didn’t notice the annoyed, impatient look he was getting from Colonel Young, and he didn’t much care. He needed to know what this boy had seen. And he had to admit, his heart went out to this kid. He understood what he was going through. He too was a boy who had lost everything.

“You live in America,” Alam said suddenly with a very slight accent.

Bingo. Mulder nodded casually.

“Why do you come here? I’m told it’s because you want to find out what happened. What concern of it is yours?”

Sounds angry. “Well, it’s actually my job,” Mulder told the boy. “My job is to go around to places where unusual things happen and figure out why.”

Alam continued digging. “Why do you do that?” He asked, his tone still angry.

“Because I want to figure out the truth,” Mulder told him simply, hoping his calm tone would diffuse some of Alam’s rage. “I want to know why things happen.”

The boy didn’t answer, but kept on digging with even more fervor. “Will you figure out what happened to Hafid? Will you figure out why he died, too? And figure out where Handari went?”

Mulder put his own rock down. “That’s why I’m here, Alam. I’m trying to figure out why those things happened, and stop them from happening again.”

Alam slowed his digging. He stared at the dirt, and then closed his eyes.

Mulder was silent for a moment before he shifted positions, and rolled the rock from one hand to the other. Then he put it down again. “Alam, can I ask you a few questions? If you don’t want to answer, you don’t have to. But it could help me figure out what happened.”

“When I get older,” Alam said quietly, “I’m going to move to America. I’m going to move and I’m going to live there where it’s better.” He looked up. “Is it better there, like my father used to say? Is it really better, like all the Jeser say, or is it just another lie to make me feel better?”

He’s a smart kid, Mulder thought. “There are nicer things there than here. Bigger buildings, fancy cars, you know,” he answered honestly. “It’s safer than here. People make more money than here. It’s also very different. And it’s only ‘better’ as long as the people work to make it better,” he told the boy. He let Alam have another moment, and then he repeated, “Can I ask my questions now?”

Alam nodded, but said nothing.

“Can you tell me what you saw?”

“The whole story?”

“It’ll be better for my investigation if you start from the beginning,” Mulder explained, and gave him a sympathetic look. “You can keep digging your hole if it’s easier that way.”

Alam picked up his rock, and continued digging. After a moment, he started talking. “We were playing football. Mr. Khayr and Mr. Radi took us out to the spot on the mountain. Last time they did that, there was a bomb…I was afraid.”

Mulder nodded, and simply listened. His recorder was getting the entire conversation.

“There was a big cloud. You could see it coming toward us. Bigger than any sandstorm cloud I’ve ever seen. And so thick! You couldn’t even see under it.” He continued, recounting the entire event detail for detail. Finally, he said, in a near whisper, “When I looked up, on Mr. Radi’s shoulders, on top of the Jeep, I couldn’t see anything. And even when the dust cleared…there was nothing. Just sand.”

Mulder placed his hand comfortingly on the boy’s shoulder, and he saw a tear slide down Alam’s cheek. “Thank you, Alam,” he said. “I’m going to figure out who did this.”

Alam looked up, his eyes red and his expression angry. “Will you? Will you really, or will you just say that like the missionaries do? When it gets too hard and they come after your family, will you just leave and send us back money?”

This little boy has been through so much, Mulder thought. He looked Alam in the eyes. “I promise, Alam. I’m going to do whatever I can to figure this out. And if I can’t, I’ll find someone who can.”

Alam stared at Mulder and then unexpectedly threw his arms around him, clinging to the agent desperately as his body shook with sobs. Mulder heard his unintelligible cries about his mother, father, brother, and Hafid. The rest was all in his native language.

A moment later, Colonel Young approached them and placed his hand gently on Mulder’s shoulder. Mulder looked up, and received an indication that they had to get out. Apparently, it wasn’t safe anymore. He pulled away from Alam, and held the boy by his shoulders. “Listen to me, Alam. I need to go. But I’ll find a way to get in touch with you. I’ll let you know when we’ve finished our investigation. And…you know what? I’m going to find a way to get you to America.”

Alam’s expression was one of shock. He sniffed. “Thank you, Mulder,” he said quietly.

“You stay with the Jeser, okay? Don’t run off.” Alam nodded, and Mulder stood.

“Allah be with you,” the eight-year-old said, and Mulder smiled back at him as he walked away.

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GROUND ZERO

HANDARI, PAKISTAN

SUNDAY, JULY 4th, 2010

1815

“Found another patch, Agent Scully,” Major Calhoun said over the radio.

Scully looked up and squinted to spot Calhoun directly east of her. She pushed the collar of her baggy robe over to expose her radio, and clicked it as she asked, “Distance?”

“Fourteen feet from the crater’s edge.”

She nodded. That was just about standard. She looked down at her Toughbook Tablet PC, which showed a dot that labeled the detonation point in the center of Handari, and then showed a blue ring around Ground Zero that was almost exactly fourteen feet from the crater edge. Zooming out, she saw two other rings forming as their team inputted more data. One was approximately a mile away, and the other was about two miles away. They had managed to get the Pakistani military to help them out with manpower, scanning and inputting information about the sand. The entire area where the town once stood was now a slightly sloped plane of sand.

She clicked her radio again. “And it’s all pure SiO2? No other elements?”

“Affirmative, Agent Scully.”

She sighed. This didn’t make much sense. Even if everything had been obliterated by force, the particles needed to go somewhere. They couldn’t have just turned into sand as Mulder had suggested. She was hoping that ‘somewhere’ was to these rings of glass, but they appeared to be pure SiO2 as well. “What about you, Faraj? Any impurities to the glass rings?”

The Pakistani officer about a mile away radioed in. “No, Agent Scully,” he said in a thick accent. “There are no impurities registering on my scanner.”

She nodded. “Thanks, Faraj.” Abu Faraj had volunteered his help, and seemed to be as eager as Mulder to get to the bottom of this. He was friendly toward Scully and seemed exceptionally professional and knowledgeable. She was thinking of making him her lab assistant when they got back to base.

She looked at her watch, and looked at their sample list. They seemed to have gotten everything Mulder explained that they needed to point to the Bari Trasadi or, as Scully thought was more likely, a weapon made to do what the Bari Trasadi was supposed to do. The pure SiO2, the rings of glass, the planing effect on the once rocky and mountainous terrain…it all matched perfectly with what little historical evidence there was of the Bari Trasadi. She saw on their closed military network that Mulder had just finished up his interviewing, and that there were three new recordings uploaded from the recorders his team carried. It was about time to wrap it up and head back.

As if on cue, Major Calhoun said into his radio, “Okay, everyone pull back into the blast site, we’re moving out.”

A slew of ‘Copy’s and ‘Yes, Sir’s followed, and Scully began the trek back to the Humvee. She climbed into the passenger seat next to Calhoun, and took her helmet off to wipe the sweat from her brow.

“Keep that helmet on, Agent Scully,” Calhoun said in the sharp, trained tone he usually reserved for his subordinates. “RPG’s don’t care how hot it is.”

She nearly rolled her eyes. She was dying of thirst, dressed in body armor under two layers of desert robes, and had just finished carrying soil sampling equipment for three-miles around a blast site in a sandy wasteland with no shade. It didn’t matter that it was late in the day—the sun was as brutal as it was in DC at high noon on a cloudless, summer day. She decided she hated the desert.

Just as Calhoun spotted one of their other Humvees in the distance and prepared to put theirs into gear, their radio crackled once, and then fell silent. Calhoun looked troubled. “All teams, report in,” he said, just to be safe.

Multiple teams reported in immediately, and Scully looked to the major. “What’s wrong?”

“That crackle…it sounded to me like an SOS.”

Scully frowned. “I didn’t hear that.”

“You have to be listening for it,” he explained. Scully knew this man had served three tours in Iraq and four in Afghanistan. She didn’t have to ask him to elaborate as to why his ear was always listening for a distress call.

“Who would be sending an SOS?”

“Only thing I can think of is Colonel Young’s group.” He switched radio frequencies and clicked his radio. “Colonel Young, this is Major Calhoun. Do you copy?”

They waited, and Scully saw one of their Pakistani group members approaching their Humvee from the south. He got in, and asked, “Are we going to head North back to Hangu?”

Calhoun held up his hand, silencing the man. They waited, and only a moment later the radio crackled again. Three short crackles, three elongated ones, and three short ones again. A standard SOS in Morse Code.

“It’s definitely Young’s group,” Calhoun said, starting up the Humvee and heading out in one quick motion. He switched his frequency again to a general one and announced, “All teams, we are Oscar-mike to Colonel Young’s group location. Acknowledge.” Calhoun had now switched to military lingo in case their lines weren’t secure. ‘Oscar-mike’ meant ‘on the move.’

Another barrage of ‘Yes, Sir’s followed, but Scully barely heard them. Her stomach had plummeted when the second SOS came in, and now she could hear her heartbeat in her ears. Oh please, God, let Mulder be okay.

“—this is Major Calhoun, do you have any reports of insurgent activity directly southwest of Handari, Over?”

A moment later, Calhoun got his answer. “This is Tollert, Sir. We’ve got multiple reports coming in from area witnesses and Pakistani military patrol. There have been multiple IED blasts reported and one ambush of an American Humvee. No ID yet, Sir, but considering we’re the only friendlies in the area—”

“Thank you, Tollert. Update me regularly. Out.”

Calhoun fixed his eyes on the dirt path and sped up the Humvee, a cloud of dust forming around them as they drove. It was spooky, being in this blast zone where a cloud of dust and sand engulfed the area and took the lives of so many. It was as if they were recreating a microcosm of the destruction.

Scully gripped the ‘oh shit’ handle with her right hand, her knuckles turning white. But the ride wasn’t the source of her anxiety. Calhoun wasn’t driving recklessly—if anything, Scully wanted him to drive faster.

He glanced at her momentarily, and said, “There’ll be four patrols moving in on his location in no more than fifteen minutes, Agent Scully. And they already have two Humvees with them, one equipped with a gunner.”

She nodded. That didn’t make her feel better, though.

Ten minutes later, the first patrol arrived five minutes ahead of Scully, Calhoun, and the Pakistani soldier. Calhoun’s radio crackled to life after the morbid silence Scully had just endured. “Major Calhoun, this is Pierson.”

“Pierson, report,” Calhoun said, and as they cleared the next hill of the terrain, they were able to see a large amount of black smoke and a still-raging fire.

“Area clear, Sir, but we’ve got two Humvee’s, both FUBAR.” ‘FUBAR’ meant ‘Fucked Up Beyond All Repair.’

Scully held her breath, knowing what Calhoun would ask next. And when the question, “Signs of life?” was asked, she could hear nothing but the silence that followed.

Until finally, Pierson stated, “Still looking, Sir.”

Calhoun pursed his lips. “Copy that. Out.”

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DIRT PATH

7 MILES OUTSIDE HANDARI

SUNDAY, JULY 4th, 2010

1810

“The cloud, the flat plane, the people who seemed to disappear into the sand before their eyes…the sheer amount of dust involved, the fact that a six-foot-tall man had to climb onto a Jeep and put an eight-year-old on his shoulders just to see over the cloud, when they were already 250 feet above Handari’s level…it all points right to the Bari Trasadi,” Mulder told Young, who was looking rather displeased with the results.

“You realize this is gonna make a shit-ton of paperwork,” he said, and Schaeffer looked positively insulted by the profanity. “I’m sorry,” Young shrugged. “The man’s telling me his official explanation is that a 4,000-year-old weapon leveled three square miles of land. You try writing that in a report.”

“The problem now isn’t going to be determining if it’s the Bari Trasadi or a perfectly copied weapon,” Mulder continued. “When we meet up with Scully, I’m sure she’ll have more than enough scientific evidence that will correlate with the historical evidence, and whether or not the weapon is authentic is irrelevant to tracking its source. That should be our main goal. Now I happen to believe it’s the authentic weapon, and whoever excavated it is using it incorrectly. As a consequence—”

“Incoming!” The driver yelled suddenly, and Young instinctively grabbed the back of Mulder’s helmet and shoved it down to the agent’s knees. Before Mulder even knew what was happening, a horrendous boom nearly shattered his eardrums and the Humvee shook from impact. The passenger side front tire blew, and the vehicle tipped as it skidded to the side. Mulder held himself in the brace position they had gone over in the safety training, his heart pounding and his mind racing. Were they being attacked by insurgents? Had they hit an IED? What was going on?

The Humvee righted itself and came to a halt, but seconds later was slammed by an unbelievably powerful force. Shrapnel flew everywhere, and smoke filled the vehicle. Another explosion forced Mulder to break from his brace position as he was hurled upward, his seatbelt catching him before he collided with the roof as the vehicle rolled.

He squinted through the smoke, trying to see what was happening, but didn’t even have the time to unbuckle himself before another hit pierced the windshield and sent shrapnel flying in his direction. He covered his face with his arms as a large piece of glass embedded itself in his bicep, and his ears were assaulted with a hideous, gurgling shriek from beside him.

Daring to look, he turned his head in the direction of the noise and saw Young’s body suspended from his seatbelt, but his head almost completely detached. Mulder felt sick.

He reached down for his seatbelt release but yet again another explosion rocked the Humvee, this time tipping it 90 degrees and nearly toppling Mulder onto Young’s body.

“Agent Mulder! Agent Mulder!” When his ears stopped ringing long enough for him to hear the voice, he realized it was Schaeffer.

He turned his head in the representative’s direction, and found the man pinned by a warped piece of the dashboard and his still-secure seatbelt.

“Cut your seatbelt and get out! Get out of the vehicle!” Schaeffer yelled.

Mulder reacted almost in a daze, not thinking about anything he was doing. He pulled the knife from his ankle holster and cut his seatbelt. He scrambled toward the front windshield, took one look at Schaeffer, and made the decision that he couldn’t help. He needed someone else to pitch in. The translator was nowhere to be found, probably buried under what was left of the tactical gear and electronic equipment in the back of the Humvee. He saw the other Humvee up ahead, though, and jumped out of the windshield. He rolled onto the sand, got to his knees and then his feet, and took one step at a time toward the other Humvee. It was upright, but it was almost completely blackened by a fire inside and smoke was pouring out of the hood. An alarm went off in Mulder’s head. You’ve got seconds.

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Breaking into a run, or rather a stumble, Mulder made it to the other Humvee and scanned the inside quickly. The driver and the front seat passenger were dead. The gunner had been ripped away from his station in the back and left somewhere behind in the sand. The three back passengers were all unconscious, maybe dead. They were being consumed by the flames that were steadily growing inside the vehicle. “Hey!” Mulder heard himself yell hoarsely. “Hey! Is anyone alive in there?”

He heard a popping sound. Run, he commanded, and found himself turning away and stumbling through the sand again, only to trip about thirty feet from the vehicle and fall on his face. One more explosion ripped through the air, and when the shrapnel had stopped raining down and Mulder looked up, he couldn’t help but notice the complete decimation of the lead Humvee compared to his, which was relatively intact.

He looked around at his surroundings, trying to determine if there were any threats. His mind was starting to clear, and he was less on survival-automatic-pilot and more his usual vigilant self. There was a pickup truck driving towards the site, and that alarm bell in his head began clanging. Get to shelter, he commanded himself, and dragged himself to his feet. But there was no shade, nowhere to hide. There were no trees, no shrubs, and certainly no signs of civilization anywhere near them. He couldn’t fight them off. He had a .40 cal and that was it—there was no guarantee any of the weapons the Humvees were carrying would work.

As the truck got closer, its occupants got clearer, and Mulder knew what he had to do. He ran back toward the Humvee and climbed in the front windshield, accessed the still-intact radio, and set it to a general frequency. Three short bursts, three long bursts, three short bursts. He repeated the SOS again and again, his heartbeat increasing with every inch that truck got closer.

He could see the men sticking their heads out the windows, aiming their guns at him. They were shouting in victory. There were eight of them. Eight able-bodied men against one injured one.

He was cornered. There was nowhere to go. Schaeffer managed to grab his arm at the moment the truck stopped, and he said, his voice shaking heavily, “We’ll come for you…just stay alive till then.”

Mulder had no chance to reply. A well-aimed bullet hit Schaeffer in the head and killed him instantly. The men were screaming at him. He couldn’t understand what they were saying, but he knew what to do. Mulder put his arms in the air, his breath catching at the motion of his right arm.

He was grabbed by strong arms and pulled out of the vehicle. They threw him to the ground. Men with AK-47’s surrounded him. Five were dressed in traditional desert robes, but three were in normal civilian clothing. Mulder felt one of them place his foot on his shoulder and kick, turning him onto his back. He did nothing to fight back, not wanting to be shot on sight.

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Suddenly, a man from behind him threw a black, dirty sack over his face. It stunk of urine and rotten food. He was hauled to his feet, his wrists bound and tied to his waist, and ropes extending to his ankles. He was then nearly dragged to the truck and tossed in the bed. Someone yanked the piece of glass out of his arm, and he screamed. He was kicked in the face for his vocalization, and he forced himself to calm his breathing and try to think about the situation. I’ve been captured. I don’t know by who. I’ve been through this before. I can get through it again. Stay calm. Scully will figure out where I am. Like Schaeffer said… But the thoughts of Schaeffer’s eyes going out like a light right in front of Mulder, thoughts of Young’s head hanging by a flap of skin…he didn’t want to close his eyes and calm his breathing, because each time he tried, his mind went straight to those thoughts.

Stay calm. Think, Mulder, think. Who are they? How did they know where we were? Why did they kill Schaeffer and not you? They must know who you are. They probably won’t kill you, then.

The men were speaking in Arabic, and Mulder couldn’t understand a word. Suddenly, out of nowhere, something hard connected with the back of his head, and he was out.

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DIRT PATH

7 MILES OUTSIDE HANDARI

SUNDAY, JULY 4th, 2010

1840

“—only have preliminary analysis at this point, Sir, but it’s pretty clear that the RPG impacted the rear Humvee first. By the blast pattern it was a perfect hit between the tires. It blew out the front passenger-side tire, nearly tipped the vehicle on its side, but from the tire treads we can see that it stopped after that. The lead Humvee was then hit with a direct RPG to the engine, which blew through the windshield and killed the driver and passenger instantly.”

It has to be terrorists. Only terrorists would do this…

“After the lead Humvee came to a halt, it must have caught fire. Then the gas tank exploded, and destroyed the entire vehicle. The rear Humvee endured several tactical strikes. The first flipped it onto its back, which is a feat unto itself. We’re dealing with heavy-duty explosives here, Sir. Perhaps improvised—we’re not sure yet.”

Why would they take Mulder? Was he the only survivor?

“The second blast flipped the Humvee again, this time only onto its side. That’s where it stayed, despite the fact that several more explosives were discharged around it. We’re examining the bodies, but it’s clear that three occupants were killed by the crash, but one was killed by a rifle round to the skull. And, of course, Agent Mulder is the only one unaccounted for. But the slit seatbelt and the SOS indicates that he was alive and that the terrorists captured him. Also, this entire thing took place while six recently-placed IEDs destroyed Pakistani patrols, eliminating the possibility of a patrol response at this location.”

What will they do to him? They’re going to torture him. Oh, Mulder, why does this keep happening to you?

“Agent Scully, are you okay?” Calhoun’s voice penetrated Scully’s thought process as she stared blankly at the ruined Humvees and listened to the major speak to Pierson, the first responder.

“I’m okay,” she stated, but she couldn’t even convince herself with that answer. She took a deep breath. “When will forensics be done?”

“Probably another two or three hours, Agent Scully,” Pierson stated. “If you’ll excuse me, Sir, Ma’am.”

Calhoun nodded to his subordinate and watched him walk away. “Okay, the first step is to inform AD Skinner, the UN, the Pakistanis, the Indian government, and the Air Force. And, of course, Agent Mulder’s emergency contact. Do you know who that is?”

Scully couldn’t peel her eyes away from the twisted metal. “It’s me,” she said quietly.

“Oh. Well, in that case…the next step after that is to list him as officially MIA with a high potential of being a POW. That’ll get him on everyone’s radar, make sure if a patrol happens to find him, they know who he is. And it’ll get patrols looking. In this case, we’re going to get as much press as we possibly can. It’ll give us a way of uniting the governments involved and making sure that everyone does his share.”

She nodded numbly.

“I’m thinking we’ll probably get Special Forces involved, too, especially when we get a location. And that’s where you come in.”

She turned to face him, and found his expression sympathetic but his eyes determined.

“You’re a professional investigator, Agent Scully. Normally you’d be taken off a case like this but if you haven’t noticed, we’re not in America and I refuse to let red tape get in the way of this investigation. A US Army base was destroyed and we just took ten casualties, including our commander and our Bari Trasadi expert, your partner. These people have got to be stopped before they detonate this device again, and we still need your expertise on how they’ve managed to build this thing. So I’m asking you, Agent Scully, to help out here. Are you in?”

The agent gave Calhoun a look like he had just asked her whether she was breathing or not. “Of course I’m in,” she stated, shaking her head at the question.

He gave her a definitive nod. “Good,” he said, and started walking toward the wreckage. “Then let’s get going.”

Maybe it was the major’s can-do attitude, or maybe it was the image of Mulder enduring unfathomable amounts of pain because he happened to cross a terrorist’s path. Maybe it was the chaotic scene in front of her, or it could have been the thought of her mother’s reaction when she learned that Mulder was now considered a POW. But whatever it was, the numbness was leaving Scully’s body and she felt the energy surge through her. She hadn’t eaten a meal in hours but she felt like she could climb a mountain. She jogged after Calhoun, the familiar feeling of urgent determination overtaking her. This was what they did—they investigated, they found answers. Scully would find Mulder. She wouldn’t settle for less.

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LOCATION UNKNOWN

SUNDAY, JULY 4th, 2010

TIME UNKNOWN

Mulder awoke to find himself in a dark, sweltering-hot room with concrete walls, floor, and ceiling. It smelled putrid, and had no ventilation. The only light came from a single, dim light bulb screwed into a ceiling socket.

A rope tied his wrists and ran through a pulley attached to the ceiling, then to a winch bolted to the far wall. His ankles were tied to the legs of a metal chair that was then bolted to the floor. At the moment, Mulder was sitting with his arms up in the air. They had allowed him to keep only his pants.

He looked around the room. A small electrical generator sat on the far wall with jumper cables strewn carelessly on the floor. Behind him, he was disturbed to see a nearly decomposed body. He spotted the ropes on the body’s wrists and ankles, and felt his stomach churn.

You’re okay, he reminded himself. You’re alive, your arm stopped bleeding, you’re relatively unharmed from the crash. You just need to stay alive, and someone will find you. They will be looking.

He tried to see more detail in the room, but he couldn’t spot any video cameras or other torture instruments. Low-tech. You’re dealing with the basic, run-of-the-mill terrorist here. But something about that idea didn’t make sense to him. Could a “run-of-the-mill” terrorist organization pull off the destruction of two armored Humvees? Ask the 9/11 survivors that, and they’ll probably give you an emphatic ‘yes.’

So what did they want? Was he just the unlucky bastard who was going to become a talking point on America’s evening news? A tool for the terrorists to gain leverage in the US? Or was this more about the politics of America conducting an investigation in Pakistan? A protest against the Pakistani government? Perhaps it even had to do with the Bari Trasadi attacks themselves.

Suddenly, the door opened and three men walked in. One carried two coat racks and a flag, one carried a camera on a tripod, and the other carried an AK-47. They were dressed in traditional Muslim religious clothing and had draped black masks over their faces, exposing only their eyes. Mulder knew what was about to happen, and realized that it was a good thing. The terrorists were going to make a video that would help the FBI and the Army find him. The standard execution method on these videos seemed to be beheading. But they weren’t carrying any large knives or daggers, which meant that he probably wasn’t going to die.

The man with the tripod set up the camera and then walked over to the winch. He turned the crank, and Mulder was pulled to a standing position. He found it was very hard to keep his balance with his legs tied to the chair, and he had to use his wrists to keep himself upright at times.

He had been through this deal before, and he had learned by now that he would survive longer if he didn’t speak until spoken to. Smart remarks were for the inexperienced. He wanted to live.

The man with the coat racks and flag finished setting up the background behind Mulder and took a dirty rag out of his pocket. He stuffed the disgusting thing inside the agent’s mouth and then blindfolded him with a black strip of cloth. Mulder could now only see shadows, and was trying very hard to keep his gag reflex down.

He heard movements, brief words spoken in Arabic, and a scraping sound of some kind. Then he heard a motor starting up. Someone grabbed a handful of skin on his stomach, and he jumped at the contact. Then Mulder felt the cold, painful teeth of the jumper cable sinking in. Aww, shit. They’re gonna do this on Youtube, aren’t they?

The other jumper cable was attached to his Achilles tendon and, not expecting it, he wasn’t able to stifle a grunt. Someone chuckled and patted his cheek.

Then he saw the light of the camera through his blindfold, and felt the business-end of the AK-47 placed against his temple. As his heartbeat increased, he tried to slow his breathing. There was no knife. They’re not going to kill you. They’re just going to embarrass you on the Internet.

He tried to turn his mind to other thoughts. But when he thought of Maggie, Tara, Matt and Claire, all he could imagine was them randomly clicking around and happening upon this video. The only person he wanted to see this was Scully, and that was just so she could find him and get him out of this mess.

They began speaking in Arabic, and it was complete gibberish to Mulder. He caught one word, ‘Allah’, but that was completely unhelpful. Then the AK-47’s stock was removed from his temple and he knew what was coming. His muscles tensed and he clenched his fists and bit down on the rag. The first jolt came, and he felt like his body was on fire. He couldn’t stifle the scream that came naturally, the tears that formed in his eyes. His body jerked violently with the second jolt, and he could hear his heartbeat in his ears. Don’t pass out, come on, don’t pass out…

One more shock, this one making him completely lose his balance. Legs bent, he hung by his wrists and cried in agony until it was finally over. Someone unclamped the jumper cables and his skin throbbed at the contact points but was relatively numb from the electricity. His head felt fuzzy, he couldn’t get his bearings, and his heart was pounding like he had just run a marathon. He opened his eyes and saw that the light from the camera was gone. The terrorists were collecting their items and leaving.

One touched a metal rod to his skin and discharged the residual electric charge. Then the blindfold was removed, along with the gag. He saw one of the terrorists walk over to the winch and turn the crank. He was lowered, but not enough to actually sit down. This is gonna suck.

Then they all left. They didn’t speak a word to him. They closed the door, and Mulder heard three locks engaged. As he hung there by his wrists, he tried to stand up to relieve the pressure but found that the electrical shock had sapped his strength. Scully…please get here soon…

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TEMPORARY UN CAMP

HANGU, PAKISTAN

SUNDAY, JULY 4th, 2010

2130

“What about satellite footage? Were you able to get a trace on the vehicle?” Skinner asked over the video chat. His face was displayed on Scully’s Toughbook, which sat on a plastic tablecloth on a folding table in the Command-And-Control tent. She was surrounded by Army officers coming and going, Pakistani officials in heated arguments with UN representatives, and the occasional announcement on the latest insurgent activity. It was hard to hear Skinner at all, even with the iPod headphones she had plugged into the Toughbook.

“We’re negotiating with the Pakistani government right now,” Scully told him. “Or at least, we’re trying to,” she added tiredly.

“We need that satellite footage if we’re going to find Mulder,” the Assistant Director said, clearly irritated.

“Well, no one understands that better than I do, Sir. Colonel Young and Daniel Schaeffer’s deaths have made things complicated, and Major Calhoun and the UN are trying to work out an agreement with the Pakistanis but as you can see,” she turned around and glanced at the controlled chaos behind her, “it’s more than frustrating.”

Skinner sighed. “Have there been any tips from civilians? Any patrols that weren’t hit by an IED out looking for him? What’s the backup plan?”

“There have been about five hundred tips from civilians, most of them false tips from poor people looking for a handout from the UN for their trouble. But their equivalent of an APB is playing on all Pakistani news channels. There are patrols out looking, but they’ve got their hands full with the insurgents who are taking advantage of the earlier IED blasts.” She clenched her fist. “It just makes me so mad,” she said, disgusted, “These idiots are playing political games and the damn insurgents are running around Peshawar like it’s a friggin’ field day, and Mulder is out there, Walter.” She swallowed, trying to control the tears that were forming in her eyes. “…they’re probably already…torturing him.” She interrupted the Assistant Director before he could even reply. “And we could’ve found him by now if we had the damn satellite footage!”

The room quieted around her, and she realized she had been yelling. The UN representatives stared at her, some of them looking sympathetic. The Pakistani government officials pursed their lips and folded their arms, and Major Calhoun gave her a dissatisfied expression. She picked up her Toughbook, stood up, and exited the tent.

“Scully, I realize what you’re going through. You need to take a step back. Everything you mentioned that you were doing—that’s all going to help you find Mulder. It’s all good. Have you spoken to General Himmat lately?”

“About fifteen minutes ago,” she said, and walked into the galley tent. She sat down three tables away from an Air Force officer briefing a Pakistani patrolman. They were the only other occupants of the tent.

“How did he say this was affecting the plan for finding the weapon?”

“He said he went over our findings, both the samples we took at the site and the interviews of the witnesses, and he said there’s no question—someone has manufactured a copy of the device from the legend. Mulder, of course, would say it’s the real Bari Trasadi.” She sighed, and rubbed her eyes. “Himmat said he was going to take this to President Patil and she’ll decide whether to mobilize the military to look for this thing. It’ll take India into Martial Law, and he said she probably wouldn’t be willing to do that. They would have to conduct a standard military and law enforcement joint investigation. But until they find it, they’ve decided they’re staying on lockdown. That means only authorized personnel in or out. Whoever built it is still in country, and will probably strike again.”

“What’s the plan for tracking it?” Skinner asked, pleased that Scully was able to change the subject from Mulder.

“With the samples I was able to collect from the air and the ground, we should be able to see its next strike as it happens if we calibrate the defense satellites to look for that compound. It’s pure SiO2, Sir,” she said, switching back into professional mode for the moment. It was, after all, more comfortable. “That’s almost unheard of, especially at the site of a blast that took out an entire city. You would expect there to be something residual from what was destroyed, but there’s not. There aren’t even normal impurities you would see in sand coming from similar regions.”

“How do you think this thing works?” The AD inquired.

“I think it works in one of two ways. It could somehow capture the energy in the air as it creates its own miniature cyclone, and then touches down and dissipates the particles into the atmosphere, creating the cloud you see that later settles into the new, flat-planed sand we witnessed. Or it has electrical energy of its own that sends an actual blast through the air into the ground at the blast site, causing a collapse and dissipating the particles in the target through another electrical pulse.” She shook her head. “I started out thinking this thing was just made to look like the Bari Trasadi. Because according to the legend, this weapon does things that aren’t possible with current technology. Regardless of whether it uses wind or electrical energy. But as I look at the data…Sir, this isn’t technology we’ve seen in the past. The only way it could transform matter in the way it does is to fundamentally manipulate the quarks of the atoms. I hate to say it,” she started, looking down. “But whether the Bari Trasadi was manufactured to fit the legend, or whether it really is the same device that first entered Indian texts 4,000 years ago…we have to consider the possibility that the technology could be extraterrestrial in nature.”

She said the last part extremely quietly, so that the two other occupants couldn’t hear her. There were other explanations, of course, but for some reason, she felt they had to consider this one.

Skinner nodded, not surprisingly unfazed by the suggestion. “That’s what Mulder would say,” he couldn’t help but mention.

Scully knew if Mulder had heard her say it, though, he would have crapped a cow.

“Will you be sending your results back here?” Skinner asked.

“No, Sir. We have them on a secure Intranet server right now, and we can’t risk sending them electronically to the FBI. There’s a good chance that whoever manufactured the weapon has access to technology that would make hacking the FBI look like hacking Walmart’s website.”

Skinner nodded. “Then keep me apprised as to—”

“Agent Scully!” Skinner was cut off by Major Calhoun’s voice calling his agent’s name urgently. Scully looked up. “We’ve got a video, Agent. It’s Agent Mulder.”

Scully grabbed the Toughbook and ran. She followed Calhoun back into his tent and looked up at the large TV screen which had switched from a news feed to a Youtube video. She nearly dropped the Toughbook at the sight of Mulder.

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Suspended from the ceiling by his wrists and tied to a chair by his ankles, Mulder was blindfolded, gagged, and in front of a Pakistani flag. Calhoun took the Toughbook from Scully and spun it to show Skinner the video. Then subtitles appeared as a masked man began speaking in Arabic.

“The man you see here is FBI Special Agent Fox Mulder, illegally in our nation of Pakistan because of the United States of America’s plans to occupy our country. It took only one attack,” the words read, “for them to arrive, and they are now working with the United Nations and our corrupt, illegitimate government to add Pakistan to their list of imperialist colonies.”

A man behind him held an AK-47 against Mulder’s temple, and Scully gasped when the man moved and exposed what was attached to her partner’s stomach. A jumper cable. And there was, no doubt, another to complete the circuit. A pained expression shadowed her face as she realized what was going to come next.

“For these crimes of the United States of America, this man will pay dearly as we, the Pakistani people, have paid dearly for the crimes of our government. Both Pakistan and the United States have soiled Allah’s sacred ground. This is to communicate to the United States—you will withdraw from our country, or we will kill this man.” The man stepped out of view of the camera, and they started the motor of the generator. One of the masked men pressed the button, and Mulder’s body lurched as the electricity flowed through.

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Scully covered her face with her hand. Calhoun stared with an angry expression. Skinner looked away in disgust. The UN representatives looked at each other, and the Pakistani officials stared at the floor.

Scully heard Mulder’s stifled scream, and couldn’t help but look. She couldn’t see his face but she knew he was in intense pain. She felt tears stinging her eyes yet again. Then the video went blank.

“Major, is this still on Youtube?” Skinner’s voice pierced the silence in the room.

“No, Sir. We contacted Youtube as soon as we found it and they’ve taken it down since then. But we have a secure copy on our Intranet.”

“Have you asked Youtube to trace the source?”

“One of our techs just did,” Calhoun answered the stern assistant director. “And we’ve also contacted a few news agencies, asked them not to run this video, just to run Mulder’s name. We want this to be respectful.”

Skinner nodded gratefully. “Is there any way you can send me a copy of the video?”

“I don’t see any harm in it. I’ll check with my CO and see if I can, Sir. You’ll hear from me in the next ten minutes.”

“Excellent,” Skinner answered. “Let me talk to Scully.” When Calhoun handed the Toughbook back to her, his expression softened and he said, “Now that we have a video, we’ll be able to find him whether or not the Pakistanis give us the satellite footage.”

She shook her head. “That’s not necessarily true, Sir. They could have moved him to another location to film, or they could have moved their computer to another location to upload. There’s no guarantee we’ll find him at all. And they didn’t give us a timeline. That probably means that they’re ready to—”

“Scully, listen to yourself. That’s not what that means at all—it probably means that it’s an empty threat. They want him for some reason, most likely for information. And yes, I realize that means they’re going to keep torturing him.” He closed his eyes briefly, and then looked straight at Scully. “But they’ll keep him alive. Do you understand?”

She took a deep breath. Then she nodded.

“Good. Call me with any updates you have. Hang in there.”

He signed off, and Scully looked at the display of Mulder’s slumped body, suspended by his wrists and frozen on the screen for all to see. She was about to order it down when she realized the Pakistani officials were looking at it. Well, they’re probably used to seeing stuff like this but maybe it’ll speed the process up a bit and get us that satellite footage. She decided to let it be. Unable to concentrate without something to do, she found the computer technicians and decided to help analyze the video.

You can make it, Mulder. God…please watch over him.

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LOCATION UNKNOWN

SUNDAY, JULY 4th, 2010

TIME UNKNOWN

He didn’t know how long they had let him hang there, but he knew his arms were starting to go numb. That was, of course, after they got their feeling back after being shocked senseless. He had to pee, and he was currently in a furious debate with himself as to whether he should let it go and soil his pants, or hold it in and risk a bladder infection. His sense of time was completely off, not being able to see the sun and in constant pain.

The smell was driving him crazy. One didn’t realize just how bad a dead body smelled until one had to spend several hours with one in a room with no ventilation. They probably think they’re going to loosen me up with this. Get me to talk. Little do they know, he thought, nearly giddy for a moment, that I concentrate better with these distractions. Now absolute sensory deprivation, that would be torture.

He immediately chided himself. Don’t jinx it. Next thing you know they’ll be doing just that.

Humor, concentration on certain surroundings, thoughts about the past or the future, they all worked to keep his mind occupied. Even the annoyance of not being able to get his balance to stand up and take pressure off his wrists—it was all helping him stay focused.

And when he closed his eyes, he used old trauma prevention techniques to visualize not the masked men with the electric generator, not the sight of Colonel Young’s head hanging by a thread, not the fear of being blown up by the next hit to the Humvee, but rather the simple image of Scully. Scully in jeans and a sweater, baking cookies with Matt for the school bake sale. Scully with him in the garage, tuning up their bikes before a ride. Scully with him on the road, complaining about his lack of evidence for one case or another. Scully with him in the office, betting on whether Special Agent Gilbert wore a toupee.

He couldn’t run out of images of Scully. But just to keep it fresh, he also threw in Maggie, Tara, Matt, and Claire. He imagined them all together for a delayed 4th of July cookout. Maggie would make hotdogs and hamburgers, Tara would bring a casserole. He would take Matt and Claire to the park to play catch and Scully and Tara would have the afternoon to relax. This was what he would do when he got out of this mess.

Suddenly, the door opened. No one walked through at first, and Mulder watched in anticipation as the same three Arab-looking men came into the room, only this time they were wheeling a cot. He could see restraints.

Oh, shit. You just jinxed yourself, Mulder.

They lowered him by his aching arms using the winch, and Mulder’s back was lit afire with pain at the movement. He was finally able to sit, but he felt like he couldn’t move. One of the men approached him wordlessly and placed a plastic-formed but padded blindfold over his eyes. He couldn’t see a thing, no light got through. Then came the noise-cancelling earmuffs. He could still hear, but not much. I can’t believe this is happening…he thought at first, but then his survival training kicked in, and he forced himself to accept it and adapt.

I need a game. I need a game now. I can still feel touch. Count the number of times I’m moved.

One, they moved his wrists to untie him, but then two, tied them to his waist again. Three, they untied his ankles, and four, they lifted him by his shoulders and legs. He was carried onto the cot, and then unceremoniously dumped there. Five, ankle restraints. Six, wrists untied but seven, re-tied to the cot. Eight, neck restraint. Shit, I hate those…Nine, chest. Ten, left shoulder. He cried out in pain as the eleventh movement was completed and they tightened the restraint around his right shoulder, right where the shard of glass had implanted itself.

Unlike the original dirty rag, the gag they placed in his mouth this time seemed clean and almost like a mouth guard, holding his jaw in an open position. The large plastic object was strapped to the neck restraint, making it impossible for Mulder to move his jaw at all. He could still move his fingers, though. He was counting on that. As they rolled him out of the room, he alternated putting pressure on the leather padded cot with his index and ring, then middle and pinky fingers. He changed the pattern frequently, and it helped him concentrate on the direction they were turning.

Left, then right, then…an elevator? Then a rougher ride, straight out to a car. He couldn’t hear the car engine very well, but he could feel its vibrations as he was loaded into the back. The bumpy ride gave him one more thing to concentrate on. They made a relatively straight shot from wherever they were, but they gradually turned left and then right. All of this means nothing if you don’t know where you started from.

The ride lasted for what seemed like hours. When they finally got wherever they were going, though, Mulder was unloaded and rolled up a large ramp. Then he heard the muffled, yet unmistakable noise of a propeller airplane. We’re taking off? Shit…they’re taking me out of the country. Oh, God, Scully will never find me…

NO! Stop this! You CANNOT think like this or you won’t survive. Come on, Mulder. She WILL find you. You’re going to get home. Even if this delays it a little…

He felt his ears pop at the change in altitude. They were in the air. They were about to be out of Pakistan.

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TEMPORARY UN CAMP

HANGU, PAKISTAN

SUNDAY, JULY 4th, 2010

2300

Scully frowned, and turned away from the computer screen to face Major Calhoun. “So you’re saying every group is accounted for?”

“That’s right. Almost all of them came out and started fighting Pakistani patrols as soon as they saw the patrols’ hands were full with the IEDs. And those who didn’t start fighting were planting new IEDs while there were distractions elsewhere. We’ve got civilian witnesses in multiple cities around the area calling in tips. This time they’re actually credible—no one wants an IED in front of their house.”

“But how can you be sure that every group is accounted for?” Scully asked. This went back to the basic scientific argument that one cannot prove a negative. One could not prove that there wasn’t a teapot orbiting Earth, especially when the parameters of that teapot were not defined. Likewise, one could not prove that there weren’t terrorist groups out there still.

“Agent Scully, you’re going to have to trust my experience on this one. I’ve dealt with these groups before, and I’ve got extensive information on the tribal situation in the area. Colonel Young also left particularly detailed notes about these civilians that he collected from the Pakistani government. These people are organized into sects, and the sects have no more than two or three actual terrorist groups each. And almost all of those were accounted for simply by the fact that they were allocating so many resources into taking advantage of the Pakistani patrol’s distraction. And the others were accounted for by a bidding process.”

Scully frowned. “What do you mean?”

“We send a covert agent who’s working with tribal groups into the field to communicate to these guys. They may suspect him as an agent, they may not. Either way, they receive the communication that we know that they have our man, and that if they release him they could name their price. Those who name a price are obviously not our group.”

Scully nodded. “Of course. Because if they’re politicized in nature and not serving a larger group, then they wouldn’t want to take a bribe. But the lower groups would gladly take the funding in exchange for one prisoner. Especially if they didn’t know his value.”

“Exactly.” He smiled slightly. “I see you’ve done this before.”

“It’s very similar to prison hostages. If a hostage is taken but we don’t know his location, many prisoners will step up if a reward is offered and give false information. It’s also similar to kidnappings and grand theft—people call in false tips all the time, hoping to get money. That effect disappears if the people have a personal interest invested in this person’s disappearance.”

“So we’re either dealing with an extremely powerful group, something on the scale of al Qaeda, or we’re dealing with another group entirely.”

Scully’s heart sank at those words. Al Qaeda…Mulder didn’t have a chance.

“Sir, I’ve got something,” the technician beside Scully stated, and they looked at his screen. “I thought something was a little off about these guys so I ran the entire thing through voice recognition software. Nothing came up as a match, but these guys are definitely not native Arabic-speakers.”

“Do they have a known dialect?” Scully asked.

“No, Agent Scully, that would’ve showed up on the computer. What kind of accent do they have, Hobbs? Anything on the database?”

“It’s very well-concealed, Sir,” the technician Hobbs said. “But here it is. The inflection on this word here,” he moved his cursor, “and here. It’s the same as this one on the database, but it’s less pronounced.” He played a new file, and this one displayed a Hindi accent in the Arabic language.

“This doesn’t mean they aren’t terrorists. Like the Jeser speak with accents from their native language when they speak English, they also speak English with an American accent, not a British one,” Scully pointed out. “This could just mean they were taught to speak Arabic in a Hindi-speaking area.”

“Well, I don’t want to jump to conclusions, but India’s right over the border, and they speak Hindi,” Calhoun stated the obvious.

“Another thing I noticed that was extremely odd, Sir,” Hobbs continued. “Take a look at this screencap of the video here. Look at this man’s pants,” he pointed to the man speaking into the camera. He was relatively close and the zoom and digital enhancement of the video showed his pants in high definition. “The dirt that’s smeared on them doesn’t seem to have been accidental. You can almost see a handprint. There are the fingers, and there’s the palm…it’s the same over here. Finally, this tear in his pants here, it’s much too clean for human hands and it has no bloodstains on it. I believe it was done deliberately, Sir, as was the dirt on the pants.”

“For what reason?” Calhoun asked, frowning in thought. This didn’t seem to be relevant in the least.

“Well, Sir, he could have been dressing for the part of an outlaw—he could have stolen clothes and then altered them to look like he hadn’t changed in a while. There are also signs that he got dressed in a hurry. That this isn’t how he normally dresses. His head covering is showing his hair partially, and his traditional robe seems to have been put over a dark-colored t-shirt. That isn’t standard practice in the religion, Sir.”

“So you’re saying this man is pretending to be a Muslim? Do you think he’s an undercover agent?”

Scully squinted at Calhoun and shook her head. “No, Major. Think of Occam’s Razor. The simplest explanation. These are not Islamic terrorists. They’re not Pakistani nationalists. They’re something else.”

They stared at the screen. “That would make sense,” Calhoun said. “It would explain the level of orchestration that went into the attack, the level of sophistication and planning that was displayed. It would shed light on the accents and explain the subtleties they overlooked when it came to the Muslim religion.”

“And if that’s the case,” Scully stated, and her voice dropped. “Then we have no idea who has Mulder.”

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MAGGIE SCULLY’S HOUSE

WASHINGTON DC

SUNDAY, JULY 4th, 2010

1800

They had finished their early Fourth of July dinner and were cleaning up the dishes. Claire and Matt were both pitching in without complaint, putting the plates in the dishwasher and putting the condiments away in the fridge. Tara turned on the evening news, trying to get the weather for that night. The early July weather was ever unpredictable. It could be sunny one day and they would have torrential downpours the next.

“Mom, after we get home, can I go over to Trevor’s house?”

“On the 4th of July? Absolutely not,” Tara answered. “Trevor’s parents probably want some time to themselves. They’re going to start to wonder if they somehow adopted a kid when they weren’t looking.”

Claire giggled at that, and Matt rolled his eyes.

“You can see Trevor tomorrow when you go see The Last Airbender,” Tara reasoned with the twelve-year-old.

“I can’t believe the prices for movies these days,” Maggie said, exasperated. “When I was your age, Matty, we paid 50 cents to see a movie, and that was a week’s allowance.”

“But you have to account for inflation, Grandma,” Matt stated. “And things were a lot cheaper during the Great Depression.”

Tara smirked. “Grandma was a baby at the very end of the Great Depression, Matt. Not old enough to see a movie.”

Maggie smiled affectionately at the boy, taking no offense. “But that’s very good that you’re paying attention in history class,” Maggie told him with a smile. She stuck a glass in the dishwasher. “We still had some financial difficulties in my family. We had to save all our pennies—that’s why I still keep that penny jar over there,” she pointed. “So I’ll have some extra cash at the end of the year when I empty it.”

“I learned about the Depression from this documentary I was watching on Youtube,” Matt said. “We’re stuck on this boring unit on globalization in history class. I already know all that stuff.”

“Shh!” Claire said suddenly. She pointed to the TV screen, her eyes wide with fear. “Listen!”

“—earlier posted on Youtube, but since taken down. It is suspected that the agent was captured by a terrorist organization, though their identity has not yet become apparent. He has officially been listed as a POW.” A picture of Mulder flashed on the screen next to the anchorwoman’s head. He was smiling and in a suit and tie in front of an American flag. Maggie and Tara looked like they had both been punched in the gut, and Matt and Claire simply stared in shock and fearful awe.

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“Again, for those of you just tuning in, this is Breaking News. Special Agent Fox Mulder of the FBI, who was in Pakistan for the special investigation into the recent terrorist attacks there and in India, has been captured by an as-yet-unnamed terrorist organization. They appear to be Pakistani Nationalist extremists, but that is not confirmed. And as our anchor Jeff Harding was just saying, this terrorist organization had posted a video on Youtube to broadcast the capture and torture of Agent Mulder, but the site took it down only five minutes after its posting.”

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The screen switched to a new anchorman, this time in front of buildings that looked to be in Pakistan. “Yes, that’s right, Cheryl. The US Army tipped Youtube to the fact that it could be receiving a video, and they had their people ready to block and track any terrorist posting. Luckily they got the video down before it gathered too many views.”

The screen switched back to the anchorwoman, who said, “The following is a screengrab from that video. The video is too graphic for us to show on television, but we advise you that this screengrab might upset small children.”

Maggie instantly went into ‘mother’ mode. “Okay, both of you, Matt, Claire, out. You don’t need to see this.” She physically pushed them out of the room, even though their heads were turned, trying to catch the sight of Mulder in the hands of the terrorists. “You don’t need to look at this,” Maggie said forcefully, and steered them for the stairs. “Go upstairs—do not turn on the television, do I make myself clear?”

“Yes, Grandma,” they said in semi-unison, and walked up the stairs slowly.

“Matt, Claire, honey…” she started, and they turned. “Uncle Mulder is very strong,” she said softly. “He’ll make it through—you just need to pray.”

Claire looked a little relieved, but Matt seemed just as distraught as before. They turned without responding, and walked the rest of the way up the stairs.

Maggie sighed, and walked back to the kitchen where Tara was leaning against the counter, fist to her mouth, watching the anchorwoman go on talking about Mulder’s capture while the picture of him half-naked and suspended from the ceiling by his wrists was displayed for all the world to see.

Maggie felt tears forming in her eyes, and she didn’t have to say anything to Tara. She simply wrapped her arms around her, and the two women hugged.

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TEMPORARY UN CAMP

HANGU, PAKISTAN

MONDAY, JULY 5th, 2010

0200

“We got it, we got the footage,” Calhoun’s voice pierced Scully’s near-sleep daze as she sat in a chair in the galley tent and held an un-opened granola bar. Having gotten only two hours of sleep since she left Washington DC, she was completely exhausted and the adrenaline was starting to wear off. With the UN contacting the Indian government and explaining the situation, to try to find out if they had any gangs or terrorist groups that might try to impersonate Pakistani terrorists, and with the US Army looking into their intelligence and contacting the CIA for advice, Scully was really out of her playing field.

She had thought, for about two minutes, about contacting Spender. It was a long shot but he might know something. The price of putting themselves in his debt, though, was far too high. Especially when they didn’t know if the CIA or Indian intelligence knew anything.

She had come into the galley about a half hour ago to grab something to eat and watch the news, but somewhere between picking up the granola bar and turning on the TV, she had entered a near-sleep state. When she heard Calhoun’s voice she nearly jumped out of her seat. Fully awake, she asked, “The satellite footage?”

Calhoun nodded. “They finally agreed to it. They’re sending it to us now. We should have a location soon.”

Relief washed over her. She visibly relaxed for a moment, and even smiled at Calhoun. But then she caught herself. With the news covering Mulder’s capture, and considering they already posted the video to Youtube, they may have moved Mulder by now.

She rose and followed the major out to the Command and Control tent, where the utter chaos had died down somewhat. The UN representatives had left and gone to hotels to sleep. The Pakistani officials were no longer needed for negotiations. It made Scully mad. Mulder was still out there and these jokers were in some hotel bed somewhere instead of offering their help. She didn’t expect much from the suits in the Pakistani government, and she supposed she shouldn’t have expected much from the UN, but it still irked her that the only ones willing to stay past their shift was the US military and the dedicated Pakistani patrolmen still willing to help. Or ordered to ‘supervise’.

“We’ve been tracking this truck, Sir,” Hobbs said from his seat in front of the computer. Scully jogged over to the screen and looked at the truck it displayed. In the far left-hand corner she could see the burning hood of one of the Humvees at the attack site. In the bed of the truck, surrounded by armed men, Mulder was bound and had a hood over his head. She saw the arm of one of the men pull back, getting ready to cold-cock Mulder.

In the next satellite image her partner laid on the bed of the truck, knocked out. She pursed her lips and asked, “Can we speed this up, please?”

“It’s going as fast as it can, Agent Scully,” Hobbs answered. “The tracker has identified the truck’s parameters as I entered them in and it’s now following satellite images in close proximity to this one, from three different Pakistani satellites. It takes a few minutes to—”

“Get the images downloaded, I know, I know,” she said, irritated. Hobbs glanced at her, but didn’t say anything. He understood she was on edge.

Ten excruciating minutes later, the truck stopped outside of a school. They practically dragged Mulder inside, and subsequent satellite footage didn’t show any movement.

“That’s it, we got it,” Calhoun said in victory. “Okay, let’s put a team together, get moving. Can I have everyone’s attention!” People stopped what they were doing and listened to the major. “We’ve got a location—it’s a school southwest of Kohat. I want the closest available Pakistani patrol to surround that building, but do not move in until US troops arrive. Harris, get the medical team together and tell them to prep a helicopter if we need an airlift. Pierson, I want you and your men in on this one. Everyone get suited up now, we leave no later than 0215. Move!”

A chorus of ‘yes, Sir’s rang out, and the tent was chaos once again. Scully already had her jacket on, her Toughbook in her bag, and her helmet secured on her head. She waited by the entrance of the tent, expectantly looking at Calhoun.

“I can’t leave until my people are ready, Agent Scully. It’s going to be at least another two minutes,” he said.

He sounded so level-headed, she wanted to hit him. Mulder was out there, he could be moved at any moment! She took a deep breath. Calhoun knows, she forced herself to realize. Two minutes…two minutes…

Finally, it was time to leave. The ride there took much longer than Scully thought it should have. They ended up taking a N-S road and then heading directly west to Kohat, instead of going straight there, mainly because of the insurgent activity in the area.

She practically leapt out of the Humvee when they arrived. The school wasn’t what she expected. From the satellite view, it looked a little run-down, but what she was seeing in front of her was a building worthy of being condemned.

“Run the infrared,” Calhoun ordered Pierson. “Did anyone spot anything so far?” he asked one of the Pakistani patrolmen.

“Nothing, Sir,” one answered.

“Pierson?” Calhoun asked, and Scully turned to the man, desperate for an infrared signature to show up on the screen.

“No live ones here, Sir. Two very small heat signatures in the basement, not warm enough to be alive. One’s the size of a man, Sir. The other is a machine, most likely.”

Scully’s stomach dropped. “What’s the body temperature?” she demanded.

“It’s barely warmer than the surroundings, Agent Scully. This body’s been there awhile.”

Then it can’t be Mulder, she reassured herself. It was this fact that she kept repeating as she moved in with the rest of the team. They strategically surrounded the building and then scoured each area. There were no signs of life. This school hadn’t been used in a decade, most likely. There were signs that someone was recently here, though. Disturbances in the dust, footprints that the sand should have erased had they been formed earlier.

They entered the basement, and immediately upon mounting the stairs, Scully covered her nose and mouth with her shirt. The unmistakable smell of rotting flesh grew as they descended the stairs and opened the basement door. They all involuntarily made noises of protest at the disgusting and almost overwhelming scent.

Scully looked at the maggot-infested body, glad to have something to do to distract her from the fact that Mulder was obviously moved to a new location. She tried to tell herself that they would just look at the satellite footage from the past hours since the video was made, and get another trace on him. She tried to tell herself that her job right now was to figure out who this dead man was, and how he was connected to the case. She tried to occupy herself, but she couldn’t fool anyone into thinking she was operating at peak efficiency.

Even Calhoun was keeping an eye on her, not stepping out of eyesight for more than a few minutes. “What’ve you got there, Agent Scully?”

“A male,” Scully answered, and looked up. “Between thirty and fifty, judging from the skeletal structure and the remnants of clothes he’s got. His skull and build tell us that he was probably Western or that he grew up in a wealthy area. His clothes point to that as well—looks like Dockers, an Oxford shirt, and a fairly expensive watch.” In such a rural area, it was rare seeing a grown man dressed in Western clothing.

“How was he killed?” Calhoun asked.

“Single gunshot wound to the head, I’m guessing,” Scully said, and shifted her squatting position to get a better look at the skull fragmentation. “It entered in his temple and exited out his frontal lobe.”

“Not execution style,” the major pointed out.

“No, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t intentional.”

“Could’ve also been a suicide,” the major stated.

“Not likely. The skull fragmentation is too small for that kind of close-range hit,” Scully countered. “Major Calhoun, I’m a trained medical examiner. Would you mind if I conduct the autopsy on this body? Or what’s left of it?”

“By all means, Agent Scully. We’ll get the body shipped back to the base. Meanwhile, I’ll contact Hobbs and see if he can pull that satellite footage back up, see where the truck headed after it left here.”

She nodded, somewhat relieved. The major really seemed to be on top of things. But she still felt the nagging, distracting, disturbing feeling that if she didn’t do something drastic soon, Mulder was going to die. She tried to concentrate on the body. You knew this was a possibility. The damn Pakistani government took so long to get the footage to us, it’s now useless. Mulder is still out there, though. Remember that. He’s still out there, and he’s probably thinking about you just as you’re thinking about him.

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UNKNOWN LOCATION

MONDAY, JULY 5th, 2010

UNKNOWN TIME

Mulder had fallen asleep. The realization of what he had done hit him only when he awoke and found himself being wheeled somewhere. A flutter of panic flew through his chest. He didn’t know where he was. He didn’t know when they had landed. He had no idea what was going on. Deprived of sight, sound, the ability to speak, the ability to move, he was completely vulnerable. They could do whatever they wanted to him, and he wouldn’t even see it coming.

His breathing accelerated as his heart pounded. He had broken the first rule of survival: stay alert. If he had any chance of escape, it was gone now. He wouldn’t know where to go. He didn’t know how long he had been gone, and he didn’t even know what country he was in. If he managed to get away from these people, he might run right into another terrorist group’s hands. For all he knew, he was now in North Korea.

Calm down, a voice in his head commanded him sharply. It sounded like Skinner’s voice to him. You can reason your way out of this, Mulder. You don’t know what country you’re in, but you know that India’s border is still closed, so you can’t be there. You’re probably not in Afghanistan after that last attack, and if they loaded you on a plane in the first place, you’re definitely not in Pakistan anymore. The American presence is too large in Iraq for it to be safe. No one wants to screw with Iran. You were in a prop plane so it’s nowhere far—maybe Egypt, maybe Syria, but that might be too close to Israel for their comfort. At least you know where you aren’t.

He calmed his breathing and listened as hard as he could. The sound-cancelling earmuffs made it nearly impossible to make anything out, but he thought he could hear two men talking. It was very faint—it could have been his imagination.

He had been covered by something. He wasn’t sure what, but he had just noticed it. If they had covered him, he was probably around other people. People the terrorists didn’t want to know about him. Scream, Mulder, a voice that sounded like Scully’s ordered him. Scream now!

He screamed. Against the gag it was muffled, and because he hadn’t had water for hours, it was short-lived. He gagged, his throat begging for water. He was unable to produce any saliva. The gag had dried out his mouth almost completely. He struggled against the restraints unsuccessfully as he summoned up another scream. This one left him coughing, and it wasn’t until he was having trouble breathing that he realized his struggling had tightened the gag and neck restraint. They must have tied it so it did just that. Bastards!

Mulder was starting to get mad. His trained acceptance of his captivity was leaving him as his breathing became more and more labored and panic set in. He screamed again, and realized that they had accelerated the movement of the cot—they were now running with him. He closed his eyes against the blindfold and tried to breathe through his nose until he was suddenly slammed into something, hard.

They were moving down. An elevator? This is a hospital, the thought occurred to him. The cover must have made him look like a dead body. What am I doing here? Why would terrorists take the risk of entering a hospital?

The vertical movement stopped, and the horizontal movement resumed. This time, they weren’t moving quickly. He felt the cover removed from the cot, and figured they were now out of others’ sight. They turned, kept moving for a short time, and then came to a halt. Mulder felt himself being tipped forward, and the restraints dug into his body as he was now suspended by them. His breathing was incredibly labored, as the neck restraint dug into his chin and cut off his windpipe.

Moments later, someone removed the earmuffs and blindfold. Mulder squinted and blinked, trying to adjust his eyes to the incredibly bright light. He felt the heat of the lamp on his face, and realized they had put a light right in front of him. They left the gag in, and he was still unable to speak, but he followed his captors with his eyes, memorizing their features.

He could see they were in some kind of cement-block basement. It was cool, unlike his previous scorching-hot surroundings. There was a folding table nearby with a large paper map on it, and a laptop plugged into a wall outlet that was hanging by its electrical cords, not screwed into the wall. Three men who Mulder didn’t remember were down in this area, wearing white labcoats and talking amongst themselves. They didn’t seem to care that Mulder was there.

One of the men Mulder remembered from Pakistan carried something small in his hand over to where Mulder was restrained, and then stood to the side. The man who had done the talking in the video walked over next, followed by the third man from Pakistan. The first man unwrapped the object in his hand, and Mulder saw that they were two needles, approximately six inches long with increasing diameter. At their thickest, they were about an eighth of an inch. The man handed one to the third man, and he placed the point on the tip of Mulder’s right ring finger. The first man mirrored the action.

“Agent Mulder,” the leader said in a strange Middle-Eastern accent, and Mulder attempted to control his breathing. He had an idea as to what was going to happen next. “We have a few questions for you.”

Here we go…

“This is how it will work. You give us an answer, we undo your neck restraint. You give us another answer, we let you sit on the floor. Another answer, and you get a drink of water. You see where this is going. You fail to give us an answer, and…well…you understand how this works. My colleagues are skilled in the most advanced forms of interrogation techniques. The first question I believe you can answer without me removing the gag.”

Mulder looked at him, confused. He walked away beyond the agent’s peripheral vision, and then walked back with a small stone object in his hands. It was shaped oddly, with curves and grooves and two hand-sized holes. But Mulder knew where that shape had come from, and was confident Scully could even calculate the equation that would result in that shape. He knew the object well. He had given an entire lecture on it in what seemed at this point like a lifetime ago. It was the Bari Trasadi.

“Yes, I thought you’d recognize it,” the man answered, and placed the weapon on a small cart nearby. He walked back, and removed Mulder’s gag.

“Who are you?” Mulder spat out, his mind reeling. If these people had the Bari Trasadi, they clearly weren’t Pakistani nationalists. Why would they attack their own country, and then attack Afghanistan? Why wouldn’t they just attack India with the weapon, instead of mobilizing dozens of young men to terrorize the nation? They also had money. He could see that from the facility they had in this basement.

As soon as he had asked the question, though, the leader nodded to his cronies and the two men pushed the needle points an inch into Mulder’s fingers. He cried out as his pain sensors flew. Sweat poured down his forehead, and he gave the leader a hardened glare. The ring fingers held some of the most sensitive nerve endings in the human body. But this was lightweight torture, Mulder knew. And he knew if this was what he got for asking a question, he was bound to get far worse in very little time.

“We’re asking the questions, Agent Mulder,” the leader chided lightly, and smiled. “Now, I would first like to ask you to explain what you know about this device. More specifically, what it is called, what the legend says, and what the current science says about the legend. Basically, restate your lecture.”

“You can get my lecture online,” Mulder said, and was instantly sorry for it. The needles were driven up his fingers another inch, and he gritted his teeth and tried to breathe.

“We have reason to believe you’ll have special insight into the device,” the leader stated as if Mulder hadn’t even spoken.

The agent examined his options. Restating what was online wouldn’t hurt anything. They certainly had internet access, and they might extract the needles if he complied. Maybe.

Talking was difficult because of the neck strap, but he took as deep a breath as he could and began speaking. “The Bari Trasadi is a 4,000-year-old weapon from India that originated on the West side of the country. Though it’s not clear exactly where, Indian texts attribute the destruction of forty cities to the Bari Trasadi’s work, nearly 4,000 years ago. The only reason why this isn’t pure myth is because of the perfect Silicone Dioxide still found deposited in some regions of India, which is the main product of the Bari Trasadi’s destruction. It was written that an individual ‘pure of heart’ could destroy a city by placing his hands in the Bari Trasadi and thinking about their destruction. Current scientists believe that the weapon might have actually existed, and either been an obscure product of nature or the result of extraterrestrial influence.”

When he was done, his throat was parched dry and he felt like he couldn’t breathe. His heart pounded faster when the leader approached him, but to his relief, the man simply undid the neck strap. Mulder felt his entire body sag and he took in a deep, labored breath of air.

“A good start, no?” the leader said with a smile. Mulder knew what he was doing. This was classic captor-victim psychology. He was trying to make Mulder expect a reward or a punishment, depending on his actions. He was trying to prove to the agent that he could be trusted.

The leader nodded to his men, and they removed the needles from Mulder’s fingers. He gritted his teeth and tried not to cry at the pain. Flexing his fingers carefully, he was grateful that no bones had been broken. But they felt like they were on fire, and were now dripping blood onto the floor.

“We brought you here because we believe you may have the ‘pure of heart’ technique,” the man said with a small smile, and walked over to the laptop on the table nearby. He pulled up a picture of Mulder in a hospital gown, from years ago when he had first experienced ‘psychic’ abilities. “We have intelligence that suggests your ‘heart’ may be the ‘purest’. We understand each other, Agent Mulder?”

“I’m not going to help you kill innocent people,” Mulder promised him. His voice came out strong and defiant, despite the fact that he thought the needles would come back. But instead, the leader simply shook his head, and closed the laptop screen. Then he said something in Arabic to his cronies, and Mulder was unstrapped. First the chest, then the ankles, shoulders, and wrists. Not expecting it, Mulder flopped onto the floor. He immediately tried to get up, but one of the men kicked him on the back of the head and sent stars into his vision.

His arms and legs were grabbed, and forced into restraints that Mulder didn’t even see before. Rope was pulled through the restraints and his limbs were forced together behind his back. He gritted his teeth and forced himself not to vocally protest as they wrapped the rope around his neck and inserted the gag once more. Then they threw the rope over what Mulder hoped was a strong pipe, and the two cronies pulled. Mulder was raised about three feet in the air, and the leader leaned in close to his face. “I’ll give you some incentive to help us out, Agent Mulder. Some time to think it over, and some additional stimulation. Just so you don’t get bored.”

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He knew what was coming next. The two grunts couldn’t wait to get their chance to pummel him, and as soon as the leader walked away, the beating began. He was like a punching bag, swinging with each blow as they kneed him in the ribs, punched him in the face, kicked his right arm so hard Mulder was sure it was now dislocated. His vision began to gray with each blow. His body screamed with pain, and he could do nothing but yell against the gag as natural tears streamed down his face.

Finally they left him, and he could only swing from the pipe in agony. Every movement he tried to make just made something else hurt worse, and any movement of his head made the rope nearly cut off his windpipe. He wasn’t in danger of choking, as the rope tied to his ankle and wrist restraints was holding his weight. But he was intensely uncomfortable.

It was in this agonizing predicament that he realized they had placed him right next to the folding table with the map. As a welcome distraction, Mulder began to study it. There were blue circles around various areas in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and then red X’s in certain spots as well. There was a list of names with numbers next to them, and numbers all over the map. In his foggy state, Mulder couldn’t really come to any conclusions. But he guessed that this was a map for suicide bombers. This was a highly orchestrated terrorist organization, whoever they were.

Before he passed out, though, another thought came to him. What if they weren’t terrorists at all? What if they had purposely placed him here, so he would know of these targets? What did that mean?

He didn’t get to elaborate on that thought process, though, because the dehydration, hunger and pain brought him to a point where higher brain functions were impossible. He succumbed to unconsciousness.

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TEMPORARY UN CAMP

HANGU, PAKISTAN

MONDAY, JULY 5th, 2010

0700

“So he was a terrorist?” Scully asked, staring at the smiling face of a middle-aged doctor of Mediterranean descent. His name was Aiman Iftikaar, and he had died an extremely horrible death.

Calhoun nodded and rubbed his eyes tiredly. “He was. He was involved in a Pakistani nationalist, Islamic extremist group that operated in a neighboring tribal area. He moved back there after obtaining a medical degree at a prominent Pakistani university. The Pakistani government found him easily after you scanned that skull into the computer. Now they’re asking for our skull reconstruction software to help them combat terrorism…but that’s another headache for General Hager to handle.” He took a sip of his coffee. “How’d he die?”

“Painfully,” Scully said, and pulled up his autopsy report. “These lesions on the bones show that he was hung by his wrists and ankles for days. Eventually he died of a single gunshot wound to the head, but he would’ve died of dehydration in a matter of days had they not shot him. He was badly beaten and tortured with a variety of techniques.” It wasn’t lost on her that if these people did this to Iftikaar, they could certainly do it to Mulder, too.

Calhoun scanned the report on the Toughbook screen and his eyes stopped when he reached a certain point. He went back and re-read the entry. “Agent Scully, are these results finalized?”

“Yes, I had Dr. Till look over what I’d done and sign off on it. It’s got the Army’s seal of approval.”

“Then we’re dealing with someone extremely knowledgeable with a lot of resources. These torture techniques, they’re a combination of Western, Eastern, Middle-Eastern, and African torture. It looks like whoever administered them knew what he was doing, too. The needle-point torture can kill the victim if they accidentally pierce a vital organ or artery. And the rope around the neck, if not tied properly, can choke the victim when he falls asleep or is knocked unconscious.”

“I was able to identify 150 different needle puncture wounds, all hitting packages of nerves that would’ve sent the victim into orbit,” Scully said quietly. She looked at the report, trying to remember that this was not Mulder and she had no evidence to suggest that they would treat him the same way. She took a deep breath. “The ligature marks around the neck were tight but not anywhere near fatal. They would have made it difficult to breathe…that’s it.”

Calhoun shook his head. “These aren’t your typical terrorists…even your typical well-funded terrorists. Al Qaeda could’ve pulled this off ten years ago but not now, when they’re stretched so thin. This is not a terrorist group. At least not any group we know about.”

“Then who has Mulder?” She asked, her tone almost angry. She expected answers from Calhoun, for some reason, even though she understood that the major was in the same position she was.

Calhoun frowned. “They’re not native Arabic-speakers. They’ve got a lot of money, a lot of resources. They get around—they have experiences with many different cultures. And they clearly stand to gain from throwing us off track. It’s not money they’re after. But other than that…we don’t have anything. We’ll know more when we catch something on satellite. We still can’t clear up that jam.” There had been a jam after Mulder’s captors had left the school, and they had been unable to get any footage of the truck or another vehicle after that. It wasn’t clear that Scully’s partner was even in the country anymore.

“Major!” a lieutenant called, as if on cue. “Need to speak to you regarding the satellite footage, Sir.”

Calhoun walked over to his subordinate, and Scully dutifully followed. When they approached, the lieutenant’s haggard face looked discouraged. “We tried everything, Sir. I’m sorry—the data is just too corrupted. Whatever jammed this satellite left a trail, though, and we’ll get right on trying to trace it.”

Calhoun nodded, and turned to Scully. His expression was sympathetic. “I’m sorry, Agent Scully. This is going to take a while. A trace on the jamming signal’s origin could take over twenty-four hours.”

Scully was suddenly furious. “Mulder doesn’t have twenty-four hours!”

Calhoun could only say, “We don’t know how long they’ll allow him to live.”

She turned angrily, and stormed away. Calhoun sighed. “Hobbs,” he called, and his technician turned. “I want an update on the Bari Trasadi energy signal trace by the end of the hour.” As Hobbs answered ‘yes, Sir,’ Calhoun said quietly, more to himself, “Maybe if we can find that damn thing, we can find Agent Mulder.”

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UNKNOWN LOCATION

MONDAY, JULY 7th, 2010

UNKNOWN TIME

The man walked down the basement corridor, his expression irritated. He played with the satellite phone in his hand, folding the antenna up and down as he approached his destination. The FBI agent was either unbreakable or an idiot. They had hung him in front of the map for nearly a day and he still hadn’t tried to get their attention and say he would try using the Bari Trasadi.

It had seemed the perfect plan, to give him a reason to try to take out the terrorist targets. But it was failing, for some reason.

He finally stopped stalling and entered his boss’s office. The older man was sitting at his desk, the room almost pitch black except for the white glow of a single, keychain-sized, lithium-powered light. “Did he crack?” the man asked in a German accent.

He placed the satellite phone in his pocket. “Not yet,” he admitted in English. Despite his previous manufactured accent, he spoke in his true Indian accent now.

The German man made a noise of disapproval and sat back, casting his figure further into the shadows. “Give him another day. Give him a sip of water to keep him alive and alert a little longer. Then move to Plan B before they manage to track us down. I want the base ready to move out if we must.”

“I understand, Sir,” he said, and then pulled out his radio and stuck it in his ear. “Sabir,” he ordered in Hindi as he left the office, “get the prisoner a sip of water. Just a sip.” The answer came back in the affirmative, and he shook his head in frustration as he headed back the way he came.

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TARA SCULLY’S HOUSE

WASHINGTON, DC

TUESDAY, JULY 7th, 2010

1700

“The UN mourns the loss of German representative Daniel Schaeffer at the same time the US Army holds their own memorial service for Colonel Hal Young and others killed in the attack in Pakistan that resulted in the capture of an FBI agent. Reports are still inconclusive on the search for Special Agent Fox Mulder. According to the US Army, Agent Mulder’s partner is on the team in charge of looking for him, but they are simultaneously conducting a search for the origin of the terrorist attacks in Pakistan and Afghanistan. That sounds like too much work for one team. What do you think, Steve?”

Tara turned off the television in disgust. Maggie had gotten the opportunity to talk to Dana earlier in the day, and according to her mother-in-law, the agent had looked exhausted and heartbroken. It had been almost two full days, and Mulder was still missing. Dana was at the end of her rope and Maggie managed to convince her to hold on and still have hope. But Mulder’s prospects weren’t looking good.

Little Claire was upstairs at the moment playing a video game. The kids had taken Mulder’s capture hard, and hadn’t said much in the last two days. Matthew was at the movies with his friend Trevor. Tara was willing to let the boys ride their bikes to the theatre by themselves because she understood his need to get out and blow off steam. He was like his father in that respect. And he now had a cell phone, so safety was less of a factor.

She looked at her watch. It was past time for him to be home. He was, in fact, twenty minutes late. She had told him 4:40 so that they could go over his summer reading list before dinner. She sighed, and picked up the house phone. She dialed his newly-acquired cell phone, and waited for him to pick up.

“Hi, you’ve reached Matt Scully,” his boyish voice said after only one ring. “If you’d like to leave a message, wait for the tone. Bye!”

“Matt, this is Mom. You’re late. Please call me back when you get this.” She hung up, and frowned. She started to dial Maggie, but then stopped. Her mother-in-law didn’t need anything else to worry about with Dana in Pakistan and Mulder listed as a POW.

“Why would his phone be off, though?” Tara asked out loud. She thought, perhaps, he had left it in his room. She climbed the stairs and started going through his things.

Pretty soon, her six-year-old daughter was standing outside the door. “Are you looking for drugs, Mom?”

Tara turned and gave Claire an exasperated expression. “No, why would you think that?”

Claire shifted from one foot to the other, swinging her hips and squirming as normal six-year-olds do. “Because Matt’s almost a teenager and when moms go through teenagers’ rooms, they’re looking for drugs.”

“Where did you hear that, Claire?” Tara asked, sounding quite exhausted.

“TV,” the little girl said innocently.

“Matt isn’t doing drugs,” she said definitively, and then glanced at her daughter. “Did you happen to talk to Matt before he left for Trevor’s house?”

“No, why?” Claire asked, now curious.

Tara shook her head. “No reason.” She feigned a smile. “Why don’t you go back to playing your game?”

“I beat the last level. Can I have another game? Please?”

“I’m not in the mood right now, Claire. We’ll talk about it later,” Tara told her simply, and watched as her little girl pouted and walked away. She sighed. Seconds later, the front door opened. Matt trudged in, backpack on his back. He took his helmet off and tossed it next to the pile of shoes near the door, and then let his backpack drop to the floor as well. Tara came down the stairs as he slipped his tennis shoes off.

“Matt, why weren’t you answering your phone?!” She asked angrily.

Matt looked surprised. “Huh?”

“I called you twice, once at 4 to make sure you remembered to come home, and once just now because you’re twenty minutes late. Have you looked at the clock?!”

Matt pulled his phone out of his pocket and attempted to turn the screen on. “Oh, crap. I forgot to charge it.”

Tara rolled her eyes, and then rested her gaze back on her son. “I got you that phone because I thought you could be responsible with it, Matthew.”

Once his full name was used, he realized he was in trouble. A guilty expression fell on his face. “I’m sorry, Mom,” he said sincerely. “I didn’t know it would make you this upset.” He looked at her eyes. “Really.”

Tara sighed. “It’s okay…just…charge it tonight, okay?”

“Okay. I will.”

“Why were you late, anyway? Did the movie run long?”

Matt picked up his backpack and unzipped it. “No, the movie ended on time. Trevor and I rode our bikes to the Army-Navy store. We bought this. I thought we could hang it up, just until Uncle Mulder comes home.”

In his hand was a neatly folded, nicely wrapped POW-MIA flag. He looked innocently up at his mother, hoping for approval. Tara tried not to cry as she gave her son a hug.

“What’s wrong? Did I get the wrong kind of flag? I thought—”

“No, Matt, you did just fine. We’ll put it on the flag pole until Uncle Mulder comes home.” She pulled away, and gave him a small smile. “You’re just…you’re growing up and becoming a man,” she said with a small chuckle, holding his shoulders. “Your dad would be proud of you. You did just fine.”

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UNKNOWN LOCATION

TUESDAY, JULY 6th, 2010

UNKNOWN TIME

Mulder screamed again as the hot iron bar was applied to his back, searing his skin. He had been sweating more before…he felt so dry he didn’t know if he had any sweat left. They had taken the gag out of his mouth and his initial attempts at conversation had resulted in this latest session of torture.

He didn’t know how long he had been hanging there but he had lost the feeling in his arms and legs.

When the iron was removed, he coughed and tried to catch his breath, but his lack of saliva just made him gag. “I need water,” he croaked, and the iron was applied again.

“All right, enough,” he heard an unfamiliar voice, and looked up when the iron was removed. It was the same man who had interrogated him before, but he now had an Indian accent.

Mulder knew that was significant. His normally lightning-fast thinking was slowed considerably by the dehydration, hunger, and pain. He knew he had a concussion and he knew he was delirious, because only a short while ago he had heard Scully’s voice down the hall, followed soon after by little Claire’s. His vision was blurry and somewhere in the back of his mind he was worried about regaining the use of his limbs after what seemed like weeks of hanging. He had lost all sense of time.

But he had done several things during the torture to keep his mind occupied. One was memorize the map they had put in front of him—it was important to them for some reason that he knew it, and he figured it couldn’t hurt. Another activity was the analysis of his situation. He knew these men weren’t terrorists. He realized that several of the torture techniques they were using could be deadly if incorrectly applied, and that they were methods used by the elite forces of a half a dozen different areas of the world. These guys were knowledgeable, well-funded, and most likely manipulating him. Why would they want him and the rest of the world to think they were Pakistani terrorists? It had to do with the map, Mulder knew.

“Cut him down,” the man demanded. The grunts seemed disappointed, but obeyed orders. Mulder was lowered fairly quickly but not as painfully as he thought he would have been. They untied his limbs and they lifelessly fell onto the floor. Mulder didn’t have the strength to roll over, so he lay there on his stomach on the cold cement floor.

The leader caught his dislocated shoulder with his heel and flipped the agent onto his back, and Mulder cried out in pain. Tears were now forming in his eyes, and he found himself unable to move. I feel tingling…that’s good. You’re not going to lose your limbs, Mulder. Pull yourself together.

“Have you decided to help us?” the man asked him, looking down at Mulder mercilessly.

Mulder took a deep breath before he answered. “I’m not going…to help you…because you’re…” he stopped, tried to get more saliva in his mouth, and tried again. “You’re not terrorists.”

The man seemed surprised by this conclusion. He seemed to think over his answer, and he simply nodded for the moment. “Okay,” he said, and grabbed a chair. “Okay, fine. Agent Mulder, we’ve got to move to Plan B.” He looked up before he sat down in the chair and said to his two cronies, “Go and prepare the locations.”

When Mulder was alone with his captor, the man stood up and walked away for a moment, returning with a canteen. Mulder looked at it expectantly, trying not to get his hopes up. If this was just another ruse, he didn’t want to make himself thirstier by wishing for water. Somehow, his survival training was still intact.

To his surprise, though, the man unscrewed the cap and held it to Mulder’s lips. He drank the water with difficulty at first, his parched throat finding it hard to swallow. The water burned his esophagus, and he choked slightly when it leaked into his larynx. But it felt so good…

“I’m going to tell you the truth, Agent Mulder,” the man told him, and pulled the water away. He put the cap back on and set it beside his chair. “We are not Pakistani terrorists. We thought, as an FBI agent, you wouldn’t hesitate to take the opportunity to use the Bari Trasadi once you knew the location of the terrorist operating bases.”

“You aren’t very good actors,” Mulder quipped, and then flinched, expecting to be struck.

But the man chuckled instead. “That’s all right,” he said. “Because once I explain, you won’t hesitate to use the Bari Trasadi.” He shifted positions in his chair. “We are the good guys, Agent Mulder. We have information on terrorist strongholds. As you’ve no doubt figured out, we are well-funded and elite. We knew your capabilities to operate alien technology, and we took advantage of the fact that Mr. Skinner sent you here. It meant we didn’t have to cross the ocean.”

Mulder stared at him, hoping that he would give him more information than that. He was trying to figure out who these guys were. They must have some connections in the Indian government, he thought.

“We are trying to stop the terrorists, just the same as you,” the man told him. “They are a plague in this part of the world. You lost thousands on 9/11…we lose thousands every year to these lunatics. They invade our homes, they ravage our country, they are dragging down my country’s progress,” he said. He was passionate. Mulder realized this wasn’t an act.

“We know where their strongholds are. We know where they organize. All you have to do, now that you know where they are as well…is use the device.”

Mulder frowned, his expression troubled. “So you thought by torturing me…you’d make me use the device without…confirmation that I was going to hit a real terrorist target? I still don’t have…confirmation.” He closed his eyes against the pain, and said, “I won’t risk hitting innocent people.”

“We figured, after your initial reluctance, that we would need a secondary plan. That’s why as we speak, our people are placing explosive packages in strategic locations. One is near the temporary UN camp, where your partner is. One is near us, close enough to bring down this entire building on your head. And four others are located in known Jeser safehouses. One of which you’ve already been to—I believe you met a little boy there who was quite fond of you. If you refuse to take out the terrorists, we will detonate these bombs. They will look like terrorist strikes and the UN camp’s destruction may even cause a war. We’ll get you to destroy those terrorist locations, Mulder, one way or another.” He stood. “I’ll give you some time to think about it. Meanwhile, I’ll encourage you to watch Sabir demonstrate the use of the device.”

Mulder looked at the man in horror as he walked away, and then turned his attention to Sabir, who was nearby with his hands in the device. The man closed his eyes, and a few minutes later, stumbled backwards unexpectedly. It must take energy to destroy something. I wonder how many innocents died this time?

Sabir opened his eyes and looked at Mulder. “We can’t seem to control the device,” he admitted. “We can’t localize the different locations. Though this time it wasn’t such a tragedy. We just took out a good chunk of Peshawar.”

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TEMPORARY UN CAMP

HANGU, PAKISTAN

TUESDAY, JULY 6th, 2010

1200

“A thousand dead, in seconds,” Calhoun said, and sat down across from Scully. He rubbed his eyes. “The Pakistani government’s not going to take much more of this.”

“If they used the weapon again, what does that mean for Mulder?” Scully asked, a hint of fear in her voice.

“It could mean anything,” the major stated, and ripped open a granola bar. “Hobbs is working on the trace. We think this latest hit could’ve given us what we need to actually get a lock on their position.”

Scully nodded, barely reacting. She had been given false hope so many times in the last two days that she felt like it was useless, even counterproductive, to count on success. She glanced at Calhoun. He looked completely exhausted. The poor man had inherited a disaster from Young, a diplomatic nightmare and a military catastrophe. He hadn’t complained about it once. He hadn’t spoken an ill word about Young’s handling of relations between the US and Pakistan. He hadn’t even mentioned how the cultural differences were making it hard to coordinate simple military missions.

For the first time in over forty-eight hours, Scully asked, “Major, how are you doing?”

Calhoun looked up from his granola bar. “How do you mean, Agent Scully?”

“Are you doing okay?”

“I’m fine. Aside from being a little tired, I’m at 100%.”

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Scully nodded. He was putting on the same brave face that she knew Mulder would in his situation. That she knew she was at least trying to display.

“Major Calhoun, Sir?” A voice said over Calhoun’s radio.

Calhoun held down the button. “Go ahead.”

“This is Hobbs. We don’t have the trace complete, Sir, but Pierson and I have discovered something you should see.”

“I’m on my way,” Calhoun said, and exhaled as he got up. He grabbed his granola bar off the table. Scully, predictably, followed.

They entered the Command and Control tent for what felt like the hundredth time. Scully was so tired of entering with the expectation of results, and only getting more delays, that she almost didn’t want to come. She was instantly glad that she did when Hobbs revealed what they had found.

“Sir, this is Lieutenant Faraj with the Pakistani military—he’s a skilled forensic anthropologist and he’s also former Pakistani Intel. He’s got something to share.”

Scully remembered Faraj from the original site visit. He was a hard-working, dedicated individual. The man stood at semi-attention in front of Calhoun. “Sir,” he spoke with an accent, “Your officers have uncovered a code that I recognize from my time in Pakistani Intelligence. I have not received official authorization to reveal this to you, but it was never classified and I wanted to tell you in the interest of time.”

“Yes, then proceed, Lieutenant,” Calhoun spoke to him with firmness, but respect.

“You have created an arc equation to describe the airflow path of the weapon. It has resulted in a geographic location several kilometers in radius, which we are now trying to narrow down. But this spot in India, Sir,” he said, and pointed to the area near the Indian military hospital, “it is an underground Indian Intelligence outpost. It could not possibly be a coincidence that these ‘terrorists’ have such extensive knowledge of torture techniques from different cultures, have the resources to successfully launch the terror attacks they have completed, and additionally launch the weapon from inside a known Indian Intelligence area.”

The reality of the situation sunk in. “That military hospital,” Scully began, “it’s closed to the public, is it not?”

“It’s half-destroyed after the suicide bomber. Only military and rescue in and out,” Hobbs stated. “And we did spot a prop plane entering Pakistan, but we couldn’t get a fix on its origin and we know it was authorized by the Indian government.”

“My God…” Calhoun whispered. If India really was an aggressor, the political ramifications were enormous. A country backed by the United States engaging in mass destruction as they had, including the destruction of a US Army base? A country allied with the US kidnapping an FBI agent and torturing him, then posting it on the Internet? Calhoun shook his head. They would need to figure out if the Indian government knew what their operatives were doing before jumps like that could be made. For now, they needed to mobilize search and recover forces, and they needed to do it soon. “I’ll call Special Forces in. We’ll leave in an hour, tops. Agent Scully, get your stuff together and get ready to move out. If we find your partner, you won’t be returning with him to this warzone.”

It was unreal. They were going in. They had a location. She could really find him, and everything was going to be okay. She didn’t want to get her hopes up, but she couldn’t help it. She could almost feel it. This was it. Mulder was coming home.

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BASEMENT OF MILITARY HOSPITAL

MAHARASHTRA, INDIA

TUESDAY, JULY 6th, 2010

1300

“We’ll know what you decide, Agent Mulder. You’ve got an hour to figure out how the device works and hit the intended targets.” The man placed a kitchen timer on the folding table with the map, next to the Bari Trasadi. “We’re confident we’ll be able to excavate the area and find your remains and the Bari Trasadi should you make a mistake.” He began to walk away, but then turned at the last moment. “We’re not animals, I assure you. Should you fail, we’ll find Agent Scully’s remains and bury them with yours.”

Mulder sat on the floor. His right ankle was cuffed to a chain, which was in turn padlocked to a bolt on the floor. His limbs were still extremely weak, and he hadn’t regained full feeling in them. He could barely comprehend what the man was telling him, but he knew they were all leaving. Scientists had been packing up their instruments and disappearing into the elevator for a while now. Those in charge were overseeing the mass exodus, but most of them were gone now. There were only two left, and when his interrogator took off, so did the last man. Mulder thought he was alone.

He tried to stand up. First he attempted to use his knees, knowing that his arms were wrenched nearly from their sockets and wouldn’t support his weight. But as it turned out, neither would his knees. He flopped onto the cement floor ungracefully, and cringed at the pain.

Everything was blurry. The drink of water his interrogator had given him had probably kept him alive, but he still had no saliva in his mouth, and kept hearing strange echoes of voices in his head. He was delirious and half-starved. He couldn’t stand up. How was he supposed to do anything if he couldn’t stand up?

You have to, he thought. You have to stand up, because if you don’t, Scully, Alam, soldiers, and a shitload of innocent civilians are going to die. And that includes you—you’re going to die with them.

“Contemplating your choices, Agent Mulder?”

Mulder turned, and saw something he couldn’t let his mind believe. This was the Middle-East. This was some kind of renegade military operation. Yes, it had to do with extraterrestrials but…he was delirious. He couldn’t trust his eyes. Could he really be there? He squinted.

Strughold smiled. “Don’t worry. I’m not really here. I’m a figment of your imagination,” the old German said cryptically, and Mulder thought he saw the man’s face shift, revealing the alien he really was. “Quite a decision you have to make. Innocent lives, or your life and Scully’s. Either way, the legend-following imbeciles get their way. The terrorists are blamed or the terrorists are destroyed. Well…I’ll be going now. It was quite nice talking to you. If this works out well, I’m sure we’ll see each other again.”

Then he walked away. Did hallucinations get into elevators?

Mulder blinked. That didn’t really just happen. Or did it? How could he be sure? The last time he was tortured to this extent was when Strughold captured him. When he put the alien oil into his bloodstream and allowed him to access an intelligence so far beyond anything he had imagined.

Concentrate, Mulder. You have an hour. What does that timer say?

He strained his neck, trying to see the timer. He caught a 5 in the far left slot, meaning that he had most of an hour. He had to try to stand again.

He maneuvered himself with one ‘good’ arm against the table and the dislocated one safely out of the way, and brought his knees around so he could push off and kneel. Then he threw his ‘good’ arm on top of the table and hung on for dear life. He cried out at the pain and tried to ignore the feeling of his cracked, perhaps broken ribs rubbing up against the table. He leaned into the table and felt around for the Bari Trasadi. He managed to knock the heavy rock onto the cement floor. Then he fell back down himself.

Good, Mulder. Destroy the 4,000-year-old artifact.

He realized he was going to have to crawl to it. It wasn’t going to be easy, with his ankle chained to the floor. “Summon the strength,” he heard an echo say in his head, and this time, instead of tuning out the hallucinations, he listened to it. With an incredible leap that surprised him, he landed with his head next to the Bari Trasadi.

His body was on fire. His mind was now throwing images in front of his vision, and he couldn’t decide if they were hallucinations or an effect of the alien artifact being so close.

“Your hands have to go inside,” he heard little Claire’s voice tell him, and he tried to clear her image from his mind. The last thing he wanted was for her to accidentally disappear into a pillar of sand. “Your hands have to go inside,” the little voice repeated.

“Shit, I know, I know!” he yelled with what little voice he had left. The thought of moving his dislocated arm sent chills up his spine. So much pain…how could he do it and not pass out? He couldn’t afford to pass out.

He was laying next to the damn artifact with his cheek on the cement, not even having the strength to lift his head up. He could barely move his non-dislocated shoulder, let alone the other arm, and the chain was fully extended. He then had a brilliant idea amidst the fog of strange voices, pangs of pain, and visions of hamburgers with gallon pitchers of water.

He reached his ‘good’ arm up as close as he could to the Bari Trasadi, and then with all his might knocked the device down to where his other hand rested. He then grabbed the device and squirmed painfully until his other hand was inside. Then, in this incredibly awkward position he had put himself in, he reached around with his ‘good’ hand and stuck it inside.

Instantly, he was transported to another cognitive world.

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TEMPORARY CMD & CTRL CENTER

MAHARASHTRA, INDIA

TUESDAY, JULY 6th, 2010

1310

“Agent Scully, I just received yours and Major Calhoun’s message,” the President of India said over the video chat. She was dressed in traditional Indian clothing, clearly ready to go to some event. She had taken her personal time to call before they moved in on the hospital.

“Yes, Ma’am,” Scully said. “I take it you agree with General Himmat on our course of action?”

“Of course I do. And I want you to know how deeply sorry I am for this…those responsible will be brought to justice. This I promise you, Agent.”

Scully nodded. That all sounded great, but what she really cared about at the moment was getting into that hospital and getting Mulder out. Infrared sensors had already identified one signature in the basement. She didn’t expect the renegade Indian military intelligence officers to stick around, but she also figured that they wouldn’t go out without a fight. They needed to figure out what these legend-obsessed men had up their sleeve before they barged a building potentially rigged to explode.

“I also wanted to offer you my country’s services in any assistance we may provide you. I’ll let you return to your rescue mission.” She seemed to spot Scully’s cross necklace. “May your God be with you,” she finished, and when Scully thanked her, the powerful woman cut the video.

“You ready to do this?” Major Calhoun asked her from a few meters away. She nodded, and he called in a louder voice, “Okay, everyone, listen up! This is the game plan!”

Scully stared at the empty screen for a moment, and then got up. God…watch over Mulder.

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BASEMENT OF MILITARY HOSPITAL

MAHARASHTRA, INDIA

TUESDAY, JULY 6th, 2010

UNKNOWN TIME

Mulder was surrounded by a Technicolor world of extremely detailed and extremely vague objects. At first, he nearly panicked, trying to get his bearings. He was starting to get the hang of it. And once he did, he found himself navigating the objects through touch, through sound, through sight…he was floating in zero g and all the pain was gone. It was more spectacular than anything he had ever seen.

“Can I speak here?” he wondered out loud, and instantly received his answer. “How does this thing work? How do you work?” he asked the device, looking around the rainbow extravaganza for some answers.

Suddenly, a small world appeared before him. And he didn’t have to ask again. He simply knew what to do. He found he knew a great deal now. It was as if an entire other life’s worth of knowledge was instantly poured into his head. He put his smooth and unblemished hands on the small globe, and could see forty places at once.

Surprised and nearly overloaded, he jumped back initially and the vision went away. He placed his hands back on the device slowly, and the vision came back. Forty places at once. In great detail, right down to the grains of sand. The original forty expanded to infinity. He could see where ancient beings were buried under the Earth. He could see Earth’s history—the beginning with the first humans, the hunter-gatherers becoming permanent settlers, the conquerors and the conquered, the scientists and the philosophers, the first chemists and the last of now-extinct species. The plants and animals maturing and evolving throughout time. Modern-day Cairo, with young people on cell phones in front of the Great Pyramids that he simultaneously witnessed being built. Aliens coming and going like the planet was an airport, millennia’s worth of oil being burned in the giant processing plants that looked like grains of sand when compared to what the aliens had.

He knew where the terrorist targets were that he was supposed to destroy. But he also knew that his captors were irrational, desperate, and angry. They might not have the right information, despite their high position in Indian intelligence. There were two schools within the target range of the Bari Trasadi, and every Jeser stronghold known to the Intelligence community appeared instantly. He saw little Alam in his lime green Crocs, sitting in the dirt outside the little farm house. The child looked sad. He saw Scully nearby. Nearby? No! This was in the blast zone of the bombs!

Overwhelming despair threatened to pull him out of the machine, but he forced himself to stay in. He had to do something. If he destroyed the targets his captors wanted him to, innocents would die. And if he didn’t, they would detonate bombs that would kill just as many people. He couldn’t just lay on the floor and allow people to die. “What should I do?” he asked the weapon. But it had no answer.

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MILITARY HOSPITAL

MAHARASHTRA, INDIA

TUESDAY, JULY 6th, 2010

1330

“We’re getting indications of a buildup of energy, Sir,” Hobbs called from in front. Special Forces was already inside, scouring the building and determining what was and what wasn’t safe to access. So far, they hadn’t found Mulder. But no one had made it to the basement yet. It seemed that the elevator had been destroyed by a small explosive charge and no stairs existed.

“Enough to warrant us pulling out?” Calhoun demanded of his technician.

“No, Sir. We’re still ‘go.’ No egress necessary. Yet.”

“Keep an eye on it, Hobbs,” Calhoun ordered. Then he stepped forward and entered the building with Scully right behind him.

“Major Calhoun, this is Thompson with Special Forces. We have a line down to the basement, Sir, but no response when we call Agent Mulder’s name.”

“There’s no guarantee it’s him down there, Thompson,” Calhoun answered. “We’re on our way to the elevator shaft. Out.” Scully followed him, her heart ready to pound out of her chest. They had an infrared signature, and it was strong enough to be alive. Now it was just a matter of getting down that elevator.

Suddenly, the floor shifted. “Earthquake!” an officer called, but Scully knew that wasn’t what was going on at all. She looked to her right, and saw a cloud of sand inside the hospital.

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BASEMENT OF MILITARY HOSPITAL

MAHARASHTRA, INDIA

TUESDAY, JULY 6th, 2010

1330

He had no choice. He had to fire. “Forgive me,” he heard himself vocally say, and he pressed his thumbs into the globe. He saw a cave, a small house, an SUV, and dozens of other locations there one moment, and turn to sand the next. As he did this, his mind threatened to destroy the other locations he knew his captors had also marked. They were so close to annihilation, and he knew they were hanging by a thread.

But he clung to that thread. He was determined not to let them die—they, he knew because of the Bari Trasadi’s stream of knowledge, were not true terrorists. But this energy he had needed to go somewhere. It couldn’t just dissipate. And then, as if the Bari Trasadi itself had given him the answer, he knew what he needed to do, to keep them safe. He knew it in his heart, but he also realized how painful it was going to be.

With his back arched and his thumbs still securely pressed against the globe, he imagined Scully, Alam, the innocent schoolkids in Pakistan who were about to be flattened into the Earth, and then threw his head back. He screamed, and in his screaming something exited from his mouth. Technicolor sand streamed out from his very soul and dissipated into the air. He had taken his own energy, and instead of streaming it towards those known targets, had directed it back at himself and the rock in his hands. At that moment, he knew he didn’t save them all. Some of the innocents, along with the terrorists, had perished.

Even in this world where he should have felt no pain, he felt a sharp, jabbing sensation at his heart. He couldn’t breathe. He couldn’t think. The technicolors were fading into gray. The beautiful world, the endless knowledge, it was dissolving before his eyes. “No,” he begged. He pleaded with the Bari Trasadi, “Please, no! Please!” But it was too late. He was back on the cement floor, and the building was coming down on top of him.

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MILITARY HOSPITAL

MAHARASHTRA, INDIA

TUESDAY, JULY 6th, 2010

1335

The walls dissolved. Dust was everywhere, and Scully’s instincts took over. She dove to the ground and clung to the side of a receptionist’s desk. The floor caved beneath her, and she was nearly swallowed up by the great plunge the cement was taking. The rebar groaned and bent with the cracking cement, and the screams of several officers nearly shattered her eardrums.

A tremendous roar overtook the building and it shook violently. After what seemed like an hour of dust assaulting her nostrils, debris flying all over her body, and the floor deciding whether or not it would collapse into the basement, it was finally over.

Scully never really realized what ‘the silence was deafening’ meant until that moment. After so much noise, so much commotion, everything was just…still. A thick cloud of dust blocked her view, and she squinted. She could see light coming from beside her. It was a huge light source, large enough that Scully realized what it was. Daylight. Another part of what was left of the hospital had just been demolished. “Major Calhoun!” She called, and coughed.

“Here, I’m okay,” Calhoun called. “Thompson, check in,” she heard him order, and a moment later, Thompson broadcast his injury report for his team. “We need reinforcements in the basement,” she heard the man admit.

“We’re on our way. All teams, check in. Calhoun out. Agent Scully! Where are you?”

“Over here—follow my voice.” They managed to find each other, and then moved in the direction of the elevator shaft almost instinctively. Scully’s heart was beating a million beats per second. She could only envision Mulder trapped beneath the rubble…or worse, simply disintegrated into pure SiO2.

“Our line is still secure, miraculously,” Thompson said when they arrived. “Agent Scully, you’re a medical doctor. You go down first.”

Scully nodded her immediate agreement, and slipped on the harness Thompson handed to her. She jumped, and the secure rafter held her weight. She was lowered down to the basement level.

When she got there, it was worse than the first level. If she thought the cloud there was bad, this was literally impossible to see through or breathe. She coughed violently, and pulled her shirt over her face. Only seconds later, Thompson dropped two masks down the elevator shaft. That’s Special Forces for you…always prepared.

She donned the mask and could at least breathe now. Carrying the other mask for when she found Mulder, she trudged through the rubble and spotted several things that disturbed her. She saw a half-demolished cot with multiple restraints as she accidentally bumped into a restraint system still secured from the rafters above. This was where he was tortured.

She could feel his presence, and though it made no sense to her, feel his pain. It wasn’t an emotional connection, it was a palpable, physical presence. “Mulder!” she called as loud as she could. “Mulder! Answer me!”

She tripped over a pile of broken cement rocks, walked past a still-working Toughbook on the ground, and then she heard it. A barely-audible, extremely weak groan. She ran to its location, stumbling over rubble and ripping up her shins on damaged rebar. She saw his hand emerging from another pile of cement, and she began digging. “Call for medics!” She screamed. “Get them in here NOW! Mulder, stay with me, okay?”

The more she uncovered, the more she felt like throwing up. He was in horrible shape, his skin almost the same shade as the cement rubble. He was bone-dry, no sweat anywhere on his body. Her hands contacted several spongy areas where the bones and muscles should have been firm. And God only knew what other injuries she couldn’t see in this dust.

As soon as his face was fully uncovered, she put the mask on him and stroked his hair, waiting for the medics to arrive. He was breathing, which was a good sign. The only good sign she could see. “Stay with me, Mulder. Come on, can you open your eyes for me?” Tears brimmed her own eyes when she got no response. “Come on,” she continued to plead, but he was out cold.

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The medics finally arrived, and secured Mulder on a stretcher after stabilizing him and inserting an IV. They had to call one of the Special Forces soldiers over to cut the chain link away from the bolt on the floor. Once that was done, they began carrying him out, and Scully stayed by his side and held his hand. She heard Calhoun get a report from one of his people about a Toughbook with ‘alien text’ on it, but for now, she didn’t even care. She had gotten what she had come for.

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BASEMENT OF MILITARY HOSPITAL

MAHARASHTRA, INDIA

TUESDAY, JULY 6th, 2010

1335

Mulder was barely aware of his surroundings. Unable to open his eyes, barely able to breathe, he felt his chest compressed by the cement and knew it wouldn’t be long before his life slipped away from him. Like the walls had dissolved. Like the world of knowledge had been ripped from him. Like the lives of those innocents he couldn’t save.

He couldn’t stop their faces from flashing before his eyes. He didn’t much mind the twenty-eight terrorists he had eliminated from the planet, although he saw their faces too. Instead, he minded the four schoolchildren playing outside, disintegrated before he could re-direct the energy. A husband and wife in their kitchen, making food. Two teenagers rummaging through a trash heap for spare auto parts. All mistaken for being terrorists by his captors. All marked on that damned map he had memorized. All seared into his memory despite being erased from the Earth.

Had he been at least partially successful? Had the Bari Trasadi been destroyed? If not, Strughold would return to salvage it. It would only be a matter of time before the evil man managed to adapt the device so that he could use it, and after that it was all over. Anyone who could successfully operate that device could have control of all of the world’s governments in a matter of minutes. A few brief conversations with the world leaders and a convincing demonstration of its power, billions of people’s deaths and several new deserts where US cities used to stand…Strughold would quickly become the most powerful man in the world.

But Mulder was dying. His lungs were filling with dust, his chest was barely able to expand and contract under the weight of the cement, and every inch of his body screaming with pain or had gone completely numb. There was nothing he could do at this point except hope his earlier efforts had been successful.

Then he heard voices. Great, more voices. Honestly, I just want to die in peace. Can I please die in peace?

But the voices persisted. They got closer. One voice in particular pierced his hearing. “Mulder!” he heard Scully call him. On the off chance it was actually her, he managed to grunt, but nothing more.

The next thing he knew, the weight was being lifted off of him. Still unable to open his eyes, he had no way of knowing it was her. But he somehow could sense her. He wanted to hold her hand. He wanted her to be real. An oxygen mask was slipped over his head. He could breathe, finally. She stroked his hair. Someone cut the chain that held him down. He was lifted up, and carried out. He was set free. He was going home.

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Continued in Post Trasadi

Through the Looking Glass

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Through The Looking Glass

Author: Traveler

Artwork: Truthwebothknow1

Category: Casefile

Rating: PG-13

Summary: A puzzling series of clues with ties to their past lead the agents to solve a case of abduction and murder.

Spoilers: Seasons 1-7, Paper Hearts

Disclaimer: Two weeks exclusive with VS16. No copyright infringement intended.

Original web date:04/06/2010

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Through The Looking Glass

LOCATION UNKNOWN

The young girl looked at the label that had been taped to the glass she held in her hand. Scrawled haphazardly across it in black pen was, ‘DRINK ME’. Knowing that to drink the unknown liquid was wrong but being afraid not too, she hesitated.

“Oh my, look how late it’s getting, Can’t you read? I’m going to be late, now drink the drink so I can be on my way,” the woman who had been her guardian for so many days, she couldn’t remember demanded. The girl just knew she desperately wanted to go home.

There was something odd about the woman today. The child was used to the woman coming to visit her in a blouse and smock, her long blond hair tied back with a ribbon. Today she was rather splendidly dressed in what looked like a tuxedo.

“I don’t know what it is,” the child replied.

“Oh for heaven’s sake, you’re trying my patience today Donna, it’s cherry Kool-Aid, you like cherry Kool-Aid don’t you?”

“It smells funny,” Donna told her as she raised the glass to her lips.

“That’s just the well water I made it from. Now drink it up!” The woman grabbed the end of the glass and tipped it, almost forcing the child to drink it. “There you go,” she told the girl as she swallowed most of the drink. “It should give you a very curious feeling…”

THE OFFICE OF ASSISTANT DIRECTOR WALTER SKINNER,

FBI BUILDING

“The Director will be right with you,” Skinner’s assistant assured them as they entered the empty office.

Summoned there earlier by their supervisor, Mulder turned and shrugged at his partner. It was odd that Walter Skinner was not there to welcome them into his office in his customarily military manner.

“He did say ‘post haste’ did he not?” Scully asked.

“More or less,” Mulder replied easing himself into the right hand chair in front of their superior’s expansive desk. Scully watched as his eyes scanned the top of its surface for any clue as to the purpose of the meeting. The top of the desk was also uncustomarily clean.

“Okay, so what EXACTLY did he say to you?” Scully was beginning to wonder if her partner had requested her presence as backup though she could not remember a recent occasion that would need any reprimanding.

“He said, and I quote,” Mulder began, raising his hands to make little air quotes. “I need to see you ASAP…and I want you to bring Scully with you,” he put his hands down. “So…here we are.” Mulder crossed his legs and began tapping his fingers on the left arm of the chair.

“And you have no idea what this is about, he didn’t mention anything else?”

“Why are you so concerned?” Mulder’s reply was surprisingly curt. Truth was, she wouldn’t be if he didn’t seem to be so himself. Realizing the tone of his reply he turned to her, “Maybe it’s just my spidey sense but there’s been something in the air…”

“Agents!” before Mulder could get any further the Assistant Director Skinner burst into the office and promptly closed the door. “Sorry to keep you waiting,” he apologized, making his way across the office to his desk. In his hand were several manila case files.

“I’m not going to beat around the bush,” Skinner began.

“You’re not a beat around the bush kinda guy, Sir,” Mulder interjected, an indication to his superior that he already had an idea why they had been summoned to his office. Skinner met his eyes.

“I have a request here from Violent Crimes for your services Agent Mulder.” With that single sentence Scully immediately knew why Skinner had told her partner her presence in this meeting had also been required.

“They have a five month old case involving the disappearance…”

“Of five missing eight year old girls,” Mulder finished for him. “First girl went missing on November 27th of last year.”

Scully met Skinner’s surprised glance with one of her own. She lived with the man now for God’s sakes and he could still slip things past her. She had no idea about this case prior to this meeting but evidently her partner did.

Mulder motioned for the file and reached across their superior’s desk to accept it. “All five have gone missing on their way home from school, they all live in rural areas in and around the D.C. area. School bus drops them off at the required stop but they never make it home — just sort of vanish into thin air — and no, I don’t think they were abducted by aliens.”

“But you obviously have some thoughts or you wouldn’t have been following the case,” Skinner added.

“I have several thoughts, Sir,” Mulder answered as he rose from his seat. “Two bodies have already been recovered so we’ve already gone beyond the disappearance of young girls; we’re probably talking kidnapping and murder. You coming?” he asked his partner, already turning towards the door.

“So I take it you’re agreeing to take the assignment?” Skinner asked, meeting Scully’s eyes once again as she rose to join her partner.

“I don’t see I have much of a choice,” the agent replied, opening the door for Scully and following her out into the hall.

He said nothing as they made their way to the elevator. Scully watched him flip through items in the folder as they rode down several floors, engaging in a little small talk with a couple of other agents about the Wizards and then thankfully they were alone as the car descended to the basement. Mulder had that look of deep contemplation. She knew there was something more going on in that head of his. She had a troubling idea she knew what it was.

“Is it just my imagination or are you taking a somewhat one-sided personal approach towards this case?” she asked him just as the door slid open.

He handed her the folder as he stepped into the hallway, “Because it is personal, look at those girls, Scully, remind you of anybody…”

Accepting the folder from her partner, she flipped open the cover to the school photos of the five girls, five dark-haired eight year old girls. Her eyes followed his back into their office.

Mulder was already on the phone by the time she crossed the threshold. “Tell him it’s Agent Mulder,” she heard her partner instruct into the receiver, he met her eyes but said nothing.

SAC Ron Gartman was the current head of VCS; his gruff voice came through the headset so loudly into Mulder’s ear he actually had to hold the phone away. “Tell me you’re on this or I don’t even want to talk to you,” Gartman snapped.

“You got me — us,” Mulder corrected. “I want you to get me the case files, including the autopsy reports on both dead girls,” he continued looking right at his partner. “If I have to come get them myself I will.”

There was a rather short pause and the Scully heard him say they’d be there within the hour. Mulder hung up the phone and grabbed his keys from the top of the desk. “You up for a field trip?”

“Let me guess, we ‘do’ have to go get them ourselves,” his partner confirmed.

“Budget cuts,” he replied, heading out the door without her.

They were across the Potomac before he said another word. He knew what she was thinking and it had taken him this long to formulate a response to the question she hadn’t yet asked. He didn’t take his eyes off the road as he spoke.

“I know what you’re thinking, Scully. And to be honest, there isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t think about my sister. But this is not some fixation I have about finding her. You know I came to terms with that a long time ago… She’s dead and nothing I can ever do will change that. I’m not going to make this into something more than it is.”

He could tell her that but there was still the date the first girl went missing and their faces, all mirror images of his young sister. “In your mind you’ve let her go Mulder, I don’t think in your heart you ever will. You’re never going to stop looking for her.”

Mulder reached across the seat and took his partner’s hand. Perhaps she was right, the need to save a little girl still ate away at him. All the more reason he was sure this case had a personal side to it. “This is someone we know, Scully. Or someone who knows us, our case history, I am sure of that, it’s why I’ve been following it. I think when we see the case files; you’re going to come to that conclusion too. I’ll be honest with you, I don’t like the memories it stirs up anymore than you do but I knew sooner or later we’d be called in on it.”

“I’m just worried about whether you’re going to be able to look at it objectively, Mulder,” her reply was directed at the windshield. “Whether or not you’ll be able to distance the case from your feelings.”

“That’s why I have you…”

FBI VIOLENT CRIMES DIVISION

QUANTICO, VA

Gartman was about Skinner’s age, he’d been with VCS since the Patterson era. Scully wasn’t sure if that was a good thing but he shook Mulder’s hand vigorously, “Despite our history, Mulder, I’m glad to have you with us again,” the agent acknowledged.

“Ron, this is my partner, Dana Scully,” Mulder introduced.

“Life partner, from my understanding,” Gartman hinted as he reached out to shake Scully’s hand. “Nice to meet you.”

“A very un-well kept secret I’m afraid,” she replied.

“Don’t worry, I won’t hold it against you,” Gartman told her, a broad grin spreading across his face. “Mulder and I have a lot of the same ghosts in our closet so if you can put up with his, you won’t mind mine.”

“Well, I do get him to clean his closet on a regular basis so hopefully there isn’t anything in there I don’t already know about,” she watched Gartman give her partner a surprised look.

“Yeah, well,” he began. “I’m sure you’re right. I’m glad to have you both. How about I find you someplace quiet and get you the case files.” Gartman turned and kept talking as he led them down the hallway.

“I think Scully would like to go over the autopsy reports on the two girls if we can have access those also,” Mulder asked to Gartman’s back as he continued to lead them through the bullpen of the VCS.

“I’ll think you’ll find everything is ready for you. The seventh girl went missing just two days ago. Her name is Samantha Rawley, eight years old, brown hair, green eyes…”

A chill ran up Scully’s spine, Gartman’s voice had disappeared as soon as he’d mentioned the girl’s name.

“…this perp sure has a fixation on brown haired girls. Here we go,” Gartman reached into the small conference room and flicked on the light. The files were already on the large table in the center of the room along with several ruled pads, pens and pencils and a couple of dry erase markers for the large whiteboard that hung on the far wall.

“All the comforts of home,” Mulder commented as he stepped in front of his partner and entered the room. He’d been a long time away from this arena and hadn’t missed it one bit.

LOCATION UNKNOWN:

The woman finished setting the places at the table and then went to fetch the girls. They were going to have a tea party. She had given them all party dresses and told them to put them on. When she opened the door, they were all huddled together looking like triplets.

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“Okay ladies, it’s time for our party,” she announced, crossing the room. “You have to come with me now; I have everything all set up.”

As the three girls came into the outer room they discovered a large, long table set with miss-matched fine china and seven mismatched chairs.

“Why are there seven chairs?” the newest to join the group, Samantha asked out loud.

“Shhhh!” the other girls replied simultaneously. “Don’t ask any questions,” one of the girls told her. Samantha walked to one of the chairs and started to take her seat.

“Wait!” the woman exclaimed. “It’s not very civil of you to sit down without being invited! Where are your manners?”

Samantha slid off the chair and stood next to it, not knowing quite what to do. She was frightened and wanted to go home. The other two girls had told her she had to do what she was told or something bad would happen. There had been two other girls and when they had disobeyed, they disappeared.

“Here, you are all to sit in these three chairs,” the woman told them as she walked around the far side of the table and pointed to the chairs she wanted them to sit in. Samantha followed the other two girls who obeyed immediately.

“Who are the other chairs for?” she finally asked as the two other girls cringed.

“My you are a mouthy thing aren’t you. Why, one is for the March Hare, the other for the Mad Hatter and this one next to me is for the Doormouse, but first let us have a game while we’re waiting for them. You all like games right?” Her voice had taken on a child-like quality. “Who wants to play croquet?”

The three girls looked at each other, as the woman pulled three colorful plastic mallets from a large cloth bag and scattered some plastic balls about the room. “Come. Get off your seats, everyone gets one,” she instructed, handing them each a colored mallet. “Samantha, you will go first, lets all see who can get their ball into that box in front of the fireplace first. Now you have to go under the red chair and around the end table, and then across the room and through the legs of that black cabinet and then into the box.”

Samantha looked at both the other girls and then stepped up to tap the ball that matched the color of her mallet, it wobbly rolled toward the red chair and then stopped when it hit one of its legs.

A second girl, the one Samantha knew as Megan stepped up and hit her ball, it rolled under the chair and up against the baseboard on the other side of it.

“Kristie! You missed your turn!” the woman’s voice now boomed around the room. “Call the executioner! Off with her head!” She stomped over and grabbed Kristie by the arm and started to pull her across the room.

Megan screamed and grabbed her friend’s other arm, desperately trying to keep her from disappearing also.

“Let go! Or it will be off with your head too!”

Megan let go just before the woman pulled Kristie through another door and then slammed it shut. Megan dropped to the floor in tears.

QUANTICO, VA

6:40 PM

Scully watched her partner page through the case files on the five girls from behind the autopsy folder she was currently reviewing. He hadn’t said it, but the idea of getting back into the mindset required for this kind of investigation was not something he was looking forward too, who would? Not only because of the gruesomeness of the case but because it was stirring up old memories that Mulder thought he’d finally put to rest. She suddenly found herself looking right into his hazel eyes.

“Don’t be my watchdog, Scully; I need you as my partner.”

She knew he didn’t mean it the way it sounded but the comment still stung.

“You finding anything interesting because other than these girls all being eight years old and having brown hair, I’m not finding anything that sends up any red flags…” he continued leaning back in his chair to stretch his back and shoulders. “Nothing in their family histories, nothing they’re all involved it, no common physicians, dentists, or clergy…” he shuffled through the folders, got up and walked around the table towards her, the girl’s photos hanging from his right hand. At the end of the table he stopped to clip them to the rail at the top of the whiteboard and stepped back. Five likenesses of his sister stared back at him. “Fuck.”

Scully watched him stand there for several minutes, his mind processing the images before him. He finally turned around and went over to where she was sitting, sliding the chair out beside her and plopping himself into it. “Talk to me,” he said, carefully thumbing through the pages of Donna Mayer’s autopsy folder. Her body had been found by some construction workers in a child’s playhouse behind a home that they had been renovating. The red stains on her lips confirmed she had been poisoned. As Mulder sifted through the report and evidence bag a typed note caught his eye.

“Where did this come from?” he asked.

“Says in the report that it was found with the body, why?”

Mulder read the text to himself.

“’How queer everything is to-day! And yesterday things went on just as usual. I wonder if I’ve been changed in the night. Let me think: was I the same when I got up this morning? I almost think I can remember feeling a little different. But if I’m not the same, the next question is, who in the world am I? Ah, THAT’S the great puzzle!'”

He recognized it immediately and the wheels in his head finally began to turn. “Was there another note with the other body?” he asked.

Scully opened the folder, Kathy Lyons had drowned. She handed Mulder the note that had been carefully typed in a winding script.

“’Fury said to a mouse, that he met in the house, let us both go to law: I will prosecute YOU. – Come, I’ll take no denial; we must have a trial: For really this morning I’ve nothing to do.” Said the mouse to the cure, “such a trial dear Sir, with no jury or judge, would be wasting our breath.” “I’ll be the jury,” Said cunning old Fury: “I’ll try the whole cause, and condemn you to death.’”

“Alice.”

“No, this victim’s name was Kathy…” Scully responded absently.

“Alice in Wonderland,” he repeated. “These quotes are from Alice in Wonderland,” he whispered. “That’s the connection…”

“Connection to what?” Scully clearly was not following him.

“John Lee Roche,” her partner whispered.

Scully frowned, “Mulder, I seem to remember you putting a bullet into the man’s brain at close range.”

“Yeah…” To Mulder it had been more of an act of execution. A choice he’d made on pure emotion and it forced his partner and superior to concur at his OPR hearing, that he had acted properly. “We– need to go back and look at those case files, remember in the car on the way over here I said this had something to do with our history? Samantha went missing on November 27th Scully, Roche is where we need to look.”

MULDER AND SCULLY’S TOWNHOUSE

GEORGETOWN

After gathering up the case files and making a hasty exit from the VCS offices, they had made their way back to Washington. Mulder had wanted to go back to the bureau but Scully had derailed that idea by making the observation that it was already well after the dinner hour and she was starving. A quick stop for some Chinese take-out and a change into some more comfortable clothes found them sitting on either side of the desk in their home office, picking on said Chinese while Mulder tried to make his case for connecting a dead man to the current disappearance of five young girls that had now become two murders.

Scully watched her partner surf madly through the electronic images of Roche’s case file. If the original case had been hard for him, their encounter with the manipulative man in 1997 had to have been unbearable. She remembered helping him dig through the soft soil bare-handed to uncover the grave of a little girl that at the time, neither of them were sure wasn’t Samantha. They never did find Roche’s last two victims. It hurt now to see those painful memories resurface on his face.

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“What confuses me more than anything,” he began, not really moving his eyes from the screen before him. “Is why it’s taken over ten years for this to surface? We need to look into his family background, families of the deceased – damn, if we had only identified those last two victims…” Mulder trailed off, a bit of self-resignation in his voice.

“Mulder,” she reached over to touch his warm arm. “This could be a more involved investigation than you think. If you really feel this is the path you want to go with this, then we need to contact Gartman first thing in the morning and have him assign some of his team to this.”

“The path ‘I’ want to go on this? I take it you don’t entirely agree with my ‘Alice’ theory?” He finally turned to look at her, grabbing the chopsticks and picking thru his Governor’s Chicken.

Scully studied his face; there was an adamancy there that was hard to disagree with. Was he really that certain that Roche was at the bottom of this? “I don’t disagree with you, Mulder; I just don’t want us to fixate…” the moment she said the word, she regretted it but she continued on anyway.”…on a single plan of investigation, there are at least three more lives at stake here. According to the time of death listed on these reports we’re running out of time on that third girl. We need to look for other possibilities.”

“Gartman and his team have looked at the other possibilities, Scully, that’s why they called us…” Mulder got up, grabbed the container of chicken and left the room.

VIOLENT CRIMES SECTION

QUANTICO, VIRGINIA

NEXT DAY

Scully had spent the better part of the morning briefing Gartman’s team on their suspicions. She could tell Ron wasn’t happy with the results the FBI’s former crack profiler had come up with. The last thing he had anticipated was Mulder taking a personal angle on the case. “Agent Scully, based on the autopsy findings,” he began, not wanting to put her in the position of contradicting her partner. “Can I ask what your feelings are on following this lead – if in fact this is a lead?”

Oh boy, in the back of her mind, she had known this was coming, “Sir, I know this may seem to be a little out in left field – but Agent Mulder has some valid points in his profile. There are three more girls out there; I think we should examine every possibility. What we need to know is whether or not the unsub is friend, family or fellow conspirator of John Lee Roche.”

“Agent Scully, that case was over ten years ago,” Agent LaRicca, one of the newest members of Gartman’s team stated. “Why would someone wait this long for revenge…or whatever it is Agent Mulder thinks is being directed at him?”

“We’ll find that out when we figure out who we’re looking for, Agent La Riccia,” she told him bluntly.

It was then that another one of Gartman’s agents, Marsha Allen, tapped on the door and entered the room, her face glum. “Sir, Richmond police have found another body, they think if may be the Campbell girl.”

Gartman caught her in the hall before she could inform Mulder. “Agent Scully, do you have a moment?”

She wanted to tell him no but nodded instead and turned to face him.

“I don’t know what to make of Mulder’s profile,” he began. Never in my wildest dreams did I expect this and I want you to know I’m sorry if it’s bringing out some old ghosts.”

“Sir, I think Mulder already had an idea where this case might lead when he agreed to our involvement. You don’t need to be sorry, just understanding. This is something I thought had been put to rest a long time ago myself,” the agent looked down at the copy of the profile she still held in her hands.

“Most of my people know Mulder’s reputation through me, he’s well respected these days and I will do whatever I can to be sure you get the assistance you need,” Ron’s voice was sincere.

“Thank you,” Scully replied and then excused herself to go find her partner.

A few moments later Scully tapped on the door to the conference room that had become their office and entered it. Mulder had sequestered himself in it earlier in the day determined to prove his theory correct. He knew Roche’s mother had been murdered when he was quite young. The father had been a suspect until he too was found dead. He looked up when his partner entered the room.

She walked silently around the table to where he was seated. His eyes followed her every move, sensing from her body language that she had brought him some news he didn’t want to hear. She crossed her arms and leaned her right hip against the table. Fatigue already lined his face. She reached out and brushed her hand through his hair at the right temple. “Find anything?” she asked almost sympathetically.

“Which one?” he asked in return, closing his eyes momentarily with the caress.

Damn him for being so observant. “They think it’s the Campbell girl. Ron has a car downstairs. I’m going to go out to the crime scene, are you coming?”

Mulder didn’t answer, he just got up and grabbed his jacket off the back of the chair and followed his partner out of the room.

AUTOPSY BAY

QUANTICO VIRGINIA

9:22 A.M.

Mulder sat looking at the angry red marks around the girl’s neck, she has obviously been strangled. The lacerations indicating that the intent had almost been to sever her head. It gave him a chill. “Off with her head,” he then said softly.

“Excuse me?”

“Alice In Wonderland, the Queen,” he answered, sliding off the cabinet and coming to stand across the table from his partner. “It’s almost as if someone was trying to execute her,” he gently touched the marks on the Kristie’s neck. “I don’t think she’s playing at all fairly,” he murmured under his breath.

“Mulder, what are you talking about?” Scully asked frustrated.

“Alice in Wonderland, haven’t you ever read it? Pay attention, Scully,” he almost snapped and then his shoulders drooped when he saw the fire in her eyes but she waved off his intended apology. “…only I can’t quite figure out how this latest quote fits…”

“Our perp is following the narrative. The notes that have been found with the victims, they’re all quotes from Lewis Carroll’s work. The first victim, the one that was poisoned,” he paused for a moment, “Donna Mayer,” Mulder began, “is asking us to figure out who we’re looking for. The one on the girl that drowned, Kathy, is from the Caucus Race, proclaiming that we must have a trial. “This quote,” he told her, holding up the note found on the latest victim. “I can’t quite figure out. But I have a feeling that I’m gonna be late for a very important date if I don’t.”

Scully took the note from her partner and read it, “‘You are old, Father William, the young man said, and your hair has become very white; and yet you incessantly stand on your head–do you think, at your age, it is right?'”

“Advice from a caterpillar?”

“Right now I’ll take some from my partner.”

“We’ll I’d say that whoever we’re looking for doesn’t know you very well, because your hair is most certainly not white…”

“No,” Mulder commented. “But I think I’m being told at my age I’m acting like a fool…”

“Or I am for not taking your theory to heart,” Scully admitted.

“So, am I still on my own on this or what?”

“Gartman wasn’t too enthusiastic about your profile when I presented it…” Scully hesitated. At this point they really had nothing else to go on.

“I know, he’s already mentioned that to me,” her partner confessed, looking up to notice that they were no longer alone.

“Excuse me Agent Mulder,” it was Agent LaRiccia, “Agent Scully, I think I may have found something.” LaRiccia stepped towards the pair of agents. He had a cluster of papers in his right hand.

“I did some digging on your theory, Sir,” the young agent began. “I have a friend of a friend of a friend, who’s a pretty good hacker…” The two agents exchanged glances behind LaRiccia’s back. “Got into some of the sister’s sealed juvenile records.”

Mulder stepped over and took the papers from the young agent, speed reading through the information. Judging from the date of birth, Mary Alice Roche was John’s twin sister. They had both been put in foster homes when their mother had died at an early age. She had been adopted by Frank and Karen Boyd in 1956. Had what amounted to a normal childhood after that point but has never been married and seems to have trouble keeping a job from looks of her employment history. She had been in and out of psychological care for the past ten years for what was termed a dissociative disorder along with bouts of micropisa, Alice in Wonderland syndrome, he thought to himself. He handed the papers to his partner.

“Your ‘friend’ have any luck locating Ms. Boyd? Mulder asked him

“I was going to ask you if you wanted me to use the bureau resources to look into that,” LaRiccia replied.

Mulder thought about it for a few moments until he was certain Scully was finished reading. He was waiting to see if she would come to the same conclusion he had.

“Mulder, micropisa is often referred to as AIW, Alice in Wonderland Syndrome…”

Mulder nodded and then tuned to LaRiccia. “No, let me do that. Do you have another copy of this?” he asked the young agent.

“I can put one together.”

“I think this is a good lead, a great lead, make another copy of all this and give it to Gartman, tell him we’re not looking for a forty to fifty year old man, we’re looking for a fifty something woman, this woman,” Mulder told him, tapping the papers he had taken back from his partner.

“Yes, Sir!” The young agent almost skipped out of the room.

Scully could see her partner trying to make all the pieces fit, “Mulder, are you absolutely certain you’re on the right path with this?”

There was no reply from her partner, he was already searching for contact information on the Boyd’s.

BOYD RESIDENCE

TRENTON, NEW JERSEY

Mulder flashed his badge as he stood on the Boyd’s porch with his partner. Karen Boyd appeared to be in her mid 70’s, she was tall and thin but in no way frail. She opened the door for the agents. “I don’t know how much I can tell you, we haven’t much contact with Mary…” the woman began as she led them into the home.

Her husband was seated in the casually furnished living room, a walker next to his overstuffed recliner. He reached for it in an attempt to stand but Mulder waved him off and extended his hand, “Agent Mulder, this is my partner, Agent Scully, she talked to you earlier over the phone…”

“Frank just had hip surgery so he’s not too mobile at the moment,” Mary apologized.

“Yeah, they tell me I now have a right hip of a twenty-year-old,” Frank joked.

“I could use some new knees,” Mulder confessed, glancing at his partner.

“Please sit,” the older woman motioned to the couch and then grabbed a ladder backed chair from the dining room table and sat down next to her husband.

“Mary is your adopted daughter, is that correct?” Mulder began.

Yes, she was a foster child and then we adopted her, very quiet and shy,” Karen told them.

“Were you aware she had a twin brother?” Scully asked.

“Yes, he was quite a handful from what we were told; they were having a hard time placing him with families because he was very hard to control. I think he eventually ran away or was put in juvenile detention or something like that.”

“She used to tell me she remembered she had a brother, with brown hair,” Frank mentioned. “In fact I think she was trying to search for him on the internet some years ago.”

Mulder thought about that, if Mary had found him, she would know that he had been killed while resisting arrest and that he was the officer that had shot him.

“That was about the time she started having some problems,” Karen offered.

“What sort of problems, Mrs. Boyd?” Scully asked.

“Reality problems,” Frank answered before his wife could come up with a more ambiguous reply.

“She’d stop in and tell us these wild stories about what she was doing…” Karen continued.

“Sounded like a bunch of fiction to me,” her husband scowled. “Couldn’t hold a job…”

“I told her she could move back home if she would get some help,” Karen looked from one agent to the other. “You know, see a doctor.”

“So did she?” Mulder asked.

Karen glanced at her husband, “Yes, we sent her to a psychologist, she was under his care for a while and doing better, then she moved back out and we haven’t heard from her since.”

“Do you have the doctor’s name?” Scully inquired; at least they might be able to find her whereabouts through the doctor.

“It was? Oh dear, Frank?”

Scully’s phone shrilled, making them all jump. “Sorry,” she said, standing and excusing herself from the room when she saw the display reading her sister-in-law’s number. “Scully,” she answered as she flipped open the phone.

“Hold on Tara, calm down, what are you saying?”

Her sister-in-law’s terrified voice came through the phone, “I don’t know where she is, Dana, Mattie just called me from home, she’s not there! The bus should have dropped her off an hour ago — I — I called the school, they say she got on the bus so I called the bus garage and they contacted the driver, she says all the kids got off at her stop,” Tara just kept rambling. “So then I called Morgan’s mom, Morgan said she and Claire walked home from the bus stop, that she left her at the end of the drive. How could she disappear in the driveway Dana?” Tara was practically screaming in her ear. “Should I call the police? I’m on my way home now…”

Scully could hear the sound of the traffic through the phone, a car honked. “Tara, take it easy…” Claire had sandy blonde hair, she didn’t fit the profile but if this really were someone out to target them, did that really matter? “Mulder and I will meet you at the house.”

Mulder was still talking to the Boyd’s when she closed the phone. She walked over and touched her partner’s arm. “Mulder, can I speak to you for a minute?”

He turned, almost annoyed at the interruption, “Yeah, just a second…”

“Now!”

He turned again, surprised at the urgency in her tone. When he saw the look on her face he turned back to the couple. “Thank you for the information,” he told them. “We may be in touch with you again if that’s alright?”

Karen nodded. “Can you tell us what your interest is in Mary?” she asked almost hesitantly.

Mulder glanced again at his partner, he was sure he’d heard mention their intent in the conversation she had had on the phone with Frank. One look at the man however, confirmed the he hadn’t told his wife everything. “There’s a possibility she may have been involved in a crime,” he admitted.

“Frank…?” Karen’s face went pale.

“You’ve been very helpful,” he told them, reaching out again to shake both their hands and then excusing them both from the home.

“Claire’s missing,” Scully blurted out as soon as they had closed the door “I told Tara we’d meet her at the house…”

“Missing…” despite his gut reaction to the case, Mulder had never expected this twist, it didn’t fit. “Scully–it’s not our…”

Mulder followed his partner down the steps and across the front yard. He almost had to jog to keep up fumbling the keys from his pocket and popping the locks on the car. In less than five minutes they were on the road to Tara’s.

“She gets out about an hour before Matthew. There are only two days a week that Mom isn’t there, Tuesday and Thursday, she has that part time job at the assisted living center. Claire takes the bus home and lets herself in the backdoor. Matt is supposed to call Tara when he gets home to let her know they are both in the house. They are not to go out until she gets home. Mulder, its only two hours a couple times a week…”

“It’s not our perp, Scully…” Mulder tried to assure her.

“We don’t know that Mulder, we don’t even know who we’re looking for…”

“Hey,” he reached across the console and took her hand. “There’s an explanation for this…tell me what you know…” The drive from the Boyd’s would take longer than if they had been at the bureau.

Scully took a deep breath to calm herself, “She left school, got on the bus, got off the bus at her stop and walked home with her friend Morgan. Morgan’s mom says her daughter left Claire at the end of Tara’s drive,” Scully was doing her best to remain objective about this.

“So she never made it in the house…”

“Mulder, someone would have to have been watching their patterns to know that no one was home today…”

TARA’S HOUSE

GEORGETOWN

There were three police cars in front of the house when the agents arrived. Mulder flashed his badge at the officer on the front porch and they went inside. Tara was sitting on the couch, her arm wrapped around Matthew. Maggie had taken Matthew aside and was sitting with him while Tara was questioned. There was a female officer seated on the ottoman across from her sister-in-law taking down information. Scully went over to them immediately. Mulder’s eyes found something a little more interesting on the other side of the room. Ben, the backyard neighbor Tara had had some interest in a year or so ago was standing at the foot of the stairs talking to another officer. Mulder thought it was odd for him to suddenly make an appearance since Tara had been seeing someone else for several months now.

“Ben, isn’t it?” Mulder asked, reaching out to shake his hand.

“Yeah, I just got back into town and saw all the commotion,” he offered almost nervously. “I just thought Tara might need…

“You live behind Tara, isn’t that right? Nice view of her backyard…” Mulder hedged

“I was out of town…” the tone of Ben’s voice made it evident he knew what Mulder was getting at.

“So you said,” the agent replied. There was something about this man that just didn’t sit right with him. He’d felt it when he first met him. He knew he wasn’t the unsub they were looking for but it didn’t make the agent any less concerned about his intent.

“Well, look,” Ben stammered. “I can see you and your partner have things well under control here so I think I’ll just get out of your way.”

“Agent Mulder?” the officer who had been talking with Tara approached the pair. “Officer Allen,” she offered her hand to the agent. Mulder accepted it with a nod. “We’re going to issue an Amber Alert on this and start canvassing the area. Considering the short time frame I’d like to think that Claire is with someone she knows. Mrs. Scully is adamant that her daughter would not go with a stranger willingly so I’m hopeful she’s here in the neighborhood and has no idea what commotion she’s caused.

“I’m at your service,” Mulder offered.

“I’d be glad to help in the search,” Ben jumped in, almost too eagerly.

The office caught the overemphasized glance towards Ben the agent gave him.

“Ben Nelson,” he offered. “I live right behind the Scully’s…”

As the officer started the question Ben, Mulder stepped away from the conversation, he was tempted to head out the back door and climb over the fence right now but instead he went over to sit on the ottoman across from his partner and Tara. “You did all the right things, Tara,” he began, reaching over to touch her arm. “Don’t blame yourself, that’s the worse thing you can do.”

“Thank you,” Tara said softly and she leaned forward to wrap her arms around him. There was something about his strength that made her feel a little more at ease.

“Scully, can I speak to you a moment?” he asked his partner as Tara released her grip around him. By now, most of the police had left the house with the exception of Officer Allen. Scully got up from the couch beside her sister-in-law and followed her partner out the front door onto the porch. Matthew was out there huddled on the swing; he looked up when the agents came out the door.

“Why don’t you go in with your mom, Mattie,” Scully told him, as she stepped over to caress his reddish hair.

“They’re gonna find her, aren’t they, Auntie Dana?” the boy asked in a trembling voice.

“Yes, Mattie, honey,” Scully assured, looking deeply at her partner. “Your sister’s going to be found, she’s going to be fine,” she told him, more surely than she felt at the moment. When she turned to her partner he was watching the boy cross the porch, no doubt seeing him as himself thirty-some years ago. Mattie and Claire were almost the same age as Mulder and his sister had been.

“What do you know about Ben?” Mulder finally asked as Mattie disappeared into the house.

Scully looked at her partner, somewhat astonished by his question. “He’s a friend of Tara’s, Mattie likes him.” She answered. “Why?”

“He hasn’t been around much lately, evidently he has an out of town sales job now but she did say something to me at Christmas,” his partner confessed. “That he was getting a little possessive with her and the kids, she told him to back off — Mulder, you don’t think?”

“Yeah,” he told her, “I do think — but I can’t exactly go over there, bang on the door and tell him I want to search his house, can I?”

“Where is he?”

“He volunteered to help in the search…” When he saw the resigned look on his partner’s face he knew immediately what she was thinking. “If we had children of our own Scully, they would be the next target as this suspect escalates. There is enough information out there on the net about me and you to tie us to Tara’s family. A leads to B leads to Claire. On the other hand, I don’t think Ben is our suspect so I’m really hoping that for some twisted reason, he does have Claire.”

Before Scully could respond Mulder’s phone rang, “Mulder,” he said in a dead voice as his eyes fixed on her. Scully watched him nod. “We’re out at Tara’s now, Sir; we can be there in about half an hour…yes Sir.”

“Skinner wants to see us,” was all he said.

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OFFICE OF ASSISTANT DIRECTOR WALTER SKINNER

“I’m recommending to Gartmen that both of you be taken off this case,” Skinner got right to the point as both agents sat down in front of his paper-littered desk.

“Sir, I think we’re close to identifying our suspect,” Mulder responded

“Good, present the information to Gartmen and his team and let them take it from here,” Skinner was uncharacteristically blunt.

“With all due respect, Sir,” Scully began.

“With all due respect agents, this latest development puts you both way too close to this case to be able to proceed objectively. I’ve already had several conversations with Gartmen regarding Agent Mulder’s suspicions,” the A.D. looked pointedly at the male agent. “I’m seriously considering putting you both on leave so that you can be with family.”

“Is that all, Sir?” Mulder asked disgustedly as he began to rise from his chair.

“I expect to see your report in Gartmen’s hands and both of you in the basement office tomorrow morning,” Skinner turned his attention to some papers on his desk, they had evidently been dismissed.

“What was that all about?” Scully asked her partner once they had entered the elevator and were alone.

“I have no fucking idea, but you can be damn sure I’m going to ignore him.”

“We’re going to ignore him,” she corrected.

“What was that doctor’s name Mrs. Boyd gave you? Berducci?” he asked as the doors parted to the basement hallway. “Why don’t you see if you can get in to see him this afternoon, we need to find Mary before this really does get taken out of our hands.”

“What are you going to do?” she asked as Mulder unlocked their office.

“I’m gonna make sure Gartmen has our report first thing in the morning,” he turned to her as he opened the door. “Call me after you talk to Berducci.”

BASEMENT OFFICE

Mulder had spent the last several hours using the bureau’s data bases to track down Roche’s sister. Sending his partner to confer with the woman’s psychologist had been an effort to kill two birds with one stone. Hopefully she had gotten some information on the extent of Mary’s psychosis, something he could use when they confronted her. He was already on the way to her last known address when his cell lit up with Scully’s ID.

“Mulder it’s me,” she announced into his ear when he pressed the call button. It still made him smile.

“Hey, Scully.”

Berducci was probably ten years her partner’s senior, a thin gray-haired man who had peered at her over his reading glasses. Once he was aware of her medical training they had engaged in a conversation over dissociative disorders that had revealed some rather disturbing information about Mary Alice Boyd.

“Mulder, Berducci confirmed that he had been treating Mary for what he termed a dissociative disorder. Since the death of her brother she had lapsed in and out of a fantasy world with claims of being perused by the same person who had killed her brother, a person she often referred to as the “Knave,” Scully continued as she popped the lock on her car and got in.

“Interesting analogy, huh?” Mulder replied.

“You led her down the rabbit hole, Mulder, she sees you as the cause of all her problems.”

“Yeah, once we made the connection I sort of figured that,” her partner agreed.

“Dissociation is a normal response to trauma, it allows the mind to distance itself from experiences that are too much for the psyche to process,” Scully was now convinced Mulder was right about her infatuation with Alice In Wonderland. “He said she had been attending regular therapy sessions up until about five months ago and he has been unable to contact her. He gave me her last known address.”

“It sounds like you’re in the car, where are you?” she asked.

“Last known address of our suspect,” he answered as he cruised down the narrow street looking for a parking spot. The row of houses on Baltimore’s Fells Point area had been here since the mid 19th century. Tiny two-story side by side dwellings built before any codes had been put in place that any firefighter today would label firetraps. Many of the larger homes had been divided years ago into multi family dwellings. It was in one of these homes that a young John and Mary Roche had watched their mother die.

“Alone?”

“We’re off the case, remember.”

Yes, unfortunately she did remember that and now she didn’t like it. “Mulder, tell me exactly where you are…”

He ended up parking a block over. As he climbed the cement stairs to the entrance to the building he pulled his cell phone from his pocket to make sure the connection to his partner was still open. “What’s your ETA?” he asked.

“At least 30 minutes depending on traffic, Mulder, I wish you’d wait,” she pleaded.

He wanted to, he really did, but that need he’d had inside him since the day Samantha disappeared was too strong and it was winning the battle with the other voice in his head that told him it was selfish and stupid.

The smell of age hit him when he entered the foyer of the converted home. Apartment 3 was on the first floor at the back of the building. He tapped on the door, “Mary Alice Roche, this is Fox Mulder, I’m with the FBI,” he announced. There was no sound from inside. He tried the door knob but as he expected, it was locked. Working on the assumption he’d have probable cause, he glanced up and down the hall and then pulled his lock pick kit from his breast pocket and worked the lock until it clicked open and he slipped inside.

Light from the large window illuminated the room. It was sparsely furnished, a couch with two 60’s style end tables and a chair and a small bookshelf that held a television and an assortment of figurines that caught Mulder’s eye. Rabbits of various sizes in porcelain and ceramic, all of them white lined the top shelf along with a framed etching that looked like it might be from Lewis Carroll’s original publication.

As he made his way through the apartment he noted how the décor reminded him of a child’s play room and not that of an almost 60-something woman. He stopped dead in the doorway to the bedroom.

Piled across the pillows of the double bed were stuffed rabbits, big rabbits, little rabbits, fluffy rabbits, and curly rabbits, all of them white; on the wall over the headboard of the bed hung a watercolor of the mad tea party. The woman was mad alright, but where was she? It had probably been too much to hope that the girls would be here too.

Mulder exited the apartment and made his way down a flight of stairs to a darkened hallway. A door at the end of the hall led to a series of lockers for apartment residents that had been built in the ancient basement of the old building. The dirt floor didn’t surprise him. He looked for number 3 and with the help of his lock pick again, entered the locker.

The pull chain light barely illuminated the interior. Several large plastic containers were stacked on one side. He dug his Maglight out of his pocket again and flipped it on. A sudden bright light flashed back at him, instinct made him flinch until he realized it was his own light being reflected back at him by a large mirror that was leaning against the far wall. He almost laughed at the irony of the thing stepping towards it to get a closer look. “Through the looking glass,” he said to himself.

Suddenly the floor dropped from beneath him and he found himself falling through a chute. The drop was so short and sudden he had no time to even attempt to break the fall landing in a heap on the dirt below to the sound of screaming girls.

He fumbled in the blackness for his light but couldn’t find it. One child was now crying the other still screaming. “Megan? Samantha?” he tried to keep his voice soft and assuring as he struggled to his feet. “My name is Fox; I’m with the FBI…”

Before he could finish his sentence a door burst open revealing the silhouette of someone dressed in a long robe against the bright light behind them. The agent squinted into the light.

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“What’s going on in here?” the woman’s voice echoed around the chamber.

Mulder knew immediately who it was and reached for his weapon, “Mary Alice Boyd, you’re under arrest for the abduct…”

“You!” The figure came at him, knocking him against the stone wall behind them with the force of a linebacker, his head whipping back against the irregular stone of the old basement. He could see stars.

His weapon flew from his grip with the impact and he dropped to the floor like a rock dazed and barely conscious as Mary stood over him. “You — you stole my hearts, now we can have a trial,” her heard her exclaim just before he slipped into darkness.

Scully had heard the commotion through their cell connection. She was still at least fifteen minutes from the location; she had no choice but to dial Skinner.

When Mulder came too he found he was in what looked like a sub-basement of the building, bound to the chair he sat in with chains. Four chairs were to his left on which sat the two girls, and a large stuffed rabbit and a mannequin that had been dressed in a tux with a top hat. He assumed it was supposed to be the Mad Hatter. The girl he recognized as Megan was sitting completely still, Samantha was still sobbing.

“Ah, the Knave has awakened,” he heard Mary announce. She walked past him dressed in a long red cape. On her head was a lopsided crown atop a white wig. She went over to the two girls and handed them small slates. “Write down the name of the person who stole my hearts,” she instructed them.

“We don’t know who stole them!” Samantha demanded.

“Why yes you do!” Mary Alice answered, picking up a roll of paper that had been sitting on a table next to a chair which she now lowered herself into. Unrolling the paper like a scroll she proclaimed, “The King of Hearts cut many hearts from clothing with much care. He saved them for the Queen’s display but the Knave of Hearts did kill the king and stole the hearts away…” her voice rolling about the room in a sing-song quality.

“Consider your verdict!” she instructed the girls.

“We don’t understand, who is the Knave of Hearts?” Megan asked.

“Why he is, you fools!” Alice screamed pointing at Mulder. “Off with his head!”

“No — no, wait,” Mulder blurted. Scully had to be hearing all this, she had to be close by now and hopefully bringing the cavalry with her.

“There’s much more to come before that, call a witness,” he told the girls.

“I’m the witness,” Mary told them. “Ask me your questions.”

“Explain yourself, give the two girls your evidence,” Mulder told her.

“I can’t explain myself, I’m afraid, you see, I’m not myself,” Alice huffed and returned to the table where she had found the scroll of paper. Picking up something else she came over to stand beside Mulder. “These are a set of verses that prove you stole the hearts. Write that down!” she instructed the girls.

“They don’t prove anything, I didn’t sign my name to it,” he replied.

“If you didn’t sign it then you must have meant some mischief or you would have signed it like an honest man!” Mary whirled around and announced. “That PROVES his guilt!”

“Read them,” the request came surprisingly from Samantha. She looked right at Mulder.

“Yes, read them to all of us DOWN here,” Mulder told the woman.

Mary Alice began to read the verse,

“They told me you had been to her,

And mentioned me to him:

She gave me a good character,

But said I could not swim.

He sent them word I had not gone

(We know it to be true):

If she should push the matter on,

What would become of you?”

Mulder picked up the verse from there,”

“I gave her one, they gave him two,

You gave us three or more;

They all returned from him to you.”

“See,” Samantha said. “They were returned to you”

“NO! He has not returned them to me!” Mary shouted.

“If I or she should chance to be, involved in this affair, he trusts to you to set them free, exactly as we were,” Samantha finished.

“NO! Nothing makes sense here! No one goes free until I have my hearts!” Mary slammed her fist on the table. The sound echoed around the room like a shot. Megan screamed and started to cry.

Scully left her car double parked directly in front of the address Mulder had given her and hurried up the steps. She had heard Mulder tell her there were two girls alive. She entered the building, holding the phone to her ear. Apartment 3 was locked but when she picked up the emphasis on the word ‘down’ in his voice she took the stairs that descended into the building’s basement.

“Mary, you have me, let them go,” Mulder decided to try a little hostage negotiation with the woman.

“NO!” she turned to him. “Not until they consider the verdict!”

“Then tell them to write it on their slates,” he answered.

“Sentence first — verdict afterward!” she shouted at the girls who both burst into tears and hugged each other. There would be no verdict.

“Idiots, both of you! You’re all nothing but a pack of cards!” Mary strutted across the room towards the girls.

“Mary, this is nonsense, you’re mad,” Mulder was stalling for time, the woman was clearly delusional, he tried vainly to free himself. The chain that held him had been wrapped multiple times around his torso and legs but as he wrenched at it, it began to loosen up.

Mary turned, her eyes ablaze, “We’re all mad here!” she screamed. “If I had a world of my own, everything would be nonsense. Nothing would be what it is and you wouldn’t have killed my brother and everything would be what it isn’t and we wouldn’t be here you see?”

The door to locker three stood open and dim light shining out into the hallway. Scully pulled her weapon; she could now hear Mary’s mad voice clearly echoing up through the opening in the floor directly in front of a large mirror. Mulder’s soft words, “Through the looking glass”, echoed in her head. When she heard what sounded like a shot coming from below she lowered herself into the hole and jumped into the darkness.

Mary pulled both girls roughly from their chairs, shoving them across the room to stand in front of Mulder where she picked up a large ax that had been behind the chair. “Sentence him!” she demanded of them.

Both girls continued to whimper. Mary pushed Samantha aside and grabbed Megan’s face, squeezing her cheeks hard. “Say it, sentence him!”

“Drop the ax!” Scully’s voice boomed from the doorway of the other room.

Mary turned to look in the direction of the voice. “If everybody minded their own business, the world would go around a great deal faster than it does…” She whirled and swung the ax. A shot rang out. Mulder felt himself falling, the chair being tipped to one side; he couldn’t stop himself from going over with it. One of the girls screamed.

Mulder made his way up from the basement and headed for one of the ambulances that were now parked in front of the building. Gartman was standing next to the gurney that held Mary Boyd. “How is she?” he asked.

“She’s headed for surgery and then the psychiatric unit,” Ron replied and edge of annoyance in his voice.

“It’s like she’s lost in a perpetual deranged childhood,” the agent commented.

“Then I shall never get any older than I am now — a comfort in a way, never to be an old woman…” Mary whispered from the gurney.

The agent found his partner sitting in the back of the other ambulance with the girls. “Mary’s on her way to the hospital, they think she’s going to be fine. Of course the courts will require psychological testing before she can be tried,” he told her his eyes fixed on the two girls.

“The girls parents have been notified, they’re going to meet us at the hospital,” she told him taking the hint. “She wasn’t here was she, Mulder.”

“You know I didn’t think she would be,” the agent replied, knowing instantly that Scully was referring to her niece, Claire. “You going to go with them to the hospital?” he asked nodding toward the bureau car that had just pulled in down the street. They both knew who it was.

Scully hesitated a minute as she watched her partner digging in his pocket for the keys and start to step away from them. Despite his FBI demeanor, he had clearly been shaken by what had transpired in that basement “Mulder, where are you going? You should have some one take a look at you.” she suggested knowing it was a moot point.

“To get Claire,” he replied positively.

BEN NELSON’S HOUSE

Mulder walked around the premise before he rang the bell. He was mildly surprised when Ben answered. “Agent Mulder…” the tone of the man’s voice and the unexpected connotation tipped the agent off immediately. Ben had been expecting him.

“Yeah, mind if I come in?” the agent asked reaching for the latch on the screen door.

“Well — I was just about to — go out…” the remainder of the sentence hung in the air as he watched Mulder examine his living room.

“I imagine with all the rain we’ve had the past few days it makes it difficult for you guys to find any good evidence …” Ben sounded nervous as he made small talk.

“So — you didn’t have any luck when you looked for Claire either, huh?” Mulder made his way through the living room and on into the kitchen in the back of the house, Tara’s backyard was entirely visible from the window over the sink. Ben followed him.

“Is there something I can get you, Agent Mulder?” he inquired, again using the salutation that because of his relationship to the family was unnecessary.

“How about you get your coat and we take a ride,” Mulder told him.

“A ride? Where?”

Mulder turned to face the man, “It just strikes me as odd that you’re complaining about the rain when you told the police at Tara’s yesterday that you had been out of town until yesterday so how about we take a ride down to the Bureau, I think I’d like to question you about Claire’s disappearance and I think Agent Scully would like to be present for that,” the agent replied.

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“Wait a minute! I — I, you think I’m responsible for Claire’s disappearance! How absurd! I love those kids, Tara could tell you that,” Ben was livid.

“I think Tara thinks you’re way more possessive than you have a right to be, Ben, so how about you go get your coat and we have a nice friendly talk with my partner and then you can ease my suspicions,” Mulder had to push himself to be patient with the man, he really wanted to tackle and cuff him.

“Fucking ridiculous,” Ben turned and walked back into the other room, Mulder could hear him going up the stairs.

Mulder dug in his pants pocket for his little Maglight and headed down the basement without turning on the lights. The room at the bottom of the stairs was sparsely furnished with out-of-date furniture and a bar with knotty pine paneling on the front of it. The utility room on the other side of a masonry wall held nothing out of the ordinary either. He had really hoped he’d find Claire down here. As he headed back for the stairs his light caught a stack of papers on the chair at the bottom of the stairs. He sifted through them and found that they contained articles on the abductions of the girls. He rolled them into a bundle and stuffed them into the pocket of his coat; put the Maglight back in his pants pocket and headed up the stairs.

When he got to the top of the stairs a wave of dizziness overcame him, his vision going dark. He grabbed the door frame instinctively. He probably should have taken Scully’s advice and had someone take a look at him. But then he wouldn’t be here and here was where he needed to be. He waited for his vision to clear.

THUMP! The rod hit his midsection soundly knocking the air right out of his lungs just as he stepped into the kitchen; he doubled over and gasped for air. Pain shot across his chest. Another whack came across his back but he managed to grab hold of the countertop to keep himself on his feet.

Out of the corner of his eye he could see Ben raising the club in his hands for another attack and Mulder lunged at him. His lungs still burning for air he propelled them both back against the refrigerator. Ben slid the club across both hands and now Mulder could see it was a golf club, an iron with a nice big head on it. Ben lunged back at him, the club shoved against the agent’s throat.

The two men staggered across the kitchen knocking a pile of pans off the stove and sending them clanging across the linoleum floor. Mulder managed to get the club off his throat but not before the head caught him in the jaw, rattling his teeth. He could taste blood. He ducked under it; catching the head of the club in his own hands he spun the other man around with it, wrenching his assailant’s left arm behind him and pushing him forward until he was bent over the sink. Ben grabbed a canister of cleaner with his right hand and tossed it backwards, the powder exploding in Mulder’s face almost blinding the agent. He coughed violently but managed to finally twist the club from the other man’s grip. As Ben turned around Mulder stepped back and swung the club catching the man in the head and sending him unconscious to the floor. “I told you a long time ago, I don’t do golf!” he spat breathlessly.

“Shit,” Mulder stooped over, grabbing his knees, trying to get his breathing under control. His eyes burned and his ribcage was on fire, probably a cracked rib from the blow he took to the chest. Ben lay sprawled on the floor at his feet. The agent rolled the man over, checking his pulse, it was light and steady. Something jingled in his coat pocket and Mulder slid his hand into it coming out with a set of car keys and a key with a plastic fob with the words ‘SAFE STORE’ stamped on it in bright red letters.

Mulder dragged Ben across the kitchen floor, snapping his handcuffs on the man’s right wrist and then to the refrigerator door. If he woke up, he’d have to drag the fridge with him to get out of there. On the way out the front door he flipped his cell open, Scully answered on the first ring.

“Mulder, where are you?”

“You need to send our city’s finest over to Ben’s house,” he started to tell her, his words coming out on one breath. “418 Hayden,” he finished, looking at the address on the front porch before opening the car door.

“Are you okay?” Scully had caught the breathlessness of his voice immediately. “Where’s Ben?”

“Handcuffed to his fridge,” his voice was steadier now. He started the car.

Afraid of the answer, she asked, “Do you have Claire?”

“Not yet.”

Ten minutes later Mulder slammed his ID against the glass of the office window of SAFE STORE. “FBI, I need access to unit…” he glanced down at the key fob. “Twenty-two.”

“Do you have a warrant” the twenty-something kid behind the glass asked. “Don’t you have to have a warrant or something?”

“No, but I have a gun,” Mulder pulled his coat back to reveal his service weapon. “Now will you open the gate or do I have to climb over it?”

The kid eyed the agent, Mulder looked a little disheveled and his eyes were red and watery. The young man was tempted to call the police but as he squinted through the tinted glass at the ID that the agent still held in his hand, the man matched the photo so he pushed the button to open the gate to the facility.

Mulder jogged through it, his side reminding him of the blow he took with every step. When he reached the unit, he fumbled the lock open and pulled up the door. The kid from the office was right behind him. They both heard the crying immediately.

“Holy Shit!” the boy blurted. “Somebody lives in here?”

“Claire…” Mulder walked cautiously into the unit. A twin bed was against the far wall, someone lay on it, wrapped in blankets whimpering. He leaned over placing his hand on the shaking blankets, “Claire, its Mulder…” he said softly, his heart racing as he stooped down to eye level the tiny tear-stained face of Scully’s niece coming into view.

Her arms shot out and she grabbed for him, Mulder pulled her into his arms, happy tears in his own eyes. “Hey, hey, midget, it’s okay, you’re safe now.” As he stood up, she wrapped her arms around his neck so tight he could barely breathe, her legs clinging to his aching side. “Would you go call the police,” he asked the boy as he started to carry Claire out of the unit.

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“Yeah, right away!” the young man headed back to office at a dead run.

Claire clung to him as he got into the back seat of the car and pulled his cell from his pocket. He wrapped an arm around her as he pushed the button for his partner, once again she answered on the first ring.

“Thank God, Mulder, what’s going on?”

“It’s your Aunt Dana, you want to talk to her?” Scully could hear Mulder talking through the phone, he had Claire. “She’s okay, Scully, here…” he held the phone for Claire.

“Claire, honey, oh, we’ve all been so worried about you,” Scully’s voice quivered with emotion. “Mulder will take good care of you, I’m gonna go get your mommy and grandma, okay?”

The child nodded against Mulder’s shoulder but she didn’t say anything. Two patrol cars were just pulling into the storage facility, Mulder took the phone back. “The police are here, Scully, they’re going to want to have her examined,” all he could think of was Ben cuffed to the fridge in his kitchen. If the man had touched her, he’d take that whole damn set of golf clubs and bash the man’s head in with them.

“Go with her Mulder, as soon as you find out where they’re taking her call me back.”

GEORGETOWN MEMORIAL

11:14 PM

An unfamiliar nurse handed him a prescription and a bottle of eye drops. “You need to use these twice a day for the next five days. Your ribs are going to be tender for three to four weeks but I expect you already know that,” she told him. Most of the nurses in the ER at Georgetown knew him by name it was kind of refreshing to be somewhat anonymous for a change.

He’d managed to talk the ambulance into taking them both the Scully’s emergency facility of choice. It was also the closest to home. Scully walked in just as he was gingerly pulling his t-shirt back over his head.

“That’s an ugly bruise,” her voice was soft as her fingers gently touched the darkened skin on his ribcage.

Her touch made him tingle. He pulled the shirt down and grabbed his dress shirt off the end of the exam table but rather than put it on he just laid it across his legs. “How’s Claire?” he asked, almost afraid of the answer.

“She’s had quite a trauma but she’s okay. Ben didn’t touch her if that’s what you want to know,” she assured him. “He’s in custody; I understand the two of you made a shambles out of his kitchen. Mulder, why didn’t you call for backup?”

He looked way, he knew exactly why he hadn’t, there had been something deeply personal in finding Claire and he’d done something deeply stupid in acting upon it.

Scully sensed this was something he wasn’t ready to discuss at the moment and changed the subject, “You think he just took Claire to win Tara back?”

“His real name is Robert Joseph Emerick. LaRiccia found he had two other aliases. He was questioned in the disappearance of his first wife. His second wife took refuge in a woman’s shelter, she has a restraining order against him. He’s still legally married to her because she was never able to locate him to divorce him,” Mulder answered as he finished putting his clothes back on, thankful for Scully’s reprieve.

“Why didn’t you tell me any of this?” Scully asked.

“The Gunmen dug it all up, they called right after we found the girls, you had other things on your mind,” he told her. “I should have had them do it months ago.”

“We both should have, you just wanted Tara to be happy with someone,” she corrected him. “You saved her, Mulder.” She studied him for a moment. His looked exhausted and his eyes were an ugly red. “God, your eyes look terrible, what did the doctor tell you?” she asked, suddenly getting a good look at her partner’s unsteady appearance. “Are you okay?”

Mulder let out a soft breath, “Yeah, as long as I don’t breathe it doesn’t hurt and I can still see.” He handed her the bottle of solution the nurse gave him, “Supposed to work miracles but I’m also supposed to see an optomologist …”

“You didn’t answer my question,” she told him.

He looked down, “I think–that I finally feel vindicated…”

Scully looked down at the bottle of eye drops, the actual meaning of his statement finally sinking in. “Rest will work miracles,” she replied as she looked up to meet his weary face. “Tara and Mom took Claire home. Come on, now it’s our turn.”

OFFICE OF ASSISTANT DIRECTOR WALTER SKINNER

9:05 AM

The agents had done their job well. Mary Alice Boyd was being held under guard in the psychiatric wing of Georgetown Memorial. She would eventually be charged on two counts of kidnapping and child endangering and three counts of kidnapping and murder in connection with disappearances of the five girls. Ben was facing a kidnapping and child endangering charge himself.

“Three day suspension,” Skinner confirmed. “When I tell you you’re off the case that does mean you are not to be involved, you both understand that don’t you?” he watched the partners take their seats. “As senior officer, Agent Mulder, I expect you to be sure the agents under you comply with my orders. Agent Scully, I will assume that you were not informed of that information.”

Skinner’s tone surprised the both of them. Scully looked pointedly at her partner. Skinner never referred to Mulder as ‘Senior Agent’. “We solved the case, Sir,” she told their superior.

Mulder, on the other hand knew exactly what Skinner was doing, he was laying the blame on him in order to keep Scully in the office. There was more here then just a matter of insubordination, hell; he did that all the time. “You want to give us the Reader’s Digest version?” he asked.

Scully watched as their superior’s face went from authoritative to resigned. Leave it to Mulder to read the man like a book.

Skinner looked from one agent to the other. “There is no condensed version. Washington is changing. You both know the new administration is fixated on trimming the fat off government spending. To be honest, I don’t even know how safe my job is at this point, there’s been talk of early retirement offers. There is going to be some reorganization within the Bureau. All I can say to you both at this point is that if this last case isn’t something you both feel you want to spend the rest of your FBI career doing, you might want to look at other options.”

Message received. “Are we done then?” Mulder asked.

Not sure how to interpret that question, the AD looked down and shuffled through the papers on his desk. “Yes, we’re done, Agent Scully, I expect you to be in the office tomorrow.” He answered the male agents’ question without looking up.

“What do you think of all that?” Scully asked her partner once they had exited the AD’s office.

Mulder shook his head in a ‘not here’ motion and started to walk towards the elevator. “I think you might want to bone up on your medical skills,” he finally answered when they stepped into the empty elevator.

MULDER & SCULLY’S TOWNHOUSE

NEXT DAY

Scully found her partner in their upstairs office, the television was tuned into some old black and white film and he was shuffling through what looked like a pile of envelopes. The growth of beard told her he hadn’t shaved this morning. “Well, all you need is the ‘wife beater’ shirt and you’d fit right in with the crowd down at the quickie mart. What are you doing?”

“Reading my mail,” he answered with a leering grin as he sliced open another envelope.

“This is all from today?” she asked taking in the pile that he had spread out on the desk.

“No,” he smirked, “I don’t know how old some of it is.”

“Mulder, the reason the postal service delivers mail every day is so that you can keep up to date with your correspondence…”

“From what I hear, that may be changing soon also…” his voice trailing off as he pulled the contents out of the envelope he had just opened. His eyes opened exaggeratedly.

“What?”

“A check — from my publisher, evidently…” he passed it across the desk to her.

Scully eyed the five figure amount printed across the face of the check. “This is for that criminal psychology manuscript you’ve been playing with for months?”

“Curiouser and curiouser,” he said, a silly grin spreading across his face.

“Well,” she smirked. “Evidently you’ve already found your new career. How about getting cleaned up, you’re taking me to dinner…”

END

Dormito

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Dormito

Author: Starfleetofficer1

Category: X-file

Rating: PG-13

Summary: Mulder and Scully end up trapped in an intriguing and absurd ‘dream world’ while investigating the origins of the books Jumangi and Zathura.

Spoilers: Seasons 1-7

Disclaimer: Two weeks exclusive with VS16. No copyright infringement intended.

Original web date:21/05/2010

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Dormito

MULDER’S CAR

GEORGETOWN, D.C

FRIDAY, MARCH 5, 2010

1900

It was finally quiet. That was the only thought that was running through Scully’s brain as she sat in the slightly reclined passenger seat and stared out the window. The trees went by, Dave Matthews played on the iPod, and Mulder was for once not talking about weekend plans involving the investigation of a baseball found with high iridium content.

No, they were just relaxing. No plans. No ‘adventure’. Just a quiet Saturday and Sunday. All to themselves. She sighed, and incurred Mulder’s inquiring gaze. She smiled and said, “I’m looking forward to our break this weekend.”

“Me too,” he said, and reached over to take her hand. “I know we said we weren’t going to make plans, but I think I have something you’ll enjoy. It’ll only take an hour—and you brought it up, after all.”

Scully’s eyebrow slightly quirked. “What?”

“It’s a surprise. I want you to see it for yourself when you get there.”

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Visions of dinners and movies and perhaps a spa treatment danced in Scully’s head. “When are we going?”

“Tomorrow morning, bright and early. We’ll get it out of the way in case you don’t like it. Then we’ll have the rest of the day to do whatever.

Her hopeful expression fell. “How bright and early, Mulder? We’ve gotten up at five am for the past five days.”

They had just wrapped up a complicated and strenuous case involving a kidnapped child. The girl had been held by a man claiming to be psychic. When things got ugly, Skinner had called them in and it was only by a stroke of luck or perhaps a miracle from God that they were able to rescue the child before the nutcase killed her. Seven hours ago, said nutcase watched as Mulder carried the little girl out of the basement where she was held. He had screamed that he would have revenge from beyond the grave. The paperwork that ensued just from Scully’s interesting method of subduing the guy was enough to last seven hours. But at least he’d walk around the prison with his legs spread out like a cowboy for the rest of his life.

“We’ll leave at 9. That’ll give me enough time to run, and you enough time to sleep in.”

She sighed. “How are you not exhausted?”

“From a psychological standpoint, it could be any number of things. Hyperactivity stemming from untreated ADHD, post traumatic stress disorder from childhood that instilled the habit of insomnia in my brain irrevocably, a genetic proclivity towards sleeping disorders, an exercise addiction that sets an internal clock within my cerebral cor—”

“Okay, okay, I won’t ask again,” Scully promised, and Mulder grinned at her.

He pulled into the driveway and they walked into the house. “I’m going to talk to my coordinator for the surprise tomorrow,” Mulder said. “I’ll make dinner when I’m done with the phone call—why don’t you put your feet up and watch some TV?”

“Okay. I think there’s a Hallmark movie on tonight.”

As he turned away from her in the hallway, he rolled his eyes and hoped something would come up that would save him from another chick flick.

“Stop rolling your eyes at me, Mulder!” Scully called from the family room as he headed into the study. He gave a little chuckle. Playfully, she added, “And wipe that smirk off your face!”

He closed the door to the study, and pulled out his cell phone. In another few moments, a female voice answered. “Yes, Agent Mulder?”

“Just wanted to make sure everything was all set for tomorrow. We’ll be there at 10 am.”

“Everything’s all set, we’re ready for you. The kids are excited to meet two FBI agents. And we’ve scheduled an hour for you to explore what you wish.”

“Great. Then I’ll see you at 10 tomorrow morning.”

“See you then. Goodbye, Agent Mulder.”

“Have a nice evening.” Mulder closed his phone, and smiled. Scully would love this. He knew she would.

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ALLSBURG RESIDENCE

GIBSON ISLAND, MARYLAND

SATURDAY, MARCH 6, 2010

1000

“Please tell me you don’t want to buy one of these houses,” Scully said, mostly sarcastic, but there was a bit of fear that entered her voice when she saw that eager look on Mulder’s face.

“I don’t see a ‘for sale’ sign, Scully,” he answered her as they walked up the gravel path that led to the mansion they were about to enter. “It’s a little out of our price range, anyway.” He caught her skeptical expression and tried to give her a reassuring look. “This’ll be fun, Scully. Lighten up a little.”

“I just don’t want another ghost-chasing adventure, Mulder,” Scully cautioned.

“Don’t worry. Not a ghost in sight. At least, I don’t think there are any here…”

Scully rolled her eyes, and surveyed the house in front of them.

The Colonial Style home was three stories, with a four-car-garage, turnaround driveway complete with a fountain in the center, a neatly manicured back yard, and toys scattered everywhere. A Big Wheel was parked in its own space, indicated by little white painted lines in the driveway next to a bike rack. A swingset was in the backyard, and a Power Wheels vehicle was parked in its own little space on the other end of the driveway. Someone’s Razor scooter leaned against the steps leading to the front door, and Mulder stepped around it on his way up to the porch. The wrap-around porch was beautifully painted and well-manicured, with a swing and several rocking chairs. Mulder rang the doorbell, and a woman came to the door.

“You must be Agents Mulder and Scully,” she greeted with a smile. “I’m Linda Allsburg. So pleased you found the place—it’s a bit out of the way. Come in, come in,” she said, and it was then that the tension was dropped. Even surrounded by the extravagance of the marble floor and antique furniture in the foyer, the golden chandelier hanging from a two-story-high ceiling, and the lack of a single dust particle in sight, they felt at home. With short gray hair and LL Bean duck boots on her feet, and jeans and a turtleneck with rolled-up sleeves, this woman gave no pretence.

“My children are still upstairs. As I explained, Chris is away on business, so you won’t be able to speak with him. But everything’s in the attic—you’re free to take a look if you wish.”

“Thank you, Mrs. Allsburg. Will the children want to join us up there? I’m sure they’ve gone through the items a bit more extensively—they can probably show us around.”

“They’ll join you for a little while, but they both have homework to do when they’ve finished showing you the basics. If you’ll follow me upstairs, we can get you all to the attic.” She smiled at Scully’s expression as she put the two names together, and led the way up the stairs.

“Chris Allsburg? Mulder, how did you—” Scully began in a whisper, but Mulder shook his head with a smile, and indicated that she follow up the stairs.

Mrs. Allsburg stopped next to an intercom and spoke into it, “Greg, Anna, the FBI agents are here. We’re in the hallway in front of the stairwell.”

“Cool! We’re coming!” a little boy’s voice called through the speaker, and after a moment, two small children came around the corner and grinned in awe of the two agents.

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The girl stepped forward first. “Hi, I’m Anna,” she said, and extended her hand. “I’m in the second grade.”

“It’s very nice to meet you, Anna. I’m Dana,” Scully said, shaking the girl’s hand first. Mulder took his turn next, and smiled at her. She seemed to give him a knowing look…but shifted her gaze away from him after a moment.

“I’m Greg,” the boy introduced, following his sister’s lead. “I’m only in kindergarten.”

“Well, that’s alright, we all have to start somewhere,” Mulder said with a smile, and shook the little boy’s hand. Scully shook his hand next, and Anna took off for the next staircase.

“Come on, we have to get up to the attic so we can show you all the important stuff!”

“You two go ahead first—I’m going to brief my partner on exactly what’s going on,” Mulder said with a smile, and the kids took off. “This was a surprise, Mrs. Allsburg—as I explained on the phone, Scully is a huge fan of the movie Jumanji, and we recently saw Zathura on DVD.” He turned to Scully. “I always thought it was a little odd that Mr. Allsburg, who had publicly stated he didn’t like children prior to the birth of his first, Anna, would choose a career of writing children’s books. When Jumanji came out it was a huge hit, and spawned a movie that brought in millions in profits. You mentioned when we saw Zathura that you wanted to know where the idea came from. Well, I think I may have found it.”

Scully gave him a skeptical expression, but he kept going.

“Mr. Allsburg wrote Jumanji before either of his children were born, and yet showed an incredible insight into the child’s psyche. When I read on the Internet that Alan, Mr. Allsburg’s brother, had recently passed away,” he gave a courteous nod to Mrs. Allsburg, “I was fairly certain I knew where the idea had come from.”

“Alan had Downs Syndrome,” Mrs. Allsburg said with a sad smile. “He was Chris’s older brother. He was sixty when he passed.”

“I’m sorry for your loss,” Scully said politely.

“Thank you. He was really a loving, caring soul. In his obituary,” Mrs. Allsburg continued, “Chris wrote that Alan loved stories—he used to make up stories that became the basis for many of Chris’s books.”

“And so I contacted Mrs. Allsburg,” Mulder stated, “In the hopes that she might have some of the original copies of what Alan wrote down.”

“He wrote down quite a lot. His personal effects are in our attic—the kids love to go up there and rummage through. The valuable articles are laminated and preserved. You’re both welcome to go up and take a look at the original inspiration. But keep in mind, I only have an hour. Greg has hockey at 11 and Anna has some reading to do. They’ll both need to come back downstairs after ten minutes or so—they’ve got to get a jump start on their homework before the afternoon gets crazy.”

Mulder smiled. “Thank you for giving us this opportunity. We’ll send the kids down in ten minutes.”

“Yes, thank you very much, Mrs. Allsburg,” Scully said with a smile. “We really appreciate it.”

She nodded, and walked away. There was something about the way she looked at them just before she turned away…nah, it was nothing. Scully headed up the stairs.

The attic wasn’t hard to find. A ladder extended from the third floor up to the small space where the children were already rummaging through an old-fashioned trunk.

“What you’ll want to look at are these papers here,” Anna said, setting them aside, “and a few other things in the trunk. The papers tell you the most about Uncle Alan, and all his great adventures.”

Greg nodded his agreement. “Uncle Alan was really cool—you’ll have a lot of fun up here. Anna and me, we stay up here for days!”

Anna laughed. “Not days, silly. You know we’re usually back downstairs after an hour or so. Speaking of which, we should get going! We have homework. Bye, Agent Mulder. Bye, Agent Scully.”

She rather abruptly grabbed her brother by the arm and dragged him out of the basement.

“Well, they behave rather oddly,” Mulder commented, and turned to the trunk.

“Okay, let’s have it,” Scully said, standing over him with her hands on her hips.

Mulder looked up innocently. “What?”

“Why are we here? What do you think is in this trunk? Do the papers take us to another world? Is there some kind of a magic artifact in there? Or are we looking at one man’s accounts of his own supernatural powers? What is it this time?”

Mulder stared at her blankly. “Scully, why would you think—”

“Oh, come on, Mulder. We drove an hour to get here on a Saturday. You must think there’s something more important in this trunk than the inspiration for a movie I happen to enjoy.”

“Two movies, and two books,” he corrected. “And there may be something of interest to the X-files in here, you never know. I’m just here for the experience,” he said with a smile.

She rolled her eyes and walked away a few steps. “Dammit, Mulder, I just wanted a nice, quiet, relaxing vacation, and now you’re here rummaging through a dead man’s trunk in search for some kind of…what, exactly? Just tell me, I guarantee you I won’t be surprised.”

He looked up from his search through the trunk, his eyes betraying a bit of insult. “I just wanted you to enjoy yourself. We’ve only got an hour anyway. What could happen in an hour?”

She shook her head, and walked over. She looked down at the trunk, and said, “It’s nothing but a bunch of laminated papers, a bathing suit, and an old cardboard box.”

Mulder was pushing some papers and clothing aside, to reveal the box at the bottom. “Here we go,” he said with a grin, and pulled it out. “This is it, Scully. We’ve got an hour.”

“Dormito?” She looked at it skeptically for a moment, and then it dawned on her. She chuckled, and shook her head. “No, Mulder. No. We’re not going to play this board game to transport ourselves into another reality. Even if it would happen to work, this is one X-file that I just don’t care about this weekend. I want to go home. I want to watch TV. I don’t want to file another report!”

“No reports. Just this board,” he pulled the board out of the box, and set some dice next to it, “And these dice. And some cards in this little slot. That’s it. An hour, Scully. Please?”

“You actually think it’s going to work? You dragged us all the way here so we could play a board game that you think is going to transport us to some kind of a secret reality that only Alan Allsburg knew about?”

“Well, in theory, if that was what I was really thinking, it wouldn’t matter. No one would believe Alan anyway. It would make a great book, though. Maybe a movie.” He smiled. “C’mon, Scully. One roll. If it doesn’t instantly do anything, we’ll call it quits and take off.”

“I can’t believe you, Mulder. You promised me no ghost chases.”

“Do you see any ghosts?”

“It’s an X-file! On the weekend!”

“It’s just a board game. How could a board game pull you into some other dimension? If you don’t believe in it, why would it hurt to try it out?”

“It would validate this quest you’re on to royally screw up my weekends,” Scully stated flatly.

Mulder looked down, at the game. He placed the die on top, and picked up the board, placing it neatly in the box. “Okay,” he said quietly, and put the lid back on. As he put the box away, Scully sighed. He looked insulted. And he had gone through a lot of trouble to get here. An hour’s drive, the arrangement of her getting to see Chris Allsburg’s home, a writer she greatly admired…

Aw, screw it. “One roll,” she said.

Mulder looked up, and a smile played at the corner of his lips. “You got it, G-woman,” he said, and picked up the box again. He got the board out and handed her the dice. “Prettiest people go first.”

She smirked, and rolled a three. She picked up a small metal piece that looked like a stick figure, and moved it three spaces. A card popped out of the little box in the center, and she picked it up, giving Mulder a slightly amused look. “Relax,” she read aloud. “The card says ‘relax.’”

Mulder shrugged. “Who knows what that means. My turn.” Mulder rolled a five. “Ha,” he said playfully, and moved his metal stick figure five spaces. He took the card that popped out. “The Final Frontier,” he read, and grinned. He got up from his cross-legged position on the floor and ran to the attic window, drawing the curtains to one side. “Yes! Yes! Oh, Scully, look!”

Scully went to the window, and looked out. They were orbiting Jupiter. She rubbed the window, opened the window, stuck her hand out, and discovered that not only was it not a hologram on the window, but that the air was not being sucked out of the room. She backed away slowly. “Mulder…what…what is this?”

“This,” he said with a grin, “Is Dormito.”

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ALLSBURG RESIDENCE

SATURDAY, MARCH 6, 2010

“Dormito,” Mulder said as he followed Scully down the attic stairs. “To be dreaming. It’s Latin.” He held the box lid in his hands as he stepped down the front stairs into the foyer, right behind Scully. “Doesn’t say where it was made, or the year of copyright. No toy company trademark. Wonder where they got it from…”

Scully opened the front door and looked out at the fantastic view of the solar system. Orbiting Jupiter, they could catch sight of some of Jupiter’s moons. “Isn’t it fantastic, Scully?” Mulder asked as he put the box down and stepped out onto the porch. “Come on,” he said with a smile. “It’s obviously safe. I’m not choking to death here.”

She eyed him, and then stepped over the threshold. “How did you do it, Mulder? Where’s the holographic generator? If I step off this porch, will I land on the Allsburg’s front lawn?”

Mulder shrugged. “I don’t know what happens if you step off, but I don’t plan on it.” He grabbed her hand and pulled her off, as she reluctantly complied. Together, they looked out at the starry, beautiful scenery. Mulder pulled her close to him. “Relax, Scully. It’s a game.”

“It’s…ridiculous, is what it is. There’s no way that game caused this.”

“Why not?” Mulder asked. “The kids sure acted funny. Maybe they knew this was going to happen.”

“Where did the kids go? Where did Mrs. Allsburg go?” Scully challenged.

“Where the rest of the planet went?” Mulder suggested. “Come on, let’s roll again.”

“No,” Scully said firmly. “No way. This is…” she shook her head. “I don’t know what this is, but I’m not playing into it.”

Mulder looked confused. “Why? What could it hurt?”

“How do we get back? Do you even know? We should be working on that, not playing some stupid game!”

“In the books and the movies, the kids had to play the game to get back to normal. And because one player dropped out, the older version of the other player was stuck in the game forever. Remember that?”

“Yes,” Scully said, “But this isn’t a movie! This is some kind of…trick! This could be dangerous!”

“I doubt it,” Mulder said skeptically. “Let’s just try it. It can’t hurt anything, can it?”

“It’s keeping us here longer!” She argued.

“Or it could get us back faster,” Mulder shot back.

They stared at each other in a silent face-off, each knowing that the other wasn’t about to give. Finally, Mulder said, “The card said ‘relax’. Have you ever thought that maybe it wanted to assure you that what was about to happen wasn’t dangerous?”

Scully sighed. “Let’s see what the next roll gives us. If it’s nothing productive, then we start working on finding where the ‘off’ switch is.”

Mulder grinned, and jogged back into the house. In another moment, both agents were in the family room with the board game on the pristine coffee table.

“Your roll, Scully,” Mulder handed her the dice.

She rolled a three, and moved her piece. Then she took a card. Her eyebrow ascended her forehead as she read, “It says ‘A plot.’ What does that even mean?”

Mulder, again, shrugged, but before he could roll, they heard a bang at the front door.

“What do you think that is?” Scully asked cautiously, fingering her gun as she rose.

Mulder approached slowly, and said, “A plot, maybe?”

Scully shook her head as Mulder looked out the window. He looked back at her and grinned. “Just like the movie.”

He opened the door, and there stood before them an astronaut in full gear. She flipped her visor and smiled as she stepped inside. Mulder closed the door behind her, and the astronaut worked on removing her helmet. “Could you give me a little help here?” they heard her voice from the microphone.

“Sure, what do you want us to do?” Mulder asked.

“Flip the red release on the back. Thanks. Okay, now go halfway down my back, on the side of the jet pack, there should be a yellow latch.” After about three more minutes, she had the suit completely removed. She smiled at her hosts. “Hi, I’m Kari.”

“I’m Mulder, and this is my partner Scully.”

“FBI?” Kari asked as she shook their hands.

Mulder nodded. “How did you know?”

“I’ve been expecting you people for weeks. We’ve got a real problem on our hands. Huge case—could have interstellar implications. Want to sit down and discuss it?”

Scully eyed her carefully. “Where did you come from? What organization do you represent?”

Kari flashed a gracious smile in Scully’s direction and pulled her ID out. “Commander Kari Fleinclock. I represent NASA’s Interstellar Investigations Division. Spent fifteen years in the Navy, though—I know my way around an X-65.”

“X-65? I’m sorry, I don’t know what that is,” Mulder said, but he couldn’t conceal the excitement in his eyes.

Kari laughed. “You don’t know what that is? Only the most famous interstellar Fighter Spacecraft available to the US Navy. NASA’s #1 defense against aggressive alien species.”

“I wasn’t aware NASA had interstellar capabilities,” Scully said dryly. “They can barely get enough funding for lights and running water.”

Kari raised her eyebrows, and asked, “Just what year are you from?”

“2009,” Mulder answered eagerly. “And what year is this?”

Kari groaned. “2109,” she said, and shook her head. “The game finally sends someone qualified, but it sends them from 2009? This is ridiculous. Those bureaucrats! First they raise the taxes on Iridium fuel cells and now this?”

“Well, let us have a crack at the case. See if we can help out. I mean, the game told us you were the plot.”

“It said nothing like that, Mulder. We got a card with ‘a plot’ written on it—that doesn’t mean—”

“For someone who likes the books quite a lot, Scully, you don’t seem to pick up on the clues,” Mulder chided lightly, and led the way into the family room. “Let’s talk about this case!”

Kari and Scully followed reluctantly. When they all sat down, Kari said, “I understand if you have no idea what’s going on here. It’s perfectly alright. I’ll go find someone else who’s been around in the last 100 years to see what’s been developing over in Alpha Centauri.”

They nodded, Mulder a bit more enthusiastically than Scully.

“Alpha Centauri was invaded fifty years ago by agents of the Black Teradon Fleet, known as the BTF in our language. The BTF’s mission is to position themselves as peaceful guardians with superior capabilities to developing species, and then usurp the local governments and place the planet under their territory. Alpha Centuari A’s orbiting planet Talapus was populated with an early-development species we’ve named the Talapians. They have their own language and were at about Earth’s equivalent of the medieval ages when we discovered them. They’re in NASA’s interstellar territory. The BTF tried to move in and take Talapus, and we refused because of what we call the Prime Directive.”

Scully sighed. “I think I’ve seen this Star Trek episode.”

Kari smiled. “A lot of our terminology actually came from science fiction. Those working on the projects were very passionate about sci-fi, and so its terms populated our profession. But anyway, Talapus was under our territory and we have jurisdiction according to Milky Way Law to approach Talapus when they reach spaceflight. We were planning on asking them to join NASA. They may want to join another Earth space agency, and they are always free to do so. But under the BTF’s rule, they would automatically become slaves of BTF agents.”

“So this started some kind of interstellar incident?”

“Yes, twenty-five years ago, it exploded into an all-out war. President Geraldo declared that the United States of America was officially at war with the BTF. And we’re backed by the European Union, South America, and Canada.”

“You’re saying that Earth hasn’t united?”

Kari laughed. “Like that’ll ever happen. But anyway, we’re at war with the BTF, and President Lynn currently has an agenda to launch CIA forces into BTF territory to gather evidence. Recently, an agent’s body was found orbiting Callisto—very close to here. It was clear he was dropped off by some mercenary or trader, but we couldn’t use satellite imaging to track where the perpetrator came from. We assumed the BTF had killed him and dumped the body outside Callisto as a sign that they won’t be fooled by our agents, but we noticed something distinctly…un-BTF-like.

“The BTF has no pictures. They work off of written word only. Their brains don’t process pictures as ours do. They can’t see the representation for the real thing. Therefore, when we found the NASA symbol carved into his chest, we assumed it wasn’t their doing. The pathologist found that the symbol was the cause of death—the drawing created a deep cavity, resulting in massive loss of blood. It was determined, in fact, that it resulted from such force that it couldn’t have been carved with humanoid hands. It had to have been from machinery.”

“Have you investigated your factories, where you manufacture your ships? Check to see if any were broken into…that any machinery was beamed out?” Mulder asked.

Kari chuckled. “No ‘beams,’ Agent Mulder. Just plain, old grappling hooks. My ship’s docked at the side of the house. You can see the logo is much too big to fit on one person’s chest. And it’s the standard logo for all NASA spacecraft. The smaller ones are painted on.”

“Is there any chance that the BTF may have replicated your logo and is using it to access NASA space? Or that another nation on Earth has done the same thing, attempting to undermine your war efforts against the BTF?”

Kari nodded at Mulder’s question. “Those are the possibilities we need to investigate. Efforts were already put forth to meet with Japanese Space Chancellor Gao, to no avail. And because Japan controls politics of the Asian Continental Space Program, the ACSP, no other country involved in the ACSP is willing to step forward and discuss the situation with us. So the Navy is about to send some Space SEALS into—Agent Scully, is something funny?”

“No,” Scully said, covering her smirk with her hand as she leaned her elbow against her knee. “I’m finding this fascinating.”

“I think she gets turned on by the prospect of Space SEALS,” Mulder explained with a smirk of his own. “Continue, Commander.”

“Kari, please,” Kari said, which only made Scully’s hidden smirk broaden. “Anyway, the Navy is about to send some Space SEALS into ACSP territory, hoping to uncover something incriminating so we can put all this to rest and have our battle out with the Japanese government. But the other option is that the BTF has indeed replicated our logo, and that is a much bigger problem. If they can replicate our logo, and copy our security signatures, they could masquerade one of their vessels as one of ours, and gain passage into the Sol System. So we’re going into BTF territory to determine if they’ve magically developed the ability to draw pictures, or if they’ve stolen our stuff.”

“Sounds exciting,” Scully said, still smirking.

“It should be pretty exciting, yes. Now I have to get down to this house’s basement to turn the engines on. We’ve got to get over to BTF territory and I need to check the fuel cell in this sucker and make sure we can warp.”

“Have fun,” Mulder said as Kari got up to go down to the basement. She found the basement door quickly and went down the stairs. When she was gone, Scully turned to Mulder. “You’ve got to be kidding me. Now I know you made this up, because only you could think of something so…”

“So what? So Star Trek and 24 combined?”

“Yes.”

“But there are no terrorists involved, as far as I can see,” Mulder complained. “So it’s more like CSI than it is 24.”

“Whatever.”

“Are you still game?” Mulder asked with a grin.

Scully rolled her eyes, but Mulder could tell she wasn’t truly pissed off. She seemed just as intrigued by this strange world as he did. “You roll.”

Mulder rolled the dice, and moved his piece. He selected a card, and read, “‘Speed up plot, please.’” Then he grinned. “That’s exactly what I wanted, too. I totally do not want to spend six hours just getting to BTF territory and then another three days looking for our first—”

He was cut off by a lurching of the house. The coffee table slid away, the game dropping off of it and onto the floor. Scully clutched the couch, and Mulder tried to regain his balance, but it was no use. As the entire house shook, the agents were flung onto the floor. Objects flew everywhere. Trinkets were broken. A horrible racket from the kitchen told them that something large had fallen. And then suddenly, everything stopped.

Mulder looked up, and asked carefully, “You okay, Scully?”

Scully nodded. “You?”

“Fine. Where’s the game?”

“In this pile of crap over here. I was watching it. No telling where our pieces went…or our dice.”

“We’ll have to look around for them,” he said as he stood slowly.

Kari came up the stairs at that moment and grinned. “Sorry about the jolt, but we’re here in BTF territory. And we’re cloaked.”

“The Allsburg’s house is trashed—this is a disaster in here! I don’t think I’m going to find the dice…”

“The game won’t stay hidden for long. You need it to move forward,” Kari said. “Besides, you don’t have to roll for quite some time. Let’s go infiltrate the BTF main communications headquarters and plant some listening devices.”

Mulder and Scully both looked stunned. “You mean…we can just walk in and do that?” Scully asked. “Then what do you need us for? Why has the BTF not already been defeated in your war?”

Mulder looked at her in admiration. She was actually acknowledging the circumstances of the game. And she looked like she was into it.

Kari smiled. “That’s where you two and the game come in. We needed someone who could speed up the process.” She looked at Mulder. “Thank you.”

Mulder shrugged. “I’m impatient as hell.”

“Someone should stay here and guard the house. If I give you blueprints of the main base, can you two handle the infiltration?”

Mulder grinned at Scully, and then turned back to Kari. “Infiltration is our specialty.”

“Wonderful. Who would’ve thought two FBI agents from 2009 would actually be helpful…” she pulled a small device from her pocket that looked rather like a palm pilot. “This is your blueprint generator, as well as a locator for the best places to put listening devices. The game should give you any data you might need.”

“Do our weapons work here?” Scully asked.

“Well, there’s one way to find out,” Kari said. “Find something that won’t ricochet a non-energy bullet.”

“The house will reset itself like in the books, Scully,” Mulder said at Scully’s disapproving expression. “How else would Alan have been able to get away with going on these adventures?”

She still looked skeptical, and Mulder was feeling especially impatient, so he drew his gun and aimed it at the front staircase. A nice hole went right through the wood, and embedded itself in whatever was below the staircase.

“Mulder! You could’ve sent that bullet into a pipe—”

“Relax, Scully. Our weapons work. Now we know.” He put his gun in its holster non-chalantly and walked toward the front door. “So are we gonna plant listening devices or what?”

She rolled her eyes. “I’m going to find the game first. If we get captured, I don’t want to be stuck in some BTF prison cell with no way to move forward in the game.”

“Probably a good call,” Mulder muttered.

After only a few seconds, Scully found the dice and the game. The cards were concealed in a deck inside the plastic cover on top of the board, and Scully shook the board to be sure the cards hadn’t fallen out. By the sound of it, they hadn’t. The pieces were stuck on top of the game in their original places, and she stared at them in wonder. She tipped the board sideways and they stayed in the same place. “That’s incredible…”

“Were they fused to the board somehow? Or did the game compensate—”

“The game makes sure no one can cheat,” Kari said. “They’d be ejected if they did manage to cheat, but no one’s ever done it. Come on, you both need to get going.”

Mulder nodded in agreement, and led the way to the front door. A backpack that certainly wasn’t in front of the door before was waiting for them there, and it was just the right size for the board. Scully stuck the board in and tossed the dice after it, and then zipped the bag. They drew their weapons, and covered either side of the front door.

“Let’s do this,” Mulder said with a grin, and Scully couldn’t help a bit of a smile. She couldn’t help but think that this was more fun than lounging in front of the TV. But she’d never admit it to Mulder.

XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX

BTF HEADQUARTERS

SATURDAY, MARCH 6, 2010

“That’s one,” Mulder said, as he stuck the listening device into the wall. It was absorbed instantly, and he pulled his map to find where the next one should be. They ducked into an alcove in the long, chrome-lined hallway. The space station had nearly identical architecture at all turns. It was exceedingly hard to find where one was, unless one had a picture. He wondered, in a society where pictures were nonexistent, how the BTF did it.

“Mulder, this is strange,” Scully said. “We haven’t seen one alien the entire time we’ve been here, and we’ve been on two floors now.”

Mulder shrugged. “Don’t speak too soon, Scully, or we’ll be running for our lives.”

“Maybe we should roll again. This is too easy.”

“Let’s just finish planting the listening devices, then we’ll roll.”

Scully agreed with a nod, and Mulder tapped the screen on his map. “Looks like the next spot is down this hall and up one level. There’s a vent here that we should be able to go through—”

He was cut off by a loud screeching noise coming from the map. Immediately, he dropped it and covered his ears, wincing in pain. Scully lost her balance as the sound penetrated her inner ear and the noise stunned her. It ceased suddenly, and was followed by a loud bang. They stepped out of the alcove, and the walls on either side of the hallway had closed off, trapping them in a small area.

“What the hell…?” Scully said, looking down at the map, which was now blank.

Mulder walked over to the wall and tapped it, ensuring it was indeed solid. Then he looked up for any detectable cameras, vents, or other potential hazards. When he couldn’t find any, he said, “Get the game out. We need to roll now.”

Scully agreed wholeheartedly and they had the game out of the backpack and on the ground in a matter of seconds. Scully rolled a four, and moved her piece. The card popped out and she read, “’The plot thickens.’ Damn it, that’s not helpful!”

“Why would the map have been blown?” Mulder asked, picking it up off the floor. “It’s either some kind of electrical interference coming from the station or it was blown from another source.”

“We need some way of getting out of—” a clicking noise interrupted Scully, followed by an announcement in a language they couldn’t understand. Scully hurriedly packed the game up just in time for smoke to start seeping through the ceiling and floors. The room was being flooded by whatever poison the BTF was pouring in, and at the same time, the map started screeching again.

They both pulled their shirts over their mouths and noses and looked around for a way out, when Scully noticed something about the screeching. It was getting more and more high-pitched. She looked at Mulder, and snatched the map from his hands. In one motion, she threw the map and grabbed Mulder’s arm, dragging them both down to the ground. It hit the wall that had closed them in from the rest of the hallway and an explosion ripped through the enclosed space.

Shrapnel imbedded itself all around them, but they weren’t injured. They rose quickly, and coughing as they made their way through the rubble, they came upon the chasm that separated their section of the corridor from the rest of the station. To their left, a huge hole in the wall exposed them to space.

“Come on, Scully, jump!” Mulder yelled, and grabbed her hand as they both leapt to the other end of the corridor. They stumbled upon impact and looked back to see the smoke-filled, gas-filled area in total shambles.

“Let’s get out of here,” Scully said, and Mulder agreed with a nod. They began to jog in the direction Mulder remembered as the way out. They could hear someone bark a command in another language not far off, and knew they were once again trapped.

But before they could turn back, the wall in front of them was suddenly vaporized and they stared not at space but instead at the porch of the Allsburg’s house. Kari was standing in the doorway. “Come on, jump on before we have to cloak again!”

They ran toward the opening and jumped onto the front stairs, stumbling up onto the porch and then through the door. An impact shook the ship as something blew up a room on the upstairs, sending burning rubble raining down on the porch. One piece broke through and extinguished itself on the porch. Kari quickly closed the door and said a voice command to the house/starship. “Engage cloak, warp 9, get us out of here!”

The house lurched again, and they scrambled for something to hold onto. When the house came to a halt, and everything was still, Mulder and Scully found their ears ringing as they slowly rose from the floor.

Kari began to chuckle, and Mulder looked at her with a puzzled expression.

“You two look like you’ve never blasted a hole through an enemy station before.”

Scully’s eyebrow rose, but Mulder simply asked, “Is it time to roll again?”

“That’s up to you. What did the last card say?” Kari asked.

“The plot thickens,” Scully rehearsed, with a bit of annoyance creeping into her voice. “By ‘plot thickens’, I didn’t exactly think ‘get trapped in an enemy space station, nearly choke to death, jump onto a house that’s really a spaceship and hurtle through space at God only knows what speed.’”

“Yeah, I hate when that happens,” Mulder joked.

Kari smiled at them, and said, “Well, we got a few listening devices planted, at least. That’s better than nothing. Next stop is the planet Crati. We have to interview some potential witnesses.”

“Interviewing witnesses. Here you go, Scully, it’s your time to relax,” Mulder said.

Scully rolled her eyes, and Kari said, “You probably won’t relax when you meet these people.”

“They don’t eat humans, do they?” Scully inquired.

“No. Plenty of cheese, though.”

“Then why won’t we relax?” Mulder asked.

“You’ll see.”

XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX

THE PLANET CRATI

SATURDAY, MARCH 6, 2010

It seemed like they had reached Crati orbit hours ago. Scully, Mulder, and Kari sat at the nearly destroyed, dusty and wobbly kitchen table in the Allsburg’s kitchen, with electronic writing pads in front of them.

“What’s your mother’s mother’s maiden name, Scully?” Mulder asked.

Scully sighed, and stared at the ceiling. “O’Connell,” she answered finally. “What question is that?”

“109,” Mulder answered. “On form 5678-5bF, and the F is capital.”

Scully clicked through the forms. “Got it. What’s your mother’s mother’s maiden name, Mulder?”

“The hell if I know…oh, just make something up.”

“You can’t do that,” Kari interjected. “Think hard.”

“Frank,” Mulder threw something out there.

“If they find out you forged it, we’ll be thrown out,” Kari told him.

“At this point, I’m willing to take the risk,” he said, nearly at his wit’s end.

“Number 42, on form 1098-4cr,” Scully said, and waited until Mulder got there. “’Have you ever had contact with a multi-appendaged sentient life form not classified as humanoid in the Alpha Quadrant while on vacation?’”

“I don’t think you have…”

“There was the sentient octapus…”

“But that wasn’t on vacation.”

Mulder sighed, and put the electronic pad down. He stretched, and said, “I think I’m ready to roll again.”

“You think the game will fill out these forms for you?”

“Nothing could possibly slow this process down. There are fifteen forms in front of us and they’re just to gain permission to talk to the Prime Minister. And we think our government’s bad.”

Scully rolled her eyes, and agreed with a nod. Then she pulled the game out of the backpack and stuck it on the dusty kitchen table. She handed the dice to Mulder. “Your turn.”

Mulder rolled, moved, and took his card. ‘Political comedy, but make it fast.’ He showed it to Kari and Scully.

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Scully asked, but the refrigerator started beeping at that moment, and Kari leapt up to answer it. She opened the freezer, revealing a holographic image of some humanoid alien’s face.

“Commander Kari Flienclock?” he asked.

“Yes, speaking. I’m here with FBI representatives, Agents Mulder and Scully. We’re all from NASA.”

“Fine, fine. I represent Prime Minister Kooga’s administration. My name is Public Affairs Minister Ooma.”

“Pleasure to meet you, Ooma.”

Ooma cringed, and looked at Kari with a pained expression.

Kari looked confused for a moment, and then recognition dawned on her face. “Oh! I sincerely apologize. I forgot the handsign. Allow me to start over.” When Ooma nodded, Kari placed her thumb in her ear, and expanded her fist to expose her thumb. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Public Affairs Minister Ooma.”

Ooma beamed. “Much better.” His smile faltered. “I regret to inform you that some of our protocol must be bypassed as the Kooga Administration has recently lost a bet to the Crati Moon population’s administration, and as punishment, must allow visitors to enter without completing paperwork, and speak directly to Prime Minister Kooga himself.”

Mulder jumped up. “Great! Let’s go!”

“I assure you we would never take methods so rash as to send you down without following proper procedure, for your own safety, of course. I will arrive in a ship to dock with your house in a few moments.”

Kari nodded, and placed her thumb in her mouth, extending her fingers out to him. Then she removed her thumb. “Thank you very much for your time, Public Affairs Minister Ooma.”

Ooma completed the same gesture, and then said, “You are most welcome.”

Kari closed the freezer door.

“They have pretty absurd protocols and customs,” Scully commented.

“The planet Crati has been steeped in bureaucracy for generations. It started with the elite social class taking over, and starting a government that controlled nearly everything while most of the people sat around, ate cheese, and discussed philosophy. Pretty soon, it had devolved into disaster, as they couldn’t export or import anything—no one was working. There were massive riots and the government was able to assume control again, this time mandating procedure for everything. Now the people of Crati can only engage in recreational activities that are state approved…and even their necessary biological functions are monitored by the Crati government.”

“I don’t even want to know how that works,” Mulder decided.

“Because everyone works for the government, one member of each family is responsible for supervising a certain function of the other members in the family…” Kari started, but then stopped, and smiled. “Let’s get ready to go. Remember, speak only when spoken to. Don’t move unless instructed to.”

They nodded warily, and followed Kari to the porch. Ooma was waiting in a shuttle when they arrived, and gave them a deep bow. Mulder and Scully followed Kari’s example and bowed back.

The ride down to Crati was mostly silent, to avoid having to go through any gestures or procedures for voicing certain comments.

They descended on a large building, but not before flying over at least fifty traffic jams below, all caused by citizens getting out of their cars and hovercraft, and performing strange rituals in the streets.

Ooma stuck his thumb on top of his head and then made a clicking noise before he said, “They are all completing the ‘I am angry’ protocol…it must be completed whenever one is frustrated or angry. Early morning traffic tends to put people on edge.”

Kari nodded, and whispered to Mulder and Scully, “If you want to make a comment, make sure you do what Ooma just did with his thumb.”

“You’ve got to be kidding me,” Scully said, and Ooma turned sharply.

He placed his thumb in between his eyes, and told them, “There is no whispering allowed on Crati.”

Kari put her thumb in her mouth and then said, “I apologize for the Agents’ actions.”

Ooma didn’t respond. He simply landed the craft and opened the door. They were escorted through a series of corridors in the building after going through three rituals—one for opening the doors to the outside, one for closing them, and one for beginning their walk inside the building.

They finally faced the Prime Minister in a conference room of sorts. He looked like the rest of the Crati—humanoid, pale skin and a small ridge on his forehead, and bright blue eyes. He wore a tiny beret on his head.

He placed his thumb in his mouth and apologized immediately. “I sincerely apologize to my guests,” he stated.

Mulder and Scully glanced at each other. “For what?” Mulder asked.

“It’s Crati custom to apologize to everyone when they first meet,” Kari told them quietly, but was careful not to whisper. She turned to the Prime Minister. “We accept your apology on behalf of NASA.”

“These are odd circumstances for meeting,” Prime Minister Kooga said after gesturing that he would make a comment, “With no paperwork and such. However, it is good that the consequences of our bet with our moon weren’t worse. The last time we lost a bet, they destroyed our white flag factory, and our military was crippled for months.”

Mulder and Scully said nothing, for fear of missing a protocol.

“Of course, they haven’t conquered us for nearly three weeks—that’s an excellent record. This last bet was a friendly one.”

Mulder stuck his thumb on his head, clicked his tongue, and said, “We have some questions for you.”

Kari stepped forward, spun around, and stuck her thumb in the air as she asked, “Your flagship was seen surrendering to someone near Alpha Centauri A orbit around the same time that a BTF vessel dumped the body of one of the United States’ CIA operatives into orbit. We want to know what you saw.”

Kooga placed his thumb on his head and clicked, and then said, “We surrender to a new vessel every day. I have no record of this particular incident.”

Kari spun around again, and stuck her thumb in the air as she asked, “But it’s my understanding that the military keeps a record of every surrender they make, every day. Do you not have this record somewhere?”

Kooga went through the ritual, and then said, “The planet of Crati cannot get involved in other nations’ and planets’ affairs.”

Kari was about to spin around again when suddenly, the doors to the conference room burst open and an alien boy of about sixteen entered, carrying a small device that emitted extremely loud alternative rock music from Earth. Mulder recognized it as Linkin Park. It flooded the room, and the boy in the baggy clothing and backwards baseball cap nonchalantly walked up to Kooga and pulled a laser gun. Kooga immediately put his hands up, and said, “It is acceptable if you assassinate me.”

The guards did nothing, but Mulder and Scully pulled their guns on the boy.

“What is this? Who are you, and what do you want?” Mulder demanded.

“Yo, dawg, my name’s Javan, and I’m from the planet Tritan IV, and I’m the dude you’re lookin’ for. These guys don’t know nothin’ about what happened at Alpha Centauri A with that CIA dude. I saw it—I was the guy they surrendered to.”

clip_image009

“What are you…some kind of pirate?” Scully asked.

Kari nodded before he could answer. “He’s a Teen Tritan,” she said, and Mulder couldn’t help but smirk. Matt, Scully’s nephew, watched the TV show Teen Titans. “He roams the galaxy looking for music technology, and liberating any oppressed nations in his spare time. The Crati military vessel must have been a gold mine for music.”

Javan nodded enthusiastically. “I scored big on that one. Got a ton of music. And some cheese, too. No weapons, though.”

“Okay, why don’t you just lower your weapon…no need to assassinate Kooga. He’s got rituals to perform and I’m sure an assassination would create paperwork for three generations,” Mulder told the teen. “If you come with us, we’ll give you some more music and you can tell us what you saw.”

Javan shrugged. “Okay.” He lowered his weapon. “What kinda music?” he asked.

“You can have everything we’ve got,” Scully promised him.

“Let’s see what you’re carrying, and I’ll decide if I’m talkin’,” he told her.

They left in Javan’s ship to avoid following Crati protocols, and entered the Allsburg’s house once more. Javan parked himself on the nearly obliterated couch in the family room while Mulder brought a laptop over and opened up iTunes. He allowed Javan to look through, and when the teen had finished, he nodded, satisfied. “Okay. You got enough for me to talk. No hard feelings, dawg—music piracy’s a tough business. I got to have variety in my collection if I want to make it big and I had to be sure you weren’t pulling my Targus.”

Kari jumped in. “He means ‘yanking his chain,’ or ‘pulling his leg’.”

“So what did you see?” Scully asked him.

Javan leaned back. “Them BTF dudes were real bad-ass with their massive vessel. O’course, they didn’t bother with the Crati vessel. No one wants what Crati has except Teen Tritans and other music pirates. Maybe those dudes that think cheese is an aphrodisiac, back on Organa II. But anyway, yeah, the BTF dropped in out of warp, ejected the CIA dude’s body, and zoomed off. Weird thing was…they had a picture on the side of their vessel.”

“What did the picture look like?” Kari pressed.

“Well…it looked like a NASA logo, dawg. But it wasn’t no NASA vessel. Man, I don’t know much else. I got the hell outta there as soon as I took my spoils from the Crati military.”

“Any guess as to why Alpha Centauri A’s sensors didn’t pick this up?” Kari asked.

Javan shook his head. “No, dawg, no idea, promise, yo.”

“Okay, Javan. Thanks for your help. You can take our music and go.”

Javan pulled out a USB cord and hooked it up to his device. Mulder was amazed he had a connection for such ‘ancient’ technology. When the music was transferred, Javan got up and gave them a mock salute. “Always a pleasure doin’ business with ya.”

He left the house, boarded his vessel, and despite the fact that music isn’t normally heard in space, they could all hear Stone Temple Pilots blasting from the ship before the warp drive engaged.

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ALLSBURG RESIDENCE

SATURDAY, MARCH 6, 2010

“We have to get back to the Sol System,” Kari said urgently, and ran down to the basement. Mulder and Scully followed.

“Why, what’s going on?” Mulder asked.

“Quick, whoever’s turn it is, go now! The BTF have a vessel marked with the NASA symbol—that confirms our worst fear. They’re going to bypass our security by building a ship that looks just like one of ours. And they’ll destroy our planet!”

“I’ll get the game,” Scully said dryly. She walked over to her backpack and pulled the game out.

“What’s the matter, Scully? Earth being destroyed isn’t exciting enough for you?”

“It’s so predictable. I knew what the ending was going to be at the beginning. It’s just disappointing,” she said.

“It’s your turn. Maybe the game will turn it around for you.”

She smiled slightly. “Maybe so.” She rolled the dice, and moved her piece. Then she took her card. “’Unpredictability,’” she read. “Maybe you’re right—maybe it is about to—”

She was cut off by the ship going to warp drive, and they were thrown off the couch. The items in the Allsburg’s house flew around and Mulder and Scully were both thrown into a nearby window. It suddenly opened, and they nearly flew out before everything abruptly stopped. They dropped to the floor.

“Not the usual warp trip,” Kari said as she came up the stairs. “I think we’re off course. Let me check the fridge.”

She jogged into the kitchen and opened the refrigerator, grabbed an apple, and nodded. “Yeah,” she called. “We’re about fifty lightyears off course. We’re right in the middle of BTF space.” Taking a bite of the apple, she pressed a button on the microwave. “I put the supercloak on but it won’t be long before our signature is spotted by someone.” She came into the room and sat down on the couch. “What did the game say?”

“Unpredictability,” Scully said, and ran a hand through her hair. “Does this count?”

Kari shrugged. “Eh, not enough. We need something else to happen.”

“Should I roll?” Mulder asked.

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“The fact that the BTF aren’t attacking us yet tells me that the game wants us to do something with the fact that we’re here,” Kari reasoned. “So yes, roll, Mulder. Your rolls seem to complement each other. Which is a good thing, if you ask me. Sometimes you’ve got three players and the plot gets all messed up because they have different styles of playing.”

Mulder rolled a five, and moved his piece. Then he took his card. “’Monster of the week’,” he read. “What, are we going to find an X-file out here?”

Suddenly, a large, hairy beast collided with the window and started scratching and roaring outside.

“Oh, God. Space ants!” Kari said. She ran to the window, on the other side of the house and groaned. “We landed on a space ant mound!”

“Those things look more like wolves,” Scully said, exasperated, as she pulled her gun.

“We call them ants because they behave like ants. They’re just looking for food to bring back to their mound…”

“And you had to get ‘monster of the week,’” Scully complained to Mulder.

“Sorry!” he exclaimed. “Can you get us out of here, Kari?”

“I’m gonna fly us out of here and try to shake these things. But we’re supercloaked! How did they sense us?” She yelled as she ran down the stairs. Mulder took the front and Scully guarded the back as the ship lurched into impulse drive. Many of the large mound of hairy abominable-snowman-like creatures were shaken off the house by the movement, but a few remained. Mulder fired a well-aimed shot at one after it nearly scratched through the front door. It floated away in space. Scully fired two shots and wounded one, and killed another. There was one more, but it was trying to claw its way through the roof of the porch. Mulder opened the door and fired one shot, and then quickly closed the door as the beast rolled off, and was plastered to one of the front windows like a dead bug.

They gained enough distance from the mound, but Mulder saw something out the front window, past the dead beast, that made him scream, “Stop the house!”

Kari abruptly pulled the brakes and ran upstairs. “What?” She asked, just as Scully left her post guarding the back door and gave an inquiring look to Mulder.

“Look out there! Who is that?”

Kari got up against the window and looked out to see a blue humanoid child, about the size of a human six-year-old, riding a tricycle. When he pedaled, three small thrusters let out a bit of air, propelling him. “That’s a BTF child…but…what’s he doing here without his mother?”

“We’d better bring him in here. How can he breathe out there without any gear?”

“Jigro children don’t need to breathe oxygen except for two hours, every three days,” Kari explained. “The Jigro are a species inside the BTF. We should keep moving. If his mother shows up, we’ll be attacked.”

“We can’t leave a child out there,” Scully argued. “We’ll just take him home and drop him off close to where he lives, and then leave here before we’re detected.”

Kari considered it, and then nodded. “Okay. I’ll lure him in here.” She took her half-eaten apple and placed it on the front porch. Immediately, the little boy stopped cycling, sniffed space with small, blue, tentacle-like objects protruding from his nose, and then cycled toward them. “Jigro children love apples,” Kari explained.

The little boy left his tricycle on the porch as he picked the apple up, and then looked at the three adults standing in the door. “You’re human,” he said. “I’m not supposed to talk to humans.”

“Come on in here, and we’ll take you home to your parents,” Kari said.

The child looked petrified. “I’m not supposed to accept rides from strangers.”

“We won’t hurt you…and we have more apples,” Mulder reasoned.

The little boy thought about it. He nodded. “Okay. But I’ll have to melt your minds if you try to hurt me.” He walked past them, and straight toward the kitchen. “Where are the apples?”

“Right here,” Kari said, and opened the fridge. “What are you doing out here all by yourself?”

“Riding my trike,” he answered at first, and then frowned. “Actually, trying to escape. I ran away from home.”

“Why’d you do that?” Scully asked gently.

The little boy wiped his nose with his blue hand, and shrugged. “They know I’m different, and they already used me to make pictures for them. I don’t want to do that again—those pictures hurt someone.”

“You can understand pictures?” Kari asked.

“Yeah,” he said. “I know, I’m Jigro, and Jigro don’t see pictures, but I do. That’s why they want to experiment on me. Can you take me to Earth instead of home? If I go to Earth, I’ll have asylum.”

Mulder thought something was off about this little boy. But he wasn’t going to voice his opinion until he confirmed his thoughts. “So we should probably set a course for Earth and get this kid out of here,” he suggested.

Kari nodded, and headed down to the basement to adjust the controls. Moments later, Mulder grabbed onto the small blue boy as they lurched into warp speed.

And once they came out of warp, the little boy squirmed in Mulder’s arms. “Let go of me,” he insisted.

Mulder complied, a somewhat confused expression on his face. As soon as the child was free, he pulled a small device from his pocket.

“What is that?” Kari asked him cautiously.

The boy smiled, and showed it to them. “It’s a camera phone. They’ll know what it is—they’re from a long time ago. Their time signature is really strong.” He pointed the phone at the three of them, and took a picture. Then he ran as quickly as he could down the stairs, and began frantically taking pictures of everything in the basement/engine room.

“Stop him!” Kari yelled, as she ran after him.

“Why are we stopping a child from taking pictures?” Scully asked as she followed closely behind.

“He’s Jigro—he’ll take the pictures back with him and interpret them. They’ll be able to exactly copy a vessel if he just tells them what he sees,” Kari said, and launched herself at the small boy. He moved quickly, though, and ran into the alcoves of the unfinished part of the Allsburg’s basement.

“But don’t they already have an exact replica vessel?” Mulder asked as he started searching.

“They do, but it’s nothing like a house. The game transports houses into superior fighting ships—none of the players are taken to the BTF territory, and they’ve been trying to get their hands on one of these things for generations.”

“Then why did we let him in the house?!” Scully protested.

“I didn’t think a child would be dangerous,” Kari said, and rounded a corner only to be confronted with a dead end of storage boxes and a furnace.

Mulder went through a doorway and pulled the switch to activate the lightbulb overhead, and when he did, he froze. “Um…I don’t think we’re dealing with a child here.”

Scully and Kari rushed to his location, and both froze in place as well. Before them was a massive blue creature that looked like something out of Predator, with massive fangs, yellow eyes, and a camera phone clutched in long fingers that ended in talons. The creature roared and they were blasted with slimy saliva and a gust of bad breath.

“RUN!” Kari screamed, and they all turned and ran as quickly as they could up the stairs. The creature took the steps six at a time and just as Kari and Scully made it through the door, it reached out with a massive, scaly arm and snatched Mulder into the air. He called out and tried to pull his weapon but it crashed to the base of the steps after the creature easily knocked it out of his hand.

“CLOSE THE DOOR!” Kari yelled, but Scully was lunging toward the creature.

Kari pulled Scully back with all her might and slammed the door shut, pulling out her weapon and sealing the lock in one smooth motion.

“What the hell are you doing?!” Scully demanded.

“Delaying it so you can get to the game and roll.”

“Are you out of your mind? It has Mulder!”

“And the only way you’re going to rescue him at this point is to roll! I’m going for reinforcements. I have to take one of the bedrooms.”

“What?”

“I’m taking one of the bedrooms as a shuttlepod—there’s no time to get my suit on,” she said as she ran toward the main stairwell, taking the stairs two at a time. “I’ll be back in four minutes with reinforcements. We’re around Earth orbit!” She yelled from the top of the steps. “It shouldn’t be long! In the mean time, roll!”

Scully hesitated for just a second, and then in utter desperation, ran to the family room, and practically threw the dice on the board. She moved her piece quickly and then snatched her card violently. It read ‘C4.’ And she actually smiled.

Seconds later, there was a terrible roar and the house shook to the point where she was nearly thrown to the floor. Plaster rained as an entire section of the family room ceiling was wrenched off, and Scully squinted through the dust to see one of the Allsburg’s bedrooms flying away. Then the doorbell rang.

“Please be C4,” Scully said as she ran toward the door, and opened it to find a UPS package on the porch. There was no UPS man in sight, however much she wanted backup. She grabbed the package and ripped it open, leaving the front door hanging wide open. Inside was a charger and three stacks of C4.

She left the packaging on the floor as she ran back to the family room and stuffed the game, the C4, and the charger all in the backpack. She then checked her weapon and ran to the basement door. Standing back, she shot the lock off the door and kicked it in, and then proceeded to walk quietly down the stairs, surveying the area.

She immediately spotted Mulder, who was laying against the wall. He didn’t appear to be hurt at first glance, and she was grateful for that. He was just dirty as hell. His clothes were covered in some kind of slime.

He glanced over at her, and then nodded toward where the creature was. She nodded that she understood, and silently slung her backpack off her back on the stairs. In her pockets, she packed the C4 and the chargers. She then pulled the game out, and walked the rest of the way down the stairs with her weapon extended in front of her. She went directly to where Mulder was.

“Are you okay?” she whispered.

He nodded. “Give me the game. The creature’s around the corner in the furnace area, taking pictures,” he said.

“Get out of here,” she said, and handed him the game.

“I…I can’t.”

“I thought you said you were okay,” she whispered, frustrated.

“I’m fine…I’m stuck to the wall.”

She glanced at him, and realized that the slime on his clothes was like glue. He looked at her, helpless. She rolled her eyes, and said, “You’re going to have to take your clothes off.”

“Scullllly,” he whined in protest.

“If you can move your arms, take your clothes off!” she insisted, and then walked away with the C4 and the charger.

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Rounding the corner, she spotted the creature. It turned quickly, roared, and then before her eyes, reduced itself to the size of the small boy they had naively granted asylum to.

“You wouldn’t blow up a small child, would you?” he asked, and looked up at her with innocent eyes.

“I’ve heard that one before,” Scully said angrily, and waited for the moment the child lashed out. As soon as he tried to launch the slime from his nose, and as soon as she could see the stream, she threw the C4-charger combination directly at his face. The slime/glue caught it, and it recoiled directly into the creature’s face. It fell to the ground from the impact, and Scully darted to the stairs. She caught Mulder by the arm just as he freed himself from his pant leg, and she reached down and grabbed the game as they ran up the stairs as quickly as possible. She hit the button on the detonator just as they made it through the basement door, and slammed it closed.

The door pushed against them as the explosion occurred, and they held it back with the full force of their two bodies.

When they looked up, they were met with the sight of Kari and five other astronauts in full battle gear, slowly lowering their weapons. Kari glanced at Mulder in his boxers and socks. “What happened to you?”

“Slime boy,” he muttered. “You think Chris Allsburg has any clothes in his bedroom?”

“I just flew his bedroom off the house,” Kari told him sympathetically as the astronauts tried not to let their eyes fall at waist level. “But you only have one more roll left. Why don’t you go ahead and take it?”

“Gladly,” Mulder said, and placed the board on the floor. He got down on one knee, and tossed the dice. He rolled a twelve, and he moved his piece. It hit the little cloud in the center, which was marked ‘Dormito’. “Hey, I think I won,” he said with a smile.

This time, two cards popped out of the box. He took them both and read the first one. “Conclusion,” he said. “That’s what it says. This one…it says ‘Thanks for playing. Play again and have a completely different adventure.’”

“If we’re done, then why are we still here?” Scully asked, and glanced at Kari.

“Oh, come on. You’ve read the books and seen the movies in the year 2009 and you still don’t know what to do?”

Mulder and Scully glanced at each other. Then one of the astronauts offered, “Why don’t you do what seems obvious?”

“Well…we would’ve done it by now if it was obvious, don’t you think?” Mulder asked, and the astronaut shrugged.

He glanced at the board.

“Dormito,” Scully said. “Say ‘Dormito.’”

Mulder smiled. “Oh, yeah! Dormito.”

Suddenly, their surroundings swirled and they felt as if they were falling. They called out each other’s names, but stopped when they heard music playing. It took them a moment to realize it was coming from a hazy image of Javan. He walked toward them on some kind of cloud-like floating object, and smiled as he raised his music player for them to see. “’Magic Carpet Ride’ by Steppenwolf,” he explained. “Hope you had a nice dream.” Then he vanished.

XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX

ALLSBURG RESIDENCE

GIBSON ISLAND, MARYLAND

SATURDAY, MARCH 6, 2010

1100

In fact, everything vanished. And then it all reappeared in the blink of an eye. They were sitting in the attic of the Allsburg’s home, the game between them, with both pieces on the start box.

“Excuse me!” They heard Linda Allsburg’s voice call up the stairs. “Agent Mulder, Agent Scully…are you finished? It’s been an hour and I need to get the kids to their afternoon activities.”

Mulder glanced at Scully. He was fully clothed, and slime-free. Scully was neat as a pin, and nothing seemed to be out of place from the Allsburg’s attic. Mulder picked the game up carefully, as if it would explode if he jostled it. “We’re coming down,” he called.

Scully stood up, and asked, “Mulder…what just happened?”

“I think we played the game, Scully,” he said.

“That must have been some kind of…mind trick, or we were drugged, or…”

“Or we played the game.” He placed Alan Allsburg’s other belongings back in the trunk, and closed the lid. “Let’s go.”

They approached the stairs, and Mulder pretended not to see Scully’s enthusiastic expression. “Mulder, I think I figured something out. Those cards…they were awfully convenient. They gave us exactly what we wanted, in the dream.”

Mulder paused close to the bottom of the stairs. “They did, didn’t they?”

She looked around cautiously, and once she saw that Mrs. Allsburg was nowhere in sight, she said, “The game doesn’t play itself—it gives you everything you want. It lets you control the story, just like you would in a dream.”

Mulder grinned. “Yep,” he said. “Another X-file solved.”

They descended the stairs, and met Linda Allsburg in the front hallway.

“Thanks so much for letting us explore Alan’s belongings, Mrs. Allsburg,” Mulder said.

“It was no problem,” she said with a smile. “I hope you enjoyed yourself. Sometimes, going through those stories of his, you can get caught up in your own little imaginary world.”

Mulder and Scully glanced at each other.

“Come back any time,” Mrs. Allsburg told them as she opened the door.

As they walked toward their car, Mulder said, “You realize what this means, Scully.”

“What?” She asked curiously.

“If the game gives you anything you want, then it could conceivably let you leave as well. And since you never asked to leave…you clearly didn’t want to.”

“That’s unfair,” Scully protested. “I was trapped—if I had known I could have escaped if I wanted to…that’s not…Mulder,” she complained.

Mulder chuckled. “I seem to remember that your first card read ‘Relax’…so you wanted to relax. And this is how you relax. With me, chasing monsters.”

She folded her arms, and stopped walking.

“And then there was the second card, that read ‘a plot’, which clearly meant that you wanted some kind of excitement. Then the third card read ‘the plot thickens’…Scully, this isn’t boding well for your ‘I hated this’ bit. Then there was the one that read ‘unpredictability’.”

“And then there was the one that read ‘C4’ and saved your slimy ass,” she countered.

He raised his eyebrows.

She sighed. “Okay, fine,” she said, as she started toward the car again. “I liked it. I loved it. I had a great time, and I really secretly enjoy chasing slimy monsters each week and saving your ass. I love not knowing what’s coming next and having to jump from space stations to people’s porches in the middle of space.” She got into the passenger seat, and when Mulder closed the door to the driver’s seat and looked over at her, expecting more sarcasm, she said, “Really.”

He grinned, and said, “Great! I have a new X-file for us to investigate on Monday. There’s a zoo video camera that caught sight of a large hairy beast stealing food from some of the zoo animals, and then escaping. Metro security cameras caught the same thing, escaping into a tunnel seconds before a train came through. It’s right here in DC, in our backyard.”

Her smile didn’t falter. “I can’t wait.”

Bangungot

16x10cover

Bangungot

Author: Martin Ross

Category: Crossover, Casefile

Rating: PG-13

Summary: Someone – or something – may be targeting New York’s Filipino-American population. Major Case Detectives Nichols and Stevens join Agent Fox Mulder in a bizarre case ripped from the headlines…

Spoilers: Conduit, Young At Heart, Grotesque, Mack’d (VS13); Criminal Intent eps Anti-Thesis, A Person of Interest, Great Barrier, Grow, Slither, Frame, Loyalty Pts. 1 and 2

Disclaimer: Props and respect to Chris Carter and Dick Wolf, storytellers supreme. And to Det. Zach Nichols and the rest of the Major Case Squad.

Original web date:07/05/2010

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Bangungot

“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 Ramon Gracia

Queens, New York

Monday, April 17

“In the post-World War II era, amid explosive change on the Asian continent, thousands of men and women flocked to U.S. shores in search of the American dream, bringing with them their skills and enthusiasm. They were Filipino nurses, fluent in English, well-versed in American-style medicine, and highly valued by a country that was opening doors of opportunity within a changing health care industry.”

Ramon Gracia barked harshly as he sipped his thick, black coffee. He remembered his own arrival in the city — the subtle glares, the not-so-subtle comments from the forgetful sons and granddaughters of European pilgrims. He waited for the strings to well up as the Nordic cable anchor flirted compassionately with the camera.

“Even today, this talented corps of migrant health care professionals is offered hefty bonuses to make the journey to America. They have become a mainstay of New York hospitals and long-term care facilities.”

Ramon chortled at the politically correct label. Nursing homes, warehouses for the unwanted, Death’s waiting room. Not that Ramon cared particularly one way or another — he owned his own business, and business was thriving despite the downturn in the economy. He’d die in his own bed — his sons would see to that if they hoped to take over the reins someday.

“But now, in the post-9/11 era (The hell that have to do with it?,.. mused Ramon, who like many Western hemisphere “Hispanic” voters tended to vote in the red), a group of earnest and enterprising young women are fighting the very system that demands their expertise and skill. The Queens 13 — a baker’s dozen of Filipino nurses who dared quit their jobs at a Queens convalescent care facility amid reportedly unconscionable working conditions — face visa revocation, deportation, and, possibly, criminal prosecution. Federal Appeals Court Judge Albert Callasner is scheduled this morning to hear additional testimony in the controversial case, which has rallied both Filipino-American civil rights groups and proponents of more stringent immigration-border security reforms.

Ramon glanced into the kitchen as a burly New Yawker appeared on screen in a Carhartt jacket and hard hat. Wonder which side he’s on? he mused.

“Look, my grandma’s in one a’ those places, and if one of her nurses suddenly walked out on the job they came here to do — the job they probably took away from some hometown kid — I’d raise the roof. It’s about time we took this country back.”

Ramon shook his head disgustedly, although he himself felt they ought to damned well built Bush’s Great Wall down in Texas. He’d never admit that publicly — not if he ever hoped for that council run. Ramon Gracia was the champion of the downtrodden, the huddled masses or whatever.

Ramon’s cup froze halfway to his lips as the xenophobic construction worker surrendered the screen to a striking young woman in a nurse’s scrubs standing on the federal courthouse steps in Manhattan. She was flanked by a solemn man in an Italian suit with “lawyer” written all over it.

“Because we come here looking for better opportunity doesn’t mean we are slaves,” the familiar young woman told the camera. “We work hard, we take care of sick people, old people without complaining. But the treatment we received at the Queens Garden Health Care Center was inhuman, cruel. We are confident the court will see the truth.”

“Was that them again?”

Ramon hastily silenced the set on the kitchen counter as Graciella entered with two plates of garlic fried rice and longaniza — the traditional Philippine breakfast sausage his business imported by the ton. “Ah, same old thing.”

“A pretty girl, eh?” Graciella noted. Ramon glanced up warily; her smile was sweet, genuine, unsuspecting.

“Hmm,” he grunted, sorting through the Times and casually ignoring the vibrating cell phone on his belt. Ramon hacked off a hunk of sausage and forked it into his jowls. He spit the half-masticated meat onto his plate. “Shit! What was that?”

Graciella smiled weakly. “Turkey sausage. I found it at that little market in Flushing — it’s a lot healthier, and it’s supposed to taste just like it than the regular…”

“Well, it doesn’t,” Ramon grunted, shoving his plate away. “Bring me some real food.”

“I threw it out,” Graciella murmured, practically cringing. “After what happened to Ernesto and James.”

“James was a doper and Ernesto was an old fool who crawled around under cars,” her husband spat. He struggled from his chair. “I can’t eat this crap, and I don’t have time to stop somewhere. I’ll pick up an Egg McMuffin at McDonald’s — with cheese,” he added spitefully.

As the front door slammed, Graciella gathered his plate and half-empty coffee cup, a tight smile forming on her lips. Old fool, eh?

Starbucks

Lower East Village, Manhattan

Monday, April 17

They met at the counter, the stunningly beautiful Asian girl and the middle-aged but nonetheless striking blonde. The older woman had warned Karen they must keep their public contact to a minimum, ideally during morning and afternoon rush hours. If something went wrong, they must not be connected. For all its pretensions toward warmth and comfort, Starbucks was one of the most impersonal, anonymous spots in the city.

“How do you feel?” the blonde asked, looking straight ahead.

“A little nervous,” Karen admitted.

“Of course. You can feel it within your grasp. Steel yourself, my dear, and it’s all yours.”

The petite blonde collected her Vente chai and turned toward the door. Karen sipped her own Grande latte for the next five minutes, waiting for the right moment to pocket the small parcel the older woman had delivered.

**

Despite the early hour, the street already was growing hot – the passing businessmen were shedding jackets and loosening ties, the working women showing legs and shoulders and a lot of money in between.

She was accustomed to the heat, craved it after several bone-chilling New York winters. The sun caressed her face as she stared intently at the coffee shop acCallas the street. Her cheeks grew hotter as the puta stepped, blinking, onto the street. Her fingers curled as the young woman strutted toward Fourth.

It was the closest she’d come to the cheap slut, and she grudgingly recognized what attracted him to the expensively dressed woman. And began to wonder if all she had had to offer him was her own helplessness and need.

He would pay, she decided.

Office of Ramon Gracia

Gracia Fine Philippine Foods

Queens, New York

Tuesday, April 18

“We got another one.”

Ramon peered up at Estrella, his thick index finger keeping place in the invoices. He smiled, amused at the chunky woman’s consternation and pleased that another of the Great Unwashed had spoken. The controversy over the Queens 13 meant publicity for him, for his business, for his political aspirations. Bernie Thompson was to announce his retirement from the council next month, and Gracia’s impassioned defense of his Filipina “sisters” reportedly had put him on the short list for the vacated seat.

“You shouldn’t let it upset you,” Ramon paused. “What’s this one call me?”

“Rice-eating coconut. You’re helping turn this country into the Third World.”

“Very creative. File it with the rest. You know where.” He set the invoices aside and glanced surreptitiously at the wall clock some beverage vendor had left behind 20 years ago. “I’m off.”

Estrella Calambacal frowned. “Where should I say you’re going?”

Ramon stopped halfway to his feet, his expression changing. “Who would you tell? You work for me. If anybody asks, you tell them I’m out on business. My business.”

Estrella nodded silently, returning instantly to her customary denial, and disappeared.

Astoria Motor Haven

Queens, New York

Tuesday, April 18

“Jesus,” Darrell Friedlander breathed, tromping up the metal stairs, clinging to the rail. “You been a maid here how many years, and you never heard screaming? In case you’re suffering under any delusions, this ain’t exactly the Park West.”

“This was different,” Glenda snapped. She’d been working at the two-star motel long enough not to take any shit from Dickless Darrell. “It was like he was being tortured, like the devil hisself was after him.”

“Devil wouldn’t stay in this hellhole,” Darrell mumbled, passing filthy door after filthy door, the cheap Astroturf “carpet” wrinkling under his large boots. “Room 23, you say? I don’t hear shit.”

“Maybe he’s hurt,” Glenda shrugged. “Maybe they killed him>”

“Aw, Jesus,” Darrell laughed, riffling through his keys. “Now the mob is using the place to whack people? Great, we can use the business.” He banged on the door. “Hey! You! You OK in there?”

Nothing. Darrell looked at Glenda, who arched an eyebrow. He fumbled the key into the lock and shoved the door open.

“Christ!” the manager squeaked as he stared at the man stretched on the bed in his open shirt and boxers. “Who the hell is that? That ain’t the guy I checked in.”

“Don’t see no blood,” Glenda whispered, scanning the dead man’s vacant, staring eyes and open, contorted mouth. “They musta scared him to death, poor old guy.”

Darrell switched on the bedside lamp. “Wait a minute. That IS the guy. But his hair… What the hell happened to his hair? It was black.”

“Scared him to death,” Glenda repeated, eyes fixed on Ramon Gracia’s thick, now-snow white thatch…

Walt’s Wet Whistle

Mount Holly, N.J.

“Can you turn that up?” the out-of-towner called. Though the young Yuppie was the only other guy in the joint – not an unusual scenario for Walt’s over the last two decades – but Walt merely leaned into the busted Pabst tap (which now dispensed Bud Lite) and attempted to drown the request with his pipe wrench.

“Hey, sir?”

“Get bent,” Walt grumbled, torturing the wrench. The guy had come in an hour ago, ordered a Coke, and buried his nose in his laptop. Government type, and Walt was still smarting from an IRS audit and his latest tussle with the state excise cops.

The whining stopped, and the tubby bar owner grinned darkly as he tugged at the wrench. Could’ve at least ordered some wings or a burger.

Walt jumped and the tool clattered off the tap as the sound of a small jet engine ripped through the paneled tavern. The saloonkeeper fell back on his prodigious ass, banging his burred skull against a dusty bottle of peppermint schnapps he’d stocked for a now-long-dead county board member. Heart pounding, he pulled himself up with a strangled animal sound in time to see the ZNN Headline logo cross-fade to angry blonde face and the remote he hid from the broads resting on the bar.

“Another corrupt New York activist, another no-tell motel,” Faith Yancy shrilled. “Same old story, except this case has a surprise twist…”

“Fucking—“ Walt reached for the ancient .38 under the cash register. As he whipped the weapon around, his customer’s own gun came up.

“Shh,” the Yuppie admonished, leveling the revolver. “Gimme a minute here, OK?”

Walt sputtered.

“Thanks,” the customer murmured, turning back to the screen in the corner of the bar.

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“Ramon Gracia, champion of the Queens 13 and long-time friend of illegal aliens everywhere, was found in flagrante delicto yesterday at a Queens fleabag. However, his partner in passion was nowhere in sight, and Gracia died of what could only be described as extreme fright.”

A grainy NYPD photo of a white-haired, middle-aged corpse — obviously pirated by one of the cable cougar’s network of moles and spies — popped onto the screen.

Walt’s gun dropped to the worn plank floor. “Shit, looks like what happened to–”

“Nick Obusan, yeah,” the young guy nodded. “Shh.”

“Gracia has made headlines by capitalizing on the case of a baker’s dozen Filipino nurses charged with—“

“Crap,” the Yuppie sighed, snatching the remote from the bar and silencing the set. He grinned sheepishly at Walt and pulled a Blackberry from his pocket. His smile turned upside down. “Forgot to charge up. Use your phone?”

The man’s sheer nonchalant balls suddenly emboldened Walter Lutes. “Ain’t no damned Denny’s, friend. Pay phone at the Shell down the street.”

The customer nodded and searched his pants. “I think I got a phone card somewhere… Yeah, here we go.”

He slapped the card on the bar. Walt contemplated a witty bon mot, then glanced down. “FBI?”

“Another Coke, too. Please?”

New York Police Department

Major Case Squad

Manhattan

Thursday, April 20

The visitor had badged his way through Major Case’s post-9/11 firewalls while Capt. Callas was engaged in heated debate over departmental protocol with one of the mayor’s pet deputy chiefs. As Callas fled her office for the blessed chaos of the squadroom, she spotted the obvious fed and drew up short.

“You must be Agent Mulder,” she greeted with a tight smile. “I was told you’d be calling on us. To what do we owe the pleasure?”

The new captain lacked Danny Ross’ inky sardonic humor, but the irony came through nonetheless. Ross had perished abruptly and violently in the service of the Bureau a few months back, and both Bobby Goren and his ubiquitous partner/keeper Eames had turned in their NYPD tin in the aftermath. Despite the ionized air of tension that had followed him through the squadroom, Special Agent Fox Mulder nodded with a broad grin. “Ramon Gracia.”

Callas was silent for a moment. Homicide had gratefully kicked the Gracia investigation to Major Case — Gracia was something of a Sharpton for New York’s Filipino-American community, and the “Queens 13” case had generated nearly daily headlines for him.

Actually, Rodgers was performing a post on the body right now to determine if there even was a case. Gracia wouldn’t have been the first middle-aged businessman in this city to succumb to a bad ticker, even if there were some admittedly bizarre circumstances in play.

Callas assumed those circumstances had somehow drawn Agent Mulder up from D.C. The new captain had done her homework. He was a friend of Bobby Goren’s — figured — and, indeed, had played an important role in clearing up that hip-hop murder a few years back. Not without some fallout, however, and the captain’s radar was armed.

“Ramon Gracia,” Callas finally echoed. “We haven’t even established Gracia’s death as a homicide yet. What’s the FBI’s interest here?”

“Gracia’s been a high-profile figure in a national controversy involving Immigration and the DOJ,” Mulder supplied smoothly, as if he’d rehearsed. “With feelings running so hot over immigration, it’s not outside the realm of possibility that he could have made some enemies with his activist stance.”

“The realm of possibility,” Callas murmured with a patient smile. “I understand that’s your specialty. Agent, what’s your real interest in this case?”

Now, Mulder paused. “OK,” he sighed. “I have reason to believe Mr. Gracia’s death could be connected with a series of other, uh, fatalities in the area.”

“Fatalities?”

“Serial homicides. I believe.”

Callas’ smile disappeared. “I assume these other ‘homicides’ must be as sketchy as this one.”

Mulder gathered himself. “You ever hear of bangungot?”

“Why, no. Do I want to?”

“Sudden unexpected death syndrome. SUDS. It’s relatively widespread among a number of Southeast Asian populations, including the Hmong, Thais, and Filipinos. But the SUDS death rate among Filipino-Americans has been statistically high over the last few years, but exclusively within a three-state region.”

Callas’ brow wrinkled. “Agent, are you suggesting an epidemic here, terrorism? Do we need to bring in the CDC?”

“No, Captain. I’m suggesting murder. I tried e-mailing Bobby — former Detective Goren — about my theories last night, but he’s seemingly dropped off the map. I wanted to clear things with you first, maybe talk to the principle on the case.”

Oddly, Callas’ smile widened, and something resembling grim amusement played at her dark eyes. “Ah. Well, let’s see if we can’t accommodate you, Agent.” The captain spotted a lanky man draining a steaming paper cup and pulling a leather jacket from his chairback, and gestured toward him. “Detective, a minute please.”

The man glanced up, eyes bright, curious, an impish smile quirking at the corners of his wide mouth.

Callas turned to Mulder as the tall cop approached. “Morning, Detective. Meet Special Agent Fox Mulder. He’ll be working with you on the Gracia case.”

Det. Zach Nichols grinned with a trace of something sinister, and extended long fingers toward Mulder. “Hey, Fox, huh? Glad to meet you. How about we hit a funeral to break the ice?”

**

“Bangungot?” Nichols mused as he pulled out of the One Police Plaza parking garage, thumping the horn at an emboldened cabbie. “I eat at a Filipino joint in Queens two or three times a month, and I’ve never seen that one on the menu.”

Mulder grinned as he watched the standard parade of Manhattanites navigating past the standard gawking out-of-towners and hawking homeless. He’d struck up an immediate friendship with Bobby Goren during the cop’s brief fellowship at Oxford — they were two of a kind, fascinated by minutiae and the esoteric, “disturbed geniuses” who clashed with authority like oppositely charged particles, largely because they used metaphors like oppositely charged particles.

“Literally, it’s Tagalog for ‘bad dream,’” Mulder began.

“I’m merely yanking your chain, Agent,” Nichols murmured. “Bangungot. Sudden unexpected death syndrome. Most common in Thailand, Japan, the Philippines, occasionally among Southeast Asian immigrants. Normally young men who die in their sleep of irregular heart rhythm and ventricular fibrillation, usually without any history of cardiac problems.”

“Well, close enough,” Mulder chuckled weakly.

Nichols yanked the wheel, missing a Sabrett dog cart by inches. The vendor didn’t miss a beat as he continued to spoon kraut over a yuppie’s frank. “Gracia didn’t pass on peacefully in his bed like my sainted grandma. Actually, she wasn’t so sainted. He looked like the entire Israeli Army had raided the place. His hair — what was left of it — was Bob Barker white, with a tinge of Betty White. And Gracia was no spring chicken…”

“That’s what makes this death curious. Night terrors are a common symptom of SUDS. Survivors have reported being fully aware they’re dreaming during an episode, but they can’t move or wake up. Sound about right?”

“Had a dream like that, one time,” Nichols grunted with a slight smile as he steered onto Bleecker. “It was about a divorced dispatcher I’d met in Midtown. Only had movement in one area, and I didn’t really care about waking up. My dad was into Freudian theory at the time, and his interpretation was far more complex than mine. You serious about all this? You think we’re having, what, an outbreak of SUDS in the greater New York area?”

“I follow stuff like this, part hobby, part the job. I’ve clipped at least five articles and obits over the past two years about younger Filipino-Americans or recent immigrants who were listed as unexpected heart attack victims. When I read about Mr. Gracia’s death, it rang a bell. Except for the age aspect. Plus the fact that he’d been here for nearly 40 years — bangungot usually occurs in recent immigrants, seems to fade off as they assimilate. That’s why some researchers want to link it to diet and alcohol — gout’s not uncommon in Filipino men.”

“Wow, sounds like half the guys at my Uncle Morris’ funeral,” Nichols smirked as he spotted the throng on the street before the James F. Paculdar Funeral Home. A trio of older Filipino men smoked and reminisced a few doors down, respectfully flaunting the smoking ban — Gracia’d been at home at City Hall and in Albany as well as in the neighborhood meeting halls, and any foot officers knew better than to write up any of his mourners or cronies.

With difficulty, Nichols was able to find a loading spot a block down, between an organic herb shop and an antiquarian book dealer. “Rodgers — the M.E. — she’s supposed to have a report on Gracia today.”

“I met her on a case with Bobby,” Mulder nodded. “She seems very thorough and…open.”

“Oh, yeah,” Nichols grinned as he navigated through the mob of arriving and departing mourners. “This was the spontaneously combusting rapper, right? Eames’ blood pressure went into the red whenever she talked about it.”

“I guess I was a little impulsive back then,” Mulder murmured.

“We oughtta get along fine, then,” Nichols said as they reached the ornate double doors. The foyer inside sported rich wainscoting and carpeting beneath a tastefully lavish chandelier. Paculdar was the final staging place for much of the Filipino community across the five boroughs and into Long Beach and Westchester.

A beautiful, grave brunette moved out of a corner of the lobby. To Mulder, she looked like a model than a cop.

“Heavy traffic?” the woman inquired with a fleeting glance at Mulder.

Nichols shrugged. “Det. Serena Stevens, meet Special Agent Fox Mulder. He’ll be along for the ride the next few days.”

Stevens inspected Mulder again, and then a tumbler fell into place. “Wonderful,” she sighed. “Let’s do this — I signed us in.”

“Hey, wow,” Nichols breathed as she disappeared into the packed main parlor. “I think you two are going to be fab friends.”

James F. Paculdar Funeral Home,

Bleecker Street, Manhattan

Thursday, April 20

Ramon Gracia was impeccably made up for his final appearance, though instead of a suit, he wore a long, intricately embroidered blouse. Ribbons bearing the names of the businessman’s immediate family members were pinned to the rich lining of the high-end casket; a crucifix was affixed between two candles above the deceased.

“The barong tagalog,” Mulder quietly informed Nichols and Stevens as they passed the coffin. “A traditional Filipino burial shirt. The widow’s wearing black — according to custom, she’s supposed to for the next year — but its definitely designer, maybe a Tadashi.” The agent smiled sheepishly as Steven’s brow rose.

“We’ll ask where she bought it,” she said, pulling away. “You into power shopping, Mulder?”

“My partner,” he explained weakly as the cop headed for a table laden with split salted fish, sliced jamon, wafer-thin galletas, and other more recognizable U.S. fare. “What I’m trying to determine is how closely the Gracia’s adhere to tradition. If Gracia clung more closely to his native culture, he might have been more psychologically susceptible to night terrors or sudden death.”

“It’s hard to tell,” Nichols frowned. “He was a high-profile figure — mass every Sunday, grand marshal at every Philippine street festival and parade. Gracia may have been very culturally observant, or a lot of it might have been window dressing for the community.”

“Det. Nichols.” A tall, young olive-skinned man peeled away from a group of other young, sharply dressed Filipinos sporting black plastic pins. Smiling, Felipe Gracia nonetheless glanced anxiously toward his mother crossing the room.

“Mr. Gracia,” Nichols nodded. “Again, sorry for your loss. You remember my partner, Det. Stevens? And this is Agent Mulder with the FBI.”

The smile dropped from Gracia’s face as he led the detectives from the buffet. “What? I’m still not convinced Dad’s death was anything but natural causes. Why FBI?”

Nichols began to speak, but Mulder beat him to the punch. “There’ve been a series of deaths in a tri-state region — Filipino men who died in a way suspiciously similar to your father’s.”

Gracia stared at the agent for a moment. “Let’s, uh, go downstairs — they’ve got a lounge, and we can talk without disturb–, without being disturbed.”

A few heads turned as Ramon Gracia’s son escorted his guests into the bowels of the funeral home. Nichols recognized a particularly camera-happy councilman and a local Filipino newswoman. As they reached the lounge, Gracia stopped short. A petite beauty in black looked up from the couch sharply, her eyes red-rimmed and filled with fury.

“Malaya? You OK?”

The woman glared at her brother, then, eyeing the strangers behind him, pushed up from the cushions. “I’m fine,” she muttered, brushing past him.

“My sister, Malaya,” Gracia sighed. “This whole thing’s been very difficult for her.”

“Whole thing?” Stevens inquired.

“It’s, well, I guess you’d say it’s a cultural thing. Sometimes, it’s not so easy to accommodate tradition. Anyway, I am familiar with those recent deaths — the whole community is. My Uncle Eduardo died six months ago, my Cousin James a year ago. Both were declared accidental deaths. You have any good reason to think otherwise?”

“You’re familiar with bangungot?” Mulder asked. Stevens looked curiously at Nichols, who grinned back.

“I’d prefer to call it SUDS,” Gracia said coolly. “My mother still subscribes to those old folk tales about night demons and death dreams — with all these recent deaths, she’s practically smothered my brothers and I. Strange it was Dad it caught up with — SUDS generally gets young guys, you know?”

“Do now,” Nichols murmured with a nod to Mulder. “It’s probably all just a coincidence, Mr. Gracia, but your dad was an important man, so we’re crossing all the Ts.”

“I’m glad you are, of course,” Gracia said hastily. “But I can’t imagine who’d want to kill Dad.”

“Hey, like I said, your dad was a well-known guy,” Nichols shrugged. “This thing with the nurses — he’d gotten a lot of TV face time lately. And with all the emotions about immigration, well…”

Gracia settled into an armchair, elbows on his knees. “Dad was passionate about his people, about making sure they got a square deal. He wasn’t like Sharpton, trying to parlay his concern into political hay, though he got asked to run for Albany plenty of times. This was his Rosa Parks on the bus, Detective. Those nurses, those women, were treated almost like indentured servants, scared to death they’d lose their status and get shipped back to the islands. Then they get told they could go to jail because they weren’t going to put up with the bullshit any more.

“Yeah, we got our share of threatening calls, hassles. Guy with the state licensing commission started making noise about the business, said maybe we needed to be more concerned about our employees than those ‘foreigners.’”

“You got the guy’s name?”

“Got his card in my coat, upstairs. I’ll get it for you on your way out. Other than that, we got some hate mail from white supremacist types, a few rollers, union reps screaming about their jobs getting ‘stolen’ by foreign labor. Ironic, considering all those women wanted was out of that hellhole.”

“If your mom still has them, I’m gonna want those letters, any threatening e-mails,” Nichols said. “What about personal enemies? Any, uh, cultural things.”

Gracia smiled darkly. “Blood feuds, that kind of thing? Post-9/11 Muslim-Christian shit? Hey, is that why the FBI’s involved?”

“No,” Mulder responded pointedly. “From a statistical standpoint, we’re seeing a virtual epidemic of SUDS thousands of miles from the Pacific Rim, within a highly localized area. And your father’s an anomaly. That raises the question of whether this is a natural epidemic, or, at the least, if Mr. Gracia’s death is part of that epidemic. If either possibility is true, then someone’s been targeting Filipinos for death, including three of your family members or using the other deaths as a smokescreen for your father’s murder.”

Gracia snorted. “Murder? What, somebody killed my dad with some mysterious untraceable poison.” He rose. “I think you’re barking up the wrong tree, Agent. Detectives, you mind if I get back upstairs? I want to see if my mother and my sister are OK before they start in with each other again.”

“Sure, thanks,” Nichols said, cutting off Mulder’s next query. He waited until the young man’s footsteps faded. “Hey, Mulder, I think I’m supposed to be bad cop.”

“Weird cop,” Stevens mumbled. “You don’t seriously think Gracia’s death was part of a serial? The preliminary report said heart failure. How do you think the killer managed that?”

Mulder stepped into the corridor. “Don’t ask me.”

New York Police Department Medical Examiner’s Office

Manhattan, New York

Thursday, April 20

“Sure, I’ve seen a couple of SUDS cases,” Dr. Elizabeth Rodgers told Mulder. Nichols rolled his eyes at the deadpan Stevens. “Kid in Soho a year, no, year-and-a-half ago. We thought he had a bleach job at first — hair had turned bone-white. Heart was healthy — no sign of pre-existing damage, and the tox screen came up clean, at least for anything that would’ve killed him.”

Mulder studied the liver Rodgers had removed from the blue-gray corpse beside it, under Nichols’s disgusted gaze. “How about Gracia’s tox screen?”

Rodgers paused, glancing at Nichols and Stevens. Nichols’s eyes narrowed. “Oh, hell, it’ll come out soon enough. There were traces of a psychoactive substance, salvinorin A.”

Mulder straightened. “Salvia?”

“Yeah,” Rodgers nodded, interested. “It’s generally derived from Salvia divinorum, a relative of sage and mint.”

“Sage of the Seers,” Mulder expanded. “That’s what it’s called. The Mazatec shamans used it as an entheogen.”

“Plant-based hallucinogens used to heighten the senses during a variety of sacraments,” Stevens supplied impatiently. “The literal meaning of the word is ‘that which causes God to be within an individual’–”

“That’s Wiki awesome,” Nichols interrupted. “Rodgers, how would Gracia have got this salvinorin whatever?”

“You can get it on-line,” Stevens supplied. “You can buy Salvia leaves and extract legally from dozens of sites. It’s still legal in the U.S., though there’s been some call to ban sales since a Delaware kid committed suicide in 2006, supposedly under the influence.”

Nichols grinned at his partner, whose storehouse of esoterica was more limited than but no less astonishing than Goren’s or his own. “Doesn’t sound like the drug of choice for the former president of the Filipino-American Chamber of Commerce. They got any salvia ceremonies in The Philippines, Mulder?”

“Mainly Meso-American,” the agent responded seriously. “Solenostenom has a similar shamanic effect — it originated in The Philippines. You can buy it at gardening shops or on the web. That’s probably what I’d pick if I wanted a back-up smokescreen.”

“Whoa,” Stevens protested. “This is quite a leap you’re taking. This is the great melting pot — anybody could have turned Gracia on to salvia, and since it’s not illegal, it would be safer to have lying around his office than half a key or a drawerful of pot…”

“C’mon,” Mulder protested back. “It doesn’t fit our guy’s profile.”

“It makes a lot more sense than some serial whacko trying to take out every Filipino on the East Coast.”

“Hey, hey,” Nichols intervened. “I’ve got an idea. Why don’t we just see if our guy actually had any of this whacky weed lying around the office?”

Gracia Fine Philippine Foods

Queens, New York

Friday, April 21

“This is ridiculous,” Estrella Calambacal fumed as the trio combed her late employer’s neat but cozy office. “Mr. Gracia never used drugs. He hardly ever even took a drink.”

Nichols stepped back from the open door of Ramon Gracia’s open mini-fridge, stocked with apple juice and San Miguel Pale Pilsen. “Your boss really knew how to entertain the customers, then.”

The tiny, gray-haired secretary blinked at the liquor larder, then re-gathered herself. “I didn’t go spying around Mr. Gracia’s office. I had no idea that was there.” Having acquitted herself virtuously if not credibly, Calambacal fled the room.

“Too bad,” Nichols said, shutting the fridge. “She was really growing on me. What’ve you got, Stevens?”

His partner shrugged from the floral display at Gracia’s window. “He wasn’t growing it — just a couple of bansai. And the desk was clean.”

“Well, maybe a little too clean,” Mulder said. The cops turned to find Mulder flipping through Gracia’s planner. “There are a lot of gaps in Gracia’s daily schedule — especially between three and five. Usually at least an hour-and-a-half of blank space.

“More than enough time to relieve the rigors of the day,” Nichols murmured. “Ma’am? Oh, ma’am?” he called.

Calambacal sighed heavily from the next room, and her iron locks reappeared.

“Can you take a look at Mr. Gracia’s planner and try to recall where he might have been during these blank spots?”

The assistant frowned. “I wasn’t his keeper.”

“Sure you were,” Nichols grinned in a lupine way. “I don’t care if your boss liked a little mid-day nip. If he was getting a little amour on the side, well, what happens in Queens, right? But we’re investigating a homicide, and we need to know who she is.”

“You think she killed Mr. Gracia?” Calambacal breathed before realizing her slip.

“It’s possible,” Stevens suggested in a more conciliatory tone. “Or at least she might help us find who did.”

The assistant suddenly slumped onto the arm of Gracia’s leather guest couch. “It was one of those nurses. You know, the ones on the news.”

“The Queens 13?” Stevens prompted. “I know Mr. Gracia was helping with their defense.”

“It started that way,” Calambacal said defensively. “He was always panlahat, you know, taking care of his people. He was furious about how those women were treated. Then he started hanging out with one of them, even gave her a job–”

“We’re not with Immigration,” Stevens assured her. “He offered her a job, an act of kindness.”

Calambacal sighed. “I’d like to think so. But I’m afraid there was a lot more to it than that. They’d disappear sometimes in the afternoons, Mr. Gracia and Amihan — he told me he was taking her along to meet clients, learn the business.”

“The blank spots on the calendar.”

“Maybe, I don’t know. I’d thought he was over it — one day, a month ago or so, she just didn’t come in, and I heard him shouting in tagalong to someone on the phone last week, yelling about his wife, his family. It might have been her, I don’t know.”

“Mrs. Calambacal, could you get us a number for Amihan, please?” Stevens requested. The secretary nodded once and disappeared.

“Woman scorned,” Nichols said.

“It seems kind of thin,” Mulder said. “Afternoon quickies with a guy probably twice her age who, no ageism intended, may have been no more than a meal ticket to citizenship.” The agent paused. “Detective, could you open that refrigerator for me?”

Nichols looked to Stevens, who shrugged. He flipped open the compartment full of beer and apple juice as Calambal re-entered with a Post-it.

“Amihan Dalisay,” she grunted, handing off the slip. “I’m going to lunch.”

“Mrs. Calambaca,” Mulder asked abruptly. “Did Mr. Gracia drink a lot of apple juice?”

“God, I don’t know. I guess not — he always guzzled Coke or Dr. Pepper. Maybe he was on a health kick.”

Mulder nodded absently, and she left.

“In the Tagalog mythology, Amihan was one of the first beings to inhabit the universe,” the agent mused. “The name Amihan means a cool northeast wind.”

“Let’s see which way she blew,” Nichols suggested.

United States District Court for the Eastern District of New York

Brooklyn, New York

Friday, April 21

“All right, OK,” Amihan Dalisay huffed. “So I saw Mr. Gracia a little bit. You gonna ship me back now?”

The young nurse was slim, petite, but curvy, with glossy waist-length hair. They’d found out from her attorney’s office that she was at the federal building for one of the Queens 13’s seemingly endless series of appearances.

“That’s not going to happen,” asserted her lawyer, who’d begun dressing a lot snappier since he’d started doing the CNN Headline circuit. “This some kind of ICE ploy to pressure my clients? Cause it won’t play.”

“You can cool the Pacino act, counselor — this isn’t Larry King,” Nichols chortled. “I don’t care if she’s playing doctor — pardon me, RN — with half the Manhattan Businessmen’s Association. I just want to know how hard she took the breakup.”

“How’d you know about that?” Dalisay snapped. “Oh, yeah, that nosy old bruha.”

“Witch, eh?” Stevens mused. “That must’ve been a tough break. There went your path to the whole picket fence thing.”

“Hey,” Amihan spat. “We had some fun, a good time, ‘til that pokpok showed up.”

Stevens started to speak, but Nichols held up a palm. “That one, I got without Rosetta Stone. So who was this pokpok?”

Amihan sneered and looked at the attorney. He nodded in a very non-Pacinolike manner. “She was a dayo — a foreigner. Thai, I think, but American. A puta.”

Nichols’s eyes popped at her lapse from tagalog to her island’s Spanish roots. “A hooker? What makes you say that? You wouldn’t have been tailing his tail?”

“OK, so when he dumped me, I followed him. He went to that fancy place — the Omni Hudson — and met her in the lobby. She’s a high-class puta — little slut black dress, stiletto heels. But she was playin’ Ramon, lookin’ at her watch everytime he looked the other way. Like she had places to be. Then he turn around and she’s got her hands almost in his pants. You know?”

“Not recently,” Nichols sighed. “Look, I’m gonna put you with a department artist. Try to work up a sketch of this puta.”

“I don’t know,” the lawyer drawled.

“Any cooperation might be in your client’s interest,” Mulder said.

“Might get you on Faith Yancy, Al,” Nichols suggested.

The attorney studied the cop. “Bring on the artist.”

“Hoo-wah,” Nichols murmured.

Taste of Manila

Queens, New York

Friday, April 21

“I seen it a couple times, back home,” Greg Torongoy informed his guests. “The old folks used to say it was the batibat, the bangungot – fat old bitch demon would climb into your bed and sit on your face ‘til you couldn’t breathe no more. Couple bottles of San Miguel, sounds like a night on the town.” The old restaurateur cackled. “C’mon now, eat.”

Greg Torongoy himself brought the hamonado, goat stew, and rice to their table, dropping into the fourth chair between Nichols and Stevens and snapping his fingers for more water.

“Enjoy — honey-roasted pork. It’s my specialty — my treat. You guys are gonna find out what happened to Ramon, right?”

Nichols eyed his dish with clinical delight. “Thanks, Mr. Torongoy,” Stevens smiled mournfully, “but we can’t accept gifts or meals from a witness in a case. Internal Affairs is always sniffing around. We’ll pay.” Nichols shrugged.

The Queens restaurateur nodded empathetically at her departmental scapegoating. Then he blinked. “Witness? Witness to what?”

“We understand you played cards with Mr. Gracia a couple of times a week,” Mulder eased in.

“Pusoy Dos — Big Two, poker,” Torongoy drawled, glancing at the growing lunch crowd.

“Yeah, yeah, we hear Ramon liked his pusoy,” Nichols murmured, digging into his sweet, savory pork.

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Just that you were one of his best buddies, his poker pal. You’d know if he was involved in any other games.”

Torongoy sputtered. “Hey, Ramon was a family man, a pillar of this community.”

“I know he took a particular interest in the Queens 13 — one of them, anyway.”

Torongoy looked from Nichols to the impassive Stevens, then to the smiling FBI agent. After a second of weighing his options, he sighed and called to the bartender in Spanish.

“OK, but do me a favor,” Torongoy sighed. “Don’t tell Graciella, Ramon’s wife. She’s a good woman — it’d kill her.”

“We’ll try to be discreet, as long as it doesn’t turn out it killed him,” Nichols said as the bartender deposited a blood-red drink before his boss. “I heard he dumped the nurse a month or so ago for a Thai tootsie.”

“Tootsie,” Torongoy mused. “I wondered if she was a working girl. I ran into them at some bar in Midtown, and she was like too friendly, but too distracted. Like she had business. Ramon eventually fessed up, that he was doing her, but he said she was the daughter of a client. Didn’t want to admit he was paying for it, even though with that hot little babae on the hook, I don’t know why he’d buy.”

“You get this girl’s name?” Mulder asked.

“Uh, I think it was Ella. Listen, you tell Graciella, you don’t tell her I told you.”

“Bring me another plate of this,” Nichols said through a mouthful of honeyed pork, “and I’ll forget I even talked to you.”

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Major Case Squad

Manhattan, New York

Friday, April 21

Forensic Accountant Jay McNair straightened his glasses as he took center stage. “I accessed financial and credit data for the Brothers Gracia and the others Agent Mulder identified. Nada, zip. Ramon Gracia’s business was doing well — like everybody else, energy and freight costs cut into his last-quarter earnings, but he has a kick-ass cost-containment system for his operational scale, and his personal portfolio is diversified, minimal downside risk.

“Family-held corporation — majority share goes to the spouse, equal portions of the remaining interest to the four offspring. Ought to provide a healthy revenue stream, but hardly worth killing for. Same for the personal estate, which all goes to the wife. The three sons and the daughter are all on pretty solid footing — little debt, no recent suspicious financial activity that might flag gambling debts, drugs, that kind of thing. As for the other six vics…”

“Decedents,” Capt. Callas amended dryly. The civilian employees loved cop talk. “For all we know, these men died natural deaths.”

His rhythm disrupted, McNair nodded absently and rebooted. “Sorry. The brother, Eduardo, wasn’t connected with the business. Scuttlebutt is they had a falling out early on, and Eduardo bought a garage in Queens 23 years ago. The books looked clean, and he showed a respectable if non-spectacular profit on a consistent basis. Personal finances clean as well. He was widowed, and the business and assets went to his two sons — securities broker and an assistant editor with HarperCollins who liquidated. They check out clean.

“The cousin, James Tapang, worked the kitchen in a Filipino joint on the East Side. Flashy lifestyle — no savings to speak off, but $16,000 or so in credit debt, on three different cards. The guy from Soho, Robert Iradier, an artist, go figure, lived hand to loft owner and left practically nothing behind to anybody. Similar stories on Nick Obusan, the decedent from Jersey — UPS warehouse worker with savings in the low four figures, Randy Dumagat — the night custodian from the Bronx, and Ignacio Rivera — the Connecticut busboy.

“With the exception of the Gracia brothers, I couldn’t find any financial link between the vi–, the decedents. None of them even banked at the same place.”

“Thanks,” Callas grunted, and McNair slipped out, his investigative acumen once again barely acknowledged. “So, follow the money seems to lead us down a dead alley. How about Gracia’s phone records?”

“Nothing out of line on the home or work lines,” Nichols reported. “Our naughty nurse showed up on his cell phone log regularly ‘til a few weeks ago — some people just can’t let go. But then, about the time Gracia kicked her, another number started coming up regularly — incoming and outgoing.”

“So we’re assuming it’s the new ‘girlfriend’?” Callas murmured. “We got a name yet?”

“It was a throwaway,” Stevens reported. “We’re trying to get a line on where she might have bought it. Of course, neither Amidan nor the other women were programmed in.”

“So we’re assuming it’s the new girlfriend,” Callas repeated with a new emphasis. “If it is, the throwaway’s a red flag. You think she might’ve been working Gracia? He was a food importer, right? Any possibility a little China white may have been coming in with the jasmine rice and shrimp chips?”

Stevens shook her head. “I checked with Narco, and Agent Mulder asked around the DEA. Gracia Fine Philippine Foods is a mom-and-pop — no mob or drug ties. I think it’s the girl.”

“All right, then,” Callas nodded. “Circulate that sketch through Vice and Bunco, and look for any connections with the brother or the cousin. But, Detectives? And this goes for you, too, Agent Mulder. I’d like it if I didn’t read anything in tomorrow’s Ledger about your little serial theories. I’m getting a feeling about Gracia, but you haven’t sold me these other deaths have any connection. Am I clear? Agent?”

“Roger,” Mulder chimed, drawing a look from the captain and an eye roll from Nichols. Callas locked eyes with Stevens and exited.

“I’m not sure you’ve sold me, either,” Stevens said. “The first five victims fit the age profile for SUDS, though I’ll admit it does seem like a high incidence over a two-year period. But Eduardo and Ramon Gracia don’t fit the usual pattern.”

Mulder turned from the NYPD Intranet browser. “So what if the New Jersey, Connecticut, Soho, and Bronx cases were legitimate SUDS deaths — a statistical anomaly that offered somebody an ideal smokescreen? What if Tapang, Eduardo Gracia, and Ramon Gracia were the real victims? The intended victims?”

“Who’d have it out for the Gracias?” Nichols demanded. “Ramon made some enemies with the Queens 13, but the other two? You saying there’s some kind of blood feud going on? Otherwise, I can’t see who’d benefit.”

The agent smiled. “I can tell you who doesn’t.”

Starbucks

Times Square, Manhattan, New York

Friday, April 21

Malaya Gracia looked about the packed coffee shop though it was unlikely they’d run into anyone she knew. Her mounting paranoia was absurd — no one could possibly guess why they were here, and her sleek black mourning outfit drew no special notice in Manhattan, the land of self-styled bohemians, Goths, and power suits. Plus, she had been engaged to the man seated across from her for nearly two years.

“You sure about this?” Louis Imperial asked. He was a handsome young man, casually garbed in stylishly rugged attire. At 28, he was the head of his own market consulting and graphic production firm on Bleecker, an example to his family of the American Dream they had sought with only moderate success.

“Positive,” the young Filipina responded emphatically, her dark eyes flashing. “I’m tired of waiting. We should leave town tonight.”

“I have to meet with the Summers and Felton people tomorrow — it’s a potential $1 million account. But I can get a flight out tomorrow night.” Immediately, he regretted the commitment.

“Yes,” Malaya smiled, relieved. “This is too much, too much to ask. Dad’s gone now, and there’s no reason for it.”

“Hey, shhh.” Her voice had risen. Louis understood her impatience — they’d been waiting since the death of her cousin James — but he questioned this move so quickly after her father’s passing. He’d seen the detectives at Ramon’s wake.

More importantly, Malaya did not realize what business he had yet to finish here. He’d been weak, and now everything was in the balance. His abrupt departure could set off a chain reaction that eventually would explode in his face.

“You love me, don’t you?”

It had been a long time — years of frustrated, agonizing waiting — and recently, Louis had had his doubts, obviously. Malaya’s initially rigid adherence to her parents’ wishes had become tiresome — Louis’ blue-collar family had assimilated fully into U.S. culture three generations ago, and were as culturally observant as Catholics who darken the cathedral door only at Christmas and Easter. And, as they had waited, he’d strayed, and it had come back to bite him in the ass.

But somehow, as he stared into Malaya’s exquisite, almond-shaped expresso eyes, as she solicited his reaffirmation, he knew it must be.

“Of course. We leave tomorrow.”

**

She’d stayed on the street, near a pita cart where neither of the two could see her. She’d followed Imperial here (follow that cab, she’d been tempted to tell the Muslim behind the wheel), and her heart had pounded all the way into the heart of Times Square. This was it; she could feel it in her heart. They’d been talking a long time — Louis seemed restless, guilty; the bitch was agitated, animated. Her heart sailed.

Then sank immediately as the sun broke through Gracia’s scowl. The bitch should be outraged, devastated. The bitch reached across the table, and he clasped her hands. The blood pounded in her veins, and the Middle Easterner manning the cart looked up, startled, as a choked snarl escaped her lips. She glared, and he returned to turning his kabobs.

It was all wrong. How could he tolerate this? How could he allow himself to be played this way?

How could he not see what was right? What was meant to be?

Imperial Image

TriBeCa, New York

Friday, April 21

Sucking down the rest of his Vente Kona, Louis Imperial paused as he spotted the trio in his waiting niche. They were too old to be the hip young entrepreneurs or marketing execs who frequented his firm (with the exception of the tomboy redhead), too pedestrian in their dress to be account execs for any of the big agencies that farmed business his way.

The Imperial Image CEO looked to the temp, who shrugged. The tallest of the three, a cop-looking guy with a hopelessly unhip Irish tartan tie, stood and came his way, trailed by the redhead and the smaller, dark-haired guy.

“Louis Imperial?” the tall guy asked, extending a paw. “Det. Zach Nichols, Major Case Squad. My partner, Det. Stevens. And this is Agent Mulder, FBI.”

Imperial almost staggered back. “Good God, what happened?”

Nichols smiled. “Sorry — looks like a SWAT raid, I know. We’re the detectives looking into Ramon Gracia’s death.”

The marketing whiz frowned. “Did I miss something? Ray died of a heart attack, didn’t he? In his sleep?”

“You ever heard of bangungot?” the one called Mulder asked.

Nichols sighed. “We have reason to believe there may be suspicious circumstances surrounding your fiance’s father’s death, and maybe the deaths of Mr. Gracia’s brother and cousin.”

Louis feigned ignorance out of some absurd instinct. “A cousin died, too? When did this happen?”

“What’s important,” Stevens interrupted gently, “is that these deaths may have something to do with Ms. Gracia.”

“Malaya?” His heartbeat quickened. “What are you suggesting? That she had anything to do–”

“Absolutely not,” Stevens hastened. She paused before expounding Mulder’s theory. “How long have you two been dating?”

“Five years,” Louis responded, with a sideway glance Nichols, Stevens, and Mulder the behavioral scientist all caught.

“Wow,” Stevens beamed. “That’s devotion. I saw the ring at the wake — beautiful. You two set a date yet?”

“We’ve talked about it,” the businessman murmured, evasively. Another sideways glance. A glance at the ceiling usually meant a search for the lie, a downwards look shame or embarrassment over the deception. Sideways: He was dancing around the truth.

“But nothing’s been pinned down yet, has it, Mr. Imperial?” They’d decided Stevens, the empathic romanticist, should take this one. “Respect for the dead, mourning properly, those are very important in the Philippine culture, aren’t they?”

Louis laughed shortly. “You know, I’m not really that old school — my family’s mostly in Chicago.”

“But Ramon Gracia wasn’t so old school. At least, not in public. It’s Philippine tradition for a woman to postpone a wedding for a year after the death of a close relative. That’s right, isn’t it? And your fiance’s family’s had three deaths over a two-year period.”

Louis inhaled, then held it for a moment before his shoulders relaxed. “That’s right. Ray was insistent — he had his image to maintain, and Malaya’s mother was very old school. Malaya hasn’t wanted to offend her parents.”

Stevens nodded thoughtfully. “That must be very frustrating for both of you, in this day and age.”

“We, ah, we love each other. We can wait.”

“I think that’s what may be going on here, Mr. Imperial,” Mulder chimed in. “We think maybe the deaths of Ernesto and Ramon Gracia and your fiance’s cousin may be designed to forestall your wedding. This waiting has to have put a strain on things, hasn’t it?”

Louis began to protest, then sighed. “Well, shit, of course. I’ve told her this is America, that we have to live our lives, too. Sure, I’m — we’re frustrated.”

“How frustrated?” Nichols asked bluntly.

Louis blinked. Then his face darkened. “What’s that mean?”

Nichols smiled crookedly. “I think you know what I mean. Mulder tells me Malaya’s also supposed to stay, you know, pure, before her wedding. Jesus, I’d probably be climbing the walls after three weeks, much less two years.”

“Well, maybe you just lack self-discipline,” Louis retorted coldly. “Malaya knows I love her.”

His eyes darted sideways.

Nichols turned somber. “Look, Louis. If your ‘self-discipline’ has slipped, you need to come clean. It’s beginning to look like somebody doesn’t want Malaya Gracia to get married. Or you. And they’re willing to kill to keep it from happening. Do you have any idea who’d want to do that?”

Louis’ eyes scanned the room, for aid, for escape. “No, honestly. That’s, that’s a ridiculous theory. I’m sorry I can’t help you. I have a meeting, please.”

Nichols thrust a card at the young entrepreneur. “If anything does come to you, here’s my number.”

Louis snatched the card and retreated to a room beyond the reception desk.

“He’s right, you know,” Nichols sighed as he turned for the door. “I probably lack self-discipline.”

**

Nichols nearly piled into a lane-switching taxi as Mulder gasped from the backseat.

“Jesus, Agent, you almost killed us,” Stevens snapped.

“You need to put somebody on Malaya Gracia, ASAP,” Mulder advised urgently.

“Why?” Nichols breathed, glaring as the cabbie flipped him off. “Gracia’s dead. If he was involved with the killer, why didn’t she just kill Malaya? Why all this complicated melodrama about tradition, killing the girl’s family?”

“She’d be too obvious a suspect — the motive for killing Malaya would be apparent. Somehow, she found out about the rash of area SUDS cases and devised this whole smokescreen. She started with a relative distanced enough not to draw attention to Malaya and Imperial — James Tapang. My guess is the cousin was too distant. So then, she moved on to the uncle. It worked, and she had time to work on Imperial. Not quite enough time, apparently, because she bought another year by killing Ramon Gracia.”

“Just who do you think this jilted lover is, Mulder?” Stevens asked gently.

“Somebody who could get close to the Gracia brothers and their cousin, close enough to slip Uncle Ernesto a fatal dose at bedtime, to get into Tapang’s confidence, to know Ramon’s routine. Tapang’s a young guy with poor prospects. Ernesto was a widower. Ramon clearly had a wandering eye. My guess? Ramon’s exotic ‘hooker’ was intimately familiar with his brother and his cousin, as well.

“I think our suspect has been close to the Philippine culture for a long time — she knew about their funeral and wedding traditions. But she’s not an insider, or she’d have known Tapang wasn’t a close enough relative. She’s somebody within Louis Imperial’s circle — a client, a co-worker, an old girlfriend. And she’s smart — and resourceful.”

“Resourceful?” Nichols muttered.

“The murder method — simulating bangungot. I think she used a cocktail of salvia extract and some sort of cardiac stimulant. Salvia divinorum users usually experience feelings of calmness and peace, but some experience dysphoria — discomfort and anxiety. If Gracia was having a cardiac episode, his hallucinations might have taken a particularly nightmarish form. At worst, the salvia would have rendered him and the other victims helpless to call 911 until it was too late.”

“Wait, wait,” Nichols sputtered. “Rodgers didn’t find any sign of any drug that would have caused Gracia’s ticker to, well, stop ticking. What are you saying? Our unhappy hooker used some kind of untraceable poison unknown to mankind?”

Mulder grinned. “Well, that would be pretty resourceful, wouldn’t it? Actually, Ramon Gracia’s refrigerator gave me an idea. Gracia started drinking all that apple juice after he broke up with Ms. Dalisay, right? After he started seeing our suspect. Why? It triggered a memory, so I asked your Dr. Rodgers to dig up the autopsy findings for Ernesto Gracia and James Tapang. Tapang’s post-mortem stomach contents included pizza, Doritos, and Boones Farm apple wine. Ernesto’s stomach contained pork, rice, noodles, and apple juice — maybe the same brand Gracia started guzzling at his ‘girlfriend’s request. In a society known for its supersized fries and groaning waistlines, that’s a lot of fruity goodness. You two ever heard of sodium morphate?”

“Sodium what?” Nichols grunted.

“That’s an urban legend, conspiracy theory,” Stevens countered. “There’s no proof sodium morphate even exists.”

“I’ve know a trio of geeks who’d beg to differ,” Mulder said. “They’ve uncovered several CIA memoranda referencing it, and they tell me the Mob’s been using it to neutralize witnesses since the early ‘60s. It’s likely it derives from morphine, and it reportedly smells and tastes like apples. In lesser quantities, it can induce a simulated heart attack.

“Supposedly, Senator Estes Kefauver ate a piece of apple pie and suffered an attack on the Senate floor just as he was planning to denounce Mafia operations. The CIA reportedly planned to poison Castro with sodium morphate, and Lyndon Johnson scarfed a slice of apple pie in front of his Secret Service agent just before he died.”

“Apple pie?” Nichols squeaked, glancing into the rearview mirror. “No offense, Mulder, but it’s beginning to sound a little like Oliver Stone put LSD in your corn flakes. Det. Eames told me about your theories in the Forester case, about the Macbeth curse and possession. I’m still not convinced Ramon Gracia didn’t just have one too many plates of hamanado.”

“We need a more precise tox screen,” Mulder persisted. “And we need to get some protection for Malaya Gracia. The killer’s been escalating — the murders are closer together and closer to Malaya. At some point, she may not be content with holding off the wedding date. I got a funny vibe from Imperial, like something may be up.”

Nichols jammed the brake a little too hard as they halted by Madison Square Garden. “Why don’t we bring this little magical mystery tour back to Planet Earth for the time being? I need a strong cup of coffee and maybe a piece of pie. If it makes you feel more comfortable, Mulder, you can have cake.”

Coquilles

Greenwich Village

Friday, April 21

Stevens convinced her now-silent car mates to grab a cup and a galette at Coquilles on Bleecker — the former employer of the late James Tapang. Nichols chose instead to take his caffeine in the alley beyond the kitchen, without Mulder.

“Shit, man,” Julio Diamonte spat as he puffed away in violation of Manhattan statute. Nichols savored his own cigarette, supplied by the initially wary dishwasher. “I always thought it was strange Jimmy just cacked like that. Night terror — boolshit.”

“Hey, don’t spread that around,” Nichols warned, at once bringing Julio into his circle. “We don’t want to spook anybody. You wanna look at a picture? A woman?”

“Shit man,” Julio grinned, showing a glint of gold in the fading early evening light. “I always wanna look at pictures of women.” He took the scan of the sketch Amihan Dalisay had helped craft. “Hope she’s hotter than this, though. Though I dig the Asian ladies, you know?”

“Yeah,” Nichols nodded. “She familiar?”

“Yeah, bro, that’s, uh, Ella. Jimmy was doin’ her for a while, though I don’ see what a fine Chiquita like that be doin’ with Jimmy. She was a classy-ass bitch, all right.”

Nichols rubbed his hands despite the warmth of the evening. “You know what she did?”

“Think Jimmy said she was a’ actress. Off-Broadway, some shit. They met at some bar down the street bout a month before he cacked. It was kinda funny.”

“What?”

“Well, we was just off shift, you know? Bout 11:30 or so, and Jimmy, he still smells like he took a swim in the harbor — all that seafood shit he gets on hisself. Anyone, we was like dead, so we hadn’ changed or nothin’. But Ella, man, she come up and just like almost hump Jimmy’s leg like a pitbull in heat. She don’t even look at me — like I’m a barstool or some shit. Shit, no offense to the dead or whatever, but I’m about 10 times more hotter than Jimmy was.”

Nichols scuffed his loafer through the alley gravel. “Ah, who knows what women want, eh?”

Julio grew silent, then laughed as he extinguished his own cigarette. “What you sayin’ about that bitch true, sound like maybe its good she don’t want me. Entiendo?”

MotorBoys Auto Repair

Queens, New York

Friday, April 21

“Thought Ernie’d won the New York State Lottery when he brought her around the first time,” Earl Harris chuckled as he slammed the hood of the Volvo he’d been tuning. The mechanic wiped grease from his huge, calloused brown hands and tossed the soiled shop towels into a barrel. “Damn shame — practically killed him when Rosa passed on, then just when he finds that sweet little thing, well, you know.”

“How’d they meet?” Stevens prodded.

“Brought her car in with a punctured tire,” the mechanic said. “Hey, Lewis, Gorman car’s ready!” he shouted to the desk at the front of the shop as Nichols, Stevens, and Mulder exchanged significant looks.

“Mr. Harris,” Nichols asked slowly. “You remember anything about the car?”

Harris frowned as he led his guests to a disreputable Bunn coffeemaker. He looked up; Stevens and Nichols shook their heads, and Mulder nodded. The mechanic poured 30-weight sludge into a pair of Styrofoam cups, handed one to the agent.

“See,” he finally rumbled. “That’s the thing I’m thinkin’ about now that you folks show up askin’ about Ella. Ernie’d let me have the day off that day for my girl’s college graduation, but he told me she brought in a rental — said her regular car was in for some engine work. Looked to Ernie like vandalism, like somebody’d punctured the tire with a nail. An’ when he reminded her the rental company insurance’d cover the repair, she said, no thanks, she didn’t want to go through the hassle. He threw in the labor — Ernie had a big heart, an’ she was a cute little thing. Next thing you know, she gives him a call to go get some coffee, an’ before you know it, they were a couple. Kinda odd couple, but takes all kinds, right?”

“Ain’t that the truth?” Nichols murmured.

Major Case Squad

Manhattan, New York

Friday, April 21

“So she’d targeted both of them,” Capt. Callas concluded, sipping his own bad cop coffee. “A dead-end dishwasher and an old widower, neither one a candidate for the Fortune 500. Likely she plied her charms with Ramon Gracia, as well.”

“I checked the rental agencies for the week prior to Harris’ daughter’s graduation,” Mulder supplied. “We didn’t have a make or even a color for the car, but we tracked down the invoice for ‘Ella’s’ tires, and I’m guessing we have a hit. Avis rented a Camry to a Lolita Chang a day before she met Ernesto Gracia.”

Callas smiled grimly. “Great, a sense of humor. So what’s the motive here? Revenge? Hate crime? If this is some kind of Thai-Filipino thing, I don’t want Homeland Security crawling all over this place. Nichols? A thought?”

Nichols had been perched on his desk, deep in meditation. “I just can’t shake that there’s something familiar about this set-up. The Thai connection, the untraceable poison… It rings a bell.”

As if on cue, Stevens’s phone vibrated. After a few quiet responses, she ended the call and looked up, face ashen.

“Nichols,” she said, gravely.

Jackson Heights

Queens, New York

Friday, April 21

“Damn!” Nichols shouted abruptly, kicking a discarded lettuce crate. He forced himself to look again at Malaya Gracia, sprawled in the gravel next to the dumpster, a single small-bore bullethole in her temple.

“Detective,” Mulder called, reaching with concern for the cop. Stevens grabbed the agent’s forearm and shook her head. Nichols looked at the pair, as if anticipating indictment, then stalked off.

“Nichols know the vic?” the primary, a Special Victim’s detective named Munch, who’d greeted the senior Major Case cop by name. Munch looked more like a malnourished comedian or wiseguy than a law enforcement officer. He peered through tinted lenses at Mulder. “Actually, don’t I know you?”

“She was a possible witness in the Gracia case,” Stevens hastened before Mulder could reveal Nichols’s possible misjudgment.

“Case?” Munch perked. “Thought the old guy just had a little too much afternoon delight.”

“We think maybe Ramon Gracia is part of a series of killings of Filipino men within his family,” Mulder said. “We think their deaths were induced, made to look like sudden unexpected death syndrome.”

“Wow, bangungot?” Munch responded, prompting a look from Stevens. “I visited Manila back in the ‘70s, with the ex. Hey, you thought of sodium morphate? You know, the shit they killed LBJ and Hoffa with?”

“They didn’t kill Hoffa,” Mulder said cryptically. “But, yes. That’s my theory.”

“Maybe this is some kind of CIA thing,” Det. Munch suggested as he moved out of a tech’s camera frame. “Maybe these guys were part of some kind of operation back in the islands, and this is a cleanup job.”

“Guys,” Stevens interjected firmly. “It’s possible the motive for these killings involved Ms. Gracia. What’s SVU’s interest?”

“We’ve had some Asian girls assaulted in Queens over the last few weeks, one shot in the head in an alley,” Munch explained. “This fits the M.O.”

“It might if the killer read the papers,” Mulder said.

“Or,” Stevens countered, “if Gracia happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, and this has nothing to do with her father’s death.”

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Munch re-inspected Mulder. “Gee, man, you just look so familiar. You ever been in Baltimore? I used to work Homicide there.”

Mulder blinked, as if he’d recalled something. “I don’t recall.”

Munch snapped his fingers. “Yeah, it was some freaky government thing, all hush-hush. There were these three geeky dudes in a warehouse, and…” The detective trailed off suddenly with an amused grin. “Ah, must’ve been somebody else. Right, Agent Mulder, you say?”

“Yeah,” Mulder murmured, uncertainly. “Uh, excuse me — I want to brief my director on this new development.” The agent walked away, glancing backwards a few times as he unholstered his cell phone. He reholstered it as a distraught young man in a tee and sweatpants shoved a patrolman aside and rushed for the body.

“Malaya!” Louis Imperial screamed as he spotted her corpse. Munch and Mulder grabbed the marketer and pulled him back. Imperial dropped to his knees, kneading his hair with his fingers and keening like a wounded animal. Stevens dropped to her knees before him.

“Why was she here, Louis?” the cop prompted gently, squeezing his arm.

“She, we were, were…” Imperial swallowed, tears plopping into the alleyway dirt.

“Take a breath, Louis,” Stevens urged. “You were what?”

“You were going to elope, weren’t you?” Mulder interjected. “She was tired of waiting, wasn’t she? The killer’d kept you two apart long enough, and you couldn’t wait any longer. Somehow, she found out.”

“Mulder,” Stevens warned quietly. Imperial looked up, eyes shining in the police floods.

“What do you mean, kept us apart?” he gasped. “No, what does that mean? Somebody killed her to, to… Oh, God, ohgodohgod…”

“Mr. Imperial,” Mulder pushed. “You know something, don’t you?”

“Not now, Mulder,” Stevens said firmly.

“The temp,” the agent said. “Your regular secretary, is she Thai?”

Imperial’s head snapped up, eyes filled with horror. “Oh, Jesus. She wouldn’t have… She said…” The bereaved fiancé began to wail, his body shaking, and Stevens sprang to her feet.

She shoved Mulder against the backdoor of a dress shop with surprising strength. “I said, not now! He’s in shock!”

“They’ve been having an affair,” Mulder persisted, excitedly. “It’s how she knows the culture, how she knew the victims. The secretary’s ‘Ella.’”

“Later,” Stevens snapped, fixing him with an icy stare. “OK?”

The spell broke, and Mulder glanced guiltily at Louis Imperial, rocking disconsolately in the filth of the alley. “Yeah,” he swallowed.

Pete’s

Manhattan, New York

Friday, April 21

“Top me off, Pete, will ya?” Nichols called. The bartender raised a brow, setting aside his lemon and knife. “I’m walking, OK? Gimme a break.”

“I’ll see he gets home.” Nichols’s piano stool swiveled as Mulder settled in at the bar nearby.

“Just what I needed,” the cop moaned. “What do you want, Agent? I screwed up, OK? I should’ve listened to you.”

“Why?” Mulder smiled mournfully. “It was a wild-ass theory, this whole Filipino marriage thing, SUDS, sodium morphate. I had a feeling, was all. Just my day to have the right one.”

“I’d almost rather you rubbed my face in it,” Nichols groaned. He waved to Pete. “What’s your poison, you should pardon the expression?”

“I’m the designated driver, remember? Coke with a slice of lemon, please. Look, Detective — I’ve been on the carpet so often I’ve got rug burns on my knees.”

“Not the greatest analogy ever,” Nichols grunted, eyeing his fresh drink, then nudging it aside. “You don’t have to hold my hand, Mulder. “Stevens send you around to give me this little pep talk?”

Mulder laughed. “I think she’s beginning to like me as much as Det. Eames. No, I just thought maybe you could use a good reboot. I need you back in the game — homicide isn’t my forte. Besides, you told me something about this case seemed familiar. What was it?”

“Geez, Mulder, you should’ve caught me two beers ago,” Nichols laughed. “I don’t know. It’s like when you have the puzzle pieces in front of you, and you can make out some sky and part of Yankee Stadium, but you don’t have enough, I don’t know, context.”

“All right,” Mulder nodded. He grabbed a cocktail napkin, located a pen, and tore the napkin into pieces. He shoved the fragments in front of Nichols. “Write down the pieces of the puzzle. You said there was a Thai connection.”

“Yeah,” Nichols mumbled, accepting Mulder’s pen. After a beat, he wrote “Thai” on the scrap. Then he frowned and jotted a second note. “For some reason, the perp’s name, Ella, it seems connected to the Thai thing.”

“OK. What else?”

“How sure are you about this sodium morphate crap?”

“It’s a theory.”

“Well, it reminds me of something, a case a while back. I don’t think I was even involved, maybe something I read, saw in a casefile.”

“The case had a Thai connection?”

Nichols shook his head. “No, no. The cases were connected, though.”

Mulder nodded, encouragingly. “We showed Louis Imperial ‘Ella’s’ sketch, and it turns out to be his assistant, Karen Clemmons, 23, lives in Greenwich Village. Thai-American, despite the name. They’d been having an on again-off again affair ever since Ernesto Gracia’s death. I believe she engineered his murder along with Ramon Gracia’s. The first postponement weakened Imperial enough to cheat, but he was still committed to marrying Malaya. Ramon’s death was to buy her time.”

Nichols scowled. “Wait a minute. This is a 23-year-old secretary, and you’re trying to tell me she has access to classified poisons and worked this whole plot out in her head? Three murders, just to snag her man? Geez, sounds like that Texas cheerleader case a while back.”

“I don’t think you’re too far off,” Mulder said. “It’s like Sarit has a mentor, somebody pushing her to pursue Imperial, somebody who could come up with this convoluted scheme and convince her to kill to erase her competition for Imperial. Someone like…”

“Her mother?”

“Actually, her mother’s in the clear,” Mulder murmured grimly. “Sukhon Sarit Clemmons and her husband Gary were murdered 2 1/2 years ago in a fairly gruesome manner. The Shoreham police decided it was a home invasion — the stock drug-crazed kids — and closed the case with no arrests. Karen was away at the University of Virginia at the time.”

“Jesus,” Nichols whispered. “Sukhon. First-generation?”

“Gary was a businessman who traveled to Asia a lot. They married in the late ‘80s — Sukhon brought her infant daughter with her. Imperial told me Sukhon never discussed her past with Karen, was almost defensive about it.”

Nichols frowned. “You think it was a racket? Working girl blackmails the rich Americano into a trip to the promised land?”

Mulder shrugged. “I called the Thai officials, asked for anything they had on Sukhon. Probably won’t hear ‘til tomorrow.”

“So you’re saying, what? That somebody killed Clemmons’ parents and then talked her into committing four cold-blooded murders?”

“If Karen killed those men, and the person who murdered her parents is behind it, then they must have a powerful pull on her. I think it’s possible Karen’s ‘mentor’ decided to supplant her mother, to become her mother.”

“Mother-and-daughter psychos,” Nichols whistled. “And I thought Joan and Melissa Rivers were twisted.” The cop’s grin vanished. “There it is again — déjà vu. But not my déjà vu. Goren’s.”

“Bobby’s?” Mulder asked.

“When I first got assigned to Major Case, Eames told me about a case — a health inspector murdered in the projects. But that turned out to be just the tip of the iceberg.” Nichols rose from his stool, threw some bills on the scarred wood. “C’mon, I wanna check a few files back at the squad.”

Midtown Amsterdam Hotel

Manhattan, New York

Friday, April 21

“No one saw me,” Karen pledged. “There’ve been some attacks in the area — Asian girls. The cops probably think it’s the same guy. That’s what Lou said.”

The older woman raised a brow. “Louis? When did you speak with Louis?”

Karen was silent. Had she screwed up? “Mother” already seemed agitated about her removing that sanctimonious little bitch. “He, he called right before you got back. He was crying — the cops had just finished with him. Lou said this crazy serial killer must’ve mistaken her for a hooker. I particularly enjoy that.”

Mother shook her head, grinning nonetheless. “It was a very foolhardy move, my dear. But perhaps it will pay off. You’re the first shoulder he’ll lean on. But, Karen, my sweet?”

“Yes?”

“You mustn’t rush this. He’ll come around now, but we mustn’t raise suspicion. Do you understand?”

Karen sighed. “I guess.” A smile graced her pretty Asian features. “Thanks. I mean that.” She rushed forward and pulled the older woman into an embrace. Mother’s eyes welled, and she kissed the girl’s hair.

They both jumped at the knock. “Hello? It’s the housekeeper,” a youthful voice called timidly.

“Yes?” Mother responded, more harshly than she’d intended.

“I’ve got some towels, some extra towels.”

Mother rolled her eyes at Karen. “Leave them by the door.”

A brief silence ensued. “I’m really not supposed to. If somebody walks off with–”

“Oh, all right.” Mother released Karen and moved to the door, undoing the chain and turning the knob. She was propelled backward as the door swung open and a gun was thrust into her face.

“On the ground, both of you!” Det. Megan Stevens shouted. Karen Clemmons considered her options, then dropped to the carpet. Stevens moved to the girl as Nichols cuffed the older woman, covered by Mulder.

“Smart girl, using the throwaway cell phones with your ‘boyfriends,’” Nichols told Karen. “But we knew you’d take a call from Louis.” The cop looked down at the blonde in his grasp. “Nicole Wallace, you’re under arrest for conspiracy to commit murder. You have the right–“

Nicole Wallace, AKA Elizabeth Hitchens, smiled angelically as Nichols pulled her to her feet. “Damn,” she interrupted his recitation, coolly.

“What?” Nichols demanded.

“I was hoping it would be Bobby,” the blonde purred with a charming British lilt that momentarily chilled the detective’s blood.

“Little taken aback myself,” Nichols empathized, “considering you’re supposed to be dead.”

Major Case Squad

Manhattan, New York

Saturday, April 22

“Nicole Wallace,” Capt. Callas savored. “A legend in the annals of Major Case. Australian national. At least 19 kills to her name – pardon me, alleged kills – and she’s managed somehow to escape the needle every time. If Goren had talked that way, he’d probably have called her the one that got away.

“According to her file, Wallace likely was molested by her father. She first came to the attention of the international law enforcement community when she and a self-styled bon vivant named Bernard Fremont robbed and murdered eight men in Thailand. Fremont’s ‘other’ girlfriend ratted them out, and Wallace rolled on Fremont for a dime sentence in the women’s facility at Yard Lao. Not exactly a nurturing environment for a budding psychopath, though she did learn the Thai language for free.

“Thailand,” Nichols murmured as a piece fell into place.

“When she got out, she returned down under and began practicing the world’s oldest profession. Wallace gave birth to a daughter, who reportedly was swept out to sea when she was three. By sheer coincidence, a three-year-old skeleton turned up near the beach where she disappeared. Goren theorized that Wallace had come to view the girl as a sexual rival.”

“Jesus,” Stevens breathed.

Callas nodded darkly. “I won’t say it gets better. Wallace comes to the U.S. in 2002 under the alias Elizabeth Hitchens, somehow lands a job as a lit professor at Hudson. She gets involved in two murders on campus – all supposedly to get her lover an academic appointment – but all we could get her on was an Australian embezzlement charge, and she disappeared before we could serve the warrant.

“Skip forward. Wallace somehow lays her hands on some anthrax and uses it to frame a former government scientist. Goren presses the guy, who hangs himself in his shower, and Goren gets savaged in the press. Wallace shows up to gloat – with her new husband, Gavin Haynes.”

“The Gavin Haynes,” Nichols informed Stevens and Mulder. “Goren trips her up, but Haynes buys a good lawyer, and again, she wriggles off the hook. Then dumps her. When next we meet her, she’s heading up a diamond theft ring, along with – get this – a young Japanese-American girl named Ella Miyazaki. Who was also her lover.”

“Surrogate daughter,” Mulder profiled. “Except Wallace has a somewhat corrupted view of family.”

“Nicely understated, Agent,” Callas responded. “Miyazaki rolls on Wallace, agrees to wear a wire. Wallace crushes Ella the First’s trachea after trying unsuccessfully to kill Haynes. Again, she disappears into the ether. Eventually, Goren finds her setting up housekeeping with the brother of a homicide victim. The boyfriend’s daughter has some health issues, and Goren begins to think Wallace is feeding her estrogen to induce cancer. Turns out she thought her boyfriend was dosing the girl to grab a few million in trust money, and Wallace was trying to save her. Before we could get anything on her for the brother, she skipped with the girl. But she must’ve had a change of heart, because she dropped the daughter with an aunt in Arizona and called Goren to tell him he’d ‘stolen’ her last chance. The aunt was no help — she thought Wallace was a hero — and the next indication she’s still on the map is when her old cohort, Bernard Fremont, gets a hot hypodermic on a courthouse staircase. Goren was certain it was her.

“What I can’t figure out is her stake in this. There’s no real pot of gold here, especially now that Wallace or her protégé’s killed the golden goose. The bullet in the Malaya Gracia shooting wasn’t even the same caliber as the slugs in the previous street kills. Except, of course, we haven’t found the weapon either in Wallace’s hotel room or Clemmons’ apartment.”

“Wallace would have tossed the gun immediately, or had Clemmons dispose of it,” Mulder noted. “Nicole Wallace has the cunning of an organized serial: Meticulous planning, superhuman patience, attention to eliminating physical evidence and connections. At the same time, her motives and emotions are highly disorganized, almost childish. And I think that’s the key to this thing.

“I’m guessing the turning point was when she murdered her own daughter. The horror of the act struck home, at least on some subconscious level, and she had to escape, wipe the slate clean, create a new life. So she comes to New York as Elizabeth Hitchens, establishes academic creds, and finds a solid, human relationship. But then her sociopathic nature emerges, and it all falls apart — at Bobby’s hands. Worse yet, Bobby exposes her history of crime and degradation. She cultivates a relationship with Gavin Haynes — an even more conventional relationship with the added appeal of upper-class credibility and a chance at normal parenthood — but she has to bring Bobby down before she can move forward. Once again, she plots a brilliant frame-up, somehow gets her hands on a vial of anthrax, and makes Bobby look like a bumbler. But she can’t resist the temptation of letting Bobby know she’s responsible for her downfall. And that proves her downfall.

“Wallace loses Haynes and her shot at motherhood and normalcy, again at the hands of Bobby Goren. I think that unhinged her, destroyed whatever boundaries she might have maintained. She ‘adopts’ the first Ella as both her daughter and her lover. The lines between sex and familial love have become distorted as Wallace emotionally regresses. Then her daughter-slash-lover betrays her. That betrayal crushes her, and she strikes out at Fremont, who she sees as responsible along with her father for corrupting her — in a crowded, public setting.

“Then Wallace the Girl Who Wants to be Good goes through another metamorphosis, into the role of Mother-Protector. Somehow, she found out that girl was in danger, and she commits yet another murder, but this time to ‘save’ her latest ‘daughter.’ All she wants is to be the good mother, but once again, there’s Bobby to remind her that she’s beyond redemption, beyond a human existence. Every time Wallace struggles to create a new future for herself, she simultaneously tries to erase her past, whether it’s Bernard Fremont or Bobby Goren. I think this time, she decided to do both at once.”

Callas arched an eyebrow. “You want to explain that, Agent Mulder, or would you like to milk the suspense for another few minutes?”

“I threw around what little weight I have with the Philippine government,” the agent related. “After wheedling and begging and mumbling about Homeland Security, I found out who else was on the cell block when Nicole Wallace was doing her dime at Yard Lao.”

“Sukhon Sarit Clemmons,” Callas murmured.

Nichols grinned. “So who’s up for a road trip to Shoreham? Stevens, you bring the chips, and Mulder can entertain us with Bigfoot stories.”

“You’ll have to entertain yourself,” Mulder said. “It isn’t every day a female serial killer falls into your lap. Besides, I want to try to shoot down the 400-pound gorilla in the room — the one we seem to be avoiding.”

“What?” Stevens queried.

“Bobby’s mentor, Declan Gage, was involved in a demented scheme to ‘free’ him of his past. As part of his plan, he recruited Nicole Wallace to help frame Bobby for his brother’s murder. Except Frank Goren wasn’t murdered. Gage had lured Wallace in to eliminate Bobby’s chief nemesis — he mailed Bobby her heart. Which your M.E. positively identified as Wallace’s. I’m kind of weak on my criminal law. Does double jeopardy apply here?”

“Whatever the case, we have a live one right now,” Callas advised. “Nichols, Stevens — and this goes for you too, Agent — I just want to remind you that Nicole Wallace has gone four rounds in the box with Goren, and she’s still breathing free oxygen. She probably already knows Nichols’ favorite movie and Stevens’ shoe size.”

“What?” Nichols demanded, feigning offense. “You think the B Team’s not up to it?”

Callas smiled dryly. “You’re the A Team now, Detectives. What I’m saying is, polish up on your A-Game. And wear your shin guards.”

Home of Jeanne Ratner

Shoreham, New York

Saturday, April 22

“I never trusted her, and not for the reason you’re probably thinking,” Jeanne Ratner confided with a touch of defensiveness. Gary Clemmons’s bereaved sister poured three cups, then replaced the carafe in her high-tech coffeemaker.

“And what would that reason be?” Nichols inquired as the plump brunette placed his coffee carefully before him. Ratner settled in across the kitchen table, glanced quickly between her visitors, and clasped her hands on the oak as if she were preparing to impart state secrets.

“Gary was a heavy equipment salesman — construction equipment mostly. He usually went to Bangkok once a year to court new customers. Anyway. Gary always was, what would you call it today? A player. Never gave me details, but I heard him bragging to Jeff one night about Thai women, you know, what they could, uh, do.”

“I understand,” Nichols smiled.

“Yes. Anyway. It didn’t take long to figure out how he entertained himself on the road. Which worried me to death — AIDS was just getting going back then, and I was deathly afraid he’d catch it from some hooker in Thailand or Hong Kong. You want my opinion, he was the one got caught. You can imagine how surprised we were when he came home with a new wife — and little Karen. Gary said Sukhon was a business contact, somebody he’d met on a previous trip, and she was trying to raise the girl by herself. He didn’t fool me — when he introduced her to us, I could see she was sizing things up. I even tried to get Gary to make her take a paternity test, but he refused. He was in love. Over the years, it was Karen I felt the most sorry for.”

Stevens leaned forward, warming her hands with her cup. “Why was that?”

“Well, I had no doubt Sukhon blackmailed Gary into marrying her — probably threatened to tell his bosses he’d been charging sex on the company card. You could see the growing tension between them as the years went by, even though they publicly put on a good front for Karen. She was over here all the time, and by high school, she was practically raising herself. But she worked hard in school: Karen was constantly trying to achieve, I think to get Gary and Sukhon’s attention.”

Nichols and Stevens exchanged a look. “You remember anything unusual around the time your brother and his wife were murdered?” Nichols asked.

Ratner sighed. “The police insisted they were killed by a burglar, an addict, or something, but I always wondered if Sukhon’s past had come back to haunt her. They did entertain an old friend of hers one time — someone she’d apparently known in Thailand. A white woman, middle-aged but very pretty — I remember wondering where she and Sukhon ever hooked up.”

Nichols suppressed a smile at her unwitting pun. “Did you get a name?”

“Liz,” Ratner drawled. “Sorry — I was just over there to drop something off, and I never got a last name. But I can’t imagine she could have had anything to do with killing Gary. She was so polite, so civilized. Of course, anybody with that kind of accent seems classy, you know?”

“Accent?”

“Oh, didn’t I say? I think she was British.”

The Onshore Pub

Shoreham, New York

Saturday, April 22

“Yeah, Sue and Gary came around most every Saturday night for a few beers and the specialty du jour,” Len Graham nodded, hauling a keg of Sam Adams behind the bar. “That’s what we called her, Sue — Sukhon was a mouthful for most of the guys, and I always kinda figured it would make her feel more like one of the locals. She was friendly enough, but she never was too chatty, at least when Gary wasn’t around.”

Nichols leaned against the bar. “How often was that? When Gary wasn’t around?”

The restaurateur eyed Nichols, then laughed. “That didn’t sound real great, did it? You own a bar long enough, and everything you say starts sounding dirty. Naw, Sue never stepped out on Gary, least that I ever heard. There are a couple of Thai families in town, and every once in a while, she’d come in with one of the wives for a sandwich or a glass of wine or a beer.”

“She ever come in anyone else?” Stevens asked. “An attractive woman, white, probably blonde, British or Australian? This would have been around the time she died.”

Graham grinned. “Shit, yeah. She stood out like a sore thumb, sitting there with shy little Sue. Every male eye in the joint — and my lesbian cook’s — was locked on her when they came in, and she had my afternoon guy stammering. Turned it on and off — one minute working Greg into a frenzy, the next yammering away at Sue.”

“What about?”

“Don’t ask me,” Graham shrugged. “Greg said the hot blonde seemed pissed off. And every time he got close, they’d switch to the mother tongue.”

“Mother tongue?”

“Sue’s mother tongue. I mean, I guess it was Thai. All Greek to me. I just figured they were catching up on old times.”

“Or something like that,” Nichols suggested.

Major Case Squad

Manhattan, New York

Saturday, April 22

“Well,” Nicole smiled sweetly. “You must be the infamous Fox Mulder of the Bureau. The Fox on the prowl, eh? Am I your prey du jour, Fox?”

“Close enough,” Mulder said, returning her smile as he slipped into the chair across from the seductive serial killer. “Long as we’re being familiar, mind if I call you Nicole?”

“Oh, please. Though I am curious — aren’t you a little out of your territory here? I thought you were all about hobgoblins and fairies and the like.”

Mulder’s grin widened. “Something like that. I’m also a behavioral scientist, as I’m sure you know.”

“Damn,” Nicole purred, looking over Mulder’s shoulder into the two-way mirror. She’d declined counsel — so far. “There goes my omniscient mystique. Yes, I have read of your early exploits. You were quite the fair-haired boy with the Bureau at one time, weren’t you? What happened, Fox? Was it that agent being shot as you polished your sidearm? Because we can all have a bad day, can’t we, now? Or was it simply when you started chasing wraiths and ghoulies? I imagine that raised a few brows at the Bureau.”

“Let’s just say I’m not part of the Director’s ‘Five.’”

“Ah, there’s that Fox Mulder humor. It’s so nice that you can view things with such fine spirits. Your career hasn’t precisely rocketed off, has it? And then, of course, there was poor Samantha.”

Mulder had steeled himself — if Wallace was seeking an Achilles heel, it would be his sister’s disappearance and his obsession with uncovering the truth of her fate. He leaned back, waiting patiently.

“Lonely little boy; brilliant father — now, those must have been some boots to fill; your sister spirited off in the night by, what, little green men? You and your darling sister were alone at home that night, weren’t you? You probably don’t have much memory of what actually transpired that night, do you? Blocked it out, eh?”

Despite his preparation for Wallace’s emotional games, Mulder felt a rush of fury behind his eyes. She actually hadn’t been the first one to suggest Mulder had had some sinister role in Samantha’s disappearance. She’s playing you, and doing a good job of it, he reminded himself.

Nicole’s eyes softened with mock sympathy. “Ah, but I’ve touched a raw nerve, haven’t I, Fox? Let’s not talk of such sordid matters. Obviously, you’ve suffered more than your share of personal and professional traumas. It’s astonishing you haven’t cracked under the pressure, like poor Agent Patterson. Oh. I’d forgotten about your little scrape with the courts. Are you still in therapy? Say, maybe some time on the couch will help clear the cobwebs about what really happened to young Samantha. I mean, if you truly wish to remember.”

“Let’s talk about you for a while.” Mulder had intended a casual transition to regain the upper hand. Instead, it sounded terse, evasive, desperate.

Nicole bit her upper lip and stared at Mulder for a moment. “Nope. I think I’d prefer to talk to Bobby, if you don’t mind, Fox. That’s a dear.”

Mulder smiled, managing to make it to the door without stumbling. Callas was on the other side of the mirror, with a sympathetic expression that made things even worse.

“She’s good,” the agent admitted, weakly.

Shoreham Police Department

Shoreham, New York

Saturday, April 22

“Textbook meth massacre,” the Shoreham chief insisted, the back of his oak office chair nearly touching the veneer paneling behind him. Above his head, the portly small-town cop pumped Ed Koch’s hand in grainy black and white. Nichols couldn’t make out the scrawled platitude in the lower right corner of the cheaply framed photo.

“Caught ‘em in their sleep,” the chief continued. “Could’ve turned around, maybe cleaned out the place before they ever woke up. But he went to town on Gary and Sue with an aluminum bat. Meth head — hadda be.”

“Kinda awkward weapon, though, for some hopped-up druggie,” Nichols suggested. “No gun, no knife? He’s hauling his club around the house like Derek Jeter warming up?”

The chief’s smile froze as his eyes frosted over. “Don’t know — I’m a Mets guy myself.”

“And you never found this guy? Meth head, I’d think the house woulda been lousy with prints, trace.”

The cop stood. “Look, I got a lot to deal with today — I don’t need you metro assholes slumming around here, calling us a bunch of hicks.”

“Was there an autopsy?” Stevens asked. “The violence of the murders could’ve been to mask some other murder method. Our suspect would have wanted this to seem like a random felony homicide. Was an autopsy done on either victim?”

The chief formulated an answer, knowing he’d screwed up. “Look, this guy broke almost every bone in their bodies. Cause of death was obvious. You don’t believe the evidence, then you toddle back to the city for a warrant and a couple shovels.”

“Sure,” Nichols grinned. “If that’s what you want. But this case we’re investigating, it’s got CNN written all over it. You want a piece of that? Those detectives out in Boulder, the ones on the Ramsey case, what do you think they’re up to these days? Horrible, what a swarm of media leeches can do to a good cop who makes one mistake. Maybe we can do a quick exhumation and correct this little error under the radar. What do you say, Chief?”

The chief dropped back into his chair, chewing the inside of his cheek. “Coroner’s usually at the course afternoons,” he finally mumbled, “but I think I got his cell somewhere here…”

“You don’t mind,” Nichols said, “we’ll take this one to go.”

New York County District Attorney’s Office

Manhattan, New York

Saturday, April 22

“Let me see if I’ve got this straight,” District Attorney Jack McCoy drawled, the lines of his Lincolnesque face deepening into amused crevices. “We’re going to ask a jury to buy that these two women murdered six people, including the girls’ parents, so what, true love could take its course? That two of these murders were dressed up to look like a home invasion, and three others like Filipino voodoo killings? That the suspects used some untraceable CIA poison? Not to mention your M.E. confirmed that your perp has been dead for more than a year. What else do you want, Captain — wine from water?”

Callas knew going in this was going to be a crap shoot — McCoy was a rebel, had been known to bet on some pretty dark horses, bend the rules in the name of the improbable. But after Arthur Branch left the DA’s office to pursue some fairly lofty political aspirations, McCoy had entered the belly of the Beast, and he might now not be so willing to jab it with a stick.

“Nicole Wallace has at least 20 murders on her card,” Callas nonetheless persisted.

“Alleged murders,” McCoy corrected, leaning back, interlocking his fingers behind his head. “Even worse — it looks like a vendetta. She’s repeatedly made fools out of your squad, especially Bob Goren, who’s not exactly jury-friendly. And your boy Nichols? I’m not sure what a jury would make of him.”

“I’m aware you and Nichols have had your differences,” Callas responded, realizing immediately it was a mistake. McCoy’s eyes fired.

“My relationship with Zach Nichols has no bearing here,” the DA snapped. He sighed. “Look, I’d love as much as you to put this psychopath away for the next few centuries, Captain. But I’m not going to do it with this convoluted fairy tale you’ve brought me. We’re going to need a straight-out, black-and-white confession, or plead out the one to get the other. My recommendation would be the girl. There — you’ve had the benefit of counsel. For what that’s worth.”

New York Police Department Medical Examiner’s Office

Manhattan, New York

Tuesday, April 25

“The local coroner — is he the town butcher or something?” Rodgers asked, tossing the Clemmons report on the steel table between her and the detectives. “The lack of any defensive wounds alone should have raised a red flag.”

Mulder frowned. “They were dead before they were stabbed.”

“Or close to it. They’d both suffered severe cardiac trauma prior to death, though I haven’t yet been able to pin down the possible cause.”

“Sodium morphate,” the agent concluded. “That’s the link with the Gracias and Tapang.”

“Great,” Nichols grunted. “The poison that leaves no trace. That wraps up another one.”

“Scully’s looking into where Wallace might’ve come up with the sodium morphate. We know some, ah, experts in this sort of thing. We know she was able to lay her hands on anthrax — she must have some pretty deep global connections.”

“I don’t see Clemmons laying her hands on sodium morphate,” Stevens considered. “So did Wallace supply Clemmons with the poison, or was this Wallace on her own? I mean, you suggested she was trying to replace Sukhon Clemmons as Karen’s ‘mother.’ If Karen doesn’t know Wallace is implicated in her parents’ murders…”

“Then we oughtta be the ones to break the news,” Nichols said grimly.

“Speaking of which,” Rodgers sighed. “After you arrested Wallace, I went back to the samples we took from that heart Declan Gage sent Goren. DNA came up a match. Again. So then I went back in, a little deeper, and I found slight differences. I’m not trying to excuse myself, but it’s not too surprising we were fooled. The genetic alleles are nearly identical when–”

“You have twins,” Nichols whispered. “Sure, sure. Nicole’s always had an almost supernatural ability to slip out of our grasp, to seemingly be more than one place at once. She probably wasn’t her father’s only victim. What a bond that must’ve created. And what a threat, in Nicole’s diseased mind. She finally must have fed her to Gage, to get rid of her last rival for her late father’s affection, the mirror image that reminded her of her sociopathic nature. Plus, it would’ve been an ideal way to lead Bobby off her trail. Gage probably had no idea.”

“Unless the one we got’s the sister,” Stevens suggested.

Nichols unsheathed his cell phone with a grin. “I gotta call Fox — he’s gonna love this.”

Major Case Squad

Manhattan, New York

Tuesday, April 25

Karen Clemmons’ eyes widened, then roamed the room as Nichols advanced his theory. The eyes then narrowed.

“She wouldn’t have done that,” the young woman finally murmured

The cop leaned back in his chair. “That all you’ve got to say? She helped you poison three men, maybe pushed you into killing Malaya Gracia, and you don’t think she could’ve slaughtered your folks?”

“There’s nothing in that entire sentence that has any basis in proven fact,” Clemmon’s attorney admonished. Nichols gave her a disgusted look, then shoved a sheaf of photos across the interview table.

He tapped the top shot, of a heartbreakingly small skeleton on an autopsy table. “You see that, Karen. That’s Nicole’s ‘first’ daughter. Three years old. When she became a threat, your surrogate mommy murdered her and threw her in the ocean.”

Karen sneered. “She told me how you tried to frame her when you couldn’t get anything else on her. And my parents were killed by an addict or burglar. Not that…”

Nichols regarded her curiously. “Not that what, Karen? Not that they didn’t deserved to be cold-bloodedly murdered in their own home? What poison has she filled your head with? Don’t you think they deserved better?”

“What about what I deserved?” Karen erupted. The attorney placed a hand on her arm.

“What you deserve?”

“Karen,” the lawyer cautioned pointedly.

Stevens picked up on Nichols’s cue. “Louis told us all about your relationship. How he ended things to recommit to Malaya. Wow, that must’ve been devastating.”

Karen stared at the table for a second. “Well, yeah, of course, though I’m not sure ‘recommit’s the right term. Cultural guilt, maybe — it wasn’t precisely a pre-arranged marriage, but his parents were always kinda fundamentalist, you know? Marry your own kind? He loved me — I know it — but the pressure was just too much for him to bear.”

“So the only way you’d ever wind up with Louis was if Malaya were out of the picture?”

“You make me sound like that woman in that Michael Douglas movie.” No outright denial, Mulder reflected from behind the two-way glass. “If I’d had time, it would’ve been me.” She caught her slip, and fell into a silent sulk.

“You mean, if Louis and Malaya hadn’t decided to skip town together?” Nichols prodded. “That when you kicked Plan B into action? Not quite as subtle as a nightmare cocktail, but just as effective. Don’t feel bad – Nicole’s been killing probably since you were born.”

“Then why isn’t she in prison?” Karen challenged.

“Give us time,” Nichols murmured. “In the meantime, hold tight.”

“She’s not going to give Wallace up that easily,” Stevens concluded as they joined Mulder in the dim adjacent room. “She hardly seemed phased that Wallace murdered her parents.”

“That’s it,” Mulder murmured. “That’s the bond. Their common bond.”

“What?”

“That’s what spurred Wallace to kill her parents, to take their place, to ‘adopt’ Clemmons. And why Karen’s so loyal to her. Nicole gave her what she ‘deserved.’”

“Imperial?” Nichols asked.

Mulder shook his head. “Revenge.”

**

“Karen?” Stevens asked gently as she took her seat at the interview table. “Your aunt said you had a difficult time at home, growing up.”

“It was all right.” Karen’s eyes were guarded.

“You hadn’t been back to see your parents for years before they were killed. All that hard work, studying? It wasn’t to get their attention, was it?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” The girl’s face was stone, but moisture was welling in her eyes.

Stevens reached across the table and placed her hand over Karen’s. Karen stared down, seemingly in horror.

“You wanted your freedom,” the cop whispered. “From them. From him.”

The orphaned woman began to shake, trying to yank her hand away.

“When did he start abusing you, Karen?”

“No…”

“Karen, when did it start? Did your mother know?”

“Stop it.”

“Did she even try to help you? Stand up to him?”

“NO!!” Karen screamed, knocking her chair over. “He treated her like his slave, and she just let him! And she let him, let him…” She was beginning to hyperventilate. “I was glad when I heard they’d been put down, OK?”

“When Nicole put them down?”

Karen looked down at Stevens, her red eyes suddenly alert. She picked up her chair and sat back down, primly, beside her attorney.

“Bullshit,” she said calmly with a disturbingly Wallace-like smile. “The police said it was an intruder. A meth head.”

**

“Hey there,” Nichols grinned as he entered the room, tossing his notes on the table.

Nicole Wallace peered up from below with a mad Mona Lisa smile. “Hey.”

The detective, in shirtsleeves, inspected the “alleged” serial killer as he loosened his tie. “They taking good care of you?”

“Adequate,” Nicole murmured. “How sweet of you to ask. Where is that pretty little partner of yours, Michael?”

Nichols’s grin grew. “Ah, I sent her off to check out a witness or something. Just the two of us.”

“How delightful,” Nicole purred, eyes sparkling. “You know, I was looking forward to catching up with old times with Bobby. I was sorry to hear what happened to him. His demons finally must have feasted on his soul.”

“Very colorful — Hieronymus Bosch meets Dante.”

“Ooh, a smart one,” Nicole murmured. “Well, I imagine it must be challenging to fill Bobby’s size 13s. Although I’m sure that with your lineage, you must have been buried in dusty old volumes. And possibly a few demons, as well? I mean, growing up with two shrinks? A father like W. P. Nichols. He lives just a stone’s throw from here, doesn’t he?”

Nichols leaned back and smiled. “Stevens, my partner, thinks you singlehandedly murdered that couple out in Shoreham and put some kind of voodoo spell on Ramon Gracia and his family. All so you could help some girl find the love of her life.”

Nicole laughed lightly. “Like some sort of homicidal Cupid.”

“I was thinking Aphrodite,” Nichols chuckled. Nicole’s brow rose, and she nodded approvingly. The detective riffled through a folder. “See, the problem is, there is a lot of circumstantial evidence piling up. Like you and Karen Clemmons. What’s the deal there, anyway? I read about Ella. You occasionally like something a little more exotic?”

Something cold flashed across Nicole’s dark eyes and then disappeared just as quickly. “Now you are being the naughty one. I had known Karen’s mother during my youthful travels, and when she died tragically, I wanted to see if there were anything I could do for the poor girl. We’ve wound up being quite good friends.”

“Real Housewives of the Thai Correctional Ministry,” Nichols nodded. “Karen with you the night Malaya Gracia got shot?”

“As a matter of fact, yes.”

“At your hotel?”

Nicole paused as the dark thing again crossed her face. “Karen was upset about her employer. They had had a rather ill-advised relationship, and when he cast her aside, she began to fear for her job. Horrible thing, harassment, isn’t it, Zachary? That pressure from someone more powerful, more influential, more intelligent? Of course, I needn’t tell you, eh, Zach? Your father, I mean.”

Nichols smiled broadly. “I’m having a moment of nostalgia right now. But let’s talk about your dad. I understand he was no walk in the park, either.”

Nicole leaned in toward the cop, eyes half-closed, dreamy. But her body had tensed. “Bobby and I already had this conversation, only with much more nuance and technique. You and Bobby were probably quite the fast chums, comparing psychoses and neuroses and casefiles. It must have been quite painful when the great Bobby Goren left his pale protégé to hold down the fort. Isn’t that the Yank aphorism?”

The detective’s expression had darkened, though the smile remained pasted in place. “Something like that.”

Nicole’s eyes grew wider as she gently touched his hand with a soft, warm finger. “Oh, my. And then to have your dear friend Danny gunned down like some addict in an alley.”

Nichols’ hand twitched back, as if it had a life of its own. The smile flickered.

“I understand the man who murdered him is scott-free, living richly in his own land. Diplomatic immunity. The laws of your country are strange, sometimes unjust, hmm, Zachary? This man puts down your friend, your partner, like some cur in the street, and even his best friend isn’t able to bring him to justice. It must haunt you–”

Nichols’ chair upended as he leapt up. “You… You won’t be as lucky, Nicole.” He started to say something else, then took a breath, gathered his papers, and strode silently out the door.

A knot of detectives at the end of the corridor looked up warily as the door slammed into its frame. Stevens and Mulder were leaning on the opposite wall.

“How’d it go?”

Nichols’s face relaxed into a boyish grin. “Like a charm.”

Stevens crossed her arms with a frown. “You OK?”

“Please. You should’ve been at the last Passover seder I spent with my folks. I should’ve sent Dad in there.”

“So what’s next?” Mulder asked.

“I need a couple of favors,” Nichols said. “Number one, I want to see if Sukhon Clemmons reached out to any friends or family. You may need your phone card for this one.”

“OK. What else?”

Nichols looked back at the closed interrogation room door. “Nicole the Nymphette knows too much about our playbook. Men are tools, playthings, or pawns to her — Mulder and I aren’t going to get anywhere. Stevens is single, attractive — no offense, partner. That merely makes her competition — Nicole’ll have her guard up. If we’re going to bring our A-game, we need to bring in a ringer.”

**

“Where’s the other one?” Karen Clemmons asked warily.

The lawyer scanned Nichols. “You supposed to be the bad cop?”

Nichols waved her off. “I borrowed Stevens’ good cop badge for the afternoon. I just want to have a little heart-to-heart with your client.”

“What about?” the attorney demanded.

The cop fixed her with a lupine grin. “Maybe about how she oughtta consider the wisdom of sharing counsel with a career psychopath. That wouldn’t comprise — what do you call it, Counselor? — a conflict of interest?”

“You want her to roll on Wallace?”

“I’d like you to give us a few minutes of peace and quiet, Counselor,” Nichols sighed. The attorney settled back, frostily. “Karen, Stevens told me you’ve been through a lot, especially with your dad.”

Karen inhaled slowly. “That’s ancient history.”

“Is it, Karen? Cause I want to tell you about my mom. The only guys we had around our house after Pop split were Jack Daniels and Johnny Walker. I was in grade school, she used to send me down to the corner liquor to bring ‘em home. She’d beat me with one hand while she held a Rosary with the other, then get all sloppy tearful about the bruises after she’d sober up. Started taking out my frustrations on the court at Our Lady of Mercy, least until Father Joe decided I needed some laying on of hands. Tried to tell my mom what had happened, and she walloped me as she screamed scripture in my face. I can still smell the cheap scotch.”

Karen studied the cop. “No bullshit?” she asked, almost inaudibly.

“No bullshit,” said Nichols, praying that, wherever his predecessor Mike Logan had landed, he’d forgive him for stealing his childhood drama. “I hated her, and the next time I go into a church, it better be in a pine box.”

“What’s the purpose–?” the attorney began. A look from Nichols silenced her.

“I always thought she was crazy because she was drunk, but now I realize my mom was a drunk because she was crazy. When I failed, she beat me black and blue. When I did good in school or won a tournament, I could count on her showing up three sheets to the wind to embarrass me.”

“I’m sorry,” Karen murmured. “I really am.”

“I know,” Nichols said. “I know what your dad did to you, and how it must’ve seemed like your mother just sat back and let him. But she’s crazy, Karen — Nicole’s crazy. And she’s brought it into your life now.”

Karen looked at the ceiling as tears formed in her eyes. “She loves me. She understands what that bastard did. She tried to help me get past it.”

“By murdering your family? By making you a killer?”

“Karen–” the lawyer cautioned.

“You,” Nichols growled. “Shut up. Your lawyer here, she’s trying to protect Nicole, not you. And Nicole? What do you think will happen if she thinks you’re a threat, if she thinks you’ve betrayed her?”

“She wouldn’t do that,” Karen sobbed.

“You think she’s your protector, your avenger? I want you to see something.” Nichols slid a faxed sheet across the table. “We got in touch with your mother’s family back in Thailand. You never knew your Aunt Jantira, your mother’s sister, did you? Well, it turns out your mom kept in touch from time to time, whenever she could get to the public library or use a friend’s laptop. I had this translated.”

Karen began to shake as she picked up the e-mail.

“Dearest Sister,” it began in Thai. “The time’s come — we have to get away from him. It was a mistake, and I’ve learned he has done terrible things to Karen. I haven’t been able to put away much money — he controls my life. But I have enough to get to New York, and if you can forgive me and send me enough money, we can come home. If you cannot do this for me, please help save your niece. If I can’t escape him, I will kill him, and then Karen will be raised by strangers who will do God knows what to her. Please. Sukhon.”

“Oh, God,” Karen whispered.

“Nicole didn’t kill your mother to protect you or punish her for letting you be abused,” Nichols said gently, retrieving the e-mail. “She wanted you — she wanted the daughter she’d been cheated out of time after time. The daughter she’d killed and thrown into the ocean years ago. And she betrayed her surrogate sister — your mother — just like she betrayed her biological sister. To get you.”

“I can’t believe this…”

“Karen, was it your idea or Nicole’s to call you Ella when you approached those men?” The lawyer started to speak. “Never mind — I think I know. You know where that name came from? Let me show you.”

Nichols passed the photo — of an attractive young Japanese girl — to the sobbing girl. “That’s Ella — Ella the First. Nicole seduced her away from her parents and then killed her with her bare hands when Ella tried to trap her into a confession. Is this your dream mother, Karen?”

Karen looked into Nichols’s eyes pleadingly, then at her attorney.

“He’s playing you, Karen,” the lawyer said.

“Am I?” Nichols asked Karen.

“Karen…”

“Get out of here,” Karen told the attorney, staring at Nichols. “Now.”

**

“Zachary,” Nicole gasped, feighning dismay. “You brought reinforcements. Did I frighten you that much?”

“Your protection, not mine,” the cop growled as Stevens took her seat. “Where’s your lawyer? Or did she quit when she found out she’d only get paid for one killer?”

The murderess beamed. “I don’t particularly care for lawyers — they tend to interfere with the fun. However, she did mention that you’d somehow convinced Ella to employ separate counsel. Divide and conquer, Zach? Really. What did you do, ply your superficial charms? Or did you bring out the rubber hose?”

Teeth showing, Nichols tossed the e-mail at Nicole. Without touching the sheet, she scanned it quickly, then looked up with an incredulous shake of the head.

“Really, Zach. Who wrote this? This sweet little child here? Or some departmental multilinguist? I can understand that poor frightened girl falling for this, but please…”

Nichols grinned. “It was enough to plant some doubt. It won’t be too long now ‘til it hits home just what she’s done — what you made her do. Then I think a deal will look pretty sweet to her.”

“You imagine me to be quite the Svengali, don’t you?” Nicole tsked.

“Did Sukhon Clemmons know what Ella’s father did to her?” Stevens interjected calmly. “She was a foreigner in a small town, dependent on an abusive husband, probably scared to approach the authorities. Did she really turn a blind eye to Ella’s abuse, or was she too scared to know what to do?”

Nicole’s eyes turned to Stevens, black and blazing. “They always know. The only fear is the idea of surviving alone. In the end, a child’s life doesn’t seem that huge a tradeoff.”

“Are you talking about Ella’s mother?” Stevens asked. “Or yours? Did she look the other way as he used you, or did it just keep him away from her? That’s why you killed your own daughter, wasn’t it?”

Before Nicole could reply, the door to the interview room opened. Nicole stared mutely at Stevens as Capt. Callas leaned in. “Detectives, a moment, please?”

“What?” Nichols demanded. “We’re kinda in the middle of–”

“Actually, you’re done.” An attractive redhead pushed past the captain, trailed by Mulder, who shrugged at Nichols and Stevens. “The Bureau has some questions for Ms. Wallace. About some interstate activity in which she’s been involved and the acquisition of a biological agent we’ve traced back to her.”

Nichols whipped around to Callas. “What is this? We collar her, and the fibbie here breezes in and takes over?”

“Nichols,” Callas snapped. “I assured the agent here we were more than willing to cooperate.”

“There’s no ‘cooperation’ involved here,” the redhead said coolly. “National security supersedes this lunatic plot Agent Mulder has dreamed up. This is a Bureau investigation now –a legitimate Bureau investigation.”

“It’s about the anthrax, isn’t it?” Nichols laughed harshly. “She made you people look like a pack of cub scouts, too, didn’t she? This is payback, right?”

“Captain,” the redhead prompted, consulting her buzzing cell phone, snapping it shut irritably, and tossing it onto the table.

“Agent, we do have a series of murders here,” Mulder pleaded.

“I talked to AD Skinner,” his colleague informed him. “You can go home now. I’m sure you have a lot more ‘intriguing’ cases waiting.”

“C’mon, Captain,” Nichols roared.

“Nichols.” Callas’ voice was subarctic, and his eyes glistened with frost.

“Nichols,” Stevens implored. Her partner threw his chair back, nearly colliding with the redheaded agent as he stormed from the room. Stevens looked at Nicole before following him out with a reluctant Mulder. Callas pulled the door shut.

“All right,” the redhead sighed. “Ms. Wallace, what was your relationship with Dr. Daniel Croydon?”

“That poor delusional man Bobby drove to despair?” Nicole smiled sadly. “I never met him. Of course, I don’t expect you to believe me.”

“How about Connie Matson? She was a nurse with the Air Force Anthrax Immunization Program. We have it on good authority she was involved in a relationship with another woman who disappeared shortly before Croydon was erroneously accused of stealing several grams of anthrax.”

“That excite you, Agent? You seem like a very ‘aggressive’ woman.”

The agent flashed her ring finger. “I’ve got all the excitement I need, Wallace. But thanks.” Her cell phone began to vibrate, skittering across the interview table. She pointedly ignored it, and it eventually stilled.

“Connie Matson,” the redhead repeated.

Nicole raised an eyebrow. “So hard to remember. I’ve had so many women. And men. I so admire someone who can be content in a monogamous relationship. Imagine, one man for the rest of your life.”

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“Let’s focus,” the agent commanded, a bit more loudly than she’d intended. “I’m not some New York civil servant just waiting to put in his papers. You’ve upgraded from murder suspect to a federal person of interest. You want to fuck with me, we can take this to the next level.”

“Guantanamo?” Nicole’s eyes glittered. “Abu Gharib? You Americans, your precious land of the free.”

“Listen, Wallace…” the phone began to jitter again, and the redhead finally snatched it, glaring at the screen before angrily punching a button. “What? I thought we’d talked about this. What? Hell, I don’t know.” She glanced fleetingly at Wallace. “Not. Now. You hear me? Just tell her I’m on a business trip. Sorry, tell her life’s a bitch sometimes.”

The agent ended the call abruptly, deactivating the phone and stuffing it into her bag. “Let’s talk about where you’ve been the last two years.”

“It must be rough,” Nicole murmured. “Trying to balance a career, a marriage, and children. How many soccer matches and school plays have you missed while chasing miscreants, Agent?”

The redhead folded her hands before her with a pleasant smile. “Yes, please, Ms. Wallace. I’d love some child-rearing advice from a babykiller.”

Nicole’s smile vanished. “That was an accident.”

“Of course. What was it with Ms.–” the agent consulted a folder before her — “Ms. Miyazaki? You slip and crush her windpipe, accidentally? I’m freaking Mother of the Year compared with you, Wallace.”

“Why? Because you tuck the little angels in with a perfunctory cell phone call every night or work a little extra overtime so you can afford a good day care to ship them off to?”

“You psychotic bitch,” the young redhead said through her teeth. “You wouldn’t know the first thing about what I’ve sacrificed for my kids.”

“Sacrifice?” Nicole laughed harshly. “You have no idea what true sacrifice is. What it means to risk everything for your child?”

“Your child’s dead,” the agent stated flatly.

“No,” Nicole shouted, gripping the table. “Ella — Karen. You ask her what I’ve sacrificed!”

“What? Her freedom? She killed four people for you.”

“For me? You stupid, blind–”

“What the hell sacrifice have you ever made for anybody?”

Wallace came to her feet. “I saved her! He took it from her, and I gave it back!”

“What?”

“He wasn’t interested in Sukhon any more. She was an old whore. Ell-, Karen, was young, pretty. Mother told me — I mean, Sukhon told me…”

Nicole blinked, looked sharply at the redhead as if she’d eavesdropped on a long-lost secret. The agent merely stared, expectantly, as the interview room door opened.

“That what it was, Nicole?” Nichols asked, pushing the door shut behind him. “Evening the score with your dad? Penance for your little girl? It never really did have anything to do with Karen, did it?”

“It was all for her,” Nicole whispered. “Everything.”

Nichols sat down across from her. “Is that true? Cause let me lay it out for you. The DA doesn’t think we got a case against either of you for the Gracia brothers and the cousin. As for the Clemmonses, well, that went down as a robbery gone bad, and we can’t find any evidence to the contrary except a couple of half-ass IDs from Clemmons’ sister and a bartender. That brings it down to Malaya Gracia. Karen did that one alone, didn’t she? Without your brains behind her, I’m willing to bet we’ll come up with a witness, some ATM video, something to nail her, sooner or later.

“So, the question is, what’s it going to be, Nicole? I think we can get Karen a deal, but she isn’t going to give you up. She thinks what you did was for her. You willing to show her how a mother sacrifices? The ultimate sacrifice? What’s it going to be?”

**

“I’ve got a hinky feeling,” Special Agent Dana Scully muttered. “You better not throw away the key quite yet.”

“Same old Scully,” Mulder sighed as he watched two uniforms escort Nicole Wallace toward the elevators.

“We appreciate the assist, Agent Scully,” Callas said. “Although I suspect you enjoyed pushing me around back there a bit too much. I just hope her confession sticks.”

“I think it will,” Mulder offered. “This is her vindication, her last stand. Maternal martyrdom.”

Zach Nichols laughed, bitterly.

“What?” Mulder asked.

The cop stared reflectively after the serial killer. “Mother of the Year. Better call Mom, let her know she’s out of the running.”

Renzler-Tate Sleep Study Institute

Arlington, Va.

May 6

“It’s inconceivable,” Max Renzler breathed, his clammy fingers running in endless loops through his gray curls. “We just had the equipment checked out last week. I’ll have Nancy, the office manager, get the paperwork. This is, this is…”

“Yeah, inconceivable, got it,” Det. Jerry Sangster grunted, staring for the umpteenth time at the poor bastard in the bed. Creeped him out, the vic all wired up, black eyes wide and dead and full of frozen terror, hair as bone-white as his feeble old Aunt Fay. Wished the ME’s people would show, get the guy the hell out of here.

“Look, Doc,” the cop smiled uneasily. “Case like this, the M.E.’s gotta do a post-mortem, make sure nothing funny happened. But my guess is you’re gonna come out OK. Guy was Asian, right? Philippines, maybe?”

Renzler glanced nervously at the file. He’d only met the subject post-mortem – he had three clinics, for God’s sake. “Ronald Timba. Thirty-three – referred for possible sleep apnea, I dunno – one of the nurses is Filipino, I could ask her if the name’s familiar. Why the hell’s that matter?”

“I read about this thing, sudden unexpected death something, some kinda nightmare death thing happens to Filipino guys. Case in New York last month, that importer guy, they found him like this in some motel. Faith Yancy did a whole show on it. My guess, your patient Freddie Krueger-ed out in the middle of his study.”

Renzler was annoyed by the metaphor, but he was beginning to see some light at the end of the tunnel. “I appreciate it, Detective. You’ll be in touch?”

“Betcha, handle it myself,” Sangster nodded. “ME’s people oughtta be here in a while. Later.” The cop saluted and disappeared into the sunlight of the parking lot.

“OK,” Renzler swallowed as he looked to his ashen-faced manager behind. “I think it’s going to be all right – I gave him the EKGs, the EEGs, the EMGs, everything, but I didn’t mention the video. C’mon.”

The monitoring room was behind a quartet of one-way mirrors, softly-lit and subdued save a bank of four computers video-linked into the four sleep stations. Sindy, the Filipino nurse (third-generation Virginian, not one of those New York troublemakers on the news, Renzler had reflected), was staring into one of the PC screens, the pale blue light casting her anxious features in an eerie aura.

Renzler moved behind Sindy’s shoulder, peering at the .mpeg footage for the fifth time.

Ordinarily, Renzler-Tate’s productions would put a Stage Four insomniac into a coma. Six or seven hours of rustling sheets, twitching legs, mumbled incoherence. Netflix had never expressed interest.

This one was different. “Here it comes,” Sindy whispered. “Jesus,” Renzler exhaled.

She was huge, wrinkled, old beyond geriatric terms. The door to the station was within camera range; she appeared to emerge from an unseen corner of the room. The woman – if you could call her that – was substantial but somehow insubstantial, incandescent somehow.

“Could we be, I don’t know, intercepting a signal from somebody else’s TV or PC?” Renzler whispered hopefully. Sindy was rapt, scarcely breathing.

She flickered in and out of reality as she approached the bed. Even from an overhead angle, Renzler could see a broad, curious grin spread across the hag-ridden, eternal face. He unconsciously backed up, eyes nonetheless transfixed on the screen. She reached Timba’s bedside; the subject continued to slumber, even with a half-dozen electrodes affixed to his face and body. The woman stared down, that horrible grin spreading as she inspected the sleeping man. Then, as nimble as a child crawling into her parents’ bed to stave off further nightmares, she climbed atop Timba, seemingly without disturbing any wires or adding any weight to the mattress. As she settled into place, Timba’s arms began first to twitch and then to flay. His fingers curled into the sheets, and Renzler jumped as he started to gurgle.

“Turn it off,” Renzler gasped. Sindy stared at the screen; the doctor reached in and turned off the monitor with a trembling finger.

“Batibat,” Sindy breathed.

“What?” Renzler demanded, swiping the sweat from his broad forehead.

“Bangungot,” the nurse whispered.

“Thanks for explaining,” Renzler muttered.

*end

Compos Mentis

16x09cover

Compos Mentis

Author: Starfleetofficer1

Category: X-file

Rating: PG-13

Summary: The agents investigate a crime spree where children are the apparent culprits.

Disclaimer: Two weeks exclusive with VS16. No copyright infringement intended.

Original web date:23/04/2010

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Compos Mentis

OSBORNE ELEMENTARY SCHOOL

SEWICKLEY, PA

WEDNESDAY, FEBRUARY 20th, 2010

0300

Charlie Rueben stuck his gloved hands into his winter coat pockets, and stood on the worn-out blacktop. The ice had melted, but he knew it was going to get cold again tomorrow. He looked around, waiting for his friends.

They approached one by one, from different directions. Around the teacher’s parking lot, from the soccer field, and one from over the fence directly behind him. The four stood on the blacktop for a moment, not speaking, until nine-year-old Lauren Marks said, “You ready, Charlie?”

Charlie nodded. The ten-year-old was the leader of this group. Although Meg was older than he was, at age twelve, she hadn’t been chosen. And no one questioned it.

“Willie will be here soon,” Charlie said, looking at his watch. “Anyone have any problem with their parents?”

“Mine were asleep,” Lauren volunteered.

“Mine were asleep, too,” Meg said.

“Mine were awake but their door was closed,” eight-year-old Sam added.

They were silent for another minute, bouncing on their heels in the cold weather. Finally, Charlie looked at his watch again. “Where is he?”

“He’s supposed to be here,” Sam said.

“If he’s supposed to be here, he’ll be here,” Meg told them. They all knew she was right.

“Hey, did you watch the Fairly Oddparents last night? Wasn’t that funny?” Lauren asked.

Charlie nodded, and laughed. “When Cosmo and Wanda take Timmy to the moon…that was great!”

“Houston, we have a problem,” Sam quoted.

“Problem, problem, problem. All you ever talk about is problems! Don’t you ever just call to say ‘Hi’?” Meg recited, and then giggled.

They all giggled, actually. And before they knew it, seven-year-old Willie Howell walked onto the blacktop.

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“Willie, it’s about time,” Charlie scolded.

“I’m sorry,” Willie stated.

“Where were you? Parents?” Meg asked.

Willie shook his head. “No, not parents. I fell asleep.”

“You fell asleep?!” Sam exclaimed. “You’re such a baby!”

“Am not! I was tired!”

“Shut up, both of you. We have work to do,” Charlie said. “Everyone’s here. Let’s go.”

They nodded, and approached the elementary school. They didn’t speak from that moment on.

Charlie pulled out a lock picking kit and picked the outer lock to the building. It wasn’t alarmed. Nothing in the tiny Sewickley borough was alarmed. They walked easily to the principle’s office, where they picked another lock, and yet another. They were careful not to take their gloves off, or touch anything they didn’t need to.

Charlie was the first in the principle’s office. He handed the heavy desktop CPU to Meg, who set it down by the door. Then Charlie and Sam picked the lock on the file cabinets and extracted the files of eight random children, and put them through the shredder.

Meanwhile Lauren and Willie smashed personal effects, pictures and knick-knacks, until the office was ransacked. Then they nodded to each other, grabbed the CPU, and walked out of the office. They closed the doors behind them, tossed the CPU in the dumpster, and headed in their separate directions.

“See you next time,” Charlie said cheerfully.

“Bye, Charlie! Bye everyone!” Willie said as he took off in the opposite direction.

“See ya, man!” Sam said, and crossed the street. Meg crossed with him, and waved.

Lauren gave Charlie a high five and took off down the dirt path that led to her house.

Little Charlie was by himself as he walked home, but he didn’t mind. He smiled happily. That had been fun. Next time would be bigger.

XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX

J. EDGAR HOOVER BUILDING

WASHINGTON, DC

FRIDAY, FEBRUARY 22nd, 2010

1000

Mulder tossed another sunflower seed shell into his garbage can as he read the report in front of him. His feet were up on the desk, and he leaned back in his chair, in his usual comfortable position.

He glanced up from his report repeatedly, expecting Scully to be back from the meeting any second now. He looked at his watch. Yeah, any second.

Finally, the door opened and Mulder’s feet were down instantly.

She looked at him with surprise. “Happy to see me?” She asked with a smile.

Mulder grinned. “I’ve got something to show you.”

“Oh, I know you do,” Scully said playfully, approaching him, and giving him a hug. “But that wouldn’t be appropriate at work.”

Laughing, Mulder pulled gently out of the hug and said, “Then later, definitely.”

She grinned. “Sorry I had to run out on you this morning.”

“No, it’s fine—how was the meeting?”

“I would have been more excited if they had made us memorize twenty different kinds of lint in four hours.”

“I was under the impression you liked early morning pathology conferences, Agent Scully,” Mulder said, still smiling as she sat on the edge of the desk. He took a seat in his chair.

“Not when they’re given by someone as animate as a corpse. But anyway, what’s this you want to show me?”

“You remember Sewickley, Pennsylvania?”

“This isn’t another leprechaun sighting, is it, Mulder? Because I’m not going back there to hike in the woods in the freezing cold,” Scully said as she picked the file out of Mulder’s hands, and started paging through. “On my birthday,” she added.

“Not to worry, no leprechauns in sight this time around. Sewickley’s population is 3,902. Yes, we’ve seen smaller. But we’ve never seen safer. Check out those crime statistics from three weeks ago.”

“That’s remarkable. The worst thing that’s happened in this town in three years is four teenagers getting busted for possession of marijuana. Mulder, that was two years go. This is impressive.”

Mulder smiled that knowing smile he always gave her when he knew something, and she was about to find out. “Turn the page.”

Scully complied, and stared at what she saw. “Three break-ins, one assault…all since Wednesday.”

“Odd, don’t you think?”

“Yes. Considerably.” Scully closed the file. “But how is this an X-file?”

“The first crime was a simple break-in, into a principle’s office at the local elementary school. They caused some damage and stole a computer, later found in a dumpster, completely destroyed as if it had exploded. No one saw anything. The second was a video store break-in. No video camera in the store, unfortunately. At least not one that worked. It looked like it had caught fire in some kind of electrical short. Every DVD was knocked off the shelves, and the computer monitor was smashed. The windows were also broken. The third was a stabbing. And here comes the X-file. Darrel Wade, 42, was stabbed outside a 24-hour drug store in downtown Sewickley very early two mornings ago.”

Scully opened the file again, and looked at the contents.

“Darrel plays baseball in his spare time. He’s a healthy, 6’3”, 200 lb man. He works at the Eckerd as a pharmacist. He was on his way to his car when assailants lured him to the side of the building, away from the security camera, knocked him to the ground, and began stabbing him. They stabbed him five times before they left. A fellow employee going outside for a cigarette break found him, and called 911. He’s listed as ‘in critical condition’, but he woke up yesterday. And you know what he said?”

“Children,” Scully read.

“Yes. Five small children were to blame,” Mulder said. “And they weren’t even caught on tape—that’s how careful they were. They lured him by voice out of the security camera’s range, and then tackled him. Tell me, Agent Scully, how five small children, all under thirteen, he said, attacked a 200 lb man by themselves?”

“Did they threaten him? Say they’d stab him unless he got down on the ground?”

“Not according to him. He says they all tackled him. Jumped him at once.”

“I don’t know, Mulder…but it seems like this isn’t an X-file. This is just a case of some juvenile delinquents.”

“There’s more. Take a look at the crime scene photos.”

Scully did. And there was a symbol carved into the principle’s door, so that one could see through to the other side. The same symbol was carved into the door to the back room in the video shack. And Darrel Wade’s thigh showed the same, very deep yet very meticulously carved symbol. It was the Nazi swastika.

“Tell me if you think a small child is capable of that.”

“Maybe they had help.”

“Darrel says he saw it appear on his leg before he lost consciousness. None of the children did it, but as soon as they left, it appeared. He saw no one else that night.”

“No adults.”

“None.”

Scully sighed, and closed the file. “When do we leave for Sewickley?”

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SEWICKLEY MUNICIPAL BUILDING

SEWICKLEY, PA

SATURDAY, FEBRUARY 23rd, 2010

0900

“I’m sorry for your inconvenience, but no one’s gonna be back until Monday.”

Mulder and Scully stared at the woman who had to be at least eighty, wearing a police uniform behind the glass at the police station. “We were told we were supposed to speak to a Sergeant Hanes this morning. In fact, we did speak to Sergeant Hanes this morning. He told us he’d be here when we arrived,” Scully offered.

“Billy never was good at scheduling,” the woman muttered as she flipped through a scheduling book that looked like it was from 1970. “See, now, dears, you’re right. He’s put you down for a 9 o’clock appointment. But I’m afraid he’s gone. His mother Gracie, well she’s been ill and he’s gone to the hospital to see her. He must be terribly distracted.”

“Is there someone we can speak to?”

“The Chief’s always gone home on weekends, unless there’s an emergency, and…well, I suppose I might give Edward a call.”

“Thank you, Ma’am,” Mulder said, not bothering to ask who ‘Edward’ was. Talking to someone was certainly better than talking to no one.

In a few moments, a uniformed man about Mulder’s age walked out, flashed them a toothy grin, and said, “Sergeant Edward McDonald.” He shook their hands, and Mulder gave him a quick smile, hoping maybe he could wipe that annoying grin off the man’s face.

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“I’m Fox Mulder, and this is Dana Scully. We’re here with the FBI, investigating the stabbing that occurred three days ago. Mr. Darrel Wade.”

“Of course, of course. Why don’t you two come into my office, get some coffee, and we can talk. I’ve got the case-files already pulled up…big deal, you understand.”

“In a small town like this with crime statistics as low as they are, I’m surprised more people aren’t working this weekend,” Scully said as she followed him through the door and back to his office.

“Well, just because the crime statistics don’t show much, it doesn’t mean we aren’t busy people. Very busy people,” Edward said. “It’s all the Chief can do to take the weekend off—sometimes he shows up in the middle of the night after being called out of his bed.”

“We’re familiar with the concept,” Mulder said dryly. Clearly, this man had no idea what being busy was actually like.

They sat down across from the Sergeant’s desk, and he pulled the file up on the computer. “All right, the crime scene photos, the reports…you’ve got all of that?”

”Yes,” Scully stated before Mulder could make a smart comment. What did this guy think, anyway? They had heard about the case on the news and flew in just for fun? Maybe he knows Mulder’s reputation for doing just that, Scully thought humorously.

“So…what do you two think?” Edward asked.

Scully raised an eyebrow.

“We’d like to visit the victim, go over some school records, and try to pinpoint which kids he’s accusing of the crime before we make any conclusions,” Mulder said. “But we came here to get your insight on the case, and hopefully get a look at some of the evidence collected from the crime scene.”

“Well, these things don’t happen too often, Agent Mulder…you have to understand, it’s hard for us to draw instinctive conclusions on something like this.” He stood up a little straighter. “But me personally? I think it’s one of those neo-Nazi groups, brainwashing our kids and making them do this stuff.”

“You say ‘one of those’, Sergeant…what exactly do you mean by that? Are there neo-Nazi groups in the area?”

“No, no Ma’am, of course not. But you hear about them on the news. They spread like wildfire, brainwashing kids as they go—if one of them got into Sewickley, it’s our duty to get rid of them.”

“How many people have moved into Sewickley that weren’t here before, in the past couple of months, Sergeant?” Mulder asked.

Edward shrugged. “I suppose…not many. Maybe one?”

“So do you think it’s a safe assumption that no extremist group has moved into Sewickley? That if it was a neo-Nazi group, it would most likely be composed of current residents?”

Edward frowned at Mulder. “I guess so…that would make sense.”

“Do you believe the children were capable of carving the symbols through the doors and into Mr. Wade’s skin?” Scully asked.

Edward shook his head. “No, absolutely not. That door was at least two inches thick, and made of solid oak. Old door, too. Been there since Osborne Elementary was built. Then there’s the video store—those kids couldn’t have drilled through a storm cellar door.”

“Storm cellar door?” Mulder asked.

“The video store houses one of four storm cellars we have in the town, just in case of a micro-burst. You only have a few minutes to get somewhere.”

“Micro-burst?” Mulder asked.

“We get ‘em here in Sewickley pretty often, during the summer,” Edward explained.

“A micro-burst is a very short, but very powerful storm,” Scully offered. “It’s common in some parts of the country, but others never see them. And there’s no real explanation as to why.”

Mulder nodded, and turned back to Edward. It was time to get back on topic. “Would the children have been capable of carving the symbol into Darrel Wade’s skin?”

“Not unless they had either amazing dexterity or some kind of branding device that also cut through the victim, because that cut was too deep and too precise for that.”

“So the children can’t be responsible for the symbols, and it’s possible that the children attacked Mr. Wade but had nothing to do with the other crimes,” Scully offered.

“Well…I never thought of that…” Edward said, and began to stare off into space.

Mulder glanced at Scully. Was this guy for real? “Sergeant,” he pulled the man’s attention back to Earth, “Do you have some evidence for us to examine? From the three crime scenes?”

“Yes, of course I do. You can follow me,” he offered, and stood up. He led them out of his office and to an elevator that took them one floor down, to the evidence lab. It was small, and consisted of a couple of computers, a scanner, a fingerprint area, and a large shelf with rows and rows of boxes. With this town’s crime record, Scully thought, most of the boxes were probably filled with evidence far from current.

“Right over here,” he said. He pulled a small box with no tape on it from a shelf, and handed it to Scully. Scully carried it to the table and laid it down, and then opened the lid. Inside evidence bags were some wood shavings, some metal shavings, and some crime scene photos they already had. Also enclosed were pictures of the destroyed electronics at the scenes.

“This is it?” Mulder asked.

“Well, yeah. I mean, we collected the shavings at the foot of the two doors, and we didn’t lift any prints from any of the scenes. No weapon was left at the scene of the stabbing. And all the destroyed machines were ruled electrical fires, unrelated.”

“I’ll examine the shavings and see if I can match any tool marks,” Scully said skeptically, and then turned to Mulder as she put the evidence bags back in the box. “But it doesn’t look good.”

“Why don’t you see what you can do about that, and I’ll go to the elementary school.”

“No one will be there. It’s Saturday,” Edward said. “Sorry, Agent.”

“Do you have the name of a school secretary?”

“That’d be Ms. Mesko. She’s the school secretary. She’ll be home, absolutely. She doesn’t have a family—I’m sure she’d be happy to come in and let you into the school.”

“Could you give her a call?” Mulder asked nicely.

“Absolutely. I’ll go do that.”

Edward left, and Mulder turned to Scully. “How do five children all under the age of thirteen manage to leave no fingerprints if they’re at a crime scene?”

“They wear gloves. It’s cold this time of year,” Scully answered, studying the photos in the box.

“Kids take their gloves off the second they get in a building. Why weren’t there fingerprints left in the school, and the video store?”

“We don’t know if the kids are to blame,” Scully reminded him. “We have no confirmation of what Darrel Wade said.”

“Maybe we should go see him, then. Get some confirmation.”

“It’s better than this alternative,” Scully said, looking hopelessly at the filings. “I’ll do my quick analysis and then head to the hospital.”

“I’ll go to the school. See if Ms. Mesko can pull up some records.”

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OSBORNE ELEMENTARY SCHOOL

SEWICKLEY, PA

SATURDAY, FEBRUARY 23rd, 2010

1000

Ms. Mesko was about five feet tall, maybe shorter. She had to be about eighty or so, and had told Mulder that she had been the only secretary at the school for fifty years.

“I know all the students’ schedules by heart. It’s a small but successful Blue Ribbon School. Who is it you’d like to meet, Agent Mulder?” She asked through sixties’-style glasses.

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“I was hoping I could look through the disciplinary records,” Mulder said. “See if any troublemakers could be to blame for the stabbing.”

“We have one troublemaker. Jared Taylor,” she said as if she was talking about a hardened criminal. “Mrs. Woolsey’s third grade class. Six detentions last month, alone,” Ms. Mesko said, easing into her secretary’s chair as Mulder leaned against the desk in the front office.

“Does Jared have any friends?”

“No, that boy is a loner if I ever saw one. He comes in here, pants down by his ankles, shirt three sizes too big for him, sits down, all defiant and such…it’s a shame to see a child go to such a waste. He’s one of the ones who are bused in,” she said with certain distaste.

“Bused in…you mean from another school district?”

“Of course. Sewickley’s got a reputation for raising our children well. It’s only the ones who are bused in that cause the trouble. The other cities want to give their children opportunities to go to a Blue Ribbon School. And this year, that’s Jared Taylor.”

“Where does Jared live?”

“He lives all the way over in Emsworth, if you can believe that. On the outer edges of town. And they still bus him in.”

“What kinds of things has Jared done, Ms. Mesko?” Mulder asked politely. Her dislike for this child was evident, but there seemed to be a certain sympathy there as well.

“He hit a child on the playground earlier this year. He’s locked his Spanish teacher in her classroom. George had to come let her out…”

“George?”

“Our janitor.”

“I see. Ms. Mesko, has he done anything…criminal?” Mulder asked. He was beginning to think his potential lead was crumbling under his feet. Locking a teacher in a classroom was hardly convincing four other children to stab an adult.

“Criminal? What do you mean, Agent Mulder? He’s eight years old.”

“Any hate crimes? Racial slurs toward other children?”

“He called his Spanish teacher a…Agent Mulder, I don’t normally let these words fall from my lips…but just to repeat, you understand. He called his Spanish teacher a cracker.”

“I see,” Mulder said. It was looking more and more like these children were innocent. Of course, that warranted further investigation.

“If you’d like, I can show you his records.”

“That would be great, Ms. Mesko. And any records of children who have served detention or faced suspension or expulsion in the last year or two.”

“Agent Mulder,” Ms. Mesko looked shocked, “This is a Blue Ribbon School. There are none of those children here. Even Jared would never go that far. He has, by far, served the most detentions, but he has never faced suspension or expulsion. And none of our other children have, either.”

“Well,” Mulder started, trying to continue being polite, “How many children have faced detention in the last year or two?”

“Six. Six children in all, three this year, three last year. And the worst has been Jared, of course, but Sally Winnebaker comes in a close second. She flicked a rubber band at a poor little boy’s ear.” Ms. Mesko shook her head, as if it were a heinous crime. “And served two day’s detention.”

Mulder tried not to roll his eyes. “Do you think maybe I could just see a yearbook? And take it with me? I’ll bring it back.”

“Well, all right,” Ms. Mesko said, and got up slowly from her chair. She shuffled over to a bookshelf filled with yearbooks and pulled the correct one. Then she handed it back to Mulder. “There you go, Agent Mulder. I hope you don’t truly suspect children of stabbing poor Darrel?”

“We’re investigating all avenues, but it’s looking unlikely,” Mulder admitted, taking the yearbook from her.

“I should think so. Especially at a Blue Ribbon School.”

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SEWICKLEY VALLEY HOSPITAL

SEWICKLEY, PA

SATURDAY, FEBRUARY 23rd, 2010

1030

Mulder had never seen a town so easy to navigate. Going straight down the same road as the school for one mile took him into downtown Sewickley, and then one quick turn brought him to the hospital. It was a small hospital but regionally renowned as one of the best. Healthcare in the Pittsburgh area was extraordinarily good, and Mulder half expected Sewickley Valley to be labeled a Blue Ribbon Hospital.

He found Scully in Darrel Wade’s room fairly quickly, and entered silently. She was still questioning him.

“Mr. Wade, are you Jewish?” Scully asked just as Mulder entered the room.

“Yes, I converted to Judaism during college. That’s why they did this to me—this is a hate crime.”

Scully nodded slowly. “Did the children say anything to you?”

“No, they just jumped me. Didn’t say a word.”

“And you did not see them carve the symbol onto your leg.”

“No, they were gone when it appeared. Agent Scully, I’m not makin’ this up. I don’t know how they did it, but they did it.”

“Mr. Wade, my name is Agent Mulder. I’m Agent Scully’s partner. Would you be willing to look at last year’s yearbook from Osborne Elementary School and see if you can identify the children who attacked you?”

He nodded from the hospital bed, and Mulder handed him the book. He began paging through, looking at photos of happy children doing volunteer work, raking leaves, having a field day out in Osborne’s field, and putting on a Christmas play. Finally, he got to the class pictures. He paged through Kindergarten, and then stopped at first grade. “There,” he said, and pointed, fear in his eyes. “That’s one of the little monsters.”

Scully wrote down the name on her pad. Willie Howell.

Going to the second grade class picture earned them another two names. Sam Witherborne, and Lauren Marks. Fourth grade gave them Charlie Rueben. And the fifth name couldn’t be found in the elementary school book.

Scully was very surprised that in such a fast and brutal attack, Darrel was able to identify nearly all of his assailants. When she asked, though, he responded, “You don’t forget those faces. So blank…so…unlife-like. It’s almost like they didn’t know what they were doing.”

“Did they communicate with each other, Mr. Wade? Make eye contact with each other, any kind of attempt to give instructions?” Mulder asked, intrigued by the fact that all five children seemed dispassionate.

“No, they didn’t,” Darrel answered. “They didn’t so much as look at each other. They knew exactly what they were doing, and didn’t need to talk about it.”

“Would you say the fifth child was older or younger than the ones you identified here?” Scully asked.

“Older. A little taller than that…Charlie kid.” He shivered despite his visible efforts to control his voice. “Tell me there’s not some kind of sociopathic epidemic going through Sewickley? It’s a small town—it wouldn’t take long to spread.”

“I’m unaware of any such sociopathic epidemic, Mr. Wade,” Scully said. “Crime waves are usually brought on by an action, some kind of wrong. Something that creates a lot of passion in people.”

“Did the children look unusual, Mr. Wade?” Mulder asked.

“What do you mean?” Darrel asked.

“Did anything about their appearance strike you?”

“No,” Darrel said, confused. “Other than the fact that they all were staring at me blankly…like they weren’t even seeing me.”

“Did their eyes change color?” Mulder asked.

“What kind of question is that? You think they were demon-possessed or something? What kind of federal agents are you people?”

Scully glanced at Mulder, and Mulder shrugged. “I was merely concerned about the possibility of this being chemically induced. The altered appearance of the human eye is often an indicator of drug abuse.”

Nice save, Mulder, Scully thought wryly.

“No…” Darrel said, still clearly confused. “None of that. Normal kids, dressed in winter clothes…attacked me out of thin air.”

“All right, Mr. Wade, thank you. We’ll let you get some rest,” Scully said, and stood up. Mulder followed her out of the room, but not before handing Darrel his business card in case he thought of anything else.

When they were in the hallway, Scully turned to Mulder. “You’re thinking demon possession, telepathic or telekinetic remote control, or possibly some kind of government experiment creating violence to spawn in elementary school children in this particular town?”

Mulder stood, dumbfounded. “Scully…”

“I know, I know, marry you,” she joked, and started walking toward the elevator. Mulder had no choice but to follow.

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HOWELL RESIDENCE

SEWICKLEY, PA

SATURDAY, FEBRUARY 23rd, 2010

1130

When they rang the doorbell, Mr. Howell was the one to answer. A little boy about seven years old, who matched Willie Howell’s yearbook picture, ran right into his father’s back side as he chased his younger brother through the house with an inflatable sword.

“Willie! Watch where you’re going!” His father corrected.

Willie shouted, “Okay!” as he continued to chase his brother up the stairs, and around the corner, out of sight.

Mr. Howell turned to the agents. “Can I help you?” He was about Mulder’s height with dirty blonde hair kept very neatly cropped. He wore a golf shirt tucked into khaki pants, and tennis shoes.

“We’re agents Mulder and Scully with the FBI,” Mulder introduced, producing a badge. “We’re in town investigating the stabbing of Darrel Wade, from the pharmacy. May we come in?”

“Of course,” he said, looking very confused. “I’m unsure why a local stabbing is an FBI matter, though…”

“We investigate unusual cases, Sir,” Scully explained. “And the circumstances surrounding the stabbing are very unusual. If it’s all right with you we’d like to discuss this.”

“All right. I’m unsure how this concerns me, though…”

They walked into the family room and took a seat on the couch. “Can I offer you anything? Coffee, water?” Mr. Howell asked.

“No thank you, we’re fine,” Mulder answered. He pulled out a picture of Darrel Wade and showed it to the man. “Do you recognize this man?”

“That’s Darrel Wade. He’s been the pharmacist for years now. We heard about his stabbing on the local news.”

“That’s correct. Mr. Wade recently woke up and he claimed that he was attacked by five small children. We presented him with a yearbook from Osborne Elementary school, and he was able to identify some of the children,” Scully began. “Mr. Howell,” she said gently, “your son was among them.”

Howell raised his eyebrow, and folded his arms. “You must be mistaken. Willie is a very timid child, he’s a model student, and he has a seven-thirty bedtime. He’s seven years old.”

“As we stated before,” Mulder began, “We investigate unusual cases, Mr. Howell. We understand the impossibility of a small child accomplishing the crime that was committed. Mr. Wade had a deeply-inscribed Nazi swastika carved into his leg, and several other swastikas have appeared at crime scenes in the past few weeks. The initial conclusion of the Sewickley PD was a hate crime, committed by group of adults. But with Mr. Wade’s stabbing, and his implication of four very specific children, we have to investigate other possibilities. Mr. Howell, is Willie ever alone with any adults from school?”

“Willie’s schedule is like most seven-year-olds’. He gets up, he goes to school, he goes to soccer, he comes home, goes to bed at seven-thirty. He’s a normal child, Agent Mulder,” Howell said. His tone was picking up, becoming angrier.

Scully tried a different approach. “Is there any chance that Willie might have been influenced by someone? A group of teenagers, a soccer coach…maybe even someone from a religious organization?”

“Willie is never alone with any adult. He’s either with his team or with his class or with us. And if you’re trying to imply that my son or my wife and I are racist, anti-Semetic or something—”

“We’re not implying any such thing, Sir. We’re merely trying to investigate the crime,” Scully said immediately. “May we speak with Willie?”

“Only if I’m present.”

“That’s fine,” Mulder said with a smile.

Howell got up cautiously and walked to the foot of the stairs. “Willie! Brad! Come down here please!”

The two little boys ran down the stairs, still carrying their inflatable swords. Brad was probably about four years old, with freckles and very blonde hair. Willie looked like an older version of his little brother.

“Willie, there are some people here who would like to speak to you. Brad, why don’t you go play on the computer?”

“Okay,” Brad said, and climbed on a stool in the kitchen, where the computer was. He began to play a Nick Jr. game, while Willie followed his father into the family room. “These are Agents Mulder and Scully, Willie,” his father said gently. “And they’d like to talk to you.”

“Hi,” Willie said shyly.

“Hi, Willie,” Scully said, smiling at the child. “Why don’t you have a seat next to your dad?”

When they were seated, Mulder leaned forward and asked, “Do you like to play outside, Willie?”

Willie nodded. “With my friends,” he said.

“I’ll bet that’s fun. Who are some of your friends?”

“Jack and Ryan and Katie,” Willie said. “They come to my birthday parties.”

“That’s good,” Scully said with a smile. None of them matched the names Wade mentioned, though. “Willie, what kinds of things do your friends and you play?”

“We play video games. We play basketball, and soccer. And we play pretend.”

“What kinds of things do you pretend?” Mulder asked.

“Lots o’ stuff. Like cops an’ robbers, and house, and school.”

“Do you and your friends ever play in the dark, Willie?” Mulder asked him gently.

Willie shook his head emphatically. “No! We’re not ‘apposed to go outside when it’s dark. Plus, the dark is scary. I have a cool night light. It’s a soccer ball. It makes me feel better when it’s dark.”

Mulder smiled. “Do you know what a religion is, Willie?”

Willie nodded. “Yep. It’s what kind of God you believe in. I got friends with lots o’ different religions. Like Ryan, he’s Hindu.”

“I’ll bet it’s interesting to learn about different religions,” Scully offered.

“Yeah, I like it,” Willie said.

“Do you know anyone who’s Jewish?” Mulder asked him.

“No, nu-uh,” Willie said. “I know a kid in my class who is, but I don’t play with him.”

“Is he not a nice kid?” Mulder asked.

“I dunno, I just don’t play with him.”

“Who are you talking about, Willie? Ben?” Mr. Howell asked.

Willie nodded. Mr. Howell turned to the agents. “Ben is one of the bused kids. He lives too far away for play dates.”

“I see,” Mulder said. “How large is the Jewish population in Sewickley?”

“It’s not extremely large, but it’s not in the single digits either, Agent Mulder. Are you finished questioning Willie?”

“I think we are for now,” Scully answered for him. “Thank you, Willie.”

“You’re welcome,” Willie said automatically, and got up, took his inflatable sword, and left.

“May I use the restroom, Mr. Howell?” Mulder asked.

“It’s right around the corner, next to the basement door,” Howell said. Mulder got up and left, as Scully tried not to eye him suspiciously.

“Mr. Howell, may I ask what religion you follow?”

“No, you may not. That’s personal and trying to pin a racial crime on me will get you nowhere. This interview is over. As soon as your partner gets back from the restroom, I want you both to leave.” He stood up, and walked to the front door. Scully followed with an inaudible sigh, and a few moments later, Mulder appeared in the hallway.

“Thank you for your time, Mr. Howell,” he said, and extended his hand.

Howell didn’t take it, but instead opened the door. “Goodbye, Agents.”

When the door was shut behind them, Mulder said, “You gotta love the friendly attitude of small town citizens of America.”

Scully rolled her eyes. “So what did you take, Mulder?”

Mulder turned and looked at her. “Take? Are you suggesting a federal employee would illegally obtain evidence without a warrant?”

“What did you take, Mulder?” Scully repeated, more firmly.

“Nothing, actually. I went to the bathroom, took a quick look at the basement, and came back up. Looks normal to me. Boxes, a tool bench, a furnace…give me an hour and I’ll find you something but two minutes…”

“He only became hostile after I asked him what religion he was. I think he’s hiding something.”

“It’s possible. But I want to question the others first.”

They got in the car, and Scully drove to the next residence. On the way, Mulder commented, “It’s normal for the people to be nervous when the first major crime in two years happens, especially when everyone knows everyone else.”

“But it’s also normal for guilty people to act guilty.”

“I don’t think the parents are guilty. At least not Howell.”

“You can’t possibly think that little boy is responsible?”

“No. Willie has no idea what’s even happened, and if he does, he’s about as sociopathic as they come. I think there’s something else at work here.”

They pulled into a driveway, and Scully said, “Lauren Marks, next on the list. Let’s see if you’re right, Mulder.”

“I’m always right,” Mulder argued.

“But you weren’t driving,” Scully said with a smile, and got out of the car before he could respond.

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SEWICKLEY COUNTRY INN

SEWICKLEY, PA

SATURDAY, FEBRUARY 23rd, 2010

1600

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They had questioned everyone and come to the same conclusion as they had when questioning the Howells. The parents present weren’t guilty and the kids were clueless. They managed to get the fifth name from the middle school yearbook, when they visited Darrel Wade again. Megan Siposki. And after questioning the Siposki’s, they determined that the twelve-year-old was equally as clueless as Willie Howell had been.

“So what do you think, Mulder? Are they receiving signals from their television sets, are they doing the bidding of some evil, telepathic force, or are they all sociopathic Anti-Semetists?” Scully asked, flopping down on her bed. Mulder’s room had been the dumping ground for his luggage but nothing more. He now sat in Scully’s lounge chair as he fingered the remote control and contemplated turning on the television.

He shrugged. “This doesn’t fit the profile for any of that, actually,” he said. “In most telepathic control cases we’ve seen, the controlled parties are troubled by certain questions, or at least all have something in common. Howell was unwilling to answer about his religion. Megan’s parents readily volunteered that they were Catholic. Lauren’s parents are different religions, and Charlie’s parents are agnostic. Sam’s parents have tried to convince him to come to church with them but he’s totally unreceptive. All five of them have different socioeconomic backgrounds, different nationalities, and different intelligence levels. There are no common factors such as a learning disability, a dietary restriction, any health issues, or anything academic except they attend public school. The only public school in the neighborhood.”

“What about the fact that none of them are bused in?”

“Not many kids are bused—that’s statistically probable that none of the five would be bused in from other neighborhoods.”

“So why doesn’t it fit the sociopathic Anti-Semetist profile?” Scully asked.

“C’mon, Scully, you saw those kids. None of them acted the least bit sociopathic. The only one we could argue for is Willie, and I doubt he was an act—just a little child who didn’t know anything. The rest gave away information that they probably didn’t want to, information that’s probably going to get them grounded. Do you go outside at night when you aren’t supposed to? Yes, I do.”

“What if that was an act?”

“I seriously doubt it. There’s something else here…and it’s not something we’ve seen before.” He turned on the television, and the weather was on.

“It is possible that we just haven’t asked them the right questions yet. That they will slip and say something they didn’t mean to. There’s also the possibility that Darrel Wade is lying. That these children had nothing to do with it and he premeditated naming them as the assailants.”

“The question would become, why would he want to do that, and who really attacked him,” Mulder said as he watched the meteorologist drone on about a cold front.

“They’re not in the same extracurricular activities, and they haven’t been with the same coaches or teachers in the past. Only two of them had the same teacher.”

“They’ve all lived here their entire lives—none are newcomers,” Mulder said. “That’s a commonality, but not one that’s particularly unusual in this town.”

Scully sighed. “Maybe we should go ask the leprechauns if they know.”

Mulder chuckled. “I don’t think Fin would mind a return visit, Scully. I promise not to get shot this time.”

“Like I haven’t heard that before,” she said, rolling her eyes.

“Shannon might make you a birthday cake.”

“Is this your idea of mooching off of leprechauns so you don’t have to bake?”

“Never, Scully,” Mulder replied with mock seriousness.

The television switched to sports, and Mulder listened to the announcer rave about Sidney Crosby, bringing in the Penguins’ latest victory.

“I think I’m gonna check the kids’ medical records. See if they all see the same doctor,” Scully said, standing up. “Will you be here, wasting time?”

“I’m not wasting time,” Mulder argued as he watched Sidney slapshot the winning goal in a replay. “I’m doing important research.”

“I’ll see you later,” she said, still smiling as she grabbed the keys to the rental and headed for the door. She knew he was thinking about the case, profiling in his head, and not really watching the television. She would most likely return to find the room covered in yellow paper, with his notes scattered around like a micro-burst had hit the small space. “I expect a full report on Patrick Kane and Sidney Crosby when I get back,” she said before closing the door behind her.

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HOWELL RESIDENCE

SEWICKLEY, PA

SATURDAY, FEBRUARY 23rd, 2010

1900

It was after dinner and Willie’s brother was about to get his bath and get ready for bedtime. He was entitled to some television time since it wasn’t a school night, and so he sat on the little pillow in front of the TV and watched as Spongebob took off with Patrick’s secret box.

The cartoon starfish ran after the sponge when the phone rang. His mother picked it up, and Willie smiled. It was time to go now.

“Oh, all right. Sure. I’ll make sure that happens,” Willie’s mother was saying, as she watched Willie walk to the front door. He got his coat, gloves, and hat from the coat rack, and then slipped on his shoes before leaving. His mother watched him with an indifferent expression. “Absolutely. I understand completely,” she said.

Willie was well on his way by the time she hung up the phone, and turned the television off.

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OSBORNE ELEMENTARY SCHOOL PLAYGROUND

SEWICKLEY, PA

SATURDAY, FEBRUARY 23rd, 2010

1910

The kids arrived at about the same time, and stood on the blacktop.

Charlie was the first to speak. “We know there’s a problem,” he said. “Did they come see all of you?”

The kids nodded. “Now I’m grounded for three days for lying to my mom and dad,” Meg said. “This sucks.”

“It’s really a big problem. They’re gonna ruin all our fun,” Lauren said.

Sam folded his arms. “We can’t let ‘em do that.”

“No, we know what we have to do,” Charlie said. “Especially since he’s one.”

They nodded. “He’s not really one,” Sam said. “But he’s a problem so close enough.”

“And she’s not one but she has to go too,” Willie said.

“So we have to think about how we’re gonna do this,” Charlie stated.

“We could take a cab into Pittsburgh and get a gun there,” Meg suggested.

“Too expensive. My allowance isn’t that much,” Charlie rejected. “Let’s just take theirs.”

“Okay. We can do that,” Lauren said. “Let’s do it tonight.”

“Let’s do it now!” Willie said excitedly, and jumped up and down for joy.

“No, we gotta wait till they’re asleep. Besides, the message is playing. By the time it’s done, our parents will all go to sleep. We got all night,” Charlie said.

“This is gonna be so great!” Meg said, and high fived Sam.

“Let’s play here for the next couple of hours and then we can go,” Charlie told them. Sam produced a tennis ball out of his winter coat pocket, and they began tossing it around, giggling about the latest Spongebob episode on television.

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SEWICKLEY ORTHODONTIST

SEWICKLEY, PA

SATURDAY, FEBRUARY 23rd, 2010

2000

“I really appreciate you coming down here, Doctor Edgehouse,” Scully said. “I know it’s the weekend, and I know it’s late.”

“It’s not a problem. Anything I can do to help. I understand you had some questions about some of my patients? But I’m afraid I don’t understand. All but one of my patients are children.”

“That’s correct,” Scully said, and laid the casefile folder down on the desk in front of the doctor. He sat down in his leather chair and folded his hands. “Our prime suspects are children,” she explained. “Darrel Wade identified five children as his assailants. They are all patients of yours, according to their pediatricians.”

She indicated that he should pick up the case file, and he paged through the children’s pictures. “Yes,” he said. “I’ve been treating all five of them. Willie Howell is one of my youngest patients. He just got spacers in his teeth, and had several pulled to make room for the adult ones. He’s going to have extremely crooked teeth and he has a bad overbite. We can correct all of that, of course…what does their visiting me have to do with the fact that they’re suspects in this stabbing?”

He seemed very frazzled, and extremely confused. Scully didn’t blame him—most people wouldn’t suspect five small children in a brutal stabbing and hate crime. “It was the only unifying factor between the five of them, Doctor. Is there anything about these five children that sets them apart from your other patients? Any procedures you’ve used, any special products?”

He leaned back, and wracked his brains. Then he got up and pulled their files out of a nearby filing cabinet. He flipped through Willie’s first, and then went on to Lauren’s. After a few moments, he snapped his fingers. “These are the expander trial members,” he said suddenly, with a triumphant smile. “These kids were all part of an expander trial last year. They all volunteered to try a new kind of expander—it’s programmed to expand on its own, instead of relying on the parents to turn a key on the inside of the child’s mouth. You see, Dr. Scully, some children’s mouths aren’t big enough for their adult teeth to come through. We use an expander to periodically widen the gap, and create more room. It decreases crookedness of teeth. The trial was stopped after these five were introduced, mainly because it didn’t work. Their parents have been turning the keys in their expanders for months now.”

“Do they still have the original expanders?” Scully demanded.

“Yes. They’ll come off in another couple of months. But Dr. Scully, I don’t see how this is going to help you solve this. They’re just expanders…they can’t make a person a suspect in an assault investigation.”

“Who makes these expanders?” Scully asked, standing up.

“I…I’m not sure, I don’t remember the company name. It wasn’t something I had heard before. We get several trials a year…”

“Do you have it on record?”

“Yes, definitely. I’ll pull it up for you.”

Scully thanked him quickly and pulled out her cell phone. She speed dialed her partner. “Mulder, I’ve got something.”

“I think I do too, Scully. Maybe. Did you notice all the kids had a lisp?”

“I may have the reason for that,” she said quickly. “Do you know what an expander is?”

“This isn’t the time or place, Agent Scully,” he quipped.

“Mulder, seriously. It’s a dental device. It’s put in a child’s mouth to expand the area and make more room for adult teeth. All five children have one of these things right now. They were part of an experimental trial.” She quickly filled him in on what the trial was and what it was supposed to do. “Dr. Edgehouse is looking up the manufacturer’s name right now.”

“You took the car, Scully. I can’t come.”

“Stay on the phone, he’s almost got it. When he does, I’ll come back and pick you up.”

“Got it,” Dr. Edgehouse said, tapping the screen, and turning it around. “If you want to call the company, there’s a number right here, effective as of two weeks ago. It was automatically updated in the system.”

Scully’s eyes widened. “Mulder…we have a problem.”

“A bigger one than five killer children being controlled by expanders in their mouths?” he asked. She heard him turn the television off in the background.

“Yes. Rousch.”

“Really? I thought they went bankrupt.”

“Rousch Pharmaceuticals went bankrupt, not Rousch Medical Supplier.”

“You’ve got to be kidding me.”

“I’m not. I’ll come pick you up.”

“Here we go again,” Mulder said.

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Scully hung up the phone, and asked Dr. Edgehouse for a printout of the Rousch information page for the expanders, as well as copies of the children’s orthodontist records. In another few minutes, she was on her way back to the hotel.

She pulled up in the driveway and walked to the door. Sliding her key in the slot, she entered and found Mulder pacing.

“You got the info?” He demanded.

“And a phone number, though I’m sure it’s fake.” She handed him the paper.

He snorted. “Yeah, it’s fake.”

“What, you know this number?”

“The National Rejection Hotline, Scully. I’m surprised they’d be this childish.”

“It was updated two weeks ago. The study was terminated months ago. No one cared anymore, Mulder. We have to go warn these parents.”

“I agree. How much do you want to bet they’re all ditching their bedtimes and are about to make a move again tonight?”

She nodded, and they walked out of the hotel room together. Once in the car, Mulder paged through the medical records. “Scully, Megan and Charlie are too old to have expanders, if they’re for children with no adult teeth…”

“They were both taken to the orthodontist late in their dental development. Expanders are a standard step before braces, if the mouth is too small, and that was the case for both of them. The expanders work with adult teeth,” Scully said as she pulled out of the parking lot.

“But these expanders are different. For adult teeth, they’re nearly the same model but just slightly different. Scully, Charlie has an extra expander, on the bottom. Meg doesn’t.”

“What, you think the signal is stronger for him?”

“I’m thinking he might be the most dangerous one,” Mulder said.

“Then we’ll go to the Rueben’s house first.”

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SEWICKLEY COUNTRY INN

SEWICKLEY, PA

SATURDAY, FEBRUARY 23rd, 2010

2045

“This is a really big problem!” Lauren exclaimed, looking at the hotel room door with an exasperated expression.

“Calm down,” Charlie commanded. “Everyone calm down. This is a really big problem. But we also have a really big solution. Meg, can your feet reach the pedals?”

Meg nodded. “Yeah,” she said definitely. Her recent growth spurt had landed her at a towering 5 feet tall, much taller than Charlie and the others.

“Good. That’s what we’ll have to do. Break into one of these cars, and use it. Lauren, you have your pocket knife?”

She pulled it out of her pocket and handed it to him.

“Sam, paper clip?” Sam nodded, and handed him the paper clip.

“I can hotwire the car. Let’s go.”

They picked a blue minivan, since it was the car most of their parents drove. They reasoned that they would know how to drive one.

It wasn’t hard to pick the lock on the 10-year-old minivan, and before they could finish their discussion on the latest CoolBrain Yomega Yo-yo in the toy shop in downtown Sewickley, they were on their way.

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RUEBEN RESIDENCE

SEWICKLEY, PA

SATURDAY, FEBRUARY 23rd, 2010

2100

Mulder and Scully pulled up to the calm house, stopping only a few feet away from a child’s bike in the driveway. They jogged to the front door and rang the doorbell once, and then waited. Mulder pounded on the door after a moment, and shouted, “FBI! Mr. and Mrs. Rueben, open the door!”

“Mulder, we don’t know that Charlie’s receiving signals at the moment. Don’t scare them,” Scully cautioned.

“Something’s wrong. The lights are on in the house, the shoes are by the front door, but no one’s answering.”

“They might be asleep.”

“Not likely.” He pounded on the door again, and that elicited movement upstairs. A little child and a teenager walked out of their rooms, and down the front stairs. The teenager was lanky and tall, with acne splotches on his face. The small child was probably no older than three, her little bunny sleepers covered in pink cars with smiley faces on them. She rubbed her eyes sleepily.

The teenager began to open the door when out of nowhere, Mr. Rueben made a dive for him and caught his hand before it touched the knob. He led the teenager away gruffly and the toddler began to cry as her father yelled.

“Something is seriously wrong here,” Mulder said.

The teenager began to struggle with his dad, his face betraying his fear. Mulder stepped back, pulled his gun, and then placed a well-aimed kick at the door. After several more kicks, it gave. He and Scully trained their weapons on Mr. Rueben as the man tried to put his teenage son in a headlock. “Thomas Rueben, stay right where you are!” Scully yelled.

“Release your son immediately!” Mulder screamed. The toddler wailed even louder, and cowered in a corner.

Mr. Rueben seemed to be in a trance that suddenly broke when he looked at the agents. He released his son, and backed away, staring at his hands in horror. Then he ran to the kitchen as quickly as he could.

Mulder followed, while Scully stayed with the two children.

Mulder was about to yell at Rueben to stand still once more, when he noticed the target of the man’s sudden movement. A cordless phone lay on the kitchen table, the speaker on, while a calm voice spoke to his wife, who sat stock-still at the table. She didn’t seem to notice anything was going on. Rueben appeared to fight with himself for a moment before he picked it up and threw it at the wall.

The second it stopped, Mrs. Rueben looked up. “Tom? What’s going on?” She asked. “Why’s the baby crying?” She got up quickly and ran to the front hallway. “Who are you?” They heard her demand, and Scully began to answer.

“What’s happening?” Tom asked Mulder, clearly frightened.

“Mr. Rueben, I believe you and your wife have been subjected to subliminal messages. And Agent Scully and I believe your son Charlie has been receiving messages from the same source, that are instructing him to do extremely destructive things. If you don’t believe me, think about what you were doing a second ago. And think what effect it would have on a ten-year-old boy.”

Rueben stared wide-eyed at Mulder.

“Come on. We have to go. Charlie’s out there and we need your help to stop him from doing whatever they’re instructing him to do next.”

Rueben was silent as they ran for the front hallway.

“Mrs. Rueben, can you stay with your children? We need one of you to come with us. Charlie might need convincing by someone he knows,” Mulder urged.

“What? What’s going on, Tom? What’s happening? Where’s Charlie?”

“Hannah, trust me, please,” Tom said, and took her by her shoulders. “Stay with John and Katie. I’ll be back.”

“Where are you going?”

“To find Charlie,” he said forcefully. “And stop whatever the hell this is.”

“Come on, we have to go now,” Mulder said firmly. “If Charlie’s not here, they’re out planning their next attack.”

“Attack? What?”

“Just trust us, Mrs. Rueben. We have to go,” Scully said, and they jogged out the door, and to the car.

“Do we have time to find the other parents?” Scully asked Mulder.

Mulder shook his head. “I don’t think so, no. We’ve got to try to find the kids. As soon as we can.”

“We’ve got an entire town to search,” Mr. Rueben said from the backseat. “If Charlie’s out, he could be anywhere in Sewickley.”

“No…no, I think…” Mulder started the car and peeled out of the driveway. “I think they’re going to find us. I think we’re their next target.”

“Mulder, we have no way of knowing that,” Scully said. “And if we don’t figure out where they could be, someone might be killed. Mr. Rueben, there’s a small Jewish population in Sewickley. Where is one of the houses? Someone your son would know?”

“No, that’s not it, Scully. We’re the next target,” Mulder insisted. “We need to go someplace where it’s enclosed, but there’s a lot of ground to move around on. And we need to split up.” He halted the car just outside the driveway, and backed up. “Scully, go with Mr. Rueben to whoever’s house he thinks his son would know. Just in case I’m wrong.”

“No, Mulder. I’m not leaving you alone with five hypnotized children.”

“Scully, dammit, we don’t have time to argue about this! If I’m right, I’ll call you as soon as they show up. If I’m wrong, and you don’t go, then someone else could be victimized!”

Scully and Mulder stared each other down for a fraction of a second, a silent battle of wills. Finally, Scully lost. “Fine. Mr. Rueben, get your car keys.”

They got out of the car and Mulder peeled away as quickly as the little rental car could.

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SNITZ RESIDENCE

SEWICKLEY, PA

SATURDAY, FEBRUARY 23rd, 2010

2110

“Oh, great! This totally sucks!”

“We’re not supposed to say that word,” Willie chastised Charlie.

“Shut up, Willie. All right, I gotta think. Okay. I think we have to split up like they did.”

“But then how are we supposed to kill Jessie?” Meg asked petulantly.

“Jessie’s only eight. We can take her,” Charlie said. “As long as her parents are asleep. Remember the rope trick we learned?”

They nodded.

“Okay,” Meg said, and put the car in drive. “So Charlie, you and Lauren and Sam are goin’, and me and Willie are going to Osborne?”

“No, it’s not gonna take three of us to take Jessie, just one,” Charlie said. “It’ll take at least three of you to take Mulder. And we need a majority to make the mark, anyway.”

“But his partner and your dad are gonna be here in another two trips!”

“That gives us enough time,” Charlie argued. “Now you’re wastin’ time. Go, Meg. Drive the rest. I’ll take care of Jessie.”

“You sure?” Meg asked him.

“Positive,” Charlie said with enormous confidence. He got out of the car, and went around to the back, where he found the wire the voice had promised him. He tugged on it with his gloved hands, and then put it in his winter coat. Looking down at the cool pictures of Spiderman on his gloves before he closed the hatch of the minivan, he waved his friends on and the minivan took off. Charlie made his way up the front stairs, and began to think of how to get inside.

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OSBORNE ELEMENTARY SCHOOL PLAYGROUND

SEWICKLEY, PA

SATURDAY, FEBRUARY 23rd, 2010

2115

Mulder pulled up in the teacher’s lot and jumped out of the car, positioning himself on the blacktop. He knew the kids would come soon, and when they did, he had to have a plan. He pressed number 2 on his cell phone and waited.

“Joe’s Pizza Kitchen, how may I help you?”

“Turn off the tape, Frohike, and listen carefully,” Mulder demanded.

“What’s up, Mulder?”

“I need you to create a digital jamming signal on my cell phone in the next couple of minutes.”

“Whoa, that’s gonna take more than a couple of minutes, amigo. What’s this for?”

“I need to stop Rousch Medical Supplies from sending mind-controlling signals to children’s orthodontic expanders,” Mulder said quickly.

There was a pause. “What’ve you been smoking, Mulder? And can we have—”

“Now, Frohike! They’re gonna be here any minute!”

“You want us to jam all radio signals within a few feet of you?”

“Whatever you can, just do it quickly.” He saw the headlights of a minivan pull up, and squinted to see the much-too-young driver in the front seat.

“Byers, Langly, get over here, we have to create a jamming signal in Mulder’s cell phone…” Mulder heard Frohike explain as he dropped his cell phone into his pocket and left it active. He got ready to run.

The kids ran for him all at once, hands at their belts where they kept their knives. These were probably the same knives used to stab Darrel Wade, Mulder thought. And he was especially a target, he realized, because of his family’s heritage. These kids were programmed to target certain people, probably so as not to confuse the targets.

As Mulder ran for the jungle gym, he was formulating a more complex profile. Rousch obviously wanted to test mind control, and so it was the same old story—create a trial no one would question. Children’s expanders. Then create targets for the kids, to clarify in their minds what they were supposed to do, and keep law enforcement looking in the wrong direction. Let them loose, and watch it unfold. Same old story. Complete with Mulder running for his life.

He ran up the slide and leapt over some handlebars, then took a survey at where the children were before leaping off the play structure and heading for the monkey bars. It was a good place to run, and keep them all contained. But it was also not so easy for an adult to navigate.

Sand and wood chips kicked up around his pant legs as he ran through a sandbox and back out again. He made a sharp turn and ran through some swings, then leapt onto the middle of a teeter totter and back off again. He jumped on top of a shaky wooden bridge, and leapt off the other side. The kids were in hot pursuit, and Mulder was well aware that he wasn’t evading a bunch of elementary school children—he was evading the adults giving them commands.

When he looked behind him again, he felt a small surge of panic hit him as he realized only two were following him. That meant…

He nearly slammed into the little kid that appeared out of nowhere. He saw Willie’s face as the seven-year-old went for his feet. Between one kid catching him off balance and another grabbing his ankles, Mulder didn’t have a chance. He was down on the ground in an instant, the woodchips cushioning his fall.

The children approached, out of breath, and expressionless. They unsheathed their knives from their belts, and approached slowly. “Frohike…” Mulder warned in a near-panicked voice. “Now would be a good time!”

He didn’t hear the reply, but realized he was surrounded, and that there was no way out.

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SNITZ RESIDENCE

SEWICKLEY, PA

SATURDAY, FEBRUARY 23rd, 2010

2130

Scully pulled up to the residence of Jessie Snitz, one of Charlie’s classmates. She and Thomas Rueben exited the vehicle and ran toward the front of the house. Rueben was right behind Scully, and said, “Their screened-in porch on the side—it’s been broken into. The screen was slashed with a knife.”

Scully drew her weapon. “Stay back, Mr. Rueben. Don’t come in until I tell you to.”

“But if Charlie’s in there—”

“If Charlie’s in there, then you can help me, but not until I say it’s safe. He might have found a gun.”

“Charlie wouldn’t…he couldn’t…”

Scully didn’t answer Rueben’s horrified, unasked question as she ran around to the side of the house. If Charlie got in quietly, so could she. It was better not to spook him.

They were able to easily pick the lock on the screened-in-porch, instead of climb through the screen as Charlie had. They then gained entrance through the side porch door, and were in the living room.

Scully put her hand out to keep Rueben back as she extended her weapon, and walked through the house with a flashlight lighting her path.

The house was dead quiet. It was clear this family went to sleep early. They had no pets, so nothing made any noise at their entrance. No one set a security alarm.

Scully climbed the stairs and turned her flashlight off, the nightlights in the hallway sufficient to light her step. She began to silently check bedrooms.

The first was a guest bedroom. In the second, the parents silently slept as if nothing was wrong. She considered waking them, but then decided it was a bad idea. It was odd, she thought, that they didn’t even awaken at the sound of her feet on the floorboards.

Finally, she got to the child’s bedroom. The door was the only one closed in the house, and locked. Scully took a step back, and broke the door down with a kick.

Charlie stood in a wide stance, trying in earnest to strangle 10-year-old Jessie Snitz as she gasped and flailed her arms in wide-eyed panic.

“Drop the wire, Charlie!” Scully yelled. Rueben ran over to Charlie and tried to wrench his son’s arms away, but the 10-year-old had so much adrenaline coursing through his body that he was able to kick his father in the groin, and drop him to his knees. His face was expressionless, his hands white-knuckled in their attempt to strangle his classmate.

Scully ran over and holstered her weapon as she grabbed the boy in one motion. Jessie’s parents arrived at that second, and moved into action immediately. They screamed for Charlie to stop, trying to wrench his hands away from the wire.

Finally, just when they were making progress, it was Rueben who stood up with a child-sized wooden baseball bat, and clocked his son over the head with it.

Charlie dropped, unconscious. “Call an ambulance!” Mrs. Snitz screamed, holding her unconscious daughter as Rueben pushed the crowd aside to get to his son.

Scully pulled out her cell phone and dialed 911 while checking the children’s pulses. Just then, a beam of light streamed out of the computer in Jessie’s room. The computer exploded instantly, sending sparks flying into the air. The concentrated energy traveled through the air, electrons finding their instant conductor on Jessie’s leg. There, imprinted through her pajamas, was a Nazi Swastika.

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OSBORNE ELEMENTARY SCHOOL PLAYGROUND

SEWICKLEY, PA

SATURDAY, FEBRUARY 23rd, 2010

2135

Meg made the first dive with the knife and Mulder rolled out of the way. It caught the wood chips, but not him, thankfully. “Frohike!” He screamed at the top of his lungs, just as Lauren made the second dive for him.

He was able to dodge her as well, but just barely. He tried to get up, but Sam kicked him in the forehead with a winter boot.

Suddenly, the four just froze, and dropped their knives. They looked around, clearly confused. Then they looked at Mulder, and each other.

“What are we doing here?” Willie asked. “I’m cold.”

“I wanna go home,” Sam said.

“Why are we at the playground? Did you kidnap us?” Lauren asked Mulder.

Mulder smiled, and started to get up. “No…I didn’t kidnap you.” He rose slowly, and took his phone out of his pocket. “Thanks, Frohike. Not a moment too—aaaah!” He dropped the phone as it became red hot, and caught fire. It exploded with a burst of energy and a stream of electricity traveled directly from the ground into Mulder’s leg. He dropped instantly and grasped the leg painfully as the symbol was carved in.

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SEWICKLEY VALLEY HOSPITAL

SEWICKLEY, PA

SATURDAY, FEBRUARY 23rd, 2010

2230

“So the pharmacy’s video camera was destroyed as well, but the police didn’t include that in their report because it hadn’t caught anything on tape—it was the one on the inside,” Scully said, sitting in the chair beside her partner’s bed.

His thigh was bandaged and he sat on the side of the bed in a hospital gown, waiting for them to bring his clothes from the other room.

“And they disappear into the woodwork again. We can try to keep the expanders as evidence, Scully, but you know they’re just going to get lost.”

“I think it’s worth a try, at least. This time they’re using the newest technology available to restart these tests, Mulder. It’s just like before, only more disastrous. Popular Mechanics magazine recently featured an article about wireless transmission of electrical charge—effectively charging electronics without wires. That’s exactly what they did here, only they concentrated the energy into a symbol. If they were somehow able to do that, they could potentially carve a symbol like that into a city, destroying several buildings from some unknown origin.”

“They can already do that with missiles. What this gives them is the ability to terrorize. What extremist wouldn’t like to get his hands on some anti-religious or anti-government or anti-capitalist or anti-Oprah symbol to carve into the land and freak some people out?”

“Anti-Oprah?” Scully asked with an arched eyebrow.

“Popular Mechanics, Scully?” Mulder countered back.

“It’s in Skinner’s office…” She defended.

Mulder smirked slightly, and then sighed. “I’m wondering if they’re starting up again, or if they never stopped. What if this is just the first one we’ve caught, Scully? What if they’re just getting better at these tests? Getting so good at it that we’re not noticing anymore?”

“If they have to resort to using expanders in children’s mouths, I’m pretty sure they’re not getting better,” Scully said dryly.

“How are the kids?”

“They’re all confused. It hasn’t been explained to them why their orthodontist had to pull out their expanders in the middle of the night.”

“At least we won’t have the Manson children running around anymore.”

Scully looked down. “Their parents aren’t happy campers.”

“If I were a parent, I’d be pretty damn confused myself.”

“How’s your leg, Mulder?”

“It’s fine. Doctor said it wouldn’t scar as long as I apply this vitamin E crap to it on a regular basis.”

“You’d better. That’s not the kind of scar you want to have.”

“Got that right,” Mulder said, glancing down at it. He paused a moment. “Why do you think they chose the Nazi Swastika? The Anti-Semetist theme?”

Scully shook her head. “I don’t know. Could be a message…”

“Maybe a statement of their purpose? To manipulate the minds of the weak—the children—to serve their purposes and form a unified but enslaved population? Drones under the monarch, the present-day Hitler?”

“Possibly,” Scully said, entertaining the thought. “I wouldn’t put it past them. It is sort of what they want to do, isn’t it, Mulder?”

He nodded slowly. “2012…”

“Let’s not think about that right now,” Scully said, getting up and sitting beside him. “We stopped them this time. Now that we’re watching Sewickley, they won’t try here again. And we’ll do our best to stop them the next time.”

“The question becomes, how many times can we stop them? And how many times do they get away with it?”

Scully didn’t have an answer for that.

Primal Death

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Primal Death

Author: 19

Category: Casefile, MSR

Rating: PG

Summary: Prime number theory turns deadly?

Disclaimer: X-Files characters belong to FOX Corporation and 1013 and that Chris Carter fellow. I suspect I will never make any money doing such ridiculous things as writing stories about old TV shows.

Author’s Note: This is loosely based on mathematical concepts that I really don’t understand so I’m pulling out my artistic license to explain all unlikelihoods.

Original web date:28/03/2010

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Primal Death

Princeton, NJ

9:19 pm

The music was hauntingly dissonant, a cacophony of atonal and abstract intervals with no discernible melody. To the untrained ear it was merely meaningless noise. However, the gathered aficionados were anything but untrained ears. They sat in a small circle, six pairs of eyes closed, six minds at the ready. Together they intoned seemingly random numbers at a low frequency…99923 99929 99961 99971 99989 99991 100003 100019 100043 100049 100057 100069 100103 … The gregorian-esque chanting oxymoronically both completely clashed and melded perfectly with the odd scattered musical tones.

Kieran Jackson felt the tones reverberate through him, traveling through his guts and up into his solar plexus. He recited the numbers automatically and focused his mind on their inherent power. Slowly, he felt the physical world floating away from him, the carpet under him dropping off, the walls around him expanding to infinity.

When the space around him started to resonate with intense waves of something both disconcerting yet eerily familiar, he chanced to open his eyes.

Kieran was only partially surprised to find that his companions and his own physical body were suddenly somewhat missing. The space before him was hazy with faintly coloured mist and though he could still see the dingy real-world room he supposed his physical body still existed in, he knew his real self was now floating in this other reality. He had never experienced such a phenomenon before, but still instantly understood the waves of light creating the colourful mist to be the visual equivalents of the musical dissonance he could still hear reverberating in the background. He experienced a moment of pure awe and elation. He had made it. It was real. It was perfect. He let his mind meld with the vibrations travelling through the space and the numbers began pouring out of him… 41162039 41162041 41162071 41162087 41162101 41162119 41162123 41162131 4116216… They pulsated through his now-ethereal being, perfectly in tune with every nuance of the unearthly space. Kieran had to admit he had doubted the stories – but it hadn’t stopped him from hoping, dreaming, willing its reality. It was everything he had imagined and more – impossible to put into words. The numbers – they floated around him, through him, in him. The entire dimension was in tune with the numbers. The space was the primes and the primes were the space. As he wandered aimlessly in his new environment, Kieran found he could propel himself through what would have been walls in the physical world. He could still see these physical structures but they had no meaning in the prime number reality. The harmonics spoke of a different physics, one of beautiful frequencies that resonated with the numbers.

At once his world was both vast and atomic. Distance was no obstacle – the space was at once infinite and infinitesimal. Kieran found he could travel what would have been miles in regular space in the span of mere seconds. This ability was ingrained in the interaction between the constant flow of primes and his now-ghostly body.

As he cautiously explored the new space Kieran began to sense ruptures in the numerical waves, areas of dissonance sensed from afar. Coming up close to one, he realized it was a presence much like his own. So he wasn’t the only one to have found this place – other mathematically inclined explorers must have discovered it in much the same way. Feeling a particularly strong dissonance from a nearby area, Kieran tried to pull away, to dissolve back into the ebb of numeric music. But the strangeness kept approaching him until it overtook all other sensation. He tried to run but his non-physical body no longer responded the way he wanted. The dissonance drew closer until Kieran was overwhelmed by its power. It was not like the other presence he had felt – there was an innate darkness to it that thrummed in a pulsatingly dark wave. The wave swept through him and intensified in its throbbing eninimity. Then, just as he felt completely buried by the dark wave, the space around him began to pulsate with growing intensity, growing wrongness. Kieran tried to move but couldn’t fathom how to escape the increasing darkness. It pounded through his blood. He could feel it approaching closer, quicker, the thundering unnaturalness of it pounding through his body.

Closer.

Closer.

It hit him square in the chest, a not-quite-physical-yet-still-very real feeling. And then he felt the resonating vibrations of the misty world falling away from him as he sank lower and lower. His body began to feel more solid, more tethered to the physical world. The pulsating numbers began to fade … 98867063 98867107 98867147 9886…

And then he felt the pain. As his body slid back into the solid world, the room with its achromatic tones and numerical chanting, his sense of euphoria flitted away and was replaced by a cold, stark, overarching pain. He heard his chanting companions gasp and scream from what seemed like a long distance away. Something about blood. Something about an ambulance. Not that it really mattered to him anymore. He had felt that other world, a place where he had finally felt at one with the inherent mathmaticalness of the universe. As his life slipped away in a viscous sea of red, Kieran remembered the pure vibrations of the primes and, for once, felt at peace with his existence. The room still hummed with the atonal chords but the chanting had stopped as five stunned students gaped at their dead companion. He had been fine. And then he suddenly had a gaping hole in his chest. No one had seen, heard anything. No shots, nothing. Nothing but the strange music and the rhythmic numbers… 97026529 97026583 97026593 97026641 97026649 97026731 97026733 97026737… And the haunting power of the primes.

****

FBI Headquarters

Washington D.C.

9:07am

“I come bearing caffeine,” Scully said as she opened the office door while carefully balancing a coffee tray, her briefcase, and a bakery bag. An early morning consult had precluded their usual morning coffee run together and as her bespectacled partner looked up from studiously studying a file, Scully felt a twist of fond familiarity.

“Hey Scully, listen to this,” Mulder replied with his particular brand of enthusiasm that, sixteen years in, still lit off tingles along her spinal column. She cocked her head at him expectantly as he hit play on the garish stereo behind him. She never knew what to expect and was expecting to hear the cry of a lost banshee or the lost tapes of spoken reticulan. Therefore she was a bit surprised when semi-recognizable notes of sorts came through the speakers. Not that it was exactly music – certainly it wasn’t about to make the top 40 countdown – yet she felt there was something oddly familiar about the strange sounds. “What do you know about prime numbers, Scully?” Mulder asked as he turned the volume down. She looked at him oddly, waiting for the other, more-paranormal, shoe to drop. When he didn’t deign to continue, she launched into lecture-mode.

“Well, primes have fascinated number theorists for decades. Ever since Pythagoras mathematicians have tried to find a pattern that describes the occurrence and frequency of prime numbers. Carl Gauss was the first to produce a function, the logarithmic integral, which gave a fairly precise estimate for the number of primes. Bernhard Riemann then added to Gauss’s function by adding harmonic waves which then allowed the logarithmic integral to fit perfectly with prime number occurrence. In fact, the Riemann  hypothesis is the closest anyone has ever gotten to mapping out prime number frequency – however, no one has ever been able to prove the hypothesis. Even though billions of zeros have been found to lie on the critical line, indicating that it is likely correct, there is no actual proof of the theorem. Now with the importance that primes play in public key cryptography, there is fear that anyone who solves the Riemann hypothesis will also find a backdoor into decrypting RSA security. Basically, they might then be able to circumvent the toughest electronic security codes used today. But it’s all conjecture – the likelihood of anyone ever solving Riemann’s hypothesis with our current set of mathematical axioms is quite low. And even if it were to be solved, it isn’t at all clear that it would actually affect computer security,” Scully intoned on her patented ‘scientific lecture setting’.

Mulder mentally catalogued yet another science-related topic that Scully, like usual, could probably write entire Wikipedia entries on, citations and all. Listening patiently, he nodded at all the appropriate moments and then slammed the paranormal shoe down on the ground.”Okay, but so how do prime numbers kill?” he asked with his usual cocky ‘I know something you don’t’ tone. Scully tilted her head questioningly and raised her eyebrow as expected – it was, after all, a quintessential act in their ongoing basement production.

“Mulder, did you just suggest that prime numbers themselves are perpetrating homicide?” she asked, only mildly incredulously. Sliding one of their ubiquitous red and white file folders across the desk, Mulder tilted his chair back and watched her in anticipation. The file contained three separate police reports gathered from around the country. Three unexplained incidents on three highly regarded campuses. The first involved a young man being found dead in his small apartment near MIT with no signs of foul play. In fact, it appeared that he had literally died of thirst. No other cause of death could be found and no explanation of how a healthy 20 year old could let himself succumb to thirst and starvation. The other two deaths were equally, if not more, odd. One from a month earlier at UCLA and the other, just two days ago, at Princeton.

Studying the reports, Scully noted that the latter two deaths were virtually identical. Both incidents had been called in by students after the victims were inflicted with what seemed to be gunshot wounds. All the witnesses claimed that they hadn’t heard any weapons fired and that no one else had entered or left the room the crimes were committed in. Forensics confirmed that both victims died of through and through gun shot wounds but not a single bullet had been recovered, even after the scene had been re-examined numerous times.

Each crime scene photo was also eerily similar. The groups of students all admitted to being part of some sort of prime number cult, committed to following the obscure theories of a Dr.Ivan Dag, creator of a synthesis between numerology and musicology. A modern mathematical mystic following in the footsteps of such mathematical geniuses as Pythagoras and Ramanujan. Dag had been an ambitious up and comer in the field of number theory before taking a trip to Gottingen, the traditional German stomping grounds of eminent mathematicians such as Gauss, Dirichlet, Hilbert, and, of course, Riemann.

The police reports all indicated that they had followed up on each of the surviving cult members but that their stories were all consistent. Their investigations into Dag left some suspicion as the man had been missing for many years. After visiting Gottingen, he had fallen out of favour with traditional number theorists but had continued to publish work with the help of an undisclosed private funder. His last article on what he entitled the Riemann Space had been published in 2005 and then he had completely disappeared, leaving behind, unclaimed, all his assets. No note, no indication of foul play.

“So? What’s your theory, Mulder?” Scully asked, a tad apprehensively “And what’s with the music?”

“I’m leaning towards psychic projections as the most probable cause but three separate cases of psychokinetic nerds would be a big coincidence. So I reserve theorizing until we’ve interviewed some of your math geek compadres,” he replied with an implied wink. “I’ve been trying to access Dag’s articles on this so-called Riemann Space but everything I can get my hands on is encrypted up the ying-yang. Everything except a link to an mp3 file that is somehow part of the process. That’s what we’re listening to right now. Somehow these weird notes are tied into Dag’s big theory. Anyways, we’ve got a meeting tomorrow morning with one of the Dag’s former research assistants at Princeton. This guy Olafson also taught the latest victim, Kieran Jackson. Maybe he’ll be able to let us in on the big secret.”

His math geek crack earned him the expected pseudo-scowl and a near paper cut as Scully playfully frisbee’d the file back at his head.

****

Police Headquarters

Princeton, NJ

4:49pm

They arrived in Princeton in the late afternoon and went straight to the police station to meet with the investigating officer, a Detective Greg Wallace.

They were directed to Wallace’s desk and waited for him to finish dressing down another officer in front of the entire station full of cops. Wallace was a burly brick of a man with a standard buzz cut and a frown that seemed permanently etched onto his face. As he dismissed the cowering younger officer, Wallace made a show of blatantly ignoring the agents for a minute as he purposelessly shuffled papers around on his desk. Finally, as he began to feel the burn of the intense beam of annoyance being directed at him from laser blue eyes, Wallace turned and regarded the impatient agents.

“Agents Mulder and Scully? I understand you’re here investigating the Jackson homicide. I have to tell you off the bat that I don’t see why the federal government is wasting their time and money on this. There’s nothing more you can do here – we’ve covered all the bases,” Wallace grunted by way of introduction.

The agent exchanged a look that both conveyed their mutual annoyance and a subtle cue for Scully to start the questioning. Although his years with Scully had tempered his innate propensity for pissing off local cops, it was definitely still prudent for Scully to take the lead in irksome situations. Even if she was the one shooting lasers out of her eyes. “Well, we would still like to investigate the situation for ourselves,” Scully started diplomatically. “What can you tell us about the victim and his group?”

Wallace cleared his throat in an obvious sign of impatience as he replied.

“Kieran Jackson and his group were all graduate students in number theory at the university. They were involved in some cult-like ritual when he died but none of them would say what they were trying to do. After reading through some of Jackson’s notes, it seems that they were trying to access some sort of alternate reality based on prime number theory. Now, I did some undergrad courses in math myself and after speaking with the professors at Princeton, I can assure you that this is all bullshit. The concept of this so-called Riemann Space is total garbage, just a fantasy they came up with to hide what really happened.”

“Which would be?” Scully asked.

Suddenly Wallace didn’t look quite as smug as he tried to quickly string together a plausible explanation for what had occurred. “Er, well… Clearly the participants are lying about what happened. Jackson was killed elsewhere and transported to the scene after death. That explains the lack of casings at the scene.”

Scully regarded the detective incredulously. “Are you implying that this group of math students, none of whom have ever previously been in trouble with the law, were somehow responsible for not only Kieran Jackson’s death but that they then also managed to smuggle his bleeding body through a community centre full of witnesses? I’m sure you have noticed that the centre’s only entrances and exits were far from the room Jackson was found in. Also, interviews with front desk personnel indicate a positive ID on Jackson that night as he signed the rental agreement for the space upon entering the building. Therefore, the students would have had to have drawn him away from the building and then brought his still-bleeding body back into the building through public spaces. If that is your explanation for what happened, I would seriously question your objectivity in this case, detective.” As Scully spoke, more and more officers had begun to turn their twitchy ears in her direction and more than one had to suppress a smirk-encrusted grin as they watched Wallace become more and more uncomfortable with each word. Also, knowing Wallace’s general modus operandi of never backing down, a good number of the onlookers were hoping for a quick escalation from minor argument to full-fledged screaming match.

Mulder felt the nervous tension increase dramatically as more heads turned to observe his own personal fiery redhead chew out a detective she had barely met. As Wallace took a step forward and jutted his chest into Scully’s personal space Mulder had to resist the instinct to inject his own body into the situation. He had a healthy sense of survival and wasn’t about to volunteer to be the next victim on the Scully warpath. Stepping in on her battle without consent would have likely resulted in his sleeping alone in his own dingy motel room that night. And dingy room sans hot-as-hell-when-all-fired-up partner wasn’t what he was aiming for.

Towering over Scully’s deceptively small frame, Wallace visibly gathered what was left of his wits and set his expression to ‘barely-concealed-and-quickly-growing-anger’. “Well, Agent Scully, if you are questioning my objectivity in this case, I would love to hear what your opinion is. Because if you’re falling for this Riemann Space bullshit then I would seriously question your qualification in understanding this so-called alternate reality. I can’t imagine that you could possibly understand the mathematics these students are talking about. I, on the other hand, have at least enough of a background in math to I know when I’m being played for a fool. And if you’re here to suggest that Jackson was killed by ghosts or witches or aliens then I’d like to see your evidence to that effect. Because, you see, Agents, I’ve taken the time to check up a little on you two and I’m not about to have this case turned into some big joke.” As Wallace built up steam Mulder couldn’t help but feel a minute twinge of empathy for the verbal take-down the man was about to receive. Not that he felt anything for the detective other than total contempt, but the man was just so unaware of what he was asking for. Indeed, although it had been eons since he himself was so naive as to believe that Scully’s ability to command respect was proportional to her stature, Mulder could still easily remember the instant he learned exactly how wrong that belief was. As Scully stood her ground, taking the detective’s words – spittle included – evenly, Mulder subtly maneuvered himself closer to her and laid the briefest of touches just above her sacrum. The glancing touch went unnoticed by everyone except her and, through previous controlled studies of his partner, Mulder knew it was about as much moral support as she would allow. When it was clear Wallace was both finished and particularly pleased with himself, Scully nodded in a mildly condescending manner, as if to say ‘sure, sure, whatever moron’ and then proceeded to make her rebuttal.

“Detective Wallace, if you have, indeed, taken the time to, as you say, ‘check up’ on us, then you should already know that, ghosts, witches, and aliens included, our solve rate is amongst the highest in the bureau. Furthermore, your assumption that we do not have the background in theoretical mathematics to understand the complexities of the Riemann hypothesis and it’s more mystical offshoots are, I assume, founded on stereotype and pure conjecture. In fact, I would be happy to discuss the significance of Riemann’s harmonics on the zeta-function landscape with you, if your mathematics background would allow for such a conversation. As for my opinion on what caused Mr. Jackson’s death, I would have to defer until Agent Mulder and myself have actually investigated the case. Suffice to say that, unlike you, I don’t believe we can make a determination based solely on this meager report.” She spoke in that particular self-possessing manner that allowed her to produce perfect statements without any time to prepare.

Mulder still observed her with wonder even after so many years – the grin he hid at her deft oratory skills only present in his eyes. He also noted that many of the obviously-eavesdropping officers were not nearly as reserved with their amusement. Apparently it wasn’t everyday that the clearly unpopular Wallace got reamed out by diminutive FBI agents in front of the entire station. It was, indeed, a moment that the rest of the officers would fondly recall in years to come. As Wallace began to truly blow his gasket, Scully merely raised one contemptuous eyebrow and turned to calmly exit stage left. Mulder took her lead and followed along, his hand in its customary position, his lips glancing down towards her ear as he murmured discretely to her. “You know, Scully, you wouldn’t think I’d find it so hot when you yank on another guy’s balls like that.” Her only response was a look double-dipped in disapproval and bemusement.

****

They went from the station to the crime scene, a local community centre near Princeton University. Records showed that the space had been rented to Kieran Jackson for four hours on the night of his death. A positive ID had been made by the front desk clerk who had taken Kieran’s payment for the rental. The clerk had also directed the other group members towards the room as they arrived. Consistent with the statements of these other participants, the clerk had not seen any of them leave the building until after the police had come and questioned everyone involved. Upon examining all possible exits, Mulder and Scully determined that it would have been virtually impossible to drag a bleeding dead weight back into the rented room unseen and without leaving traces of blood. The room Kieran Jackson had died in was still cordoned off by yellow police tape and offered little in the way of clues. Even the keen investigative eyes of Mulder and Scully, which often spotted otherwise unnoticed minutiae, couldn’t tease any more info out of the blood stained 70’s avocado green walls. It was as if Kieran Jackson had been shot by an invisible bullet.

Looking around to the only other clue, a stereo system that the group had been using, Mulder pressed play on the machine. Neither agent was particularly surprised when familiar-yet-odd atonal harmonics flooded the room. Tapping on his nose with a knowing look, Mulder flashed his partner a quick ‘told you so’ wink.

“Nice tunes eh, Scully…” he quipped.

Knowing the types of grand leaping to paranormal conclusions that was likely occurring in her partner’s head, Scully attempted to temper his excitement with a dose of rationality.  “Just because they were playing the music doesn’t mean they knew any more about this so-called Riemann Space than we do. They’re college students, Mulder. It might  ave just been an experiment – a couple of esoteric theories to whet their imaginations, plus a sprinkling of mysterious music and probably a few tokes off a joint to make the whole experience more mind-opening.”

Eyebrows raised at her use of marijuana-related slang, Mulder threw in the most obvious counterpoint. “Yeah but how many experimenters end up dead of invisible bullets?”

Scully sighed her momentary defeat. She knew he was right on this one – as unlikely as it was that the students had found some alternate reality in this room, there was still no way of explaining the manner in which Kieran Jackson had been killed. “Let’s go Mulder,” she finally replied. “I’m starving.”

****

Lucky’s Motel

Princeton, NJ

10:51pm

“Didn’t your mother ever tell you that reading so close will ruin your eyes?” Mulder said as he pushed through the weather-beaten motel room door, a bag of take-out in his hands. ”

Listen to this, Mulder,” Scully said in response, deep in thought and completely ignoring his comment. “The officer who was first on the scene at the UCLA death of John Chew reported that strange music had been playing at Chew’s apartment when he was found dead. He specifically noted this because he thought it was odd that the music was still playing so many days after the victim had died. At first he thought it indicated that someone else had been in the apartment in the meantime but then the computer tech figured out that someone, probably Chew, had programmed the music to loop indefinitely.”

“I bet it wasn’t Britney,” Mulder stated flatly.

“I’d say you’re right on that,” Scully replied wryly.

Food still in hand, Mulder flopped down on the mass of pokey bedsprings, looking up at his partner mischievously as he deliberately jostled up the flurry of papers spread on the bedspread.

“Stop thinking so hard and eat your rabbit food darlin’,” he said in his worst southern drawl.

Frowning as expected at the sarcastically-expressed-yet-truly-felt endearment, Scully kept on reading as she held out her hand, knowing it would immediately be filled with a plastic tub of fast food salad, dressing exquisitely dabbed on, exactly to her specification. “And they found a stereo at the other site too but there’s nothing in the report about what was in it at the time,” Scully mused amidst a mouthful of wilted iceberg lettuce.

“Yeah, and I just found something in my pants – you wanna see?”

Mulder replied, barely retaining half-chewed bits of genetically-modified-rainforest-killing beef in his mouth. “I think the music has something to do with Riemann’s harmonics – I remember reading somewhere recently that there are some mathematicians that believe the harmonic frequencies are innate yet different to our physical experience of space-time,” she continued.

“C’mon physicist girl, it’s late and I wanna lick the lo-cal Italian dressing off your lips,” Mulder replied as he slid his way closer to her.

Scully sighed. It never failed – when he couldn’t sleep due to having his frontal lobes stuck in a file all night, all she wanted to do was drag him under the covers and when she was stuck on a thought, he was invariably goofy try-to-steal-your-tofutti-cone Mulder. Oscillating somewhere between the impossibility of invisible bullets and the possibility of warm human interaction, she was dragged forcibly to one side with a touch of soft lips on the back of her neck. Leaning into the now-familiar-yet-still-tingle-evoking sensation, she let the file fall from her hand and gave in to the warmth of his very real, loving existence.

****

Princeton University

Princeton, NJ

9:11am

Dr. Jon Olafson’s office was covered in whiteboards, each drenched in messy formulae and haphazard graphs. The man’s appearance screamed mathematician – from the ratty brown loafers to the grey argyle sweater vest, to the slightly off kilter wire-rim glasses. As he stood to greet the agents they noticed his eyes didn’t completely focus on them, and his shoulders were held so tightly that they nearly met his ears. “Uh, good morning agents,” Olafson said hurriedly. “I understand you have some questions about Kieran Jackson?”

“Good morning Dr. Olafson. Yes, we’re here investigating the circumstances around his death. Can you tell us what you know about what happened?” Scully started, silently agreeing to take the lead.

“Well, Kieran was one of my graduate students. I don’t know much about what happened to him though – he hasn’t been around much lately.” Olafson replied nervously.

“Why is that doctor?” Scully asked congenially.

“Kieran’s been involved in his own project for the last six months or so, one that did not fit into the direction I am taking my own mathematics. He spent most of his time on this project and has not been attending classes,” Olafson answered.

“What can you tell us about this side project?” Scully asked, shooting Mulder a knowing glance.

“Well, it may be difficult for you to understand as a layperson. It had to do with an esoteric interpretation of the Riemann hypothesis which is a theory that predicts prime number frequency,” Olafson explained condescendingly.

Mulder smirked invisibly as he felt Scully tense up a smidgen.

“In what way was his interpretation different than the standard understanding of Riemann’s predictions of non-trivial zero distribution of the zeta function? And does this have anything to do with Dr. Dag’s so-called Riemann Space? We understand you used to work with Dr. Dag,” she asked, the smugness in her tone evident only to the well-attuned ears of her partner.

Olafson blinked a few times as he ogled at Scully, newfound admiration shooting obviously from his awkwardly shifting eyes. “Yes, indeed, Kieran was obsessed with Ivan’s idea of the Riemann Space. Ivan’s conjecture wasn’t so much an alternate understanding of the hypothesis itself, more of an extension on the harmonic frequencies that suggests that there is a reality based on Riemann’s harmonics that can be accessed through a pure understanding of the hypothesis,” Olafson gushed, sparkles of elation shooting from his otherwise twitchy eyes.

“What sort of reality?” Scully asked, giving Olafson a small dose of her well-honed skeptical look.

“Well, supposedly one that can only be accessed through a deep immersion and understanding of the primes.”

“And how does music affect this reality?” Scully continued.

Olafson startled at the unexpected question and looked at the agents strangely.

“Ah, you are referring to the music of the primes?” he asked cautiously.

“Music of the primes?” Scully repeated questioningly, implying that Olafson should continue.

“Yes, Ivan believed that part of the immersion required to discover the Riemann Space was the affect on the human body and consciousness of resonating Riemann harmonics transformed into musical tones,” Olafson explained, attention still entirely focused on the surprisingly mathematically astute redhead.

“Do you believe this Riemann Space exists, Doctor?” Mulder finally asked, interest piqued, paranormal spidey-sense set a tingle.

Olafson shook his head awkwardly, laughing nervously. “No, no. That’s where Ivan and I disagreed. There is no evidence that the music of the primes is anything but that – music that mimics the harmonics. There is no proof that it, in any way, affects human consciousness. It is an interesting thought experiment but Ivan really believed in it. In truth it’s just a myth, but many fine mathematicians have been lost in the search for this Riemann prime reality,” he said.

“And do you know how to get in contact with the other students that have been involved in this project with Kieran?” Scully asked. “They seem to have disappeared since the incident.”

Olafson shook his head. “No, I don’t even know who these students might be. Kieran was a loner here – he scared the more serious mathematicians off with his mystical ideas.”

“One last question, Dr. Olafson – if it were possible that Kieran had found this Riemann Space, can you think of any reason someone would want to kill him because of this? Is there something about this space that could threaten other mathematicians or others in the field?” Scully asked.

“You know, that’s something I’ve been wondering about myself. Ivan believed that the space could have some useful properties in terms of prime number theory and the integer factorization problem.”

“Are you suggesting that the Riemann Space could be thought of as a way around the difficulty of factorizing large semi-primes?”

“Yes, Agent Scully. Ivan believed that existing in the Riemann Space would allow consciousnesses to become in tune to primes in a way that would then allow factorization of RSA sized primes,” Olafson continued, still staring at the rare woman who seemed willing and able to discuss esoteric mathematical ideas with him.

“So Dr. Dag believed that the Riemann Space would be a threat to RSA security…” Scully mused aloud for Mulder’s benefit.

“Yes. But Ivan had a lot of crazy ideas like that. It doesn’t mean that any of them were actually based on fact as opposed to pure conjecture,” Olafson continued.

Looking up at her partner pointedly as Olafson commented on Dag’s penchant for ‘crazy ideas’, Scully pursed her lips thoughtfully. “Thank you Dr. Olafson. You’ve been very helpful,” she said as she felt Mulder’s readiness to end the interview.

Olafson gleamed at her praise, staring at her longingly while she and Mulder silently conferred as they turned to leave the office.

****

Stepping out into the hallway Mulder’s previously blank expression shifted to a sly, obnoxious teasing look. “Hey Scully, who knew prime numbers could be such a turn on,” he murmured in her ear as he leaned in towards her suggestively. “I’ll have to start studying up on some Riemann for the bedroom.”

Scully pseudo-ignored him amicably, pushing against his sternum with her shoulder but not deigning to reply to his remark as they strode by the various poorly-dressed student mathematicians. Halfway down the hall she stopped short in front of a bulletin board clad in flyers and classified ads, causing Mulder to briefly stumble against her as he found the anchor for his hand stopping unexpectedly.  “Look at this, Mulder,” she said, pointing at the board.

“Look at what?” he asked in confusion. Scanning the bulletin board, he couldn’t pick out anything of significance.

Scully tapped a small piece of paper with two numbers on it. “The number on top – 98867413 – looks like it may be a large prime and the one on the bottom seems to be a local phone number,” she said pensively.

Mulder grinned. “Nice eye, math geek,” he said with a squeeze of her shoulder.

Scully eyed him with mock irritation as she called the number and got a terse message with only an address and a time for that evening. Scribbling it down quickly, she showed her result to Mulder contemplatively.

“Smells like an exclusive egghead cult to me,” Mulder mused as they continued down the hall.

Neither noticed the man in a nondescript grey suit studying them with interest from around the corner.

****

The man in grey walked stiffly away from the university building, trying to fit in with the various and sundry students but failing rather miserably. The manner in which he kept anxiously looking over his shoulder was anything but smooth and both his gait and demeanor screamed government agent. Luckily for him, the people he walked by were generally involved in their own thoughts and no one took note of the nervous stranger in their midst. Thoughts were flowing through his cranium at a torrential pace – he had doubted that anyone would catch onto their elaborate scheme and now, having being most likely proven wrong, he did not have a contingency plan on hand. Even now he couldn’t quite believe that any other governmental types had even considered the possibilities that they were involved with. Especially a G-Man! If anyone were to figure them out he would have expected his own (former) people or someone from the agency. G-men just didn’t have the ability to think outside the box. Or so he had presumed, based on years of personally-gathered empirical data.

This was an unexpected snag in the plan that had been coming together rather nicely. They had been working on this for nearly a year and were close to solving the first of their two main problems. There was no way they were going to let Mr. and Mrs. Nosy-FBI get in their way now.

****

Princeton University

Princeton, NJ

7:27pm

They had whiled away the afternoon following up on the reports from the other two deaths but had little luck in uncovering anything they didn’t already know or suspect. Other than the possible connection of the ‘music of the primes’, none of the other investigating officers mentioned anything remotely mathematical in their case reports. Like most cases that got shuffled down into the basement, there had been little comprehensible evidence and lack of desire to correctly interpret the little evidence that was available. Without the mathematical background and the propensity to explore odd phenomenon, the cases had been written off as unsolvable.

Without much else to go on, Mulder and Scully approached the address from the cryptic message on the university bulletin board in hopeful anticipation. The place itself was yet another non-descript university building, florescent lights, dirty couches, beige walls and all. Due to the evening hour there were only a few students around as they made their way down to the basement. “Hey Scully, are you going to put your math wiles away or am I going to have to take on some nerds?” Mulder jibed as they ventured into the building. His comment earned him a quick elbow jab and a muted aura of amusement. As they continued to haphazardly toss friendly rejoinders about, neither noticed the suspicious figure lurking behind the bushes near the corner of the building.

Dressed in government-standard poorly fitted suit and the ubiquitous sunglasses at night, his attention perked as the FBI agents entered the building and a sly grimace grew on his otherwise non-descript face. He and his partner had earlier agreed that it wasn’t yet time to panic but the fact that there was, indeed, another gathering and that the FBI had shown up for it was not good in any way, shape, or form. It was time to take the offensive and re-establish their control over this project.

****

Unnamed building

Princeton, NJ

7:33pm

The man in grey, known only as Jones, quickly strode over to his vehicle and a few minutes later arrived at a non-descript apartment building nearby. Looking around suspiciously, he entered a dingy basement apartment where another man dressed completely in grey sat fiddling with a complex-looking top-of-the-line surveillance system.

“Play it, I need to go in now,” Jones said authoritatively. “What happened at the meeting?” grey no. 2, known only as Smith, asked.

“A bunch of the regulars and the two suits I saw at the school this morning showed up. Like I said before they’re definitely fibbies. Either way they probably won’t get into the space but I want to be there in case another one of those kids gets in there again.”

“You think they know about our involvement? What if they’ve been asking around up at Meade about us?”

“We’ve been through this before man. No one NSA has a clue what we’re onto here. We’re on our own and we’re close. I know we are. I can already feel the numbers in there, I just need a little more time to learn to control it before I can start pulling larger factors out of the landscape.”

Smith grinned at his partner’s confidence – he knew very well this ability they were trying to perfect would make the two of them rich beyond imagining. Being able to factor large semi-prime numbers into their two large prime factors would allow then to break the RSA security algorithms used throughout electronic banking systems.

With this ability, they would easily be able to transfer funds from hacked bank accounts into their own. With this ability they would be light years ahead of still-theoretical quantum computers that could, possibly, also perform this little mathematical trick. With this ability, they could steal fortunes from their dingy little basement base and disappear with millions in their accounts.

He thought of how fortuitous that they had been paired on this project to begin with. They had been exploring the concept of the Riemann Space as part of a NSA project when they had stumbled across a small internet cult built on concepts of mathematical mysticism and the ideas of Dr. Ivan Dag. Exploring the ideas further and following the procedures outlined on the webpage, both eventually managed to enter the space and experience the power of the primes. They had then immediately realized the implications of this alternate reality and had subsequently gone AWOL on the NSA to explore the criminal possibilities more closely.

Since then they had been stuck on three problems that had, thus far, prevented them from obtaining their riches. First, it had taken awhile for them to properly tune into the numbers in the space. They had discovered that they were not equally adept at absorbing the harmonics of the space and so they had agreed that Jones, the more proficient of the two, would be the one to go in and explore the space more fully. Jones had then made significant progress since he had first started his trips nearly a year ago. After several trips he had become better attuned to the frequencies and was quickly learning to hear larger and larger primes. Factoring semi-prime composites was more difficult but he had also been making progress on that front. He predicted that it would take at least a month or so before he could reliably generate the length of numbers that the RSA codes currently used.

The second problem was a bit more of a challenge. Whereas Jones was sure that he could factor larger and larger semi-primes while in the Riemann Space, he wasn’t able to remember the factors when he returned to the non-prime reality. He had also, so far, been unable to transmit any information from the Riemann Space to his physical-Earth-bound partner. Though Dag’s interpretations indicated that there should be a way for communication from the Riemann Space back to regular reality, a sort of mind-portal between worlds, they had been unable to determine if it was actually possible. This was then a major hurdle in their desire for ill-gained riches – without the ability to transfer the knowledge gained in the Riemann Space to the ‘real’ world, they would never be able to use their newfound ability.

The third problem was also fairly significant and had only appeared in the past few months. The space had been theirs to explore unhindered for months – but then the pesky geeks had started showing up. The first one had stayed too long and had starved his real-world body to death, having found the Riemann Space by himself in a secluded university apartment. His death had been informative on many levels – that there were others capable of entering the space, that time in the space was not experienced in the same way as real-world time, that there were real-world consequences to staying absorbed in the space for too long.

The second student had been more of a challenge. Jones had encountered the student’s essence in the space a few times and hadn’t known what to do with the new presence. Then, almost by chance, his own presence and that of the student’s had come in close contact and he had instinctively attempted to shoot his weapon.

If he had been asked whether his not-quite-physically-present weapon tethered to his ethereal body should have functioned properly in the Riemann Space, Jones would have emphatically laughed at the idiocy of the question. It only showed their lack of understanding of connections between the space and the real world when the weapon discharged and left behind a very real dead body. It made no sense and was completely unexpected but it certainly gave the two men in grey a definite advantage. From that point on they were confident that they would have all the time they needed to sort out their problems. Even after the last student Jones had killed in the space, it still meant that only three people had found the space in nearly a year’s time. By their calculations, they only needed a few more months to be able to properly manipulate the space according to their needs. If it meant a few more dead pocket-protector types then, well, really what was the problem? Especially considering the previous cases had been written off as unexplainable, unsolvable, dead ends. Now, however, with feds on their trail… it was a lot more serious than offing a couple of kids.

“I have to go in and get rid of them if they make it into the space,” Jones explained hurriedly as his partner considered the implications of potentially killing two government agents. Smith looked a bit apprehensive but knew that Jones was right. They were in too far to quit. He pressed play on the computer and the odd atonal frequencies began to resound through the attached speakers.

****

Princeton University

Princeton, NJ

7:33pm

The room was cream of wheat bland but those strangely familiar harmonics assaulted their ears as they entered the nondescript space.

Mulder quirked a grin both at Scully’s expression as she recognized the same atonal ‘music’ she had first encountered the previous morning in their office and at her atypical lack of awareness when all the young male math-heads immediately focused on the female that had entered their space.

There was a moment of uncomfortable, anticipatory silence as all three students looked at each other nervously. Scully looked over the scene appraisingly. Mulder was giving her the ‘I’m deferring to your expertise in this subject’ body language and the students were all huddling together defensively. From what she could remember of the original case files, there had been six students all together when Kieran Jackson had died. Their school pictures had been included with the file and she vaguely recognized the three nervous twenty-somethings gaping at her. Finally, thinking of one thing that might break the ice, Scully looked at the group and said, “98867413”. The effect was instantaneous as the students all visibly relaxed and they nodded at each other knowingly.

“I’m Agent Scully and this is my partner Agent Mulder. We’re here investigating the death of Kieran Jackson and we believe that your group may be able to offer some insight into the events that led to Mr. Jackson’s death,” Scully continued. Again the students eyed Mulder and Scully warily but after a brief silent consultation of their own, one of them finally spoke.

“Yeah, we knew Kieran. He started this group,” the young man volunteered apprehensively.

“And were any of you there when he died?” she asked, already knowing the answer but wondering what their response would be.

Again, jittery looks flitted about the room and no one chose to respond.

“I’ll take that as a yes,” Scully continued. “We’re not here to accuse anyone. We just want to obtain some more information around the circumstances of his death.”

Tension still filled the room but finally a slightly exasperated voice broke the atonal-frequency-adorned silence. “Look, like we told the other cop, we don’t know what happened to Kieran. He was there and then all of a sudden he fell over and was bleeding all over the place,” one of the other students recanted.

“What do you mean he were there, Mr….?” Mulder interjected, instantly picking up on the paranormal aroma of the phrase.

“Boyd. Eric Boyd. Like he was in the Riemann Space. It’s what we were all trying to do. It’s what we’re trying to do here. And he actually got there. But then…”

“So none of you have been to this Riemann Space?” Mulder continued.

“No, just Kieran. But we’re all getting closer,” Eric replied.

“How do you get there? How do you know when you’re getting closer?” Mulder asked.

“That’s what we’re doing here. You can stay and watch but you can’t get there unless you can really feel the harmonic frequencies of the primes in you. You have to really understand and integrate the aura of prime number theory – not just with your rational mind but with every cell in your body. It’s a whole body experience.”

“How much do you know about this process? Where did you learn about it in the first place?” Mulder questioned.

“We mostly learned about it on the net and from Kieran. Oh and Kieran learned a lot from Olafson before he switched back into more mainstream mathematics. Anyway, Kieran was the one who really believed in it – at first the rest of us thought it was just a joke, you know. Like get together with a bunch of math guys and have a beer and talk theory with the funny Riemann harmonics playing. It was just a fun get together until Kieran actually got there.”

“Any idea why Olafson turned away from this concept?” Scully interjected.

“I dunno for sure. But Kieran said it was cause Olafson saw a greyman poking around in his office and it freaked him out.”

“A greyman?” Scully asked, eyebrows rising in question.

“Yeah, a weird guy in a grey suit. He’s kind of been following some of us around. Kieran said he saw the greyman around his apartment a few times. I think it’s top secret government shit you know – like they don’t want regular people to access the space.”

“What else can you tell us about this Riemann Space? Other than Kieran, do you know anyone who’s been there?” Mulder continued.

“Well, there’s been at least a couple of other guys. The first guy we’re not sure about – he was this MIT guy and he was really into the concept of the space but then he just totally starved himself to death or something weird like that. We think he actually got into the space and forgot to come out but there’s no proof or anything. And then there was that other guy at UCLA that said he was getting closer to the space and then the next thing we heard was he ended up dead. Kind of like what happened to Kieran right?”

“And you’re not afraid of accessing this space even after all these deaths?” Scully questioned.

“Well, there used to be more of us but the other guys are a bit freaked right now. I’m a bit freaked too but last time I tried I was so close. I have to take the chance and try again – I have to know what it’s like.” Eric looked around at the other two students who were nodding in unanimous agreement. They still looked apprehensive but seemed ready to meet their fate, regardless of outcome.

“One last question – you mentioned that the first student at MIT starved to death by being in this space for too long. How do you get out of the space when you’re there?” Mulder mused.

“Kieran said there’s a couple of ways. Like you can connect yourself to someone who’s on the other side and he can pull you back by actually physically connecting with you. Or, you can shut out the frequencies when you’re in the space and you’ll be sent back to your real body,” Eric explained. “Anyway, that’s really all we know. If you want to find out more, you gotta try to get to the space yourselves.”

Mulder eyed Scully, the skepticism clear in her guarded stance and the slight pique in her lower lip. Smiling at her discomfort, he took her coat off for her and gently-but-firmly led her towards the middle of the room. Eric had turned the volume up at the end of the question and answer session and the three students were all sitting, eyes closed, chanting numbers that Mulder could only assume to be prime.

42042227…42042263…42042271…42042283…42042311….42042313

Still obviously uncomfortable with the séance-like qualities of the affair, Scully sat down with Mulder and tried to resist as he took her hand in his. He held fast to it though and she finally acquiesced, letting him work through some of her tension with his thumb on her palm. She felt the tightness ease from her shoulders and relinquished herself to the calming feeling of Mulder’s warmth as she let the odd tones and chanting wash over her. Her tendons began to loosen and he whispered to her to close her eyes. She surprised both of them by complying wordlessly and Mulder could feel her relax as she absorbed the harmonic frequencies in the room. Scully realized she could feel a numerical rhythm and numbers began to spontaneously lodge in her cerebrum as if they were floating in the air around her.

40286033…40286053…40286063…40286111…40286123…40286131… 40286153

Mulder continued to hold onto her hand, feeling the connection between them pulsate through their eternally co-mingled bodies. As the minutes wore on, however, he began to feel something essential missing in their connection. Squeezing her hand gently got him no response and even as he was just opening his eyes, he knew something was different.

99789997…99790007…99790013…99790031…99790039…99790049… 99790069

Scully was still sitting beside him but her logical brain, her sly wit, her stubborn tenacity, was elsewhere in places likely unreachable for him. Her body was there but her consciousness was elsewhere.

****

Reimann Space

7:51pm

Scully startled back to herself, embarrassed that she had, evidently, fallen asleep in the middle of the slightly-ridiculous number-chanting ceremony. However, as she slowly took in her surroundings, she began to understand that she was no longer in a university basement with a smattering of student mathematicians. The air around her was doused in a mist of muted colours but she still somehow recognized her surroundings as the same dull university basement. The notes that had been playing in the room now were just generally playing everywhere in her new sphere of existence. The frequencies were in the walls, the air, her body. She could even feel Mulder’s hand still gripping hers intently in a peculiar phantom-limb type of way. Even through the thickly-coloured air she imagined she could see the telltale signs of worry on his expression and she tried to squeeze his hand to reassure him that she was alright.

“I’m okay, Mulder,” she said forlornly into the void in a non-logical, fairly desperate, stab at communicating quasi-telepathically from wherever she was. If it wasn’t so completely unlike her to have fallen asleep on the job, she would have supposed that she was lucid dreaming. But there was something different about the space which she now unexpectedly found herself occupying. It was actually a place in and of itself. And it was, both strangely and completely expectedly, resonating with prime numbers.

Concentrating all her energy on her partner, she said it again. “I’m fine, Mulder. Don’t worry about me.”

And she knew it wasn’t just her imagination when she heard his glib-but-worried voice respond. “Earth to math geek. Please be careful.”

Smiling to herself, Scully started exploring her new environment. It was as if she were standing on a different plane of existence, floating somewhere between the regular world and the upper atmosphere. Everything was foggy and ghost-like and she could walk and see through what would have been walls in the regular world. Distances no longer had concrete meaning as she drifted through the space. And everything, everything, everything was infused with prime numbers. They radiated from every direction and Scully could hear them, smell them, feel them vibrating through her new specter-body. The primes were the space and she was the primes. Not only could she hear large primes radiating from the space around her, she could perform mathematical operations with an ease that was completely unnatural. She found that she could think of any number and the space would tell her every way in which that number related to a prime. Even highly time-consuming, difficult operations without specified algorithms, such as knowing if a number is prime or if it is the product of two primes.

And then she knew exactly why the killer wanted the space for himself. If she could hear the products of large semi-primes then it was only a matter of time before she could take the public key of a RSA code and deduce its private key counterpart. And that would mean she would have the ability to crack some of the toughest computer security systems available before anyone figured out the RSA system had been compromised. “Mulder, I know why he’s doing it,” she projected with her mind, “Olafson was right – he wants to crack RSA keys.”

She heard his acknowledgment of her epiphany briefly before she began to continue exploring her new reality. Propelling herself through resonating frequencies and the reverberating primes, Scully found that she had near-instantly gone the Earth-equivalent of a few hundred metres when she heard Mulder again. “Keep the reports coming, Scully,” his voice rumbled through her mind in a distinctly different timbre than the resonating frequencies around her.

“I’ll tell you when I find anything,” Scully replied with a tinge of her ‘whatever mom’ voice. “I feel some sort of… of… I don’t know. Something nearby. I’m heading over there now.”

“Where?” Mulder’s barely concealed panic voice replied.

Scully didn’t respond as she felt for the new sensation of a strange dissonance in the space around her. It both drew her and repelled her and she could feel the innate not-rightness of the feeling. Yet coming closer to the feeling, she found she could nearly sense the real-world equivalent of where the sensation extended from. The confluence of the two realities was, at once, both indescribable and innate. She somehow intuitively understood that if she could only find the source of the feeling it would lead them to their killer. As she moved towards the reverberating dissonance, she began to feel another sort of oddity – also a dissonance but one that did not project the same discomfort and malevolence. Approaching this new sensation before further exploring the nearly opaque area of darkness she had been heading towards, Scully found that the frequencies of the entity before her was much like her own. As she concentrated her energy on the body-like form in front of her, she even began to feel a kind of recognition in the prime frequencies that flowed from the form.

Somehow, she knew it was the young man from the room. Eric had come across the barrier and was also in the space. Scully could feel the joy emanating from his being as he stood awash in the primes that flowed through their bodies. Although the joy created a dissonance in the fabric of the space, it was a rosy-coloured rupture, not one of darkness. Absorbed by the amazement resounding from Eric’s hazy form, Scully was shocked to find herself nearly enveloped in an oncoming darkness of spirit. It was the resonance, the dissonance from before. And it was clearly not projecting the same exalted rose-tinged feelings. It was as if a giant, overwhelmingly powerful and horrific sound wave was overtaking the entire space around her. Different than the innocuous energy projected by Eric’s form, this sensation was inescapable and approaching quickly. It turned the colours in the prime number-infused mist into a growing blight of nothingness. She could feel Eric’s presence freeze in panic, the rosy-emanations quickly dispersing within the oncoming darkness. Shouting at Mulder, she didn’t quite know what to say.

“Something’s wrong,” was the most she could get out as the dark dissonance crawled on top of them.

Closer.

Closer.

All of a sudden Scully felt Eric’s presence completely drop away from her altered reality. The reverberations in the space that indicated his being disappeared and she instantly understood what had happened to him. Instinctively, she realized she was going to be the next target and she launched her ghostly Riemann Space body out of what she assumed to be the line of fire. Having no clear conception of where the attacker was firing from, she could only hit the deck and hope. She was nearly down on what purported to be ground in this unearthly space when she felt the force hit her in what felt like her solar plexus. The sensation was inexplicable – somewhat phantom-like but most definitely based in reality. She could feel the frequencies of the primes dying away as she seemed to fall down through various strata of atmospheric pressure.

99801571… 99801587… 99801593… 99801631… 99801677.

Her body began to solidify again and she could almost feel the scuffed linoleum floor underneath her, the reassurance of Mulder’s hand in her own. And then she felt the pain.

****

Princeton University

Princeton, NJ

8:11pm

“Scully! Scully! Hey, come back to me, Scully!” he shouted, both her ear and her mind as she drifted back from the hazy plane of prime numeracy. Her surroundings began to appear more solid in nature and the vague surreal-ness of the prime number-infused space ebbed away from her consciousness. She began to feel the physical sensations of cold linoleum on her back and a frantic pressure in her side as the misty colours morphed into regular fluorescent lighting. As she came back to the world as she generally knew it, it became clear that there was a massive amount of confusion and fear haphazardly strewn about the bleak basement room. Two of the students were standing over Eric’s prone body, trying to staunch massive amounts of blood pouring out of his torso. They were both shouting in panicked voices about him not breathing and frantically asking Mulder what they should do. Mulder, however, was clearly more focused on pleading with her to wake up although he did, on occasion, yell instructions to the agitated students.

Looking up at her partner through half-mast eyes, Scully wondered aimlessly why she felt so weak. She had felt perfectly fine before going into the Riemann Space and hadn’t expected the transition back into proper reality to be so energy-draining. She tried to reflect on her experience in the space but couldn’t even begin to explore the immense amount of data rebounding through her head with endlessly conserved kinetic energy. It was as if all her thoughts at having such a rationally inexplicable experience had stolen the energy that existed in her body. But that wasn’t a logical idea, nor did it explain the surge of pain she was beginning to feel in her right side, a sensation that began as a dull ache and grew quickly and exponentially into pulsating agony.

“Mulder?” she muttered feebly as she pulled all her strength together and opened her eyes.

Her partner was very obviously wearing his panic face and his intense golden-flecked irises bore into her vividly as he breathed a gigantic sigh of relief upon hearing her barely audible voice. His left hand reached out to make delicate contact with her sweat-infused facial features as he ensured that she was, indeed, back with him on the same plane of reality. “Hey Scully, you okay?” he asked inanely, the loquaciousness of his language-producing frontal lobes easily defeated by the mass amounts of fear being produced by his overactive amygdala.

“I don’t know,” she answered truthfully, foregoing the expected response due to her own confused, misfiring neurons. The piercing ache in her side was absorbing her ability to think and she still couldn’t quite understand what had occurred. “What’s going on?”

“Don’t worry about it, Scully. The ambulance is on the way and I’ve got the bleeding under control. You’re gonna be fine,” Mulder murmured in his ‘trying-my-best-not-to-freak-out’ voice.

“What bleeding, Mulder? What happened?” she asked again, agitation clear in her still-shaky voice.

She feebly tried to rise from her prone position to examine for herself what was happening but as she attempted to lift her oddly-numb body, an intense spasm of pain shot through her cells and she involuntarily gasped in agony.

“Shit, Scully! Don’t try to move – I think you’ve been shot and you’re bleeding like crazy,” Mulder said in a tone that expressed a perfect blend of terror and exasperation. He softly but firmly wrapped his free arm over her ribs and held her to his lap as he continued to put pressure on her wound.

“What do you mean you think I’ve been shot, Mulder? Either I was shot or I wasn’t, there isn’t any in between.” she asked in a barely-discernible-yet-clearly-skeptical tone that allowed Mulder a brief moment of frazzled amusement before his expression turned back to pure consternation.

“I don’t know, Scully. One minute you and that kid Eric were both fine and the next he had a giant bloody hole in his chest and you had a small bloody hole on your side. It looks like it just got a little piece of your right side but it’s hard to tell through all the blood,” Mulder finally responded. “It was crazy, Scully. We were the only ones in here – no one came in and there was definitely no shots fired in here. Anyway, don’t worry about it, the ambulance is going to be here any second now and you’re going to be fine.”

“Let me look, Mulder. I don’t think I need to go to the hospital,” Scully said weakly, again struggling to sit up. This time she realized she was going into shock as the pain did not seem as intense yet she felt limper than overcooked fusilli as she attempted some upward progress. Knowing that resistance was futile, Mulder reluctantly relinquished his death-grip on his partner and helped her push herself up a bit so she could look at her injury.

“S’not so bad, just need a couple sutures,” Scully slurred as she examined the amount of missing flesh from her right side. The bullet had just grazed her somewhere between her false and floating ribs and the wound was deep but would not require anything other than some cleaning up and a routine sew-up.

Mulder raised his eyebrows in a ‘yeah right’ manner but, astutely, declined to argue with her self-diagnosis. “Sure, Scully, whatever you say. Let’s just get you to the hospital and we’ll figure it out from there,” he replied.

“What about Eric?” she asked, trying to get a better view of the other side of the room which had gotten progressively quieter as she had become more lucid.

“As far as I could tell he was gone from the start, Scully. I was checking him out when you got hit and I don’t think there was anything anyone could have done for him but the other kids tried for a bit,” Mulder replied quietly. “What the hell happened in there?”

Scully bit her lip in concentration and tried to piece together what she could remember of her venture into a different reality. Her synapses were dulled by the fatigue enveloping her body but she could still clearly recall the intense feeling of dissonance in the otherwise harmonious space. “I could feel the killer, Mulder. I think if I went back I could lead you to him,” she replied, the determination in her voice only slightly dulled by the shakiness of her speech.

“No way, Scully. At least not for awhile. We have to find out more about this Riemann Space before you go back on your own,” Mulder stated decisively. “I won’t let you do it.” He instantly felt her tense in his arms as he made his declaration and thanked his lucky stars that blood loss would likely mitigate the intensity of the incoming argument.

“It’s not up to …” Scully started to retort but she stopped short as their argument was interrupted by large amounts of uniformed people arriving at the scene.

****

Paramedics and policemen flooded through the door mere minutes apart. The Paramedics arrived first and Mulder indicated for them to first check on the probably-dead student. Pushing aside the two students still hovering in shock over their friend’s bleeding body, the paramedics checked for any signs of life. After a few minutes they had determined that any attempt to save the young man would be futile – the amount of blood lost and the severity of the injury meant that he was gone. They had just moved over to check on Scully when three policemen burst in on the scene, led by their new acquaintance Detective Greg Wallace. Wallace took one look at the agents and grimaced noticeably. “What the hell happened here?” he asked in his best gruff-cop tone. Mulder was being pried away from Scully by the paramedics, feeling both relieved that they were there to help her and annoyed at the necessity of being physically detached from her. As he heard Wallace’s voice resonate in his ear, he turned in irritation.

“Same thing that happened last time, Detective. They were both shot in the Riemann Space by a killer who’s looking for exclusive rights to the place. There’s no other explanation for what happened,” Mulder stated emphatically.

“Don’t be stupid, Agent Mulder. There is no such thing as this so-called Riemann Space. It’s not possible. And seeing as you’re the only one uninjured person with a weapon in this room, I don’t think you’re the most credible witness – or should I say suspect,” Wallace replied sarcastically.

Mulder raised his eyebrows at the accusation but didn’t allow his hackles to rise to the bait. Very methodically and unemotionally, he intoned, “If you would like to examine my weapon, feel free. You’ll find that the clip is full and that it hasn’t been discharged in days. You’ll also find that those other two students over there will tell you that no one left nor entered this room and that no shots were fired yet there is a dead man and an injured agent in this room. I’m also sure you will find upon autopsy that the student died of all the effects of a gunshot wound yet without any physical bullet having hit his body. In other words, there is no plausible explanation other than the one we have provided.”

Turning away from Wallace to refocus his attention on Scully, Mulder found that she was now barely able to sit up yet was still very effectively staring down the two burly paramedics. “I am a doctor and I’m qualified to make my own diagnosis. I do not need to go to the hospital, especially if you are qualified to cleanse and suture the wound. If you are not qualified, a pressure bandage will suffice until I can get the wound treated properly,” Scully was saying as she applied her best glare to the two stunned-looking men. “I assure you, I will get it sutured within three hours which should be fine if you can leave us some saline to rinse the wound with.”

Mulder groaned internally as he made his way towards his obstinate partner. He was starting to understand her plan and couldn’t quite tamp down the co-mingling infuriation and admiration that propagated from his intestinal tract as he approached her deceptively frail form. “Forget it, Scully. I won’t let you do it,” he stated firmly as she turned her head towards him, her finely honed radar-for-one indicating that he had returned to her proximal area.

He knew the raised eyebrow was coming even as it attacked both him and the paramedics at the same time. “Mulder, don’t be ridiculous. Our suspect is out there and we can’t give him more time to get away. It’s been too long already – I have to go back and find him before we lose him for good. I was close – I could almost feel where his physical body was. If I go back now and find him, I can direct you to him,” she retorted with as much emphasis as she could muster.

He was being ridiculous? She was the one who was clearly in shock, could barely sit up, and had a gaping wound in her side! Sometimes she was so stubborn he wanted to bash either his or hers, or both of their heads simultaneously against a brick wall. “We don’t even know if he’s still there, Scully. Maybe he left the space after he hit you two and he’s taking off as we speak. You’d be risking yourself for nothing.” Mulder sputtered, the irritation easily gaining ground on any remaining tinges of admiration.

“Nothing except all the other people that he is going to kill, Mulder. This makes it two homicides in less than a week. This man wants the space to himself and is obviously willing to go to any means to maintain his control over it. I have to do this, Mulder and I need you to do it with me,” she continued through gritted teeth.

He had to hand it to her – anyone who didn’t know her would have little clue that she was struggling just to get the words out. However, the fire behind her argument was not quite the inferno he knew it could be and he was, again, almost glad the shock took a little off her ability to spew her usual retorts of molten lava at him.

“No way, Scully. You’re proposing that you’re going back into an alternate reality that we know next to nothing about, gunshot wound and all, to take on an armed and dangerous killer who will stop at nothing to keep his secret safe. It’s totally insane!” Mulder reasoned with remarkable patience.

She gave him the look he knew was coming – the one that silently shouted ‘and the things you’ve done are not insane?’ And he had to admit that she certainly had him there – from chasing phantom memories while suffering debilitating seizures to traipsing off to Antarctica with a bullet wound to the head… As much as he wanted to press the mute button and refuse to listen to her very valid arguments, Mulder knew that they could continue to argue just as proficiently if both were suddenly struck dumb. And in the end she would win so, really, they were just wasting time and energy. Biting the corner of his bottom lip in frustration, he reached out and snagged the tips of her fingers. Running his thumb against the back of her hand in defeat, he wordlessly communicated his annoyance at her stubbornness and his growing fear over what she wanted to do.

The fact that she didn’t immediately shoo his hand away in front of so many sets of curious eyes was foreboding at best. Even so, she only allowed his concerned contact for a mere sprinkling of seconds before she let go and visibly steeled herself to the task ahead. Eight sets of disconcerted eyes watched as she indicated that the paramedics should rinse out her wound again with saline. “Lady, you are insane. You have to get this looked at,” one paramedic said when she involuntarily yelped as the saline hit the nasty-looking ragged tear in her skin.

“I told you, I’ll get it looked at soon. Probably within two hours at most. As long as I have the saline, it should stay clean enough to suture then. If you require me to officially waive your services, just get me the form. If not, I thank you for your concern but you’re free to go,” Scully replied with a politeness clearly painted in irritation.

The looks shooting about the room dripped with astonishment. The cops had already taken the little evidence they could find and were technically ready to leave but were all glued to the linoleum watching the scene develop. Even Detective Wallace seemed inclined to stay and be proven wrong if the feisty redhead was going to somehow catch the killer. The paramedics exchanged an expression of disbelief before one of them took charge of the situation. Radioing in to their dispatcher, he indicated that they would be taking longer than expected to reach the hospital and would likely be unavailable for the next hour or two. He knew only his seniority with the ambulance service and the leeway it gained him allowed him to make that call and not be questioned endlessly about what was going on. Which was definitely a good thing because he had no understanding of what really was going on except for a minor conception that the injured agent was going into some alternate reality to catch a murderer.

Which made no sense at all. But if she was staying here on some sort of inane mission, he somehow felt obligated to at least stay and make sure she didn’t bleed out while she was at it. The cops were looking to Wallace for their next move. They were done gathering evidence but their curiosity was also piqued. They also knew that the likelihood of Wallace putting away his sour grapes was highly unlikely. Wallace himself was fighting an internal battle. As much as he disliked the smarmy, know-it-all attitudes of the feds, he did have to admit to himself that he could not come up with any other explanation for the two homicides. And the female agent was a bitch but didn’t seem to be a complete idiot – if she thought there was a chance of catching the killer, maybe there was something to this plan. Not that he bought this whole alternate reality bullshit but… He reluctantly admitted to himself that he wanted to stay because he was grudgingly becoming impressed by the feds. They seemed to have an eerie understanding of each other and Wallace knew exactly how difficult it was to develop that sort of partnership in law enforcement. And the fact that the woman had been shot and still refused to give up on the mission… He wanted to see how it all turned out. Turning to his two men, he said gruffly, “Well, we should stay in case the shit hits the fan.”

That left the two distraught and wide-eyed students. They had witnessed two of their friends die in the past few days and were both clearly in shock. However, they felt tied to the situation somehow and both felt compelled to stay, if only because they didn’t want to go home. Shrugging at each other, they sat down on a bloodless patch of floor, and started chanting… 99789947… 99789953… 99789967… 99789973… 99789997… 99790007, thus indicating their intention to remain.

However, the fact that no one chose to leave was barely noticed by either Mulder or Scully as they quietly discussed their plan. The paramedics hovered nearby with saline at the ready but didn’t dare step within the approximately ten foot glaring radius of the injured agent. “I’ll be fine, Mulder. It’s clean and barely bleeding with this bandage on. I’ll lean against the wall – that way when you have to go, I’ll still be supported. And it looks like the paramedics are staying so even if it ends up taking longer than last time, they can keep the wound clean when you leave. So just play the music and listen for my directions,” Scully stated calmly, putting all other concerns out of her mind as she focused on what she had to do.

“Are you sure you don’t want anything for the pain Scully? Just something to take the edge off…” Mulder tried feebly as he helped her prop herself against the wall. “And how about having those cops go get the target when you figure out where he is? Then I can stay here…”

“No, I don’t know what effect painkillers will have on my ability to enter the space. And I don’t think I can communicate with anyone else from inside. This is how it has to be, Mulder – so let’s just do it and get it over with,” she replied through a poorly hidden prolonged wince. She closed her eyes, knowing that the argument had been won and that Mulder would soon be cueing the music of the primes. As her blood pressure rose and the shock began to wear off a bit, Scully felt as ready as she would be to perform her part of the plan.

Although the wound burned with every breath, it wasn’t anything that she couldn’t withstand for awhile. And there was the chance that she wouldn’t even feel it in the Riemann Space. Or so she hoped.

****

Riemann Space

8:53pm

The peculiar harmonics filled the air and she tried to breathe deeply through the pain that was beginning to worm into every cell in her body. She could hear the students chanting the numbers – 693100537… 693100559… 693100571… 693100579… 693100633… 693100637… 693100679. The sound of the primes being intoned and the odd resonances of the music intertwined in her consciousness and she felt a growing aura of comfort enveloping her. The primes were trying to speak to her again, she could almost hear them emanating from the crackly linoleum, the ecru walls, the fluorescent lights.

Scully tried to leave her physical body behind as before and she rose higher into the colourful mist of numeracy but the throbbing pain refused to let her go. It tethered her to her body even as she absorbed the presence of the primes, as she heard and saw the now-familiar Riemann frequencies leisurely swim through the hazy space. Realizing that she could not force the pain to relinquish its hold on her, Scully sought to deepen the connection between the wound in her side and the music of the primes. As she began to hear numbers that equated with the pain, her attachment to the other world finally began to dissipate and her consciousness was, again, wholly entrenched in the Riemann Space.

It was just as she left it, misty and wonderful, prime numbers resounding in a fantastic cacophony that only a mathematician or physicist could fully appreciate. With her innate skepticism set aside for once, Scully sank into the numbers inherent in the space and found that, once again, she could think in primes. Leaving the physical confines of the university building where her corporeal body remained, she found the travel tougher than before and understood that the weakness in her body was affecting her abilities in the Riemann Space. The resounding of the numbers pierced her being with an unpleasant force she had not experienced on her previous trip and the rate at which she could maneuver around in the space was limited by the distress she felt.

Seeking out the intense disharmony of the killer, Scully moved in what she believed to be the same direction as before. Trying to let the beautiful rhythmical drumming of the primes propel her through the pervasive discomfort, she began to sense an oncoming darkness radiating from a particular direction. Moving in that direction was nearly torturous though as the dissonance of the killer tore through her. She could only manage brief forays towards the vileness that the presence discharged and gasped in distress as she doggedly approached the extreme dissonance.

She could hear Mulder shouting in her mind, asking if she were okay and stopped to send back a sarcastic ‘just peachy’. As she stopped she found that she could still sense the equivalent to her position in the real world. She was only a few blocks from the university building where Mulder was and the dissonance was coming from straight ahead and it was fairly proximate to her position. “Time to get going, Mulder,” she projected with her conscious mind. “Target is near your location and stationary. Leave the building and start heading west. I’ll direct you as you go.”

She could imagine his reluctance to leave her side but knew he wouldn’t let his feelings get in the way of the case. The anger she would douse him with if he didn’t do his part was not something he would willingly engender.

“You’re the boss, Scully.”

His sarcasm-and-worry-tinged voice projected through her mind and the disharmony in the air ceded just a tad, allowing her to push her way towards the killer. It wasn’t far in distance but she felt as if she were moving through sonic waves of pure pain, the reverberations of evil pulsating through her weakening ephemeral body as she inched closer and closer to the target. Finally, she could ‘see’ the dirty little apartment from which the radiating dissonance sprouted.

“Up two more blocks and then turn right. It’s the third house on the north side. Basement apartment, entry in the back,” she shouted with her mind, feeling herself get lose strength with every projected word. She could barely hear the music of the Riemann Space as it was drowned by the cacophony of pain that irradiated her from every direction. She knew she was not going to be able to keep it up much longer. She could almost feel Mulder running as fast as his fancy shoes could take him but even her sense of him was dimming as she neared the target. She was beginning to lose herself between spaces, the weakness of her physical body affecting her strength in the Riemann Space and her consciousness not strong enough to cross back into her real body. Partially drifting a sea on waves of prime numbers, Scully couldn’t quite block out the frequencies that kept her in the Riemann Space. She was seized with pain and could feel herself adrift, tethered to neither reality, hoping that Mulder would find her wherever she was.

****

Princeton University

Princeton, NJ

9:07pm

Feeling exponentially more panicked the longer he was separated from Scully, Mulder ran towards the target, listening for any further instructions. Scully’s directions had been sparkling clear in his mind. He really hoped he hadn’t been hallucinating again. “I’m at the door, Scully,” he projected into the space around him, waiting for a response before he entered the room, seeing if she had any other information to relay. When she didn’t respond, extreme distress settled deep into his gastrointestinal track and Mulder barely remembered to approach his target slowly, without any suspicious movements.

Two of the cops had followed him so he was covered as he approached the basement door. Strangely, it was unlocked and Mulder turned simultaneously turned the knob and drew his gun. Opening the door, he found himself pointing his weapon at a non-descript man in a grey suit standing with his back to the door, looking intently at data readings on an arsenal of computer equipment the gunmen would be impressed by. There was also another man dressed all in grey in the apartment but he appeared to be passed out on a stained couch.

“Freeze, FBI,” Mulder announced loudly as he nodded for the cops to follow him into the room.

At the computer, Smith startled at the unexpected voice and quickly pressed one button on the machine before he lifted his arms slowly and turned to face Mulder. The music of the primes ceased to play as his astonished mind sought to interpret the implications of a FBI agent appearing at their door. There was no way the g-man could have found them. There was no one who knew where he and his partner were hiding out. Unless the g-men his partner had seen had somehow used the Riemann Space to communicate. Which would mean that they had solved one of their key problems – they could, somehow, speak through the realities, to communicate knowledge discovered while in the space back to someone back on the physical plane.

Smith waited for his own partner to return from the Riemann Space – with the music stopped, his consciousness would be quickly pulled back to his body and he might be able to get the jump on the g-man. Maybe then they could figure out how he and his partner could communicate through the space. Perfectly timed, the g-man was walking towards him and the cops completely disregarded the unconscious man on the couch who was, unbeknownst to them, quickly becoming not-so-unconscious.

****

Jones felt his consciousness get pulled back to his body and wondered what might be happening back in their hovel-come-homebase. Having gotten rid of the latest intruders in the space he had felt confident that no one else would be interrupting his work. He had been working on factorizing semi-primes and had been planning on staying for awhile yet. Smith had never turned the music off before, having always let Jones come back in his own time. This did not bode well. Even as he just touched down in his physical body, Jones could sense the extra presences in their apartment. He felt for his weapon and held it securely as he felt himself fully emerge in regular reality. Slipping the safety off silently, he planned his shot – he would go for the g-man first and then worry about the cops.

As the g-man walked towards Smith, Jones drew a bead on the back of his head, aimed, and…

****

Riemann Space

9:11 pm

She had been painfully squeezed between realities, the strongly attractive yet soul-destroying dissonance locking her in place until, suddenly, the dissonance faded. Even as her mind was slowly clearing and ability to think reappeared, Scully knew where it had gone.

The killer was returning to his body. In his apartment. Where she had sent Mulder.

The thought hadn’t even fully hit her before she started reflexively calling a frantic warning through all of time, space, and as many realities as may or may not exist.

“MULDER WATCH OUT, HE’S COMING BACK!”

****

Unnamed building

Princeton, NJ

9:11pm

Mulder approached Smith, weapon drawn, about to frisk the man when he heard Scully’s disembodied voice scream in his head. Reflexively, he turned abruptly, swung his weapon around past the confused cops next to him just in time to fire as he saw the no-longer-unconscious man on the couch pointing a gun at him, finger starting to pull on the trigger.

Jones’ head exploded, spraying an incongruously bright red liquid on the dreary walls and carpets.

Mulder took a second to breathe a wordless thanks to space in general and to his partner in particular before he was back out the door at a Olympian-worthy pace. He knew he should stay behind and deal with the implications of shooting a suspect but he figured the cops could take care of the mundane details for awhile at least. He also knew no one who knew him would have believed for a nanosecond that he wouldn’t be running back to his partner regardless of consequence.

****

Princeton University

Princeton, NJ

9:19pm

When he got back to her she was still ‘out’ and Mulder had to fight not to hyperventilate due to a mix of hard running and panic as he gripped her shoulders gently.

“Turn the music off,” he called to the students who instantly complied. “Hey Scully, I’m here. C’mon back Scully, I’m waiting to see those baby blues,” he coaxed, shaking her gently, remembering to be careful of her still-open wound. “Prime numbers are cool and all but you got someone waitin’ for you on this side.”

When she didn’t show any sign of stirring, Mulder considered his options. The paramedics were still there but should he move her physical body while she was stuck in some math world? Jesus. The things they had to consider on virtually every case were mind-boggling. What the hell was he going to do? What would Scully do?

“Damn it, Scully. C’mon, wake up and tell me what the hell to do,” he said in exasperation.

When he heard her say “let’s go get someone to sew up that cut, Mulder,” he wasn’t quite sure whether he had just heard it in his head but when he felt Scully tug at his hand, a river of pure relief surged down his spinal cord. Looking down, his elated, copper-infused, ridiculously-emoted eyes and his most-charming smile greeted Scully as she opened her eyes. Smiling sleepily at him, she asked, “That means that we got the bad guys again, right?”

“Hell yeah, we did, Scully,” he replied. “Now, let’s get that little sewing job done and we can have some quality no-prime-numbers-allowed time on the couch…”

She wasn’t about to argue with that.

****

Riemann Space

unknown time

An eerie, atonal-yet-oddly-harmonic music infused the air of the small room. A middle-aged man sat near the middle of the room, eyes closed, slowly and deliberately chanting numbers. 6644550037… 6644550053… 6644550067… 6644550119… 6644550127… 6644550139… 6644550179

He was almost there – he could feel the numbers infuse his mind with an intensity he had not fathomed possible. He had been wrong. Kieran Jackson and his old friend Ivan Dag had been right. Dr. Jon Olafson found himself in a place he instantly understood to be ripe with opportunity. He absorbed the numbers coming from every direction, from the very air itself, the strange mist emitting primes at will. It was unlike anything he had ever experienced and he was instantly addicted. The rhythm of the primes pounded through him and he could not imagine a better feeling for someone who truly understood pure number theory.

And then he felt a slight dissonance appear in his field of energy…

****

The End

****

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Ascio Maximus

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Ascio Maximus

Author: Starfleetofficer1

Category: X-File

Rating: PG-13

Spoilers: Seasons 1-7

Summary: Mulder and Scully discover an unusual child, only to discover he has a special connection to Mulder no one would have ever guessed.

Disclaimer: No copyright infringement intended.

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Original web date:09/10/2009

Ascio Maximus

MULDER & SCULLY TOWNHOUSE

GEORGETOWN, DC

MONDAY, NOVEMBER 10, 2009

0700

It hadn’t started raining when Mulder went out for his run. It was actually clear, and looked like it was going to be a nice day. He’d started out at the usual jogging pace, gradually warming up and getting into his rhythm. Subconsciously, he counted the beat of his feet hitting the pavement in sync with his breathing, and had settled in pleasantly.

Running was the only way to clear his mind. It offered what nothing else could—not an escape from the constant stream of information bombarding his mind like spam email, but rather a way to sort it out, to think about it without distraction.

And this could only be accomplished outside. The thought had occurred to him at one time that inside might be better. Less distractions: just him and the treadmill. But after about ten minutes of that little exercise in the stuffy gym, he had not only decided the machine wasn’t clocking his rate accurately, but that there was no way to clear his mind while thinking about that little band going around and around under his feet. After that day, he had vowed to only run outside, if he could help it.

Scully and he hadn’t had much excitement in the last couple of weeks since their last case. There was more paperwork to fill out than there were X-files to investigate, and Mulder had become restless. The latest game in the office was to find the pencils with particularly squishy erasers, toss them into the ceiling, and then try to toss those super-sharp mechanical pencils into the squishy erasers. So far, Mulder had been largely unsuccessful.

So now he ran, hoping to get rid of some of the tension and restlessness that came with lack of meaningful work. It was beautiful—a cool morning, the sun comfortably hidden behind the slight cloud cover, a gentle breeze licking the sweat from his face and neck. And then all hell broke loose.

The wind picked up, and it started to sprinkle. Then, in true Monday fashion, Mulder experienced a ten minute downpour, followed by more sprinkling, then nothing.

He had headed home shortly after that, his run nearly completed anyway, when it had started downpouring again. And of course, seconds after he entered the house, it stopped.

Mulder looked outside, shook his head, and took off his soaked sweatshirt. He slipped his shoes off his feet and noticed the squeak of his soaked socks on their hardwood floor. Scully was in the kitchen, still in her pajamas, sipping coffee and watching the TV.

“Did you get caught in the rain?” she asked before she saw him.

Mulder rolled his eyes. “Only slightly,” he answered. He tossed the sweatshirt into the washer, and then pulled off his Under Armor shirt as well. He tossed it into the washer and grabbed a clean towel from the pile on top of the dryer. He dried himself off slightly before dropping the towel into the washer also. Then he entered the kitchen, wearing only his still-soaked sweat pants.

“I’m gonna get a shower, then I’ll be down for breakfast,” he told Scully, on his way toward the stairs.

“Okay, but your towel’s down here.”

Mulder turned, frowning. “The one on the top of the washer?”

“Yeah, I ran the load last night.”

“I’ll grab one from the linen closet. I used the clean one.”

“No, sorry,” Scully said, absently, still watching the TV. Mulder wondered what was so interesting. “All the towels are dirty. Don’t you remember? We used them to stop the leak.”

The bathtub had leaked two days ago, and the problem had ended up being a broken pipe. What started as a little drip turned into a stream of brown water. By the time the repairman had gotten there, they had used all their towels to absorb the disaster.

“This could only happen on a Monday,” Mulder muttered, and trudged back to the laundry room. He extracted his wet towel from the washer and headed back toward the stairs. But the streaks of water left behind by his soaked feet happened to be in his path, and his feet slipped out from under him. He landed hard, right on his ass.

“Mulder, are you okay?” Scully asked instantly, rushing over.

He chuckled, and got up. “Yeah, my—”

“Ass broke the fall,” she finished, still looking concerned. “Are you sure you’re okay?”

He nodded. “Yeah, Scully, it’s just a Monday,” he answered, picking up his wet towel from their floor and giving her a quick kiss. “Maybe I’ll be able to get my shower without the pilot light going out.”

“Be careful,” she warned, half seriously and half in jest. Then she turned back to the TV.

“Hey, what’s so interesting on there?” he asked, craning his neck to get a look at the picture.

“A scientist from Colorado just killed himself last night. The DEA was apparently closing in on him, for running some kind of drug ring. He was supplying drugs to teenage kids, to sell on the streets. They’ve been looking for him for years.”

“Hm,” Mulder said, not very interested.

“It just rang a bell, for some reason…”

“Maybe we can look into it when we get to the office.”

“Maybe,” Scully said thoughtfully, and turned back to the report.

Mulder lingered for a moment before he shrugged slightly, and headed up the stairs. Whatever it was about this scientist, he had certainly piqued Scully’s interest. And at the moment, especially because it was a Monday, any interest was better than none.

XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX

J. EDGAR HOOVER BUILDING

WASHINGTON DC

MONDAY, NOVEMBER 10, 2009

0900

“Hey, Scully, check this out. On July 29th of this year, Bruce E. Ivins, the anthrax guy—remember him?”

“The FBI was after him for years and had finally built up a solid case when he committed suicide,” Scully said absently, filing a piece of paper into a folder and setting it aside. “I remember him.”

“Killed himself on July 29th. In a psychiatric hospital, where he was going to be evaluated. His psychiatrist described him as homicidal and sociopathic.”

“How shocking for a man who decided to test his anthrax cure by releasing it to humans in 2001.”

“But Scully, he was employed by the Army.”

“And…”

“And on September 21st, Justin LeRains, working for the Navy as a marine researcher, looking into cures for cancer found in the rare species at the bottom of the ocean, killed himself after being placed in a psychiatric hospital. He was under suspicion from the Navy and the FBI, for attempting a city-wide bioterrorism attack. Remember in 2003, the threats to the New York City subway system? They think LeRains was working with Al Qaeda to test Cyanide, and had been since 2001.”

“Okay,” Scully said, and turned around to face him. She recognized that tone, and in all reality, this paperwork was boring her to tears. “What else do you have?”

Mulder grinned. “Many of the chemicals he had threatened to use were originally found at the bottom of the ocean, in species no one had ever heard of. He used his research to attempt to test his own cure for this bioweapon, which was one of his other jobs. Besides cancer research, the Navy was interested in testing the same cures for bioweapons, such as cyanide.”

“Wait…I heard about this. They suspected that a possible cure for certain kinds of cancer could also be used as an antidote for certain bioweapons. I don’t think anything came of that research, though,” Scully pondered. She stood up, and walked over to Mulder’s computer screen.

“Then on October 18th, Cynthia Hassletuck committed suicide in a psychiatric facility after being removed from her job. The FBI suspected her of working with terrorists to arrange the 2004 Madrid Train bombing. Guess where Hassletuck worked.”

“For the Army, developing robot technology to disarm bombs,” Scully read.

“More than qualified to give the terrorists a nearly fool-proof cell phone detonation plan to use against Spain’s train system, especially after eight years of research.”

“And the FBI was closing in on her, just as the DEA was closing in on Peter Winfield, from Colorado. A scientist working on a successful detox program for a new kind of street drug that had just barely broken into the cities of America.”

“And then yesterday, he kills himself as well, from a psychiatric hospital. This may be one of the first times I say it, Mulder, but it definitely has a certain scent to it.”

Mulder smiled, and nodded. “I think it reeks like rotting Korean Kim chi, but that’s just me.”

“Not a fan of Kim chi, Mulder?”

“Rotting Kim chi, no. But anyway, I think there’s a connection here, but I don’t think it’s the terrorist attacks.”

Scully’s eyebrow slowly went up. “Then what are you thinking?”

“These people were all in positions to work on more than one task, have access to more resources than your average scientist. And they all kill themselves now, eight years after they began their days of testing their research on human subjects.”

“So you think they were working together on something else?”

“Possibly. I think a start would be collecting as much information on these people as we possibly can, and trying to squeeze answers out of whoever’s in charge of the latest large scale attacks. The 7/7 London bus and underground attacks, the bridge collapse in Minnesota, hell, even the miners trapped last summer. Anything that made the national or international news.”

Scully nodded. “I’ll let Skinner know what we’re doing.”

“Another thing, Scully…think about each of these attacks. Every one of them was easy.”

She paused a moment, and then nodded. “You’re right. In every situation, the scientists had easy access to the weapons, and the weapons used were not difficult for them to deploy.”

“Sending anthrax in an envelope would be easy for an anthrax researcher. Trying to test cyanide on the NYC subway system would be easy for someone who not only has the help of the terrorists but the access to cyanide deployment computer programs. Cell phone bombs would be like playing with Legos for a robotics researcher with access to government labs.”

“And running a drug ring with teenagers as the prime customers would be a lot easier to set up for someone who works for the DEA.”

“They were also all fragile people, Scully. I don’t think they got together of their own volition.”

“How do you know they weren’t forced into those psychiatric hospitals, and then killed? We’ve seen that before, what makes you doubt the possibility now?”

“All of them had a history of homicidal threats. Each and every one of their psychiatrists described them as homicidal and sociopathic. Now if you have a brilliant scientist who can orchestrate a major attack in his spare time, has no moral qualms about killing and is easily convinced to do it for his own benefit, isn’t that the kind of pawn you’d like to have on your team if you’re into human experimentation?”

Scully nodded slowly. “The question becomes…who were they experimenting on? And for what purpose? None of these scientists were in the same field. You could make an argument for Ivins and LeRains, with bioweapons. But that’s still a stretch.”

“Either there’s one unifying cause,” Mulder said as he stood up and went to the filing cabinet to pull out a blank X-file folder, “Or the cause is completely unrelated.”

“I’ll go talk to Skinner.”

“I’ll start the paperwork.”

XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX

J. EDGAR HOOVER BUILDING

WASHINGTON DC

TUESDAY, NOVEMBER 11, 2009

1500

A day of research had yielded only one important piece of information—a money trail, linking all of the suicidal scientists to an offshore account. But when they had tried to trace where the money originated, they had gotten nowhere.

The money trail had provided enough evidence for Skinner to approve of their continued investigation, but Mulder knew if they didn’t come up with something new soon, their still uncompleted paperwork would become a priority.

“Hey, Mulder, there might be something here. Cynthia Hassletuck went on vacation to France in 2002. She stayed at a hotel in Paris, and apparently attended a conference on robotics. A prominent Spanish robotics professor, Anibal Ollero. I’m checking into Ollero’s history now.”

“Let me know if you come up with anything,” Mulder said from his computer, staring at a picture of Justin LeRains and a Naval officer, Commander Cody Reynolds, in 2003. They were smiling, and shaking hands as LeRains accepted an award for a leap in cancer research.

There was a knock at the door, and Mulder stood up. “Just a minute,” he called.

Scully didn’t look up as he walked over to the door, and opened it. But when no conversation started, she glanced over at him to find him staring at something on the floor. No one was at the door.

“Mulder?”

He bent over, and picked up the object. He showed it to her, and she frowned. “What is it?”

“I think it’s a white rabbit stick-on tattoo,” Mulder said, looking at it more carefully. He flipped the little sticker over, and said, “It says ‘temporary tattoo, comes off under water.’”

“Who put it there?”

“I have no idea. But whoever knocked had to have run pretty fast to get out of the basement that quickly.”

“What’s it mean?”

Mulder shook his head, and put the white rabbit tattoo on his desk. “Maybe someone’s trying to say Happy Easter.”

Scully picked up the tattoo and studied it, hoping to find some kind of clue. Then she turned it over and looked at the back. “Wait a minute…” she brought it over to their microscope, and stuck it under. After adjusting the lens and ignoring Mulder’s excited hovering form, she said, “Got it. Come on, Mulder.”

“Where are we going?”

“Upstairs,” Scully said, almost out the door.

“Why?” Mulder asked.

“It says ‘The Matrix’ on it, printed on the back. Grab the car keys,” she ordered. When Mulder obeyed, she grabbed her jacket and said, “Remember? The white rabbit?”

“So we’re looking for another white rabbit somewhere upstairs?” Mulder inquired, ever-excited. He had that nearly glistening look in his eye that told Scully she had just created a monster.

“Something like that,” she said. Just as he went to brush past her and head out of the office, she caught his arm. “We stay together,” she told him firmly. “Okay, Mulder?”

Mulder hesitated, and then nodded impatiently. “Let’s go.”

XXX

They found another tattoo dropped by the exit to the Hoover building, in the front lobby. After walking outside and scanning for whoever had the next little clue, they found a homeless man attempting in vain to stick the tattoo to his glove as he walked down the street.

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“Excuse me! Sir!” Mulder called, and jogged up to him.

The man looked scared to death.

“We’re not going to hurt you, Sir. We just need to know where you got that tattoo.”

He squinted at them, and then began to speak. After a croak, he cleared his throat and began again. “You ain’t cops, are ya?”

Mulder shook his head. “No, we just need to know where you got that tattoo.”

“It’s a bunny,” he said, admiring the stick-on tattoo and smiling. “See?”

“Yes, it’s very nice. Who gave it to you?” Scully asked.

“Hey! Are you two Neo and Trinity?” he asked, suddenly looking excited.

Mulder glanced at Scully, and Scully’s eyebrow ascended her forehead.

“Yes,” Mulder told him. “That’s us. Who told you we were coming?”

Scully had to wonder what he was doing, but for the moment let him try to get something out of this man.

“The man with the bunny stickers. Said Neo and Trinity were coming and were gonna ask about my bunny sticker. You ain’t gonna take it away, are ya?”

“No, Sir,” Scully assured him. “I promise. Could you tell us what this man looked like?”

“Couldn’t see his face, had a hood on. Came out of the building.” He pointed to the Hoover building. “The cop building. You two ain’t cops, right?”

“We’re not going to hurt you, Sir. What did this man say to you?” Mulder asked.

“He said you two would come and ask about the bunny sticker, and I should stay here till ya do. So I walked up and down, but you didn’t come till now. Oh! And when you come, I’m supposed to tell you. Watch the news tonight.”

“Watch the news tonight?”

“The live news, the guy said. Has to be live news. Breaking news. Gonna be something big going down, promise.”

“Is that all he said?” Scully asked.

“Yeah, that’s all. You two ain’t cops, right?”

“Thanks for your time, Sir.” Mulder reached into his back pocket and pulled out his wallet, handing the man a five dollar bill. “Go to Micky D’s, get some food for yourself. It’s gonna be cold tonight—you should find a shelter if you can.”

“Don’t need no shelter. But thank’s for the five. Gonna buy myself a Whopper special. God bless ya. And thank God ya ain’t cops.”

The man shuffled away, dirty coat flapping in the wind.

“Don’t you miss the days when they’d call me up in the middle of the night and tell me to turn on my TV? Things were simpler then,” Mulder said, almost wistfully.

Scully rolled her eyes. “We should go over the security tapes. We might be able to identify the man if he was in the Hoover building. If not, well…I guess we’re watching TV tonight.”

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MULDER & SCULLY TOWNHOUSE

GEORGETOWN, DC

TUESDAY, NOVEMBER 11, 2009

2100

Scully sat next to Mulder in bed, a book propped on her lap. They had no luck determining what the mysterious messenger had wanted or why he went to such lengths to give them the simple message he did. So after work, they sat through a story about a massive string cheese recall, after which Mulder made an obscene joke that caused Scully to enter a fit of hysterical laughter that didn’t end until the weather report was over.

During the political commentary, they had both begun to read something in boredom. But that’s when breaking news came in.

“We bring you breaking news live from a home in Bethesda, MD. This suburban home on Dellwood Place has met with recent tragedy when two intruders entered and murdered at least three out of five members of a foster home. It is confirmed that Ben and Lisa Bradley, foster parents to three children, have been shot to death in their home. One of the foster children, Derrick Jones, is confirmed dead, while police suspect another to be seriously injured. Two of the three children are still in the house, being held hostage by the intruders.

“The intruders have not identified themselves and are not making any demands. Police are calling an FBI negotiator—”

“Come on,” Mulder said, getting out of bed and heading straight for the closet.

“Mulder, we have no idea if this is what they were talking about—”

“It’s breaking news, Scully!” he called from the closet, as he pulled a pair of jeans from the shelf and a t-shirt from its hanger. “This has to be what they were planning. They’ve already murdered three people, maybe four. We have to get down there.”

“No one called us,” she protested. As if on cue, the phone rang. Scully rolled her eyes as she walked to the nightstand and picked it up. “Hello?”

“Scully, it’s Skinner,” the voice on the other end said. It sounded irritated.

“Yes, Sir, what can we do for you?”

“Were you watching the news?”

“Yes, Sir. About the hostages?”

“Don’t go down to Dellwood Place.”

Scully looked surprised, and glanced at Mulder coming out of the closet. “Why, Sir?” she asked.

“We have a negotiations team going down there already, and we don’t need anyone else involved.”

“Sir…what makes you think we would go down there?”

“Did they show the front of the house on the news, Scully?”

“Yes, Sir.”

“Did you notice the sticker?”

Scully looked to the television, which was no longer focused on the front of the house. “No, Sir.”

“Ben and Lisa Bradley were MUFON members.”

Scully’s eyebrow went up, and she said, “Really, Sir.”

“It’s better for everyone if you just stay out of this—there’s nothing suggesting this is anything but a random act of violence.”

She sighed, and sat on the edge of the bed. She was really going to regret doing this. She really, really was. But she couldn’t help it—he needed to know. And Mulder was going, regardless. “Sir…there is something to suggest it’s more than a random act of violence. This afternoon Mulder and I were…I guess you could say ‘summoned’, for lack of a better word. Someone with a construction worker’s badge walked through the building, found his way to our basement office, and placed a white rabbit sticker at the foot of our door.”

“Yes, I saw the footage and was told that you and Mulder were investigating. What does that have to do with this?”

“The intruder gave a white rabbit sticker to a homeless man, who told us to watch the evening news. He specified that it had to be live, breaking news. Sir, we believe this is connected.”

“Did you get anywhere in identifying this man?” Skinner asked urgently.

“No, Sir. As you know, we tried. He wore a hooded jacket the entire time, but he did have a construction worker’s badge. We checked the roster and it was registered under a fake name, for a job that never was completed. He appears to have done nothing else in the building other than give us the sticker.”

He sighed. “Alright, Scully. I’ll meet you down there. Do me a favor…if you two get there first, don’t let Mulder do anything stupid.”

“Trust me, Sir, I was thinking the same thing. We’ll see you down there.”

When she hung up and Mulder emerged from out of the closet fully dressed, he said, “Lisa and Ben Bradley. I’ve heard those names before, Scully.”

“They were MUFON members,” Scully said with a sigh, heading into the closet herself.

Mulder paused a moment, staring at a spot on the floor as the wheels of his photographic memory turned. “I’ve definitely heard those names before.”

“Maybe they were at a conference or something.”

“Foster parents to three children, at least one of which is dead,” he muttered, as he watched Scully pull on jeans and then reach for a sweater.

“Okay, let’s go,” she said, brushing past him. “Promise me you aren’t going to do anything irrational, all right?”

Mulder rolled his eyes. “Scully, have you ever known me to be irrational?”

Scully just gave him a ‘look,’ and he smirked as he led the way down the stairs.

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1208 DELLWOOD PLACE

BETHESDA, MD

TUESDAY, NOVEMBER 11, 2009

2135

Skinner approached his agents’ car as it pulled up to the police barrier. He had someone with him—someone Mulder didn’t know. A young agent.

Mulder and Scully stepped out of the car, and Skinner introduced, “Agent Kaplan, these are Agents Mulder and Scully. Agent Kaplan is the hostage negotiator on the case.”

“Nice to meet you, Agent Mulder,” Kaplan said as she shook Mulder’s hand, and then Scully’s.

“Agents Mulder and Scully might have information pertinent to the case,” Skinner explained.

“It’s possible we encountered an accomplice this afternoon,” Scully explained. “We didn’t realize the connection until we saw the situation on the news.”

“Well, I’m sure we can use whatever you’ve got,” Kaplan said. She stuck her hands in her FBI jacket pocket. “Have you been briefed on the situation?”

“No, we haven’t,” Mulder said. “Are there still two hostages in there?”

“As far as we can see. One hostage may have bled out. We were forced to pull our cameras after one of the intruders shot the second child. The first child, Derrick Jones, and the foster parents, Ben and Lisa Bradley, are confirmed dead.”

“Do you have any leads on motive?” Scully asked.

Skinner stepped in. “We believe Lisa and Ben Bradley may have been targets because of their recent decision to foster the third child, Max Hunter.”

“Max is an eight-year-old boy,” Kaplan told them. “He’s been shuffled back and forth his entire life, and eight of his nine foster homes have been targets of random acts of violence. Police investigations led to no conclusions as to why he’s a target, and he wasn’t under police protection when he was moved to the Bradley’s home.”

“How did Max enter the foster system?” Mulder asked. Scully detected just enough eagerness in his voice to tell her that he’d just made a connection, but was trying to confirm it.

“Max was found as an infant, wrapped in a plastic bag in an alley in New York City. That’s all we’ve got at the moment.”

“There are two intruders—have they made any demands?” Scully asked.

Kaplan shook her head. “No. Nothing so far. The police have been trying to communicate since the situation started.” She started walking toward the makeshift headquarters the local police and FBI had set up in the Bradley’s front lawn. “They’ve been unwilling to answer the phone.”

Mulder nodded, and glanced at the home. He spotted the MUFON sticker on the front window, and then looked at Scully. “Max is eight years old.”

“That’s what they said,” Scully said carefully, studying his eyes. “What are you thinking, Mulder?”

“The other violent attempts on Max’s life,” Mulder turned to Kaplan. “They were seemingly random acts of violence?”

Kaplan nodded. “In every case, two intruders. That’s what the police have been able to come up with. Do you think Max might be the intended target here as well?”

“They haven’t killed him yet. I need to talk to whoever compiled Max’s history.”

“That would be Officer Tarrin. Officer,” Kaplan got the woman’s attention, and she walked over. “Officer Tarrin, Agents Mulder and Scully with the FBI. You’ve met Assistant Director Skinner. Agent Mulder needs the information you’ve got on Max Hunter’s history.”

“On my laptop, over here,” Tarrin said, and turned the tablet PC’s screen around to face them. On it was a Microsoft Word document detailing Max Hunter’s life, from the year 2001 until today. Mulder studied the short time line, noting each milestone.

“Max never spent more than a year anywhere,” Kaplan commented, somewhat sadly.

“In each incident, no one was killed, until now,” Mulder said. “Isn’t that right?”

“In every case, the foster parents were too shaken or injured to continue to care for Max. They were never killed, until now.”

Mulder turned back to the house, and then to Skinner. “I need to go in there.”

“What? Mulder, you can’t be serious. They haven’t even been able to communicate. They’re not going to let you anywhere near those children,” Scully interjected.

“I want you to come with me, Scully. They’re not going to kill the boy. They may kill that other child, though.”

“Just because they haven’t been successful in the past, Mulder—” Skinner started.

“Let me get on the megaphone. I want to talk to these people. I think I know what they want.”

“Explain it to us, Mulder,” Scully implored him. His speech was getting faster, and he was nearly bouncing on his heels. Scully recognized one of those Mulder-leaps of logic when she saw one.

“Eight years ago, someone created a child they didn’t know what to do with, and now they can’t kill him. What they want is passage out of here and if they think they’re going to get it, that’s what’s going to get me in there. And I’ll need backup. That’s why you have to come, Scully. If that other child is still alive you need to administer medical attention.”

“Mulder—”

“Wait, whoa, just wait a minute,” Kaplan said, drowning out Skinner and Scully’s simultaneous protest. She glanced apologetically at the Assistant Director before turning back to Mulder. “You aren’t on this case. You’re here to consult. It sounds like you have information for us, so please, explain it. The sooner the better.”

“Agent Scully and I have been following a case involving scientists who have recently committed suicide. They can be linked through a money trail that goes back eight years. We also were recently approached by an unknown informant who told us to watch breaking news tonight,” he said impatiently. “Someone who obviously knew this was going to happen, most probably an accomplice. I believe we were contacted so that we would show up down here, because of its link to our current case. Now please, let me talk to these people.”

Kaplan looked dumbfounded. She glanced at Scully and Skinner hopelessly, and then said, almost out of breath, “You mean to tell me…you think somehow your case, which has absolutely nothing to do with this…might be connected? And that’s your basis on walking into a hostage situation?”

“I think it’s too much of a leap, Mulder,” Scully said as gently as she could.

“So far, the police have tried offering medical attention, free passage out of there, hell, just about everything. I honestly don’t think you could say anything to make this situation worse,” Officer Tarrin offered.

“Well, I do,” Kaplan said forcefully. “There’s a whole hell of a lot you could say to get that boy and his foster sister killed in there.”

“What are our options, Agent Kaplan? Have we tried every avenue of communications?” Skinner demanded.

Kaplan nodded. “We should send SWAT in soon, Sir. We don’t have a clear sniper shot, though.”

“Someone inside could get that for you,” Mulder jumped in. “I could wear a wire, and you could tell me when I’ve got them in a position to snipe the intruders.”

Kaplan looked at him, clearly annoyed.

“Agent Mulder has a point,” Skinner offered. “But we can’t send two agents in there. They would realize they’re being played if that’s the plan.”

“I’m going to need Agent Scully in there with me,” Mulder said. “There are two intruders. I can’t position both by myself.”

“Then you’d have to convince them to let you both in,” Kaplan said doubtfully.

“Let me try. Give me the megaphone.”

“Do you have any experience with hostage negotiations?” She asked, hands on her hips.

“Actually, yes, he does,” Scully stated, though she wasn’t entirely enthusiastic about it.

Kaplan looked between them, and then to Skinner. “Is this all right with you, Sir?”

Skinner nodded reluctantly. “I don’t like it, but at this point, it seems as though we’re stuck. We have no way of knowing what’s going on in there without someone inside.”

She bit her lip, and nodded in acknowledgement. “All right, then let’s get the megaphone. I hope to God you know what you’re doing, Agent Mulder.”

She walked away, leaving Mulder, Scully, and Skinner standing in a semi-circle. Mulder stuck his hands in his pockets and tried to ignore Scully’s concerned expression.

A few moments later, Mulder was handed a megaphone, and took a deep breath, willing himself to speak clearly and say the right thing. He felt so incredibly close, that this was the step he and Scully had been waiting for. This child, Max Hunter, would be the connection they needed. He just had that feeling. “My name is Fox Mulder,” he said. “I have my partner with me, Dana Scully. We’d like to offer you free passage out of here, with Max Hunter. You can take the boy. But you need to take us with him. We would like to come in. We aren’t armed. Scully is a medical doctor, and can offer assistance to anyone who needs it. We’ll be calling the house phone in a moment. Please pick up, and let us know what your answer is.”

Kaplan rolled her eyes, and Mulder wasn’t quite sure what she thought he had done wrong. But moments later, she was dialing the house phone. She had that ‘this is going to hell’ look in her eyes that told him he had made yet another friend in the FBI. But much to everyone’s surprise, she suddenly said, “Yes. This is Agent Kaplan. I’m directing Fox Mulder and Dana Scully.”

There was a pause, and everyone stopped what they were doing and turned to Kaplan.

“All right. We’ll have one for you on the curb. But first Mulder and Scully need to come in, and determine the condition of the hostages.”

Another pause. Skinner was pulling out his cell phone, ready to order whatever vehicle they had requested so it did indeed appear on the curb.

“They’ll be inside in approximately five minutes. They’ll be wearing vests, but they won’t have any weapons with them.”

She flipped the phone closed, and was about to address Mulder and Scully, but the partners were already headed for the back of a police van, where equipment lay. They needed to be fitted for wires and vests, and quickly.

Five minutes later, Mulder and Scully were climbing the front steps to the Bradley residence. “Mulder, please be careful here,” Scully said. She met his eyes, and tried to communicate exactly how pissed she’d be if he did something stupid.

“You too, Scully. We both know the main goal. Nothing else.”

“That’s right. Nothing else,” Scully repeated firmly. She hoped Mulder believed what he had just said.

They entered and were immediately met with the barrel of a CZ-40. “Turn around, slowly,” the man said. “Against the wall.”

He approached them when they had done so, and patted both of them down for weapons. Then he backed away, still pointing his weapon at them. “Upstairs. Now.”

His accent was American, and he had a Caucasian complexion. He was dressed very stereotypically in all black, but had at some point shed the ski mask. Mulder and Scully led the way slowly up the stairs with the CZ-40 pointed at their spines.

“Into the first bedroom,” the man said. The agents knew the FBI was getting every word through their hidden microphones, and were now laying out SWAT’s plans.

Inside the master bedroom a pajama-clad couple lay dead on the floor. Ben and Lisa Bradley. An African-American boy, probably about twelve, lay dead in the corner from a gunshot wound to the chest. A girl of about nine was up against the wall, her back to the door. Mulder and Scully couldn’t tell if she was breathing.

And then, with a gun pointed at his head, a boy with red hair and hazel eyes stared at them from behind the second intruder. He had curled himself into a ball, his small arms clutching his legs as he stared at Mulder and Scully with wide eyes.

Scully gave him a small smile, hoping it would offer an iota of comfort.

“He said you were coming,” the man behind the boy said. The man they had met downstairs still pointed his weapon at them. “Who are you, and how do you know him?”

“Who said we were coming?” Mulder asked.

“Don’t be stupid. The kid.”

“What exactly did the child say, Sir?” Scully asked carefully.

“He said Fox Mulder and Dana Scully would be coming soon. I want to know how you know him, and I want to know now!” The man insisted, shoving his weapon into the child’s temple. The little boy flinched, but didn’t try to move.

Mulder weighed his options. They had never said they were agents. Kaplan had been smart enough not to mention that, either. These men clearly didn’t recognize what Mulder thought had to be engineered abilities in this child. They were probably hired help, not in the loop. “I’m Max’s primary social worker. Dana Scully is his secondary social worker—my partner.”

“And you had some kind of appointment tonight?” The man asked, standing up and taking the gun from the child’s head.

“Yes. It was a late one but it couldn’t be rescheduled. Max was going to move foster homes soon.”

“So you want to go with him. You don’t know where we’re going,” the man with the CZ-40 growled. “You have no fucking clue what we’re gonna do and you want to go with us?”

“Max is my responsibility,” Mulder told them. “I’m very dedicated to the children I’m in charge of.”

“That’s a nice story. But I don’t buy it. Still, you come with us.”

“Can my partner first check out Max, and his foster sister? To see if either require medical attention? Then we can go.”

The two intruders glanced at each other, and then the one behind Max nodded. “Yeah. The girl should be dead by now. We didn’t touch the other kid.”

“Please tell him to stand up and come over here,” Scully said. “I need an area large enough to examine him, away from the bodies.”

“You try anything, I’ll shoot him first, then you,” the man said. When Scully nodded, he shoved the child with his foot. “Go.”

Max stood up and walked over slowly, his eyes never leaving the floor. The men now re-positioned to cover the area where Scully and Mulder had taken steps toward. The positioning was perfect, and seconds later, they got the confirmation in their ear pieces. Then the explosion happened.

Mulder dove on top of Max and Scully tried to shield them both, as glass shattered and both intruders dropped to the ground. The snipers were successful.

Scully went right for the little girl by the wall and checked for a pulse while Mulder held Max by the shoulders and met his eyes. “Are you all right?” he demanded, his adrenaline-fueled voice sounding rougher than he would have liked.

The little boy nodded, as tears started to roll down his cheeks. It was only seconds before the full-blown sobbing began, and the child buried his head in Mulder’s chest and wrapped his arms around the agent in a death grip. Mulder held the boy and rubbed his back, while looking to Scully.

“We need an ambulance,” she said into her earpiece urgently. “She’s alive. Barely. Gunshot wound to the upper thigh. Pulse is thready. Get the hell up here now!”

While Scully covered the girl with her jacket and applied pressure to the wound, Mulder tried to comfort the hysterical eight-year-old.

When the paramedics arrived and took over, Mulder picked Max up and carried him out of the room, with Scully right behind him. They exited the house just as Skinner climbed the front steps.

“It sounded like it went well in there, Mulder. Good work,” Skinner said.

Mulder nodded. “The girl’s still alive. The paramedics should be bringing her down soon.”

“Why don’t you let the paramedics check the boy out and then we’ll take him into protective custody.”

“Yeah,” Mulder said, without much conviction. He couldn’t explain it, but he really felt for this sobbing child. And he didn’t want to let go of him.

Nonetheless, he followed Scully over to the ambulance bay in the Bradley’s driveway, and tried to set Max down on the gurney. But the boy wouldn’t let go. “No!” He screamed. “No! No!”

Mulder’s face contorted in sympathy, and he said, “Shh, okay, Max, it’s okay. You can stay. We’ll both sit down on the gurney, okay?”

Scully watched the scene with a mixture of concern and amazement. She had never seen Mulder quite so paternal. He was just about as unwilling to let go of the child as the child was to let go of him.

The paramedic did what he could to examine Max in Mulder’s arms. The eight-year-old still whimpered, but wasn’t sobbing any longer. Agent Kaplan walked over just when the paramedic gave the child a clean bill of health. “Agent Mulder,” she greeted. “Agent Scully. I notified social services. They’re expecting him and his appointed FBI guardians at the local field office. He’ll be taken to a safe house from there.” She cleared her throat. “Good work in there.”

Scully nodded. “Thank you, Agent Kaplan. We’ll take him there ourselves.”

“Okay, that should be fine. I’ll let AD Skinner know. Thanks for your assistance on this.”

“Anytime, Agent Kaplan,” Mulder said. Scully could detect his sarcastic tone, but she doubted Kaplan did.

By the time they got to Mulder and Scully’s SUV, Max had stopped crying completely. He still clung to Mulder, though.

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“Max, can you sit in the back seat if I sit with you?” he asked.

Max seemed unsure, and buried his head in Mulder’s chest again for a moment. He took a deep breath, then looked up and nodded. “You drive, Scully,” Mulder said without hesitation. He placed Max in the back seat, and didn’t even bother walking around the car. So he was never without Mulder’s company, the agent placed Max on the far seat in the car so he could climb right in. When he buckled in the boy, he asked, “Can you call me Hunter? I don’t like Max.”

Mulder smiled, and buckled his seatbelt. “Absolutely. Hunter, you can call me Mulder. I don’t like my first name either.”

Scully looked in the rear view mirror and smiled at the sight of the two of them. Those hazel eyes…she couldn’t help but notice the resemblance. It was definitely spooky.

They pulled out of the driveway and headed toward the Bethesda PD office. Hunter reached his hand over and put it on Mulder’s hand, and then smiled up at the man. Mulder was surprised by the gesture but went ahead and squeezed the little hand, and offered a smile back.

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WILSON LANE – CLOSE TO BETHESDA PD

BETHESDA, MD

TUESDAY, NOVEMBER 11, 2009

2230

They were about halfway there when Scully looked in the rear view mirror warily. “Mulder, I think we have a problem.”

“What’s that, Scully?” Mulder asked, keeping his voice cheerful for little Hunter’s benefit and hoping Scully would catch on before she scared the child.

“The black Mercedes behind us has been there since we turned out of Dellwood Place.”

Mulder now turned around, glanced at it, and nodded. “That might be a problem,” he said, still sounding confident as Hunter glanced up at him with wide, innocent eyes. “I’ll go ahead and call Skinner, let him know we’ll be a little late. Why don’t you pull some awesome moves and lose ‘em?” He suggested with a smile.

Scully glanced back at him in the rear view mirror with a dissatisfied expression, but she nodded. “Okay, here we go,” she said. “Don’t be scared if we go fast, Hunter. Okay?”

“I’m okay,” Hunter assured her.

The ‘awesome moves’ Scully started off with were what every cadet learned in Quantico. If they don’t think you know they’re following you, you’re better off. Her turns and lane changes weren’t odd or abrupt. Her speed increased but not insanely so. Soon the Mercedes was several cars behind them, which gave Scully room for more maneuvering.

They entered a metropolitan area and Scully fully took advantage of it. She turned down a small street that could almost be described as an alley, glancing at the GPS on the dashboard to guide her. Mulder continued to hold Hunter’s hand as he called Skinner and let him know they were stuck in traffic. He couldn’t be sure his cell phone frequency wasn’t being monitored.

Scully’s second turn took them into a back street in a department store-like area. They passed a dumpster and prepared to get back on a main road when a black Mercedes pulled out suddenly in front of them. Scully slammed on the brakes. “Shit,” she said, and then looked behind her. No one was there. She put the SUV in reverse and said forcefully, “Hold on,” as she accelerated.

The car flew backward, and Mulder knew exactly what would happen next. “It’s okay, Hunter. The car’s going to make a very sudden move—don’t be scared, okay? Hold my hand. Hold it tight. We’ll be fine.”

That’s when Scully did it. At probably forty miles per hour, she applied the brakes and put the car into drive while simultaneously turning the wheel. With squealing tires and the detectable stench of burning rubber, she executed a perfect 180 and sped off in the other direction. But the Mercedes still followed.

“We’ve got to lose them, Mulder,” she said.

“I know, do what you have to. We’ll be fine,” Mulder said, and nodded to Hunter to confirm this with him. He nodded back.

There weren’t many people on the road. Scully debated putting the sirens on to get cars to move out of the way. But just as the intruders in the house didn’t know they were FBI, neither may the people who were following them. She left the sirens off and instead sped down Wilson Lane the way they had come. They were easily doing 60 miles per hour in a 30 zone, and she almost prayed for a cop to pull them over. But none came. Instead, she found herself weaving the car in and out of traffic to avoid the ever-present Mercedes.

She spotted a gap in the median up ahead, and decided to make her move. In one fluent motion, she applied the brakes and turned, shifting the car 90 degrees and fitting it easily through the gap in the median before taking off in the other direction. Unfortunately, whoever was following them knew how to drive, and got right back behind them. Scully shook her head. “All right, enough,” she said in a tone that told Mulder she was now officially pissed.

She gunned it, taking them inches from other cars as she weaved in and out of traffic and said after a moment, “Mulder, pull your gun, and shoot out their tires.”

“Scully, there are civilians around here,” he said, confused at her reasoning.

“Not where we’re going,” she said quickly, and then gave a brief warning. “Hold on.”

She drove the car to an off-road path that lead to a construction site up ahead. It was far enough away that it gave them enough time to shoot out the Mercedes’ tires. But the dirt road was making it exceedingly hard for Mulder to see. He rolled down the window and attempted aiming, but shook his head. “No way, Scully. It’s not happening.”

She took a deep breath. “Okay,” she said, and surveyed their surroundings. “Okay,” she repeated. “Here we go.”

That’s when the car dropped. Hunter let out a little yelp and clutched Mulder’s arm in fear, and Mulder gripped the car door handle as they plunged down a very steep slope. A quarry, he thought. Some kind of quarry. But how were they going to get out?

The Mercedes followed right behind them, but it wasn’t an SUV and it wasn’t built for that kind of a descent. It quickly lost control and Scully took that opportunity to level the car out at the base of the small quarry, and get it into position so Mulder was now in excellent range. “Now, Mulder, do it!”

Mulder stuck his arm out the open window and aimed quickly before firing. The first few shots didn’t make it, but then he managed to hit a front tire and the gas tank. That Mercedes wasn’t going anywhere.

But Mulder and Scully had plates on their SUV and they knew someone’s backup wasn’t far away. Scully sped off through an exit out of the small quarry. It was a back road made for construction vehicles, and they saw a backhoe up ahead. They managed to squeeze past it, scraping the car with branches on the way, and then got back to a road that led to Wilson Lane.

Scully exhaled.

Hunter looked at his two temporary guardians and said in awe, “Wow.”

Mulder smiled. “You think that’s something. You should see her beat up bad guys.”

For the first time since he had met Mulder, Hunter smiled. And they drove to the Bethesda PD office.

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BETHESDA PD

BETHESDA, MD

TUESDAY, NOVEMBER 11, 2009

2325

“Sir, this child is more of a disaster magnet than I am,” Mulder said flatly. “It’s only right we should be together.”

Mulder, Scully, and Skinner stood outside a witness room where the young child slept, curled up in a ball on Mulder’s coat. Minutes ago, he had been coloring.

“I can’t allow you to take him. He’s got to go to a safe house.”

“That’s what I’m talking about, Sir. There’s no way a safe house will be truly safe for this kid. Whoever wants him wants him bad. And they’re not going to stop because a couple of agents are standing around babysitting him. They’re going to find a way in.”

“And they won’t find a way in where you’re taking him because…” Skinner began, clearly doubtful of Mulder’s plan.

“Sir, we believe Max Hunter is safest with us while we gather the information that will tell us why they want him dead. And why they’ve been unsuccessful for eight years,” Scully added. “We believe if we stay on the move it’ll be hard to track him. Harder to track than if he goes to one place and stays there.”

“So you want me to give you protective guardianship?” Skinner asked. He took off his glasses and rubbed the bridge of his nose.

Mulder nodded eagerly. “We can take the child and protect him until we find out who these people are and what they want.”

Skinner nodded slowly. “Okay. Coordinate with Social Services. You have my approval. Max certainly seems attached to you, Mulder.” The young child hadn’t stopped clinging to Mulder’s hand until he realized that the agent could see him through the glass to the witness room.

“It’s Hunter, Sir,” Mulder said, glancing through the window at the sleeping boy. “He doesn’t like his first name.”

Skinner smiled slightly, and gave Scully a glance that basically said, ‘keep an eye on both of them.’

She gave him a barely detectable nod, and went to track down the Social Services people. Meanwhile, Mulder entered the witness room again and pulled Hunter onto his lap, letting the boy sleep as he held him.

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COMFORT INN

WASHINGTON, DC

WEDNESDAY, NOVEMBER 12, 2009

0700

Mulder had been up almost all night, on the Internet and in touch with the Lone Gunmen. They were tracking down Hunter’s medical history and any other records the FBI had not been able to complete. Scully had stayed up for a while with him before finally falling asleep on top of the covers on one of the two queen beds.

Hunter was the first one up. The little boy stretched and smiled at the sight of Mulder not far from his bed. Then he slid off and walked over. “Hi,” he said.

“Hey there, Hunter,” Mulder said, turning away from the computer to face the little boy. “How are you?”

Hunter shrugged. “Okay, I guess. Do you have clothes for me?”

“Social Services gave us some. I’ll get them. You need any help?”

“No,” he said, and laughed slightly. “I’m eight years old; I can dress myself!”

“Okay, sorry,” Mulder said with a smile. He rose and went to the small bag Social Services had given them. He pulled out a small pair of cargo pants, a t-shirt, and a hoodie. Clean underwear and socks were also included. “Hope this works for you,” he said. “There are shoes in here too.”

“I’ll change in the bathroom. Thanks, Mulder,” he said, and took the clothes into his arms. He walked into the bathroom, and called, “Can I use your toothpaste and shampoo?”

“Sure, no problem. If you need to shave, my razor’s in my overnight bag,” Mulder deadpanned.

Hunter stuck his head out the door and raised an eyebrow in a gesture that almost exactly resembled Scully. Then he giggled, and closed the door.

Scully woke up not long after that, and glanced at the closed bathroom door. “You gave him his clothes?”

Mulder nodded. “He’s in there taking a shower and changing.”

“How’s he doing?”

“He’s not confronting what happened last night yet,” Mulder said simply, sitting back down at his computer. “I managed to gather some information, though.”

“What’d you and the guys come up with?”

“Hunter’s had more action in eight years than Jack Bauer gets in twenty-four hours. And that’s saying something.”

“Continue…” Scully said, glancing at the computer monitor.

“We already know his history with foster homes. But the kid also has quite a medical history as well. At age five his foster parents took him to see a psychologist. They claimed whenever he was agitated, he would threaten them with ‘his powers’. And the psychologist mentioned that he displayed an uncanny ability to guess what she was going to say to him. He sometimes mocked her, finished her sentences, or rolled his eyes in boredom. At age six, his new foster parents followed up with the same psychologist, who seemed to have gotten through. Hunter told her that he knew people had done something to him, to make him hear what she said. She believed he was remembering some kind of abuse, but she couldn’t get any further. She was involved in a car accident the next day, and died at the scene.”

“What else?” Scully asked, and folded her arms.

“He’s bright, but only when he wants to be. He seems to display a photographic memory in class, but he isn’t engaged when the subject doesn’t interest him. His teachers have all said he can be years ahead or years behind, depending on his mood. But when he was three years old, his foster parents reported to social services that not only could he read, but he was starting to write stories. His first grade teacher said that he was doing third grade math for about a week, and then dropped back to not paying attention in class.”

“So we have a typical brilliant, bored kid. What about Ben and Lisa Bradley. You said you recognized their names?”

“UFO nuts,” Mulder reported, pulling up a picture on his computer. “This is them at a MUFON conference in Denver last year. That’s how I recognized them. They spoke about child abductions—I downloaded the podcast.”

“Do we have anything to connect him to these scientists?”

“Yes,” Mulder said with a smile. “I was saving the best for last. A fingerprint was pulled from one crime scene at the break-in when Hunter was four. It was the only piece of evidence ever left at a crime scene where his foster family was attacked. The fingerprint got them a name—Winston Lorry. Langly managed to make the connection. Lorry worked for Bruce Ivins. The anthrax guy.”

“So whoever these scientists worked for are now trying to kill him.”

Mulder would have answered, but Hunter exited the bathroom at that moment. He strode over casually, with his hands in his pockets. He had combed his hair with Mulder’s comb, and looked like he had even washed his face. “Hi, Scully,” he said with a smile.

“Hi, Hunter. How are you feeling this morning?”

“I’m okay. How about you?”

“I’m doing just fine.”

“You guys are talking about me.”

Mulder glanced at Scully.

“It’s okay, people talk about me all the time,” Hunter said quickly. “Hey, can we get some breakfast? I’m hungry.”

“We should probably get on the road soon. We’ll go through the drive through at McDonald’s if that’s okay with everyone,” Mulder said.

“I should get dressed, then,” Scully said, and left to occupy the bathroom.

Hunter swung his legs on the bed, hands folded in his lap and looking perfectly passive.

“Hey, Hunter, I have a question for you.”

“Okay,” Hunter said, and smiled at Mulder. It was complete hero worship, Mulder knew. But for some reason, he didn’t mind. He felt an absolute connection to this boy, a sort of pull at his heart that he hadn’t felt since he had seen little Emily stretched out on a hospital bed, dying despite Scully’s best efforts.

“How did you know we were coming last night?”

Hunter’s legs stopped swinging, and the smile dropped from his face. He shrugged.

“Does it scare you?” Mulder asked softly.

Hunter refused to meet his eyes, as he shook his head. “No,” he said in a definite tone.

“It would scare me,” Mulder offered. “It did scare me.”

Hunter looked at Mulder now, clearly confused. “What do you mean?”

“A while ago, I could hear people thinking, too. And it scared me very much.”

“But it went away?”

Mulder nodded.

“How do you know about my…” he looked behind him, as if to make sure no one was listening. “My powers?”

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Mulder rose from the desk chair and went over to the bed, to sit beside the boy. “You know I’m an FBI agent, right?” When Hunter nodded, Mulder continued. “Well, Scully and I investigate cases like yours, and sometimes those cases include someone who can hear other people think. Are those your only powers?”

“You mean there are other people who can do that?”

Mulder nodded. “I met one of them when he wasn’t too much older than you. Bad people were after him, too.”

“Where is he now?”

“He’s at college. He’s much older now.”

“They didn’t get him?”

Mulder considered this conversation for a moment. If this boy could truly read his mind, he wouldn’t be asking these questions. Gibson never asked these sorts of questions. But it might be different with Hunter being a little younger. “They did, but we got him back,” Mulder said carefully. “And we’re not going to let them get you. I promise.”

Hunter nodded slowly. “I know you won’t. Because you’re special.”

Mulder decided to let that go for a moment, and return to his earlier question. “Do you have any other powers, Hunter?”

Hunter folded his arms, and nodded. “Yeah…but not all the time.”

“Like what?”

“You promise you won’t tell? No one but Scully?”

“I promise,” Mulder said.

“When I get real scared, nothing touches me. I just curl up in a ball and nothing can get to me. Like a porcupine. You know, the pointy things on a porcupine protect it, right?”

Mulder nodded. “Can you only hear other people think when you’re scared?”

Hunter shrugged. “Sometimes when I’m mad, too.”

“Okay,” he replied, and put his arm comfortingly around the boy’s shoulders. “You’re a good kid, Hunter. I’m going to protect you, okay?”

“I know you will,” Hunter said, looking up at Mulder. “You’ll protect me no matter what, huh?” Mulder nodded, and Hunter said, “There’s not a whole lot of people who would do that.”

Scully exited the bathroom at that moment, and said, “Everyone ready to go?”

“Let’s go eat, I’m starved!” Hunter said, and leapt up.

After they packed, they piled into the car and took off for McDonald’s. In another few moments they were all eating McGriddles happily as they drove to their next destination. The car was a poor excuse for an SUV—a Toyota that Mulder insulted at every chance he could get. But it did have four wheel drive and didn’t look a thing like a Bureau car, which was what they needed.

Mulder and Hunter sat in the back seat while Scully drove. They played word and number games, and Hunter took the lead in Go Fish when they broke out the cards. It didn’t take long for small talk to subside, though, and even though they were playing a game, they engaged in a serious conversation.

“Lisa and Ben were nice people,” Hunter said as he put a match of four eight’s in the cup holder.

Mulder nodded sympathetically, and Scully glanced back at them in the rear view mirror.

“They’re in heaven now,” he stated. “It’s your turn.”

“Got any seven’s?” Mulder asked.

Hunter shook his head. “Go fish.” When Mulder reached into the pile, Hunter continued, “I don’t want to go to another home. I don’t want anyone else to get hurt.”

“We’re going to try to stop that from happening, Hunter,” Scully said. “Mulder and I are working right now to figure out who’s hurting the people who want to help you, and why.”

“It’s the people who gave me my powers,” he said. He looked at Scully through the rear view mirror reflection and said, “Mulder believes me.”

“What um…what is it your powers do, Hunter?” Scully asked.

“When I’m mad or scared, I can hear what people think. And no one can hurt me. No matter how hard they try, they can’t do it. Got any four’s?”

Mulder handed Hunter a four, and asked, “Hunter, do you remember who gave you your powers?”

“No,” he said, frowning in thought. “But I know people gave them to me. I don’t know why. It’s like I knew you were coming to save me, Mulder. And I know you and Scully aren’t like other people—they don’t understand. But you understand. Some people are stupid about bad things. They don’t know what bad things are like. But you understand. It’s your turn.”

“Got any nine’s?” Hunter handed Mulder a nine, and Mulder said, “How do you know we know what bad things are like?”

“Because I know you both have seen bad things. When you were really little,” Hunter said, looking at Mulder, “And not so long ago, too.” He shifted his glance to the rear view mirror again. “No one from my family ever died, or at least I don’t remember, but I know you both had that happen.”

“How do you know that, Hunter?” Scully asked, meeting his eyes briefly in the mirror. God, they looked like Mulder’s. They had the same intelligence, the same determination…the same sorrow. And they were so young.

“I don’t know. Got any seven’s?” Hunter asked.

Mulder smirked, and handed Hunter a seven. “That’s a dirty trick,” he said.

“Derrick taught me, at Ben and Lisa’s house. Count the cards, get the Cheezits in the end.”

Scully couldn’t help but smile.

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A COUNTRY ROAD

SOMEWHERE IN VIRGINIA

WEDNESDAY, NOVEMBER 12, 2009

1300

They had just gotten an Arby’s lunch and picked up a few puzzle books and a travel-sized checkers game, when Mulder’s phone rang. They were back on the road, and Mulder felt safe answering candidly. “You got anything?” He asked when he saw the CID.

“One grande facto, mi amigo,” Langly answered.

“You need to head for the coast, as soon as possible. We’ll send the coordinates to your phone when we’re done with this conversation. We found the missing link in the money trail. There’s another scientist, who hasn’t yet killed herself. But it’s coming, very soon. Her name is Greta Piergo. She’s a neuroscientist studying the effects of memory-enhancing nanotechnology, mainly dealing with genetic memory implants in humans. She’s meeting someone at a shipyard in a few hours,” Byers said.

“Wait a minute, I want Scully to hear this. Can you link her phone in?”

“Uno momento, por favor,” Langly said, and then said, “You’re in.”

Scully flipped her phone open and accepted the call. “What’ve you got?” She asked.

When Byers repeated what he had just said, she asked, “And you have evidence directly linking her to this team of scientists?”

“We’re almost 100% positive these scientists were hired help for someone, to create a child. We can directly link these people to MUFON members,” Byers said.

“Those MUFON members were probably the vessels where they tried to grow this kid,” Frohike told them. “And now if you’ve got him in your car, I’d find a safe place for him because whatever’s going down in Virginia is no place for him.”

“We know, Frohike. We’ll figure something out,” Mulder said hastily.

“What about what’s going down? What do you think is going to happen at that shipyard?” Scully demanded.

“They’re going to kill Greta Piergo and make it look like a suicide, we’re sure of it. She’s being asked to meet with a Dr. Al Romick, who we’ve tracked to two of the psychiatric hospitals our other scientists were admitted to.”

“And he’s best friends with at least five other doctors, covering every single facility any of the scientists were admitted to, man,” Langly said. “So I’d high tail it down to el docko and stop this before it gets out of controlo.”

“What’s with the Spanglish, Langly?” Mulder asked.

“He’s trying to impress some Mexican chick he met over the Internet,” Frohike said with disgust. “Pervert.”

“Hey, shut up—” Langly started, but Scully interrupted.

“Give us the address and directions to the dock, and we’ll take it from there. Thanks, guys.”

“You got it. Sending now. Good luck,” Byers said.

“Thanks for your help. We’ll update you,” Mulder said, and then hung up. Seconds later, they had coordinates for the GPS.

“Should be about an hour and twenty minutes,” Scully said. “If traffic continues the way it is.”

“Okay, I’ll call Skinner and let him know what’s going on,” Mulder told her, flipping his phone open again. Hunter stared at him with an ominous look in his eye, which Mulder returned with an inquisitive one. “You okay, Hunter?”

“I am for now,” Hunter said, frowning. “But I don’t like this.”

“It’ll be okay, Hunter. You’ll be alright—we’ll find a safe place for you while we go track down the bad guys, okay?” Scully asked, trying to sound cheerful.

Hunter shook his head. “It’s not me who needs a safe place.”

Mulder and Scully didn’t respond to that.

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ELIZABETH CITY MOTEL

ELIZABETH CITY, VA

WEDNESDAY, NOVEMBER 12, 2009

1430

Elizabeth City was a nice touristy area, filled with docks now shut down for the winter. Ice cream shops and hotels also looked very vacant, and Mulder and Scully chose a motel parking lot to meet with Skinner.

He got out of his car and leaned against the door, while Mulder held Hunter’s hand and walked the little boy over.

“Walter’s gonna take care of you while Scully and I do something very important, all right?” Mulder asked as they walked, even though he knew the boy was not okay with this at all.

Hunter shook his head. “No, I want to stay with you, Mulder.”

“Well…you can’t, buddy.” He stopped halfway to Skinner’s car, and knelt down in the parking lot. He put a hand on Hunter’s shoulder and said, “I’m going to stop the people who are trying to hurt you, Hunter. Scully and I—we’re going to stop them together.”

“But I don’t want you to go,” Hunter whined. “I know you’d do anything to protect me, but I don’t want you to do anything. I want you to just stay here.” The child’s eyes were starting to well up with tears, and he looked just about ready to collapse into Mulder’s arms.

Mulder looked down for a moment, and then looked back into Hunter’s eyes. “Listen to me, Hunter. Listen very carefully.” The eight-year-old nodded, and stood at attention, holding back the urge to cry for a moment. “You’re a very special kid. You already know that. Not everyone can do what you can do, and that’s why people want to hurt you. If Scully and I don’t stop them now, they’re just going to keep hurting people you love. And I don’t want that to happen. I know you don’t, either. So I promise you, I’m going to do everything I can to make sure you’re safe from now on. Okay?”

Hunter sniffed, and nodded.

“And I need something from you. Can you do something for me?”

“Anything,” Hunter promised immediately.

“I want you to be brave. You’re a great kid, Hunter. You keep being brave and I’ll see you again soon.”

“Okay,” Hunter said, and wrapped his arms around Mulder. “I love you, Mulder.”

The words shocked him, but he didn’t even hesitate as he said, “I love you too, Hunter.”

Scully and Skinner watched from their respective distances, the scene nearly touching Scully to tears. She had never seen Mulder so attached to a child. And Skinner’s expression betrayed not only his concern for Mulder and Hunter, but also his compassion for what he was witnessing. It was almost like a father saying goodbye to his son.

When Mulder walked Hunter over to Skinner, the assistant director took the boy’s shoulders and said, “I’ll take good care of him. Your backup is waiting at the dock for you. It’s within walking distance. It’d be best if you didn’t drive from here.”

Mulder nodded. “Understood. Thanks, Sir.”

“Anytime, Mulder. You watch your ass.”

“I will,” Mulder promised, and walked back to Scully.

“You ready to go?” Scully asked.

Mulder nodded, and led the way down the road. They would meet up with a van that could properly equip them for what they were about to do, and then they would have to wait until their suspects showed up.

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ELIZABETH CITY SHIPYARD

ELIZABETH CITY, VA

WEDNESDAY, NOVEMBER 12, 2009

1630

“Suspect approaching west dock. Audio and video surveillance now recording,” a voice said over Mulder and Scully’s radios. They watched from behind a service truck as the scientist met a man who was, apparently, Dr. Al Romick.

Mulder clutched his weapon as he listened to the conversation.

“You’re late,” Romick stated.

“Traffic. You understand our agreement?”

“Of course. As soon as you enter my facility, I will have the funds transferred and your new identity will be created.”

“It’s very important that this project should continue,” Piergo told him firmly. “I understand you’ve done this before.”

“Yes. Twice before. And both of your colleagues are now comfortably relocated to a new location, where their research can continue. It’s dangerous for us to discuss this for so long. I need to get back to the hospital. Will you enter the facility?”

“Yes,” she agreed. “As long as you assure me this is actually going to happen. I want some collateral. Your credit card, please?”

Romick reached into his back pocket and extracted his wallet. In another moment, he handed the card to her. “It won’t be cancelled. The funds are there. You can have my life savings at a moments’ notice, and be out of the country if you have second thoughts. Does this assure you we’re serious?”

“Yes,” she said with a smile. She pocketed the card. “Thank you, Dr. Romick. I’ll see you in a few days.”

They began to part, and Mulder shifted positions, getting ready to move. That’s when his phone vibrated.

He pulled it out of his vest pocket and shoved it in Scully’s direction as he prepared to give the order to move in. Scully grabbed his arm and he spun around. She mouthed ‘Skinner’, and showed him the phone. It was a text message. It read ‘bomb, ship.’

He looked up, following the scientist as she boarded a nearby ship, and Dr. Romick as he left the docks.

“All units, apprehend Romick. Do not move in on Piergo. Repeat, do not move in on Piergo,” he ordered into his radio, and then turned back to Scully. “Come on,” he said. “Let’s go.”

As the SWAT team moved in on Romick, startling Piergo and freezing her in place for a moment, Mulder and Scully ran towards the ship, hunched over to avoid any fire that started.

The cargo vessel most likely bound for China was for the moment fully accessible from the dock and Mulder and Scully boarded, chasing after the now fleeing scientist.

“Greta Piergo, FBI!” Mulder yelled, with Scully right behind him screaming, “Freeze where you are! Federal Agents! We’re armed!”

Piergo ran as quickly as she could, knocking random objects in the corridor of the dimly lit ship into Mulder and Scully’s path. She mounted a steel ladder and climbed it with incredible speed, but Mulder was right behind her. She had almost hit the captain’s cabin at the end of a small corridor when Mulder leapt, and tackled her to the ground. “Where’s the bomb?” He demanded.

Piergo smiled. “Yeah, right,” she said breathlessly.

“Is it on this ship? Where is it?” Mulder screamed, flipping her over and holding her down as he got in her face. Scully held her position, training her weapon on the scientist.

“In a manner of speaking,” a low voice said from behind them. Scully spun, and Mulder held Piergo down to the floor while looking back slowly.

“Let the scientist go, Agent Mulder. Agent Scully, step away,” the man ordered. He had a slight Chinese accent, and was wearing a trench coat and leather gloves. Clutched in his hands was a P-90 sub-automatic machine gun.

Scully saw no other option but to obey. She stepped back, and Mulder followed suit.

“Good. Drop the weapons,” the man told them as Piergo scrambled up and walked over to him. “Now,” he said, cocking the P-90. “You want to know where the bomb is?”

Piergo smirked. “I love this part.”

“We can skip that part if you’d just disarm it for us,” Mulder said, and the man chuckled.

“You have an interesting sense of humor, Agent Mulder.”

“So do I,” Piergo said, still smirking.

Mulder glanced between them, his expression telling Scully that he was concentrating. So was she. There was something odd going on here…something wasn’t right.

“Why don’t you quit wasting time, Greta, and tell them what they want to know?” the man asked her. They were being far too candid. That told the agents that they didn’t plan to keep them alive for long. But Piergo, at least, was getting some kind of perverse pleasure from what she was about to reveal.

“The bomb isn’t here per se. With the help of some Chinese-American…um…patriots…I was able to secure a link to every cargo container along the Virginia coastline carrying goods made in China with illegal child labor. And that ought to get me a seat next to Dr. Romick in the looney bin. Just long enough to stage my death and get back with my friends, to create Max Hunter II. But first, we need to take care of Max Hunter I.”

Mulder clenched his jaw. Scully willed him to stay where he was and not do anything stupid, hoping her glance in his direction would be enough motivation to keep himself alive, and stay put.

But she never got the chance to test that theory. A shot suddenly rang out, and the Chinese man dropped dead from a gunshot wound to the head. Piergo immediately went for the man’s weapon, but a second shot landed her on her back, gasping for air.

A shadow stepped out of the hallway and was instantly illuminated in the dim light from the captain’s cabin. Krycek lowered his weapon, and glanced at Piergo’s form writhing on the ground from the gunshot wound to her chest.

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“I owed you one, Mulder, and this is one,” he said. “Go find Skinner. They’ve got a plant in the FBI and he’s going to kill baldy and then the kid, if you don’t hurry.”

Mulder stared at Krycek, doubting him for just a moment before grabbing his gun from the floor, and holstering it. Then his eyes dropped to Krycek’s left hand, mobile and gripping his weapon.

“Yeah, we’ll talk later, it’s a long story. Get moving, save that kid. I’ll take care of the bombs,” Krycek said, waving his left hand. “Go! Now!”

Mulder and Scully had no choice but to go. The second they hit the dock, they found a vehicle and commandeered it from their fellow FBI agents.

They didn’t speak on the way, but Scully knew Mulder would break if he lost both Skinner and Hunter, especially to whatever conspiracy Krycek was involved in now. She would never forgive herself if she let that happen, and that made them both intent on either stopping this from happening, or perishing in the attempt.

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ELIZABETH CITY COFFEE SHOP

ELIZABETH CITY, VA

WEDNESDAY, NOVEMBER 12, 2009

1700

Skinner, Agent Hepburn, and Max Hunter all sat at a table in the little coffee shop. There was an FBI presence outside, and the small shop was currently functioning as a safe house for Hunter. The boy sipped his apple juice nervously, never taking his eyes from Agent Hepburn for more than a few moments.

When Mulder and Scully entered, they showed no sign of anxiety. Skinner stood, and walked over to them. “I got word that both suspects are dead. From what was said on the audio recording, they’ve been faking these scientists’ deaths. What you’ve done here is huge. This looks to be some kind of illegal genetic engineering ring. The Bureau can assign more resources to this case and determine where the other scientists have relocated to. Good work, both of you.”

“Thank you, Sir,” Scully said. Mulder smiled at Hunter, who smiled back but didn’t run over. Skinner found that unusual, but he didn’t comment.

Agent Hepburn looked just slightly uncomfortable. “Excuse me,” he said, and rose from his seat. He walked toward the bathroom, and took a deep breath. That’s when time seemed to slow.

Scully saw his hand go for his weapon, while his other hand reached into his pocket. She tackled Skinner in one fluid motion, and barely caught the sight of Mulder leaping in front of Hunter just as the fire started. One, two, three gunshots rang out before Scully’s own shot hit Hepburn square in the chest. He dropped, and sound entered Scully’s ears once more.

A sobbing child, curled up in a ball in his chair. Two crumpled bullets lay beneath him. Skinner scrambling up, a baffled expression on his face. The café’s staff rising from their squatting positions, some of them crying out in horror. And then her eyes fell on her partner.

His skin was glossy, his eyes glazed over and dull. He stared at the ceiling, but clearly didn’t see anything. Scully dove to his side, and bit back a sob of shock and panic as she saw the bullet wound. Upper left chest…right over his heart.

“Oh God, Mulder,” she breathed, ripping off his vest. A copkiller bullet. If the bullets near Mulder’s head on the floor of the café were any indication, the bullet was Teflon coated and had gone right through Mulder’s vest like a piece of paper.

She applied pressure to the wound and lifted his head with one hand, supporting it while trying not to cry. “Call the paramedics, now!” She screamed, and barely heard Skinner get on his phone.

Hunter fell off his chair, onto his knees beside Mulder’s head. He placed his hand on Mulder’s shoulder and cried, “Please don’t die. Please, don’t die like the others, please. Don’t let him die, God, please.”

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The little boy collapsed into a ball on the floor, his head in his hands as he sobbed uncontrollably. Scully couldn’t keep her own tears away. “Come on, Mulder, stay with me,” she said, watching his dull eyes blink and his chest rise and fall with less and less frequency.

“Don’t let him die, God, please,” she found herself whispering.

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ALBERMARLE HOSPITAL

ELIZABETH CITY, VA

WEDNESDAY, NOVEMBER 12, 2009

1720

Skinner sat with Hunter in the waiting room of the hospital, flanked by two FBI agents as he held the small child in his lap. The hospital was heavily guarded on Skinner’s orders. Hunter still whimpered, but was no longer sobbing. He was wrapped in a shock blanket and had refused to leave Skinner’s side even for a second.

They stared at the trauma room down the hall, waiting for Scully to come out and announce what was going on. Skinner knew he would be waiting a while, but Hunter asked about every two minutes how much longer it would be.

The assistant director had seen the rounds at the feet of Hunter’s chair. He had seen how they were crumpled, as if blocked by some kind of barrier. He had seen that they were most probably Teflon coated, and matched what had hit Mulder’s vest. And yet, Scully had confirmed that there was only one gunshot wound, not a through-and-through. And Hunter was untouched. What had the bullets hit on their way to Hunter?

Finally, the trauma room doors burst open and a gurney was rushed out quickly. Scully broke away and jogged to the waiting area. Skinner stood, still holding Hunter in his arms. “How is he?”

“He’s stable, going into surgery now to remove the bullet. We don’t know the full extent of the damage, but…it may have done permanent damage to his heart,” she said, clearly attempting to hold her composure but not entirely succeeding. “He may require a transplant. We just don’t know yet.”

Skinner sighed, and Hunter buried his head in the man’s shoulder.

Scully rubbed the boy’s shoulder affectionately, and said, “We’re gonna do everything we can, Hunter.”

He nodded, but didn’t look at her.

“I have to get back. They’re letting me observe,” she explained, and turned to leave.

“Scully—let us know when you know more,” Skinner said, and watched her nod and jog away.

He sighed, and sat back down.

“More waiting?” Hunter asked in a tiny voice.

Skinner nodded. “That’s all there is right now, Hunter. Waiting, and hoping.”

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ALBERMARLE HOSPITAL

ELIZABETH CITY, VA

WEDNESDAY, NOVEMBER 12, 2009

2200

Scully walked into the waiting room to find her boss and Hunter both asleep on a small chair. Hunter’s head rested on Skinner’s shoulder, in a position that looked like it hadn’t changed since she had last seen them. She shook Skinner’s shoulder gently, arousing them both.

“What’s the news?” he asked drowsily, using one hand to rub his eyes under his glasses, while the other still held Hunter on his lap.

“The surgery was successful,” Scully said, exhaling with a smile. “And no transplant is required. The bullet punctured a lung and nicked a vessel going to his heart. They were able to repair the damage. He’s got a chest tube in and he’s on the ventilator for the next five or six hours at least, but he’s going to make it.”

“Mulder’s gonna be okay?” Hunter asked hopefully.

Scully nodded. “That’s right,” she said, and smiled at him. “And when he’s feeling better you can see him.”

“I want to see him now. I promise I won’t be loud.”

“I don’t see any harm in it, Scully,” Skinner said. If it was any other situation, he would understand where Scully was coming from. But this little boy was as attached to Mulder as Mulder was to him, and he needed to see his hero was alive, and would be okay.

“It might be a little scary,” Scully began, but Hunter rolled his eyes.

“I’ve seen scary stuff,” he said. “Mulder will never be scary.”

Scully glanced at Skinner, and then sighed. “Okay,” she said, and extended her hand. Hunter slid off her boss’s lap, shed the blanket on the chair, and took Scully’s offered hand in his. Skinner followed behind, but when they got to Mulder’s room, he waited outside as the two entered.

Hunter held Scully’s hand tighter when he saw all the tubes and wires attached to his friend. He walked up to the bed and let go of Scully’s hand, placing both hands on plastic rail. Then he slipped his hand down into Mulder’s limp one, and said, “Hi, Mulder, it’s Hunter.”

Mulder, of course, didn’t stir. Scully felt a lump rise in her throat when Hunter said, “You need to know I love you. And I miss you.” She stared in confusion when he continued, “When I grow up, I’ll be just like you. I know it. Just like I know other stuff, like the bomb on the ship. So I need you to wake up, and show me how to be like you. So I don’t mess up. Okay?”

“Scully loves you too,” he said, and squeezed Mulder’s hand. He turned back to Scully. “Can I stay here ‘till he wakes up?”

“That might be a while, Hunter,” Scully cautioned, quelling her emotions for now and trying to be responsible. But in her heart, she knew this little boy wasn’t going anywhere. Finally, she nodded. “Okay. You can sleep here.”

Hunter smiled, and pulled a second folding chair from the corner of the room over to the side of the bed. He set it up himself, and then sat down. His legs swung, not reaching the floor, and he watched Mulder as if it was as interesting as TV. Scully shook her head in amazement, and sat down in her own chair.

“You were the one who told Walter about the bomb?”

Hunter nodded. “You guys stopped it, right?”

“We did,” Scully said, thinking of Krycek and hoping the rat bastard had actually followed through with his promise, and they wouldn’t see explosions on the morning news.

“More waiting,” Hunter said.

Scully nodded. “He’s going to be okay,” she said, and took her partner’s hand. She rubbed the back with her thumb, and tried to hold back tears at the sight of him in this position, yet again.

“If he’s going to be okay, waiting’s fine. We can wait,” Hunter stated. His eyes never left Mulder’s limp form. Scully gave him a small smile, and nodded her agreement.

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ALBERMARLE HOSPITAL

ELIZABETH CITY, VA

THURSDAY, NOVEMBER 12, 2009

0630

Mulder had been extubated only an hour previously, and Scully was utterly exhausted and about ready to fall asleep. Hunter had konked out in the folding chair, and Scully had asked for a nurse to bring in a cot so he could sleep more comfortably. But the second Mulder’s eyes opened, Hunter also magically awoke and hopped down from the cot.

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He walked over to where Scully was holding Mulder’s hand and greeting him, and poked his head around the bed rail. “Hi,” he said.

Mulder smiled. “Hey,” he said weakly. His voice was raspy and barely rose above a whisper. Scully picked up the cup of ice chips on the nightstand and offered him one.

He took it gratefully, just as Hunter said, “You saved my life.”

Mulder never stopped smiling. “Nothing to it,” he quipped.

Hunter smiled back. “Two bullets missed you and I stopped those, but the other one I didn’t think was coming. I didn’t know I could stop bullets. I guess my powers do all kinds of things.”

“I guess so,” Mulder whispered, and closed his eyes.

“I know you’re tired,” Hunter said. “I’ll just sit here and wait till you’re not tired anymore.”

“Thank you, Hunter,” Scully told him kindly, and turned back to her partner. “Sleep, Mulder. We’ll both be here when you get up.”

Mulder nodded slightly, and was asleep instantly.

Skinner opened the door, and stuck his head in. “Can I come in?”

“Mulder just woke up. He’s sleeping now,” Scully informed him.

“That’s great news,” he said with a smile, noting Hunter’s thrilled grin. “I just talked to Social Services…” he began, and saw Hunter’s grin falter. “They and the FBI are in agreement that Hunter should be placed into the witness protection program.”

Scully nodded, a bit sadly.

“I was going to explain to Hunter exactly what that meant…”

“It means I have to change my name and pretend I’m someone else,” Hunter said. “I don’t want to do that! That means I can’t see Mulder and Scully anymore!”

“Hunter, it would keep you safe,” Scully told him.

“I don’t care, if I never see you again! I have to stay with Mulder; he has to show me how to grow up!”

Skinner looked confused, and Scully simply said, “You’ll grow up just fine, Hunter. I promise.”

“No, you don’t understand,” he protested. He got up, and took Mulder’s hand. “Can you explain it to them? Please? Mulder, please, wake up?”

Mulder’s eyes slid open, and he looked at his surroundings, clearly confused.

“Mulder, I need you to explain to them why you have to show me how to grow up. Explain it to them! Tell them why—”

“Hunter, Mulder needs sleep right now,” Scully said as gently as she could manage, trying to pry the child away from Mulder.

Mulder shook his head, though, and held the child’s hand tighter. He stared into Hunter’s pleading eyes, willing himself to understand what the boy was talking about. “Memories?” he finally asked.

Hunter nodded.

“You know…everything?” he asked, his voice reduced to a barely detectable whisper. It was clear he was exerting himself well beyond what he should have been, and Scully’s agitated look was normally enough to move a mountain. But not Hunter.

The little boy nodded eagerly, and said, “That’s why you have to show me.”

“You…already…know,” he said. He retracted his hand from Hunter’s, and motioned for Hunter to come closer. He then said, “It’s all…here.” He tapped Hunter’s forehead. “Someday…we’ll talk again.” He winced in pain, and squeezed his eyes shut.

Hunter was now starting to cry, but Mulder composed himself and shook his head. “No,” he said firmly. “No…be brave. K?”

The little boy nodded with uncertainty, and Mulder gave his hand another squeeze, before closing his eyes. “Listen to Walter,” he whispered. “Be good.”

“I will,” he said, and sniffed. “Bye.”

“Not bye,” Mulder told him, but didn’t open his eyes. He was pale and breathing heavily.

“See you later, then,” Hunter said.

With a small nod, Mulder smiled slightly and then couldn’t help but fall back asleep.

Hunter turned to Skinner, who walked into the room and took the boy’s hand. He wasn’t sure what just happened, but Mulder had managed to convince him to go.

With a wave to Scully, and one final look back at Mulder’s sleeping form, the little boy walked out of the hospital room. Scully took Mulder’s hand, her expression intensely worried and confused, and sat down in the seat next to the bed. “It’s gonna be okay, Mulder,” she found herself saying softly. “Both of you will be okay.”

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UNKNOWN LOCATION

ONE WEEK LATER

UNKNOWN TIME

He walked down the dark underground hallway, glancing disapprovingly at the leaking pipe above his head. He took one last drag of his cigarette before dropping it to the cement floor, and stamping it out with his foot. He pulled another as he waited for the scientist to show up.

Bruce E. Ivins walked down the corridor to meet him, sticking a pen in his overalls and jogging slightly to make up for lost time. “I apologize. I was delayed,” he said simply.

Spender nodded. “Of course. What is your progress?”

“Our decision to watch the boy has proved even more effective than attempting to eliminate him. He clearly has passed all of our assassination attempts in the past, and it was time to move on. Excellent decision—”

“Thank you. I want to know what your progress is.”

“We’ve discovered that he’s responding quite well. He’s even developed an affinity for Star Trek.”

For a millisecond, Spender actually looked surprised. Then it was gone. “Good,” he said, nodding in approval. “Ensure that his development continues in this path. Four years from now, when we take his sister, we’ll know for sure.”

“What we’re doing here is amazing. Scientifically, it’s more spectacular than I ever could have imagined,” Ivins said excitedly.

“Yes, I know. It is a shame Greta couldn’t join us. But that’s the way it is sometimes. Very well. Carry on with your work. I’ll speak with you later.”

“Of course. Have a good day,” Ivins said as he nearly skipped off. The man was far too enthusiastic, Spender thought. But oh well, his quirks were well worth their price. For what he was gaining…never, in all his years, did he think he would have this opportunity. Not only did he now have a son…in a way…but he had his son. He had found a way to adopt Fox Mulder. And now he had the pleasure of watching him grow…from a distance, but not without influence. It certainly was a Great Adoption.

Turning back the way he had come, the smoking man disappeared into the depths of the cement corridor.

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Red Flag

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Red Flag

Author: Martin Ross

Category: Casefile

Rating: PG-13 for language and sexual innuendo

Spoilers: Lie to Me crossover

Summary: A diplomatic mission turns into a hunt for a deadly threat in the Chinese skies.

Disclaimer: The X-Files is the property of Chris Carter and Fox, even in China. Cal Lightman and Lie to Me are also under the express ownership of Fox. All for One will always be Bryan Adams’, and he is welcome to it.

Original web date:31/07/2009

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Red Flag

Day 1

3:23 p.m.

Mulder drained the last of his cappuccino, The Fray whispering mournfully and anemically into his ear. The late afternoon sun filtered through the front window of the small coffee shop, and the agent smiled unconsciously, content to be out of the real fray even for these few moments.

He felt a fleeting draft at his back, and a shadow fell over his left shoulder. Mulder reluctantly fished his iPod from his front pocket and cut Isaac Slade off mid-arpeggio. He called to the terminally sunny would-be barista and clumsily signed a second cup for his partner.

“So, how’s the java at the Great Wall?” Scully asked, dropping into the chair beside him. The British foursome behind her was still round-tabling global climate change (Mulder again thanked God — or maybe Shangdi, out of deference — for noise-canceling earbuds).

“Where they at?” Mulder inquired lazily, stretching a kink from his lumbar. The petite coffee girl slipped a steaming Styrofoam cup before Scully and Mulder slipped her 25 yuan with a mumbled “Xie xie.” He’d become a pro at hello and thank you in the two days since he, Scully, the Secretary of Agriculture, and a half-dozen of Washington’s elite press corps had landed in Beijing.

“That third tower thingie there,” Scully supplied, jerking a thumb at the hazy ridge hundreds of feet above them.

“Battlement,” Mulder amended.

“Of course. He’s doing a photo op with the common folk.” Scully sipped. “Mmm. Tastes very much like the Starbucks near the Department of Education. Or the one in Georgetown. Or, for that matter, the one in Gary, Indiana. Much better than scaling one of the world’s most stunning architectural hallmarks.”

Mulder leaned back. “I don’t know that I care for an architectural hallmark that feels it has to use superlatives to describe itself. It’s a really, really, really good wall, don’t get me wrong… Why’s he here, again, by the way? What’s this got to do with ag trade and phytosanitary standards?”

“The Great Wall is a stunning symbol of China’s traditional commitment to basic infrastructure in the national interest,” recited Scully, who’d been stuck with the secretary’s staff chief on the bus ride from Beijing. “The secretary’s pitching the administration’s highway/public works plan for the folks back home.”

“He’s ninth in the presidential line of succession,” Mulder complained. “Doesn’t he ever watch 24? We should be at some county fair right now, shaking babies and handing out farm checks.”

“I’m always astonished by your insider’s knowledge of the Executive Branch. What’s your problem, Mulder? You’re in the heart of China, land of mystery and a veritable treasure trove of mystical folklore. What about the Yeren, the Chinese Wildman? I hear they had another sighting in Hubei Province.”

“He better watch his hairy red ass, then. And, by the way, quit Googling,” Mulder muttered. “Why are we here, Scully? You know this is bullshit, a punishment.”

Scully stared at her partner. “Mulder. You shut down a major New York turnpike during the Friday afternoon rush and almost came to blows with a deputy chief of detectives over an ‘electromagnetic anomaly’ that inconveniently failed to show up.”

Mulder straightened. “And that night, half the hard drives in Newark were mysteriously degaussed. So maybe I could use a Magellan, but I was right about the anomaly. And yet, here we are.”

“On light duty, on what amounts to a free seven-day vacation in China. Skinner recommended you, specifically, because of the nature of the threats to the secretary. Make lemonade, Mulder. And put on your game face — here they come.”

Mulder sighed, nodded to his communist coffee conveyor, and straightened his tie.

“No sign of trouble,” grunted Dunhill, the more vocal of the secretary’s three-man Secret Service contingent, as his partners ushered the ag chief, his entourage, and the visiting media toward a pair of buses being guarded by a small cadre of provincial police. “Of course, I’m still not quite sure what constitutes trouble in your world.”

“Forty years of darkness,” Mulder explained, zipping his jacket. “Earthquakes, volcanoes. The dead rising from the grave. Human sacrifice.”

“Dogs and cats living together, roger,” Dunhill nodded, his immaculate brush mustache kinking at the corner. “Loved that shit with the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man. C’mon, Venkman, grab your stick and let’s saddle up.”

Mulder gawped for a second as the Secret Service man marched off toward the buses.

“Straights 1, Mulder 0,” Scully mused. “Looks like there may be a new sheriff in town.”

Mulder formulated a pithy response, but before he could articulate it, the chilled serenity of the plaza was shattered by a shrill curse. The agents turned sharply to see Dunhill’s colleagues, Faber and Cross, pull the secretary to the ground, shielding him with their blocky bodies. Twenty yards beyond, a man Mulder recognized as a CNN foreign correspondent dropped to his knees, batting at the air around him, cursing.

Dunhill waved back a gathering throng of sightseers who were unholstering cameras and cell phones to capture the bizarre moment, shouting alternately in English and Mandarin. Now, the entire press corps was waving and batting, with the exception of a few flak-jacketed cameramen taking aim at the crouching secretary and his bodyguards.

Abruptly, the first tourist shrieked as her digital camera struck the concrete. At the same time, Mulder felt something brush his ear — something vaguely bristly but soft. Scully cried out as she swatted at a pair of white, seemingly translucent missiles buzzing about her head. Mulder realized the already hazy air was full of the streaking, indefinable objects. Curiosity overtook panic, and he studied the swarm that was attacking the crowd, his eyes darting in an effort to stop their lightning motion. They flitted, regrouped, and dipped — organisms of some sort, Mulder realized with a surge of adrenalin. But he noticed no blood, no injuries he could attribute to the attack.

Mulder stood stock-still in the midst of the chaos, hoping one of the creatures might light. His patience was momentarily rewarded as one of the ghost-missiles stopped short a few inches beyond his nose, and he mentally recorded a six-inch, translucent tube surrounded by undulating, alternating fins. As quickly, the object blurred into near-nothing and soared away.

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Mulder blinked, heart pounding with startled recognition. Then, as the pounding subsided, he noted the screaming had stopped. Tourists and journalists were scrabbling uneasily to their feet, and Faber and Cross were hustling the Secretary of Agriculture into the bus.

The agent was somewhat surprised to see Dunhill pulling a rattled old Asian to his feet, offering murmured assurances in Mandarin. He inspected the senior, patted him on the shoulder, and rejoined his FBI comrades.

“I take it that was trouble,” Dunhill drawled.

6:14 p.m.

“The key here is how we spin this,” the secretary’s chief of staff, who looked like an Ivy League intern at Merrill-Lynch, murmured tersely as soon as the door to the VIP suite closed. Mulder silently passed himself the imaginary 100 yen he’d have claimed from Scully if she’d accepted his bet.

“What’s to spin?” Mulder challenged from the arm of an elaborately embroidered settee. The USDA aide stared frostily at him, then looked to Dunhill, who raised a brow in passive support. The COS moved onto the rangy secretary with a silent plea for bureaucratic reason.

“I’m a bit curious myself,” the former Midwest governor admitted with a wry smile.

“Well,” the COS stated. “We have to ensure the international media realize this wasn’t a hostile action against yourself and the administration. After that recent incident near Hainan — and the perception the government’s testing the new administration’s intestinal fortitude –” Dunhill and Mulder simul-smirked. “– we can’t risk Sino-U.S. relations. Especially with the bond issue and the next round of WTO talks hanging over our heads. Unfortunately, I expect that by tomorrow, video of your men tackling the secretary will be on CNN, FOX, MSNBC, YouTube, and the web page of every twenty-something tourist at the Wall this afternoon.”

“Next time, we’ll throw up a Kevlar party tent,” Dunhill smiled.

“I’m grateful your men acted so quickly and decisively,” the secretary hastily assured him. “Let’s not get crazy here, Ted.”

“I’m just saying,” the COS muttered. “The fact is, we have to have some cohesive, rational explanation for today’s events, and immediately. I asked a couple of the Foreign Ag Service analysts at the consulate to come up with…ah, research…any seasonal anomalies — insect infestations, unusual weather phenomena.”

“Little early in the year for a major swarm like that,” mulled the secretary, who’d grown up on an Ohio corn-and-cattle operation. “I’m sure even the Beltway guys would point that out. I don’t know why we’re tap-dancing around, anyway — at least four or five dozen witnesses can document that this event was unexplainable, but certainly natural in origin. If that’s the right word. Is that the right word, Agent Mulder?”

Mulder nearly slipped from the arm of the couch, astonished to be consulted. The COS smiled tolerantly. “Technically, probably. Though I don’t think the guys at the consulate would find what we saw today in any nature guide.”

“You’re saying this was a supernatural occurrence?” The secretary had been fully briefed on the X-Files, and he asked as if checking on the August crop projections.

“I wouldn’t say that,” Mulder drawled. Scully tensed. “Yet, anyway.” Scully sighed. “Supernatural implies that this occurrence exists outside our known physical environment. What we saw today simply may not yet be documented — or accepted — by modern science.”

“And what would that be?” the secretary persisted.

8:43 p.m.

“Rods, right?”

A square swatch of crispy duck skin quivered before Mulder’s mouth, then fell from his crossed sticks onto his ornately enscripted plate.

Mulder had dallied on the street below the Quanjude Restaurant to check out some soapstone talismans, and had lost his spot at the bureaucrat’s table. The man who’d addressed him was a second-string cable media celeb known primarily for his mastery of salon gel and ability to convey human emotion on command. Mulder handed him a plate of fermented jellyfish.

“That’s what you’re thinking those things were, right?” Donnell Wilkinson persisted. “I did a series on crypto-scientific phenomena last summer — maybe you saw it?”

“Yeah, matter of fact. I laughed, I cried.” One of Mulder’s forum-mates had dubbed the series “Black Holes and A-Holes.”

“Anyway, I did a one-on-one with Jose Escamillo.”

Escamilla, Mulder silently amended. The world’s leading authority — perhaps its only authority — on “skyfish,” or rods, as the parascientific community called them.

“Didn’t seem like a total whack job,” Wilkinson offered generously. “Some of the videos are pretty compelling. That’s what you think those things were, right?”

“Rods.” Mulder frowned, and gave the single syllable as much labored effort as he could muster.

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“C’mon, Mulder. I researched you — well, one of my guys did. I know all about the X-Files, about the exploits of ‘Spooky’ Mulder. You’re the guy who almost got bitch-slapped by that NYPD gasbag last month, right? Just tell me what you think, mano-a-mano. That was some pretty weird shit went down today.”

“Word, Dog. No comment.”

“Off the record, seriously.”

“Seriously. No comment.”

“You know, right, the Chinese government actually tried to prove the existence of rods a few years ago? Sent out guys skyfishing, analyzed every video and photo pixel-by-pixel. Most of them turned out to be blurry bugs.”

“Some,” Mulder blurted. “No comment.”

“C’mon, you think I’m going to report one of the top Cabinet secretaries got attacked by a swarm of pissed-off skyfish? Besides, I didn’t think they ever went after people.”

“They don’t,” Mulder nodded, dropping his duck and any pretense of official protocol. “I mean, there are no reports of aggressive behavior. Atmospheric organisms normally have minimal interaction with other airborne objects or birds. Reportedly. There’s never been any postmortem evidence of their existence — no carcasses, no wings — and they’ve never been characterized as antagonistic. Thus, the theories they could be trans-dimensional entities. And they never, ever–”

Mulder looked up to see two network correspondents, a Post feature writer, and a Times finance reporter staring, rapt and incredulous, chopsticks on safety. He glanced quickly sideways, to see Scully craning anxiously around Agent Faber’s shaven head.

“No comment,” he reiterated, shoving a wad of duck into his jaws.

10:02 p.m.

“Give me some advance notice the next time, Mulder,” Scully murmured as the elevator doors whispered shut and the car began to ascend into the luxuriant bowels of the Grand Hyatt Beijing. “I’ll book a room and a podium and Twitter Wolf Blitzer and Helen Thomas.”

Mulder silently counted to five. “He cornered me.”

“By inviting you to open your mouth?”

He tallied another five. “What was the harm, Scully? I’m sure they just wrote me off as some kind of whack job.”

“And I was worried.” Scully shook her head for three floors. Then she sighed. “So, were they, you know, those flying fish?”

“Skyfish,” Mulder smirked. His partner looked blankly at him, and the smirk vanished. “As much as I wish I could say they were, I think we were the fish.”

“Why does cryptozoology always seem to make you so cryptic?”

The car halted and the doors slid open. In the nuanced lighting across the hall, two representatives of the press corps – the trade guy from the Wall Street Journal and the Post’s Asian bureau stringer – looked up hazily, the WSJ guy attempting unsuccessfully to hide his half- bottle of Tsingtao.

“Not here,” Mulder whispered. He directed her toward his room. The reporters chortled. Scully turned back toward the elevator.

“Not there,” she growled.

**

“Xie xie,” Mulder murmured as the waiter deposited their nightcaps. At a few minutes past midnight, the Redmoon lounge was beginning to thin out. Mulder had deduced, accurately, that his fellow media travelers would venture out to some less trendy watering hole with a later last call.

“So why, this one time, when it flies right before your eyes – and the eyes of a few dozen tourists, journalists, and a top Cabinet official — are you so reluctant to believe in the impossible?” Scully asked, sipping her Merlot.

“Because it didn’t just fly before my eyes.” Mulder sampled his beer. “It circled the field and tried to make contact with the tower. I got a clear look at it.”

Scully straightened. “My God. What was it?”

“Oh, it was a rod.”

She blinked. “And just when I thought I’d mastered your dementia. You just insisted those things weren’t rods.”

“It was a rod – identical to Escamilla’s widely-publicized 3-D rendering. Too identical, if you ask me. The best stills taken from the Escamilla rod videos are vague, at best.”

“What are you suggesting, Mulder? That all of us – all those people at the Wall – were scammed?” Mulder shrugged. Scully leaned forward. “I can’t believe I’m saying this, but that’s absurd.”

“What’s absurd is that this unexplained cryptoid organism – a creature that’s existed unseen, leaving no evidence or remains probably for millennia – would stop to give Spooky Mulder a photo op. It was too convenient.”

Scully took a slug of wine. “Wow. It really is all about you, isn’t it? Dr. Manville needs to step up the program a bit.”

Mulder sighed. “The threat against the secretary. Pretty weird, right?”

“To say the least,” Scully nodded, recalling the bizarre, untraceable e-mail that had arrived at USDA soon after the secretary’s tour of China had been announced. By the time a professor of ancient languages at Georgetown translated the lengthy and graphically precise curse from its long-dead Chinese dialect, Ted Shulman, the secretary’s chief of staff, had consulted the Director, who promptly contacted Skinner, who hastily ordered Mulder to exhume his passport. That Mulder himself was on the NYPD’s watch list was merely incidental.

“It was almost like a personal invitation. They had everything they needed to pull it off: A visiting VIP, a media entourage, a crowded venue, and the FBI’s resident expert on the weird and wacky.”

“They? Who’s they, Mulder? And why would they do this? What’s the purpose?”

Mulder shrugged.

“Great,” Scully breathed. She glanced up, frowning, and Mulder turned to see an immaculately dressed Asian approaching.

“Mr. Mulder?” the young man’s head bobbed curtly. A pin on his lapel IDed him as hotel staff.

“Yep.”

“One of your party wishes to speak with you. A Mr. Wil-, Wil-”

Mulder’s brow rose. “Wilkinson. Donnell Wilkinson.”

The man smiled helplessly. “He did not give me his given name. Mr. Wil-, your friend did not have your cell phone number, and you were not in your room. He says it is important that he talk to you.”

Mulder finished his beer and rose. “Which room?”

The staffer shook his head. “No. He is at Xiao Chang – Happy Dog. It is a bar on this street. He said he will wait for you.”

Mulder glanced at Scully.

“I better go with you,” she said warily.

“You afraid he’s leading me into a trap?” Mulder laughed.

“I’m afraid you’ll go on the record again,” she said.

Day 2

12:16 a.m.

The Happy Dog was a textbook working man’s dive, like virtually any working man’s dive in the developing or developed world. A dozen weary Asian eyes regarded Mulder briefly as he entered, then turned back to animated Mandarin or inebriated meditation as he scanned the dark, music-free interior for the American reporter. Wilkinson was at the end of the bar – Mulder stopped dead as the journalist looked up.

Even in the dull fluorescent light, Wilkinson was alarmingly pallid. His eyes were circled in red. As he spotted Mulder, his smile was anemic.

“Hey, Fox, man, thanks for coming,” Wilkinson said weakly, gesturing to the next stool. “Phuket?”

“Excuse me?”

“Phuket. Thai beer. Got addicted to it when I was covering a global climate summit in Bang-, Bangkok.”

“I’m good. What’s up? I told you no comment before.”

“It’s not that,” Wilkinson slurred, his smile disappearing. “There was a reason I asked you about, you know, those things.”

Mulder chuckled. “Wilkinson, you could tell me about your weekend in Vermont with Sasquatch, and nobody here would know any better. What’s your interest in rods?”

The newsman fumbled for his Phuket, and the bottle toppled. Mulder righted it before it could spill. “I think I’m in troub—” Wilkinson’s eyes popped as he choked on the last word. He grasped his throat, and his buttermilk expression turned blue-gray. His cyanotic lips mimed distress.

“Donnell,” Mulder gasped. “What happened? Who did this?” The agent reached over the bar and grabbed the stolid bartender. “Help. Shit. This man. He needs a doctor. Oh, Jesus…”

“He speaks no English,” a calm voice informed Mulder. A middle-aged man in a T-shirt and jeans displayed his cell phone. “I’ve called for emergency care – they should be here momentarily.”

Mulder nodded gratefully, then turned to Wilkinson, who was now turning scarlet. The reporter was scrabbling at his jacket pocket, and ripped the lining as he yanked out an iPod. Wilkinson batted Mulder’s hand as the agent tried to calm him, and began working the handheld device. Then, he forced it into Mulder’s hand and fell back against the bar.

“Please, move aside,” the man with the cell phone murmured, grasping Mulder’s shoulder and pulling him gently away from Wilkinson. The reporter slumped to the floor, and the T-shirted stranger dropped to one knee over him to begin CPR.

“You’re a doctor?” Mulder asked dully, heart pounding.

“Beijing Municipal Public Security Bureau,” the man stated, compressing Wilkinson’s chest. “Superintendent First Class Wei Lu. If you would please remain on the premises.”

2:30 a.m.

After a half-hour of bilingual Chinese bureaucracy, small talks, and polite threats, Scully and Dunhill were admitted to the substation interview room where their colleague had been detained.

“Well, hey, guys,” Mulder grinned as Superinendent Lu poured him a second cup of steaming black tea. Say hey, Wei.”

“Hey,” Lu intoned with a sharp bow. “You would be Special Agent Scully? And you, I assume, are the Secret Service man Fox spoke of?”

“You assume correctly,” Dunhill rumbled. “Fox. Good thing we broke out the cavalry. Is he under arrest, sir?”

“Absolutely not. Fox and I are discussing your friend’s unfortunate death. I offer my sympathies.”

“So you can just leave?” Scully asked.

“Policeman’s habit,” Lu explained. “When foreign nationals hold a rendezvous in one of the local bars, it tends to capture my attention. Mr. Wilkinson already was exhibiting odd behavior before Fox arrived – weaving, labored breathing. After your partner arrived, I watched both men very carefully. Fox had no opportunity to — how would you put it? — to doctor Mr. Wilkinson’s beer.”

“He was already drunk?” Dunhill frowned. “We’d just got back from dinner a half-hour before he called you, and he seemed OK then. He only had the one beer at the bar.”

“The barkeeper said yes.”

“I think he’d been poisoned,” Mulder said. “He only seemed to be drunk. What would do that, Scully?”

“Combined with respiratory failure? I suppose if he had an anaphylactic reaction to some drug he was given or self-administered. Then there’s nitrogen narcosis or nitrogen drunkenness, but that occurs mainly in deepwater divers.”

Mulder looked up at Superintendent Lu, who was sipping his tea from a black ceramic cup. “I don’t suppose you could authorize a—”

“A post-mortem? Of course. I will ask our pathologist to explore all possibilities. After our recent melamine, er, ‘problems’ and the ongoing concerns about SARS, my superiors, the government will want to be able to assure the public and your media that there is no question of public health or safety. I will call you with his findings.”

Lu nodded. “I am afraid I also will need to confiscate Mr. Wilkinson’s musical device.”

“Sure,” Mulder said, retrieving the iPod. He turned to Scully and Dunhill. “I think Wilkinson knew he was dying, and probably knew how he died. Since he couldn’t speak, he did the best he could to try to leave me a message.”

Mulder activated the player and retrieved the last song played. Scully peered at the tiny monitor.

“All For Love,” Scully read. “Bryan Adams. Guess you never really know a man until you read his playlist. God knows yours scared the bejesus out of me the first time.”

“He was killed over a woman?” Dunhill pondered. “Or a man, pardon my political insensitivity.”

“I believe it’s the former,” Scully said. Dunhill and Mulder exchanged looks. “You’d be surprised at the intel you can gather even in a Beijing ladies room.”

“Any particular intel you want to share, Agent?” Dunhill asked.

Mulder peered at his tea dregs and rose. “All will be revealed in time, Grasshopper. Toodle-loo, Lu.”

**

“Beijing police have released no official details of Wilkinson’s death, and an autopsy is planned,” the dapper BBC anchor intoned. “The veteran newsman was honored with a Pulitzer Prize nomination in 2000 for his series of reports on corruption within the Chicago Police Department. He was well-known in recent years for his narration of dozens of documentaries on the National Geographic, Discovery, History, and Animal Planet cable channels.”

Mulder rationed enough bottled water (two per room per day) to rinse and spit, fondly recalling Wilkinson’s fine work on Mastiffs and Masters, perhaps the definitive opus on the alpha canine/alpha human dynamic. The Pulitzer thing, he hadn’t seen.

“Wilkinson was among those who bore witness to yesterday’s bizarre, highly publicized incident at China’s Great Wall, as seen in this exclusive MSNBC video.”

Mulder dashed out of the marbled toilet – he hadn’t yet seen any footage of the swarm. Spielberg, it wasn’t: Tourists and journalists ducking and swatting and screaming as ill-defined objects whizzed past the lens. A half-dozen intrepid – or Youtube-obsessed — young Asians continued to point and shoot as all hell broke loose. Mulder spotted himself in the distance, standing immobile as the camera panned the frenetic crowd. Then he froze, absently wiping a thread of toothpaste from his chin with a knuckle.

“Scientists with China’s Ministry of Environment could not pinpoint specifically what swarmed the group, though a source within the press delegation accompanying the U.S. agriculture secretary related speculation the airborne missiles might be ‘rods’ or ‘skyfish’ –”

Cool-Mint Crest sprayed across the room, and Mulder sank onto his bed.

“— atmospheric creatures of cryptozoological lore believed by skeptics to be large, rapidly moving insects. Coincidentally, Wilkinson once produced a piece on the rod phenomenon for CNN, and the ag secretary’s official contingent includes a reported expert on paranormal science…”

“No,” Mulder whispered.

“…who according to Beijing police was present when Wilkinson suffered his fatal seizure.”

And that was when the phone rang.

7:08 a.m.

“You need a better publicist, dude.”

An already Scully-chastened Mulder turned slowly to the sallow, cadaverous man who was adding pickled tofu to his soupy congee. Piescak was the group’s token blogger – the hip new administration’s nod to the social media and the twenty-something set largely credited with putting it in office.

“They didn’t even mention your name,” Piescak continued. “Your bosses or that tight-sphinctered prick Ted probably pulled some strings. You know, he tried to get my credentials yanked, with the support of my esteemed press buds. Not part of their little media country club – bunch of sanitized whores.”

“Good morning,” Mulder nodded. Piescak grinned.

“Not bitter, much,” the blogger said, poking at a pot of fish eggs before dropping some into his rice porridge. “Sincerely, dude, hope you don’t take too much shit from your people. You’re like a rock star to the paranormal community. That Flukeman thing, that was straight up?”

“You try these things?” Mulder obfuscated, indicating a basket full of steaming white buns.

“Pork buns, dude – pretty righteous. I get it, no comment. Off the record, though – you think Wilkinson was whacked? Cause you know he was trying to get back on the A-list with the network. Human trafficking, Russian mob, high-tech computer matchmaking for super-rich superpervs.”

All for Love, Mulder reflected. A little over-subtle for Donnell Wilkinson.

“That’s not what you’re on this little journey for, is it? Doesn’t seem like your gig. Not like that freaky shit yesterday. The response on my site last night nearly crashed the server.”

The agent looked up. “It’s up on your blog? You get any video?”

“Great shit. ‘Course, you can’t see the critters – just white streaks.”

“Think I could have a peek tonight after dinner?”

Piescak pulled a satchel from his shoulder and withdrew a book-sized Mac. “Grab your pork buns, and we’ll have a show. Don’t worry – those assholes won’t come anywhere near me.”

As promised, the video offered no major revelations about the secret life of rods – the hypothetical creatures appeared to be no more than videographic flaws. But the dispassionate Piescak had thoroughly documented the crowd’s reactions — panning, zooming, capturing all the fear, panic, and fascination. A pair of government security officers had drawn their weapons but appeared uncertain where to aim them.

Mulder grunted. “What?” Piescak asked.

“Run it back…No, more…There, pause.” Mulder tapped the laptop screen. Two to three dozen predominantly Asian sightseers were frozen, crouching, waving, screaming. Except for a handful of fashionably rumpled young people, cameras plastered to their faces. “Seems like these kids are pretty cool about what’s going on.”

“Generation Youtube, dude. If they see it, they shoot it.”

“But look at this one, the girl. She’s on her knees, defensive posture, but she’s still focused. She look scared to you?”

“Hmm, yeah. Weird. And now you mention it, there’s something else kinda fucked up about the whole scene. What is it?”

Mulder was silent for a moment. “Think you can grab some stills? The parking lot, a few of the secretary’s and the media buses. And can I get a copy of this video?”

Piescak frowned. “Man, I don’t know. My peeps find out I’m cc’ing the feds, I’ll be banished from the blogosphere for life.” He glanced across the table at the tacit agent. “Ah, shit, I guess since it’s for you. Mpeg or .avi?”

**

Chiu brightened as Mulder approached the media bus. Grinning, the agent pulled a sleek black device from his jacket. He slapped the Meizu player into the young guide’s palm, and the eyes behind the rectangular lenses glittered.

“Fallout Boys?” Chiu asked.

“Yeah, boy,” Mulder nodded. The visiting fed had allowed the government-assigned translator/escort and student to sample his digital mix as they waited for the group at the Beijing consulate, and had promised him some alternative and Johnny Cash tracks.

“Righteous. Thank you.”

“Not a problem.” The pair moved aside, reverently appraising CNBC’s lithe Asian correspondent as she breezed onto the tour bus. “Wild and wacky stuff yesterday, huh?”

Chiu’s expression darkened. “Yes. Very strange. And very sad about Mr. Wilkinson. It must have been very alarming for you.”

Mulder glanced off toward the rush hour crush on East Chang’an Avenue. China led the planet in new car sales, and the early morning air was sepia with greenhouse gases. “Did you happen to notice how Wilkinson was after we left the Wall?”

“It’s hard to remember – everyone was so, ah, freaked out, you know? I do know Mr. Wilkinson was very pale. He wouldn’t talk to his friends, and he kept, uh, holding his arm.” Chiu demonstrated, rubbing his forearm. “I was afraid perhaps he was having a problem with his heart, but he was OK, he said he was OK. I figure he was, ah, shocked by what we saw.”

Mulder spotted Scully inside, scanning the lobby no doubt for him. “Thanks, Chiu. I’ll see if I can get you some Sara Maclachlan.”

“Yeah buddy,” the young man grinned.

“I looked for you at breakfast,” Scully told him as they met at the revolving doors. “But you looked occupied with Blog Boy. Plus, the guy from the Times Sunday magazine pitched me on a cover story about working with the Bureau’s top ghostbuster.”

“You tell him you don’t kiss and tell?”

“Yes, Mulder. That’s exactly what I told him. As it is, I’m concerned about how all this enforced celibacy is going to affect your short-term health. I saw what it did before, and it wasn’t pretty.”

Mulder laughed sourly. “If it weren’t for the official taboo on public affection, I would give you such a smack. In a place that doesn’t show, of course. What’d you find out?”

“A little journalistic incest, it would seem. Tina Cho, the Asian correspondent with Wilkinson’s network? I think I saw her get on the bus a few minutes ago.”

“Didn’t notice,” Mulder coughed.

“Well. About five years ago, Cho and Wilkinson had a brief dalliance. Dellums from FOX was delighted to tell me. But Cho apparently wasn’t willing to stop dallying when Wilkinson did. It apparently developed into a real situation, and the next thing you know, she’s working the Hong Kong bureau. But Dellums tells me she’s been hovering around Wilkinson on the bus, and he loudly advised her to pleasure herself rather than him. All for love, or some twisted version of it.

Scully inhaled. “Then there’s Brad Klosterman, the D.C. bureau guy for the Chicago Trib. While Wilkinson was on that Chicago corruption story, he hooked up with Klosterman, who, I understand, did a couple of semesters at Colombia with Wilkinson. Well, Wilkinson also hooked up with Klosterman’s fiancé, according to the drooling federal beat gal from the New York Ledger. It caused a break-up and an altercation outside the Chicago Chophouse. Klosterman reportedly did most of the altercating?”

“Altercating?”

“It’s a word,” Scully stated frostily. “This is a wonderful group we’re traveling with. Back-biting, gossip, egos as big as, well, as big as your legendary Chinese Wildman thing. And Wilkinson appears to be working through the entire roster of the International Press Association. Drop Dead Ted had to talk to him about trying to promote global relations with one of the dancers at Bai Family Restaurant the other night. You remember her, I’m sure. The one you were leering at half the evening.”

“Hey, the only piece of ass I noticed there was the braised donkey. Tasted like zebra.”

“As for the video you requested, everybody’s standing on their journalistic principles,” Scully smirked. “Probably more like a fear of losing their exclusive and ancillary media rights. They won’t let me see squat unless I can conjure up a warrant and a letter from Ruth Bader Ginsberg, and, as you can guess, we don’t have a helluva lot of leverage over here.”

“May not matter. I think the answer might be in Piescak’s video. But I have a question for you. Yesterday, when you clumsily tried to buoy my spirits with the Yeren, did you just make that up? Was there actually a sighting in Hubei Province?”

Scully studied her partner. “Why?”

“C’mon.”

She sighed. “Yes. I saw it on one of the English language channels. A couple of civil servants and a French tourist claim to have seen one near a cornfield, but, amazingly, it disappeared, leaving no traces. Mulder, what does this have to do with anything?”

“Maybe nothing. Hey, what say we blow off today’s tour of the Forbidden City and take a little field trip? They don’t need us – Dunhill, Darrell, and Darrell are on the case.”

“I don’t know, Mulder. After yesterday, I think Ted’s already on the verge of asking the Director to assign us permanently to the Possum Waller, Mississippi, field office.”

Mulder nodded thoughtfully. “Yeah, OK. Well, we better get on the bus – I’m sure our media buds have a million questions about the paranormal and where you buy those stylishly impractical heels.”

Scully started to open her mouth, clamped it shut, chewed on her lips, and exhaled deeply. “Let’s go tell Ted.”

**

“Special Agent Fox Mulder,” the tiny man gasped in halting English as the apartment door swung open. “I could hardly believe it was true when you called. Please, please, come inside.”

The small apartment was one of hundreds within the hundreds of cloned high-rise hives clustered around the city. But Mulder suspected that beyond the non-descript furniture, the cheaply framed family photos, and the customarily ornate tea set on the side table, the home of Ji and Xia Deng was like none other in Beijing. The water-stained wall opposite a vintage console TV was plastered with a gallery of the macabre and mystical. Mulder looked into the (theoretical) eyes of a red-haired hulking Yeren, then analyzed an ink drawing of a soaring dragon similar to the soapstone carvings being hawked at the Great Wall.

A woman even smaller than Ji emerged from the kitchen with a plate of sliced starfruit, smiling and bowing. Ji spoke to her in Mandarin, and his wife’s smile blossomed into euphoria. As she busied herself with a teapot and a quartet of delicate cups, Ji Deng waved the agents to the modest yellow couch.

“You have come to the right place, Agent Mulder,” Ji enthused, perching on the edge of a straight chair. “You can ask anyone – I am Beijing’s No. 1 paranormal travel host. You wish to see haunted temples? Crop circles north of city – only ones in Northern China. I know old man near Forbidden City, cures arthritis with his hands, radios don’t work 50 feet around his shop.”

“Same old tourist traps,” Mulder sighed. “Sorry – bad joke, Mr. Deng. Actually, I wanted to ask you about the paranormal tourism industry in China. How are you doing with the current economic downturn?”

If Ji was disappointed at losing a hot prospect, it didn’t show. He shrugged as he accepted a steaming cup from Xia. “Times tough all over, that’s what American say? Of course, no sub-prime mortgage in China – mortgage always sub-prime.” He laughed. “Not as many Europeans, Americans, Australians – Olympics are over, Beijing no longer big attraction. Oddly, my business not so bad. The people who hire my service, they’re not Carnival Cruise/Disneyland-type people. Don’t want Mickey Mouse – they want to see Kanasi Huguai, Loch Ness monster in northwest province. Want to see hotel room where walls bleed. Money no object – my clients, they want the truth, what others can’t see. They want to believe.”

He stopped abruptly, remembering who was drinking tea in his tiny living room. Mulder smiled warmly and nodded at Xia’s offer of tea.

“You’ve been doing this how long, Mr. Deng?”

“Fourteen years.”

“Then you’ve seen a lot? A lot of mysterious, unexplainable things? And, I assume, a lot of things that weren’t so mysterious?”

Ji stared at Mulder and Scully, then broke into a knowing smile. “Yes, of course. People want to believe, often they will believe anything. There are many unscrupulous people who will exploit their belief. These people, they are, how would you say, a disgrace to my profession.”

Mulder reached for the computer bag he’d brought along. “Mr. Deng, can I show you something?”

**

“I guess I figured something was screwy when that rod got all up in my grill,” Mulder said, unpacking the computer once again as they settled onto the bench. Twenty feet away, pairs of Chinese men were playing ping pong al fresco as a steady progression of buses offloaded impassive workers and civil servants at a nearby stop. “I mean, the Sultan of Strange is the one guy who gets a clear look at a phenomenon that’s managed to evade human detection for centuries and airborne contact for more than a century. Mr. Deng’s adulation aside, I doubt my reputation precedes me throughout the animal kingdom. If they are animals. I support some kind of prokaryotic organism could exist in a gaseous environ–”

“Hey, Rainman. You think this is some kind of hoax?” Scully’s face darkened in anticipation. “Or do you think it’s something else?”

“Relax, Scully. I think this is garden variety — albeit fairly sophisticated — fraud. I think whoever sent that curse to the secretary was betting they’d assign, how’d the BBC put it? The FBI’s paranormal aficionado?”

“Expert on paranormal science. There’s a TV in my room, too, Mulder. You think someone engineered your presence here?”

Mulder fired up the RealPlayer. “At the risk of sounding immodest, I’m not exactly unknown in the paranormal community. Last I googled, I had 125,456 hits.”

Scully’s brow rose toward the heavens. “You googled yourself? When, last night? Why can’t you do what every other horny, deprived guy does alone in his hotel room?”

“I’m saving myself for a culture with looser mores, if you can hold out that long. Look, you’ve got the secretary of agriculture here on a state visit. Hillary Clinton was secretary of state — high profile, no doubt surrounded by an army of Secret Service. And during her visit, she was closeted with Chinese mucky mucks and grabbing photo ops in a claustrophobic urban setting. Too risky on about 50 levels. The ag secretary is second string news, covered by second string cable and protected by Dunhill and the Dunhillettes and Ted the Ferret Man. And, most importantly, he’s out on the road, touring rice paddies and dairy farms and ancient temples. Wide-open spaces, far from official Party scrutiny. It was the perfect storm. They just needed somebody like me to serve as an impartial witness. An expert witness.”

“At the risk of sounding immodest. Maybe I’m spending too much time on the press bus, Mulder, but the big ‘W’ here would seem to be why. And how, pardon my syntax.”

“While you were checking in with Skinner and chatting it up with Xia up there, I did a little reconnoitering with Mr. Deng. It seems China’s been awash in paranormal phenomena lately. In addition to our little rod party at the Wall and the Yeren sightings in Hubei, there’ve been Internet reports of strange lights appearing over Shanghai, a few oxen mutilated and their organs removed near the Three Gorges area, and that lake monster, the Kanasi Huguai Deng mentioned? Well, a farmer and his sons report it was taking a midnight swim a few weeks ago. It’s a virtual epidemic of the uncanny in China, largely unknown to the outside world thanks to the inscrutable reticence of the mother government. But its big news on the web — the discussion forums are buzzing, and every crypto-geek with a Bigfoot poster in his basement is sporting a woody the size of the legendary Tatzelwurm.”

“And we wonder where the future John Steinbecks are coming from,” Scully sighed. “What are you saying, Mulder?”

“The global economy’s in the crapper, Scully. People are staying home, visiting the Grand Canyon instead of the Coliseum, the Great Corn Palace instead of the Louvre. Companies and non-profits are teleconferencing and webinaring instead of letting their people pad the expense account in Vegas or Hong Kong.

“Ever since the Curtain’s come down, China’s become a major tourist draw. But the tourists have dwindled to a trickle, and with the recent food and toy scares, Chinese exports are off. The 800-pound gorilla has stubbed its toe.”

“Excuse me — you’ve been spending too much time on the press bus.”

“I think somebody’s decided to give a little goose to the economy by capitalizing on China’s greatest national treasure.”

“Agriculture? Textiles.”

“Mystery, Scully, mystery.” Mulder’s partner could have sworn the street din hushed as he spoke. She shook it off. “China’s long been a land of mystery, folklore, magic. Its home to several key religious traditions — Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism — and countless cultures with their own folkways. Communist control only compounded the mystery, obscured the world’s view of more than a billion people and their secrets. Now that the Bamboo Curtains been pushed aside, people come here for commerce, for trade, for colorful dinner conversation. And for the mystery. In a world full of Starbucks and Nikes and high-speed and Bono, China’s still has a few unknown corners, some far reaches for the curious and hopeful to explore. Now, if we could have a brief presentation.”

Scully was uncharacteristically speechless. She nodded dumbly, and Mulder pulled up the .mpeg Piescak had e-mailed him from the press bus. Abruptly, the agents were back at the Great Wall with the tourists and the reporters and the feds. The assembled cast shrieked and cowered and swatted at blurred phantasms.

“There,” Mulder said, pausing the .mpeg. “You see that?”

Scully peered at the screen. “See what?”

“Here,” Mulder said, minimizing the RealPlayer and clicking a second file on the desktop. It was a far clearer duplicate of the video frame he’d just displayed: The group of young Chinese students, practicing photographic target shooting with the invading swarm. Mulder had Photoshopped a series of red arrows into the .jpg. “How fast would you say those things were moving, Scully? And yet this group of kids managed to take dead aim on all of them.” He traced one of the red arrows between a bespectacled young woman and one of the rods. Scully followed another half-dozen arrows between shooter and target.

“That’s amazing,” Scully murmured. “Too amazing. The odds are astronomical against all of these people simultaneously displaying this kind of photographic reflex.”

“Unless instead of photographing the rods, they were projecting them.”

“Projecting them? Mulder?”

“Holograms, Scully. Three-dimensional, laser-projected images. I’m guessing those weren’t cameras those kids were using. They’d been rigged, probably with low-cost solid state lasers, to project images most likely based on Escamilla’s models.”

Scully squinted. “These are college-aged kids, Mulder. What are you suggesting? This was some sort of tourist campaign to boost foot traffic at the Wall? A high-tech fraternity prank?”

Mulder shook his head. “I think this is far more orchestrated than that. The lake monster, the Yeren sightings, the UFOs over Shanghai, our little encounter, all at once – this looks like it could be a nationwide conspiracy. There could be hundreds of people involved.”

“Hundreds? Are you saying this is some kind of government plot?”

“I doubt that. The idea of promoting supernatural tourism as an economic stimulus seems a little flaky for the central government, and it’s unlikely officials from a half-dozen scattered provinces could get together for this kind of collaboration. No, I think this is a private sector project, you should pardon the capitalist phraseology. And student-based – this kind of technological sophistication would require access to university facilities. And whoever’s behind this has managed to cheaply engineer holographic images that don’t lose their integrity. No diffusion of the beam; the ‘rods’ look great from all perspectives. This guy is a genius. And I’m guessing he’s based in Beijing – the special effects necessary to fake a Yeren sighting or put on a Shanghai light show wouldn’t be that tricky.”

“Kids, don’t try this at home,” Scully murmured dryly.

clip_image008

“Relatively speaking,” Mulder sighed. “I think these kids are connected through social networking – cell phones, discussion forums, whatever version of Facebook they’ve got over here. But the rods – they’re the piece de resistance, the masterstroke. I think the technology was developed here.”

Scully glanced at a middle-aged bicyclist navigating effortlessly among the small cars and sardine-can buses, PVC pipes and bottled water strapped to the rear rack. A group of teens emerged, laughing and dishing in frenetic Mandarin. “OK. So how does any of this tie into Wilkinson’s death? You think he discovered what was going on?”

“I think Wilkinson’s best investigative days are long since past, and even if he did uncover the plot, why kill him? What these kids have done, it’s hardly a capital crime, even in the People’s Republic. Hell, they’d probably give ‘em the front spot in next year’s Workers Parade for sheer initiative.” Mulder jumped as his cell phone vibrated in the heart of Beijing. “Hello?…Oh, hey, Lu. Wow, already. Yeah, we’re free – be right over.”

Mulder folded his phone thoughtfully and pocketed it, rising to his feet. “M.E. report’s in. Let’s see if maybe we can connect a few dots.”

**

Scully seemed comfortable for the first time since their arrival, surrounded by stainless steel tables and tools, test tubes, and the silent dead waiting to yield their secrets. While she was unable to understand a word uttered by the chief pathologist of the People’s Hospital, she hung on every word and looked eagerly to Superintendent Lu for translation. He frowned as he looked to the agents.

“He could find no evidence of injection or any poison in Mr. Wilkinson’s digestive system. There were no obvious signs of foul play. Dr. Jiang nonetheless found an extremely odd anomaly – the lungs, the body cavity, and the heart contained high concentrations of two gases. Nitrogen and—”

“Argon,” Mulder whispered behind him. Lu turned.

“Why, yes. May I ask how you knew this?”

Mulder blinked. “Huh? Sorry. Lu, could you ask Dr. Jiang if we could please use his computer?”

Lu made the request. Jiang nodded curtly and led the group from the morgue into his small, neat office. Mulder started around the desk, glanced at the Chinese language keyboard, and looked anxiously up at the medical examiner. Jiang silently took his seat before the PC and waited for Lu’s instructions.

“I need to look up a website,” Mulder said. “Go to http://www.koolmp3.com.”

Lu looked oddly at his guest, but fed the request to the pathologist. The pathologist looked oddly at Lu, then at Mulder. Mulder looked to Scully, who looked oddly back.

The download site appeared on the screen. “Ask him to search ‘All for Love.’”

Lu translated. The pathologist frowned, but complied. In a second, the page loaded. Mulder leaned in.

“I think I was wrong, Scully,” he explained. “Well, not exactly wrong. I just didn’t see the whole picture. But I don’t see where this fits in.”

Mulder moused over the “Play” button and double-clicked. “‘When it’s love you give/I’ll be a man of good faith/Then in love you live…’”

“Shit,” Mulder sighed. “All for Love. The Three Musketeers. I should have made the connection.”

“English, Mulder,” Scully snapped.

“It’s a play on the Three Musketeers – ‘One for all, and all for one.’ It wasn’t a solo.” He studied the song description on the website.

“Wilkinson wasn’t trying to clue me in to who killed him. He was trying to tell me how he was killed. Something happened at the Wall – Liu said he was agitated on the press bus – but Wilkinson wouldn’t tell anybody. He probably couldn’t believe it himself. Then he realized he was getting worse, and he called the one person in the group he felt could explain what had happened. Then he seized, and he pointed me toward this song. Well, not the song, but the singers.

“Wilkinson was displaying the symptoms of nitrogen poisoning, but nitrogen poisoning seems like a really strange way to murder someone. It’s neither immediate nor reliable, and if it’s detected in time, it can be quickly and fairly easily treated. So what if the nitrogen came from a natural source?”

This time, Scully’s cell buzzed. She raised a delaying finger as she flipped it open. “Scully. God. How? Scratch that. Superintendent Lu’s with us now — I’ll ask him to bring us.”

Mulder stared at his dazed partner as she worriedly ended the call. “Scully. What?”

“Superintendent,” she murmured. “Can you get us to the Olympic Village, please? The National Aquatics Center. It’s happened again.”

**

The “Water Cube,” as it has come to be called, is located on the western side of Jingguang Road, with Beijing’s expansive Olympic Green. The venue — which from the street resembles a badly de-aerated blueberry Jello mold — was, like the nearby “Bird’s Nest” stadium and Beijing’s sleek $4 billion international airport, designed to signal to the world the prosperity the 2008 Olympics was expected to bring to the troubled superpower.

The Olympics had slipped out of town like, well, like Donnell Wilkinson out of a network intern’s apartment at the break of dawn, leaving the Chinese capital with a collection of eccentric architectural pieces Mulder had dubbed “Gotham City East.” The grandeur of the Games had been replaced with thousands of international sightseers forced to run a gauntlet of peddlers hawking cheaply bedazzled trinkets, Olympic postcards, kites, and glass-encased, laser-etched 3-D renderings of the Bird’s Nest.

Now, the Olympic plaza resembled Tiananmen Square, circa 1989, pre-massacre. Dozens of Republic of China Army soldiers flanked the Olympic Green, impassively holding back tourists and gawkers under the murderous glare of peddlers cheated out of their afternoon’s profits. Tiananmen Square was unconscious shrapnel in even Young China’s psyche, and the smell of mingled fear and anger was as palpable as that of the cloying smog as Mulder, Scully, and Lu jogged toward the Cube.

That fear was mirrored — and muted — on the face of the young constable who intercepted his superior at the aquatics venue. He spoke in rapid-fire Mandarin, and Lu stopped him, nodding toward the agents.

“I am sorry,” the constable bowed slightly. “The — what the newspeople call the sky fish — they come suddenly, hundreds of them. Out of nowhere. Everyone starts screaming, and one of the, the park officers, tried to shoot at them. That make crowd panic, and we call them.” The constable glanced anxiously toward the soldiers and then, fearfully, at Lu. “The American agriculture secretary, I am afraid.”

“You acted correctly,” Lu grunted, putting the young officer at ease. “Where is he?”

“The secretary? They take him inside the Aquatic Center, the American agents. The man — his assistant — tell us not to allow the reporters inside. I don’t know…”

“You did well. The vendors are angry — you and your men should watch them. And see to the state of the tourists — it is a warm day, and there are many older people here. Make sure they receive any care they may need. Man zou.”

“It was, most likely, not the most prudent course of action, particularly with so many of your American media colleagues present,” Lu lamented as the constable fled. “But he is young, and our training is woefully deficient regarding attacks by mythical airborne creatures. I hope my superiors — and your press — will show him mercy. Shall we speak to the secretary?”

The secretary was rumpled, his sparse hair disheveled — no doubt at the protective hands of Faber and Cross. But he was chatting calmly with a Chinese policeman of obviously higher rank in the Aquatic Center press box.

“Agents, this is Commissioner General Qian of the Beijing Public Security Bureau. Commissioner, meet FBI Special Agents Fox Mulder and Dana Scully.”

The commissioner rose with a respectfully suppressed expression of bemusement. “Mr. Mulder. You are the expert on unusual phenomena?”

“That’s what they tell me,” Mulder said, dipping his head.

Qian took his hand firmly in a two-handed D.C. shake. “I trust you will find a reasonable explanation for these unorthodox events. Zhu ni zou yun. Good luck.”

“So,” Ted demanded from his corner seat, once the Beijing brass was out of earshot. He was red-faced and hoarse with restrained anger. “You got one?”

“Yeah, I think so. You got one?”

“This is hardly the time to be a fucking smartass, Mulder.”

“Ted,” the secretary sighed.

“No, sir. This is the second high-profile incident that’s occurred in two days — oh, I forgot about Donnell Wilkinson dying two feet away from J. Edgar Hoodoo here — and you’re off sightseeing with your sidekick here.”

“Hoodoo,” Mulder chuckled. “I get it. Look, Teddy — I wasn’t brought along on this Magical Mystery Tour to play bodyguard. That’s what Dunhill and the boys are for. I’m trying to get to the bottom of what’s going on here.”

“First thing we get back to the hotel, I’m calling your director–”

“First thing,” the secretary commanded quietly, “is you need apologize to Agent Scully here. She is a veteran FBI agent and a five-star forensic pathologist, and clearly no one’s sidekick. This is an unusual situation, and an uncomfortable one, but we don’t have to be abusive or high-horse, do we, now, Ted?”

Ted seemed to shrink in his overpriced suit. “No, sir. I’m sorry, Agent Scully — I let the pressure of the moment get the best of me. I meant no disrespect to you.”

Mulder smirked at “to you,” and looked with cheerfully expectation to the chief of staff. Ted nodded to the secretary and left.

“I think we’re growing on Niedemeyer,” Mulder sang.

“So,” the secretary smiled tolerantly. “Do you? Have a reasonable explanation?”

“He has an explanation,” Scully murmured.

“Thanks, Tonto,” Mulder acknowledged. He proceeded for the next 10 minutes to outline the elaborately orchestrated tourist scam he’d deduced.

“Hollywood special effects,” the secretary mumbled incredulously. “You’re saying this was all done with lasers?”

“Very sophisticated lasers — Auric Goldfinger-caliber lasers. Without Nintendo or Paris Hilton or Survivor to distract them, the Chinese have managed to develop some amazing technology — and keep it under our radar.”

“All right. Let’s say I accept this Michael Crichton scenario. Are you telling me Donnell Wilkinson’s death is totally unrelated to this…scheme?”

Mulder looked to Scully, who frowned in continued puzzlement. “Not precisely. The Chinese medical examiner told us Wilkinson’s system was saturated with nitrogen and argon. Organisms like snakes, insects, spiders, rockfish synthesize venoms from the environment around them. Nitrogen and argon are two of the most highly concentrated elements found in Earth’s atmosphere.”

“Hold on now,” the secretary breathed.

Scully’s eyes widened as she realized the implications of Mulder’s deductions from Wilkinson’s .mp3. Then she recognized Adams’ collaborators on the electronic track. “Rod Stewart. Rod. And, oh my God…”

Mulder nodded. “Sting.”

Lu had remained silent in the presence of the commissioner, but now his face darkened. “You are saying these…creatures…killed Mr. Wilkinson? One of those flying creatures at the Great Wall?”

“Sir?” It was Dunhill in the doorway. “We got a development out here. A national — one of the peddlers — and some tourist have collapsed. It looks like whatever happened to Wilkinson.”

The blood drained from the secretary’s face. “Agent Scully.”

“Yes, sir?”

“You concur with your partner about the nature of Wilkinson’s death?”

Scully swallowed. “I do.”

“Agent Dunhill, advise the Beijing authorities to treat these victims for nitrogen and argon toxicity.”

The Secret Service man glanced at Mulder and nodded. “Roger that,” he rumbled, and disappeared.

The secretary slumped back. “What a literal nightmare. I better talk to Ted.”

“I’ll find him,” Mulder said, jumping from his perch. He knew the COS couldn’t have gone far — Ted wouldn’t want the press exposure out on the plaza. He searched the corridors of the Cube until he found the young man. Lying on his side near the lobby. Mulder unholstered his cell phone, and Scully was down within three minutes, accompanied by a pair of medics already on the scene.

“But, Mulder,” Scully protested as they took the gasping aide away. “You said this was all a fraud, a scam.”

“It was,” her partner said gravely. “This is unintended consequences, coming home to roost.”

**

Mulder was unprepared for the swarm as he and Scully stepped back out into the Olympic plaza.

“Agent!” Tina Cho called, dashing improbably on her heels toward him. Mulder quickly found himself looking down the barrels of a half-dozen digital recorders and TV cameras.

“So you think this was an actual paranormal event?” Piescak shouted as he nudged between the NBC and Times reporters with his HD minicam.

“Did one of these skyfish things kill Wilkinson?” Klosterman demanded.

“You think this has something to do with global warming?”

“Is this is a government cover-up?”

“Looks like you’ve got this under control,” Scully suggested, edging past the press corps. “See you on the bus.”

**

Despite the trauma of the afternoon, dinner remained on. If anything, the trauma of the afternoon had revved the collective media into an omnivorous frenzy. Mulder decided to beg off in favor of McNuggets with whatever locally preferred dipping sauce. Scully informed him otherwise, so he broke out the Kenneth Roberts purple mini-grid dress shirt Scully had forced on him at Christmas.

“A major row meanwhile is developing in China, where Mexicans are being detained in hotels following the outbreak of swine flu at Hong Kong’s Metropark hotel attributed to a Mexican guest who had contracted the virus,” the BBC announcer related in the bedroom. “Ambassador Jorge Guajardo objected to the Chinese isolation of Mexican nationals who have exhibited no symptoms of the A-H1N1 flu. Mexico has now confirmed 19 fatalities due to the disease; China has quarantined approximately 400 persons.”

At least somebody had a worse day, Mulder mulled somewhat guiltily as he apportioned the day’s water. He thought he’d handled the media onslaught at Olympic Park pretty well before fleeing to the secretary’s bus. Ted and the other rod victims had been stabilized, thanks to Scully’s recommended course of treatment, and there’d been no reenactment of Tiananmen Square between the National Army and the Communist Brotherhood of Worthless Crap Peddlers.

Could’ve been worse.

“A far more bizarre story continues to unfold in Beijing, again involving a top-ranking U.S. Cabinet official. Chinese troops were dispatched to Olympic Park following a swarm of flying creatures reportedly identical to that which occurred yesterday at the Great Wall. Authorities have yet to identify the creatures or pinpoint their origin. Here is some video of the event, courtesy of America’s ABC television.”

Toothpaste in hand, Mulder rushed into the bedroom to view the scene he’d missed that afternoon. Mainly tourists and peddlers diving and swatting amid barely perceptible white whizzing blurs. Faber, Cross, and Dunhill shielding the secretary as they rushed him into the Cube, trailed by Ted. Mulder noted Ted stumbling and batting at the air as the group reached the Aquatic Center doors – was that where he’d been stung? If rods stung – the Beijing pathologist had found no marks on Wilkinson.

Mulder believed rods may have evolved while Earth was still a cooling cauldron of gases. As invertebrate life began to diversify and develop in the planet’s primeval oceans, one-celled organisms adapted and advanced in the clouds above, feeding, Mulder assumed, on the available elements in their biosphere – nitrogen, argon, carbon dioxide. They might not even be carbon-based – some cryptobiologists had even suggested rods represented a new form of matter.

Mulder would have tingled at the prospect of such an earthshaking discovery, if it hadn’t started buzzing the world below. Given the lack of potential predators in the atmosphere, he doubted the rods were behaving aggressively or that the nitrogen/argon toxicity was the result of a sting or bite. Which offered an even more frightening prospect: That mere contact with rods was potentially lethal.

“A member of the U.S. delegation did not deny speculation that the events in and around Beijing may be related to global climate change, and suggested that the so-called ‘skyfish’ may be implicated in the death of Donnell Wilkinson, the American news reporter who collapsed in a Beijing bar…”

Mulder’s fingers clenched, and a ribbon of toothpaste shot across the bedspread. He silenced the set and turned, painfully, to his now-ruined shirt.

And then his cell phone rang.

**

“I thought I’d handled it pretty well,” Mulder protested weakly.

“Global warming?” the ambassador demanded. They’d been introduced after Mulder was unceremoniously ushered into the secretary’s suite. “You realize China has the most coal-fired power plants in the world? You realize how delicate relations are right now, how dependent the U.S. economy is on China’s financial largesse?”

“I told them no comment.”

“You told them you couldn’t comment on whether this phenomenon was linked to ‘the planet’s race toward environmental apocalypse.’”

“Exactly. No comment.”

The ambassador looked to the secretary, who was tightening the knot in his tie. Agent Dunhill was calmly expressionless on the couch.

“And you know these sky monsters–”

“Skyfish.”

“You know these things were responsible for Wilkinson’s death?”

“That seems to be the most reasonable theory.”

“But you told the secretary the incidents at the Wall and Olympic park were staged. Some kind of light show.”

“Holographic projections.”

“So if this was some sort of activist prank or tourist scam, how was Wilkinson killed by a one of these things?” The ambassador was now speaking entirely through his teeth.

Mulder could feel Scully tense across the room, but dove in, anyway. The secretary focused intently over the next seven minutes as the agent theorized, fingers templed under his square chin. The ambassador appeared to be warming up for a stroke, but he showed no sign of aphasia or slurred speech as he turned to the ag official.

“I can have this man on the first available flight back to the States,” the diplomat stated. “No, better yet — I can try to arrange a military transport. Knowing our luck, Anderson Cooper would wind up his seatmate.”

The secretary sighed. Mulder hoped the in-flight movie wouldn’t be Sex and the City.

“Sir,” A Texas baritone broke the tension. “May not be my place, but if you want my two cents.”

“Of course,” the secretary nodded before the ambassador could devalue Agent Dunhill’s $.02.

“In my brief acquaintance with Special Agent Mulder, I’ve come to conclude that he’s a complete and utter flake,” Dunhill rumbled. “Might even go so far as to suggest a psychiatric workup would be in order.

Scully began to protest as Mulder mentally planned his onboard beverage choice. The ambassador blinked, beaming in approval.

“However,” Dunhill continued, “it’s my professional opinion that this is a completely and utterly flaky situation to which Agent Mulder’s somewhat checkered credentials are uniquely suited. I believe he may be the only member of this little hunting party equipped to deal with this squirrelly mess, and I think it would be a serious strategic error to Fed Ex him home. If you want my opinion.”

The ambassador’s smile had vanished into the stratosphere. “Thank you, but I think-”

“I have to agree with Agent Dunhill’s assessment,” the ag secretary interrupted. “I think I’d like him to stick around for at least a few more days, until we can definitively determine what’s going on here. If these — rod things — present a public health threat, I’d welcome all the input I can get. What do you think, Donald?”

The ambassador paused, mentally charting the administration hierarchy. The secretary was one of the new president’s token Republican Cabinet appointments, making him both a sticking pointing for the House and Senate leadership and a prime political asset for a chief executive working to build bridges and win public trust. The Beijing gig was pretty sweet, though Singapore would’ve been his first choice…

“I rely entirely on your discretion,” the diplomat offered diplomatically, simultaneously divesting his own liability should this whole thing blow up.

“Thanks, Donald,” the secretary smiled, rising and grasping the ambassador’s finely manicured hand. “I’ll look forward to tomorrow’s briefing.”

“Pleasure, sir. Agents.”

“He’s fun,” Mulder said as the suite door closed. Dunhill chortled sadly as the secretary retrieved his suit jacket.

“I’m running late for supper, and I promised Szabo from the Post-Intelligencer I’d give him a one-on-one on the WTO,” the Cabinet official informed his Secret Service escort. “Special Agent Mulder, happy to have you on the team. But perhaps you could find alternate dinner plans this evening? I’m sure chatting with the press guys has to be getting tiresome. And why don’t you ride with us for the rest of the visit — in case I need some seat-of-the-pants input?”

“Sounds like a plan,” Scully assented. The secretary patted Mulder on the shoulder as he left, snagging Faber in the corridor.

Mulder turned to Dunhill. “Thanks?”

The Secret Service man shook his head. “No need. Just said what I felt. See you on the bus.”

A snort escaped Scully as Dunhill departed.

“Looks like it’s just us, Sugar Puff,” Mulder murmured. “Unless you want to make use of the suite while we have the opportunity. Bumpin’ boots in a key Cabinet official’s crib — I can feel the danger.”

“I’ll get you a doggie bag,” Scully pledged, heading for the door

**

“’Environmental apocalypse?’” Cal Lightman laughed. “That’s delightful, though I assume your superiors weren’t nearly as tickled.”

“They were pretty cool about it.” Mulder snagged a fry dusted with dehydrated seaweed powder — next to the taro pie, Mickey D’s major concession to its Chinese demographic.

“Your rising inflection, combined with that cucumber-casual delivery, would suggest otherwise.” Lightman was an expert in lying — not in the sense of pathological fabrication, but in detecting it. The rumpled little Brit ran a D.C. consulting firm staffed by human polygraphs-for-hire in the hire of Fortune 500 corporations, law enforcement agencies, major league and college sports, and, occasionally, the Department of Defense. He had helped Mulder break a lunar cycle serial killer’s alibi a few years back, and the two had developed a rapport based on mutual distrust for authority and a common knack for social impropriety.

“You watch the video yet?” Mulder deflected.

“Yes, after we cleaned it up. I had to pop a half-dozen Dramamine to get through it, all that panning and zooming and cinema verite technique. You know I’m not a magician, right?”

“So it didn’t work?”

“Oh, no. You wanted to know primarily about the Asian kids with the cameras, am I right? They were definitely acting, badly. The faces were approximating exaggerated fear, but the body language was entirely too relaxed. A few even forgot to keep their game faces. It was the cameras, wasn’t it? That’s how they did the trick with the flying phantasms, right?”

“No, I appreciate it. We’ll get together when I get home — I’ll pay.”

“No you won’t,” Lightman stated as he hung up.

**

“Mr. Mulder?”

The agent jumped — he’d had the paranoid sensation of being watched since leaving the hotel — and turned from the China Agricultural University Gymnasium, the sprawling, recently constructed Olympic wrestling venue that had become the centerpiece of the Beijing campus.

Knots of students strolled across the gym plaza, and a group of casually dressed middle-aged men and women — American farmers, Mulder surmised from a scattering of seed and John Deere caps — were posing for a group shot under the Olympic logo. The man who addressed him was in his late 40s, nearly bald, and plump, wearing khakis and a lab coat.

“Dr. Xiaohan, I presume?” the agent smiled.

“I knew this would be much easier than asking you to roam from laboratory to laboratory,” Professor Yin Xiaohan explained with a chuckle. “We are now known as much for this tourist landmark as for the work we do or the international awards we have received. But athletics, they are more, ah, dynamic, than dry scholarship, eh? Come, this way, please.”

The nearby State Center for Agro-Biotechnology and Food Science also was a fairly new addition to the university — a state-of-the-art facility devoted to bringing China’s changing agriculture into the 21st Century and addressing the food safety concerns that had made the People’s Republic the unfortunate focus of world headlines over the past two years.

“You knew Dr. Yongqing at Oxford, I understand?” Xiaohan inquired as they passed a food chemistry lab where a serious young woman examined carbon molecules on a flat-screen monitor. Across the hall, a group of students were giggling over a thick computer readout.

“Meng was addicted to fish and chips, and I was his dealer,” Mulder said, omitting the molecular biologist’s primary obsession with Guinness. “I asked him to recommend the university’s top research engineer.”

“I’m flattered, though a few in my department might dispute Dr. Yongqing’s conclusion.” Xiaohan stopped at a cubicle between a lecture hall and a glass-fronted bank of fermentation tanks. “Here is my ‘office.’ You’ll have to excuse — I have been temporarily assigned to the center to help research photo-impermeable packaging. You are interested, I understand, in laser technology?”

Mulder pulled the thumb drive from his jeans pocket and extended it to the scientist. “And possibly a few of your students.”

Xiaohan frowned, but accepted the drive and inserted it into the laptop that anchored his otherwise Spartan desk. A directory popped up on the screen, and with a right mouse move, he converted file names into thumbnails — the grainy .jpgs Mulder had pulled from Piescak’s video.

“You are an FBI agent? What is it you believe these students have done?”

Mulder explained. Xiaohan grew more troubled as the agent theorized about the holographic rods, but Mulder also detected a trace of fascination and possibly even pride. “Is that possible?”

“You have heard of nanostorage?”

“Encyclopedia Brittanica on the head of a pin? Sure. General Electric’s working on holographic ‘reading’ and ‘writing.’ You’d be able to put 500 movies on a five-inch disc — I’d be able to watch the entire Police Academy, Lethal Weapon, Rush Hour, and Naughty Student Nurse series without leaving the couch.”

Xiaohan smiled indulgently. “That would be one useful application. Such a disc could store 500 gigabytes of information. An entire library of, say, agronomy or livestock production data could be contained on a single disc and accessible to the most remote village with even an outdated PC.”

“I take it this isn’t a theoretical ‘say.’ How close are you?”

The professor pondered, then sighed. “Let us theoretically say the government is encouraged by the potential licensing opportunities of such a technology. As well, of course, by the potential to exponentially raise domestic food production with a minimal expenditure in university field staffing or Extension. If I told you of our truly groundbreaking laser research, you would believe me insane. Of course, I would greatly appreciate your discretion regarding what I am telling you.”

“GE and I haven’t talked since their microwave spontaneously combusted all over my kitchen. I take it the storage capabilities of the technology would also offer some bitchin’ holographic resolution.”

“‘Bitchin’ would mean high-quality, I assume? Yes, this would provide for generation of far higher-resolution holographic images using far more portable technology. Your theory is wholly plausible. In fact…”

“In fact?”

“In fact, I have seen it in practice. In a device no larger than a consumer digital camera. You believe this is how these students created this, this, illusion? Why?”

“I could say because they’re kids. Why ask why? Just do it.”

“I have seen very little American television, though Nike is, of course, globally ubiquitous.” Xiaohan shook his head sadly. “They have accessed this laboratory’s technology to pull a juvenile college prank.”

“There’s probably much more to it than that. Maybe they wanted proof of concept in the field — the impatience of youth, you know. Or maybe it’s a case of creeping capitalism — this kind of technology would be worth a fortune on the world market, and, no offense, but China isn’t exactly known for the most stringent intellectual property standards. Or it may not even be for profit. Hackers and reverse engineers have been putting corporate source code in the public domain for years. Maybe these public displays are a prelude to a public release.”

Xiaohan paled. “That would be incredibly dangerous. They have no idea how the government would react to the theft of university technology. Especially such potentially profitable technology. You have no doubt heard of the executions related to milk contamination. Our former State Food and Drug Administration director was put to death for accepting bribes from the pharmaceutical companies. These…children…have placed themselves in great jeopardy. They must be persuaded to stop.”

Mulder’s face darkened. “I agree. But it’s gone beyond the risk to your students. They’ve put the population as a whole at risk.”

“What do you mean?”

“Here’s where you get to question my sanity. I think these rods, these skyfish, are creatures of pure instinct, living in the atmosphere for maybe millions of years. In a predator-free environment, they haven’t had to adapt advanced sensory systems. These students have created more than just nifty holograms — they’ve created decoys. They’ve unwittingly drawn the rods out of the skies.”

Concern creased Xiaohan’s brow.

“They may never have entered our space before, but the presence of other ‘rods’ may have indicated it was safe to come down from the stratosphere. And I think the real skyfish have poisoned at least four people.”

“That man? The American journalist?”

“Yeah. And three others at the Olympic Park today. I think simple contact’s enough to cause illness or death. What I’m saying is, if these kids continue to pull these ‘pranks,’ they could bring the rods permanently into the human ecosystem. So, Doctor, who’s the mastermind? Who’s the class valedictorian?”

Without hesitation, Xiaohan leaned into the monitor, scanning the thumbnails. His index finger quickly found a face.

“This one,” he stated, gravely.

**

Beijing is a half-ass model for what urban planners call “vertical development” — building up rather than out to accommodate a rapidly expanding metro population. Millions of workers, students, bureaucrats, husbands, wives go home each night to cloud-scraping hives with views the average Chicago yuppie would kill to own and digs in which the average Chicago project-dweller might feel at home.

Mei Huang lived twenty-seven floors above a noodle shop and a bike rental center about a quarter-mile from the Forbidden City. Huang owned her own: It was parked in the Spartan corridor outside her door. Mulder rapped twice. After a tick, a wary female voice inquired in Chinese.

In addition to being a physics whiz kid, Prof. Xiaohan had reported Huang proficient in English, French, and Japanese. “It’s Stephen Hawking. Don’t keep me sitting out here. Yin Xiaohan sent me.”

“A moment, please.” Mulder heard rustling and a lock disengaged. A pretty young face appeared, eyes guarded. Mei Huang was wearing jeans and an out-sized red=and-white tee with “Buckeyes” splashed across the front – she could have been any Georgetown coed. “Please come in. Would you like a Coca-Cola, some water?”

“No thanks.” Textbooks were butterflied on a wooden table before Huang’s flowered futon/couch. A bag of cucumber-flavored Lay’s was open on the futon. Mulder scanned the small apartment, spotted a digital camera on a low-lying bookshelf. He took a breath and went for the gut shot.

“I’m Special Agent Fox Mulder with the U.S. FBI.”

Huang’s eyes transformed, and her face hardened in cold calculation. “You have no legal authority here, I assume.”

“You could use a little work on your poker face, pardon me, your dou dizhou face. But you’re right – I could come back with my peeps from the Public Security Bureau. Or how about the Ministry of Public Security? I’m sure the government would be interested in knowing who’s been harassing a visiting U.S. Cabinet official and inciting public panic at two major tourist attractions. Prof. Xiaohan says you’re his top student – the one most likely to create a cryptozoological light show at the Great Wall.”

Now, the girl’s eyes widened, and a delicate hand went to her throat. But Huang remained silent.

“You’ll notice I didn’t bring the troops with me. I know you and your friends didn’t mean any harm, and somehow I suspect you don’t want the kind of heat my peeps would bring down on you. If this was the U.S., you guys would be mega-viral video heroes. Probably get your own reality show. I don’t think it would go down that way here.”

“It was an…experiment,” Huang protested.

“An experiment that killed one man and hospitalized three more,” Mulder informed her. “You ‘kids’ managed to introduce skyfish into the local biosphere.”

The girl was silent, her eyes widening. “I don’t understand – that is impossible.” She rose abruptly and walked to the window. Huang hugged herself as she pondered the enormity of Mulder’s revelation. “You are certain of this?”

clip_image010

“You have to pull the plug on this, now,” Mulder told her back. “Every time you put on your little laser show, it’s party time for the rod population.”

“Am I…?” Huang’s shoulders tensed as she peered down into the street. Mulder stood, and she hastily returned to the couch. “Am I in trouble?”

“I don’t know. You and your friends perpetrated a fairly high-profile scam. Even if they put it all together, the government may not want to admit it was hoodwinked – tricked – by a group of students. There really isn’t a lot of direct evidence linking you and the others to Donnell Wilkinson’s death – I’m not even sure anybody believes he was killed by a skyfish. If you put a halt to the whole thing now and lay low, it may die off in a few weeks.”

Huang didn’t appear comforted. She was breathing raggedly, and her face was pale in the dim lamplight. “You have not told anyone?”

Mulder shook his head. “Long as you promise me the experiment’s over.”

Huang nodded, and she stumbled, knocking a textbook from the table. The girl blinked, and a look of shock spread across her features, as if something unthinkable had dawned on her. Her lips moved as she clawed at the agent.

Mulder mobilized. “Mei, lay down – don’t waste your energy.” He fumbled his cell phone out of his pocket and punched in Scully’s programmed number.

**

“People seem to die around you,” Superintendent Lu observed as the pathologists’ assistants removed Mei Huang’s body. Mulder looked up sharply, and Scully glanced anxiously at her partner.

“Why would I–?” Mulder protested.

Lu grinned. “My apologies — I enjoy American private eye films. I believe I can say safely that you are not considered a suspect. However, the question remains: Why did you come here this evening?”

Mulder related the night’s events, including his theory about Huang’s impressively orchestrated scam and its unintended consequences. He was certain inspection of the digital “camera” they’d found next to Huang’s refrigerator would bear it out. “I didn’t see any reason to ruin these kids’ lives. I wasn’t sure how the Chinese justice system might have dealt with them.”

Lu nodded silently in unofficial confirmation of the agent’s worst fears. “So you believe Miss Huang was the victim of one of these skyfish?”

Scully shrugged. “I have to confess: I examined the body before you arrived. Like Donnell Wilkinson, there were no external signs of an injection, bite, or sting. Everything in Ms. Huang’s behavior and symptoms indicates nitrogen toxicity. Mulder? What?”

“Nothing, maybe. It just seemed to come on pretty quick — Mei’s episode, that is. Lu, you said Wilkinson had been acting wobbly from the moment he entered the bar.”

“Toxic reactions vary individually, Mulder,” Scully noted. “Maybe her exposure to the rod – to the source of the toxin – was a lot greater. She’s a petite woman – the nitrogen might have hit her system a lot more quickly. Any thoughts, Superintendent?

Lu retrieved a pen and a sheet of paper from the table, jotted a Chinese character, and handed the sheet to the agents. Mulder peered at what resembled a running stick figure trapped inside a box.

“Karma,” the policeman explained.

Day 3

1:21 a.m.

Mulder had shut off his phone after Scully arrived at Mei Huang’s apartment. The voicemail message was waiting when he reactivated it back at the hotel.

“Agent Mulder, it’s Lightman. I reviewed your rod video again, and I noticed something unusual. Someone. Call me.”

“It was something neither you nor I could see originally,” the human polygraph related minutes later. “The original Invisible Man, as it were.”

“Why is it you eccentric geniuses are all so melodramatic?” Mulder sighed.

“Sorry. The subject was beyond casual notice. Which, by the way, made it all the harder to analyze. I’ll be billing the Bureau for the lab work.”

“Fine, sure, whatever. What did you see?”

Lightman described the subject’s location. “There was an expression of complete, undistilled contempt. Resentment, cold unremitting anger etched into every feature. You need to keep this person away from the target of their animosity.”

“And who would that be?”

“Not a bloody miracle worker. Too much camera movement and no context. I had no line of vision to follow. Sorry. But there was something else odd: Our friend had a camera, as well, and was shooting into the crowd. Through a tinted window. Couldn’t have gotten much of a shot.”

Mulder pondered. “Can you ship me a vidcap?”

“Yeah, sure. We’ll grab that lunch when you return stateside, eh? Just kidding — just make sure the Bureau writes me a check, and let me know how it all comes out.”

The .jpg arrived 15 minutes later. Mulder peered at the grainy-but-sharpened capture for several minutes until he could arrive at a set of circumstances that matched the meager evidence.

After a five-minute attempted room-to-room call, Mulder unsheathed his cell phone. “Scully, you got that background/itinerary package, the one from the Ag Department?”

“Where’s yours?”

“I think on top of the TV, or maybe in the dumpster behind the apartment. Can you bring it up?”

“I just got ready for bed.”

“Great, I’ll come down.”

“Lobby. 15 minutes.”

**

“It’s not in here,” Mulder complained 25 minutes later as a group of Germans in formal wear returned from their night on the town.

Scully’s head came off the back of the buttery leather lobby chair. “What’s not?”

Her partner rudely signaled silence and plucked the house phone from a teak side table. Mulder punched in three numbers and, after a few seconds, smiled. “Hey, Agent Dunhill, whuzzup? No, I don’t need you to come down and bail me out. That’s good, though. You’ve got bios on everybody in the group, right. Yeah, um, I’ve got the tour itinerary. What I need is the L.D….Oh. The lowdown. On one person of interest in particular…. Well, I’d rather not say right this minute, but I’ve got a theory. No, no, Dunhill, c’mon. OK, I’ll be up in five.”

Mulder ended the call and glanced up at Scully’s inscrutable features.

“Shut up,” he muttered.

**

“Yo, Tina!”

The correspondent turned from the fruit bar. Up close, off-camera, Tina Cho was more Connie Chung than Julie Chen, but the Asian bureau had cranked out a lot of top-of-the-hour news over the past few years, and she eyed the man beside her with imperious annoyance.

“Mulder, right? Spooky Mulder. You going to protect our pampered asses from the skysharks?”

“Skyfish.”

“Yeah. See you on the bus – oh, that’s right. I heard you got transferred to the Big Bus. After that little Greenpeace speech outside the Olympic village, I’m not surprised. Nice chatting, but I have to make sure all our equipment’s ready for the flight…”

“So you’re feeling better, then? You stayed back on the bus at the Wall, didn’t you?”

Cho plopped a trio of lychee and some pineapple on her plate, next to a puddle of yogurt. “I had a touch of the flu – garden variety, nothing newsworthy. I knew the secretary was just going to rehash what he said outside the consulate, so I had my guy shoot a little talking heads stuff, some scenic shots. So, yeah, I took a nap on the bus rather than making sick on a Cabinet official.” Like most journalists, she clearly didn’t like exposing her weaker moments. “The damned bus driver and that kid, the translator, wouldn’t leave me alone – wanting to know if I wanted some tea, some aspirin. Even after those sky-things started dive-bombing everybody. I’m pretty big in this market.”

“Celebrity worship. Real bitch, huh?”

“How do you handle it?” Cho smirked and pivoted away from the buffet.

“I think she’s hot for you, Mulder,” Piescak murmured, reaching around the agent for some cantaloupe. “After you asked for that video, I took another look myself, and I realized Tina was the only member of the legit press corps unaccounted for at the Wall. That mean something? Isn’t that some kind of detective story rule? The least-likely suspect, the one who couldn’t have done it? I know she did Wilkinson back in the day. She do him in the permanent sense?”

“Quit blegging, Dude,” Mulder said. “And what you heard? DNQ/DNP.”

“GFN, ‘Dude,’” the blogger jeered, retreating to the congee bar.

Dunhill was serenely sipping his coffee where Mulder had left Scully. “Sundance went to the lobby. Your ADIC, Skinner, called.”

Mulder reluctantly lowered his plate to the table. “No more jargon, please.”

“So what’d you find out from Miss Personality?”

“About what I suspected.”

Dunhill nodded, mustache rustling as he sipped. The waitress hovered, and he extended his cup. “Xie, xie, honey. You never did really tell me how you suspected what you suspected. I’ve had my caffeine; we got a few minutes. Tell me a story, Agent.”

Mulder looked around – most of the media had grazed early in preparation for the day’s flight from Beijing to Shanghai. “OK. Dr. Xiaohan – Mei Huang’s prof – told me she’d studied in the States for a year on an exchange program with Berkeley. But when she came to the door last night, she was wearing a Buckeyes jersey.”

“Ohio State,” Dunhill supplied, automatically. Then, an eyebrow rose. “And the secretary’s alma mater.”

“More than that. When he was lieutenant governor, he served as vice chair of the OSU board of trustees. But where did Mei get an OSU shirt?”

“Just what’s whirlin’ around in that skullcase of yours, Agent?” Dunhill murmured. “You aren’t suggesting some sorta impropriety on the part of the secretary?”

“Not of that sort.” Mulder pushed his bacon around the plate. “Who usually wore your Aggies jersey when you weren’t?”

“A Longhorn doesn’t tell with whom he shares his jersey,” the Texas State alumnus informed Mulder with great dignity. “I’m sure an Aggie would have it all over campus before his first class of the day. But your point’s taken. You know somebody in our happy little family who matriculated in the great state of Ohio?”

“Yup. Further, he was matriculating about the same time the secretary was on the board.”

“Shit,” Dunhill cursed, his expression unchanged. “What kind of blue norther we got brewing here?”

Mulder stirred some cane sugar into his coffee and took a prefatory gulp. “He was at OSU as part of a program to help China improve sustainable crop productivity, in the ag engineering department. This was back in 2003. I talked to the head of the International Students Program, and she remembered him as a real wunderkind. He was working in precision farming – you know, global positioning, geographical information systems, high-tech stuff. Well, he and another student – an agronomy major – got together on a project my source said was supposed to revolutionize ‘green’ farming.

“Then, everything went south. Our guy had discovered the American Way of Wildlife on campus, and one night, he wound up in the wrong car with the wrong people, and they all wound up in a ditch. The others were expelled, the driver did a few months on a DUI, and our guy was made a special case. Nine-eleven was still pretty fresh in people’s minds, and even though he was an avowed socialist atheist, some Chinese Muslims had been sent to Guantanamo a year before. Some campus boneheads got worked up, and his student visa was revoked. He came back to Beijing, where he’s a student at the ag college. That’s where he met Mei. They shared a common passion, besides hot noodles and C-Rap. Lasers.”

“Our blue norther just became a turd floater.”

“Indubitably. Talk was, it was the board of trustees put the bug in the INS’ ear. The drunk probably helped – the Chinese government was too embarrassed to protest his deportation. But our boy knew he’d been blackballed. Worse yet, framed.”

“Framed.”

“One of the other kids in that car was a little more high-profile than the other lunkheads. She was actually our guy’s date that night – they’d been seeing each other for a couple of months, and it had been getting serious, according to my source. Tracy Jermaine.”

“Jermaine, Jermaine.” Dunhill’s Texas tan turned a little less tan. “Senator Jacob Jermaine.”

“From the great state of Ohio. Senior senator and long-time political ally and golfing buddy of the then-lieutenant governor. My source at the university said there was some talk at the time that the future secretary had pulled some strings for his old pal.”

Dunhill planted his elbows on the table and templed his fingers. “That’s what this is all about? Vengeance? Because the secretary got him shipped back home?”

“Word is, until his visa was revoked, he was headed for great things. His name was even going to appear on some papers his mentor planned to publish. He could have been big. In the U.S. Here, his work will be absorbed by Mother China. I suspect he sees the secretary as the cause of his destruction – the man who destroyed his dreams of greater things. And his dream of being with Tracy Jermaine. I screwed up on Wilkinson’s dying message.”

“That song? Rod Stewart?”

Mulder nodded. “Wilkinson must have seen something. He was a jerk, but he still had the reporter’s cynical eye. Somehow, he could tell the whole thing with the rods was a scam, and that our guy was involved. After he started getting sick, he confronted him, and I guess our guy broke down and told him what happened. Wilkinson was trying to tell me why our man was after the secretary. ‘All for Love.’”

Dunhill shook his head. “But why would he do that? Confess to Wilkinson?”

“Remorse. Wilkinson was a hot dog to the end. When the ‘rods’ attacked and Faber and Cross took down the secretary, he and his cameraman ran toward them. That’s when he got caught in the crosshairs. While his friends unwittingly created a distraction, our guy was gunning for the secretary.”

“Gunning?”

“He’s still gunning. But now he’s upped the ante.”

It took a moment. “You telling me that girl…?”

Mulder nodded. “Mei Huang was murdered. I think right in front of my eyes. I’m pretty sure our guy tailed me from the hotel — it was probably a shock to him when I showed up on Mei’s doorstep.

“I think she was an innocent dupe, just like the kids he talked her into recruiting for their cross-country Para-palooza. Mei Huang was brilliant and arrogant, but he was light years ahead of her in technological expertise. He was supposed to get the secretary the first time around, at the Wall. When he didn’t, he convinced Mei to stage a second ‘encounter’ at the Olympic Village. That didn’t work, either, and he must’ve suspected I was getting closer to the truth. He didn’t count on me finding Mei so quickly.

“He’d followed me to the university and then to Mei’s apartment. He couldn’t very well follow me up, so he waited on the street below. Then Mei made a fatal mistake — she went to the window. Right into his sights. I think it was an impulsive act on his act.”

“Sights? Thought Agent Scully said there wasn’t a mark on the girl. And she lived, what, 25 floors up.”

“Twenty-seven floors,” Mulder corrected.

“That’s some Buffalo Bill-style marksmanship,” Dunhill grumbled. “That beats JFK’s magic bullet..”

“It was science, not magic,” Mulder said. “A ‘bullet’ that doesn’t leave a trace. And I think he’s cocked and loaded — today’s his last chance.”

“Last chance?” Then Dunhill inhaled sharply, throwing his napkin to the table and pushing back. “Shit. We better haul ass downstairs.”

They shared an elevator down with an older Chinese couple who politely ignored their existence. “You know, you were alone last night in a strange part of town,” the Secret Service Agent suddenly murmured. “Why didn’t he just kill you when you came out of the girl’s building instead of whatever hocus-pocus you think he did?”

Mulder smiled silently.

**

The 2008 Olympics had left perhaps their greatest lasting mark on Beijing Capital International Airport: Nearly $3.5 billion U.S. went into building the world’s second largest air terminal. Terminal 3, known as “T3,” can hold London Heathrow Airport’s five terminals combined, with room to spare for a half-dozen rugby matches besides.

The press corps pressed toward the ag secretary as he climbed from the bus before Terminal 3E. The Ohioan distributed two-handed shakes and embraces among the Ag Trade Office staffers who’d accompanied him on the final ride, providing the final photo ops prior to boarding.

“Mr. Secretary,” called one cameraman standing apart from the media delegation. The official glanced up, then beamed.

“Absolutely,” he said warmly. “I appreciate all your help, especially dealing with this motley crew.”

The press corps chortled weakly in unison as the young man lined up his shot.

“Why don’t I take one of both of you?”

The photographer looked up, a grin pasted on his face, eyes wary and, Mulder observed, fearful.

“Great idea, Agent,” the secretary nodded, enthusiastically.

“That’s OK,” the cameraman stammered. “I don’t wish to impose…”

“Nonsense,” the secretary chuckled, waving him over. Mulder stepped toward the photographer, who held his digital camera tight to his chest. The agent halted.

“No problem,” Mulder smiled.

Relieved, the young man held his camera at semi-arms length as the ag secretary tugged his tie and straightened his jacket. His finger caressed the shutter button, and a loud “click” shattered the morning air.

“Hand me that camera, son,” Agent Dunhill murmured gently, applying the slightest pressure to the Sig 357 he had pressed against the man’s temple. “Right now, son.”

The finger tightened on the button. The secretary stood, transfixed, in horror.

“It wasn’t him,” Mulder told the “shooter,” calmly. “He didn’t have you deported.”

“Oh, my God,” the secretary gasped. “I had no idea it was you.”

“Of course not,” Chiu spat, knuckles white on the camera. “You were just helping your friend. You destroyed my life, you took her away from me.”

The secretary stepped closer; Faber and Cross moved ahead of him. “I told him no — I asked Jake to call off the trustees. I was the only dissenting vote.”

“It’s true, Chiu,” Mulder said. “I talked to the senator a few hours ago. He regrets what he did. He regrets pressuring the board, letting his emotions and his fear take over. Jermaine told me he was persuaded to go after your visa by one of the faculty. You know Oscar Theobald?”

Chiu’s eyes widened in confusion even as he followed the secretary with his lens. “Professor Theobald?”

“He quit the university a year ago to take a research position at Growtex. Talk is Theobald’s about to shake up the ag industry, based, I’m guessing, on your work.”

Chiu’s finger twitched. “He did this? To me? To steal my ideas? He did not think I would find out?”

Mulder shrugged sadly. “Theobald knew that as soon as they shipped you home, there’d be little you could do. China isn’t exactly revered for its intellectual property protections, and, besides, who’d listen to a disgruntled, deported ex-student? All he had to do was bide his time, perfect the technology, and take it private.”

“I have the notes,” Chiu panted, voice rising. He laughed bitterly. “I am holding the proof that it was my idea.”

“I’ll make sure they know,” the secretary stated, “I’ll ensure the Department of Justice investigates Theobald, Growtex. They won’t want to be involved in a public scandal. Just give Agent Dunhill the camera, son.”

“I can’t,” Chiu breathed, as if a terrible revelation had just come to him. “You will take it — the technology. It will be worth millions in America. China needs it — it means my country’s survival.”

“And now it’s evidence, Chiu,” Mulder pointed out. “You used this marvelous technology to kill two people. For revenge against the one man who tried to treat you justly.”

Tears filled Chiu’s eyes. “I don’t know what to do.” He flipped the camera, pushed the lens into his chest. “This is all I can do.”

Chiu’s finger tightened. Dunhill tensed. Then a shot rang out — the collective press corps cowered, and Chiu’s camera clattered to the ground. Dunhill seized the young man’s right arm and wrestled him to the concrete.

Mulder looked beyond the secretary to Scully, who lowered her sidearm. She holstered the weapon she had fired into the air, sighing as she regarded the now-cuffed killer.

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” Chiu whispered, seemingly to himself.

**

“Ironically, it all had to do with agriculture,” Mulder told the secretary back on the bus. Scully and Dunhill had taken the flank, and Ted stood unsteadily in the aisle. The press waited restless and resentful on the curb. “Mr. Secretary, what would you say China’s greatest challenge is today?”

“Feeding 1.3 billion people,” the secretary stated without hesitation. “And doing it with outmoded farming structures, a level of mechanization we haven’t seen since the ‘50s, inadequate and contaminated water supplies, outdated coal-fired power generation, and depleted soils. God, I sound like one of my press releases.”

“Depleted soils, bad water, and a need to feed,” Mulder recapped. “I think Chiu was on the verge of solving all three challenges, not just for China, but possibly for the entire developing world. What’s the one absolutely crucial ingredient to growing any crop?”

“Light,” Scully supplied after a beat. “Photosynthesis.”

“And what if you could supply all the nutrients, all the minerals, all the essentials needed to double or triple crop yields without loading depleted soils or contaminated streams with more potential pollutants? What if you could deliver nutrients directly into the plant?”

“Lasers,” his partner murmured. “Concentrated light. Mulder, are you trying to tell us…”

“That Chiu’s found a way to user lasers as a sort of carrier beam. Basically, laser beams are transmitted through a gain medium, such as carbon dioxide or a helium/neon blend, to amplify them, to give the user a greater range or wavelength. In fact, helium/neon lasers are used in barcode scanners. I’ll bet when he was at OSU, Chiu discovered a way to transport gases — matter — along with laser energy.”

“English, Mulder,” Ted sighed. “God’s sake, please.”

“What if you could bombard corn, wheat, rice, with concentrated light that’s been loaded with nitrogen — feed the fertilizer directly into the plant rather than leaving a buttload of nitrogen in the soil to be washed into the Yangtze River and eventually obliterate the commercial fish industry? China’s not only under pressure to clean up its water — with the global climate issue heating up, the U.S. and other countries could expect the Chinese to start limiting nitrogen fertilizer use. Chiu wasn’t bragging when he suggested his technology could save Chinese agriculture — shit, it could save China.”

“My God,” the secretary murmured. Ted continued to look peeved.

“It also makes a nifty little Bond weapon,” Mulder shifted. “While Chiu’s friends at the Wall and the Olympic Village unwittingly created a combination diversion/smokescreen with their garden-variety holographic camera projectors while Chiu tried to shoot the secretary with a nitrogen/argon payload from the bus. A friend of mine enhanced a photo of him ‘taking pictures’ through the tinted bus window. I thought it was strange that in a crisis involving his clients, he’d stay on the bus, casually building his scrapbook. Who in a million years would suspect a gas-shooting, tissue-penetrating invisible ray gun? The rods made a more ‘logical’ explanation, under the circumstances.

“But Donnell Wilkinson stepped between Chiu and you and took an ultimately lethal dose of poisonous gas. I think Chiu realized he’d hit an innocent target, and he waited until the Olympic Park tour to try again. Don Knotts was a better shot, though, as Teddy found out.”

“Don’t call me…oh, shit, go on,” Ted sighed.

“If Mei hadn’t been such an arrogant showoff, making sure I got a clear look at a ‘rod’ at the Wall, I probably wouldn’t have been suspicious enough to realize this was all a scam. Mei was as frightened by the ‘skyfish’ poisonings as I was when I thought she’d lured the real thing out of the sky. When I went to see her, Chiu must’ve thought she’d somehow give him away, lead us to the real technological wonder here. He wasn’t just scared for his personal freedom — you saw how paranoid he was about his invention being stolen or misused. Now, there’s your irony, Alanis Morrisette.

“Lasers have amazing range and precision. When Mei stepped in front of that window, he impulsively fired a concentrated hotshot of nitro into her. She paused while she was talking to me, probably wondering why her ‘boyfriend’ was taking her photo from 27 stories below.”

Mulder turned to Dunhill. “You asked me why Chiu didn’t just kill me when I came downstairs. That’s what tipped me, really. I wondered that, too. Then I realized, and I knew I’d found our killer.”

Scully smiled mirthlessly. “Chiu couldn’t kill you. He liked you.”

The bus was silent. Then the group’s meditations were broken by a sharp rap at the bus door below the secretary. Dunhill motioned him back and stepped down. After a second, he pulled the lever that released the louvered bus doors.

A pair of uniformed Asians pushed past, followed by Superintendent Lu. The cop’s expression was neutral, but his eyes were troubled.

“Mr. Secretary, sir,” the cop began. “You have an important piece of evidence in a serious criminal manner. We would ask you please to return it as a courtesy between our governments.”

“You want the camera,” Mulder said flatly. Lu shrugged, eyes shifting toward the stern sentries behind him. The agent then understood: Lu had responded to the call regarding the secretary, and had asked to accompany the paramilitary provincial police to soften what could otherwise become a diplomatic showdown. “Lu, you need to realize what you have here.”

“Mr. Chiu has explained,” Lu mumbled. “The evidence, please? It is now the property of the People’s Republic.”

Mulder looked to Dunhill, who consulted the secretary. The visiting official nodded wearily, and Dunhill extended the modified camera. One of the uniforms snatched it, and he and his partner stiffly debarked.

Mulder grabbed Lu’s arm. “What’ll happen to Chiu?”

Lu paused, then looked directly into Mulder’s face. “I suspect some form of accommodation will be made with our young friend. His knowledge should be far more valuable than the time and embarrassment expended in prosecuting him for a seemingly untraceable, inexplicable crime.” The policeman turned, bowed sharply to the secretary. “I wish you safe travels — you will enjoy Shanghai.”

Lu followed his provincial counterparts off the bus, leaving silence behind.

Day 7

6:54 p.m.

Mulder regretfully daubed his final McNugget in barbecue sauce and slowly relished its chemically enhanced succulence.

“Neither the Chinese nor U.S. governments have released further details of the bizarre faceoff between the ag secretary and Beijing tour guide Chiu Ping at Beijing’s international airport.” The BBC anchor tonight looked like the bubbly blonde on the Orbit gum commercials, but with far less sparkle. “A U.S. Secret Service spokesman reported and Chinese authorities confirmed that Ping posed an imminent threat to the American official, although nearly a dozen journalists at the scene have sworn the young man was armed only with what appeared to be a digital camera.”

Mulder masticated his nugget as the now-ubiquitous video once again unfolded — Mulder and the secretary attempting to reason with Chiu, Chiu turning what appeared to be a mere digital camera on himself, Dunhill wrestling him to the ground. The secretary’s media entourage had crystallized into one amorphous sullen child, grumbling about justice for their fallen brother Donnell Wilkinson and informational freedoms that were largely moot even in the New China. The central government couldn’t release the full truth, especially if it hoped someday to capitalize on Chiu’s hypergreen technology, and the U.S. couldn’t afford to risk China’s goodwill — and financial support — by revealing its secrets.

Skinner had called with the only stateside thanks Mulder and Scully were likely to receive in an episode more publicly bewildering than embarrassing. The AD also informed Mulder the Bureau and Interpol had tracked the original threat to the secretary to a black market e-mail account purchased by Mei Huang. Mei had been convinced she’d been pulling the strings all along, and Mulder saluted her memory with his last morsel of battered chicken.

The tour had continued uneventfully through Shanghai and Guangzhou, and the delegation had arrived that morning in Hong Kong in a sort of anticlimactic funk. Their role in the Beijing affair concluded, the secretary gratefully freed Mulder and Scully to enjoy the sleek city on the bay.

“…The U.S.’ Securities Exchange Commission has launched an investigation into the financial conduct of U.S.-based multinational Growtex, a marketer of agricultural chemicals and technologies with extensive business holdings across the EU, Australia, and Brazil. The U.S. Justice Department meanwhile is investigating charges of intellectual property rights infringement by the former Katsuhiru subsidiary…”

Their balls firmly entangled in a vice of multi-agency enforcement, Growtex’ execs would gladly hand over Oscar Theobald’s learned and larcenous head on a pike. Chiu had killed two people, and was planning a third murder, but Theobald deserved at least some reprisal for the tragic events his greed had set in motion.

Mulder jumped as his cellphone began to rattle and dance on the bedside table. He rolled over the bedspread, fumbled it open, and accepted his partner’s call.

“You eaten yet?”

“No,” Mulder lied, betraying himself by sucking a shred of poultry from his molars.

“Yeah. Well, why don’t you have a drink or two with me while I eat, then? A day of touring shipping containers and pig innards at the wet market somewhat surprisingly has made me peckish.”

“Thought you were going to the ballet with the gang.”

“Nah — I’m tired of being molested for details about the case and insights into the FBI’s top ghostbuster. I suspect you’ll be getting a call from Larry King when we get back to D.C.”

“Ze media, zose vultures,” Mulder lamented. “Ven will they ever leef me alone?”

“Yeah. Anyway. They’re not supposed to back for three or four hours, so I was thinking perhaps you deserve some kind of reward for catching Chiu and saving the secretary’s life.”

“Pizza Hut?”

“Or perhaps you don’t. However, I do have a certain amount of stored tension, so as long as you don’t do your Schwarzenegger voice again…”

Mulder stumbled over his wrappers, spilling his empty Coke cup. “I can be down in ten minutes. And it’s Marlene Dietrich.”

“Make it a half-hour. I’m higher maintenance.”

“You’re telling me–” Mulder began before she disconnected. He shrugged and flopped back onto the bed.

“…Greenpeace and the International Biodiversity Fund joined today to demand a United Nations investigation into what the groups allege to be a Chinese government cover up of the existence of rods, or skyfish, as the mysterious flying creatures reportedly witnessed in and around Beijing this week are commonly called. Wildlife groups have dismissed government claims the sightings were the product of an elaborate hoax designed to generate tourism, arguing China must protect the newly discovered species by immediately signing onto international global climate accords.

“And in perhaps the most bizarre development of a particularly unusual week on the subcontinent, a party of French hikers touring China’s Hubei Province discovered the corpse of what they described as a large humanoid creature covered in what they described as bristly red hair. Chinese authorities quickly confiscated the decomposing body, identifying it as an orangutan reported missing months ago from a Beijing zoo, but one of the hikers managed to photograph the corpse before it could be removed, using their cellular phone.”

Mulder sat up, peering at the low-res image that now filled the screen. It quickly vanished, quickly replaced with a jazzy advert for Virgin Airlines, and the agent reached eagerly for his laptop.

He failed to hear the phone rattle quite insistently 55 minutes later

*end

El Hablar Con Los Muertos

hablarposter

El Hablar Con los Muertos

Author: Martin Ross

Category: Casefile/holiday

Rating: PG-13

Summary: During the Mexican Day of the Dead celebration, Mulder and Scully tackle murder, ghostly divination, quantum mechanics, and, potentially, the end of the world.

Disclaimer: The X-Files is Chris Carter’s. We seek only to pay respectful tribute.

Original web date:07/03/2009

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El Hablar Con Los Muertos

Playa Del Carmen, Mexico

3:42 P.M.

Mulder stared Death in the eye, returning the specter’s distended grin.

“Gracias, no,” Mulder murmured, pulling his Bureau ID. “Gringos federales.”

The eyes behind Death’s deep ocular orbits narrowed for a moment as he glanced from the smiling turista to the pequeña pero caliente redhead at his side, though his macabre smile did not fade. Then, suddenly, the eyes crinkled, and a hearty laugh erupted from beneath the clenched teeth. He slipped the fat, expertly rolled Cubanos – still illegal in the States, freely available in Quintana Roo – into his cloak.

“Usted es un hombre divertido,” the vendor cackled, waving as he disappeared into the crowd with his cache of Communist cigars.

“Was that necessary?” Scully sighed. “How long do you think before word gets out the feds are in town?”

“Relax, Scully – get into the Día de los Muertos spirit,” Mulder dismissed, happily scanning the colorful clay and sugar skulls and sombreroed skeletons that had supplanted the usual T-shirts, silver, vanilla, and mescal on sale along the resort town’s major boulevard.

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U.S./Canadian/French/British/Japanese tourists gawped at the gleeful Army of the Dead walking among them, as a knot of diminutive locals in the ancient garb of their Mayan ancestors tramped solemnly along the brick pavers like aboriginal spirits freed from the underworld with the living, partying dead.

“Yes,” Scully ruminated. “There is the matter of your bringing me here under suspicious circumstances. ‘Air fares are cheaper off-season. No trick-or-treaters.’ Why didn’t you just say you wanted a little something special this Halloween? I might actually have been willing to wedge into that French maid get-up you so ill-advisedly purchased last year. Would’ve been cheaper, that’s for sure.”

“It’s not Halloween. It’s the Day of the Dead. And there were no ‘suspicious circumstances’ – you said you wanted a Skinnerless week of sun, surf, and Bahama Mamas.”

“Yes, sun and surf, not the Third Circle of Hell,” Scully muttered, dodging a non-dead pitchman hawking bullfight tickets and a fat German woman being reeled in by a slickly-groomed jeweler. “I don’t want to sound like an ugly American, but frankly, this whole display strikes me as not merely a little ghoulish.”

“Actually, Día De Los Muertos is a time of celebration, of merriment, of laughing into the countenance of Death and proclaiming, ‘Dude, lose the sickle and the ‘tude and let’s par-tay.’ Meso-American tradition meets Catholic ritual, with a healthy dose of mescal thrown in. Speaking of which…”

Scully shook her head silently as she watched a group of American teens pour over a selection of death-themed clay bongs. “I’ll assume you’re not talking about Confession, and I’ll attest that you don’t qualify for virgin sacrifice, though a few insights into female gratification might help your technique. Just being helpful. How about that cantina over there?”

“Now, you’re getting jiggy,” Mulder sighed, beelining for the streetside bar. “We should have time – Karl isn’t expecting us until 6. Whoa!”

Mulder stumbled as a lean, feral black alley cat trotted across his Skechers and vanished into a nearby “pizzeria.”

“Wow,” Scully said. “They really thought of everything, didn’t they?”

Residence of Karl and Marlaine Phipps

Cozumel, Mexico

6:13 p.m.

“¡Hola, Fox!” Karl greeted, pulling first Mulder, then Scully into an embrace.

Mulder inspected his host’s rumpled lab coat and antiquated trousers. “Enrico Fermi?”

“Bingo!” the Nobel Prize-winning physicist sang. “And how did you guess?”

“The pants are Italian-cut, and, of course, the badge on your lapel says ‘Enrico.'”

Karl chuckled. “Marlaine always finds my costume choices a bit, oh, esoteric.”

“Nonsense,” Mulder said. “The Oppenheimer masks were selling like hot tortillas at the Megalomart down the way.”

The stocky scientist shook his head, tugging the badge from his white coat. “Retail colonialism again rears its ugly head. Oh, well, I promised no social proselytizing tonight. Marlaine wanted me to flag you into the kitchen as soon as you arrived. She’s preparing a genuine Hanal Pixen – Día de los Muertos – feast. Thought it would be fun for the kids. Well, for Matthew, anyway.”

Phipps was silent for a moment. Mulder had told Scully about Kate Phipps’ autism, about the scientist’s efforts to come fully to grips with his daughter’s potentially permanent isolation.

“Uncle Fox!” A miniaturized Spider-Man materialized at his elbow. “I saw El Chupacabra yesterday at the market.”

Mulder grinned. “Stunted smartass. And I told you no ‘Uncle Fox’ – sounds like a freaking Disney character.”

Matt Phipps pulled his mask away, displaying a shock of red hair and freckles. “Catch any EBEs lately, Geekazoid?”

“Go play in the street with Doc Ock, Spiderdweeb,” Mulder muttered facetiously. Matt rolled his eyes and responded to the call of a group of children, largely Mexican, most likely kids of the research scientists partnering on Karl’s latest project. “He’s really shooting up, Karl.”

“Yeah,” Karl smiled, his pensive mood dissipated. “He’s developing quite a mouth, as well.”

“A wit is a horrible thing to lose,” Mulder nodded.

“At least, half of one,” Scully murmured.

“Ah,” Karl beamed. “An adversary worthy of the FBI’s Most Unwanted. Come along, Dr. Scully – I formulate a mean papaya margarita.”

Mulder felt strangely conspicuous standing amidst the few dozen imposters scattered across the caramel tiles of the Phipps’ Cozumel condo. El Diablo himself was hanging sloppily over a portly Zorro, discussing the immigration issue. A blonde Vampirella theorized about black matter to a throng of costumed colleagues for once oblivious to quantum mechanics.

Mulder’d been informed this was to be a Halloween-style observance of the Day of the Dead, but he’d learned it was better to pack light for the Cancun airport, and a jet-lagged Scully was in no mood to haggle over a Death mask with one of the community’s aggressive vendors. At least he’d left the black suit at home.

The Phipps’ kitchen was bright and airy, looking out on a lush garden anchored with a pair of coconut palms. Marilyn Monroe, fresh and pretty in her infamous white sundress, stood at a marble-slabbed island amid a mountain of masa harina, shredded meat, and corn husks.

The ’50s icon scooped a glob of meal and shortening, flattened it on a spread husk, and placed the strips of meat in the center. She rolled the husks around the mixture, tucked both ends under, and began to assemble another parcel.

“Miss Morris, I’m perfectly capable of fixing my own breakfast,” Mulder drawled. “As a matter of fact, I had a peanut butter sandwich and two whiskey sours.”

Marlaine looked up, then grinned at Mulder. “I recognize the line from ‘Seven Year Itch,’ but I had remembered Tom Ewell speaking it, not Francis the Talking Mule.”

“Cold,” Mulder pouted. “Ancient Mayan recipe?”

“Pibikutz,” the archaeologist replied with a Brooklyn accident that made the word sound Yiddish rather than Meso-American. “Turkey tamales. Traditionally, they’re cooked in a pit for eight hours, then ‘resurrected’ to symbolize the Mayan burial of the dead prior to their transition into the afterlife. We are breaking with tradition this evening, unless you want to eat somewhere around 2 a.m.”

“Screw tradition.”

“That’s what I say. Doesn’t make me any too popular with the cultural anthropologists at the university.”

“How is academic life down here?” Mulder asked, joining in the tamale-rolling.

“Ah, pretty much the same. Really smart people are really smart people the world over. First-class, petty pains in the ass.”

“How about Karl?”

Marlaine stopped, then shoved her long, calloused very un-Norma Jeanlike fingers back into the masa harina. “You mean about Kate, right? What did he say?”

“Nothing,” Mulder said, completing another tamale. “That’s why I asked.”

“Ah, shit, Mulder,” she sighed, slapping corn meal into a husk. “He just can’t accept her condition. Here’s the world’s top expert on particle theory, won a million bucks at Stockholm, speaks seven languages, and he’s always shopping around for a ‘cure,’ like some housewife shopping for cookware on QVC. Right now, it’s this Ouija shit.”

Mulder frowned for a moment, then winced. “Facilitated communication.”

Marlaine nodded approvingly. “I always thought you were in the wrong field.”

Mulder shrugged. “Scully thinks so, too.”

**

“Yes, I’ve heard of it,” Scully began, carefully. “Some Australian teacher first developed the theory in the late ’70s, right? Used it to ‘bring out’ a child with cerebral palsy. You use a keyboard or other device to help mentally disabled or autistic patients surface their ‘undisclosed literacy,’ to ‘speak’ what they’re physically unable to say. Am I close?”

“Reasonably,” Karl murmured, sipping his margarita. “Except, in this case, we use the Ouija board. In FC, a facilitator physically guides the subject’s movements, potentially resulting in false, fraudulent, or subconscious communications. The Ouija is less subject to facilitator manipulation.”

Scully looked skeptically down at ten-year-old Kate, huddled on the Mayan-designed bedspread over an 18-by-12 board. The alphabet was printed on the board in quaint, arcing figures, with the numbers 1 through 0 displayed below, and the words “Good Bye” and “Parker Brothers” inscribed below that. In the upper corners were a smiling full moon next to the word “Yes” and a scowling crescent moon beside the word “No.” The word “Ouija” was positioned between the two.

A rounded, triangular pointer with a circular window sat dead-center on the board, and Kate Phipps sat straight-backed and as still as an angelic doll before the Ouija board.

Despite understanding the condition behind Kate’s deceptive catatonia and the purported role of the “supernatural” game, Scully felt some unbidden chill along her spine.

“Unfortunately,” Karl continued, “we’ve discovered she won’t engage with the board unless she’s alone. We put a monitor in here a few nights – Kate ‘communicated’ with the board for hours on end. C’mon – let’s leave her to it.”

Scully reflected on a response as they descended the tiled stairs back to the party. “I understand FC is somewhat controversial, especially the use of the Ouija board.”

“Well, a few of my colleagues are skeptical,” the physicist admitted. “This is a country steeped in religion and mysticism, if indeed you can separate the two. The reactions among our friends have ranged from atheistic horror that I’d bring this ‘voodoo’ into our home to concern I’ve gone over the rails to seemingly genuine terror of what portal I might open into the netherworld. It’s merely a therapy that seems to have some legitimate provenance.”

“Legitimate?” Scully turned to a rail-thin, goateed man in a leather jacket and Fedora, who held a bullwhip and a tall, blue drink. “Indiana Jones” shook his head disgustedly. “The more suggestible the ‘player,’ the more dangerous this Ouija nonsense is. Non-autistic players become increasingly reliant on the board, craving more and more ‘revelations.’ Soon the messages become the player’s sole interest. Normal activities and relationships become mundane – the player feels alive and alert only when working with the Ouija board. Kate is already withdrawn enough. Can you imagine the damage if this were to become her single-minded obsession?”

Karl smiled coolly at the incongruous adventurer. “This is somewhat outside your area of expertise, isn’t it, Manny? Dr. Scully, Manuel de Lugo. He’s an engineer at the Institute. A technician.”

De Lugo sighed sadly. “No need to lash out at me, Karl. I’m only trying to spare Marlaine the heartbreak and your child more anguish. Your daughter is profoundly autistic – focus on her adjustment to the world and abandon all this pseudopsychological basura.”

Karl’s eyes flashed, then he breathed deeply. “Manny, why don’t you have another drink and enjoy the evening? I have to help Marlaine in the kitchen.”

De Lugo watched the scientist retreat and turned to Scully. “I only try to help. It’s just a shame to see such a brilliant man in such pain and denial. Followes was irresponsible to give Karl that ‘game.'”

“Followes?” Scully pursued, reluctantly.

“One of the IT guys at the Institute. A real bicho raro.”

“I do speak the language, de Lugo.” The voice behind Scully was quiet, wounded but amused. Mulder, she silently cursed as the non-descript man confronted the engineer. “I wear the geek badge proudly. Maybe you’re the one in denial.” David Followes extended his hand toward Scully; she took the clammy right palm briefly.

Followes’ plaid sports shirt was tucked untidily into the waistband of his khakis, and his wire-rimmed glasses dipped slightly to the left. “I read about some of the latest Harvard research and figured it couldn’t hurt for Karl to give it a try. Found an old set on eBay cheap. Did I hear Karl say, ‘Dr. Scully?’ What’s your field?”

“I’m a forensic pathologist with the FBI,” Scully supplied, waiting for the inevitably disappointed response. Instead, Followes drew closer, intrigued. Great, she thought: El Bicho Raro metamorphizes into El Lecho Supremo.

“FBI? Wow. You working security with the Institute? ‘Cause I notice you’re not wearing a costume.”

“Jesus, Followes,” de Lugo breathed. “You sure are one keen scientific observer. Real smooth with the ladies, too.”

“I’m on vacation,” Scully stammered. “My partner – boyfr–, ah, my traveling companion is an old friend of the Phipps’s.”

“This fellow bothering you, Kitten?” Mulder asked, squinting suspiciously at Followes. “Cause if he is, I believe I’ll go hit the bar again. If they both are, I’ll be out at the clubs.”

“I’m not–” Followes sputtered as de Lugo snorted in amusement.

“Mulder. Fox Mulder. Relax, pardner. She does this every time she gets a few drinks in her. Right, Kitten?”

“I ought to circulate a little,” Followes mumbled, beating a retreat. De Lugo saluted Mulder with a forefinger to the temple, and made for the now-free floating Vampirella.

“Maybe, just once, we could get through an evening without you scaring the straights,” Scully said through her teeth.

“Maybe we could,” Mulder said in his best Jack Nicholson. “But just not tonight, OK. There’re too many marks in the house – too much temptation. Looked like Felix there was about to bust a move. I was afraid he might bring out the old slide rule, you know what I mean?”

“You smell like turkey,” Scully growled.

**

Mulder had switched from atole – a fruit-flavored corn meal beverage – to cerveza between the pibikutz and pan de muertos (Bread of the Dead) and the candied pumpkin and skull cookies, and he and Karl leaned back on the sofa in a pleasant stupor. Marlaine had taken the kids into the town for the festivities, and the “hard” scientists had settled back into loose conversational knots. Mulder noted Followes’ apparent absence with a slight sense of guilt.

“So what’s up at the Institute?” he asked Karl.

“Classified,” Karl sighed, loosening the belt on his Italian-style trousers.

“Quarks or leptons?”

The physicist awoke quickly from his stupor. “How in the world–?”

“The subconscious mind,” Mulder smiled lazily. “Marlaine says you’ve been obsessive about your latest project. Quark and lepton particles are fermions,” the agent said, nodding toward Karl’s costume.

Karl chuckled. “Chuck Burk always said no one could keep a secret from you for very long. Quarks. More specifically, quark energy. DOE and Defense are cooperating with the Mexican government to see if it’s theoretically possible to capture quark energy. If we could generate enough quark mass at the subatomic level, well, I’d better stop there. But we’ve run up against a kind of brick wall – my team and I have been working here nearly ’til dawn every night for the past month, trying to make the numbers fly.”

Mulder nodded slowly. “Matt been making a good adjustment?”

“He loves it here – he’s found a heretofore unknown talent for soccer. We may have to ship him back FedEx when the project’s over.”

“And Kate?”

Karl turned, bemused. “Your partner told you about our conversation? Or is it Marlaine? I know she’s not too wild about the latest therapy. You have something to offer here? No, I’d really respect your opinion.”

Mulder settled back. “I dunno, Karl. It seems like you’ve been chasing a ‘cure’ for years.” He looked to his friend; Karl’s face was stone. “OK, OK. I know that when the game became popular in the early 20th Century, the church and several mental health professionals were concerned about its impact. The poet James Merrill, who’d consulted the Ouija board to write his verses, warned people against using it shortly before he died. In 1924, Harry Houdini wrote that five people from Carrito, California were driven insane by using a board. That same year, Dr. Carl Wickland, who founded the National Psychological Institute, argued compulsive Ouija use caused ‘wild insanity’ in some patients.

“On the other hand, Bill Wilson, the co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, claimed he got the idea for his 12-step program through the Ouija. Bone Thugs-N-Harmony often consults the board, and they really don’t suck.”

Karl stared blankly at Mulder.

“I guess my point, Karl, is that anything with this much silly bullshit attached to it is probably no more harmful than a Magical Eightball or Mystery Date,” Mulder concluded. “It probably also is no more helpful.”

The physicist nodded, closing his eyes for a second. “Thank you, Fox. I’m happy you could come tonight – you always offer a fresh perspecti–”

Karl’s reflections were interrupted by anguished wailing. A child’s cry, prolonged and pained.

“Katie!” Karl exploded off the couch, Mulder close behind. Across the room, Scully abandoned Superman and an unknown Mexican wrestler. The trio took the stairs rapidly, and Karl threw Kate’s door open.

The girl was rocking on her bed – a behavior Scully recognized as, stereotypically, common in autistic patients – and keening loudly. The Ouija board was askew on the bedspread.

“Baby,” Karl cried out, grabbing for his daughter. She continued to wail and rock as he embraced her, a strong fall breeze rustling the physicist’s unruly hair.

“Karl,” Mulder drawled. “Do you normally leave that window open?”

The scientist looked up distractedly. “Ah, no. Of course not. We keep it locked. Too dangerous for her.”

Mulder looked to Scully on the other side of the bed, then rushed to the tall window, shoving the curtains aside.

“Shit,” he moaned. Scully joined him, inhaling sharply as she peered at the sidewalk below.

A body was sprawled on the concrete, a pool of blood spreading from its crushed skull. The corpse – David Followes – was ringed by a trio of ghoulishly costumed festival-goers. Death in triplicate, Mulder thought.

He turned back from the windowsill, surveying the crime scene. Something appeared to be missing, but Mulder couldn’t immediately place it. The room was relatively undisturbed, spartan except for a few decorative touches added more for Kate’s parents than the autistic girl.

Mulder noticed the bedspread had been disturbed a foot or two behind Kate – someone had been sitting behind her. The board was undamaged…

“The planchette,” Mulder gasped.

“What?” Scully demanded.

“The planchette – the pointer,” he sputtered. “It’s missing.”

Kate’s cries become louder, her rocking more agitated and erratic.

“She wants it,” Mulder said. “She wants to tell us something.”

“Nonsense,” Manny de Lugo snapped from the doorway. “That’s impossible.”

“Scully,” Mulder barked. “Quick, get a piece of cardboard, something. And scissors.”

Scully disappeared, to return minutes later with a FedEx envelope. Mulder grabbed the scissors and fashioned an outsized guitar pick with a hole near the apex. He pulled Karl away from Kate, straightened the Ouija board, and placed the homemade planchette in the center of the board.

The rocking subsided and Kate grew silent. After a few seconds, she noticed the board. Her small pink fingers found the makeshift pointer, and her lips moved incoherently.

And the planchette began to move. After a few centimeters, it halted.

2.

Kate’s hands again guided the planchette to a destination at the other end of the board.

0.

The pointer moved smoothly back to the other side.

1.

And finished its journey a few inches later.

“Oh, mi dios,” de Lugo whispered, crossing himself as Kate released the planchette and returned to her silent world.

Scully craned at the board. “2012. What’s that mean?”

Mulder looked into de Fugo’s wide eyes. “Around these parts, maybe just the end of the world.”

**

Mulder was washing the last of the candied pumpkin down with warm atole as a tall, blocky, goateed man in fresh khakis and a black guayabera shirt appeared in the kitchen doorway. He was also wearing an expression of aggrieved patience. Off-duty, probably yanked away from his own Día de Los Muertos festivities or, as likely, televised soccer with his cop buddies.

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“Hey,” the agent nodded. “How they hanging?”

“¿Usted está con el FBI?” the detective grunted.

“Yup. Cerveza?”

“No, gracias,” the cop murmured with a tinge of regret. “¿Qué negocio es este de la suya?”

“None of my business. Karl and Marlaine are old friends. We’re just tourists.”

“¿La pequeña pelirroja es su esposa?” The little redhead. Mulder hoped the bilingual Scully was out of range, or the evening might end with some real carnage.

Mulder nearly choked on a chunk of pumpkin and sugar.

“Ah, she’s, uh, an FBI agent, too. My, ah, my partner. No esposa. Amiga.”

A smirk played at the detective’s thick mustache. “Entiendo,” he chortled with mingled camaraderie and smugness. He jerked his closely cropped head toward the ceiling. “¿Qué te parece?

Mulder shrugged. “¿Accidente?”

The smirk kinked at the edges, then disappeared. “Sí, eso es probablemente lo que sucedió,” the detective said quietly. “Usted y su ‘amiga’ tienen una agradable momento, ¿OK?”

“Mm, yeah, we sure will,” Mulder nodded weakly.

The cop saluted solemnly at Scully silently as she edged past. She paused as masculine laughter erupted from the front room a second later. “What did HE want?”

“He said we just HAD to snorkel with the sea turtles while we were in town.”

**

“Among the major accomplishments of the ancient Mayans was development of a calendar that’s proven more accurate than even the Gregorian calendar,” Mulder explained after the Quintana Roo policia processed the Followes death scene and extensively grilled Karl, Marlaine, and their guests.

The detective in charge remained particularly curious about Mulder and Scully’s presence, and probed Karl about the purpose and work of the Institute.

Finally, he muttered something about Americans and their inability to handle their liquor, and gravely muttered something to a colleague about the “bicho raro” and the “retrasados chica.”

Mulder suspected the official ruling would not reflect too well on the late David Followes and his personal preferences, and that the locals wouldn’t bust their cojones trying to pin the man’s death on the Phipps or their guests.

“Some predict the completion of the thirteenth B’ak’run cycle in the Long Count of the Mayan calendar will signal a major change in world order,” Mulder continued. “Others suggest that at the end of that cycle – according to best estimates, on Dec. 21, 2012 – the end will come. That date coincides with a major planetary alignment.”

The guests had quickly departed, their expressions as ashen as those of the macabre partiers roaming the streets. Mulder had asked de Fugo to remain as a cultural consultant.

“The sun will rise in the middle of the Milky Way Galaxy, causing an alignment between the earth, sun, and the galactic center,” the engineer elaborated, his face deeply lined. “But this is ancient superstition, Agent, with no earthly scientific basis. This alignment will be merely a visual phenomenon from the earth’s perspective. There will be no gravitational force or radiation or any other physical manifestation associated with the event – other than the tilt of the earth, nothing will be any different than any other solstice. No disrespect to my very learned ancestors, but their science, well…”

“But it wasn’t just the Mayans, Doctor,” Mulder protested. “Sumerian texts suggested there are 12 planets in our solar system, and that the anomalous orbit of one of the unknown planets – Nibiru – will return to the solar system in 2012. They believed that reentry would cause disruptions.”

“This is horseshit!” The physicist, the engineer, and the agents glanced up at the source of the obscenity. Marlaine had tossed the blonde wig onto the coffee table, but in her rush to calm Kate, she hadn’t changed out of Marilyn’s sundress.

“Sorry, Fox,” she amended immediately, her attractively weathered features softening. “But what are you trying to suggest here? That my little girl is channeling the Mayan spirits? That Kate’s some kind of autistic Nostradamus, predicting the end days?”

“Autistic children often are savants,” Mulder noted. “They may show amazing powers of memorization, an ability to perform complex mathematical equations. Maybe it’s their isolation from distractions, their intense internal focus, I don’t know. But what if Kate is somehow attuned to spiritual – or, if Karl prefers, extrasensory – vibrations? What if the Ouija board simply has served as a device to fine-tune her sensitivities?”

“Please,” de Fugo breathed, having returned to his normal, hyper-rational plane of existence.

“Actually, there is some validity to what Mulder’s suggesting,” Scully drawled, diving once again into the dark waters of partner loyalty. “Early childhood savant syndrome is usually associated with other developmental issues – the major share occur in children with autism, though male savants normally outnumber females by a 6-to-1 ratio.

“Most autistic savants possess ‘splinter skills’ including musical, reading, or mechanical capability.” Scully paused. “Those skills can include advanced calendar calculations, such as the ability to pinpoint the day of the week when a specific date will fall many years in the past or future. So, while Mulder’s theory may raise some serious logical questions, it’s not entirely out of the realm of possibility Kate’s message could refer to a calendar date.”

“Serious logical questions?” Mulder squeaked.

“What’s perplexing to me,” Scully obfuscated, “is how Followes took that dive out the window. Marlaine, you said it’s normally kept locked for Kate’s safety, right?”

Marlaine settled onto the arm of the leather sofa, draping an arm over her husband’s shoulder. “We installed a special bolt high up to allow a six-inch opening.”

Scully nodded. “There’s nothing Kate could have used in the room to reach that bolt. So that leaves Followes, Mulder.”

“You aren’t suggesting an attempted kidnapping, are you?” del Fugo sneered. “David and I may not have been the best of friends, but he was no deviate, as that policeman implied. I’m sure of it.”

“Beyond that, the window is more than 15 feet off the ground,” Scully said. “I can’t imagine he’d attempt to carry a child out of the house that way.”

Karl inhaled. “Wait, now. If Kate or Dave didn’t open that window, could it be that someone else did, perhaps with the same motive of abducting or harming Kate. This is a classified project with potential weapons applications…”

“Karl!” de Fugo snapped.

The physicist waved him off. “I trust Fox and Agent Scully implicitly. What if Dave came upon this intruder and was merely trying to protect Kate? The intruder might have pushed him out the window.”

“But then how did the intruder get out of the room?” Mulder objected. “We came running the second we heard Kate screaming, and the same problem applies to leaving by the window – how’d he get to the ground without a ladder or rope? Besides, I still feel there was something kind of, oh, off-kilter about Followes. Something phony.”

“You knew him for all of three minutes, until you scared him off,” Scully noted.

“He just seemed, I don’t know, off. Had you known him long, Karl?”

“I’d seen him at a couple of conferences, but Dave only came on the project a few months ago. He was a bit detached – in fact, he’d turned down tonight’s party invitation, only showed up at the last minute. And even then, he wouldn’t come in costume.” Karl pulled off his glasses and wiped them slowly on his shirt tail.

Mulder sat back, frowning. Then he looked at the scientist and sat up. “Karl, was Followes in on those all-night brainstorming sessions you told me about?”

“No, he was strictly computer and data support. Stage 3 clearance. Manny and I are Stage 4.”

“Who was there?”

“Well, Manny, as I said. Paulo Juarez, Barry Chen, Inez Bracamontes. That was the team.”

“Marlaine?”

Marlaine wrinkled her nose. “Not my field. A real snorer. Plus I didn’t want to raise any concerns about project confidentiality. So I’d take Matt out to eat or to the market.”

Mulder’s eyes lit. “Just Matt? Not Kate?”

“The crowds sometimes agitated her. Karl would watch her.”

Karl smiled. “She’d sit in the corner and do puzzles while we talked of quantum physics and quarks. Why, Fox?”

“I think Scully and I will let you guys get some sleep now,” Mulder smiled, rising abruptly. “Great little shindig, Karl. Can’t wait to see what you’ve got planned for 2012.”

**

“You really do think he was murdered, don’t you?” Scully asked as she sipped at her Anejo tequila margarita and lazily brushed a red lock from her temple. Beyond the Playa De Los Delfines’ patio, a large U.S. family was celebrating an oceanfront wedding deep into the night, capering and waltzing to a mix of mariachi and Toby Keith. The white figures moved about almost surreally above the surf, as if in some ritual not far removed from the danse macabre being celebrated throughout the Riviera Maya and into the workers’ neighborhoods and villages.

“I can’t see Marlaine or Karl being negligent enough to leave that window open with Kate alone.” Mulder tugged at his dark, malty Negro Medelo – a lager born of Mexico’s mid-19th Century influx of German immigrants. During his four-year reign over the Mexican people, Austrian Emperor Maximilian never traveled without his German brewmasters, much to the eventual delight of drunk, parentally-subsidized frat boys. In fact, several appeared to be celebrating Maximilian and his heritage on the dock next to the hotel, boogeying to borrowed music with blonde, bronzed chicas. “And I don’t buy Detective Smartass’ theory that Followes was a closet perv – if he was into that, I’m sure he could have found options beyond trolling his friends and colleagues’ kids. If anything, I think this may have been related to the project.”

“We don’t even know what the project is, except some vague yada-yada about quark energy,” Scully murmured, closing her eyes to the warm evening breeze and the lullaby of brass on the beach.

Mulder harrumphed. “With Defense fronting part of the bill, my guess is we’re not talking about lepton-powered convection ovens or greening the nation’s highways. If we’re talking about advanced weapons technology, somebody might have offered Followes mucho dinero for the inside skinny. You know, Karl’s den’s two doors down from Kate’s room.”

“Yeah, it was locked, too. Your paranoid curiosity’s contagious. Karl told me he doesn’t keep any project data onsite, as I’m sure Followes would’ve known.”

“Your paranoid curiosity is so muy caliente,” Mulder purred.

“And your command of Spanish is muy comico,” Scully smiled, eyes still shut. They popped open as a shadow crossed her face, and Mulder turned to find their waiter waiting impassively.

“Señor, you have a telefónica … ah, phone call. In the lobby.”

Mulder looked to Scully. “Probably Skinner,” she murmured. “The locals probably didn’t buy that we’re just here to commune with the dolphins and guzzle Bahama Mamas. Go, but get back quickly. The tequila and the music and the moon has me in an ill-advisedly hormonal mood.”

Mulder’s chair squeaked on the terra cotta tile. “Phone, dude. Pronto,” he ordered.

**

Scully had been wrong. It was the U.S. Consulate, genially reminding Mulder of his precarious jurisdictional authority, jovially espousing the importance of U.S.-Mexican cooperation and, with appropriate gravitas, enumerating in great detail the potential consequences of disrupting crucial scientific research, breaching national security, and ruffling the plumage of a Mexican government that already wasn’t returning President Bush’s calls.

Mulder acknowledged all with a reciprocal air of genially jovial gravitas, and assured the Consulate he would confine his south-of-the-border activities to jet-skiing and prowling ancient temples.

The Consulate applauded his intentions and informed him of a nearby café that served an “otherworldly grill-roasted whole snapper adobado. Mulder promised to sample the heavenly entrée and keep his nose out of the Followes case. He was told that would be simply splendid and was left with a dead phone.

“David Followes?” Nigel Prestwick breathed 37 minutes later. “Well, I scarcely know what to say, Fox. How tragic, of course. Even if he was a bit of a, well, I suppose you could say an asshole of sorts.”

Mulder snorted involuntarily at the description tumbling from the Nobel runner-up’s Oxford-trained lips, shifting the cell phone to his other ear as Scully breathed calmly on the nearby hotel bed.

Prestwick had headed a team including Followes that in 1998 had radically rewritten every theory about spontaneous broken symmetry in subatomic physics. Mulder was still waiting for the movie version, but he knew Prestwick kept his rather large, fleshy ear to the ground.

“I suppose that was unkind,” Nigel retreated. “Followes had a brilliant analytical mind for a data miner – astonishing inductive instincts. But he also was everything I frankly despise in my colleagues – ruthlessly rooting for the truth with no sense for its significance or beauty, totally indifferent to the human condition. ‘Randomly chaotic masses of carbon molecules,’ he called us. Why, I remember one particularly hectic deadline, when one of the lab techs received a call that his mother had passed. When Followes found out the poor lad had taken the first flight back home, he was livid. Saw to it the boy was terminated the following day.”

Didn’t sound like the kind of guy that would go game-hunting on eBay for an autistic child. “Must’ve been a killer with the ladies,” Mulder mused, recalling Followes’ awkward flirtation toward Scully.

Nigel was silent.

“Nigel?”

“Well, of course, Followes showed us little of what passed for his social life while at the lab, but from a few murmured confidences here and there, I’d say the ‘ladies’ weren’t the man’s primary focus. In fact, there was some talk that there may have been some personal intrigue behind the bereaved technician’s termination. Hell hath no fury, you know.”

Now, Mulder was silent. “Thanks, Nigel,” he finally mumbled. “Say hey to the leptons.”

“Not at all. And do express my condolences to Karl and Marlie, if that’s the right term. Be well, now.”

Mulder tossed the phone onto an end table and pondered the conversation as he peered out the patio windows at the silent black Caribbean.

“Mulder?” He jumped as Scully’s groggy voice penetrated the darkness. “You OK?”

Mulder crossed to the bed. “Yeah, yeah. I’m sorry – did I wake you up?”

Scully grunted. “You practically beg me for, well, what you usually beg me for, then ask me to ‘wait a sec’ while you make ‘one little call.’ If this is your new style of foreplay, then I’d suggest you work on your technique. What’s up? Strike that, Mulder. What did you find out?”

“Later,” Mulder murmured, scrabbling across the mattress. He found the object of his search, soft and warm. “How’s this for foreplay?”

He groaned as his cell phone began to vibrate and flamenco across the end table.

“Oh baby, oh baby,” Scully said.

**

Mulder gratefully accepted a cup of thick, cinnamon-infused Mexican coffee from Marlaine as he settled onto the couch. “I had a buddy at the Bureau run a check on eBay purchases over the past year, specifically a 1993 Parker Brothers Ouija Board, slightly bumped. Only board sold recently was an 1891 Charles Kennard. And there weren’t any charges or PayPal transactions at all on David Followes account. In fact, no activity on the account over the past 21 months.”

Kate Phipps sat quietly, rapidly assembling the jigsaw puzzle Marlaine had supplied to replace the now-underequipped Ouija board, serenely oblivious to the tall young stranger, the short redhead, her parents, and the one her father called “Manny.”

“Bottom line is, I think you had a security leak at the Institute. At least until last night.”

De Fugo and Karl exchanged glances. “You don’t mean Followes?” the Mexican scientist asked.

After making a flurry of calls in Spanish, Mulder had assembled the group. “I’m guessing the real David Followes is dead and disappeared somewhere. The man you knew replaced him on your project with the express purpose of gathering intelligence. Whether for a foreign government or a high-tech company looking for an energy or weapons breakthrough, I don’t know.”

De Fugo scowled. “Espera – wait a minute. How in the world did you come to this conclusion?”

“Look at Karl. His glasses. What do you see?”

The scientist looked at Mulder as if he were quite insane, then shrugged and studied Phipps’ face. “I don’t know. They’re silver, wire-rimmed, functional but hardly stylish. The nose pieces are stretched out and, I guess, they’re sitting rather, what’s the word, lopsided on Karl’s face.”

“Yup,” Mulder said happily. “What’s your dominant hand, Karl?”

“I’m right-handed,” Karl said slowly.

“So was Followes. Karl, take off your glasses and wipe them on your shirt like you did downstairs.”

Peering strangely at Mulder, he complied, rubbing first the left lens and then the right.”

“Stop,” Mulder ordered. “Now, look down. When you wiped your left lens, you reached over, rubbing from above. When you cleaned your right lens, your thumb was pressed against the earpiece, probably bending it slightly downward.”

“Another case cleared,” Scully murmured.

Mulder glared. “I noticed Followes was right-handed. But his glasses dipped on the left side from the pressure of repeated geek wipings. When Followes – the real one – was murdered, his carefully selected double appropriated his glasses. It was one of those superficial details that would reinforce his new identity with Followes’ casual acquaintances. The original Followes was an asocial sort – not too many people would remember he was right-handed.

“Followes soon realized security at the Institute was tighter than his employers had assumed – all data was deeply encoded, and the system was unbreakable. There was no weak link on the team to tap, and to do so would draw unnecessary attention. He didn’t risk bugging this condo. Then you told him about Kate, about her autism. Somewhere, he learned about her presence at the team’s brainstorming sessions, and realized he had a Chesterton’s postman.”

“Chesterton’s what?” Marlaine mumbled.

“G.K. Chesterton,” de Fugo supplied. “Early 20th Century mystery author and Catholic apologist. In one of his Father Brown detective stories, the culprit turns out to be a village postman who was able to avoid detection because no one takes notice of the mailman or the waiter or the cleaning woman. Or a little girl. Am I following you, Agent Mulder?”

“Bingo. Kate was privy to some of the most sensitive, potentially most scientifically groundbreaking information in the world, on a nightly basis. Who knows what she may have absorbed and processed? Mulder leaned back, tucking his hands behind his head.

“Oh, please. Fox,” Marlaine said. “How’d David hope to communicate with Kate, much less extract classified information from her? Even after 10 years, Karl and I still have trouble breaking through sometimes.”

Mulder nodded. “‘Followes did his research – there’ve been dozens of studies of and stories about autism and facilitated communication, and he decided the Ouija board might offer a way to tap Kate’s subconscious thoughts and maybe a few scraps of overheard, embedded information about the project.”

“What, was this so-called spy telepathic?” de Fugo growled. “How would he hope to retrieve this information?”

“My guess is, the faux Followes made a major modification to the Ouija set he gave Karl, after building his hopes it would help draw Kate out,” Mulder explained. “That’s why the planchette, the pointer, disappeared – he had to remove the evidence of his spying once he found out Scully and I were in the house. I think Followes thought Karl had called us in.”

“Why was the planchette so damned important?” de Fugo demanded.

“You’re an engineer. When you boil it down, what is the planchette? In practical, fundamental terms, what function does it serve? What kind of device is it?”

“I don’t know. I suppose a navigational device, of sorts.”

Mulder grinned. “Exactly. You heard of the Jupiter 32?”

“Navman released it back in early 2007,” de Fugo recalled automatically. “It’s one of the smallest commercially available GPS receivers. Weighs two grams. High signal sensitivity, supplies very accurate location-specific data…” The engineer’s eyes popped. “You aren’t trying to suggest–”

“That Fake Followes planted a J32 receiver in the planchette. I’d have to look up the specs, but I assume the J32 can track minute movements, such as the distance between the 26 letters, 10 numbers, and affirmative and negative responses on the Ouija board. Followes set up a GPS signal detector, probably here on the island somewhere, to intercept Kate’s Ouija ‘communications.'”

Karl shook his head vigorously. “Your theory, it’s so absurdly imaginative. And if Followes stole the planchette, then where did it go between the window and the pavement?”

Mulder moved to the window beside the bed and peered into the darkness. “Hopefully, we’ll know in a few minutes.” He leaned out. “¿Somos listos comenzar?”

A voice rose from below. “¡Sí!”

“Start what?” Marlaine asked.

“Detective Alazar’s GPS signal detector,” Mulder said. “My guess is the impact of Followes’ fall sent the planchette flying. If it’s in the bushes or down a sewer grate, the good detective should be able to locate it shortly.”

The group waited in silence as Kate continued to assemble a snarling Jaguar on her bedspread.

“¡Lo he encontrado!” The detective’s triumphant voice echoed through the streets, hailed by the distance sound of mariachi. Mulder sprinted down the stairs to meet the policeman.

As the agent threw open the front door, Alazar beamed and extended the missing pointer. Mulder high-fived his Mexican colleague and turned toward his partner and the scientists.

With a grimace, he pressed the planchette against his knee. It cracked in two, and a small metal square dropped onto the terra cotta. Mulder retrieved the Jupiter 32.

“But what about Kate’s last message? 2012?” de Fugo sputtered.

Mulder shrugged. “Much as I hate to admit it, it’s probably not the end of the world.”

20 Avenida Norte

Cozumel

7 p.m.

Rilke subtly readjusted the Glock in his waistband as he located the whitewashed stucco apartment building that had served as Borges’ safe house/operations base. That was the beauty of these tropical assignments: Voluminous shirts and baggy cargo shorts could hide a multitude of sins. Literally.

Rilke was 35, but with his youthful appearance and deep five o’clock shadow, he could have been anything from a spoiled college kid slumming the Third World to some Greenpeace whack spreading the gospel of Man’s intrusion on the planet.

A pair of men in flamenco dress, skull masks stuffed in their pockets, stumbled past, laughing and punching each other with macho camaraderie.

Rilke had landed in the middle of some weird sort of Mexican Halloween celebration, and despite his professional detachment, he felt like the hero of some old film noir or spy flick, surrounded on all sides by death and decadence.

If he’d worked for the mob, Rilke might have been called a “cleaner.” One of the Fortune 500 would have classified him as a “troubleshooter.” But Rilke’s duties were far more extensive – and often, lethal – than either.

Borges had been stupid contacting the kid – his plan, while bizarre, had been flawlessly conceived and executed, but its success had depended on maintaining distance. What had driven the idiot to make contact? Then, worse, Borges had managed to get killed in a particularly freakish and embarrassing manner. Bush league.

Rilke pushed the front door open, tensing slightly as he heard the sounds of laughter and obviously erotic murmuring from above. No matter – it was party time, and a couple of partiers had found a more private place to celebrate. He wouldn’t be noticed – just another gringo come for tequila, weed, cheap and anonymous company.

He ascended the tiled stairs and, on Borges’ floor, spotted the two skeletons. The taller one, presumably male, was pressing a smaller cadaver against the cracked hallway wall as she moaned in Spanish.

Rilke smiled despite himself as he skirted past the pair. Vicarious necrophilia?

No. 12 was at the end of the hall. Rilke patted his pants, as if looking for his key. The amorous twosome failed to notice as he slipped the slim tool from his pocket and jimmied the lock.

The microscopic apartment was clean and Spartan, designed for one purpose only. An open laptop occupied a folding table; Rilke noted the steno pad next to the computer.

Borges had not altered the screensaver – the Microsoft logo flitted about the monitor.

Rilke tapped the touchpad, and an array of letters and numerals appeared. He flipped open the steno pad. Borges had transcribed what must have been two weeks of “communications” between the Phipps girl and her Ouija board.

Rilke scanned the pages, then stopped abruptly. This was astounding, incredible. His employers would be ecstatic.

Then Rilke spotted the last line, and a hand grabbed at his stomach.

YOU DIE TONIGHT

Rilke might have laughed if it wasn’t so unnerving. It was the only thing that would have drawn Borges out – this prediction of his imminent death. He’d sought out the kid to find out what she knew, what the Ouija knew. Jesus, superstitious idiot. But how’d they get on to him.

The laptop chimed, and he started. A large virtual planchette moved across the screen, arriving wobblingly at the letter “H.” Rilke leaned in, holding his breath, and stared at the screen.

“O…L…A.” Hola – hello.

“U…S…T…E…D…E…S…T…A…B…A…J…O…A…R…R…E…S…T…O…”

Usted – you are. Rilke struggled with deciphering the string of text, then gasped as the ghastly countenance of Death appeared on the monitor. He suddenly felt a cold metallic finger against his temple, and his heart leapt.

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“Let me help you with that,” the skeleton, Mulder, murmured, as his petite, costumed partner advanced, Detective Alazar in tow. The agent pressed slightly on the gun barrel. “You’re under arrest.”

Alazar pulled cuffs from his belt, repeating the notification Karl Phipps had communicated via the GPS-driven Ouija board and Mulder had translated. Rilke was professionally mute as he was escorted from the room.

Mulder had checked every realtor in Playa del Carmen, Cancun, and Cozumel until he had pinpointed a foreign rental with the digits 2-0-1-2. Cozumel was a small island, so it was unlikely he was looking for a four-digit street address. Fortunately, 20 Avenida Norte, Apartment 12 was only a few blocks from the Phipps condo.

“Mulder,” Scully ventured for the first time since he’d advanced his theory, “do you really believe Kate knew where ‘Followes’ was located?”

Her partner shrugged, admiring the mini-geographical information overlay the man Borges had designed to track Kate’s communications. “Who knows what form savant syndrome might take? Who knows what ‘splinter skills’ might emerge when brainwaves are blocked and diverted? Maybe Kate became able to detect GPS signals, and traced them back to ‘Followes.'”

As Mulder hypothesized, Scully leafed through Borges’ notes. “Mulder.”

“What?”

“That may not be the only skills set Kate Phipps has developed.” Scully’s face was slightly ashen. “Tell your friend Karl his daughter may have come up with the solution to his little problem.”

Plaza Porto Real

Playa del Carmen

9:42 a.m.

“Gracias,” Mulder murmured, pocketing his cell phone as the Mayan-featured young waiter poured a fresh cup of coffee. The waiter smiled and retreated as Scully passed the breakfast buffet. “You done basking in the afterglow?”

Scully smirked as she settled in, glancing at the Atlantic beyond the pool deck and cabana bar. “I think the afterglow ended roughly when you got that cramp in your left buttock and started dancing around the room and cursing. No, actually, I was arranging a tour of the ruins at Tulum for this afternoon.”

“Baby, you’re the greatest. Kind of takes away some of the sting.”

Scully signaled the waiter, who grinned and approached. “Now what?”

“Homeland Security confiscated ‘Followes” notebook and Rilke. Karl couldn’t go into details, but apparently, Kate may have discovered a few new applications for her dad’s fermion technology – literally earthshaking applications. Kids, huh? By now, those notes are probably on a shelf somewhere between the Lost Ark of the Covenant and the recipe for the Colonel’s secret blend of spices.”

Scully leaned back, agog. “But, Mulder, all that information is still in Kate’s head, just waiting to be unlocked. What if–?”

Mulder sipped his café. “Karl has several good friends in the media, and given the scrutiny the administration’s received over the past few years, I don’t think anybody’s about to spirit an autistic child off to Guantanamo. But Karl has been released from the Institute team as a potential security risk. He and Marlaine are taking the kids on an expedition to Peru, to look at Incan ruins.” He grinned. “Without the Ouija board, of course.”

“Of course.” Scully hesitated, watching a mockingbird peck at a discarded tortilla on the patio beyond. “And ‘Followes” death, Mulder? Who opened that window? If Kate’s mental skills are as advanced as you say, and she perceived a threat to her family. Not that I’m suggesting…”

Mulder shrugged. “The fact that you’d even broach the subject of telekinesis without sneering self-righteously makes me tingle in a very, very, very private place. But, mi amor, there are some cans maybe we shouldn’t open, especially if nobody gives a rojo raton’s ass. As the Mexican novelist Carlos Fuentes once said, ‘There is no final solution. There is no last word.'”

Scully stood. “As Mexican actress and Mulder fantasy contortionist Salma Hayek once said, ‘I keep waiting to meet a man who has more balls than I do.’ But I suppose your heart – and a few other choice organs – are in the right place. However, if I’m going to listen to you drone on about Mayan funereal rituals all afternoon, I’m going to need some more huevos con chorizo. You want some papaya juice, Mi Zorro Loco?”

*end

Nuttin’ But Time

Nuttintitle

Nuttin’ But Time

Author: Vickie Moseley

Category: MT, Angst, MSR

Rating: PG-13

Artwork: Truthwebothknow1

Cover Art: Martin Ross

Summary: An assailant who can disappear at will leads the X files agents into deadly territory.

Spoilers: Alternative 4D (no Doggett)

Disclaimer: CC and Fox own The X-Files. I’m just correcting some errors.

Original web date:02/02/2009

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Nuttin’ But Time

Dillon Park, MD

10:45 pm

Chamise Williams flicked her hair behind her shoulder, looking out on the Saturday night traffic. It was a slow evening so far but it was still early. Her regular customer had yet to show his face. She smiled — the guy was kinda creepy, but he paid in cash and usually gave her a Jackson for a tip. He could be as creepy as he wanted for the right money.

As she began to think he was going to show, his old beat up Celica pulled to the curb.

“Hey, baby. I was gettin’ worried? Wha’z the matter? Mama wouldn’t let you out before you ate all your peas and carrots?” she teased as he put the car in park and shut off the engine.

“Let’s go,” the john said, ignoring her jab. Sometimes she wondered if the guy really did have a ‘mama’ at home. He sure didn’t seem the social type.

She smiled and tilted her head to the alleyway. She preferred the johns who at least took her to a hotel room, but this guy always liked it in the alley. Made no difference to Chamise, he would always find a grocery sack or something to put on the ground so that she didn’t get her knees dirty. A regular Sir Walter Raleigh, this dude.

He dug through the dumpster, coming up with an old pizza box. Carefully he placed it on the broken asphalt pavement, pizza side down. Chamise smiled at him and proceeded to work his belt buckle as she knelt before him.

“You’re all squished in there, baby. C’m’ out where Momma can get hold of you,” she cajoled as she unzipped the zipper to his trouser. Finding her prize, she brought her other hand up to get to work when something cold slid across her throat. In an instant, she found she couldn’t take a breath. She looked up, right before the blackness overtook her and saw her john with a razor dripping blood, smiling down at her.

It was the image she took to her grave.

Dillon Park

Two months later

Dana Scully crouched in the hallway of the Anacostia apartment building, struggling with the small air pump, trying to fit the nozzle on the stem of the inner tube of the 18-speed racing bike that was almost taller than she was. Her hair was in a ponytail, a baseball cap was fitted on her head and she was wearing bike shorts and a tank top layered with a windbreaker. A small backpack was hugging her shoulders.

“You want to tell me again how we got roped into this one, Mulder,” Scully whispered into the microphone cleverly disguised in the shoulder strap of her backpack.

“A pool game, Scully,” the familiar honey-toned voice replied in the tiny earpiece in her left ear. “And it wasn’t a fair game. How was I to know Mullins hustled his way through Philadelphia when he was a detective there?”

“Maybe by seeking the counsel of your partner? It’s been the talk of the restroom gossip crowd since he was made ASAC,” Scully murmured. “Still doesn’t explain how we got pulled in.”

“I made a small side wager that promised our involvement in any case he named,” Mulder admitted. “He named this one. They’ve been trying to catch this guy for six months. Besides, admit it. There’s something funky about a guy who’s eluded capture as many times as this guy — even when neighbors have called police and the police have arrived on the scene within 10 minutes of the murders. Murders in broad daylight, Scully.”

“Yes, Mulder I know all that. I just want you to realize that ‘side wager’ is going to cost you,” Scully informed him firmly. “Dishes for the next two weeks, Mister,” she ordered. Finally, the nozzle sank on the stem with a satisfying hiss and she was able to start pumping air. Meanwhile, she could see all comings and goings at the entrance to the building by the strategically position bike mirror on the handlebars.

The door opened and a man walked in. He was unassuming, middle-aged, not what anyone would describe as good looking. A face only a mother could love. His rumpled jacket and wrinkled pants just added to the general unappealing appearance. He glanced over at Scully, she patently ignored him. He licked his lips and stopped at the row of mailboxes set in the wall. Pulling out his key ring from his coat pocket, he used a key to open up one of the apartment boxes — 4-D — and withdrew all the mail there. He stooped down to pick up one of the free alternative weekly papers lying in a pile near the mailboxes. He folded the paper over the few envelopes in his hand and started toward the end of the hall where Scully was still working on her bike. He was only a few steps from her when he suddenly turned on his heel and started in the other direction, toward an exit to the back alley.

“He’s on to us. I’m following,” Scully breathed into her mic.

“Scully, don’t! We’ve got the alley covered, we’re almost in position.”

“You won’t get him, Mulder. I’ll get there before you,” she hissed as she hurried after the man. All pretense of the casual observer were gone when she pulled her weapon and held it in position, waiting to fire. “I’m there already,” she said into the mic.

The alley was long and narrow, not even wide enough for a dumpster. She looked around frantically — she was alone! There were no other doors, no place for her prey to hide. Where had he gone? Where could he have possibly run? She took three steps forward, looking up at the wrought iron fire escape cascading down the building. It was empty and silent — he would have still been climbing stairs. The bottom portion of the ladder would be ringing with some movement. Nothing. He wasn’t there.

Before she could turn, she felt something cold and sharp slide across her throat. The cut was deep and warm blood flowed freely around her hand as she gasped out one more breath. She turned as she fell, just able to see the suspect — her killer — Ed Lukesh standing over her with the knife in his hand now dripping with her blood.

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She fell to the ground, silently mouthing one name — Mulder.

Mulder had shot out of the operations truck the minute he realized Scully was alone with the killer. As he rounded the corner of the brick building, his worst fears were playing out in less than glorious technicolor. He saw Lukesh standing over Scully, the bloody knife raised, Scully on the ground, a deep gash at her throat through which blood was pouring onto the filthy pavement of the alley. His heart stopped but his hands didn’t. Mulder took two steps and raised his gun to a firing stance, thumbed the safety off, glanced down at Scully one last time, looked up to aim and fire —

Lukesh wasn’t there! It was impossible. The killer had been right there, standing over Scully and now he was nowhere. Mulder stumbled forward toward Scully’s body, the anguish taking over his soul. He reached out his hand toward her but there was a loud sound in his ear and some force from behind slammed him to his knees. Hot pain in his back and then slowly a numbness started to overtake him. With his last thought he reached the short distance and clasped his hand around Scully’s lifeless fingers that were already growing cold to the touch.

3605 N Street

Georgetown

Mulder fumbled with his key and the two wrapped objects in his hands but finally opened the front door to their townhouse, closing the door with his foot. “Scully?” he called out.

He could hear sounds from the kitchen and headed in that direction. Paint cloths littered the dining room and the smell of latex was heavy in the air. He skirted a stepladder and finally found his partner teetering on the edge of the sink, diligently painting the molding where the wall met the ceiling.

“Scully, I told you to wait for me to do that tall stuff. You’re gonna fall off there and break your pretty little neck!” he scolded as he set down his parcels and reached up to help her down from her precarious position.

“Mulder, you promised to be home an hour ago. I don’t want to be doing this all weekend,” she countered.

“Sorry. I got sidetracked at the office. But I brought you something. A real treat,” he informed her with his usual boyish enthusiasm. “Here, you gotta try this.” He handed her one of the elongated packages.

Her expression was dubious but she folded back the white wax paper to reveal — “Hot dogs, Mulder?”

“Not ‘hot dogs’, Scully,” he exclaimed with indignation. “Polish sausages! Remember Pops, the old guy with the handcart at the corner on Penn?” At her raised eyebrow, he continued. “Well, his son took over the cart and started importing these directly from Warsaw. I smelled ’em as I came out of the office and decided we’d do this for lunch.”

“Instead of the Cobb salad I’d been dreaming of since this morning when you said you’d take me to the cafe on Wisconsin to repay me for going to the office on our day off. Gee, Mulder — how romantic,” she deadpanned. Rolling her eyes, she nodded toward the dining room. “I don’t want to eat them in here, we’ll get paint on the food or ‘polish sausage’ grease in the paint. Clear off a section of the table and I’ll bring the plates and drinks.

“Plates? Scully, just use the wrapper, for cripes sake!” But he took the wrapped sausage out of her hand and moved into the dining room obediently.

She smiled after him as she pulled off the paint gloves she was wearing and opened the cabinet, withdrawing two salad-sized plates. “Mulder, do you want iced tea or do I have to ply you with beer to get you to help me finish this paint job?” she called over her shoulder as she stood at the refrigerator. When he didn’t answer, she stepped to the doorway and found she was talking to an empty room.

“Mulder?” She glanced over at the door to the half-bath, expecting it to be closed, but found the door open and the room also vacant. “Mulder, if you slipped out to go back to the office to get out of painting I won’t be held responsible,” she shouted to the walls.

Frowning, she headed for the stairs to see if he’d gone up to their bedroom to change into the old clothes she’d set out for him. She was just at the foot of the stairs when the phone rang. “I’ll get it,” she called up to him, stepping over to the phone unit in the living room.

“Hello,” she answered.

“Scully, thank God I found you,” breathed Skinner with a relieved sigh. “Look, I . . . I have some bad news.”

Her stomach dropped at the words. Who could it be? She’d spoken to her mother just that morning. The gunmen had been over the night before offering to help them paint which she had politely refused after the experiencing their ‘help’ with replacing the trap on the bathroom sink. Who was left to worry about? “What news, sir?” she asked.

“It’s Mulder. He’s being taken to Washington General. I can’t get away right now, but I’ve sent a car over for you.”

“Mulder? Sir . . . Walter, that’s impossible. Mulder is here in the house. He brought home lunch — ” She looked at the table, expecting to find the hot dogs — oh, yes, polish sausages — in their wrappers but the surface was bare, unmarred.

“Scully? Scully are you there?”

She couldn’t answer, only stare around the dining room in confusion.

Washington General Hospital

11:21 am

Scully had gone from confused to angry in the short time since she’d hung up with Skinner. Although she had a perfectly good car sitting at her townhouse, a set of agents complete with mirrored Ray Bans arrived at her front door and ‘escorted’ her to the bu-car waiting at the curb. She was ‘helped’ into the back — all that was missing was the set of handcuffs.

She’d wanted to ask what the hell was going on, what did they know, but by their stiff backs and precise movements, she knew none of her questions would be answered. She held her tongue until they arrived at the hospital. Her ‘escorts’ led her to the elevator and immediately pushed the button for the fifth floor — where she knew the Surgical Unit was housed.

As they stepped off the elevator car, Assistant Director Jana Cassidy was waiting. “Thank you for coming down, Agent Scully. I’m sure we can clear up this matter quite quickly now,” Cassidy said, nodding toward the two agents who peeled off and headed down the hall.

“I really don’t understand what’s going on here, but there has been a terrible mistake. Agent Mulder is not here. He was at the townhouse when I received that call from AD Skinner. He’s probably still there somewhere. If you allow me to call home, I can clear this up.”

Cassidy looked at her, somewhat sympathetically. “Agent Scully, come with me, please.” They walked down to a small office, one Scully remembered sitting in for consultations with Mulder’s doctors following surgery. “In here, please.”

Once they were seated, Cassidy folded her hands on the small desktop and smiled wanly at Scully. “I’ve been asked to head this investigation and while we have some time before Agent Mulder is out of surgery, I’d like to use it to get as much information as possible. Do you have any idea why Agent Mulder was in the alley behind a building at the corner of Clark St. and Nova Ave. in Prince George’s County?”

Scully blinked at the other woman and licked her lips slowly before answering. “No, ma’am. As I said earlier, Agent Mulder was with me . . . ” She hesitated to go on. It was common knowledge that she and Mulder lived together, but stressing that fact to an Assistant Director outside her normal chain of command was not something Scully thought prudent. “I talked to him, he brought lunch — I’m telling you, that isn’t Agent Mulder in surgery!”

Cassidy reached out a hand and laid it gently on Scully’s forearm. “Dana, I understand this is very upsetting.”

“No,” Scully objected, moving her arm closer to her body. “It’s not upsetting — it’s insane. Mulder wasn’t in an alley in Dillon Park this morning. I saw him, I talked to him. There would be no reason for him to be in that area!”

There was a tap at the door and one of the surgical nurses that Scully knew from their many visits to the hospital stuck her head in the room. “Oh, Dana, thank heavens. Dr. Wilison is looking for you. I’ll tell him you’re in here.”

Scully stood up, chewing her lip. They would get to the bottom of this. She’d known Greg Wilison for years. He knew every scar and mole on Mulder’s body almost as well as she did. If there had been a mistake, it would be revealed when Wilison arrived.

As he came in the room, he looked curiously over at Cassidy. Scully struggled to remain civil and introduced them. “Dr. Greg Wilison, this is Assistant Director Cassidy with the Bureau.”

Wilison reached over and shook Cassidy’s hand. “What, they put Walt Skinner out to pasture?” he asked with a perplexed look.

“No, Assistant Director Skinner is at the crime scene,” Cassidy supplied. “I’m Assistant Director Jana Cassidy. Was there something you needed from AD Skinner?”

“Oh, no, not really. Just missing riding him about the Nats this season. Dana, let’s have a seat,” he said, taking Cassidy’s chair and leaving the AD to stand. He looked up at her and then over to Dana. “Dana, this is under the HEPA — ”

“It’s all right, Greg. AD Cassidy can stay. We need to get to the bottom of this.”

“Alrighty then,” Wilison said. He reached over and shoved an x-ray film in the viewer on the wall, flicking it to life so that Scully could read it as well. “As you see, the bullet entered the body here and lodged here,” he pointed with a pencil. “I’m sorry, Dana. There was significant damage to the spinal cord here and subsequent swelling around the area. I was able to successfully remove the bullet but . . . ”

“This man is paralyzed from the neck down,” Scully said sadly.

Wilison looked over at her, startled. “Dana, I thought they told you. This man is Mulder.” After waiting a beat, he continued. “We replaced blood lost, which was two units, and have him on full support because his pulmonary functions are drastically compromised. I’ve had him moved to ICU.”

“Greg, you’re telling me this is Mulder. You checked — it’s not someone who looks like Mulder,” she pressed.

“Dana, the old shoulder wound was right there,” the doctor said, pointing to the spot on the x-ray right below the left clavicle. “After all the times I’ve treated him, I think I remember what he looks like on a table,” he added, just a little offended.

“I don’t understand any of this. I’d like to see for myself, Greg. Because this poor man is not Mulder.”

Wilison looked over at Cassidy with a mixture of regret and sympathy. “Of course you can see him. You’re his next of kin, Dana. I’ll walk you over there.”

The moment she stepped into the ICU cubicle, she felt lightheaded and her legs wouldn’t hold her. “No, no, this is not possible! This has to be a dream,” she whispered breathlessly. She closed her eyes tightly and reopened them slowly. The image before her had not changed.

It was the same familiar face she’d awakened to just that morning, now marred by the intrusion of a tube snaking out of the side of his mouth. The same strong, long fingers now lay slack against the white sheets and blankets. Wilison wrapped an arm around her shoulders as she started to collapse.

“Dana, it’s all right. He’s stable, for the moment,” Wilison assured her. He got her over to a chair and helped her to sit.

She looked up at the doctor with a frown. “You know how these things work, Greg. Even if he pulls through — ” She choked on the words and couldn’t continue. “I don’t understand. He was there,” she repeated, more to herself than to Wilison. She reached over the bedrail and grasped Mulder’s hand, almost crushing it in her anguish before loosening her grip and leaning her forehead on the rail. “Why is this happening?”

Wilison put his hand on her shoulder in sympathy. “If you need me, have me paged. I’ll be around all afternoon. We’ll see where we are tomorrow, OK?” He waited for a response, but never received one. Squeezing the tight muscles of her shoulder, he left them alone.

Holding back tears, she reached over and took Mulder’s still hand. It was cool to the touch and limp — she was used to him being ill or injured but each time it amazed her how different he looked. The spark that made him the man she loved was hiding.

Tears came without her bidding and she brushed them aside with one hand, refusing to release her grip on him. “Mulder, I’m here. I have no idea how we got here, it’s all too confusing. You went to the office this morning to clear up a consult you were doing. I stayed home to paint the kitchen. Remember, you helped me pick out the colors. Anyway, you came home and brought me polish sausages . . . ” It was too much, none of it made any sense. Finally she lowered her head to rest on the bedrail and gave herself over to the soul-wrenching sobs.

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FBI Headquarters

Ballistics Lab

Washington DC

Jana Cassidy strode over to where Walter Skinner was deep in thought, coming up beside him and crossing her arms. “You found a bullet?”

“Yes. A 9 mm. Lodged in a wall in the alley. It’s from a Sig Sauer, probably a 226 or 228.”

“That could make it Bureau issue,” Cassidy said thoughtfully.

“Look, Jana, I’m not sure what you’re thinking, but it didn’t come from Mulder’s weapon. Ballistics don’t match up and his gun hasn’t been found.”

Cassidy straightened, her face hardening. “Assistant Director, I would appreciate timely updates. This is a very serious case.”

Skinner looked at her curiously. “What are you implying?”

“How long have you had this bullet? An hour, two hours? Why wasn’t I called immediately?”

“We dug it out of the alley two hours ago,” Skinner said, obviously uncomfortable under the force of Cassidy’s stare. “But we had no idea if it was even related to the shooting. I wanted to get the facts before presenting them to you.”

“I just want to keep the lines open, Walter,” Cassidy said coolly. “And I want that slug run through the Bureau’s own database.”

“You can’t think Mulder was shot by one of our own agents,” Skinner sputtered.

“Just run it, Walter. What’s the harm? If you’re so sure it’s not one of our own, we’ve just eliminated a possibility. Nothing more.” She turned on her heel and marched off. Skinner’s eyes narrowed and he stretched his neck. He didn’t like the way things were going — not one bit.

Metro Police Sixth Precinct

Washington DC

Walter Skinner had seldom seen Agent Dana Scully quite so angry. Her eyes flared as they met his and her mouth was set in a grim line that looked cast in stone. His stomach dropped as he realized her anger wasn’t held in check even from him. If looks could kill, he was certain he would be a pile of smoldering ash at that moment.

“You want to tell me what is the meaning of all this?” she demanded, her voice low and hush but not lacking any force. “Mulder is in critical condition and some cherry agent drags me out of the hospital to come down here and talk to the police about a shooting that I was no where near?”

“I’m sorry,” Skinner said and deeply regretted how that simple phrase could only attempt to cover the multitude of his sins. “We’re trying to get to the bottom of this as quickly as possible.”

“Ah, Agent Scully, would you mind stepping in here,” called AD Cassidy from a door down the hall.

Scully’s eyes narrowed as the again landed on Skinner. “What is she doing here?” Scully hissed.

Skinner swallowed nervously. “Word from the Director. She’s leading the investigation into Mulder’s shooting.”

That had the exact effect Skinner thought it would. Scully’s back stiffened even more and Skinner was afraid he could hear muscles and sinews snap from the strain.

For a moment, he thought she would bolt, possibly grab his gun from his hip and start shooting her way back to Mulder. But reason slowly crept into her eyes and she followed Cassidy into the interrogation room.

Scully’s gaze roamed the room, taking in the features. Standard scratched formica table with four sweat stained wooden chairs. Cinderblock walls on all sides, but in the middle of the wall directly opposite the door was a large mirrored window. Two-way mirror, she knew from long experience. She bit her lip and stared over at Cassidy, who was seated with her back to the mirror, leaving Scully’s only options in full view of the observers in the adjoining room, separate only by that thin pane of glass.

Her eyes told nothing, but fear was creeping into the pit of Scully’s stomach. She pulled out the chair across from Cassidy and wondered if this is what Mulder had felt when he had been questioned about the deaths of Amy Cassandra and her husband, David. Slowly, she sat down, steeling herself for what was to come, what answers she might find in this day that was anything but normal.

“Agent Scully, thank you for your cooperation. I’m sure we can get to the answers we seek in a timely manner,” Cassidy crooned. “Now, you’ve told us that you were with Agent Mulder at the time of his shooting. Is that a fair and accurate statement of the facts as you see them?”

Scully recognized the phrase immediately and drew in a breath. “He was with me — at our home,” she corrected. “We were together. But we were not in an alley.”

“Look, Dana, I’m trying to help you here. Both AD Skinner and I just want to understand what happened between you and Agent Mulder. But you have to give us something . . . perhaps you two were having an argument . . . maybe you mistook him for the UNSUB . . . Dana, we need a reason for your actions.”

“What is this?” Scully demanded. A glance at Skinner found him looking toward the mirror. “Is there someone over there? Is there a witness? Is someone here to ID the shooter?”

“Scully, settle down,” Skinner hissed as she stood and marched over to the mirror.

“Agent Scully, sit down!” Cassidy roared.

“Tell me what the hell is going on here!” Scully roared back.

“A bullet found at the scene matches the ballistics on your weapon. It was your gun that was used to shoot Mulder in the back,” Skinner finally told her, his eyes deep brown with compassion.

“That’s a lie,” Scully spit out.

“We can show you the ballistics — ” Cassidy soothed.

“And they would be fabricated. I wasn’t there, this is insane! Did you find the weapon, did you check it for prints?”

Skinner looked uncomfortably at the mirror in the wall. “We haven’t recovered the weapon yet.”

In the observation room, one of the District’s finest put his hand on the lone observer. “Is that the person you saw shoot the man in your alley?” the officer asked.

“Yes. Yes, that’s definitely her. Can’t mistake that hair,” the man said with a bitter smile.

“Well, that’s all we need. Thank you for your cooperation Mr. Lukesh. You’re free to go now, but we’ll be in contact as we come closer to the date for the trial.”

As the officer led him from the room, Ed Lukesh had a broad smile. It was so easy to be a model citizen. You just needed the right motivation. His mother would be so proud.

Washington General Hospital

ICU

Mulder fought his way to the surface of a nightmare. Blood, red blood. Blood staining the dirty, cracked cement. Blood dripping from the garish imitation smile across the neck of the woman he loved more than life itself. Scully was dead and there was nothing he could do to bring her back.

He felt so sluggish. He struggled even to open his eyes. He needed to open his eyes because it had to be a nightmare he was having. Scully couldn’t be dead — not the way he saw it happen. He had to find Lukesh and he had to end this once and for all.

As his eyelids slowly opened he saw the room he was in. Standard ICU. Tube down his throat — but something was wrong. He couldn’t feel his feet. For that matter, he couldn’t really feel much of anything halfway down his chest. Nothing. Not the drugged sensation of really good shit — he knew when he was on high doses of Demoral or morphine. The pain would recede, but he could still feel it in the corners, waiting for the drugs to wear off. But this time there was none of that. Just this . . . empty numbness.

“Oh, hey, you’re awake,” said a too cheerful voice to his left. He tried to move his head in that direction but his neck refused to obey his direct command. What the hell?

“Agent Mulder, I’m Nan, you’re on my list tonight. You’ve been seriously injured and you’re in ICU. Dr. Wilison will be by shortly to explain what happened and your treatment. Why don’t you just rest for now?”

He wanted to scream. Scully wasn’t there. Scully was always there, or at the very least she would leave a message with the nurse if she’d just gone down to get coffee — like that ever happened. No, this woman didn’t seem to have a message for him. Scully wasn’t here. The bits of his nightmare came back to him — Scully, with her throat sliced full open, bleeding to death in an alley in Dillon Park. Lukesh — the son of a bitch who killed her — gone, vanished in thin air. He had to get out of this hospital bed. He had to hunt that bastard and put him down. Save a bullet for yourself, he bitterly vowed. Scully, I’ll be with you soon . . .

Some time later he heard the door to his room open. It caused a slight breeze and the air flowed over his face. Her perfume. It was Scully’s perfume! His eyelids refused to open. He needed to see her — he had to know if she was really alive!

“The nurse said he only regained consciousness for a moment, Scully. I’m sure he won’t remember — ”

“I wasn’t here,” she bit out angrily. “I was down at that cluster fu–”

He could feel her hand on his arm. His fingers, his only way to communicate, were sluggish and slow. He wrestled the swollen digits to obey. Now, if he could just remember.

“Sir, look at his fingers?”

“What is that? Is that a muscle spasm? It looked like he’s scratching an itch.”

“That is to be expected with this type of spinal injury, but it’s too systematic. Wait — I know what he’s doing. It’s Morse code.”

“Scully — ”

“No, sir. This isn’t the first time Mulder’s been on a vent. It’s how we communicate.”

“What’s he saying?” Skinner asked, somewhat dubious.

“Just a minute. He keeps repeating it. One word. L-u-k-e-s-h. Lukesh?”

“What does it mean? It sounds like gibberish.”

“No, sir. It’s a word or maybe a name. It’s important. It could be a clue to the shooter’s identity.” Her voice came right at his ear. “I have it, Mulder. I’ll look into it. I’ll be back soon. Just rest, OK. Just rest and I’ll be back soon.” He felt her kiss on his forehead and let sleep overtake him again.

Dilllon Park Apartments

4-D

Ed Lukesh opened the door and immediately turned to close it and set the lock. From a nearby room a timid voice called out. “Who’s there? Edmund? Is that you? Who’s there?”

“It’s me, Mama,” Lukesh replied tiredly. “Who else would it be?”

“I heard something — something outside. I was sure it was the robbers. They want to kill me, Edmund. Why were you gone so long when you know I’m here and defenseless?” The woman’s voice was halfway between a growl and a high-pitched whine and was enough to peel the paint right off the walls.

“I told you I had to go downtown, Mama. Important police business.”

“Oh, look, my show’s starting. Get me a glass of juice, Edmund. And my hot sandwich. I want to eat my hot sandwich while I watch my show.” Her son’s ‘important business’ apparently wasn’t as important as her most recent addiction — a daytime drama.

“Are you getting my sandwich? And don’t put mustard on it this time, you know I hate mustard. Just a little mayo — but the real mayo, not the salad dressing. Only real mayo tastes like mayo. I don’t know why you keep buying the salad dressing, Edmund, I don’t like chicken salad anymore and that’s the only reason to have it in the house. Oh, and cut the crust off the bread, too, don’t forget. The crust gets caught in my bad tooth.”

“Yes, Mama,” Lukesh said without thought. He pulled the bread from the keeper and reached into the refrigerator, withdrawing a plastic zippered bag.

“What meat are you using, Edmund? You know I don’t like ham.”

“It’s potted meat, Mama. I get it from the butcher, you had it yesterday.”

“I don’t remember. I don’t know that I like it, Edmund.”

“Oh, you loved it, Mama. You told me it was the best thing you’d ever tasted,” Lukesh answered, hoisting the bag to eye level. Inside, a human tongue languished in some blood at the bottom of the bag. “You couldn’t get enough of it.”

X Files office

Scully stared at the half eaten sandwich in her hand. Sneering at it, she tossed it in the garbage bin beside Mulder’s desk. “I should be at the hospital,” she growled.

“They’ll call if he comes around again. Scully, we have to get to the bottom of this. You’re still under suspicion.”

She pursed her lips and craned her neck. The whole day had been one unbelievable moment after another. If this was a nightmare, why couldn’t she wake up? She just wanted so badly to wake up and roll into Mulder’s welcoming arms, have him rouse enough to kiss her head and mumble ‘what’s the matter’ and she would hug him and tell him to go back to sleep. Why couldn’t she wake up and do that?

“So, what did you find?” she asked, looking at the folder Skinner had just dropped on the top of Mulder’s messy desktop.

“Something I shouldn’t show you. If this gets out . . .”

“I won’t tell if you won’t,” Scully said absently. “Edmund Raymond Lukesh,” she read aloud. “This is the witness?”

Skinner shrugged, not really an affirmation but definitely not a denial.

“He was a patient at the State Mental Hospital in Gaithersburg for delusional disorder anger that manifested after his father’s suicide,” she read aloud from the file. “He was treated for a few months and released.” She closed the file folder. “A former mental patient. That’s one strong witness the DA has there,” she sighed.

“He was treated for four months, Scully. He lives with his mother in the apartment building adjacent to the crime scene. His bedroom window has full view of the alley.”

“What’s his story?”

“He heard a noise, went down to investigate and saw you standing over Mulder with a gun in your hands. Then you exited the alley. He called the police.”

“So he’s the one person we know was in the alley at the time of the shooting,” Scully said. She rubbed her forehead and licked her lips. “What if . . . what if Mulder was investigating this man? W