Category Archives: Season 17

Fideles

fideles

TITLE: Fideles
AUTHOR: Starfleetofficer1
RATING: PG-13
CATEGORY: Casefile
DISCLAIMER: No copyright infringement intended. Mystic Seaport and all the cool
ships within belongs to Mystic Seaport.
SUMMARY: Mysterious geological activity in Mystic, CT spurns an investigation that
eventually centers around a canine veteran.


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I am a veteran of the United States Army. I served for two years in Afghanistan before my convoy hit an IED, and most of my unit was killed. That includes John, my first best friend. John was with me all through training, and we were deployed together. I’ll never forget the blast. I was banged up pretty bad, and I was scared. When I woke up, I didn’t know where I was. And I had lost a leg.

John’s mother, Phyllis, was very kind to me. She paid for me to get the best care available, and she funded my new prosthetic leg. She told me I was ‘good as new’. I didn’t feel good as new, not without John.

I lived with Phyllis for a year in her little house in a place called Mystic. We kept each other company—we both missed John so much. Then Tim came. Tim was John’s cousin, and he was a police officer. He recruited me, got me into the force. They almost didn’t take me, but Tim convinced them I was the best at what I did, and the new leg didn’t slow me down.

I had been on the force for three full years when we were called in to investigate suspicious activity. It was last year, but it seems like it was yesterday. Tim and I were partners, and after Tim decided it looked clear, he called it in and we went in to find the drugs or weapons or whatever else they were hiding in there. He was mad because we had missed the bad guys. Or so he thought. The minute I got in there, I knew exactly where they were, and started running toward them.

But Tim didn’t know that, and he held me back. Then they shot him, and started to run away. There was gunfire everywhere. I did what I was trained to do, and I attacked them. But I felt something sharp jab into my back, and I felt dizzy. I tried to fight, but I couldn’t. I went down next to Tim, and I knew he was dead.

Afterward the investigators said they couldn’t find Tim’s body. There was a closed, empty casket at the funeral, which I couldn’t attend because I was still laid up.

I remember whimpering like a puppy. Phyllis took me back in after the vet said I couldn’t work anymore. I live with her now.

Ever since that day, I’ve had special powers. Things happen when I smell Tim. I don’t know why, but I think if I keep smelling around for him, the powers will help me find him. But I’m already nine years old. I know I’m running out of time.

My name is Fido, and all I want is help my master rest.

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J. EDGAR HOOVER BUILDING

WASHINGTON, DC

THURSDAY, JUNE 10, 2010

1300

“So we’re rejecting the talking rabbit,” Mulder clarified as he walked into the X-files office.

Scully was right behind him. “Yes, the talking rabbit is definitely out.”

“Elvis’ face in the McGriddles?”

She simply rolled her eyes. Mulder turned around. “What? A very high-quality profile of Elvis appears in eight McGriddles in Mississippi in the past week. That’s incredible!”

“No, Mulder.”

He sighed. “Okay, so that one’s…postponed.” He quickly entered the classifications of those cases into his laptop, and sat down behind his desk after he was done. He pulled up the rest of the list. “Miami Mothman sighting?”

“Florida in June? Postpone it.”

“And…we already rejected the flying turtle…”

“What about the six-year-old abduction case from Phoenix?”

“Turned out to be a custody battle between the kid’s biological mother and adoptive mother. I got the email this morning.”

Scully frowned. “Did anything interesting come in while we were at lunch?”

Mulder smirked. “What’s the matter, Scully? You’re not up for visiting the crime scene of a murdered action figure?”

“Just because there’s some grainy video footage from the kid’s webcam showing—”

“The action figure definitely moved,” Mulder stated flatly.

“With that video footage, it could’ve been attached to strings.”

“It moves on camera and then mysteriously is chopped into perfect squares the next day?” he argued, but even he could hear the doubt in his own voice.

“So the kid put it through a cheese grater before looking up your name on the Internet.”

“It’s something. And it’s not every week that we get to choose our own case…”

He had a point. The last few weeks had been hectic, to say the least. Instead of X-files, they had handled a case from Violent Crimes that had involved John Lee Roche’s sister, and a maddening trip ‘down the rabbit hole’ into Mulder’s past. Simultaneously, little Claire had been kidnapped by Tara’s ex-boyfriend and neighbor. Emotionally and physically exhausted, the lack of new cases had been a blessing at first. But now they were both antsy and willing to jump at anything they found in a tabloid. Well, Mulder was.

Suddenly, his cell phone rang. “Mulder,” he answered. His subsequent, “Yes, Sir,” told Scully it was Skinner, and that she was likely saved from action-figure purgatory.

“Yes, Sir. No…I haven’t seen that,” he sat down in his chair and pulled up a news website. He started clicking as Skinner spoke. “Is there any indication of a…no. Okay. Yeah, it’s worth investigating. We’ll be out there by tonight, Sir. Sorry to hear about your mother’s friend.”

When Mulder hung up, Scully looked at him inquisitively.

“Earthquake in New England yesterday…it’s the third one in a month, and although it barely registered on the Richter scale, this last one killed a woman at a seaport in Connecticut. She was a close friend of Skinner’s mother.”

“I’m not sure which I’m more surprised to hear, Mulder. That an earthquake took place in New England or that Skinner’s mother has a friend.”

The corner of her partner’s mouth twitched in humorous response to the comment. “She has to be in her late nineties by now…I wonder how old her friend is.”

“I suspect we’ll find out soon. When’s the case file coming?”

“There is no case file. Skinner sent us out there, told us to talk to the Mystic Police Department.”

Scully’s eyebrow rose. “No case file? How can we be sent if—”

“Take a look at this place, Scully! It’s beautiful!” Mulder’s computer displayed pictures of Mystic Seaport, a fun little village settled inside the tiny town of Mystic, designed to simulate the “Glory Days” of American seafaring. Mystic, a small vacation town near Fisher’s Island Sound, was a prime summer destination for wealthy families.

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Scully glanced at a map that Mulder flashed on the screen before his click-happy finger changed the picture. “That looks like it’s on the way to the summer house. I think we’ve seen signs for it on our way up there…”

Mulder frowned then, and stopped flipping through Google images. He instead went to the Web section of Google and found Mystic Seaport’s website, and then traveled to it. Once there, he started flipping through the pages at an even faster pace. He went to the history section and found what he was looking for. Then he stopped suddenly, and looked up to Scully. “You recognize this?”

Scully stared at the picture. “That’s…that’s the model in the summer house, isn’t it?”

“The Charles W. Morgan…which they were restoring in the ‘70s…which is when we went. Why didn’t I remember this, Scully? We’ve driven by the sign for Mystic Seaport every single time we’ve gone to Rhode Island.”

“Maybe because you were nine years old when you went and when your father bought that model?” Scully gave him the excuse, but she knew as well as he did that it was lame. This was the man who remembered what his Kindergarten teacher’s turtle’s name was.

Pretending to accept the excuse, he continued clicking until he got to an advertisement on one page, and he promptly turned around. “It looks like they’re refitting the Morgan again.”

“We’ll have to go see it, then.” She smiled, and he nodded in agreement.

Now that the memory was triggered, little pieces of information about Mystic started filtering back into his head. It was a beautiful little place. He remembered having fun there, being excited about going. He remembered multiple trips. He remembered going aboard the Morgan and hearing the re-enactors, dressed up like sailors, recite parts of Moby Dick. He remembered ice cream and pizza and the cool ocean breeze. Most of all, he remembered being happy.

And he couldn’t wait to go back.

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MYSTIC RESIDENCE INN

MYSTIC, CT

THURSDAY, JUNE 10, 2010

1800

“Welcome!” A smiling face greeted them at the front desk of the Residence Inn. Mulder and Scully rolled their suitcases to a stop and introduced themselves to the friendly hotel employee.

“We’re checking in. Agents Mulder and Scully.”

“Ah, yes!” the short, perky woman said. She had a uniform on, but had a smiley face pinned to it to add a little character. “207 and 205. Two keys each, or one?”

“One will be fine for each, thanks,” Scully said, and couldn’t help but smile back. The welcoming attitude was contagious.

“Here you go. You’re all set. The elevator is right around the corner, and if you’re interested, we serve a complimentary dinner Monday through Thursday from 5:30 to 7 pm. It’s served right there.” She pointed, and the agents turned to see a very large crowd gathered in the dining area.

Mulder was surprised. He had never heard of a hotel serving a complimentary dinner. “Great,” he said with a grin.

Several minutes later they both headed toward the delicious smell coming from the dining area. Standing in line for a few moments, they chose their meal from the buffet-style selection and then sat down. Mulder took one bite and groaned in ecstasy. “Scully! This is homemade!” he exclaimed.

It was stew, and it was nearly gone from its container. Scully now understood why as she tasted it as well. “This is…amazing!”

“I’m glad you’re enjoying it,” a voice said from behind them, and they turned to see a woman with a pleasant expression and a hotel uniform approach. “Can I get you folks anything else?”

Mulder glanced at Scully, and she shook her head. “No, thank you. But this is amazing.”

“I made it myself,” the woman said with a satisfied smile, and then said, “My name’s Charity, just to introduce myself. How long are you two staying with us?”

“Just for a few days,” Mulder said, and Charity nodded in response.

“Well, I hope you get to stay for Monday night. That’s Fettuccini Alfredo night. Chocolate chip cookies will be out in about ten minutes…they go fast so make sure you get one!” With that, she walked back toward the small kitchen.

“Mulder,” Scully prompted with an amazed look on her face, “Did you catch her name?”

“Yeah. Charity.”

“You’ve read Moby Dick.”

Her words sunk in after a moment, and Mulder’s eyes opened wide. He smiled. “Wow. This place is full of coincidences.”

Charity was the name of the woman in Melville’s book who brought food and other comfort items to sailors in port.

They continued light conversation for the next few minutes, watching as families, business people, college students, and a variety of others finished off the last of the home-cooked meal at the buffet table.

Only moments after the last of the food disappeared, Charity re-appeared from the kitchen holding a hot plate with dessert. “Cookies!” She called. “Cookies are ready, everyone!”

As if a fire had erupted in the room, everyone simultaneously rose from their seats and rushed for the buffet. They lined up in an orderly fashion, but Mulder and Scully saw grown men nearly bouncing on their heels in excitement. Charity watched happily as everyone got a cookie. Mulder wasted no additional time. He rose and got in the back of the line, patiently awaiting his dessert.

Somehow Charity had calculated just right, and it was Mulder’s turn when there was only one cookie left. He brought the warm and gooey treat back to the table, broke it, and handed half to Scully.

“Need I explain to you,” she said in protest, “That it is complete hypocrisy to eat a cookie only a week after you said, and I quote, ‘I’m done with junk food.’”

“We have to figure out what all the fuss is about, Scully,” he said with a boyish grin. “We’re here on duty—it’s our job to investigate,” he argued, and took a bite.

He closed his eyes and chewed the delicious treat as Scully rolled her eyes, sighed, and took her own bite.

It was delicious! “Mulder, this is the best cookie I’ve ever had,” Scully declared with her mouth full.

“I know,” Mulder agreed, nodding and taking another bite to finish off the cookie. After a moment he swallowed and looked at Charity. “Excuse me, will there be more of these?”

She shook her head and gave him a disappointed look. “No, I’m sorry, not tonight. But Monday night I’ll make a few more and you can take them with you. How about that?”

Mulder grinned, and for once Scully mirrored the gesture. “We’d really appreciate that. Thanks, Charity.”

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MYSTIC SEAPORT

MYSTIC, CT

FRIDAY, JUNE 11, 2010

1000

They walked into up to the visitor’s center as soon as the doors opened. Traditional nautical music played in the small courtyard outside through hidden speakers. The wooden-paneled visitor’s center reminded the agents of the bridge of a 19th century sailing ship, and a friendly summer employee in a bright blue golf shirt greeted them at the ‘helm’. The wooden-paneled area around the giant wheel was the only thing separating the agents from the rest of the museum.

“Welcome to Mystic Seaport. Are you interested in a day pass or a membership?” The perky college kid asked, tucking a wayward strand of hair behind her ear.

Mulder pulled his badge. “We’re here to see Phyllis Clyborne. Can you point us in her direction?”

The girl’s facial features were a mixture of shock and attempted professionalism. She nodded and said, “Of course,” as she pulled a map of the museum out of the ‘membership information’ box. She opened the map and circled the visitor’s center with a blue crayon. “We’re here, and the boathouse is right…here. So you can follow the path to get there. When you’re finished, you can exit right around the corner here,” she placed a small dot next to the visitor’s center.

“Thank you,” Mulder said, and glanced at the fees for admission. He then briefly looked to Scully for approval before he asked, “We might be back later…how late are you open today?”

“The museum closes at 5:30 but the visitor’s center is usually closed up by 5. The number for the main office is on the website, so if you call them and schedule an appointment after hours, someone will be happy to see you.”

She was well-trained, clearly. Despite her obvious nervousness at dealing with the FBI after the death of a guest, she managed to give them useful information and not ask nosy questions.

“Thanks again,” Scully said as they left the visitor’s center. Mulder promptly made a left turn. “Um…”

“I know, Scully. I just want to see it for a minute, then we’ll head over to see Phyllis.”

“But Mulder, we didn’t pay.”

“That’s why we’re going back later to buy a membership.”

She sighed. “What is it, exactly, that you want to see?”

“The Morgan. It’s a big ship, Scully. We don’t need to go on the exhibit to see it. We’re not breaking any ethical codes by looking at a giant ship in drydock.”

Scully didn’t think the situation was so black and white. They hadn’t paid, they were there to see Phyllis, and because the entire museum was outdoors and most of the exhibits were massive ships, it was a bit like stealing a look at paintings without paying admission to an art museum.

But she didn’t regret the decision after only a moment. When they rounded the corner and the shipyard came into view, she saw the breathtaking sight of the Charles W. Morgan propped up in drydock, towering over its surroundings. The 113-foot-long whaling ship was the only surviving, sailable American whaling vessel from its era. Scully instantly recognized the features of the ship that she had recently read about. Its style and structure made it a perfect match for the Pequod, Ahab’s ship from Moby Dick. She found herself not only wishing she had more time to stare at it, but wanting to run up to it and go aboard at that moment.

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Mulder stared in disbelief at the sight he was seeing. Something flashed in his eyes, and when Scully glanced at him to exclaim at the beauty, she realized that he wasn’t just admiring the whaling ship. “What, Mulder?” she asked.

Tourists passed them by, small children ran around in excitement, and Mulder stared straight ahead for another moment before shaking his head. “The oddest thing just happened,” he said, and looked up at the Morgan again. “I could’ve sworn…I thought I just heard Sam’s voice.”

Scully looked around, and shrugged. “There are dozens of little kids here. It could’ve been any of them.”

“No, Scully. This was definitely her. It’s as if…I know I’ve stood in this exact spot before. I know I’ve looked at this exact sight before.”

“You were probably just remembering the first time you saw the Morgan. I imagine it looked the same in 1970,” Scully reasoned, trying to sound reassuring. He didn’t seem spooked, but he wasn’t comfortable, either. “What did the girl say?”

He shook his head. “It was probably nothing,” he said unconvincingly, and turned and led the way toward the boathouse. As they walked along the fine ground seashell path and passed more ancient boats and ships, Scully found herself wondering if this seaport did, somehow, house some ghosts. Of course, she’d never let Mulder know she had considered the thought.

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MYSTIC SEAPORT BOATHOUSE

MYSTIC, CT

FRIDAY, JUNE 11, 2010

1015

The boathouse was tucked away in the back of the Seaport such that one would have to want to find it to be able to find it. It was staffed with a wide variety of people, from middle school volunteers to elderly, retired staff. A woodshop containing a large sailboat in for repairs was adjacent to a small boathouse that looked out on the water, which was a small sound that opened into Mystic Harbor. Sailboats and rowboats were everywhere, with the occasional kayak weaving in between. Large tugboats and sailing ships had the right-of-way in a channel marked by buoys. Every one of the boats rented out at the boathouse, including the kayaks and canoes, were vintage, restored, and original old-style vessels.

“Hi, how are you folks doing today?” a teenager asked from behind the counter the second he saw Mulder and Scully climb the stairs that led to the small boathouse. Two teenage boys straddled a bench that ran along a wall as they looked out on the water and watched for any rowers or sailors in trouble.

“We’re doing just fine,” Scully answered with a smile. “We’re looking for Phyllis Clyborne.”

“Oh, are you friends of hers?” the teen asked. The boys on the bench glanced in the agents’ direction. Not only were they not dressed for sailing or rowing, but they hadn’t asked the usual line of questions about the boats’ availability.

Mulder pulled his badge. He wondered vaguely why Scully was never the one to pull hers… “We’re here on business. We’d like to speak to her as soon as possible.”

“Oh. Wow. Well, she’s like, out on the docks right now explaining to some new boaters about the rowing boundaries. So she’ll be back in. But yeah, hey, Dean, go wait for her to be done and tell her to come right in here so she can talk to these people.”

One of the boys leapt up from the bench and went jogging out to the dock. Mulder angled his head toward the door and Scully gave him a brief nod—a quick communication that told him he was clear to go ‘explore’ while she waited for Phyllis to get back.

He stepped down the stairs and rounded the corner to go out on the docks. Two retired men sat on a bench along the side of the boathouse, a German Shepherd at their feet. They noticed him almost immediately.

“Not exactly dressed for sailing, Sir,” one man said.

Mulder smiled at him. “No, not today. But I might come back in a few days.”

“In town for business?”

“That’s right,” he answered. “Hopefully I’ll get some free time to come back.”

“Do you sail?” the other man asked.

“I’ve been a few times,” Mulder responded, and couldn’t help but notice the previously sleeping dog was now alert and rising from his position.

The German Shepherd had three legs; his front left leg was replaced with a modern-day and quite costly prosthetic. His face was dotted with barely-noticeable scars and Mulder imagined his fur covered up more scars underneath. The dog walked over without any trouble at all, and sat in front of Mulder as he looked up.

“Don’t mind Fido. He’s friendly,” one of the older men said. “Loves to be petted.”

Mulder smiled and squatted down to be closer to Fido. There was something about this dog… As he petted the German Shepherd he received several licks to the face. He stood when Phyllis approached, and Fido nuzzled his hand a few times even as he glanced in his primary owner’s direction.

“Fido, leave the poor man alone,” the woman said. She looked to be about sixty-five or maybe seventy, but in excellent shape. She wore a smile on her face and looked almost sadly at the picture of Fido and Mulder together. Climbing the ramp up from the docks, she approached the bench area and held out her hand for Mulder to shake. “Phyllis Clyborne. You’re the FBI agent?”

“Yes. Fox Mulder. My partner, Dana Scully, is in the boat house. Is there a private place we could go to speak?”

“We can go to the boat shed. That’s as good a place as any. Tom, you’ll handle any more customers?”

“I’ll supervise and let Jed take over. Don’t worry—he’s gonna do fine.” Jed, a college student tying up a boat nearby, waved and nodded his agreement.

Phyllis chuckled. “I’ve no doubt he will. I’d just like to see you work every now and then,” she joked, and led the way back to the boathouse. Moments later, they had traversed the short distance to the empty boat shed. It was about fifty feet from the boathouse, and Fido happily trotted alongside Mulder for the trip.

“Ms. Clyborne—”

“Phyllis, please,” she interrupted Scully.

“Phyllis,” Scully continued, “When was the last time you saw Janet Hausman?”

“I was by the lighthouse when it happened,” the woman said with a sigh, and sat down at a picnic bench with a sigh. Mulder and Scully followed suit, and Fido laid at Mulder’s feet. “The ground started trembling again, like it had the other two times…we never had any monetary damage. Not even this last one caused any monetary damage. It was just a freak accident…I’ve never seen anything like it. She was standing right over by the lighthouse, taking pictures. Then it was as if the ground lifted up and threw her off the pier and into the water…” she shook her head, reluctant to recount the painful memory. “I ran over and jumped in to save her, but I couldn’t find her at first. Now, you have to understand,” she said with a bit of a wry grin, “I’ve fished out pennies from murky water. I’m not losing my sight and I’m not losing my strength, despite my age. But I couldn’t find her. The current must have carried her away.”

Mulder nodded, indicating that Phyllis should continue.

“And there were no other witnesses?”

“No, not even her husband. Apparently Mr. Hausman was looking at the Conrad, a hundred feet away. He should’ve heard my calls, but I guess the earthquake had everyone running for cover…which is the exact opposite of what one would want to do in an earthquake, I suppose…”

“You were the one who found Janet’s body, though,” Scully said gently.

“Yes,” Phyllis admitted, looking down. “I…I found her a few minutes later. She was only about ten feet from the pier. I didn’t realize she was dead at that point. I swam her back to shore and tried to do CPR. By that time Jed and some of the others had run over and were trying to help…but it was too late.”

Mulder gave Phyllis a moment before asking quietly, “Phyllis, was Fido with you at the time?”

“No, and that’s the other thing that’s strange. Right before the earthquake, Fido ran over to the Morgan! And the other two earthquakes, that’s where he ran to as well. He started barking like mad and took off.”

“Dogs can often sense impending natural disasters,” Scully told Phyllis. “It comes with their sensory perception of the—”

“Pressure differences in the atmosphere, I know. But you don’t understand…Fido is a trained Army officer and police dog. He’s a veteran, he’s served with valor, and he’s very professional,” Phyllis said, and Fido looked up, almost as if he knew what she was talking about. “He’s been trained not to run when he senses things like that. He should’ve been here to pull her out of the water…”

At that, Fido placed his head on Mulder’s shoes. He stared straight ahead with a depressed expression on his canine face.

Mulder reached down and petted him. “I’m sure he was just spooked,” he said, although this latest bit of information was making him suspicious of his own theory. “Many times dogs who are adopted from a shelter after being retired from service exhibit signs of post traumatic stress disorder.”

Phyllis smiled sadly at the agents. “He wasn’t adopted from a shelter. He was my son, John’s. John was killed in Afghanistan, and Fido managed to survive the event and come home to live with me. Then my nephew Tim took him in…he served on the Waterford Police Force until Tim was killed in action. The vet forced Fido to retire. And I’m glad she did…poor thing’s done his duty.”

Fido nuzzled his head against Mulder’s leg, and Mulder petted him again. “I’m sorry about your son and nephew,” he said softly.

Scully changed the direction of the conversation after Phyllis quietly acknowledged Mulder’s statement. “We spoke to the US Geological Survey this morning. They pinpointed the source of all three earthquakes to be near the lighthouse. You seem like you’ve been working here a while, Phyllis. Have you ever noticed any suspicious activity by the lighthouse or in the water?”

“You mean someone planting a bomb? No,” Phyllis said with a shake of her head. “Nor has anyone emptied any radioactive material into the water lately. Although we do have the occasional three-eyed fish in this dirty mess. We have an algae problem,” she confessed, and looked out on the water. “The museum isn’t struggling for cash, not as much as we have in other recessions. I suppose they would rather put money into something else. As long as the tourists don’t complain, it doesn’t cost us any money.”

“You haven’t noticed anyone tampering with anything, over by the lighthouse or the boathouse? It might be a coincidence, but your work area is incredibly close to the source of the earthquakes and you were the first responder,” Mulder stated.

“Well, that would tend to happen when one works close to the source, wouldn’t it?” Phyllis asked, slightly annoyed by the question. “No, I haven’t noticed anyone acting unusual, but I’m not a reliable witness. I’ve got boaters to watch for. The occasional tourist who swears he’s sailed the English Channel and then flips one of our irreplaceable boats on these calm waters. The teenagers who get out there and then take off their life jackets. The middle-school volunteers who want to go out rowing without supervision. You understand, my eyesight is fixed on these waters most of the day, not behind me, at the lighthouse.”

“How did you notice Janet fall into the water?” Scully asked.

“I was taking out the garbage. The bins over there have a clear view to the lighthouse,” Phyllis explained, and pointed. Indeed, the bins did have an exceptionally clear view of the lighthouse and the entire pier.

Mulder nodded. “Phyllis, if we have any additional questions, do you have a number where we might reach you?”

“You can call the boathouse. We don’t carry our cell phones on us…too much risk of losing them in the water.”

The three stood, and Fido stood as well. He seemed reluctant to leave Mulder’s side.

When they shook hands and thanked one another, Phyllis glanced at Fido and said with a chuckle, “You know, he really likes you, Agent Mulder. John didn’t name him Fido…Fido is his nickname. John was a Latin scholar. He named him Fideles, for loyalty. And well…” she smiled slightly and looked down. “You two together…look very much like they did. Like I imagined John and he would look in a few years.”

Mulder nodded sadly, and petted Fido again. “Thank you for your time, Phyllis. We may be back soon.”

When they parted and walked toward the lighthouse, Scully commented, “Fido certainly took to you.”

“If we come back I may request taking him out with me on a boat,” Mulder said with a smile.

“What, to have some quality time with him?” Scully asked, and smirked slightly.

“No, actually…I’m hoping he can sniff out the source of the earthquake.”

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CHARLES W. MORGAN

MYSTIC SEAPORT

MYSTIC, CT

FRIDAY, JUNE 11, 2010

1100

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The person in the lighthouse was hired to answer questions about its historic background, but was unfortunately not present during the event. For that, the man informed them, they had to go to the DMV where the other re-enactor worked three times a week. Instead of heading directly there, though, Mulder insisted that they first visit the Morgan in case there was some indication there as to why the earthquake might have originated in that location. Scully didn’t protest.

The sight of the nineteenth-century ship increased in magnificence as they got closer. They read the plaque that explained the history of the Morgan briefly, and then began climbing the four stories of stairs that took them to the upper deck.

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“We should get a crew in here to scan the ship and the lighthouse area for any unusual electromagnetic activity or anything else that would suggest a geological explanation for the three earthquakes,” Mulder said once they stepped on board, but his comment fell on deaf ears. “Scully?”

Scully, who would normally never ignore a potential scientific discussion, was otherwise occupied. “It’s exactly how I imagined it would look,” she said, and Mulder smiled. Anytime Scully was immersed in the moment, it was an occasion to be admired.

“You’ve done a bit of research on the Morgan?” someone asked with a Rhode Island accent, and Scully turned to see a man in a Mystic Seaport uniform walking toward them.

“Not this ship in particular, but its kind…yes,” Scully said with a small smile. “I’m a fan of Moby Dick.”

“And all things nautical,” Mulder added.

“Well, she’s the last American whaling ship that we can take to sea. As you’ve probably noticed, she’s missing her masts—she’s being refitted.”

Mulder nearly froze at the man’s words. He glanced at the horizon over the starboard bow, and could see most of the rest of the museum. In that exact moment, standing near where the main mast would normally go, he felt like he was transported to a moment long ago, long forgotten. Standing in that exact spot forty years ago, nine-year-old Fox and five-year-old Samantha heard the exact words from a much younger-looking, but otherwise identical, museum employee.

Brought back to the present, Mulder interrupted Scully and the guide’s discussion. “Excuse me, Sir, how long have you been an employee here?”

Somewhat taken aback by the sudden question, the man said, “Well…I suppose about forty-five years now. I’ve done interpretation my entire career, and I do woodworking for the ships during the winters. Why…have we met before?”

“We may have,” Mulder said, not wanting to sound any stranger to the man than he must have already seemed. “I came here when I was nine years old, and you look a bit familiar.”

Scully glanced at her partner with interest.

The guide stuck his hand out. “Brett Gordon. I’m sorry I don’t remember you…you look a lot bigger than you did then, and I see hundreds of people a day.”

Mulder smiled. “Not a problem. Fox Mulder. This is my partner, Dana Scully.”

Scully shook the man’s hand politely, curiously wondering where Mulder was going with this. She wanted to see the rest of the ship and was eager to climb through the lower decks, but she knew that look in her partner’s eye. He thought this somehow pertained to the case.

“Mr. Gordon—”

“Call me Brett,” the older man said with a kind smile.

“Brett, then. Did you happen to be on the ship during the earthquake?”

“I was, actually. It was horrible, I thought she might have taken damage. The other two weren’t as bad as this last one.”

“The US Geological Survey said it barely registered on the Richter Scale,” Scully said, now interested in the conversation.

Brett shook his head. “I don’t know how that could be. It felt like we were in a storm on the water. Honestly, the drydocks shook and I fell down the ladder, right over there. I was okay, though. Never felt anything like it.”

“So this has never happened before,” Mulder said. “Never before in your career?”

Brett frowned. “Honestly,” he said, scratching his white, shortly-cropped beard, “I can think of only one stranger incident. Happened around the time you must’ve come to visit, summer of ’70. I was a lot younger back then,” he continued with a smile and a twinkle in his eye. “And a boy came back from Vietnam that weekend in a coffin. Local kid…I never knew him, but a lot of people were broken up about it. He loved the water, loved tall ships…they decided to have the service at the Seaport in his honor. And there was this…you’re gonna think I’m crazy,” he said, and nervously glanced around him to see if any other tourists were listening.

Thankfully, the other tourists were captivated by the trio playing traditional nautical flutes and banjos on the aft of the upper deck.

“Trust me, Brett. I can guarantee you we’ve heard stranger stories,” Scully told him.

“Well…” he hesitated, and then leaned against a nearby railing. “It’s like this…the service was about to start, and the hearse was gonna bring the body in, but when it arrived, there was no body. Understandably, the family was more than a little upset. Whole town was upset. They ordered the employees to go looking for it, like it was somehow dropped here by accident or maybe even on purpose. So they took a few dinghies out on the water with some divers, just in case there was foul play. And the Morgan had just had her masts removed for the refit. I was standing…right about here,” he moved over to the center starboard side of the ship. “And…honestly, you’re going to think I’m crazy. But there was this…storm. It was like a tornado.”

“A tornado?” Scully asked skeptically. “In New England?”

“I knew you’d think I was crazy. But honestly. It wasn’t a large tornado, but it was large enough to do a little damage. Picked up some wood along the shipyard and on the main deck, dropped it not far away, then disappeared. And the strangest thing was, there wasn’t a cloud in the sky.”

“Really,” Mulder said. His partner could see his ‘spidey senses’ tingling.

“Really. And that was the last time anything close to these earthquakes has happened.”

“Did anyone ever find the body of the soldier?”

“No,” Brett answered Mulder’s question. “He was never found. Even to this day. Shame, too. His parents are too old to fund any kind of search operation now…that is, if one would even be of any help. Probably some damn anti-war protester or someone with some other bug up his butt…dishonoring a soldier like that.” Brett shook his head.

“Thank you, Brett. It’s been a pleasure,” Scully said, and held out her hand. Brett shook it again, and then moved onto shake her partner’s.

“Pleasure’s all mine. And Fox, if you happen to remember anyone else from your last visit, don’t hesitate to introduce yourself. It’s true what they say about New England hospitality—we never run out.”

Mulder smiled. “Thanks, Brett. We’re gonna look around the ship a bit.”

“Have fun. Watch your head on the way down the forward stairwell.”

They descended the spiral staircase into the second deck. It was very tight quarters and Mulder did bang his head on the way down. “Dammit,” he swore, and Scully smirked.

“You okay?” she asked with a grin on her face.

He rolled his eyes. “Yeah,” his annoyed reply came, and he rubbed his forehead.

The captain’s quarters and mess were immediately to their right, and the first officer’s quarters immediately to their left. It was remarkable how small and basic even the captain’s living space was. About the size of modern-day officer’s quarters aboard a submarine, they were well-furnished but clearly built for efficient use of space. When they saw the other officers’ quarters, it was clear that the quality of life didn’t slowly decline—it plummeted off the edge of a cliff. The size of a walk-in closet, the officer’s quarters consisted of one small desk for two men, two bunks up against the wall, and a small space under the bottom bunk that had enough room for two trunks, and nothing more. The crew quarters were simply bunks with curtain rods for privacy, and there were as many as thirty men crammed into one area.

“I’ve seen Chinese factories with roomier accommodations,” Mulder commented.

“It was a rough life, but it was here that many young men found their souls,” Scully replied quietly, looking at a poster of Commodore Charles W. Morgan, the officer for whom the ship was named.

“You’re really into this, aren’t you?” He said, and gently slipped his hand around the small of her back as a gaggle of teenage girls flip-flopped their way into the next area of the ship, followed by their parents and some younger children. The music was over, and tourists were starting to flood down into the compartments.

“The sea was my father’s life, Mulder,” Scully said, starting to move out of the room and into the whale processing area before they were overrun. “This kind of life never loses its…power…in my mind.”

He kissed the top of her head and released her then, allowing her to walk over to a poster that explained the whaling process to anyone who didn’t already know. As he watched her in admiration, he leaned against a railing that kept tourists from falling to the lower decks. Just then, a little girl, about five years old, ran into the room and looked behind her. “Please, Daddy?” she pleaded. “Please?”

Her jean-short overalls, her brown wavy hair, her voice. Mulder couldn’t help but stare. He waited to see what her parents looked like, and perhaps if she had a nine-year-old brother with her.

But suddenly he wasn’t seeing this little girl. He wasn’t six feet tall. He was only a boy, walking alongside his little sister Sam as she begged for an ice cream cone after they were done looking at the ship. “Please, Daddy, please? I promise I’ll eat lunch.”

“Fox, why don’t you buy it for her?” his mother’s voice asked him, and he looked up as if the world was moving in slow motion. He was her much younger face staring down at him with a kind but firm expression. “It’d be a good way to pay her back for that ‘accident’ this morning.”

He had thrown out her ribbons. Carefully collected, in every color of the rainbow, she had laid them out on the kitchen table of the summer home and practiced tying bows in each of them. Then in his fury over her obvious cheating in a game of checkers, he had wiped the ribbons clean off the table and into the trash, and later claimed that he ‘accidentally’ swept them up while cleaning crumbs off the table.

He was frustrated that his mother wouldn’t see his side of the story. He knew he had acted wrongly in throwing the ribbons out. But she always cheated! Shouldn’t she be taught not to cheat?

“Mulder,” Scully’s voice snapped him back to reality. His eyes went from a dead gaze down at the bulkhead to meet her concerned expression. “Mulder, what’s wrong?”

“I was just…” he looked around for the little girl, but she was nowhere in sight. She must have gone up to the main deck, he reasoned. “Sorry. Daydreaming,” he said.

Scully wasn’t convinced, but he interrupted her before she could express her concern. “Have you seen the rest of the ship?”

“I explored the whaling area. Still haven’t looked at the aft second deck, but it looks to me like it’s just crew quarters. Why, do you want to leave?”

He gave her an apologetic expression. “Sort of,” he began. He would never admit to her that this ship she loved so much gave him the creeps. “…we should get going anyway. We didn’t pay, remember?”

“Yeah,” Scully said, somewhat sadly. “And we have to go to the DMV.”

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DMV

EAST HAVEN, CT

FRIDAY, JUNE 11, 2010

1456

Neither agent expected to wait when they got into the DMV. While that might have been a ridiculous expectation in any other circumstance, they were federal agents attempting to interview a material witness in an ongoing investigation.

And that was exactly what Scully told the woman behind the desk.

“We’re federal agents attempting to interview a material witness in an ongoing investigation!”

“We’ve also waited twenty minutes in line just to speak to you,” Mulder pointed out.

The woman behind the desk leaned her head against her fist and stared at them dully. “Please take a number and have a seat in the waiting area. Someone will call you in a minute.”

“We just need to speak to Mr. Harlow…if he’s currently with a customer, we can wait for him to finish. But it’s unreasonable to ask us to wait in line with everyone else,” Mulder argued.

“Hey, buddy, what’s your problem? You think your ass is gold? This guy doesn’t think he needs to wait in line like everyone else!” They heard a rough voice proclaim, and turned to see the man who had been directly behind them in line announcing their presence to the rest of the DMV. He was a big man and smelled like he might have been drinking recently. There was only one person manning the ‘information’ counter, which one had to go through in order to obtain the all important ‘number’ for their place in the mysterious DMV queue.

The queue was more like DMV purgatory, because one had no idea to what counter they would be assigned. The massive waiting area held everyone regardless of what they had come to the DMV for, and the number system was not divided amongst the separate service areas in the DMV.

After one waited nearly a half hour to obtain one’s number, one then had to wait for someone to call their number. It could be anyone, as there was no organization to the order of the serving windows.

Once sentenced to DMV purgatory, one could wait up to three hours for their number to be called. Mulder and Scully didn’t see the number on the view screen change even once while they were waiting in the ‘information’ line.

And now, after receiving the news that they were going to be condemned to this fate, they had another problem to deal with. Mr. People’s Advocate, behind them in the ‘information’ line.

“Sir, please don’t complicate this situation,” Scully told him firmly.

Mulder watched the man carefully, reading his body language to decipher his next move.

There were civilians everywhere—the place was absolutely packed with a line out the door just to get in. The waiting area had no chairs left and people were standing and sitting on the floor and against the walls. Children ran around unsupervised. The long wait had made their parents bored and complacent.

“This is ridiculous,” Scully said to her partner.

But instead of responding, he decided he didn’t want to spend the rest of the afternoon in this God-awful place. He marched over to the nearest chair, showed his badge to the man and took the chair out from under him at the same time, placed it near the ‘information’ desk, and stood up. “Everybody listen up!” He yelled as loud as he could, and held up his badge. “I’m here with the FBI. I’m looking for a Mr. Wilson Harlow. If Mr. Harlow is in this building, he should come to the information desk!”

The woman behind the desk looked absolutely stunned. Mulder gave the waiting man his chair back, and tried to avoid eye contact with Scully.

A door to the back of the DMV opened, and a small man of about sixty or seventy years old exited. He wore glasses and suspenders, walked at a normal pace, and looked to be in relatively good shape. His demeanor reminded Mulder of the Six Flags man.

“Mr. Wilson Harlow?” Scully asked him when he was within hearing range.

“Yes, that’s me. What’s all the commotion out here?”

“Mr. Harlow, we’re conducting an investigation,” Mulder explained, showing his badge for what felt like the hundredth time that day. “Would you be willing to answer a few questions?”

“Oh, of course. I wasn’t very busy, anyway.”

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RESIDENCE INN

MYSTIC, CT

FRIDAY, JUNE 11, 2010

1600

“At least you didn’t shoot up the place. That would’ve ruined the whole weekend,” Scully commented as they pulled into the parking lot.

“I’ve never shot up a DMV before but I’ve been close,” Mulder stated. Wilson Harlow turned out to be a bit of a dead end as far as witnessing the earthquake, as he was in the bathroom at the time. However, he was able to provide a piece of information that led them to their next witness: Charity. According to Harlow, Charity had been present during the tornado incident nearly forty years ago.

The woman had been thirteen years old and Harlow indicated that she had been volunteering in the exact location where the hearse was supposed to arrive for the funeral.

They pulled into the Residence Inn and Mulder started walking toward the front desk instead of toward the elevators.

Scully raised an eyebrow, but followed him anyway.

“Excuse me, but can you tell me where the woman who makes the dinners, Charity, works on Fridays through Sundays?”

The concierge looked at him with an odd expression on her face. She was trying to be pleasant but was clearly confused as to what Mulder’s intentions were. “I’m sorry, but I can’t just divulge that information…”

“It’s part of an investigation,” Mulder stated, and pulled his badge.

“Oh, I remember you two are the FBI agents,” the woman assured them. “I suppose if it’s part of an investigation…she works her own cleaning business. I’ll have to find you her cell phone number…hang on just one moment.”

As she went into the back office, Scully turned to her partner. “Mulder, there’s absolutely no indication that the tornado incident forty years ago has anything to do with our case.”

“And you think it’s a coincidence that I just happened to be there for that event, but remember nothing about it? And you think it’s a coincidence that no one happened to witness this last earthquake that killed that woman?”

“Yes,” Scully stated flatly.

Mulder rolled his eyes. “We need to speak to Charity. If she remembers anything, anything at all, it could point us in the direction of the source of these natural disasters.”

There was a slight pause as the concierge walked out of the back office. Right before the woman was in earshot, Scully muttered, “I think you just want some free cookies.”

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CHARITY’S RESIDENCE

NEW LONDON, CT

FRIDAY, JUNE 11, 2010

1630

“Can I offer you folks something to eat? Cookies, maybe?”

“Yes, please,” Mulder said immediately.

“I”ll be right back. Then I have the rest of the evening free, so maybe you’d even like to stay for dinner!”

The friendly woman left, and Scully shook her head at Mulder’s expectant look. “We can’t, Mulder. It’s not ethical now that she’s a witness.”

He sighed and stood. Walking around Charity’s family room, he started looking for the usual—pictures, diplomas, something that would connect her to someone else in the case and give him questions to ask her. Unfortunately, he didn’t notice anything out of the ordinary in the time Charity gave him to do so.

“They’re not fresh, but they’re the best I can do on short notice—if you stay for dinner, I can certainly stick a batch in the oven and they’ll be done for dessert,” their host said as she came in with a large plate of cookies. She held the plate out for Mulder first, and he took three.

Scully gave him a disapproving look, but took a cookie herself. They were the best cookies either of them had ever tasted.

“So what can I help you folks with?” their host asked as she sat down, and folded her hands on her lap.

“We’re in town investigating the recent earthquakes,” Mulder started. “And we just spoke to Wilson Harlow, who said that you might have been present for an older, but slightly similar event. About forty years ago, in 1970, do you remember anything unusual happening at the Seaport?”

Charity’s cheerful facial expression twitched and it would have been lost on almost anyone else, but Mulder caught the sorrow that momentarily pushed the joy out of the way. Charity didn’t care for the year of 1970.

“I love the Seaport…I’ve been a resident of southeastern Connecticut all my life, was born in Mystic, spent most of my time there…started volunteering when I was ten. They’ve got age restrictions now, I believe you have to be thirteen. But I was ten years old when I started, and they had me painting. Can you imagine the liability now?” She laughed nervously.

Mulder and Scully smiled, but their silence implored her to continue.

“I remember that summer we had so many dead soldiers coming home from Vietnam…I was fourteen years old and I was working on restoring the Morgan with my father and my next-door neighbor. There’s something about that ship…” she shook her head. “Anyway, we were doing routine paint stripping and we were expecting it to be a nice weekend. Sunny, no forecast of rain or anything. I saw this little girl on the main deck.” She took a deep breath and let it out slowly.

“Charity, I understand if this is difficult for you—” Scully started.

“No, no, I understand you need the information. Maybe you can find some explanation for what I saw…you’re going to think I’m crazy,” she warned them.

“Don’t worry, ‘crazy’ is sort of our specialty,” Mulder assured her.

She nodded, smiled, and continued. “This little girl and boy were on the deck. I’ll never forget them…they were with Brett, one of the interpreters. And he was explaining how the Morgan worked. The older one seemed interested, but the little girl…she was too young for such a detailed thing. She started to wander…came over to me while I was stripping the paint. I was up on scaffolding and she seemed to think it was cool. Her parents weren’t really paying attention. Then…out of nowhere, I swear, there wasn’t a cloud in the sky…” She met Mulder’s eyes, as if she knew that he was more likely to believe her. “There was a tornado that suddenly appeared, out of nowhere, I swear. And it picked up that little girl and flung her off the Morgan. A bunch of wood from the shipyard went with her—I reached out and nearly fell off myself, but then…here’s where you’re going to think I’m a complete loon.”

Their silence and non-judgmental expressions made her continue.

“I reached out my hand into the air, over the edge of the scaffolding…and that’s the last thing I remember. The next thing I knew, I was back on the scaffolding and people were running around, picking up some of the wood from the shipyard and screaming at each other to climb the rigging and see if there are any more tornadoes coming. It was the same day as a funeral was supposed to take place, but the body went missing, I remember. The soldier was killed in Vietnam.”

“Okay…back up just a bit, Charity,” Mulder began. “What happened to the girl?”

“I turned around…maybe I imagined it, but she was right back on the deck. Like nothing ever happened.”

“What happened after that?” Scully asked.

Charity shrugged. “We were called down from the scaffolding because of the weather. We went on a small hunt for the body, trying to find the casket before any rain or other tornadoes got to it. Then we all went to the Galley—it’s the largest place and probably the safest, but that’s not saying much. No other tornadoes came through, though. I thought I had taken a hit on the head, to remember everything like this. But…this is what I saw. I’m certain of it.”

Mulder paused a moment, searching Charity’s facial expression for any form of deception. Then he took a chance. He reached into his back pocket, pulled out his wallet, and then slipped an old, worn, pocket-sized photograph of his sister out of one of the slots. He handed it to Charity. “Is this the girl, Charity?”

Charity’s eyes opened wide. “Yes! Where did you get this?”

Scully stared at Mulder, wondering how he’d answer that question. She could see on his face that he trusted Charity, that he believed her to be an ally.

That was why he said, very quietly, “She was my sister.”

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The tall man smells like John did. Of course, he doesn’t smell exactly like John. Everyone has a different scent. But some have scents that are very much alike.

John was introspective, yet impulsive. He thought a lot about history, politics, religion…himself. He loved me because I was loyal. I love him because he was…John. He was my master, my best friend. He would never abandon me.

This tall man…he smells a bit different. It’s not the kind of smell you get from a flower, or from the ground, or from the dogs that come into the Seaport. It’s the kind of smell only I can get. The kind of smell that pops up right before the earth shakes.

The earth shook in Afghanistan. When the blast went off and fire was everywhere, everything shook. I shook. The shaking now reminds me of then. It makes me scared. But I have to be brave, for John and for Tim. John wanted me to look after Tim, I know he did.

I ran to the big ship, because that’s where the good feelings and the yellow cloud were. But the earth shook even more there than it did by the lighthouse, where the bad feelings were. Still…it smelled better by the Morgan for some reason. I don’t know why.

The tall man understands what I feel. He doesn’t smell things like I do, but he sometimes hears and sees like I do. The short woman…she smells like Tim did. Tim liked to think about everything. He thought and thought and thought, but to him the evidence was always the most important thing. Tim’s smell is there when the earth shakes. It’s near the lighthouse. But the shaking makes me scared, and I don’t know how to follow the smell before the shaking goes away. Maybe the tall man and the short woman can help me. I hope they come back soon.

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RESIDENCE INN

MYSTIC, CT

FRIDAY, JUNE 11, 2010

1900

Mulder had the hotel room covered in yellow paper. There were papers strewn all over the bed, on the coffee table, two on top of the old CRT TV, some on the bathroom sink, and one on each night stand. He was systematically going through every bit of history he could find on the Charles W. Morgan and recording it on paper, and then sorting it based on its category of information.

Scully shook her head when she entered his room. “Why aren’t you using Inspiration, Mulder? Isn’t that why you purchased the program in the first place?”

“Yes, actually,” Mulder said, and clicked something on his computer screen. “I’m using it to organize what I have here.”

Scully raised one eyebrow. “I believe the idea was to eliminate the yellow wallpaper.” Changing the subject, she put her bag down. “Did you order the pizza?”

“Yes. Twenty minutes from…” he looked at his watch, “ten minutes ago. Did you go to the library?”

“Yes. The book you’re looking for, I believe it’s called ‘Voyages: Stories from a sailing time.’ I have it right here. They said the Morgan is featured on page 24 about halfway down. But they said there’s no indication that the information in there is correct—the entire idea is that these are stories.”

He accepted the book from her outstretched hand and placed it next to him on the bed. He nodded. “Thanks, Scully.”

She turned to go and get her laptop to help, but stopped in the doorjamb and looked at her partner. “Mulder…are you okay?”

He looked up. “I’m fine, Scully.”

“You’ve dealt a lot lately with your sister. I’m just looking out for you.”

Her expression spoke more than her words. He nodded. “I know. I’m thankful for that.”

A moment passed. “Have any theories on what might have happened to her and how it connects to the earthquake?”

“Yes. But I’m not done yet,” he said, and chewed on the end of his hotel pen.

The corner of her mouth ascended in a small smile. Like an artist working on a masterpiece.

The Mystic Pizza delivery boy arrived not long after that and handed Scully a carton that declared its contents “’A Slice of Heaven.’” Scully had the urge to say ‘yeah, right’. After all, it was a little pizza joint down the street in a tiny town. But after she took a piece and handed the box to Mulder, she took a bite and was for the second time completely shocked by the Mystic food selection. “My God, Mulder…this is excellent!”

“Makes you wonder what they’re treating the food with here in Mystic.” He took a bite, and his eyes widened in joy. “Wow. We haven’t had a bad meal here yet.”

Mulder worked for a few more minutes in silence before Scully said, “I know you probably think you’ve got a connection…but Mulder, don’t you think it’d be wiser to wait for the scanning results from the US Geological Survey? They’re supposed to come to the Seaport tomorrow.”

“Good, we’re going to need them,” Mulder said in a distracted tone. He took a bite of his slice of heaven and scribbled something down on his yellow paper pad. He then ripped the page off and tossed it onto the nightstand.

She was about to elaborate on her statement when he suddenly stood up and said, “Okay. I think I’ve got it. Give me five minutes.”

Mulder began walking around the hotel room collecting his pieces of paper, and Scully didn’t interrupt this creative process. But she was already building a theory of her own that would explain what Charity saw forty years ago.

Moments later, Mulder stood in front of Scully and said, “James Hamlin.”

Her signature eyebrow went up, as expected, and that gave Mulder the go-ahead to continue. This was going to be their normal exchange of ideas. He took comfort in it—after so much abnormality this afternoon, he was happy to have his skeptical partner keeping him grounded.

“James Hamlin was a fugitive slave who, in 1856, embarked on the Charles W. Morgan for a whaling voyage. The owners of the ship and Morgan himself were anti-slavery abolitionists. They welcomed him with open arms. They kept him safe.”

Scully stared at him, which translated into, Go on, you haven’t lost me completely.

“James Hamlin then died on that voyage,” he continued, flipping a page. “He died saving his captain, who had let him on board even though he was illiterate. You see, Scully, James Hamlin ‘paid it forward.’”

“Aside from being an excellent plot for a Hallmark movie, what does it have to do with the case?”

“Normally someone’s body would be sunk at sea when they die in the way Hamlin did. However, his body mysteriously disappeared before they were able to send it out to sea. According to the book you just brought,” he said, and quickly jogged back over to the bed where he flipped to page 24, “the sailors reported strange noises and feelings of drastic temperature change for the rest of the voyage.”

“Didn’t the Morgan sail in northern waters?”

Mulder ignored her question. “And since then, wherever the ship has been, whenever a nearby local man or woman dies in service and the body is stolen—”

“Does that happen often?”

“—There has been an unexplained natural disaster, like a tornado or earthquake. But there’s never been any damage done. Just objects moved around. However, in several instances, people have been known to be moved. This most recent incident is the only death ever noted.”

“Okay, so you think someone’s body has been stolen and now the ghost of James Hamlin is attempting to resurrect the body through the use of an earthquake?”

“Yes.”

Scully shook her head. “Honestly, Mulder, I think it’s quite a coincidence that you and Samantha happened to be on that boat during the tornado. But I think I have a rational explanation for both of those instances, the odd events during the earthquake and the tornado. I’ll start with the tornado.” She ignored the impatient expression on his face, and continued. “Did you notice the crystals on the main deck of the Morgan?”

It was his turn to raise an eyebrow. “Yes…”

“Their purpose was to allow people to see below decks during the daytime. During a tornado, especially if it was previously a very sunny day, the sunlight would be making patterns above-deck based on the reflective surfaces around. It’s possible in the heat of the moment that Charity simply saw a reflection of Samantha and it made it look like she was thrown off the ship. That would explain why she seemed completely unphased by the event.”

“Does it explain why she said both of us reached out our hands for Sam?” Mulder asked skeptically.

“No…but you could’ve been reaching for anything, Mulder. Especially if it looked like Charity was about to fall.”

He looked dissatisfied with that explanation. “And the earthquakes?”

“The Morgan was recently towed into the shipyard to be refit. The ship was in service during an era where we didn’t know about harmful effects of certain chemicals with other chemicals in the soil, in the water, in the air…I think it’s possible that the Morgan is leaking rust or paint or something else that could have an element reactive to something in Mystic Seaport’s soil. Or, perhaps, to something close to the lighthouse. Small reactions taking place under the earth would explain the small earthquakes.”

“Would they explain why those earthquakes didn’t occur before?” Mulder challenged.

“I’m not sure. That’s why we need the USGS team out there.”

He shook his head. “I’m sorry, Scully, I’m just not satisfied.”

“I wouldn’t have guessed that,” she said sarcastically. “So what do you want to do? Go back to the Seaport and ask if anyone’s seen a body lately?”

“We’re going to need reinforcements on this one,” Mulder answered her, and walked over to the desk with his papers. He set them down next to Scully’s computer and then picked up his cell phone. Moments later, he was talking to the Lone Gunmen. “Fohike. Yeah, next Friday. Promise. I really promise this time. Scully will remind me to bring it. Listen, I need a favor. Can you do a cross-reference check on Mystic Seaport and the surrounding area…I need to know about any missing persons, reported by or related to Seaport employees. And I need to know about any unsolved murder cases as well…or any missing bodies. Check military and law enforcement databases first. Okay, great. I’ll talk to you soon.” He ended the call.

“How soon do they say they can do it?”

“By tomorrow,” Mulder answered. “Oh, and Frohike wants his DVR back by next Friday to record Quantum Leap.”

“Why are you telling me?”

“Because I’ll forget. It’s recording Warehouse 13 as we speak.”

Scully sighed. “We need to just buy a DVR.”

Her partner smirked in response. “I’d rather solve this case than spend my Saturday at Best Buy.”

“Then you’d better work slower,” Scully joked.

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AROUND TOWN

MYSTIC, CT

SATURDAY, JUNE 11, 2010

0700

Mulder had jogged past Mystic Pizza and was now laboring up the hill toward a church. With the elevation difference and the numerous hills in the southeastern Connecticut area, he was getting tired pretty fast. For the first time in months he was experiencing shin splints, which usually happened when a person ran without stretching first.

He had a long way to go before he was back to the hotel, and after experiencing the difficulty he had with these hills, he was actually glad when his phone rang. Slowing down to a walking pace, he took it out of his pocket and looked at the CID. “Hey, Scully. What’s up?”

“The guys finished. We’ve got a list…a short list. Only one of them makes the law enforcement criteria. It looks like Sergeant Tim Rodney of the Waterford PD was killed and then his body went missing shortly afterward. He’s Phyllis’ nephew. Where are you?”

“Over by Mystic Pizza. Do you want me to run back or are you gonna come pick me up?”

There was a pause. “You want me to come pick you up?”

“Well, not if…I mean, I can certainly run back—”

“You’re getting too old to run that far away, Mulder,” she said, and the words were like daggers. There were a few things one just didn’t tell a man—that his hair was thinning, that his gut was expanding, and that he had run too far for his body to carry him back. She seemed to realize her error. “But we don’t want to put this case on hold…I’ll swing by Mystic Pizza and pick you up, and you can shower and change before we head to the Seaport.”

“Good plan,” Mulder said approvingly. “And while I’m in the shower you can check up on who Sergeant Tim Rodney was.”

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MYSTIC SEAPORT

MYSTIC, CT

SATURDAY, JUNE 11, 2010

0930

The Boathouse staff were setting up the place, getting it ready for the day. It opened in a half hour. When Mulder and Scully strode in and asked to speak to Phyllis, they said she was outside putting up the signs, so they decided to wait.

Only a few minutes later, Fideles came trotting in and went directly to Mulder, tail wagging and mouth open in a happy pant. Mulder petted the big dog and said, “You’ve really got quite a history, don’t you, big man? Military, police…you weren’t in the CIA too, were you?” Fido responded by licking Mulder’s cheek and nuzzling against him. “Well, don’t tell me,” the agent said to the dog, just as Phyllis walked in.

“Good morning. What can I do for you?” she asked upon entry into the Boathouse.

“We understand you lost your nephew two years ago,” Scully started, and saw Phyllis’ expression falter. “We’re interested in the details of the disappearance of his body.”

She nodded, and beckoned Fido with her hand. He didn’t come, though. Instead, he sat at Mulder’s feet and looked up at the agent.

“Tim and Fido went into a warehouse—”

“Wait…excuse me?” Mulder asked. “Fido was involved?”

“Yes—Fido was Tim’s partner. He was on the K-9 unit in the Waterford Force,” Phyllis stated, clearly implying that she thought they already knew this. She had mentioned that Tim recruited the pup, but not that they had been partners at the time of Tim’s death.

Mulder’s eyes showed Scully that he had just figured something out. There was no stopping him now. “Phyllis, I know it might be painful, but I need you to go over every detail of Tim’s death, including Fido’s involvement.”

Fido barked, and the agents looked down for a moment, but ignored the dog after nothing was apparently wrong.

Phyllis proceeded to go through the details, slowly and painfully, of her nephew’s demise. So shortly after losing her son, her nephew’s death had hit their small family hard, and Fido had provided a comfort. No one knew what happened to Tim’s body—it was last seen at the warehouse. Audio records from Tim’s radio later proved that the only audible UNSUBs in the warehouse were accounted for during the shootout. Police accounts show that Tim’s body was untouched until the forensic team arrived, and that Fido was transported to the emergency center at the veterinary hospital in Waterford. He had been injected with some kind of homemade methamphetamine variation that nearly killed him.

Although every police officer had been thoroughly questioned, they could find no evidence of foul play. The officer guarding Tim’s body had been conversing with the forensic team at the approximate time of the snatching, and no one had seen a thing.

The only clue had been a Waterford paramedic who didn’t report for work that day, and he had turned out to be a dead end.

Mulder glanced down at Fido. “Phyllis…would you mind if we took Fido with us for a few hours? I think he might be able to find Tim’s body. And just to be sure, I’d recommend you get all the boaters out of the water. We’re going to put a ten-foot barrier around the coast while we search.”

Phyllis at first stared at the agents as if they had just landed from an alien planet. But then she looked at Fideles, whose eyes seemed to plead with her. Finally, she nodded. “Okay. Just take good care of him.”

Fido barked happily, and ran over to his leash. He grabbed the rope with the latch on the end and brought it over to Mulder. Then he dropped it at the agent’s feet and sat obediently.

Scully stared at the scene, amazed. “Fido is remarkably intelligent,” she commented as Mulder latched the leash onto the dog’s collar. “Even for a military or police dog…he must have an extraordinary vocabulary.”

“He’s special,” Phyllis simplified, and Fido’s tail wagged eagerly. “And he loves to feel useful.”

Mulder patted the dog as he stood up. “Well, let’s see if we can’t give him one last big mission.”

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The tall man’s name is Mulder. I think I like that name. He’s more like a dog than a human. Someone might name their dog Mulder.

He’s going to help me find Tim. He has special powers like me, but he doesn’t want to make them work. I can understand that. I don’t want to make mine work, either. Especially not when they’ve picked the smallest boat possible to go searching for Tim.

When I find him, I know what will happen. The ground will shake. Maybe someone will die again. It will be my fault.

I can’t stop the ground from shaking when it starts. But I get closer and closer to finding Tim.

Maybe this is my last mission, I don’t know. But I know I’ll always be loyal to Tim. I’ve got to find him.

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ON THE WATER

MYSTIC, CT

SATURDAY, JUNE 11, 2010

1030

It was another forty-five minutes before the USGS arrived with their equipment and the agents spent much of that time arguing the finer points of boat rental with some Seaport officials.

“A few more minutes of that and I was ready to commandeer the Morgan,” Scully muttered once on the rigid-hull inflatable boat. They were accompanied by one of the USGS scientists, who came with enough equipment to power a small Alaskan city, an FBI diver for reconnaissance, and Fido, who was big enough to have his own boat. Needless to say, it was cramped quarters.

But it didn’t take long for Fido to lean over the edge and start barking like mad. They slowed engine to a stop and hovered there as the German Shepherd leaned over the edge, balancing on one paw. He apparently didn’t trust his prosthetic leg on the wet boat.

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We’re getting closer. We’re so close, I can smell it. I can see Tim, I can feel him. I know he’s there…and there are others, too. So many others. I want to go in the water.

I can swim, I’ve been trained how.

We’re so close. “Here!” I bark. “Here, it’s here! Here! Here! Here! Stop here!” I look back at Mulder, hoping he knows how badly I want to go in after Tim.

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ON THE WATER

MYSTIC, CT

SATURDAY, JUNE 11, 2010

1030

The diver went in with a camera and a probe to measure seismic activity. The USGS guy was hooking up his array of instruments. Mulder had to physically hold Fido back from diving in. Meanwhile, Scully was studying the geological readouts and trying to make sense of what she was seeing. Seismic activity was steadily growing at an astounding rate, but it was so small that it wasn’t even noticeable yet.

Mulder held Fido by his collar and tried to calm the barking dog. “Shhh, c’mon, Buddy, it’s okay. Let’s let the diver do his work, okay? I know you’ve got a scent…

“In the water?” Scully asked skeptically, but didn’t take her eyes off the USGS laptop screen.

Mulder paused a moment. “I don’t think it’s an actual scent, Scully,” he said somewhat absently, and turned to the dog. “You wanna go in, don’t you? I just don’t want you to drown…he’d need both legs to swim, wouldn’t he?” he turned back to his partner.

She shrugged. “I would guess so, with his center of gravity being where it is, but I’m not sure. Don’t let the dog in the water, Mulder. Let’s keep Phyllis’ blood pressure as low as we can.”

He frowned. Fideles wouldn’t stop barking, and Mulder was about to defy his unofficial orders when the diver’s voice came over the speaker.

“I’ve reached the bottom, and there’s definitely something down here. SONAR readings indicate some kind of vault on the floor.”

“ I’m reading the seismic activity inside of it,” the USGS scientist commented.

“But we’re going to need some more information before we come back down here with a crowbar,” the diver continued. “It’s almost right under the lighthouse support structure. I want confirmation that when we shift this, it’s not gonna go down.”

“Come on up, Agent Trey,” Scully said into the microphone. “We’ll send an engineering team down there.”

“Take a look at this, Agent Scully. It seems to be a door of some sort.”

Just then, Fido broke free from Mulder’s grasp and dove, prosthetic and all, headfirst into the water.

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Ever since the warehouse, I’ve been able to feel when I’m closer to Tim. The ground shakes and I notice the yellow cloud near the Morgan where I know there wasn’t one before…at least not that I could see. But the yellow cloud was growing now as we got closer and closer to Tim, and an entirely new feeling came over me.

I knew this feeling not from my new powers, not from the yellow cloud, not from an order anyone had given me, but by the feeling in my stomach that’s always told me when my master is about to be in trouble.

And although the diver isn’t my master, he works with Mulder and this is happening in John’s mom’s backyard, and that’s enough for me. I won’t let another master die. It’s my duty to protect them.

With all my might, I yank on the collar and fling myself into the water. I swim down, down, down as fast as I can. My leg is slowing me down. I’m not going to get there in time. But I don’t care. I have to try.

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ON THE WATER

MYSTIC, CT

SATURDAY, JUNE 11, 2010

1040

“Something’s wrong,” Mulder said as soon as Fideles was gone.

“You think?!” Scully asked sarcastically, exasperated. “Mulder, you just lost Fido!”

“No…Scully…I think we might be in trouble. Get down.”

“What?”

“Get down! Now!” He dove on top of her and brought the USGS scientist down to the small deck along with his partner. Just then, there was an enormous roar and the water violently rocked their little boat.

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CHARLES W. MORGAN

MYSTIC, CT

SATURDAY, JUNE 11, 2010

1040

Brett Gordon was telling the short version of Moby Dick to a group of twelve-year-old Boy Scouts when he heard it. The unmistakable roar and rumble that told him another earthquake wasn’t far away. “Everyone down! Everyone get down on the deck and hold onto something!” He yelled.

But before he got to his own hand-hold, he saw the horrific sight of the Sentinel Lighthouse crumbling into the sound.

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ON THE WATER

MYSTIC, CT

SATURDAY, JUNE 11, 2010

1042

“It’s coming down!” The diver screamed the terrified, panicked scream of a man who hadn’t been trained to handle an underwater landslide of rocks and soil, and knew he probably wouldn’t make it out.

Mulder held Scully’s head down, but had tilted his own against the deck such that he was able to steal a glimpse of the lighthouse falling apart. Chunks of wood and concrete fell into the water as its foundation caved, and the beautiful Sentinel of the Sea disappeared into the earth.

Then something happened. He wasn’t sure what it was, but he was blinded with a bright white light, and he heard the sounds of many voices.

“—won’t be gone long, I promise.”

“Have the horse ready. I’ll see you soon…”

“Remember I always love you, no matter what happens over there.”

“I don’t want to go either, I just—”

“Take care of my car for me, little bro. Okay?”

“—leaving soon. Won’t you please say goodbye, at least?”

“My flight should get in at about 10-ish, so—”

“At least I won’t have to go through any damned security checkpoints.”

Through all of the voices, he heard one as if it was in front of all of the others. A little girl, leaning over the edge of a boat in drydock, fascinated by the view and the painters.

“Come over here and look, Fox! There’s a—”

They were supposed to have been last words. Transported back to 1970, Mulder watched the scene again as if he was in his former self’s body. The tornado flung Sam off of the Morgan and the teenage Charity fell off of the scaffolding trying to catch her. Nine-year-old Fox extended his arms but nearly fell off himself, in the process. He watched his sister vanish out of his view, and just as suddenly as it all occurred, it all reversed itself.

And a man appeared in both the young Fox and the present-day Mulder’s vision. He was in his forties, a hard-working man. His dark skin shined with sweat, his muscles were pronounced, and his clothes hand-mended. His dirty tan shirt used to be white. His brown pants used to be tan. His hat used to keep the sun off his head. His hands, calloused but somehow gentle, pulled hard on a rope to raise the mainsail. He halted his work, and turned to face his ‘audience.’ The young Fox and the present-day agent stared as the man tipped his hat and said simply, “What ain’t s’posed ta be, cain’t be ‘llowed ta be.”

And then he vanished into the white once more.

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I have him. I start to swim up, but there is a shudder, and a roar, and suddenly everything is black. But I see the yellow cloud, and I know everything will be okay. It’s over as soon as it starts. I’m able to continue on my journey, complete my mission. The diver is safe. The vault is open…and Tim can finally come home. I come up on the surface, and the feelings are gone. The yellow cloud is gone. I pant, my head finally above water. I can relax. It’s over.

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OUTSIDE BOATHOUSE

MYSTIC, CT

SATURDAY, JUNE 11, 2010

1130

“I’m telling you, that’s what I saw,” Brett Gordon was the first one to say it. Many others witnessed the apparent destruction of the lighthouse, as well.

Phyllis was one of them. She cried when she saw it go under, having seen Fideles dive in. But when it reappeared and Fideles similarly popped up out of the water with the diver in tow, she continued to cry in relief.

There was no earthquake, no damage. No death. The perimeter around the lighthouse had saved the lives of countless tourists who would have been inside or around the area at the time of the collapse.

“It’s possible that you saw a concussive tsunami,” the USGS scientist argued. “The blast caused a large wave to wash over the boat—”

“You’re telling me,” Scully complained as she stood there, soaked from head to toe.

The scientist continued, “–and it could have reflected the image of the lighthouse.”

“That’s ridiculous,” Brett argued.

Mulder, unbelievably, was sitting silently with Fideles at his feet. They rested on the bench outside the boathouse as the forensic team got the vault out of the water. The video footage showed the blast, which the FBI diver and the subsequent forensic team guessed was an explosive charge wired to the door and infrared sensitive.

“One way or the other,” Scully was explaining, “The explosive charge could have very easily been causing these earthquakes. Especially in its proximity to the lighthouse, that would explain why Janet Hausman was unable to maintain her position near the edge of the pier.”

“And the seafloor juncture we saw at the bottom of the sound would explain why the readings initially pointed to the Charles W. Morgan,” the USGS scientist added. “As it runs directly from here to there, the force would have been carried there faster than it would have reached land.”

Scully glanced at Mulder, who hadn’t chimed in at all. She excused herself and walked over to him, massaging his shoulders gently with her wet hands and leaning over as she asked, “Hey…you okay?”

“Yeah, we’re fine. Just waiting for the bodies to come up.”

“Whoever hid them there obviously had diving experience. And from the looks of that vault, at least on video and from what we can see there,” she surveyed the large metal object, nearly blown to bits, being raised carefully by a series of ropes and pulleys, “we can conclude that the vault is probably a hundred years old.”

“So we’ve either got some organized crime or we’ve got a series of copycats,” Mulder commented.

She nodded. “It’s gonna take an entirely separate investigation to discover which one.”

He nodded in agreement, but remained silent as he petted Fideles.

“How’s Fido?” Scully asked.

“He’s tired, but he’ll be fine. The paramedic said he was okay.”

“That’s good news.” She came around the bench and sat next to her partner. “So you think Tim Rodney’s body is in there?”

“I know it is,” he stated. Fido’s ears perked up, but he remained in his resting position at Mulder’s feet.

“How? We have only skeletal remains…”

“Because Fido knew. He was able to rescue his master, let him rest…Scully, I know you won’t believe me, but I have to explain to you what I saw.” He met her eyes, and told her about the lighthouse. Then he explained about Sam, about how the former slave and whaling crewman James Hamlin had come to him, how everything had been restored to normal.

Thankfully, she didn’t respond by checking his head for a concussion or giving him a smart remark. Instead, she listened and nodded in the end.

“What do you think?” he asked, as if he was afraid of the answer.

Scully’s mouth morphed into a small smile and she took Mulder’s hand in hers as she petted Fideles’ head. “I think…what’s meant to be is meant to be…and I think either way, weary souls get to finally go home.”

Just then, Phyllis came over and bent down on one knee to embrace Fido. He leaned his head into her and licked her face.

Mulder nodded. That was exactly what had happened.

Finis

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Desperatus

desperatus poster art

Title: Desperatus

Author: Starfleetofficer1

Summary: Mulder and Scully are sent to the ruined city of Detroit to investigate a series of murders.

Category: X-file, mythology

Rating: PG-13

Two weeks exclusive with VS16.

Disclaimer: No copyright infringement intended.

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LABORATORY OF DR. ALAN DESPER

3664 JOSEPH CAMPAU ST.

DETROIT, MI

SATURDAY, FEBRUARY 20, 1925

1000

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It was pouring rain outside Dr. Alan Desper’s laboratory. He leaned against the windowsill like a child, watching it pelt against the window as a brand-new Model T drove by very slowly. It was capable of higher speeds, but not in this weather.

“What incredible times we live in,” Desper said softly, stroking his pet on his lap. “They say these cars will one day completely replace the horse and buggy…and I believe them. Henry Ford found a practical way to make money and change the world.” He chuckled ironically. “Henry is a far smarter man than I.”

Desper and Ford had grown up together, but Desper continued along the academic track, while Ford had left home to be an apprentice after his mother died. They lost contact after that, and Desper hadn’t heard a thing about Ford until his first Model T was sold. He had found a way to make a vehicle that was cheap enough for the average family to buy. It didn’t require food or shelter, and could be left out in the rain. A horse required far more upkeep.

Desper glanced at his pocket watch and put it back in his vest, rising from his seat. “He’ll be here any moment,” he said to his pet, and the python bobbed its head and slithered off of the windowsill seat. The animal followed Desper, its tongue making a slithering noise in a specific pattern. Depser shook his head. “I’m sorry, Primo, but there’s nothing I can do about it. Please, don’t make this any more difficult than it already is.”

The python wrapped himself around Desper’s leg, nearly tripping him. As if disciplining a disobedient child, Desper sighed in frustration and pointed toward the basement door. “Go get Secundus, bring her up here. Now.”

Primo gently unwrapped himself and slithered toward the basement door, and then disappeared.

Desper rubbed the bridge of his nose with his thumb and forefinger, and began pacing. They were living in extraordinary times. After the Coolidge Administration avoided a massive depression in the early twenties, its methods of stimulating the economy had resulted in a boom. People were able to buy things they could never have dreamt of owning before. There was a technological explosion, as taxes were lowered to make it convenient to be a career inventor. Desper had taken advantage of the times like most men, but his research had attracted some unwanted attention. And now he was faced with a horrible predicament.

Someone rapped on the door. Desper took a deep breath and approached it slowly. He closed his eyes briefly before opening the only barrier between himself and this man he was so intimidated by.

He stepped across the threshold with soaking wet clothes and carrying a useless umbrella with a hole through the fabric.

Desper didn’t dare speak first. He watched as the man folded his broken umbrella and took his wool jacket and hat off. With a tight jaw and near-chattering teeth, he said in a thick German accent, “It’s February. You would think it would be snowing, considering how cold it is.”

“You’ll see snow before you leave Detroit, I’m sure, Sir,” Desper said, his own teeth nearly chattering.

“No matter. Do you have the snakes?”

It pained Desper to hear his pets referred to in such a manner. They were not merely ‘snakes.’ They were thinking, highly trained companions. And this man planned to use them for no good purpose, Desper was sure. “Yes, Sir.”

“Then let’s go see them. I’ll give you your check and be on my way.”

Desper nodded, his muscles tight. He gestured toward the basement door. “Right this way, Dr. Strughold.”

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LIGHT OF TOMORROW CHURCH

4466 JOSEPH CAMPAU ST.

DETROIT, MI

SATURDAY, FEBRUARY 12th, 2011

1000

“—n’ I’ma Christian man, / Born inna this land, / Gotta make a move now, / n’ wow the crowd, / I’ma rebel I’ma star I’ma go so far, / I’ma blow through yo’ thoughts, / Like a .45 POW!”

“No violence,” an adult man’s stern but patient voice cut through the child rapper’s lyrics, but the beat from the ‘Stomp’-style trash cans and four chopsticks taped together on the church floor didn’t stop. The kids working percussion knew better than to halt in the middle of a freestyle battle.

The boy rapper knew the drill and without any protest, he jumped off of the stage made of plywood and held up by milk crates. Another slightly older boy took his place, and picked up with the same beat.

“Yeah, in 1995, / I was bap-tized, / Mah daddy took me to the church, / I was just a small-fry, / But in 1997, / Mah daddy went to heaven, / Gangs n’ drugs, / n’ some guy wit’ a knife in prison. / Mah momma work all day, / Ain’t no rent she can pay, / Mah brudda rob a store wit’ a stolen three-eighta’, / ‘Dis all come togetha, / to make mah life betta’, / ‘cause I realize now, / I got a choice inna matta’. / Mah da-ddy fought, mah dumb brudda got caught, mah uncle made the wrong guys angry, / ‘n got shot. Me, I’ma diff’rent dude, / ain’t got time ta be rude, / gotta get me a job, / n’ BUY some food. / Why ‘m I makin’ sense? / Why’ve I got a chance? / ‘Cause I got Jesus Chris’, / The center of mah life!”

The room roared in applause, and the teenager took a theatrical bow and jumped off stage. A teenage girl took his place, but the adult held up his hand and jumped on the stage before she could start.

“Ray-shawn, hold up a minute, man,” the instructor said, and the teenager stopped halfway between the stage and the audience of kids. “Come back up here.” The boy obeyed, and the instructor smiled as he took Ray-shawn by the shoulders and said, “You want to tell the youth group the big news?”

“Nah, man…”

The instructor wouldn’t take no for an answer. “Most of y’all probably know by now, but Ray-shawn has earned the money he needs to buy studio time. And he plans to do so right after…”

“Takin’ my GED test,” Ray-shawn finished quietly, but with a small smile on his face. It was clear he was proud of his accomplishments, but didn’t want to brag.

It was a safe environment, with kids he knew. They weren’t going to beat him up for success, but it was hard to break the mentality that had been drilled into him from a young age. It wasn’t safe to be better than your peers. The youth pastor, Greg, tried to break the kids of that way of thinking.

The kids clapped again, hooting and hollering words of praise. Ray-shawn jumped off the stage again and walked past his friends, toward his girlfriend in the back. She wrapped her hands around him and they embraced each other. They moved in for a kiss, but a look from Greg in the front of the room told them to leave it for after the freestyle battle.

The girl on stage was allowed to continue, and the kids with the trash can lids and chop sticks laid down a beat for her.

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The building was located on an otherwise abandoned street. Riddled with graffiti and urban decay around its exterior, the interior was lined with newly laid linoleum flooring and even sported working exit signs near the doors. It was renovated by hand, courtesy of the hard work and dedication of the Light of Tomorrow Youth Group and a very big check written by an anonymous donor.

Normally security was only necessary at night. The alarm system kept Greg and the Congregation pastor, Lina, apprised of each time someone broke in. It didn’t summon the police—they wouldn’t show up in this neighborhood, anyway, and the service of calling the police cost $99 a month. Instead, it sent a signal to Greg and Lina’s apartment next door, from which either of them could run outside and – ideally – intercept the burglars.

Today, however, there was a bit more security around the building. And there likely would be for a while to come. Two days ago, Greg had received a death threat. He had tried to keep the church and the youth group out of the news, but unfortunately some well-meaning blogger had caught wind of their freestyle religious rap battles, and wrote an entry about it. Somehow, it had gotten back to someone who had a problem with the idea, and now there was a guard posted at the door of the church sanctuary. The guard was Greg’s cousin, Ryland.

While most of the kids were engaged in the rap battle, Ryland was watching for suspicious activity and planned to make sure that Greg got next door safely. The kids weren’t supposed to know about the death threat, but most had figured out that something was going on. Ryland had been absent from the battles since two months ago, when Lina’s brother was gunned down in a drive-by.

In the end, though, it wasn’t Ryland who noticed what everyone else missed. It was an eleven-year-old girl named Kisha, who stood in the back of the audience and prayed her friends wouldn’t make her go up there with her Jesus rap. She stole glances at the clock on the wall, which everyone knew was off by ten to fifteen minutes, and it was during one of these glances that she saw the car out the window. And the gun.

She shrieked and froze, but was tackled by three-hundred-pound Ryland as the gunfire started.

Four, five, six shots, and then the squeal of tires. The kids had all hit the deck, some covered in the glass from the windows, others winged by the shots, and almost all in tears. Those that weren’t petrified had the cold, hard lust for revenge etched on their faces as they surveyed the room.

When Kisha squeezed herself away from Ryland she was able to see him, and she shrieked again. Ryland had been shot twice, once in the head, and once in the chest. She backed away on all fours before scrambling toward the door, running at top speed. She sobbed all the way out of the building, down the empty street, and into the overgrown grass in the empty lots around her. She continued to run until she tripped and fell in a small hole in the ground.

Covered in dirt and still sobbing hysterically, shaking uncontrollably and wailing out loud about what she had seen, she didn’t even notice that she wasn’t alone.

She suddenly heard a soft, gentle but sleek voice in her head.

“What’s wrong?” it asked, and Kisha felt something slither past her.

She jumped, and tried to get away.

“I won’t hurt you…I’m here to help. I only ask…what’s wrong?”

“Wh…where are you?”

“I’m right here. I’m a friend. I can help fix whatever’s wrong.”

“I…” she burst into tears again. “Please…please don’t kill me…”

“I vow never to harm you,” the soft voice said. “I will hunt down the ones who made you cry…and make them pay.”

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RENTAL CAR

DETROIT, MI

MONDAY, FEBRUARY 14th, 2011

1305

“Well, I thought we’d been to every hellhole – literally – but this might just take the cake.”

Mulder smirked at his partner’s statement, glancing over at her for a moment before shifting his gaze back to the pothole-ridden road. “I don’t know, Scully. I think it still beats Victor Tooms’ cave.”

He heard her soft chuckle, and was instantly able to detect the taut anxiety in her body language. The way her grip tightened, how the tone of her laugh went up in frequency, how she quickly averted her eyes from his half of the windshield…she was trying not to think about Pakistan. Understandably so, considering their summer “vacation” was, most definitely, a more harrowing sojourn in hell than their explorations of Tooms’ cave.

And all my other near-death experiences, Mulder thought. For her, any of those is still a worse hellhole. Especially because she didn’t climb under that escalator shaft…

He smirked again at his last thought. There was a pause in the conversation. “You’re quiet,” he commented.

“This place is depressing.”

They were taking Route 3, Gratiot Ave, into the downtown area from Coleman A. Young International Airport. It was what Special Agent Terrance of the inner city field office had called “the scenic route.” Although it was a straight shot into the city, it offered Mulder and Scully a prime view of what they were getting themselves into. Detroit’s East Side neighborhoods had started going downhill in 1965 and hadn’t stopped their gradual decline in the past 45 years.

They passed decrepit buildings and abandoned cars, the occasional pedestrian and plenty of graffiti. They were on their way to the Detroit Field Office to collect the casefiles on the murders.

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“Wait a few decades until the wildlife grows through the pavement. Between the wild dogs, bears, and pythons, they’ll start selling safari tickets.”

Scully actually laughed at that one, the notion of a safari in the city of Detroit not entirely impossible, making it even funnier. “The tourism industry will get the city back on its feet,” she said, her laughter dying down. The fact that he was still cracking jokes told her that he wasn’t in full profiling mode yet. But he was close, and that was the real reason she was quiet.

When Skinner first approached them with the case, it was fairly straightforward. Multiple python attacks in Detroit had resulted in seven deaths total, all either John Does or known gangbangers. The latest deaths and the Detroit Police Department’s lack of an effective investigative division had led to the FBI’s involvement, and the strange nature of the attacks had led to the inevitable beckoning of the FBI’s most unwanted.

Another plane ride. Another rental car. Another case. That was how it had seemed to Mulder, until he dug just a bit deeper. The method of entry, the location, the use of pythons…it all pointed to a far more organized crime than a crazed herpetologist or zookeeper training snakes to attack people. And the more information he collected, the more the web grew in his mind, connections forming from the patterns. Those connections colluded to form a picture, and those pictures joined to form a collage. He knew he wasn’t even done building this profile, and he was already convinced of several things.

First, whoever trained the snakes to kill was extremely skilled. Second, the killings had everything to do with a miniature drama playing out in inner city Detroit, but nothing whatsoever to do with the snake trainer. And third, the case itself was important—not just to the FBI or the nation’s safety, but to the X-files, to their quest, and to the world.

So it was with good reason that he was slipping into profiling mode.

But it was also with good reason that Scully was worried. Before they left, Agent Terrance had warned them that they were to wear their vests at all times while in the East Side neighborhoods, where the murders had taken place. Mulder had balked at the order, insisting that it was ridiculous—even if it was that dangerous, they would be increasing their chances of a problem by identifying themselves as FBI. But Terrance had simply replied that the gangs already knew they didn’t belong in the East Side. The vests would at least communicate a threat of a counter-attack if they were killed.

They had been in threatening situations before. Demons, ghosts, the Consortium, alien attacks, terrorists, and angry, blood-thirsty mutants living in the woods all made the East Side gangs look like the Teletubbies. But with Mulder slipping into his profiling mode, the equivalent of putting blinders on his eyes, Scully was concerned that she would be the only one alert throughout the case.

“So what’s the first stop after the Detroit Field Office?” she asked.

“They’re going to take us to the scene of one of the crimes. It’s somewhere in the middle of nowhere…apparently it’s a mostly-abandoned area where someone decided to plant a church.”

Scully nodded. “Any news on the shooting victim…” she paged through the contents of her manila folder, “…Ryland Montoya?”

“No new signs of brain activity as of early this morning,” Mulder answered. “He’s probably not waking up. After we’re finished at the church, we’ll head to the hospital to see his family.” His cell phone rang at that moment. He answered, driving with one hand on the wheel. “Mulder.” After a moment, his expression changed to one of recognition. “Thanks for letting me know. We’ll be there in about twenty minutes. See you then.” He ended the call and placed the phone in the cup holder.

“Who was that?”

“Terrance. He said this may have just become a kidnapping case. A little girl who was in the church at the time of the shooting, Kisha Mathis, has gone missing. She’s been missing for forty-eight hours, and it was just reported in an hour ago.”

“The FBI is here to stay,” Scully said in a slightly sing-song voice. A kidnapping meant the FBI was no longer just covering for an undermanned police department—it had official jurisdiction.

A second glance at Mulder told Scully that he thought the news had deeper meaning. “Mulder? You have something?”

He shook his head. “Nothing definite yet…this fits into my profile, though. I need to know more about Kisha Mathis.”

“Does this change our first destination?”

“Yeah, Terrance wants to meet us at the scene of the shooting. He says there are people there waiting for us.”

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LIGHT OF TOMORROW CHURCH

4466 JOSEPH CAMPAU ST.

DETROIT, MI

MONDAY, FEBRUARY 14th, 2011

1335

After driving down a mostly empty street, overgrown grass on either side for blocks with patches of sidewalk showing through and the occasional bent streetlamp or broken chain link fence, neither one of them expected such a populated block to pop up. The Light of Tomorrow Church was a recently painted, white brick building surrounded by a desolate wasteland. It was next to three very well-kept houses with mown grass, an intact fence on the outside, and locks preventing any intruders from entering. The church was otherwise surrounded by empty lots, their tall grass covering up whatever sidewalk and foundation used to be there.

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Despite its relatively isolated location, though, this end of Joseph Campau Street was the beginning of an entire block of populated land. There were well-kept houses behind the three that faced the church, extending at least two additional blocks deep. It was an oasis in a vast urban desert that had been devoid of people for quite some time.

There weren’t many cars driving through the East side on a cold February day, so they parked on the street outside the church, in front of the other unmarked black SUV that had to belong to Agent Terrance. “Mulder, this looks like it’s a no parking zone,” Scully said, but Mulder just gave her a ‘look’. The ‘no parking’ sign was bent at a forty-five degree angle to the ground, and was covered with graffiti.

“Somehow I don’t think anyone’s going to mind,” he said dryly as he exited the car. As soon as Scully shut her door, he pressed the lock button and they heard the ‘beep’ that indicated it had locked.

Mulder thumbed the button twice more as he walked toward the front door of the church. When they entered, they were again surprised. The church had brand new linoleum floors, lighting, exit signs, air conditioners and heaters, and had recently been swept. The entire building consisted of two floors and the stairs to their left were carpeted. It was clear the building once had been a house or apartment complex, but had undergone extensive renovations since its purchase by the church.

The lobby was well-decorated with two office chairs, a teacher’s desk, a CRT television that was painted neon green, and flyers everywhere for various events and reminders. They saw everything advertised from ‘free HIV testing, normal business hours, Mon-Fri’ to ‘babysitting/CPR class Tuesday 5-8’ to ‘Narcotics Anonymous Wednesday 6-8, free food’ to ‘GED prep Monday 4-6, snacks.’ There were numerous motivational posters with smiling faces of teenagers and encouraging messages, like, “I get my high from the Lord, not meth,” and “Things ALWAYS improve when you TRY.”

A man exited the door in front of them, interrupting the agents’ browsing. He was probably of Hispanic origin and wore glasses, a light jacket that said ‘Eminem’, and baggy jeans. “You two are the FBI agents joining Agent Terrance?” he asked.

Mulder nodded, and extended his hand. “Agent Fox Mulder, and this is my partner Special Agent Dana Scully.”

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“Greg Montoya. I’m one of the pastors here. It’s nice to meet you both. I’ll take you to the crime scene.” He led the way, opening the door with a combination and letting Mulder and Scully go first. They walked down a short hallway before entering in an unlocked door that led to a larger room. Before they ever entered, they heard music getting louder and discovered the source when they stepped into the worship area. A stage propped up on milk crates was at the front of the larger room, and about fifty folding chairs were stacked along the wall. On the plywood stage a small radio/CD player held together with duct tape was blasting music. It was plugged into an extension cord that ran to an unknown location under the stage.

Listening to the rap lyrics, Mulder heard the words ‘Jesus’, ‘God’, and ‘Saved’ at least five times in just a few stanzas. Teenagers were scattered around the room attending to various jobs: patching bulletholes in the drywall and linoleum, scrubbing the floors, and sweeping up broken glass from the shattered windows. A teenager outside was nailing plywood into the windowpanes until they could be replaced. “Agent Terrance said you guys had everything you needed, so we could start cleaning up. We started a couple hours ago. Agent Terrance is on the phone over there, and the other pastor of the church, Lina Hawgood, is right over there. We reported Kisha missing this morning.”

“You did? Not her parents?” Scully asked.

Greg shook his head, and dropped his eyes and looked away. Mulder recognized that as classic guilt. The trick now was figuring out why Greg felt guilty. “She lives with her mother, and when she ran out of the church after the shooting, we assumed she ran home. She lives about twenty minutes away on foot, and so I went over there after the cops were done here. Mrs. Mathis said she was watching TV.” He shook his head.

“What?” Mulder asked. “Was there reason to disbelieve what Mrs. Mathis reported?”

“Her head isn’t always clear,” Greg stated simply. “I should’ve insisted on seeing Kisha before I believed her.”

“Why didn’t you?” Scully asked.

“I had to get back here,” he said, slightly defensive. “Lina was by herself with Ryland gone—Ryland was working security and got shot. I felt bad leaving in the first place, but Kisha lives in a bad area and I wanted to make sure she got home safely. She was really upset after the shooting, and she ran out before most of us even got up off the floor.”

“Does this sort of thing happen often in this area?” Mulder asked.

Greg shrugged. “We get death threats and shit—crap—like that,” he corrected himself, glancing over his shoulder at a young teenager who smirked at his pastor’s slip-up. “Sometimes we get caught in gang crossfire, but that’s rare. If you haven’t noticed, there’s not a whole lot of people around to create security problems.”

“Why did you choose to build a church here in such a depopulated area?” Scully asked.

“’Cause I grew up in the East side,” Greg said, emotion clearly present in his voice as his normally practiced and professional tone turned slightly accented. “And I’ve seen what that kind of environment does to kids. It wasn’t much better twenty years ago, but then unemployment wasn’t 50% and the graduation rate wasn’t half of that. These kids live in this area still. They got no school to go to, parents got no jobs, they’re lucky if they got a house, much less a church. And there’s no way some kid with his older brother’s rusty bike is gonna ride twenty-five miles out of his way to go to some youth group where he doesn’t know anyone and gets beat up on the way out.”

“Word,” a young boy said from a few feet away. He was patching a bullethole in the linoleum.

“Plus this place teaches kids skills, gives them opportunities they wouldn’t otherwise have. And gets ‘em off the streets.”

Mulder smiled. “It’s a great thing you and Lina have done here. We’re going to speak to Agent Terrance. We’ll let you know if we have any more questions.”

Greg nodded, and walked away to help his youth group do their work. “Sorry you asked?” Mulder asked Scully in a low tone.

She smirked in response.

“Agent Terrance,” Mulder greeted the man who was just ending his call. He extended his hand. “Agent Mulder, and this is my partner Agent Scully.”

“Nice to meet you in person,” Terrance said with a Michigan accent. He was a tall man, about Mulder’s height with a balding crown and a mustache. He wore a dress shirt and tie under his vest, all draped by an FBI jacket. “I’ll run down exactly what happened and then we can decide how we want to proceed. If you’ll follow me.”

They exited the general worship area out the back, and entered into a small church office. It was more like a conference room than anything else, with peeling paint on the ceiling and dusty chairs surrounding a circular table. Mulder noted the “Do Not Enter” sign on the door.

“The pastor indicated that this room was not yet renovated, so we can talk in here. Apparently they were in worship service when they experienced a drive-by shooting. Two days prior to that, Pastor Montoya received a death note taped to the church door. We’ve checked out Montoya’s past. He spent two years in Juvie and was released. No known gang connections. We think we’ve got the UNSUB in our morgue. Some whacked out kid on crack with anti-religious sentiments. That’s what we got from the notebook he had on him. The handwriting matched the threatening note.”

“So you think you’ve solved one crime but the solution gave you another UNSUB to look for.” Mulder said.

“Exactly. This kid died from a python bite. Toxin killed him,” he stated.

“Does the toxin match previous samples?” Scully asked.

He sighed, and leaned back. “We’re not convinced our results are reliable.”

“They found that the venom matched samples you had in storage from before the snake’s lifetime,” Mulder said.

Terrance frowned in confusion and surprise. “Yes, actually. How did you know?”

“We’ve seen something similar before,” Mulder said ambiguously.

“Exactly how old is the sample you had in storage?” Scully asked, skepticism present in her voice.

“The most recent samples matched the other attacks in the neighborhood. The earliest sample isn’t important,” Terrance tried to back out of answering.

“We’d like to know its age anyway,” Mulder said, and leaned forward. “Agent Terrance, I understand you don’t consider your results reliable. But have you thought about the possibility that someone might be cloning the snakes? That would be a perfectly plausible explanation for the sample’s age exceeding a python’s lifetime. Another plausible explanation would be that someone has old, stored samples of python venom and is injecting his victims with it.”

Terrance nodded slowly, and then accelerated his nod as his facial muscles relaxed. That told Mulder he was thankful for the way out. He didn’t have to look like a fool in front of DC’s visiting agents. “The earliest sample was from 1933. We haven’t expended any resources exploring that case, but if you think someone might have gotten a hold of an old sample and is cloning these pythons and training them to attack, then by all means, you can have full access to our archives.”

“Thank you, Agent Terrance. I’m sure my partner will be interested in examining that, and the bodies of the victims. But I’d like to talk to Mrs. Mathis and both of the pastors about Kisha. We’re going to be calling in reinforcements to back you up on the search for her, but I have some experience in Missing Persons,” he said, emphasizing the last two words as if he was referring to the title of a division instead of a personal quest, “and my professional recommendation is that you get an Amber Alert out immediately, and get on the news and state that we’ve got a solid lead, that we believe the kidnapper to be associated with the shooting, and that our profile indicates that he will turn in his friends to make himself look innocent.”

Terrance raised an eyebrow in an almost Scully-like gesture. “You have a profile of the kidnapper already?”

“Well, yes,” Mulder started to answer as he leaned back in his seat. The corner of his mouth twitched in slight humor as he continued, “but that isn’t it.”

Terrance simply stared at him, completely lost.

“I don’t think the kidnappers had anything to do with the shooting,” Mulder explained. “But the shooters, from what you said, have already had one of their friends attacked by a python. From what we know, they’re all minors. At least one shooter has anti-religious views, which tells me he probably fears religion more than he disdains it. He was probably raised to be at least slightly superstitious.” He could tell he was losing Terrance, so he wrapped it up. “My point is, Agent Terrance, that if we state on the local news that the shooters will turn their friends in, it makes an already suspicious crowd even more paranoid. They’re going to make mistakes. They may even turn themselves in. They’re inexperienced—if they had wanted to assassinate Greg, they would have stormed the unlocked front door and shot up the room. Instead, they drove by and shot through a basement window. They’re just kids. And they’re scared.”

Terrance nodded slowly. He then stood, a grateful smile on his face. He extended his hand. “Agent Mulder, you’ve helped already.”

He shook Terrance’s hand, but stated, “Don’t thank me yet. Let’s go talk to Lina and Greg, and then to Mrs. Mathis.”

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2616 E. CANFIELD ST

DETROIT, MI

MONDAY, FEBRUARY 14th, 2011

1400

They drove through the East Side neighborhoods in two unmarked black FBI SUVs. Mulder sat with Lina Hawgood in the rear vehicle while the other vehicle led the way through the desolate part of town. Canfield Street was lined with crumbled sidewalks and tall, overgrown grass. One could no longer tell where some of the houses had once stood in the previously suburban neighborhood. What surprised Mulder was that here or there small communities of two or three houses would appear normal and well-cared for. Groups of people had banded together and taken care of the lawns and houses of abandoned areas, as well as their own houses. He reflected that in times of great desperation, it was always individuals who cared about their community who made a real difference.

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Three children on bikes crossed the street in front of them at one stop light, eyeing them nervously. One of the children wasn’t wearing a coat, despite the chilly winter weather and small blanket of snow on the ground. It occurred to Mulder at that moment that they looked more like gang bangers than FBI, in the large black SUVs with tinted windows.

Mulder had been grilling Lina on the subject of Kisha. The eleven-year-old was shy and most likely abused. She had used the church as an escape from her home life. Mrs. Shareesa Mathis was probably an alcoholic and drug addict. She had five children by five different men. She had a job at a gas station as an attendant, and the children were often left alone in the house while she worked multiple shifts. The gas station had fired her four times for failing to show up to work, but she had managed to get her job back each time.

They were currently living in a rundown house that should probably have been condemned. They paid $50 of monthly rent to the landlord next door, who had informed Kisha, the oldest child, that they were three months behind. Social Services had taken her children multiple times, but Shareesa had earned them back. Kisha rode her bike to the church or walked if one of her siblings had the bike. She stayed all day if she wasn’t in school, but she usually didn’t participate in any of the activities. She sometimes stayed the night at Lina’s apartment, and had asked Lina one night if she could stay permanently.

It sounded to Mulder that Kisha was a little girl falling through the cracks of a failing system. She wasn’t exceptionally bright or exceptionally behind in school. She wasn’t extremely skinny or heavy. She didn’t have the worst living conditions in the city, but certainly didn’t have the best. She was an average child, and no one was caring for her. So Greg and Lina had stepped in, and made sure that she and all the other children living in similar conditions had lunch at school, dinner at night, and a roof over their head every evening. They gave Kisha her backpack, clothes, and shoes. They also provided for her four younger siblings, using the donated items from their suburban sister church.

There was no guarantee what state Mrs. Mathis would be in when they walked in. Mulder doubted that Kisha’s mother was going to be helpful, but her siblings might. They were who he truly wanted to talk to.

As they pulled up to the run-down house, they saw an abandoned bus that looked like its manufacture date might have been in the ‘60s. It was in the overgrown lot next door to the Mathis’ residence, and had no wheels or windows. Mulder glanced at it suspiciously, and stored it away in his memory. Five children living next to an abandoned bus would likely make it a clubhouse, and if Kisha was going to return to someplace ‘safe’, that might be it. But then, it was very close to this collapsing house that was probably a prison for the child.

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The Mathis’ house was mostly boarded up. The front door was on brand-new shiny hinges, though, and Mulder glanced curiously at them as they approached the front porch. “We installed those three weeks ago,” Lina said. “Greg and some of the boys helped.”

He nodded, understanding now. “I can’t believe anyone lives here,” he said quietly, looking at the condition of the house. He doubted it was safe in some areas. The upstairs windows were bashed in and boards had not replaced them. Multiple bullet holes could be seen in the wood between the chips of peeling white paint. The porch was slanted, and he tested each step before actually stepping up. A tricycle could be seen in the side yard next to the collapsing fence. It was filthy but intact, and recent small handprints could be seen through the dirt on the yellowed handlebars.

“They may not live here for long,” Lina said. “Kisha told us Social Services paid them a visit only a week ago and said if they don’t find a way to fix up the place, they’re going to have to move again.”

“How many times have they moved?” Mulder asked before knocking on the door.

“Kisha lost track,” the pastor stated sadly.

Mulder knocked on the doorframe and faced forward, making sure to seem as unthreatening as possible. He was flanked by Terrance and Lina, and two other agents stood by the cars. He was aware that they didn’t exactly look friendly.

A woman answered after a brief wait. She was in her mid thirties, her hair tied up on her head and held there with a clip. The baby in her arms was wearing only a diaper as he sucked his thumb. She was wearing men’s cargo pants and a large t-shirt that looked like it could have used a run through the washing machine. Screaming children could be heard running around inside.

“Wha’ you want?” she demanded. “Y’all Social Services? ‘Cause I told them—”

“We’re not from Social Services, Mrs. Mathis. May we come in, please?”

“Y’all police? I don’t want no damn police—”

“They’re not police, Shareesa. You remember me? It’s Lina, the pastor down at the church?” Lina inquired, and gave Shareesa a winning smile.

The baby smiled back and waved his little hand. Shareesa squinted and then recognition hit her. “Oh! Lina! Why didn’t you say so?! Come in! Who all ya friends?”

Mulder opened the screen door and extended his hand. “My name’s Mulder, and we’re here to help find Kisha. Were you aware Kisha was missing?” He still couldn’t tell from her behavior if she was lucid, but it appeared she was and simply needed glasses. Glasses probably didn’t fit in a family’s budget if they had difficulty buying clothes and food.

“Kisha ain’t missin’. She just gone off with some friends or somethin’. She hard-headed, that girl. Don’t listen to no one, can’t control her. Always runnin’ off. Thank God for the church, tryin’a put some sense in her head.” She put the baby down, and he scampered away to find his siblings.

Mulder looked around. The house smelled of body odor, marijuana, and urine. The kitchen, where they had come in, was a mess. It was doubtful anyone had cooked or done dishes for a while. An opened package of Chewy Granola bars sat on the floor, and a box of water bottles from Meijer sat next to them. No doubt donations from the church. The floor was stained from mud tracked in with snow on people’s boots. There was no kitchen table, but there was a small end table with a few folding chairs strewn about it. There were windows installed on the downstairs, and the place was poorly heated but heated nonetheless. Mulder could see a rope holding a piece of plywood that blocked the stairway. That answered his question about anyone living on the unsafe second floor.

“What y’all need from me?” she asked. “I gotta be at work at four.”

“That’s fine, Mrs. Mathis. Do you mind if we ask the kids a few questions?” Mulder asked gently. He wanted to gain this woman’s trust.

“Don’t know what answers y’all gonna get outta them. But fine by me. Any of ‘em give ya trouble, let me know.”

Mulder nodded, even though he most certainly would not let her know. He was planning on making some calls after they were done here. He glanced at the filthy dishes in the sink and noticed fly larvae crawling all over one plate. Definitely going to call Social Services.

Shareesa then screamed at the top of her lungs, “Jared! Kareem! Anthony! Git over here!”

The yelling children became silent, but they ran over to her almost immediately. They were probably three, five, and eight. They were in various stages of getting dressed, the youngest in his dirty sleeper pajamas, the middle one in sweatpants and a t-shirt, and the oldest in jeans that were too small and a sweatshirt that was too big. They looked warily at the unfamiliar adults in the house. “Y’all answer they’s questions. I be watchin’ TV.” Shareesa then abruptly left without another word.

TV? How does this family have a TV?

Mulder’s thoughts were interrupted by the three-year-old’s little voice proclaiming, “I ain’t answer none questions from you!”

“Anthony, you remember me? Lina?” Lina asked as she squatted down to the little boy’s level and smiled. He stared, and then nodded. “I brought you something,” she said, and pulled a candy bar out of her pocket. His eyes lit up, and he reached for it. “No,” she said, pulling back. “I’ll give you the candy bar if you’re good. You promise?” He nodded, and she handed him the candy bar.

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Mulder pulled a chair up and sat down, and indicated that the boys should do the same. Agent Terrance, aware that he was an intimidating presence, backed up against the wall and said nothing.

Lina led the boys to chairs and handed the other two candy bars as well. They happily ate, clearly hungry. Mulder realized they were probably rationing the water and granola bars. He wondered if it was Shareesa who had made the decision to ration, or the children.

“Okay, what are your names?” Mulder asked.

“You a cop?” the eight-year-old asked suspiciously.

“Not quite,” Mulder answered. “I’m here to help find Kisha. You noticed she wasn’t here?”

“She gone off, mama said,” the five-year-old said. “And my name’s Kareem.”

Mulder nodded, smiled at Kareem, and extended his hand. The little boy took it. “It’s very nice to meet you, Kareem.” His aim was to make the five-year-old feel important. He looked at all three of them when he asked, “Where do you think she went?”

The boys shrugged.

“Well, where do you guys like to go when you’re outside? Do you have a favorite hiding place?”

“We go places,” the eight-year-old answered. His body language was defensive. He didn’t trust Mulder, and was attempting to etch an angry expression into his face. He was scared. Mulder’s heart went out to the little boy. With his sister missing, he felt that he was in charge of this family. His three younger siblings were too young to care for themselves.

“Does Kisha have any friends from school?” Mulder asked.

“Yeah, she friends with that boy Luke,” Kareem said, and finished his candy bar.

“Shut up, Kareem, ‘fore I pop you,” Jared threatened, and Kareem was promptly silent.

“Jared, that wasn’t nice,” Lina corrected firmly. “We’re trying to help you. Being mean will not help find Kisha. I know you’re worried about her and want to find her. If you want, you can come with us when we go to look. We might need your help.”

Mulder smiled and nodded. Having Jared’s help navigating the neighborhood would be useful, and it would get him out of this situation.

Jared seemed to consider it. He trusted Lina, having seen the fruits of her labor before. The door was broken, and it was Lina and Greg who had fixed it. They were hungry, and Lina and Greg brought food and water. Kisha sometimes spent the night with Lina and Greg. Their sister trusted them implicitly, and that was probably good enough for the eight-year-old.

But he didn’t trust Mulder. Social Services had come and taken them from their mother before. He had been fed and clothed while with them, but split up from his siblings. He would not willingly go again. “My brothers come or we don’t go,” he demanded.

“We can do that. We’ll bring your brothers with us,” Mulder promised. “And you know what? I’m going to make sure you get to stay together and when Kisha is found, you all go to a place where you’ll get a warm meal and a place to sleep, together. I promise.”

Jared looked at Mulder with distrust and even genuine anger, but he nodded cautiously. “Lemme get Toby.” He stood and walked away, searching for the baby.

Mulder turned to Terrance. “Get Social Services on the phone,” he said in a low tone. “Tell them the kids are in our custody for the next twenty-four hours, and then they can get involved. Get Jax in here, tell Porter to stay by the cars. We may get resistance,” he said, and Terrance nodded. Moments later, one of the other agents entered and Jared came back with the baby in his arms. “Lina, will you take some pics with your phone, please?” Mulder asked kindly, hoping that his tone would mask his purpose. They would need documentation as to why they took the children. She nodded.

Then Mulder decided to take the bullet. He led the way into the other room, following the noise of the television. Four cots were laid out on the family room floor and an ancient television with rabbit ears was propped on a cinder block against the wall. Shareesa sat on one of the cots with the remote in her hand, watching a movie. “Mrs. Mathis?”

“What, you done wi’ the kids?”

“Mrs. Mathis, the kids are going to help us find Kisha. They believe they know where she may have gone.”

“Y’all bring ‘em back when you done?”

“We’ll see. We need to speak with Social Services first.”

She turned around at that. “Y’all bring mah kids back, or I come after yo’ ass.” She stood up. “Y’all don’t take mah kids!”

“Mrs. Mathis, the children need a good meal and appropriate clothing for the weather. We’re going to keep them together and make sure they get all of that—”

She started to push past him to grab Jared, who had followed Mulder into the family room and was now staring wide-eyed at Terrance and Jax as they held his mother back. Mulder approached him and placed a comforting hand around his shoulders, leading him out of the family room as his mother screamed after them. “Y’all don’t take mah kids! I kill yo’ ass! I kill you!”

Lina got the kids into one of the vehicles. They didn’t have car seats so they settled on stuffing their winter coats underneath Kareem and Anthony. They held the baby in their arms. They hadn’t come prepared to take children, but Mulder had given the order and after what Terrance had seen in that house, he couldn’t blame him. But now they had to get out of there quickly if they were going to spare the children the sight of their mother running after them.

“Where are we going?” Jared asked. Mulder noticed he had slipped his hand into Anthony’s.

“We’re going to the FBI office first, and we’re going to find you some warm clothes and something to eat. Then after that we’ll let you lead the way while we drive around the neighborhood and look for Kisha. That sound good to you?” Mulder asked the boy.

Jared nodded, cautious and serious. The eight-year-old was still bearing the responsibility of ‘head of the family’ for his younger siblings, even though it appeared they were safe. Hearing his mother screaming death threats at the people he was now with probably didn’t help his opinion of the FBI.

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FBI DETROIT FIELD OFFICE

DETROIT, MI

MONDAY, FEBRUARY 14th, 2011

1445

“You took four children out of their home without a court order?” Scully asked, raising an eyebrow. “How are you going to swing this one, Mulder?”

They were in the morgue, Mulder leaning against a counter as far from the body as possible and Scully in scrubs and an apron standing over an autopsied corpse that used to be a gangbanger.

“If you had seen the conditions those children were living in, you’d have taken them too. I think they need the CDC in there.”

“Be that as it may,” his partner countered, “you have to at least alert Social Services—”

“Already done. We have them for 24 hours because they’re potential witnesses.”

“Witnesses to what?”

“I think the oldest boy, Jared, might be able to lead us to Kisha. And the snake.”

Scully frowned. “You’re taking a little boy into the field? How old is he?”

“He’s eight. Just old enough to testify.” He sensed the need to change the subject before he was skewered. “What did you find?”

“The toxin did come from the same snake. And the victims all died from the same toxin. The problem is, while these samples match samples the Detroit PD has on their database dating back to 1933, the computer archives don’t list where those old samples came from. If we want a complete history, we’re going to have to find complete archives instead of the summaries they uploaded into the database.”

Finally, Mulder thought. Something he could do. “It sounds like we’re going to have to dig through some files,” Mulder said.

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DETROIT POLICE DEPARTMENT

DETROIT, MI

MONDAY, FEBRUARY 14th, 2011

1530

The Detriot Police had been around longer than the FBI and were the first to investigate the toxin killings. On the drive over, Mulder had done some research on his phone’s internet and found out that the first killings took place in 1930, not 1933. On an urban legends website, he read that more than twenty people had been killed by trained pythons between the years of 1930 and 1941, but then the killings abruptly stopped. It was suspected that circus performers were to blame, and that at the start of World War II, many of them fled the city for fear of the draft. The police had lost track of the case amidst the wartime chaos, and none of the files had even been opened since the early 1950s.

When the agents arrived at the Police Department they were told that all police officers were unavailable. Mulder didn’t think it was just a line—he thought it was a truthful statement. Detroit had recently cut its investigations department, leaving the city with no formally titled detectives. The city was completely in the red financially and needed to cut everywhere it could, so police officers were unofficially commissioned as officers and detectives, and any cases worth investigating were either handled by the police or if needed, handed over to the FBI. Overtime was mandatory. The officers not on their patrols were understandably exhausted and busy with paperwork, and so a receptionist led the agents to the archives area.

“The top floor stops at about 1970, for anything earlier than that you’ll need to go down to the basement,” she told them, and then made a run for it. She too had an exorbitant amount of work to do and not a lot of time to do it. She definitely didn’t have time to help two FBI agents look up something from the 1930s.

They immediately went to the basement, boarding the elevator that looked like it had last been serviced in their target era. Scully’s grip on the handrail turned white-knuckled when the machine suddenly shook after nearly reaching their stop, and jumped the last foot down to the basement level with a ‘bang’.

“I think we’ll use the stairs heading back up,” Mulder commented, and they stepped into the catacomb-like basement level. It looked like one of the many government buildings Mulder had infiltrated, with lots and lots of files. The difference was that there was also lots and lots of dust.

The boxes of files were organized on shelves according to decade, and they reached the 1930s at the very end of one wall of files and Mulder actually had to bat away some cobwebs in order to access the area. There were only six boxes, the others having been lost or thrown out over time.

There was no table in the basement so Mulder used the empty shelf space and opened the box in front of them right there. He started paging through, looking for the target dates. “Here you go, Scully,” he handed her three files. “Should be somewhere in there.”

She also started paging through, and before Mulder had reached the next case, she said, “1930, 3664 Joseph Campau Street, a residence belonging to a Dr. Alan Desper.” She read on. “The description states that Desper lived alone, had some sort of laboratory in his house…he was an inventor.”

Mulder’s eyes widened at that.

“He was found with the same puncture wounds. They autopsied his body and placed a sample of the toxin in the files until they could test it against something,” Scully read. She looked up. “He must have had some money, and his family wanted this investigation. Or maybe he had some prominence in the community.”

Mulder agreed with a nod. “Detroit didn’t have that kind of money in 1930 to be expending resources on that extensive an investigation.”

She closed the file and went to the next one. “1931,” she read, and Mulder continued searching through the box. As she read on, he opened the next box and continued his search, pulling out a few more files.

After a half hour they had an extensive list of people who had been killed by snake toxin between 1930 and 1939. Mulder had moved onto the 1940s, which strangely enough had a shelf all to itself, considering the small quantity of files in the 1930s. He found three more attacks between 1940 and 1941, and then the attacks abruptly stopped. This confirmed the information that was loaded into the computer database.

As they walked toward the exit sign that led to a staircase in a dimly-lit alcove of the dungeon-like facility, Mulder said, “I think the next step has to be driving to each of those attack locations.”

“What makes you think you’ll find the snakes or Kisha at any of them, if none of the attacks were at the same location?”

“I want to take Jared with us.”

Scully glanced in his direction as they climbed the stairs under the flickering fluorescent light. As was typical with Mulder, his response neither answered her question nor struck confidence in her heart that he knew what he was doing. Half the time it seemed like he was shooting in the dark, hoping to hit something. But it was his impeccable record at hitting that something, oftentimes on the first try, that made her withhold her protest as they exited the police department and went back to the field office.

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WOODWARD AVE MARIOTT

DETROIT, MI

MONDAY, FEBRUARY 14th, 2011

1945

Scully had driven for three hours with the eight-year-old, his brothers, and Mulder in the back of the SUV. Mulder quietly mapped out each attack location on a tourist map they picked up at a Seven Eleven. He drew radii around each dot, and colored in the areas where they overlapped.

His map was complete by the time Jared had identified every hide-out and clubhouse, every secret passageway and friend’s house, that Kisha frequented. He was interested to hear that the children sometimes went into the Desper residence, which was falling apart. They believed it was haunted but it was so dangerous in its decay that none of them had ever ventured past the kitchen. When they got back to the hotel and ordered pizza, Mulder was still staring at the completed map and comparing it to something on his laptop computer screen.

His silence was killing her. More than that, it was concerning her. He was definitely profiling, but this wasn’t his normal profiling mode. She noticed the distinct lack of yellow paper, which was a red flag in-and-of itself. He also hadn’t been at it long enough to get this engrossed. It usually took him days to get to this coma-like state she now observed him in.

After taking off her heels and getting into comfortable flannel pants and a v-neck t-shirt, she prodded into his hotel room through the open adjoined door and sat down on the couch next to him. “Hmm,” she got in response, a cross between a grunt and ‘hi’.

“Mulder,” she said softly, and placed her hand on the laptop keyboard, but didn’t depress any keys. “What’s wrong?”

“I hope nothing,” he responded, but his answer was so lame that he didn’t even bother justifying it. “I think we have a problem.”

Scully looked at the map and at his screen, and then she realized what he was doing. “Those don’t have much to do with this case, do they?” she asked while staring at the circles.

“No,” Mulder said, and looked at her with a worried expression. “This case had my Spidey-senses tingling from the beginning, Scully, but it’s worse than I expected. Of fifty-six attacks total, not counting the most recent ones, forty-eight of those correlate with X-files, both investigated and shelved.”

She glanced at his computer screen. “What’s this?” His partner asked.

“This is a secure link to those X-files,” he said, and minimized the window. “This,” he expanded another, “is the alien text you found in India.”

After Scully had stormed the half-collapsed hospital in India along with a marine unit who subsequently found and rescued Mulder, she had nearly stepped on a Toughbook that had survived in the rubble. The computer’s entire system was operating in some other language, which was later verified to be alien text that matched what they had seen before.

“What does that have to do with these cases?”

“The translation, or at least the best version we have, is a list of names. One of those names is “Strughold”, which would make any sane person run away all by itself. The rest of those names meant nothing to us, until now. Guess what forty-eight of them match up to?”

Scully’s eyes widened. “Python victims?”

“No. Not people. Street addresses of the attacks.” He pulled out the map. “Each of these locations,” he pointed to them one by one, “are all detailed from this alien text, Scully. What we found is connected to this case. But more importantly, this case is directly connected to Strughold’s operation. He’s using these snakes as…assassins. A cheap means of killing…I don’t know who. Failed experiments?”

“We have to get these results to Skinner. And we should leave, Mulder. The likelihood of something happening to us now that we’ve discovered this is—”

“We’re not leaving. At least not until we’ve gone into the details of each of these cases, and we still need to find that little girl.”

“You found overlapping areas between where Jared said she hung out and the attack locations—give that to Terrance, let him finish this. Don’t you think these results are more important than this case? You mentioned that these recent attacks were outliers on the map, that they didn’t correlate with the text.”

“They don’t, which is all the more reason why we should stay, Scully. This is the first time in over seventy years that one of these attacks hasn’t correlated with Strughold’s activities. Just a little too coincidental for me…”

“Strughold is trying to trap us, Mulder.”

He stood up. “He wanted me dead in India, Scully,” he said as he walked over to the window. “He wouldn’t have planned this if he thought I’d die in that God-forsaken place.”

Scully was silent for a moment. “Don’t you think he’s fully capable of coming up with a contingency plan? What can it hurt to set up something here just in case you came along? And it wouldn’t take much, Mulder. Pay some kid to piss off the wrong people, instigate a miniature gang war, cause a shootout, and then use his programmed snake to enact ‘revenge’ off the map from his previous experiments to attract the FBI and get you on the job. Then lure you to some abandoned area of the city and pay another kid to drive by and shoot you. Or both of us. He could go on experimenting and using the snakes to take out the failed experiments, or go on dealing in alien weapons and using the snakes to take out the dealers, or whatever else he was doing in this hellhole. And no one would be any wiser.”

Mulder turned. A smile played on the corner of his lips and he said, “Scully…”

“I’m getting tired of you asking me to marry you, Mulder,” she responded, and then started to chuckle.

He broke into laughter too, and sat back down beside her. He audibly sighed, and leaned back. She wrapped her arm around his shoulders and rested her head close to his. He stared at the map and computer screen and said, “This is culminating to something, Scully. I can feel it.”

She was silent for a moment. Then she whispered, “When it comes, we’ll face whatever it is together, okay?”

He pursed his lips together and nodded briefly. “Together,” he promised.

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3664 JOSEPH CAMPAU ST.

DETROIT, MI

MONDAY, FEBRUARY 14th, 2011

2305

Let it never be said I don’t come prepared, Mulder thought as he walked down the street in jeans and ratty old tennis shoes, his hands shoved into the front pocket of his black hoodie, with the hood pulled over his head. From behind, one would never guess that he didn’t belong there.

Joseph Campau Street was one of the more populated areas of the East Side, but was surrounded by abandoned neighborhoods. It was almost like an oasis in the middle of the desert, but except for the northern end, it was an oasis that had seen better days. Just a few blocks from Greg and Lina’s church, the street was lined with houses in various stages of decay, but not a lot of empty lots.

There was no one around. Anyone with any sense knew to get behind their doors at this time of night, in this particular neighborhood. Mulder didn’t feel threatened, though, because he figured the major drug dealers and gang bangers would be in a more populated area this time of night. Abandoned neighborhoods were better used for crack houses and meth labs than they were for drive-by shootings.

He was looking for 3664 Joseph Campau Street, where it all began. Dr. Alan Desper’s historic house, where the scientist was experimenting on brain wave chemistry and the ability to communicate with animals. Obviously, it was incredibly relevant to the case.

It was also a major intersection on his map, combining historic attack sites with Kisha’s hangouts and Strughold’s street names. His plan was to collect evidence and leave, hopefully without Scully knowing that he hadn’t gone down to the gym because of his insomnia. He didn’t want her in this environment.

In the distance he could hear a siren wailing, and the stars were brilliant that night due to the lack of working street lights and the isolated nature of this street. Some dogs barked in someone’s yard not far from him. A baby in the house to his left cried, and a man and a woman screamed at each other from the top floor of a duplex to his right. Other than those sounds and sights, the neighborhood was deathly still.

After about a block, he found the decrepit house that used to be the home of a brilliant scientist. It looked like it hadn’t been inhabited for several years. In any other city, a building like this had to have been abandoned by ten or fifteen years, but looters would tear into a newly-abandoned building in Detroit and rip out every piece of metal existent, leaving it desolate as if it had been vacant for a decade.

Mulder walked the short distance to the front porch and tested each step before he mounted it. The door had once been locked with a padlock and a neighborhood watch sign was graffiti’d over on the window to his left. He couldn’t help but imagine how magnificent it had looked at one point. As he looked around at the surroundings and spotted a car upside-down without any tires in the side-yard, he also couldn’t help but wonder, What the hell am I doing here?

Nevertheless, he took a deep breath and entered the house, half expecting to be attacked by snakes. Instead he was met with total silence. He turned on his flashlight and its single ‘click’ sounded like a symphony. The kitchen was filled with dust and cobwebs, the holes in the half-rotted wooden floor showing through to the basement. If I fall through this floor and get stuck, Scully is going to kill me.

He walked slowly and carefully around the ancient refrigerator that was on its side on the kitchen floor. The thought occurred to him that he didn’t exactly know what he was looking for. There were no snakes here. No child. No signs of life, even. He expected there to be footprints on the dusty floor or fingerprints on the door, but there was not even a stray cat or a cockroach in this desolate place. He began to question his hunch. Perhaps the home of Alan Desper was a dud.

That’s when he heard it. It was extremely faint, but in the silence it was possible to pick up…music?

He stepped around the refrigerator again and stuck his head out the front door. The sound was gone. So it can’t be the neighbors down the street.

He closed the front door again and hopped over the fridge, heading to the back staircase. The sound was getting louder, but was still extremely faint. He shined his flashlight around, batting cobwebs with the mini-maglite and hoping he didn’t get a spider bite he would later have to explain to Scully.

The music could be some homeless person…he thought. The skeptical voice in his mind sounded like Scully’s, but whatever was driving his heart deeper into this darkness was stronger. He mounted the stairs one at a time, testing the creaking wood and stepping around areas with large holes. He reached the top floor and clicked his flashlight off, attempting to determine if there were any lights on.

There were none. In fact, he was enveloped in darkness so heavy that he could feel its presence. He was surrounded. His heart rate began to increase in frequency, and he attempted to slow his breathing. There was someone here. Or something…

The instant the thought sparked in his mind, he felt something slither past his leg, and a voice eerily identical to that demon he encountered in the Wisconsin boarding school entered his mind.

You’re in the right place if you’re looking to stop him…

“Who?” Mulder asked out loud, the volume of his own voice creating goosebumps on his arms and causing the hairs to stick up on the back of his neck.

You must ‘face the music.’ Before he arrives…

“Who are you talking about? Who are you?” Mulder demanded, attempting to put some resolve into his voice.

The only one of my brothers and sisters still fighting for justice.

Mulder clicked his flashlight back on, and spun around desperately, trying to catch his telepathic companion before he disappeared. “Are you one of Alan Desper’s experiments?” Mulder asked, starting down the corridor in the direction of the music. “Where is Kisha Mathis?! Where have you taken her?!”

A door at the end of the corridor creaked open, and a small face appeared close to the floor. Mulder shined his flashlight there instantly, and pulled his weapon. He lowered it as soon as he saw who it was. “Kisha…” he said softly. “I’m not here to hurt you. I’m with the FBI. I’m here to take you to a safe place.”

Kisha stared at him with wide eyes, and said nothing.

“Please don’t try to run away. I don’t think this place is safe to run around in. If you come with me, I’ll get you something to eat and some warm clothes. It’s cold here.” The music was getting louder, and Mulder realized there was a small iPod on the floor next to the child. He wondered where she got it.

They’re here! Mulder’s head exploded with the message, and Kisha ducked into the room instantly, diving into a closet and slamming the door closed. Mulder barely had a chance to get into the room with her and sweep up the iPod on the floor before he heard a hissing noise downstairs.

It was only seconds after that, not even long enough to get to the closet, before a barrage of snakes came flowing like water up the stairs and down the hall, directly toward him. He backed up, fired off a few shots, and shouted for Kisha to stay in the closet, but there was nothing more he could do. They divided in a great parting of the sea, at least fifty of them heading for the closet and another twenty surrounding him. The pythons, clearly trained, stopped when they formed a fence around him. Their fangs were the pickets and he stood stock-still, taking deep breaths and slowly raising his weapon. The hissing increased, now louder than a tree full of cicadas. One snake snapped at his weapon as a warning sign, and he realized he’d barely get a shot off before they killed him. But what else was he supposed to do?

The snakes by the closet had wound themselves around the doorknob and had pulled the door open, revealing an exposed Kisha inside. The little girl shrieked in terror and curled herself into a fetal ball on the floor.

I WILL NOT ALLOW IT! There was a screaming voice in his head, and a final snake dropped from a hole in the ceiling, breaking the circle that surrounded Mulder. In an instant, it recovered and shot toward the closet. Pythons surrounded the terrified eleven-year-old girl, and Mulder saw only one alternative to this situation. He was about to jump in front of her and take the brunt of the attack himself, but his companion was too fast. It was an enormous snake and had enough momentum to push Mulder out of the way as it leapt in front of Kisha and was almost immediately torn apart by the fangs of its fellow snakes.

Mulder watched and grimaced, realizing that in seconds, that would be Kisha’s fate as well. “Can you all understand telepathy? Do you all have that ability?!” he desperately asked. “Please, she’s just a child!”

You do not understand the intricacies of the business you find yourself in, came another voice, this one gravelly and low. He jumped when something unexpectedly slithered past him and wound itself around him. Oh, God, he thought. Scully really is going to kill me for this…

Kisha was begging, crying uncontrollably, streaming unintelligible pleas from her sob-ridden throat. She was petrified, hyperventilating, and Mulder was helpless to stop it.

The hissing was so loud that he could already feel his ears ringing. Then it happened. The first snake dove, and then another, and they all followed suit. Kisha’s screams of terror and pain turned into inhuman, primal screams of death. Mulder closed his eyes and held back his own sob at this child’s fate, when he was only ten feet away. Why? Why Kisha? Why a child?

The hissing was dying down. The snake released Mulder and let him slump to the dusty floor. Our business is done, the voice echoed in his head. They exited as they had entered. He scrambled into the closet and halted at the door, staring at the freshly mutilated corpses of a snake and what was a small child only moments ago. He sunk to his hands and knees and slammed his fist angrily into the wood as he yelled in emotional agony, letting his tears flow now.

There was not a single snakebite anywhere on his body, and he wanted nothing more than to transfer this child’s pain onto himself. He couldn’t move from his position on the floor next to these mangled corpses, and it grew silent and dark before long, the light from his dropped flashlight illuminating a small strip of the room but nothing more.

After some amount of time, his ears stopped ringing and he again heard the iPod, which was miraculously still playing in his hoodie’s front pocket. He took the small device out and paused it, halting the music. After he saw the screen, he did a double-take.

The album cover was an alien’s face, only instead of green or grey, the alien was bright-white. Behind the alien was a bright-white cigar-shaped UFO identical to the one he and Matt had seen in the forest. The song was entitled, ‘Ally’ and had no artist name attached to it. He stared, his tear-stained face now perplexed. Suddenly, he was angry. “If you’re our ally,” he started at a normal volume, and observed how his own voice rose in his rage, “Why did you let this happen?! We know you have healing abilities! So get down here and heal! Dammit! You’re just serving your own interests like everyone else!” He threw the iPod down on the floor, but it didn’t shatter. He wanted to slam his fist into the wall but he didn’t do it. Instead, he scooped up the iPod and stormed out of the room in one motion. He was going to call Terrance and Scully and report Kisha’s death.

He pulled his cell phone out but it had no signal inside the house, so he headed for the front door. He nearly tripped over the refrigerator and instead of just walking around, he kicked it as hard as he could. He shoved his phone in his pocket and kicked the fridge again, and again, and again, eventually screaming without even realizing it. He could feel his rage flowing from his chest as he pounded the old refrigerator. The door popped off and he kicked it clear across the room where it bounced against the wall and fell through some loosely-placed floorboards. It clambered to a halt in the basement, but Mulder kept kicking. He managed to kick the monstrosity of an old refrigerator into the wood of the kitchen cabinets before he exhausted himself and stumbled backward toward the door. He held onto the knob of the open door, supporting his weight with one shoulder on the door’s ledge. He bowed his head, leaning it against the wood and longing suddenly for a bed to slide down onto, so that he could collapse and fall asleep.

After another moment, he pulled his cell phone again and slowly walked outside into the cold. He hadn’t moved two steps before strong hands grabbed him from behind.

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LIMOUSINE

DETROIT, MI

TUESDAY, FEBRUARY 15th, 2011

0100

Mulder couldn’t remember passing out. But then, he also couldn’t remember getting into a limousine. He didn’t hurt anywhere when he awoke, but he did find himself dizzy and disoriented. He stared at the ceiling of the limousine for a moment before he realized he was handcuffed to some kind of railing along the limo’s floor.

There were men in suits around him, but the lighting was so bad that he couldn’t identify any of them. As soon as one spoke, though, he knew exactly who it was.

“Has anyone ever told you, Mr. Mulder, that you have a knack for showing up where you don’t belong?”

“A few times,” he answered Strughold, shifting his weight so he could face the man. “What do you want? Why did you kill Kisha Mathis?”

“Because she knew what was going on…one of my rogues got to her before my others could stop him. And now, of course, you know as well.”

“So what, you’re going to kill me?”

Strughold chuckled. “Not today. I won’t be so merciful. I still need you, Mr. Mulder, like it or not. I know you certainly didn’t like it in Pakistan, and it’s likely you won’t like it now, either. How is your arm, by the way?”

Over the summer, a piece of glass had embedded itself in his bicep when his humvee was attacked in Pakistan. He was subsequently captured and tortured, under Strughold’s orders. “Why did you kill a little girl? No one would have believed anything she said!”

“She was merely a tool, Mr. Mulder. I took advantage of a situation that in any other circumstance would have dealt me a serious financial blow. Now that you’re here, you have the opportunity to guarantee her death was not in vain. What I am about to tell you is privileged information. There are those out there in the galaxy that would wish Earth harm.”

“I’m sure you play poker with them on Fridays.”

“You’ll be quiet while I’m speaking,” Strughold stated evenly. “There are those out there in the galaxy that would wish Earth harm,” he said in a freakishly soft German accent. He sounded to Mulder like he was giving a Hitler-esque speech to a bunch of Youth recruits. “Through my continued dedication to the preservation of this planet, I’ve secured a way to resist them. They will come preaching peace, and healing. They are lying.

“You see, Mr. Mulder, we are not so different. We reach for the same goals. We both want Earth to be safe. All I am doing is guaranteeing its safety. And I want you to join me.”

Mulder snorted. “You can’t be serious. You can do better than that.” He shook his head. “At this point, Strughold, I’ve been ignored by my employer, I’ve been threatened by a shadow government, when I exposed the shadow government they’ve tried to kill me at every chance they get, I’ve been on the run, I’ve had my family threatened, I’ve had my family killed, I’ve been captured and tortured…twice in the past five years,” the volume of his voice increased as his voice left its sarcastic pitch and took on an angry tone, “and I’ve watched you cheat, and steal, and lie, and murder innocents. I just saw you order a troop of fucking snakes to murder a little girl!” Despite the fact that his hands were tied down, he managed to sit up to his full height as he concluded vehemently, “So no, I’m not going to join you, you sick bastard. And I fucking disagree with you—we are nothing alike, and we never will be. I’ve gotten offers like this before, and if it’s one thing I’ve learned in the past twenty years, it’s don’t get in the devil’s debt. He tends to collect.”

Strughold was silent. It was likely that few of the men in the vehicle had ever heard someone speak to him in that tone.

“If you’re gonna kill me, do it now. Or let me go. But make up your fucking mind!” Mulder yelled.

Then a most curious thing occurred. Strughold’s lips curled to form a sinister smile. “Mr. Mulder,” he started, and paused. “You are a brilliant man. You’re quite right—I seem indecisive on the issue of whether to kill you. During the Bari Trasadi incident I had hoped we would be able to use your uniquely skilled mind to decipher the secrets of a weapon that could protect Earth. Unfortunately, you were unwilling to cooperate and you destroyed it. You nearly killed yourself…which would, of course, solve my dilemma. But I am faced with another decision. You are, as I stated before, uniquely gifted. In order to secure Earth’s safety, I may need your services. If the man is unwilling, however, there are few options left.”

Mulder’s mind raced. Where was Strughold going with this?

“For now, I will leave you alive. I’ve already procured what I need, but one can never have too many insurance policies, can he?”

He had no idea what the elderly man was talking about. He sounded almost senile.

“I will warn you, Mr. Mulder. Further investigation into this case will reveal nothing, will not progress your own quest to circumvent my goals, and may very well lead to your death. Or at the very least, your despair.”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about, Strughold. If you’re going to let me go, let me go. If not, kill me. But please, do us both a favor and stop talking.”

The smile didn’t leave Strughold’s lips. He raised his hand in the slightest gesture, and the limousine slowed to just a few miles per hour. The side-door was opened, and one of Strughold’s guards roughly uncuffed him and unceremoniously tossed him out of the vehicle. He rolled to a stop on the ground as the limo took off again with squealing tires.

It was then that Mulder realized what he had just wished upon himself. He looked around at his desolate surroundings, burnt-out houses and cars rusted through. The post apocalyptic scene was chilling in the moonlight. Well…this sucks. He was stranded in the middle of the night with no gun, no cell phone, and no wallet, in Detroit. He began walking in one direction, knowing that eventually he would hit civilization, whatever that might mean.

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WOODWARD AVE MARIOTT

DETROIT, MI

TUESDAY, FEBRUARY 15th, 2011

0500

“I’m here live in front of the scene of the tragic shooting of an FBI agent. Details are still coming in, but she was reportedly staying in the Woodward Avenue Mariott here in the city of Detroit as a consultant for a case involving—”

When Mulder finally stepped off the bus and into the chaos, he felt his stomach plummet. He saw FBI SUV’s, squad cars, countless news trucks, and a ton of civilians that seemed to have materialized out of thin air at the scene of a crime. The hotel was surrounded with yellow tape, and the manager was giving a statement on CNN.

All words were blocked from his mind after he heard ‘shooting of an FBI agent.’ He saw his vision graying along the corners and he felt dizzy, but he forced himself to stay upright and focused. He had no badge. He couldn’t gain access without someone to ID him. He looked like a gang banger, which wasn’t working in his favor. Neither was the large amount of blood on the front of his shirt, or the dust and dirt he was covered in. He was convinced it was these things that kept him from being mugged by the kids who had mugged the homeless man next to him at the bus stop.

He scanned the crowd for Terrance and finally tracked the man down. “Agent Terrance!” he called. The mustached man turned, and Mulder pushed his way over to him.

“Agent Mulder? What the hell happened to you? Did you get mugged? Are you hurt?”

He shook his head. “Where’s Scully?”

“She’s in the back of the van with our analysts. Some lunatic stormed the hotel and shot an FBI agent we had consulting for us on a white collar crime case.”

Mulder heard nothing after Scully’s location. He ducked under the tape and ran toward the SUV Terrance indicated, his tennis shoes screeching as he came to a halt and faced his partner. “Oh, thank God,” he breathed, and threw his arms around her.

“Mulder? What the hell happened to you?” her question exactly mirrored Terrance’s. “What’s wrong? Where were you? Did you go out running?”

“Scully,” he spoke quietly, “Kisha is dead. She was attacked by…it must have been seventy snakes in there. Her body is in Alan Desper’s old house. So is the snake that bit those gangbangers—it’s been a rogue for a while, now, and I think I know who was controlling it. But I couldn’t get back here sooner because I ran into our German friend,” he glanced behind him. “And I need to talk to you in private.”

Scully’s expression was blank, her mind still processing the amount of information he had just thrown at her. “Let’s get you inside, Mulder. Come on. It’s freezing out here.”

They walked the short distance from the FBI van to the hotel, where they entered and saw the forensic team collecting evidence from the two bodies on the floor—the gunman and the FBI agent who was shot.

“This wasn’t an accident, Scully,” he said, his voice low.

“I know,” she whispered. “Not here.”

To his surprise, she led the way to the Mariott’s restaurant. They navigated through the sea of empty tables and Mulder suddenly felt very dirty. It was the first time he had been in a warm, clean place in what felt like days, and he wanted so badly to step into a hot shower and wash away the stink of this case. But he had a feeling Scully was about to add to it.

They entered the vacant kitchen and Scully continued to walk to the back. Mulder’s brow furrowed in confusion. “Are you going to put me in the freezer? Because it might be faster to just tie concrete blocks to my feet.”

“This location has already been swept. Mulder…I received a communication before the shooting happened.”

He watched as she looked down. She pulled her iPod out of her coat pocket and handed it to him. He wasn’t entirely shocked to find the same album picture and song name, ‘Ally’. Then he pulled out the one he collected from Desper’s house. “Kisha had this with her,” he said.

“This is what you saw in the forest, isn’t it?” she asked.

He nodded.

“If they’re our allies, then why didn’t they stop the shooting?”

“Or Kisha Mathis’ death? I don’t know, Scully. Maybe it’s a warning? Maybe they tried to alert us to stop these things? Spoken language isn’t their chosen method of communication.”

She nodded slowly, her expression one of confusion and slight skepticism.

“Strughold kidnapped me. He tried to…” he laughed bitterly. “He tried to recruit me.”

Her face was full of concern, but her tone was slightly sarcastic. “Taking a page out of CGB Spender’s book? Not like him…”

“He’s planning something,” Mulder told her, his face creased with worry. He recounted Strughold’s words to him, word for word. Then he folded his arms across the front of his bloody, dirty hoodie. “This was a warning, Scully. Whether from our Allies or from Strughold…it’s no coincidence that an FBI agent was murdered here, and that the shooter took his life.”

She pursed her lips. “You should get cleaned up. We can talk about this tomorrow.”

“Well, that depends on what Strughold’s planning, doesn’t it?”

She had no answer for that.

XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX

UNKNOWN LOCATION

DETROIT, MI

TUESDAY, FEBRUARY 15th, 2011

0602

It was dark in his cell. He had been waiting for weeks, observing what was going on with the snakes. Some of the other animals had already been moved, but the snakes had merely gone down in number. Now they all disappeared at once.

The human subjects were being prepared for moving as well, including the infant in the cell across from him. He remembered reading about subjects of Nazi experiments, babies who were never held or loved, who died. He desperately wanted freedom for that infant in the cell across from him. But if that was impossible, then all he wanted was the chance to hold it, to save it from death.

The man in the cell next to him had only two sessions a day now. His had been cut to four. He watched carefully, waiting for indications that people were being moved, and tried to calculate when he would be.

The odd thing was, the baby’s sessions and his seemed to match up almost perfectly. He reasoned they would be moved together, within the next few days. And then he would make his move. His plan was well-formed. He had ten years to think about it, but the baby had added some complications. He would work them out. He would free that infant, and hide it from all who wished it harm. He would love it as his own.

XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX

3664 JOSEPH CAMPAU ST.

DETROIT, MI

WEDNESDAY, FEBRUARY 16th, 2011

1200

“It’s a good thing you folks decided to stick around the extra day for processing the evidence. We really appreciate it,” Terrance said as he got out of the SUV and walked toward the abandoned, collapsing building. “You’ve been nothing but a huge help throughout this case. I just thought you’d like to see this before you go.”

“It’s been an enlightening case for all of us, Agent Terrance,” Scully said. She followed him to the backyard of Alan Desper’s old house. “But honestly we stayed the extra day to attend Kisha Mathis’ memorial service at the church as much as we did to see through the processing of the evidence.”

“Her siblings wouldn’t have been able to attend unless we brought them,” Mulder explained. The children had not been removed from FBI protective custody yet, but were scheduled to go into a foster home in Ann Arbor, which was a much better fate than Mulder thought they would see.

“Yeah, I got the pastors’ thank-you email this morning, actually. They wanted me to pass it on to you—I already forwarded it to your Bureau inbox, Agent Mulder. The two of them consider you two heroes.”

Scully saw Mulder’s jaw tighten, but neither one of them said anything. They had both spoken to the pastors the previous day, during the memorial service. It was touching how they both realized that Kisha’s death was not the agents’ fault, that Mulder had put himself in danger to rescue her, and that at least some good—the children’s new home—had come out of the disaster. Mulder was completely unwilling to accept their gratitude or even talk about Kisha with Scully. She hadn’t seen him shut down like that even after his return from the Bari Trasadi war. It deeply concerned her.

Terrance sensed that he had ventured into dangerous territory, so he moved back to the case. “We noticed some radiation readings when we started collecting evidence, so we followed the trail and started digging up this backyard…” the agent began, and opened the ratty old gate. Once he stepped aside, he revealed an excavation in progress. “We found this.”

Mulder and Scully stood and stared at what had been unearthed under the dirt. “It’s a lab,” Mulder stated in shock, looking at the small network of holding cells, tanks, and old equipment that made up an extension on Desper’s basement. “Is this Desper’s lab?”

“It might’ve been at one time,” Terrance said as he mounted a ladder and climbed down. “But we found human tissue in here, and it’s only been here a few days. They did a pretty good job cleaning up, but it looks like they left in a hurry. Whoever was here might’ve been here when you were upstairs, Agent Mulder.”

Scully mounted the ladder after him, and Mulder was the last to climb down. The mere presence of the place was making his skin crawl.

“One thing’s for certain, though. I think we found our snake breeding ground.” Terrance walked through the network of walls that looked more like ruins, and entered a holding cell with a small slot on the bottom. He nodded toward the floor and said, “I’ve never seen so much snakeskin in my life.”

Mulder looked away, unable to bear the sight of anything related to snakes. But when he did, he frowned and squinted in the next room. He headed over there immediately and found what had caught his eye. Something small and yellow on the floor under a chrome table…he ducked down on his knees, and pulled the object up with a latex glove. “A pacifier,” he stated.

“Apparently they were raising more than just snakes,” Scully offered.

“We’ll document everything for you guys,” Terrance said. “I wouldn’t want you to miss your flight—just wanted to make sure you saw it.”

“Thank you, Agent Terrance. You’ve been helpful too. Anytime you need something, just ask,” Mulder said, and shook the man’s hand.

Scully shook his hand next, and they departed up the ladder. “Have a good flight! Godspeed to you both,” Terrance called after them.

When they were out of earshot, Scully glanced at Mulder and said in a whisper, “I think we’re going to need it.” He responded only by leading her out of the backyard, his comforting hand on the small of her back. They got in the rental car and headed out of Detroit by the same route they came.

XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX

JFK INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT

WASHINGTON, DC

WEDNESDAY, FEBRUARY 16th, 2011

1900

The plane landed and Mulder pulled out his Droid as they decelerated and moved toward a terminal. His and Scully’s phones buzzed and bleeped to life as their screens lit up. As soon as the phones synced with the Android network the messages started coming through. In the past few hours while they were in the air, they had each received over fifty emails and ten voicemails. They glanced at each other before Scully said, “I’ll listen to the voicemails, you get the emails.”

They were right to assume that the onslaught of messages were related, and likely duplicated. Mulder opened his email in chronological order, starting with the first one from Terrance.

________

To: Fox Mulder <fwmulder@fbi.ic.gov>; Dana Scully <dkscully@fbi.ic.gov>

From: Jake Terrance <tpterrance@fbi.ic.gov>

Subject: [[CLASSIFIED]] Detroit locations

Attachments: detroitlocations.jpg

Agents Mulder and Scully,

Before your departure, I notified the general law enforcement community of Detroit of our discovery of the lab. Attached is a screengrab of a satellite photo of the progress that’s been made in just the past few hours. We received a suggestion shortly after you left, from an unknown source, that we use earthquake software to determine the location of these labs. It pulled up fifty seven locations when it tested geological data from the area against USGS database numbers. So far, we’ve uncovered eighteen labs from those fifty seven locations and we’re still digging.

Call or email with any questions or to discuss this matter.

Jake Terrance

Special Agent

Detroit Field Office

SECURITY STATEMENT C.2: This message was sent using the FBI Classified Intranet to Mobile system. It is not intended for general distribution or long-term storage. For security purposes, it will self-delete once closed. It will be viewable for thirty days from the FBI Classified Intranet, after which time it will self-delete. The FBI Classified Intranet is viewable by mobile device only through a WiFi connection to a law enforcement network. Failure to adhere to the mobile transfer laws or the attempt to recover this message once deleted will result in criminal charges.

______

Mulder opened the attachment and was shocked at what he saw. Eighteen locations that perfectly matched his map, as he photographically remembered it. “Scully,” he said, and turned to see that her face was paler than normal and she was staring at her phone as if it had just showed her something horrific. “What?”

“I received a message from Skinner an hour ago while we were in the air—Terrance sent the data to his office and Skinner distributed it to field offices around the US. Mulder…” she showed him her phone, where a map of the country was displayed with small X’s in every state, some clumped together and others scattered. They were almost too numerous to count. “These are laboratories that have been discovered in the past six months, abandoned. And that includes the thirty eight that were discovered in the past six hours since the message originally went out. We’re looking at a major operation here, Mulder. Bigger than we’ve ever seen before.”

People were disembarking from the plane, and because they were in the back, they had been granted a bit more time. However, the people in front of them as well as the two rows behind them had already entered the passageway to the terminal, and a flight attendant cleared her throat in a not-so-subtle way of telling them to leave.

They rose from their seats and silently exited, but once in the terminal Mulder’s phone beeped again. It was an email from the Lone Gunmen. He opened the attachment without even reading the email, half expecting what was coming. He had, after all, shared the events with them and asked them to search for laboratories.

He said nothing and passed the phone to Scully. She gasped. “My God,” she whispered.

He placed his hand around her shoulders as they moved toward baggage claim. “What are they planning?” she asked rhetorically.

She handed the phone back to him, and he glanced at the map of the world that displayed thousands upon thousands of locations. He shook his head as he cleared the screen and put the Droid back in his pocket. “Something’s going to happen soon, Scully. Strughold needs me, that’s why he tried to recruit me. That’s why he didn’t kill me. But whatever he needs me for…that’s what’s got me worried.”

They boarded the escalator to baggage claim, and Scully was silent until they got to the bottom. Then she said simply, “It’s got me worried too…”

Location

Location

Location

By Martin Ross

Rated R for language, violence, and sexual references

Category: Casefile

Summary: A postwar secret has reemerged with deadly force in a quiet neighborhood, and Mulder and Scully — with the help of an old friend and Albert Einstein — must solve a murder and revise their view of the Universe.

Disclaimer: The X-Files is forever the domain of Chris Carter and Fox; the pleasure of helping keep the files open is mine.

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1. The Final Misadventure of Lucas Beltran

Classified Location, Eastern Seaboard

2:17 p.m.

The hose slapped to the pavement, shattering momentarily the white noise generated by the thousands of cicadas and crickets that dominated Huxley Drive after the yuppies’ utes and SUVs and the professors’ more consciously sensible VWs and Priuses fled for the campus and city center.

Luke uttered a single, guttural adolescent curse as he willed his breathing and blood pressure back out the yellow. Callie’s “toys” no longer pushed the boy’s heart rate into the red, but he knew he would never become totally inured to the sight of these things the cat literally dragged in. He couldn’t be allowed to — their sheer diversity delivered a fresh jolt of adrenaline each time.

And this was merely one more entry in a catalogue of monstrosities. Mr. Francks had, during one evening of bro-bonding, while Mrs. Francks and the girls were away at the mall, exhibited the cryogenically preserved collection that had displaced the ribeyes and ribs in his basement freezer. Luke had feigned fascination and hoped fervently (like many of his classmates, he closeted his faith like a dreaded[l1] secret) that he would never again be invited to the hellish museum in the corner of the Sox-themed rec room.

Luke shook his head absurdly at the plump feline, who serenely hovered over her prize, tail switching languidly, sandpaper tongue working methodically at her white-mittened paw. “Dude,’ he breathed, bending to collect the hose; she looked up with what he imagined to be contempt but was more likely complete [l2]and utter apathy. Luke failed to understand why intelligent beings would choose to spend their time and affection on such snarky little shitbags, in particular a little douche like Callie that seemed to have come right out of that Stephen King movie — the one with Herman Munster and the kid from the second Terminator. Luke had never read the verse of T.S. Eliot, but as a contemporary American teen, his radar could spot kept secrets a mile away.

Unlike the average contemporary American teen, Luke was cursed with a soft heart and an immaculately wired brain. He’d seen the emotional and physical effects Callie’s toys had had on Jennifer Francks and her formerly sunny disposition — over the summer, Mrs. Francks had gone rapidly from Stacy’s Mom (the one in the prehistoric video who “had it goin’ on’) to merely cougar-ish, while Bryan Francks seemed to be getting, well, crazier. Dude always had been kind of a jerkwad — always had the volume up a little too much, always tried to be the jock, one of the gang, whatever gang. Luke admitted Callie’s toys had him scared shitless, and he knew despite his years that that was the appropriate response for anybody outside the cast of the Jersey Shores.

Fuck you, Bry, Luke thought abruptly. Bryan would be mad if he knew, but Jennifer and the kids didn’t need this shit. It had been a miracle neither of the girls had come home from the park or their buds’ to find their beloved kitty’s latest prize.

Luke inhaled deeply and, swallowing back on his gag reflex, slipped on the thick landscaping gloves. The gauntleted hand stopped midway to the concrete stoop. They never seemed to survive Callie’s manhandling, but they were always alive — gasping for a few final breaths if they had a mouth or gills or whatever passed for them, throbbing if that was all their anatomy would manage, radiating a slight bodily heat if that was all their miserable existence amounted to. This one, unfortunately, had a mouth, and, worse, several protuberances that followed Luke’s massive presence with seeming curiosity. Eyes, Luke realized, dry-mouthed.

Bryan said none of them had ever shown any “aggressive tendencies” — no tentacles had ever whipped out to seize a wrist; no hidden rows of razor-like teeth had ever sheared off a finger or clamped onto a tantalizing nose; no clamping onto faces or egg-laying in the chest cavity. Over the summer, Luke had, to his friends’ mystification, sworn off the classic works of Ridley Scott, John Carpenter, and Eli Roth.

The gloved hand advanced. The eye/nodules focused as one on Luke’s menacing fingers, but the flesh — smooth, clean flesh of a color no Sherwin-Williams swatch could ever accurately capture — did not tense, and the curious “eyes” held no fear.

Luke was about to snatch the toy from the stoop and fling it into a gaping Hefty when the dark blur moved into his peripheral vision, hissing with unrestrained hate. Callie’s claws dug a deep trench into Luke’s forearm, and the cat’s teeth clamped into the leather glove.

“Mother–” he yelped, waving his arm and its furry, furious new hand puppet. Luke felt a slight brush of tiny fangs through the quarter-inch of unfinished cowhide — Callie wasn’t going to give her toy up easily. He didn’t want to hurt her — scratch that, he didn’t want to traumatize Britney and Chloe — but he could feel something primitive and unrelenting in her grip. Luke hoisted his arm clear of his body; Callie clawed ineffectually at the air as her bite intensified.

And Luke brought his other arm around. And dropped the glove and its attached cat into the open Hefty bag. He tugged the plastic straps tightly shut and held the bag away as Callie’s talons tore through. Fortunately, it was one of those ribbed bags, the reinforced kind. Luke strode purposefully to the sunroom door, slid the screen open, deposited the trapped feline, and slammed the glass patio slider shut.

Murderous yowls followed Luke back to the front stoop. Adrenalized and fearless after his battle with the enraged tabby, he plucked a fresh Hefty from the ground and, with his remaining glove, plucked Callie’s former toy from the stoop. It didn’t make a sound, but the bag rustled as it acclimated to its new environment. By the time Luke reached the workbench at the rear of the Francks’ three-bay garage, the bag was still. Trembling slightly, the teen nonetheless located a shovel next to a bag of Kentucky bluegrass seed, returned to the bench, and beat the lump inside the Hefty beyond any possibility of survival.

Luke leaned back against the bench, controlling his respiration, reflecting ironically on the $50 per week he accepted for yard work [l3]and odd jobs — work Bryan was happy to palm off, charity Mrs. Francks was happy to offer the boy for his forthcoming college journey. The thought of his kind, frazzled neighbor reminded him the job wasn’t done. Luke couldn’t just throw the thing in the garbage — trash day wasn’t “til Friday, and some inquisitive or hungry lab might decide on a to-go order, thus scaring the shit out of some other kindly suburbanite and drawing attention to, well, whatever was going on here. He could drive it out to the sticks and throw it in a ditch or a cornfield, but, frankly, he couldn’t bear the thought of carpooling with some creature from the Twilight Zone.

When the neighborhood Nazis decided no more metal trash cans, Bryan had relegated his to storing wood scraps from his abortive furniture-making phase and his disastrous fix-it attempts. A pile of scraps lay at the bottom for kindling; Luke crumpled a few newspapers from the recycling bin, grabbed a can of lighter fluid, and prepared for a barbecue.

U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi scowled up from the corrugated steel can as Luke ignited a Walgreen’s circular with a Bic grill lighter and dropped the flaming wad atop her image. Pelosi shriveled into herself as fire licked at the paper, and, with a disgusted shake, Luke dropped the toy into the barrel. It sunk to the bottom, away from the fire, and Luke squirted butane onto its carcass. The fire would do its ravenous work, Luke would dispose of the ashes and hose out the can, and he’d finish the lawn before Bryan’s Escalade or Mrs. Franck’s Nissan rounded the block. Burning was a strict no-no here in Stepford (Luke’s girl had made him watch the Nicole Kidman remake, not that he’d ever heard of Katherine Ross), but if anybody complained, he was a dumbass kid, and Bryan would want to be too cool to bitch him out.

He was restoring the lighter fluid to its spot of honor near the tongs and mesquite chips when he felt, rather than saw, the shadow entering the garage. As Luke turned, he heard a hollow metallic scraping instantly recognizable from years of Little League and varsity softball. The boy scrabbled toward the shovel, but the first swing caught him mid-spine, shattering the string of bones encasing his nervous system. The second connected with Luke’s skull as he collapsed.

The bat fell with a single bell-like chime to the concrete, and somewhere in the part of his brain that was still successfully broadcasting, he heard heavy — male — footsteps moving briskly away. Luke’s brain perceived the acrid smell of burning newsprint and lumber — his scrambled synapses craved a flame-broiled Whopper — and the distant chirruping of cicadas and crickets. As his assailant stepped into the brilliant August sun, his faltering memory signaled recognition, while his cognitive sense registered surprise and utter confusion.

Luke’s adolescent sense of immortality and lust for survival kicked immediately in. If he could just put some distance between he and Cal Ripken, dig out the Droid, get 5-0 and the paramedics on the road… His fingers scrabbled at the gritty poured floor, but the road between Central Nervous and his legs was closed, Luke now openly prayed, temporarily.

Then he spotted it, five inches from his outstretched right hand — a sphere, battered and smudged but unspeakably sacred at this moment. Luke looked to the far corner, where the garage adjoined the Francks’ laundry room, then back to the stitched leather ball he’d fungo-ed to Bryan a few times as a gesture of camaraderie. Luke’s trembling fingers closed around the sphere; the teen tensed his still-operating torso, drew back, and conjuring his bud Todd signaling a high, hard one behind the plate, let fly.

The effort sapped Luke’s remaining reserves, and he slumped back against the cold cement. A smile nonetheless twitched unbidden at his dry lips as the garage door — the gates of salvation — drew down rapidly on its track. As it closed with a gratifying thump, the automatic staging light above glowed dimly. Luke estimated he had five minutes, tops.

The Droid was wedged tightly into his grass-stained jeans, and sweat and blood formed a rivulet under his skull as he grunted it free. Luke indulged in a single breath and brought the phone to his face. He was greeted by the disconcerting sight of his own reflection against the dead black screen. Luke frantically tried to power up. Nothing. Then, the boy recalled his mother’s last words the night before, as she left him in the family room to watch Family Guy — Skinemax, actually. Don’t forget to recharge, hon. You always do, and you never know when you might need to call.

Luke’s weak, disconnected giggle bounced off the peg-board walls. Was this the scenario you’d envisioned, Mom?

Three minutes, hon, Luke’s mind prodded in his mother’s voice, for maximum effect. As a few more towers flickered out, a single strong signal burst through the noise.

Logging off, Dude. Battery low. Motherboard fried.

Luke’s mind skipped instantly from acceptance into anger. Motherfucker wasn’t going to off me and walk away. Fuck that shit.

Great, Sherlock. You go, Boy. Oh, just one thing, though…

Shut the fuck up, Luke’s right hemisphere screamed. His head pounded — no, he realized, that was a fist pounding. Against the reinforced steel garage door. Fucked up, much, Gaylord?, Luke’s brain taunted. Try the keypad — only a few million combinations, might get lucky.

Focus. Had to leave a message — a while you were gone for the living. With what? Britney’s sidewalk chalks were on the top of the shelves — a punishment for an imaginative and mocking driveway rendering of the neighbor boy. Spray enamel for the deck chairs. Nope — in the mower shed.

Two minutes, dear. And aren’t you forgetting the major problem here, Lucas?

Luke had to admit he had no comeback for that one. It was a puzzle, a conundrum wrapped in a mystery, his left hemisphere mused in a dead-on Chris Walken.

Mystery. Wish he had Jessica Fletcher here, a little advice for the newly dying. See if the old broad could pull a dying clue out of her knitting bag. Mustering the mental acuity that had gotten him through his SATS, Luke’s memory accessed 17 years of criminous fiction and media — Hardy Boys, Encyclopedia Brown, CSI, Monk, the Ellery Queen his eighth grade English teacher had offered in lieu of Twain and Hawthorne.

A dying clue. Work with what you got, with what you know, Coach Turner rumbled. What do you know about your opponent, son? C’mon, got to be something in that head besides fart jokes and cheerleaders. What do you know, guddammit?

And then he saw it — the box on the bottom shelf, right at eye level. The neat block lettering — POOL. Wasn’t perfect — be lucky if any of the local brainstems could work it out. Work with what you got.

And the lights went out, leaving only the dim campfire glow and crackle of burning pulp and monster flesh. ”Fuck,’ Luke croaked, or thought he did. He inhaled, reached out, and contacted cardboard. Pulling himself up with a girlish cry, he reached the rim and tipped the box. Luke ignored the clownish poing of an escaping beach ball, and fumbled for the familiar object, thinking about the hours he’d spent with Mom watching those shitty-assed reality shows she loved so much.

The pounding at the gates had stopped — Babe Ruthless was no doubt searching for another point of entry. So sad, Sammy Sosa. Fuck you, Fukadome…

Got it. Small, flat, hardened by chlorine and heavy use. Luke worked his summer project out from under a tangled snorkel and mask. Laughing inanely, sobbing disconsolately, he hugged the precious object to his sweat-coated chest.

And all life, reality, existence exploded in one bright, consuming flash.

2. From the Casefile of Fox Mulder

“Welcome to the Homeland and Garden Channel,” Federal Bureau of Investigation Special Agent Fox Mulder greeted as his compact partner wove through cops and firefighters, bearing two garish mini-mart coffee cups. “This is not a vente half-caff Kenya AA with soy milk and no foam.”

Special Agent Dana Scully stiffly extended a steaming cup. “This, my pampered yuppie colleague, is a medium Suck-and-Slurp Wake-Up Special. The creamer appeared to contain no animal-derived products. Foam was not an option, so the stars are on your side.”

Mulder stared disdainfully at the beverage, sighed, and accepted. “So how come when I asked you for a Suck-and-Slurp Wake-up Special this morning…?”

“What have we got?” Scully demanded.

Mulder glanced into the half-charred shell of the garage, where a bio-suited DHS crew was bagging a jeaned, blood-blotched corpse. “The decedent is one Lucas Beltran, 17, 237 Huxley Drive. This is 215 Huxley Drive, home to Bryan and Jennifer Franck. Upper middle-class neighborhood, pretty deserted at this time of day — house might’ve gone up if a sick neighbor hadn’t heard an explosion. And the garage hadn’t contained it. Fire chief — the beefy crewcut over there — says the fire sucked all the oxygen out of the closed space and extinguished itself by the time the guys got in with the jaws of life.” The agent took a tentative sip, wincing. “No wonder the housewives here are so desperate.”

“What do you think?” Scully murmured. “Garage blast, Homeland Security in space suits. Disgruntled teen supremacist? Homegrown Jihadist?”

Mulder squinted at the tree-lined street. “I’m not getting that. Varsity jock, high GPA, even volunteered at the local homeless shelter. He was doing yardwork around the block to save for college next fall. I think the closest this kid ever got to radical ideology was on the school debate team.”

“It is a campus town,” Scully pointed out. “Naïve local boy suddenly exposed to a new universe of thought and expression. Adolescent angst and anger directed against institutional authority…”

“You’re sooo hot when you get all professorial and boring and stuff,” Mulder gushed. “Come on — let’s get all up in Institutional Authority’s grill.”

The head of the regional DHS office, a paunchy Don Draper type named Rossner, was stationed near the mouth of the Francks’ extra-wide drive, gathering intelligence from a black-suited colleague.

“Yeah, Walt Skinner’s guys,” Rossner nodded as Mulder flashed his ID. “Glad to have you aboard — Walt says you’re adept at the crazy stuff, and you’ve got a phobia about the media, which is what we need here.”

Mulder scanned Huxley Drive, bathed in golden afternoon sun. Fashionably casual residents lined the nearby police tape, as other, consciously unfashionable academics struggled mightily to appear oblivious to the unfolding sideshow. “Only thing crazy I see here is some crazy-awesome curb appeal.”

“That, Agent, is precisely what’s so crazy,” Rossner responded. “Squeaky clean kid, squeaky clean neighborhood, aside from a few limousine socialist professor types. Dumbass kid tries to burn some trash in a closed garage, right? Only three things set off any alarms.

“One, the homeowner, Franck, is a research associate with a federally affiliated university lab on campus, medium clearance, and peripheral [l4]involvement in a few sensitive projects. That’s what gets our spit-shined feet in the door. Two, the kid, Beltran, he was murdered. Busted spine, head trauma — we even got the murder weapon bagged, aluminum baseball bat belongs to Franck. Who’s alibied, of course. When the local fire crew gained access, they found the kid.

“Third, something seemed hinky to the fire chief after they got what was left of the fire under control. He’s seen a lot of these bonehead garage-and-grill blowouts, and he said there was something wrong with this one. That’s when he called us in.”

Scully glanced at the chief, who was supervising some equipment removal. “You trust his instincts, or you think this might just be a case of post-9/11 overreaction?”

Rossner smiled, slightly. “You see that ink on his forearm?”

Admiral Scully’s daughter smiled back. “Special Services.”

“Decorated, too, but not flashy about it. Yeah, I guess I trust his gut. But I have no idea yet what it’s telling us. We need a fresh set of eyes.”

“And a somewhat psychotic perspective,” Mulder mused.

“Take the compliment, Agent. I think my guys and CDC have cleared the scene. No apparent bio-agents. You want to take a look?”

Mulder shrugged. “Just another day in paradise.”

**

“Trash fire, grease fire, arson, they all got their own signature,” the chief grunted, moving stealthily for his girth around the ring of ashes and charred cement. “This one reads chemical fire — more specific, a gas explosion. A very contained, very abrupt explosion, kinda like a propane tank.” The ex-Forces man gestured toward a Kingsford bag in the corner. “’Cept this guy’s no Hank Hill — charcoal all the way. See that lighter fluid on the shelf there? The kid — “scuse me, whoever lit that can — used it as an accelerant. Could smell it a mile away.”

“Wanted to get rid of something, burn it beyond recognition,” Mulder deduced. He stepped gingerly over to the charred, torn metal trash can despite the chief’s slight growl of distress. “Nothing but ash. Lab should be able to ID what Beltran was burning. Anything out of the ordinary in here, Chief?”

“No hazmat-type chemicals, no bomb-making materials, least that I can see,” the stocky official rumbled.

“Everything’ll get bagged and tagged,” Rossner assured. “But no, nothing obvious. No C4, no common accelerants, no detonators or timers.”

Mulder scanned the spotless bay beyond the fire zone. Rakes and trimmers hung in mathematically precise angles to the floor; tools were actually outlined, and barbecue tools gleamed. Four exceptions to the Francks’ obvious rules of order stood out, most conspicuously an upended cardboard packing box from which a now-half-melted snorkel and mask, two pairs of pink goggles, and a pink swim fin overflowed.

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“Dr. Scully, a pen, please,’ Mulder ordered pleasantly. Scully sighed and withdrew a Bic from her bag. Her partner eased it into the thumb of a leather work glove that had been laying on the work bench and held the mitt close to his nose. “Yup. Lighter fluid. But where’s the other glove?”

The chief coughed. “Nothing strange there. Lotta household jobs are one-handed operations. Other’s probably somewhere in here, or out back in the shed.”

“But it’s new,’ Mulder protested. “It’s clean, fairly spotless except for the charcoal fluid. See the fresh hole where the gloves were pulled apart? And who could miss that new glove smell? Yum.”

The chief glanced at Rossner. Rossner pointedly glanced nowhere. Mulder beamed, now comfortable in the discomfort of others, and moved on to the still-creased, barely used trash bag on the floor near the work bench. He opened the bag carefully and backed off, wincing.

“Guts,” the agent announced. He passed the bag to Scully. “Guts, right?”

Scully stared warily at Mulder, then took a whiff. “These are organic remains — likely bodily fluids. Though I can’t identify what type of fluids they might be based on color or odor.”

“If it’s a Merlot, I swear I’m out of here,” Mulder said. “The bag was fresh, used for a single purpose — to contain and kill an animal.”

“Or maybe the killer shoved the bag over the kid’s head, execution-style,” the fire chief ventured. He looked at Scully. “No good, huh?”

“The one thing I can say with certainty is that this is neither human blood nor brain matter. I’ve seen enough of both.”

“And,” Mulder continued. “And I’d guess this dead animal is what Beltran was burning — he knew it was unsafe to burn the plastic bag. He was willing to risk the bag being discovered, guts and all. Which means young Lucas wasn’t going around eradicating the neighborhood cat or squirrel population. Whatever he’d caught, he didn’t want anyone else to see. DNA, Watson, er, Scully.”

Before Scully could respond verbally or physically, Mulder moved on, scouring the unburnt portion of the garage.

“Wait up,’ Rossner said. “You haven’t given me any evidence that confirms the vic was the one who started that fire. The killer could’ve been destroying evidence — maybe something Beltran had discovered. The fact that the garage door was closed would bear that out. ME says the boy was killed here, and that his spine had been shattered. The garage door opener switch is way over there, what, probably 20 feet away. The only person who could have let down the door was the killer.”

“Where would you say the bat came from? The murder weapon?”

“Over there, I guess,” the fire chief muttered, gesturing toward a corner bracket over which a glove and cap were draped.

“One bat, one mitt, one cap,” Mulder enumerated, scouring the unburnt area of the garage. “What’s missing? Here.” He reached behind a shop vac near the door into the house and produced a tangerine-sized sphere. The agent grinned as he turned the ball to reveal a squarish dent in the leather. “You said Beltran was a jock and an honor roll kid. For whatever reason, the killer left the scene, and Lucas was smart enough to realize his best shot at survival was to isolate himself.” Mulder pivoted and whipped the ball at the corner. The pitch hit home, and the garage door began to close. Rossner sighed and raised the door.

“This tells us something else,’ Mulder added, holding a palm aloft to Scully. She crossed her arms, and his arm dropped. “Lucas knew his killer didn’t know the garage combination. Which eliminates the Francks, their daughters, and likely any extended family.”

“Leaving, what, only some six billion other suspects,’ Scully said, brightly. “I’ll take China and India.”

Mulder turned to Rossner. “And it was an opportunistic killing — murderer grabbed the nearest weapon. Maybe a drop-in, a friend or classmate, fight over a girl? Maybe a disgruntled girlfriend, big one with a wicked-awesome swing. Or somebody who discovered Lucas discovering whatever he discovered. Now, we have to find that second glove.”

“Cassie, goddamn it!!’ the male voice was shrill, furious.

“Bryan Franck, the owner,’ the chief supplied. “Wife’s name is Jenny.”

“Ah ha,’ Mulder breathed, heading for the door. “C’mon, Scully, er, Watson — the game’s afoot.”

Bryan Francks was on his knees in the laundry room, collecting small scraps of white plastic and, ironically, placing them into another white plastic bag.

“This is just what we needed right now,’ the small, neatly-kept man sighed. “We told Luke not to let her in the house when we were gone.” He caught the chief’s eye, and dropped back onto his ass, head in his hands. “Jesus, sorry. This is just so fucked up — I had to give Jenny a couple of Xanax, and the girls, they don’t even know yet.”

“Cassie’s the family cat, right?” Mulder asked.

“Yeah,’ Francks responded warily. “What? Who the hell are you?”

“Somebody let the cat out of the bag, mainly the cat,’ Mulder explained to Rossner. “Oh, yeah, and this.” He stooped and retrieved the second work glove, displaying the small fang-size perforations in the leather.”

“Hey, I asked you a question,” Francks said, more plaintive than belligerent.

“Sorry.” Mulder pulled his ID. “Sir, could you please lead us to your cat?”

Francks sputtered. “Cassie? Why?”

“All will be revealed in time. Sorry. Lemme see the cat. Humor me.”

The man of the house rose uncertainly and led his guests into a spacious living room anchored by a 54-inch, wall-mounted flat screen. Sitting beneath it was a large cat cleaning herself fastidiously. Cassie looked up, annoyed.

“Well, hey there,’ Mulder cooed, approaching. “Who’s the good kitty? Look at the big baby.”

“Mulder,’ Scully interrupted. “It’s a cat.”

“Yeah. C’mere, cat.” Cassie hissed, arching slightly. “Same to you, bit–, um, c’mere, girl. Mr. Francks, I’m going to need your assistance.”

“Cass, babe, huggies,’ Bryan called, embarrassed. The feline’s tail switched languidly, and she jumped into Francks’ arms.

“Thanks. Rossner, get the lab guys in here and have ’em take swabs from Kitty’s claws. Oh, and her mouth. OK, Mr. Francks?”

“Yeah, sure,” the man nodded vigorously.

“Great,” Mulder smiled, his stare lingering on Francks. “Sir, we’re also going to need a list of everyone who has or might have the combination to your garage keypad. For elimination purposes. Same with you and your family’s fingerprints. Tell the girls it’s a game, Rossner. And I need a large plastic tumbler.”

Bryan continued nodding and bustled to the kitchen, Cassie under his arm. “Got it,’ the homeowner shouted.

“OK. Now, fill it with iced tea. Or coke if there’s no tea.” Mulder turned to his nonplussed partner and Rossner. “I order a complete DNA series on the man’s pussy, and this is his reaction? And yes, Scully, I know I could have said cat.”

“No,’ Scully sighed. “I don’t think you could have. What’s this mean, Mulder?”

“Absolutely no idea. But I do want that pussy swabbed.”

“Stop that,’ Scully said through her teeth.

**

The blast, white hot and brief, had scorched the left and central anterior quadrants of Lucas Beltran’s corpse — mercifully, Dr. Scully had determined, COD had been caused by a cerebral hemorrhage possibly moments prior to the explosion. His back, the right side of his slightly turned face, and right arm — at least from shoulder to elbow — were untouched by flame. His right hand was laminated to his chest.

“Effectively laminated,’ Scully told Rossner, who had, surprisingly, scrubbed up for the autopsy. “Or perhaps vulcanized might be the proper term. The victim’s torso and forearm are coated in a charred but tacky substance that appears to be rubber or plastic. The material is particularly dense between his arm and his chest — if I had to guess, I’d say he was holding something.”

Rossner pulled down the mask he’d donned to suppress the odor of burnt flesh. “Something he was protecting? Even after he’d locked the killer out of the garage?”

Scully glanced over the ravaged corpse on the steel hospital table, tapped into years of medical and forensic training, and considered all alternatives.

“Dunno,’ the pathologist/investigator admitted.

**

This time, Mulder found the answer, before knowing the question.

“I turn it over and over in my mind,’ Krista Beltran said listlessly as the agent carefully and respectfully sorted through her dead son’s bedroom. A few JV and varsity trophies, as well as a National Honor Society plaque — Luke had been a well-rounded, seemingly solid middle-American teen. The iPad on his desk yielded nothing sordid or even pruriently adolescent — Luke’s browsing history yielded a lot of sports news sites and blogs, some colleges he’d been scouting, a few boyishly appropriate babe sites, but nothing beyond Maxim level.

The anomaly was a cluster of sites on invertebrate species, giving way to a list of crypto-zoology [l5]sites Mulder frequently consulted between more prurient stops. This had been in July; Luke had began surfing bios of prominent zoological researchers in early August before digging intensively into everything he could find on a Marshall Finfrock. Mulder noted the urls for later review.

“He was very popular, and very well-liked — there’s a big difference between the two when it comes to teens,’ the single mother continued, staring at an autographed Cal Ripken poster over Luke’s bed. “Everybody liked him — his classmates, his teachers, our neighbors. He shoveled out the older neighbors’ drives in the winter and volunteer-coached a special ed softball team at the junior high.”

“If it’s any consolation, Mrs. Beltran, we’re theorizing your son may have been the victim of an opportunistic killing — that he may have witnessed or discovered evidence of a crime and was murdered because of it,’ Mulder offered gently.

“Why would that be any consolation whatsoever?” Mrs. Beltran laughed harshly. She looked up, stricken and astonished. “Agent, I’m sorry, forgive me. I know you were trying to be kind just now.”

Mulder nodded. “You’re right, though — I guess it’s no consolation. But let me ask you — did Luke mention anybody at school, a friend, who might have been in trouble or into anything risky or illegal?”

The lanky blonde considered. “Luke had a wide variety of friends and acquaintances, and I like to think we had a trusting relationship, but he hadn’t told me anything like that. You think maybe drugs were involved?”

The agent hesitated. “If anything, I think it may be more complicated than that. Was your son at all political?”

Mrs. Beltran smiled wistfully, then it was gone. “Nothing beyond a few Bill Clinton and Sarah Palin jokes at the dinner table.”

“Was he into science — biology in particular?”

“He liked writing, English OK, but he found science and math “a major buzzkill,’ Why? Do you think that fire was some kind of experiment gone wrong?”

“Do you know the name Finfrock? Marshall Finfrock?”

Krista Beltran frowned, then shrugged. “I think that’s the name of the man who used to own the house down the street — the large Tudor-style place for sale? That could have been the owner’s father — I work in personnel at the university, and I think I’ve seen that name. This whole street used to be populated by professors, scientists, researchers — supposedly, Einstein used to stay with one of the profs from time to time. And Sheldon Paramov, the science fiction author, wrote that story Clooney did as a movie a few years back? He lived two doors down.”

Mulder looked up. Shel Paramov had been one of the more prominent postwar astrophysicists — a contender to put America in space — before he abruptly eschewed the academic life for a series of pioneering stories and novels and, eventually, at the height of his literary popularity, a solitary and messy suicide. The Clooney movie had reawakened the non-geek public to Paramov’s works — Spielberg and Cameron reportedly were talking about collaborating on The Incubator, a 1951 classic that already had spawned a network miniseries in the early “90s, a five-part graphic novel, and an attempted sequel by a now-obscure cyberpunk writer.

Mulder moved on to the low bookcase next to Luke’s bed. No sci-fi, much less any Paramov. No science fact, either. Several sports bios, a few recent-vintage yearbooks, a stack of SIs concealing, to Mulder’s nostalgic amusement, a couple of dog-eared Maxims. With Mulder, it had been a layer of Omnis’[l6] sandwiching the current month’s Playboy.

Mulder stopped as he began to climb to his feet. The row of sports bios were flush with the far larger yearbooks. On a hunch based on teen psychology, Mulder pulled the smaller volumes away to uncover Luke’s illicit reading material.

“Oh,’ he murmured, eyes widening.

“What? Oh, lord, what?”

“No, no.” Mulder displayed the aged paperbacks — Ellery Queen, Agatha Christie, Rex Stout.

Krista’s eyes filled. “He loved mysteries, especially those old whodunits. Luke got started reading them to my mother in the nursing home. Probably didn’t want his pals to see them. Boys.” A trembling hand went to her eyes.

“Mrs. Beltran?” Mulder whispered.

“Yeah. Hey, do you need anything else? I have to, you know…’

“Sure, I’ll let myself out when I’m done.”

Mrs. Beltran nodded and disappeared. Mulder dropped onto the bed and began to read…

**

“Do I what?” Bryan Francks sputtered, inadvertently squirting a double dose of Turtle Wax onto the hood of his fire-engine Infiniti. He hurriedly scrambled for a towel as Mulder leaned, amused, on the car’s fender.

“Do you drive to work alone?”

“I need an alibi now?” the researcher squeaked. “I left for work at 7 yesterday and got home at, well, after the cops called about Luke. This is ludicrous — why would I kill that poor kid and set fire to my own garage?”

“Theoretically, you might do that to destroy any evidence you left at the murder scene,” Mulder mused. The sputtering began again, and the agent made a pacifying gesture. “You questioned the logic of the premise, and I was merely addressing a set of theoretical circumstances. But we don’t have any reason to believe those were the circumstances, and, besides, you know the combination to the garage door, which would appear to eliminate you from consideration. I just want to know if any of your coworkers ride to work with you.”

“No,” Bryan faltered, now thoroughly perplexed.

“How many swimming pools in the neighborhood?”

“Er, umm, ah, two. No, three. Hot tub count?”

“No, it does not. You know if any of your neighbors use a pool service?”

“What the f–?” Mulder lifted an eyebrow, and Bryan backpedaled. “Uh, yeah, I guess so. I’ve seen a van on the block a few times, some moronic name on the side. Oh, yeah, Chlorine Nation.”

“That is indeed moronic,” Mulder concurred.

**

He located the Chlorine Nation van about a half-block down. Mulder rounded the house beyond the van, finding neither a swimming pool nor even a technically qualified hot tub. The homes on either side were similarly pool-less. The three residences across the street shared an appalling lack of pool facilities.

Mulder camped.

Some 20 minutes later, a heavily muscled young man emerged from the rear of the original house wearing a T-shirt he had either stolen from, been gifted by, or attained through employment with Chlorine Nation. The man’s stupid grin, furtive glances across the neighboring yards, and self-satisfied strut — combined with a lack of pool tools or supplies — told Mulder all he needed to know.

“You,” he called menacingly as he stepped in front of the van. The man froze and, for a second, Mulder feared he would bolt. Instead, he beamed warily.

“Dude, you the husband?” the pool man inquired from the safety of the grass. “Cause I was just cleaning her filter.”

“I hope she enjoyed it.”

“OK, dude, just chill. It’s not an affair or nothing — I’m doin’ half the women on this block.”

“Dude, TMI,” Mulder groaned. He pulled his ID.

“Shit.”

“Yup. What’s your name?”

“Randall, sir. Randall York.”

Mulder crossed the lawn. “Well, Randall, I’m going to ask what, or who, you were doing yesterday afternoon.”

“I was servicing the Freelings. I mean, the Freelings’ pool. Shit, old Mrs. Freeling’s like 75 or something. I’m no freak. Shit. Is this about that kid got killed down the street?”

“You know him?”

“Little. I mean, we worked at the Dairy Queen together before I got this gig. But I don’t know him, like, well enough to kill him.”

“You got an invoice, a call sheet, anything that will verify you were servicing the Freelings?”

Randall blinked. “It was a follow-up call. Not official or anything. I just like to make sure my customers are satisfied after the work is done.”

“I bet. OK, where’s this Freeling place? Randall?”

“Yeah. OK. See, it’s like this. What I said earlier about Mrs. Freeling? She’s like a really well-preserved 75, you understand?”

Mulder stared at the pool man, then jerked his head toward the van. “Open it up, Randall.”

The young man sighed loudly and walked slowly to his vehicle. He glanced back at Mulder with a weak smile, Mulder smiled back, and Randall yanked the rear doors open.

The FBI agent peered about the interior, recognizing many of the tools, paraphernalia, and lotions that, to the best of his Internet-honed knowledge, were not used in the aquatic recreation industry.

“Just how many ‘filters’ are you ‘cleaning’ around the neighborhood, Randall?” Mulder smirked.

**

“So, to recap,” Rossner deadpanned. “You spent the day reading old mystery novels, interrogating Bryan Francks — oh, yeah, he called; asked if you were mentally stable, and nabbed a notorious male hooker and fraudulent poolboy.”

“Well, sure, you put it like that…,” Mulder drawled. Scully, still in scrubs, shook her head.

The Homeland Security agent nodded. “Well, given Walt Skinner’s endorsement of your investigative abilities, I assume all this is part of some unorthodox overall strategy.”

“Luke Beltran was a fan of whodunits — locked rooms, hidden motives, family secrets, that kind of thing. His favorite was Ellery Queen — great mysteries, especially the ones in the ‘40s, but mostly out-of-print today. But here’s the thing — one of Queen’s specialties was the dying clue, where the victim tries to identify his killer usually through some symbolic clue or obscure reference.”

“So you think Beltran was trying to tell us something,” Scully frowned.

“Yup,” Mulder said. He leafed through a folder on Rossner’s temporary desk and tossed several photos to his partner. Scully peered at the crime scene shots. “Luke knows he’s dying; he’s locked his killer outside, but he wants whoever finds him to know who killed him. He looks around the garage for something, a clue. Then he sees it. You can see the blood spatter where Luke crawled to the shelf, maybe six feet away. And does something totally incomprehensible. He pulls a box off the garage shelf — a box full of swimming gear.”

Mulder reached over and tapped the top photo. Amid the fire damage and forensic markers, a cardboard box lay on its side, brightly-colored contents spilling onto the concrete floor. On one side, in neat red block letters, was a single word.

“‘Pool,’” Scully murmured. “That’s why you harassed the poolboy — ah, gigolo? But why the questions about Bryan riding with…? Oh. Carpooling.”

“One of Bryan’s coworkers wouldn’t have known the garage combination. And if we’re looking for someone who might’ve wanted to hide some sensitive secret or evidence, one of the scientists at the university might be a good candidate. Still might be, though Bryan, like most great men or world-class douchebags, rides alone.

“I checked Luke’s recreational and nocturnal activities — he didn’t play pool, didn’t hang out in pool halls. According to his buds, he wasn’t into gambling — no World Series pool at school, no illegal sports book at the local Mickey D’s. Luke was neither dating a secretary from one of the local office pools nor were he or his mother covered under a health insurance pool.”

“And I squandered the whole day pouring[l7] through forensics evidence and taking tissue samples,” Scully muttered.

Mulder smiled politely. “Well, I’m sure you must’ve found something interesting in all that time.”

His partner favored him with a homicidal glare, and Rossner looked away. “As a matter of fact, I did find some deep, parallel scratches on Beltran’s arm, under the burn injuries. Ragged, no obvious tooling marks from a blade or other weapon. As the killer seemed inclined toward bludgeoning, I doubt they were defensive wounds.”

Mulder’s brow arched, Scullylike. “I think they were defensive wounds, Scully. But not from a human attacker. You saw those bite marks on the landscaping glove Luke put in that trash bag with the cat. He already had the glove on when she tried to maul him — Cassie was protecting her catch, trying to keep him away from what she’d found. My guess is we’ll find some additional evidence on the Franck’s front porch or back patio. That’s where Sulu used to leave her prizes.”

“Sulu?” Rossner inquired.

“The family Siamese — I got the naming rights, and it was 1967. Ironically, he did exhibit some sexually ambiguous behavior toward the neighborhood toms. Sorry. Sulu left us dead sparrows, chipmunks, squirrels, whatever he could find in the woods behind the house, always on the welcome mat. Typical feline behavior — according to zoologists, they’re displaying their hunting prowess. It’s a gesture of affection. In fact, trainers say not to let them see you take the carcass away — they’ll bring more.

“But Cassie didn’t behave true to form. The objective is to drop the gift and leave. Cassie became savagely violent with Luke when he started to throw away whatever she’d brought him.”

“Ace Mulder; Pet Profiler,” Scully mused. ‘First of all, Mulder, the tissue inside that empty garbage bag is the only evidence so far that Luke was disposing of a carcass. And maybe the altercation between Beltran and the cat occurred while Beltran was disposing of the remains — Cassie may have tried to take the carcass from him in the garage. And even if your scenario is true, what relevance does it have to the murder?”

Mulder shrugged. “It’s anomalous behavior — another thing that doesn’t fit.”

Scully’s Blackberry warbled, and she strayed to a corner of the office.

“I have to be honest,’ Rossner said. “As unusual the circumstances are here — and I still would like to know what caused that explosion — this is shaping up more and more as something outside DHS’ purview. Yours too.”

“I dunno,” Mulder murmured. “I mean, I don’t think this was any act of terrorism. But if the theory I’m formulating is correct, I want to stay on this a while longer.”

Scully slipped her cell back into her bag, her brow wrinkled in concern, her lips pursed anxiously.

“That was the lab with the DNA results on that tissue from the trash bag and the scrapings from the cat’s teeth. They were a match. To each other.” The agent looked at Mulder. “But not to anything else.”

Rossner frowned. “What do you mean, to anything else””

“The chromosomal structure, the genetic sequences, hell, most of the amino acids in those samples — they don’t match anything in the lab’s or Quantico’s animal or plant databases, or, I suspect, any living organism on Earth.”

The room was silent save the buzz of activity in the squadroom beyond.

“All right,” Mulder finally erupted, pumping a fist. “Game on!”

**

“Oh, shit,” Bryan Francks groaned as he pulled the door open. He turned and shouted. “It’s him again. Stay in the kitchen.”

“Some folks just don’t like the drop-in,” Mulder sighed. “Bry, wonder if Agents Rossner and Scully and I might come in for a moment? Talk about your cat?”

“Jesus with the cat again?” Bryan yelped.

“You’ve had Cassie how long now? A few years?”

“This is what my tax dollars go for?” Bryan demanded of Rossner.

“Bryan,” Mulder leaned in. “Why don’t you tell us what the cat’s been dragging in? Yesterday can’t have been the first time she’s dropped one of her little gifts on the doorstep.”

The researcher’s jaw dropped, and he stepped back. “What was he do–?” he mumbled, a flash of anger in his eyes. The Bryan eyed the three feds and stepped forward. “What the hell gifts are you talking about?”

“You’re pissed off, aren’t you? That Luke destroyed the body. The latest one. You wanted to preserve it, but I’m guessing Luke didn’t want your wife or daughters to see it, or maybe it was just too frightening to deal with. How many have there been, Bryan? Where are they?”

Bryan slightly receding jaw tightened. “Uh uh. Enough. I have rights — you guys don’t harass us any more without a warrant.”

Rossner placed a hand on Mulder’s arm. “Mr. Francks, you know who I work for, right? You ever heard of a man called Yusef Khalid?”

“No,” Bryan stammered.

“My point exactly.” Rossner locked Bryan’s eyes for several seconds, the cicadas and crickets cheering him on.

Francks blinked, and he stumbled aside. “Er, come on in.”

**

The rec room was an exhibit out of the Smithsonian — Middle-American Testosterone; Competitive Sports and the Postmodern Man-cave. Red Sox paraphernalia lined the walls and filled every spare niche. Baseball-themed beer mirrors bounced light and images behind the basement bar. A set of three antique seats from Fenway — or very good reproductions — were bolted to the floor between two leather theater chairs, before the largest HD screen Mulder had ever coveted.

“I want them back, intact,” a newly subdued Bryan Francks nonetheless whined as he led them to an upright freezer in an unfinished side. “My pet brought them to my house, which makes them my property.”

“How long has this been going on?” Mulder inquired.

Bryan regarded him, evaluating his constitutional rights. “Since May, I guess. I don’t know where she gets them — there’s a park about two blocks away, with a pond and some heavy thickets, but I couldn’t find anything.”

“Your wife and daughters know about this?” Scully asked.

“Ah, Jenny’s been on my ass constantly to get rid of ‘em. I told her, you get rid of that furball-yacking beast — that shut her up. Britney actually found the first one — screamed her head off, had to get her a night light.”

“And yet you’ve accessorized your rec room with them,” Rossner murmured drily. “Let’s see what scared your little girl so much.”

“Don’t have to be snarky,” Bryan muttered, fumbling with his keyring. “I put a lock on it, see? For the girls.”

The Master Lock discharged, and Francks tugged the door open.

“Dear God,” Scully said.

“Cool,” Mulder breathed.

“What the fu–?” Rossner whispered.

Two dozen large Ziploc bags filled the center rack of the freezer, sandwiched between a selection of steaks and chops and a shelf of Ben and Jerry’s and Klondike bars. Through the clear, slightly frost-rimed plastic, the agents caught glimpses of biology at its most hellishly imaginative: Leathery, iridescent, armored hides; flagella, tentacles, bristles, stalks; orifices that suggested mouths and, in one case, a single eye that consumed half the ovoid mass of Cassie’s latest find.

“Bitchin’,” Mulder cooed.

**

“So what the hell do we have here?” Rossner demanded as he completed the last of a half-dozen hushed, staccato calls.

Mulder watched the last in a series of bio-suited feds remove the last of the titanium cryogenic canisters with the last of Bryan’s nightmarish collection. “Superficial examination would suggest a staggeringly wide range of lifeforms that exist nowhere on this planet that Man has ever [l8]explored. And wicked awesome ones, too, I might add.”

“Allow me to clarify. Do you have any theories or even just wild-ass guesses as to the origin of these things? You think they came from somewhere Man’s never explored.”

“Extremophiles,” Mulder suggested. “Organisms that live under conditions no ordinary organism could withstand. You ever seen video of a flashlight fish, an angler fish, a giant isopod, any of the species from the greatest depths of the ocean? They’ve developed adaptive mechanisms that help them cope with a nearly complete lack of light or photosynthesis, and to most untrained eyes, they look totally alien. Like totally. Scientists have found microbes in a liquid asphalt lake, in the Atacama Desert, under hundreds of feet of Antarctic ice. Some organisms can even survive high doses of radiation.

“But I don’t think that’s what these are. Too big, too diverse, too colorful. And even deep sea species share morphology and other characteristics with more familiar species. Same goes for mutations — chemical- or radiation-related changes like these would have taken eons, millennia, and evidence would have been detected by now in a densely populated area like this. Unless these mutations occurred in a remote, isolated ecosystem with its own flora and fauna.”

“We are near a major university,” Scully noted. “Could one of the zoologists from the school have brought these specimens back from that isolated ecosystem?”

“And kept it secret? Look at Bryan — willing to creep his wife and kids out just to score some academic glory. Shit — he’d have aced Lindsay Lohan out of two weeks of media limelight. Nah.”

“Well, then,” Rossner inhaled. “Let me ask you this. Do you think these organisms could be manmade? Bioengineered? At the risk of sounding paranoid, as some kind of bioagent?”

Mulder shrugged. “We’ll have to autopsy the little suckers, see if they’re equipped with bio-lasers or able to eat 100 times their body mass in Al Qaida insurgents.”

“Or Marines,” Rossner amended pointedly. Then he grinned mournfully. “Shit, guess I do sound paranoid. Dr. Scully, bon appétit.”

**

“Yeek!”

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Dana Scully glanced anxiously around the special lab Rossner and Co. had co-opted from the university. Scully had lifted trace from a deceased lycanthrope; sliced tissues from a gray, goggle-eyed extraterrestrial in a makeshift morgue; scrutinized dozens of deadly viruses and bacteria, both exotic and manufactured. But when the thawed creature — affectionately dubbed No. 7 — began to thump, the scientist reverted to adolescence.

Thumped was the only term that seemed to apply. The roughly lilac, pentagonal organism had begun to quiver under the lab lights. An appendage similar to a fleshy spatula jutted from a previously unseen orifice and swatted rhythmically at the steel tray. The creature’s drumbeat accelerated as Scully’s respiratory rate leveled — she leaned in cautiously, and the drumming abruptly stopped. The appendage dropped to the table, and Scully gawped as the lilac flesh went ashen gray and deflated.

Cryogenics of the primitive sort practiced by Bryan Francks normally wreaked havoc on the cellular structure of any organism, but this, this whatever, had survived the basement freezer only to die of…what? Determining COD here was like trying to pop the hood of a NASA shuttle using a VW manual — the bodily systems here had little relation to any annelid, frog, hog, or human Scully had ever dissected. No obvious external trauma, no internal hemorrhaging — at least, to Scully’s eye. None of the 17 specimens she’d examined so far had betrayed the cause of their demise.

Not that Scully hadn’t made some progress. She and Pradesh — the DHA biologist who’d been flown in that morning — had been able to start constructing a pecking order, a food chain, based on anatomical complexity, functional adaptation of bodily organs and structures, and bits of species found in the “stomachs’ of other species.

“You screamed, Agent?” Pradesh called in a pleasant Indo-Iowan accent. He placed Scully’s Diet Pepsi on the tool tray beside her.

“We had one, then we lost it,” she sighed, nodding toward the late drummer. “If I had to guess, I think maybe it died of asphyxiation — it had a sudden burst of some kind of metabolic activity, then just arrested. In fact, given the lack of injury in any of these specimens, I wonder if they just, well, failed. Like beaching a trout or salting a slug.”

“The ecosystem killed them?” Pradesh frowned. “I don’t have a better answer, but if you’re saying they couldn’t survive in our environment, then what the hell environment did they come from? The fact that this one could withstand Joe Yuppie’s Freeze-King backs up your partner’s idea that these things may be extremophilic. The metabolic acceleration you talked about could be some kind of post-hibernation jumpstart, I guess. Maybe the species has adapted to outer space travel. Would have to be heat-resistant, too, if it got past the Earth’s atmosphere.’

“So, what, they piggybacked on a meteorite shower?”

“I don’t know,” he drawled. “This diversity of species, it seems kind of unlikely. Unless — and I’m no astronomer — some kind of planetary explosion, collision, whatever, scattered these things into space and somehow they make it across a galaxy or two and they land on what may be the only other inhabited planet in the universe.”

Scully remained silent. Pradesh misinterpreted it as skeptical dismissal, and grinned. “Like I said, I’m no astronomer. Once the DNA results come back, we’ll know more. Oh, I may have one answer for you, by the way. About the fire that burned your garage victim. A few of the creatures had these bizarre internal bladders, I guess you’d call them — I think maybe they use them for buoyancy, flotation. I’ve found structures similar to those in marine invertebrates and fish in several specimens, so I think maybe these marine, too. Anyway, the bladders were full of hydrogen. Your guy — or the killer — was burning one of these things, and my guess is it went off like a mini-bomb.”

Scully nodded as Pradesh eagerly returned to his tissue samples. The insight cast no more light on the untimely death of Luke Beltran, but it cleared some of the underbrush, providing a potentially clearer picture of the murder.

Whatever that wound up being. Could it be the murder and Beltran’s discovery were purely coincidental — a teen feud over a girl erupting just as the victim was eliminating evidence of an organism never before seen by man? By now, Mulder had reasoned — and Scully concurred — that Beltran’s destructive act was one of kindness. Working around the Franck’s house all summer, the boy likely had run across a number of Cassie’s “toys.” Or perhaps the braggadocio Francks had been unable to resist the opportunity to share his collection with Beltran.

While interviewing the shaken Mrs. Franck, Scully had spotted one of Britney’s crayon-and-construction paper pieces on the dining room table. The girl’s mother was clearly frazzled, fearful; the girl’s artwork, depicting a creature Maurice Sendak couldn’t have conjured in his most fevered dreams, needed no explanation. Beltran had wanted to spare the children yet another nightmare of their father’s oblivious making. And someone — someone who seemingly had no knowledge of Franck’s Circus of Icebox Monstrosities — had hoped to ensure Beltran would never share his find with anyone.

Scully cleared her mind of murder and went off to retrieve the affectionately nicknamed, beaked-and-tentacled No. 34.

3. The Odd Tale of Master Jerome

Jerome had, like the FBI agent across the interview table, graduated cum laude from Oxford. The young biochemist had no knowledge of this, and, truth be told, would never have suspected this impertinent, boorish copper of any more than a community college education. The kind they advertised during the morning hours, between the talk shows and judge shows and info-adverts, for lazy unemployed layabouts struck by a sudden impulse toward self-betterment.

Jerome knew better — he was well-aware the FBI required university-trained lads, and this Mulder fellow appeared to have something of an ill-groomed native wit about him. Jerome nonetheless indulged his fantasy of the Neanderthal policeman as a divertissement, an amusement to distract him from — and gain some emotional leverage over — this ignominious situation. They’d summarily called him away from his lab without a word, with no indication why he had been singled out in some investigation that seemingly involved the death of a local teenager. He and his colleagues had been thoroughly vetted by the U.S. authorities, given the sensitive nature of much of their research. But, please, Kindred in molecular biology had been caught twice perusing porn of a particularly distasteful nature on the college’s dime, and that Muslim lab associate, well, ‘nuff said. Why me?, he demanded, silently outraged.

“Dr. Poole?” Agent Mulder prompted. Jerome emerged from his woolgathering. “I was reading your circum vitae just before you got here, and I couldn’t help notice you’d published several papers on genetic engineering and environmental mutation.”

Despite himself, the young scientist had developed a robust academic ego in his five years out of Oxford, and he now straightened his somewhat round shoulders. “I’ve had a few pieces in the journals.”

“Cool,” Mulder smiled. “I just got a shout-out on the Cryptozookeeper Blog last week.”

Surprisingly, Jerome’s nostrils did not flare nor sniff disdainfully. No tightening of his narrow shoulders; no veins or daggers popping from his horse-like countenance.

“Fox Mulder?” The scientist piped. “You’re Mulder? You really believe Nessie is an invertebrate? I mean, of course, the thesis is far from original, but your analysis was, well, particularly insightful.”

“You into cryptids?” Mulder now grinned, irony giving way to boyish camaraderie.

“Didn’t boast much about it in government school — always good for a thumping, you know,” Jerome chuckled, shoulders relaxing. “What do you make of those lupine sightings in Senegal — some sort of species variant or just bosh?”

An hour later, over Pepsis and chipotle barbecue chips, the conversation came around to Jerome’s other major interest — the local history, particularly that of the university and its colorful past.

“You, know, just down the block from where that poor lad was killed, is the home where Sheldon Paramov lived. You know, the famed sci-fi writer? Another guilty pleasure of youth. Imaginative stuff, smashing really — all the more so given the factual grounding of many of his stories.”

“Paramov used to teach, right? At the university?” Mulder popped another chip. “Quit in the ‘50s to write full-time.”

“Rumor was he ran afoul of the whole McCarthy business — Red Scare, what, him being a second-generation Russian. But a few of the older chaps on campus, grad students mainly when Paramov was still on faculty, they say he became reclusive, morose, let his grooming and, well, hygiene go before handing in his papers in ’55. One fellow even suggests he may have had some involvement in the disappearance of one of the associate professors a few years before, possibly left out of guilt.”

Mulder perked, chipotle and barbecue powder floating to the interview table. “Disappearance? They ever find a body?”

“Never,” Jerome leaned in, with morbid relish. “Lad left his girl at the campus canteen supposedly to go back to the lab, but never showed up at the Science Building or, for that matter, anywhere ever again. News accounts said he was a straight-arrow — dad was a Presbyterian pastor, the lad sponsored several campus clothing drives for the poor. Coppers combed the area for months, but no hide nor hair surfaced. Mystery to this day. That and the business about Marshall Finfrock were part of why I was drawn to the university.”

Mulder avoided choking on his Pepsi. “The business about Marshall Finfrock.”

“Finfrock was great chums with Paramov, despite Paramov being an astrophysicist and Finfrock a biologist. Sometimes, the hard scientists and the life scientists don’t gel so easily, so to speak. But I digress. Professor Finfrock committed suicide one night, several months after Paramov left the university. Well, I should say it’s believed he committed suicide. The circumstances were rather odd, one might say.”

“How so?” Mulder was reverting to the impulse to throttle the foppish biochemist.

“Well, the professor had, to put it indelicately, blown his brains out. The local police had no doubt he’d shot himself, and there was even a suicide note, undisputedly[l9] in his own hand. ‘God forgive me,’ it stated, simply. Well, given the mysterious disappearance of the associate professor and Paramov’s odd funk and departure, there apparently was some sordid speculation that Finfrock and Paramov were engaged in a sexual scandal of sorts, possibly luring younger faculty for some rough sport, if you’ll pardon me.”

“Yeah, sure,” Mulder mumbled, absently.

“But that wasn’t the odd bit, you know. When the coppers found Finfrock, he’d been, well, gnawed.”

“Gnawed?” Mulder squeaked.

“As best the authorities could reason. Of course, forensics was a highly imprecise science at the time, but the coroner’s report concluded the professor’s foot had been removed by an animal of unknown origin. They suspected a canine of some size and ferocity, although Finfrock owned no such creature and, reportedly, the house was locked at the time. Of course, that last bit may be the stuff of urban legends — ripping good mystery, you know?”

“Quite,” Mulder nodded, tripping momentarily back to his Oxford days. “So, what was Finfrock seeking forgiveness for? Buggering grad assistants? Plagiarizing research data?”

“Loads of speculation there,” Poole said. He frowned. “Actually, an astonishing bonanza of speculation, considering the relative obscurity of the man and the case.”

Mulder leaned back, brow furrowing at Poole’s observation. “You have any idea what he was working on when he died? Finfrock?”

“Well, that’s rather the shame, from an academic standpoint. Have you heard of Stanley L. Miller and Harold C. Urey?”

“University of Chicago?” Mulder perked, tapping his encyclopedic knowledge of all things arcane. “The Miller-Urey experiment?”

“Quite.”

The agent unconsciously licked his lips. “Dr. Poole?”

“Oh, Jerome, please.”

“Jerome, you want to share a pint? Maybe lunch, my treat? Isn’t there a pub just off-campus, supposed to be good?”

“Actually…,” Jerome smiled.

**

“And you, honey?” the waitress grinned, turning to Scully.

“I think the small salad,” the agent murmured with a tight, cordial smile. “And a diet coke, please?”

“Cool,” the server chirped, pivoting and heading back for the bar. Jerome and Mulder followed her journey intently.

“Hooters,” Scully stated.

“Quite delightful fare, better than one might expect for the establishment’s obvious marketing appeal,” Jerome informed her, beatifically.

She nodded, and glanced across the table. Her partner’s eyes were darting from one orange-clad backside to another, as if he were playing the fifth level of some M-rated Pong. “Mulder, I’m over here, and up about two feet.”

“Miller and Urey wanted to simulate hypothetical conditions present on early Earth, to see what kind of environment would be needed to generate life. This was in 1953. The Frankenstein Bros. sealed water, methane, ammonia, and hydrogen — major components of Earth’s primordial atmosphere — inside a sterile array of glass tubes and flasks. One flask was half-full of water and another contained a pair of electrodes. The water was heated to add vapor to the chemical cocktail, and the resulting gases were circulated through the habitrail. The flask with the heated water represented water on the Earth’s surface and the recycled water vapor water evaporated from lakes and seas, before transferring into the atmosphere and forming rain.”

“Can I freshen you up?”

Mulder looked up, belatedly into the eyes, of Erin, the Amazonian server, bearing a flask of liquid water. “Yeah. That would be really great. Please.”

“You, sweetie?” Erin asked Jerome as she leaned over Mulder’s tumbler.

“Mm. Hm,” Jerome swallowed, smiling inanely.

“Love that necklace,” Erin beamed at Scully as her arm brushed Jerome’s shoulder and he twitched.

“Thanks,” Scully sighed. Erin topped her glass, and departed. Mulder and Jerome eagerly sipped their water.

“If I change into my running bra,” Scully finally suggested, “do you think you could tell me more about this groundbreaking experiment?”

“Sparks were fired between the electrodes through the water vapors to simulate lightning storms, and then the vapors were cooled so the water could condense and trickle back into the first water flask in a continuous cycle. At the end of one week of continuous operation, Miller and Urey observed that as much as 10 to 15 percent of the carbon within the system was now in the form of organic compounds. Two percent of the carbon had formed amino acids, including 13 of the 22 used to make proteins in living cells. Glycine was the major component they found.”

Scully’s jaded expression disappeared. “Glycine. We found traces of glycine in every specimen from Francks’ refrigerator, along with several exotic amino chains we couldn’t ID. It would seem to suggest these animals — if they are animals, in our sense — are of extraterrestrial origins.”

“Whoa, sweetie,” Mulder interrupted. “Let my esteemed colleague pick up the story.”

“Sure. Fine. Whatever.”

Jerome glanced anxiously between the twinkling Mulder and the sullen Scully, then took a breath. “So, Dr. Finfrock became fascinated — obsessed, some say — by the Miller-Urey experiment. He replicated the study, with nearly identical results, then ramped up the conditions of the experiment in an attempt to assemble the resulting amino acids into an actual lifeform. A microbial organism, of sorts. This was the ‘50s, mind you. But Miller-Urey appeared to possess Finfrock.

“The local press got hold of his work, and, if I understand, raised something of a row. These were conservative, rather turbulent times, and the editor questioned Finfrock’s ‘playing God’ with the building blocks of life. The local clergy got into the act, and the university temporarily bowed to pressure and curtailed the good doctor’s funding.

“And that’s when it goes a bit sideways. A few months after the big flap, Finfrock emerges with a new infusion of funding, a cadre of new lab assistants, and cutting-edge equipment.”

Scully glanced at Mulder, who nodded. The pair knew all too well from whence that type of capital and clout arose. Jerome was oblivious to the shift in atmosphere.

“The work continued in relative obscurity for the next several months, reportedly with no significant new results. The story goes that Finfrock became increasingly eccentric during this period. And that, I expect, is why his funding as abruptly dried up. The lab was dismantled, his crew disbursed throughout the departments, and Finfrock consigned to more mundane crop research.”

“Here we go,” Erin chirped, a huge platter balanced on her palm. Scully jumped. The trio sat in polite silence as sandwiches, onion loaves, and salads were distributed.

“He found something,” Scully concluded once the statuesque Hooter Girl had vanished.

“Something Uncle Sam wasn’t expecting,” Mulder nodded.

“I’m at a bit of a loss,” Jerome sputtered. “Finfrock’s work was a complete bollix. He toiled in ignominious obscurity until the night he spattered his brains across his paneled den. Quite sorry, Agent Scully.”

“I’ve heard and seen worse, Dr. Poole,” she said drily. She turned to Mulder. “You’re thinking Finfrock took his work underground.”

“Thus the mystery surrounding his suicide and ‘gnawing,”” Mulder said. “His federal funding dried up, but he was too driven to let it go. The experiment wouldn’t have been too costly to replicate in a home lab. The only major obstacle is that the whole thing is totally, absolutely, inarguably impossible.”

“The kind of genetic knowledge, much less the necessary molecular manipulation technologies wouldn’t even be conceivable for the next 20 years,” she agreed. “There’s no way he could have engineered an organism with the sophistication to ‘gnaw’ his foot off.”

“Excuse me?” Jerome stammered, Erin now a galaxy away. “Are you suggesting Marshall Finfrock was engaged in biotech experimentation? In, what, 1955? That’s bloody science fiction.”

A broad grin spread across Mulder’s face. “Very good, Jerome. Very good. When did Paramov come into the picture? With Finfrock, I mean?”

“I’m sure I don’t know,” Jerome murmured. “I could try to find out. Might I ask, though, why this is relevant? If what you’re saying is true, this is historic, monumental…”

Scully looked to Mulder with alarm. The grin dropped from his face, and he narrowed his eyes.

“Jerome,” the agent said gravely. “You ever heard of Yusef Khalid?”

The Brit frowned. “I knew a Khalid back at Cornell. Molecular biologist. Bit of a wanker, if I recall. Why do you ask?”

“Must be in the delivery,” Mulder sighed.

**

“Subtle,” Mulder observed.

“Well,” Agent Rossner shrugged as he watched a pair of techs in biohazard suits draw samples from the park pond. “I’d hoped for a more nuanced approach, but my AD insisted we do a total sweep of the park, total evacuation. It’s the only local ecosystem capable of harboring a biological event like this. We told the press and the city we were concerned about a listeria outbreak. As you said, subtle.”

“So what have you found so far?” Scully asked, eyeing a pair of cyclists gawking from the nearby tennis courts.

“Well, the squirrel population seems rather unnerved by the intrusion. The indigenous pigeons apparently have no respect for our mission, and from the condom count in the thicket back there, I’d say park security’s kinda slack. Anything relevant to our investigation? Naw. So let me ask again: Where in hell did these things come from?”

Mulder hesitated. “I’m thinking we’re talking about some homegrown monstrosities.” He described the Miller-Urey experiment and Finfrock’s followup research. “You got the clearance to dig back into the tombs? CIA, maybe something blacker than that?”

“Holy shit,” Rossner groaned. “Sounds like some kind of goofy TV show. But I’ll see what I can find out. You think this Paramov was involved?”

“He joined the faculty right after Finfrock got his new funding. No classes, pure research. And no official connection to Finfrock’s work. But the two became BFFs. Finfrock pulled a Hemingway, and Paramov became a whack job sci-fi writer. I think whatever they got into was too much for their minds, their consciences, to bear.”

“But it’s nearly 60 years later,” Rossner protested. “Whatever they discovered has stayed hidden for a pretty long time. You saying Finfrock made these things, and they’re just now getting out of the house?”

Scully and Rossner listened to the sparrows singing as Mulder stood silently, staring off toward the nearby suburban homes.

“Know a good realtor around here?” he finally inquired.

**

“Bought the place right before the economy went south — this and a half-dozen other properties,” Gary Huggins lamented, turning the key and shoving the huge oak door open. The agents stepped into the foyer, surveying the quietly elegant — if hollow and dust-covered — digs of the late Marshall[l10] Finfrock. Intricate woodwork lined the ceilings and doorways; French doors led into a sunlit den to the right. “So, can you tell me why the FBI’s interested. Unless you guys…?”

“She doesn’t like built-ins,” Mulder informed the CEO and sole employee of Locations Unlimited. Huggins’ eyebrow rose. “Just yankin’ you, Dude. Can’t discuss the case — Homeland Security’s involved.”

“You know, there’s been at least six owners since Finfrock blew his– committed suicide. I’ve been working here myself for 2 1/2 years, and I’ve never found a single secret panel or hidden stairway.” Huggins chortled at his own joke, met Mulder’s indulgent smile and Scully’s dead-eyed stare. “Anyway, don’t know what you’re looking for, but have at it. Gimme a call when you’re ready to lock up.”

As it turned out, the agents had at it for two hours. As the affable Gary had warned, the two floors, dormer attic, and semi-refinished basement yielded nothing. As Mulder secured the heavily whitewashed basement door, he paused, then ran his hand along the right edge.

“Flash me, Baby,” he directed. Scully complied, sighing, training her mag-lite. “That look like wood putty under there? Like somebody sealed over some nail or screw holes?”

“I guess. Maybe there were kids in the house — parents didn’t want them to take a header down the stairs.”

“Except there are about four different patched-over areas, and it looks like they were all patched at the same time. No sign of lock hardware, either. Whoever fortified the basement seemingly didn’t want to keep people from getting downstairs — I think they wanted to keep someone — or something — from getting out. We need to get contacts on the past owners, nail down when this door was doctored.”

“Mulder, you really think Finfrock had a genetics lab downstairs? That he created something he had to bolt the door to keep in?”

“Always the glass half-full,” Mulder moaned. “If he went underground with his research, his house would’ve been the obvious place. Maybe that missing assistant prof signed up for more than he counted on — maybe he wound up the entrée du jour for one of Dr. Finfrock’s Phantasmagorical Critters.”

“Yeah, that’s the logical explanation. Good luck finding the evidence — it’s only been about 55 years.”

“OK, so you’re not crazy about the place. Let’s keep looking.”

Scully spanked dust from her sleeves. “Where?”

“I’ve located another campus-convenient family-pleaser just down the block. Original owner was a kindly Russian old sci-fi writer. I hear the curb appeal is to die for[l11].”

**

Irina Paramov could have been anywhere from 60 to 120 — she was nearly cadaverish, hair flour-white and pulled tightly into a bun under a straw sombrero, but when she glanced up from the rosebushes lining her front walk, Mulder was momentarily taken aback by the clear, sparkling eyes of a woman half her age.

Paramov climbed agilely to her feet, hand clippers dangling casually from long, withered fingers, a smile transforming her lined face. “And you would be the FBI people. Don’t look so astonished — the yuppies may stick to their knitting, or their Blackberries, I guess, but word still travels quickly through the older folk in the neighborhood. Nothing much else to do here in Stepford during the days.” The smile receded, the blue eyes grew darker. “You’re here about that boy who was murdered the other day. A tragedy, though I suppose that’s true of any young death. Well, c’mon; let’s get out of the sun — I’ve had six cancers burned off this summer alone.”

The interior of the former Sheldon Paramov home was cool and economically furnished, with none of the frills or knick-knacks the agents had expected to see. Irina Paramov brought out Pepsis for herself and her guests, and they settled into a trio of leather chairs in the living room.

“We are investigating Luke Beltran’s death, but the case has taken us in some unusual directions,” Scully began cautiously. “Your father lived in this house for several years, correct?”

“Before he met Mother. He refused to let it go — it sat vacant for decades before I inherited it. Albert Einstein, Carl Sagan, Oppenheimer — they all sat in this room, chatting with Father about red dwarfs and cold fusion and the nature of time. This was before he threw in with that madman down the street.”

“Marshall Finfrock?” Mulder inquired.

Paramov’s eyes burned. “He drew him into something — something monstrous. To his dying day, Father refused to discuss what haunted him, what he’d done to drive him from a life of science into a world of fantasy. Sometimes I believe Finfrock took the easy way out. But all this was a half-century ago. How in the world does this relate to that child’s death?”

“We think Luke Beltran somehow happened onto something — something to do with your father and Dr. Finfrock’s research — and may have been killed to cover it up. I guess I’m wondering if you’d kept any records, journals, notes from that time.”

Irina Paramov studied Mulder, glanced out the front bay window. With a long, resigned sigh, she pushed up from the chair. “The Sheldon Paramov Memorial Library is downstairs. You’re welcome to it.”

Paramov’s papers occupied a half-dozen packing boxes along the south wall of an unfinished basement. The boxes were stacked with mathematical precision; the contents were a snarl of history, intellect, imagination, achievement, and loss. A discarded novel draft included a grocery list bookmark; junked watches shared space with a chipped Hugo Award. The astrophysicist/author had searched so desperately for significance, for meaning that all things eventually had lost much of any meaning.

“Wow,” Scully heard Mulder exclaim as she struggled to decipher a coffee-stained napkin filled with mathematical equations. She glanced up to see him displaying a slim volume with a colorful, homicidal dustjacket.

“The Long Goodbye, Raymond Chandler, first edition,” he reported reverently. “Greatest private eye saga ever written. Looks like it’s hardly been cracked.” Mulder paused. “Hey, Finfrock killed himself in ’54, right? That’s when this was published.” He opened the cover and displayed an aged paper sticker behind the dustjacket flap. “‘Ex libris Marshall Finfrock.’ Finfrock must have left this to Paramov. They were best buds, but from what I can see, the book’s the only thing of Finfrock’s he kept. Looks like only about 10 pages — 14 — have been turned. Why? What’s the special significance?”

Scully had seemed oblivious to Mulder’s ponderings, instead staring at the dust cover. Now she turned the book in her partner’s hands. A single and singular rust-brown spatter marred the otherwise pristine wrapper. “There’s your answer. This was probably the last thing Finfrock read before he committed suicide.”

Mulder plopped down onto a box. “So Finfrock buys and cracks open a brand-new novel, settles in to enjoy some hardboiled prose, then blows his cerebral cortex into oblivion. Something amiss here, Watson?”

“One of your testicles, if you refer to me as Watson again. So either Finfrock’s suicide was impulsive, or…”

“He was murdered. I’m going with the first. I think something got out of the basement that night, and Finfrock either couldn’t live with himself or felt a lead lozenge to the skull was preferable to being Homo sapiens tartare for a hungry hell-critter.”

“Give me the Chandler,” Scully said through her teeth. “Now.”

As she grabbed at the book, a small slip of white pasteboard capered to the cement floor. Mulder retrieved it and, as he read the card’s antiquated 8-point typeface, grew silent.

“Mulder?”

He looked up with a strange smile. “Well, if this wasn’t an X-file before, it is now.” Mulder flipped the card for Scully’s inspection.

“FBI,” Scully mumbled, eyes narrowing. “Wait. No.”

“Yes. I’ll be interested to find out why Marshall Finfrock’s snail-dial list included Special Agent Arthur Dales.”

**

The X-files were unofficially born in 1946, when a series of human mutilations led to a lethal standoff between Montana police and a wolflike creature who left behind a very human corpse. Six years later, in the course of investigating a spate of West Virginia cattle killings, a young agent named Dales discovered his infamous director — a ruthless authoritarian named Hoover — had been sitting on a file cabinet-full of strange phenomena and uncanny crimes. Dales delved into the unsolveds, but Hoover and Co. soon grew anxious about what he might uncover, and, after a career-destroying case involving unspeakable human-alien hybrid research, the agent retired to obscurity, continued research into the unknown, and meandering travel.

Mulder managed to trace the octogenarian founder of the X-files to a Mesa, Arizona, park home complex where, as expected, Dales had decorated his modular mini-cottage in Modern American Hoarder. The former agent’s red locks had turned to a near-pink, and liver spots and freckles mingled across his lank face, but Dales beamed with youthful delight as he ushered his successor to a battered olive couch.

“Agent Mulder,” he sighed happily, placing a Flintstones tumbler of grape Koolaid before his guest. As he lowered himself into a mud-colored recliner, Dales’ robe gapped to reveal a black tee with the legend ‘I visited Roswell and I can’t remember how I got this lousy T-shirt.’ “You know, I was thinking about you the other day. It seems some Congolese villagers had encountered some sort of tree creature, a huge hominid…”

“Turned out to be some hiker from Sacramento — got separated from his safari group under the influence of some bad psychoactive he’d picked up in Addis Abadi.”

“Ah. How unfortunate.”

“You know,” Mulder drawled, sipping his sweet concoction, “this doesn’t exactly seem like your kind of scene. I don’t picture you playing shuffleboard between early bird specials.”

Dales blinked. “On the contrary — it’s far easier to lose one’s self in a community of codgers like this than in some enclave of eccentricity where everyone seeks fascinating company and stimulating conversation. Plus, the pool’s just the right temp and there are some stone foxes at the Saturday mixers. But enough about me — what brings Fox Mulder to my little corner of Paradise?”

“Marshall Finfrock,” Mulder stated without further ceremony.

Arthur Dales slumped momentarily back in his chair, then bobbed forward. “I dared to hope the whole affair might just fade away, but somehow, I knew it wouldn’t stay dead.”

“Arthur, what wouldn’t stay dead?” Mulder croaked.

Dales leaned in, although he and Mulder were the only two in the cluttered park home. “What’s happened?”

“A boy’s murder, a mini-zoo straight out of H.P. Lovecraft, and what appears to be some kind of scientific conspiracy that drove one man to suicide and another into seclusion.”

“Yes. Yes. Well, I suppose it’s well past time I unburdened myself.” Dales closed his eyes, then slapped his knees. “But how about some chorizo and eggs first?”

**

Pradesh peered for the twentieth time at the scans, expresso eyes moving between the dual datasets. He remembered to breathe, and a long, troubled sigh filled the empty university lab.

The fallen Hindu muttered a long-forgotten prayer, then located his iPhone.

“I’m downtown, looking over the police reports on Marshall Finfrock’s suicide,” Scully reported. “What’s up?”

“I’ve found a…an anomaly I can’t fully explain. With two of the specimens.”

Scully remained silent, and the biologist continued. “Nos. 15 and 32 had appeared to share some morphological and anatomical similarities, and their DNA is virtually identical, so I conducted some tests to determine their possible relationship. However, No. 15 is a far more primitive creature, with cilia designed to capture and process microbial organisms into its digestive system. Its motility is limited — I assume it’s a scavenger — and it has no apparent defensive mechanisms. A cumbersome, large creature that lived among other primordial, benign scavengers.

“No. 32, on the other hand, was more compact, with appendages adapted for rapid, 360-degree movement and bioelectric nerve nodules in place of the cilia to subdue food species and, presumably, defend itself. Further, it possesses a sheathed, well, appendage is the best term I can use. It’s chitinous and razor-sharp and attached to a system of tendons that form what I assume t co be a spring mechanism. A predatory tool, and a deadly one at that. This creature belongs to a far more hostile, competitive ecosystem. In short, a more evolved ecosystem. Also explains why it’s the only specimen that appears to have put up a struggle with the cat.”

He listened to Scully’s measured breathing for a moment. “Are you telling me No. 15 and No. 32 are part of the same evolutionary chain, existing simultaneously?”

“I’m telling you that, based on biological and environmental factors, these organisms would seem to be from two separate times. Possibly — and I recognize how ridiculous this might sound — two separate eras millions of years apart. I know it sounds crazy.”

“My threshold for crazy is a moving target,” Scully murmured.

4. The Secret Files of Arthur Dales

The first time I laid eyes on Albert Einstein, he was devouring a plate of ginger snaps, absently brushing crumbs from the thick brush under his light-bulb honker and slurping at a china cup of black java. Einstein was making appreciative sounds as he munched his cookies, and, altogether, it wasn’t the most impressive first impression the world’s supposedly greatest mind could have made on me.

But who was I to judge what befits a genius? I’d blasted a Chevy-sized hole in my foot on my last case, allowing my partner to meet a gruesome end and handing the killer over to Bill Mulder, a scientist who’d apparently let Edward Sklur lam straight into the Great Unknown.

Hoover had my keister for supper with a side of French fries, [l12]and my future career with the FBI could be measured with an egg timer. But I had nowhere else to go, so I sucked it up and got busy on the series of scut jobs the esteemed Director dreamed up for my new life in Limbo.

One was vetting some Russkie named Paramov for some hush-hush project at the university. Paramov was a glorified stargazer who talked about men going to the moon — itself no ringing endorsement for the man’s sanity — but the boys at the Pentagon seemed to think he was John Wayne and Gary Cooper wearing a Superman cape, so here I was, about to meet the world’s smartest guy. If he could get his nose out of the cookie jar for two seconds.

Einstein spotted me and stood up, brushing gingersnap shrapnel from his baggy suit. He had a goofy grin on his face — they’d warned me he was a stitch, and they hadn’t put it that nicely.

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“And you must be the G-man,” he said, rubbing his winkled paws together like a kid meeting the Green Hornet. “It is a great pleasure to meet you — like some character straight out of a Ronald Reagan movie.”

Wasn’t a fan of the guy myself, but I was beginning to take a shine to this little egghead who looked like Groucho Marx meets Dr. Frankenstein. “No, sir — it’s my great pleasure. I read about you in Life.”

“They did a nice job,” Einstein nodded. “Although my theories on time and space seemed to tax the poor boy who interviewed me.”

“It is kinda rough going,” I admitted, grinning.

“You’ve read my ramblings?” Einstein asked, gesturing toward a chair and dropping back into his. “And what conclusions did you come to?”

“That I’m more cut out for the FBI than Los Alamos.”

Einstein cackled. “Do not be so sure. I sense you keep many more cards in your vest pocket than you’d like to have anyone know. How can I help you today, Agent. I assume this has nothing to do with the motion of molecules?”

“Nah. It has to do with Sheldon Paramov. I understand you two worked together during the war.”

“Ah, Sheldon,” the forest under Einstein’s schnoz twitched, but his old man’s eyes dropped. “We shared an appreciation of the universe’ humor and alarm over the madness that overtook my homeland and the land of his parents’ birth. I cannot, of course, reveal the precise nature of our work, but had I known its consequences, I might instead have become a watchmaker.”

“You can’t go back in time, I guess,” I shrugged. “But you don’t buy that, do you?”

“I’ve come to realize the distinction between past, present, and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion. Sheldon shares my realization. However, whereas my thirst for the secrets of the universe is insatiable, Sheldon is too impatient to allow those secrets to reveal themselves. He does not see that only two things are infinite: the universe and human stupidity. And I am not altogether sure about the universe. But this is not what you wish to know. He is a tireless scientist with an endless wellspring of curiosity. He will not sleep until he can answer the essential questions asked him.”

I nodded, then hesitated. Einstein had been a U.S. citizen since 1940, but no doubt the German native’s thick accent and bearing had sparked more than a few suspicious stares and hateful mumblings from those who’d witnessed Der Fuhrer’s campaign of death and terror. His rants against the evils of capitalism still got ink on the editorial pages, and some Mississippi congressman had called him a “foreign-born agitator.” But somehow, Einstein had managed to dodge Senator McCarthy’s gunsights.

“Would you say Sheldon is, well, a patriot?”

Einstein smiled wisely. “Politics are for the moment; equations for eternity. At this moment, as flawed as its views of race and cultural still may be, America offers the greatest opportunity for free scientific thought and exploration. I embrace the fundamental humanity of my adopted country; Sheldon loves his country like a virgin bride. He is fiercely loyal to America’s ideals and, as I said, relentless in his pursuit of the answers. Even if he does not always question the questioners.” Einstein shrugged. “But, I suppose, everything is relative.”

The scientist laughed. Einstein would pass from our neck of the universe in less than three years, but I wouldn’t get his punchline for several more.

**

I don’t know what I’d expected, but Sheldon Paramov was something of a surprise. The astrophysicist was clean-shaven — Adolf the Hyena and Uncle Joe Stalin had given the mustache a bad name — and had a pleasant Midwest voice with a mere twinge of Chicago. But he was as serious as Macarthur reviewing the troops, and I could tell he felt like washing after handling my undereducated paw.

At his invitation — and with some reluctance on my part — we met for lunch in the university grill. In hindsight, it was a smart choice for a private chat: students streamed obliviously around us, blathering about their heavy study loads and the newest music; professors staked out corner tables to bury themselves in scholarly tomes or share ideologies and egos and ham sandwiches.

“Dr. Einstein sends his regards,” I said as we deposited our plates. I wasn’t supposed to discuss the clearance process with him, but Einstein was a chum and, well, I wanted to size up how Paramov viewed the German genius.

For the first and only time in our brief relationship, Paramov smiled with a grim, secretive sharpness I’d only seen before at the National Aquarium. That was on a blind date, and the trout almondine the trip had inspired was the only pleasant memory of the day.

“I’d have liked to have been a fly on the wall for that conversation,” Paramov chuckled. “Albert’s a wonderful fellow, one of the greatest minds the world’s ever seen, but he’s become a bit soft-hearted in his old age.”

It was obvious Paramov felt Einstein had gone soft about a foot-and-a-half higher, and it told me something about our boy. Einstein knew there were limits, that we were all Mickey Mouse itching to get our mitts on the sorcerer’s toys. I’d seen pictures of the mushroom clouds over Nagasaki and Hiroshima, and the image of Edward Sklur writhing in the grip of some alien nightmare was burned forever onto the back of my brain pan. Paramov’s skull was too full of numbers and theories and questions to hold such images or entertain any maudlin remorse about scorched earth or mere lives.

Unfortunately, that was probably his highest recommendation for the boys in Defense.

“We’re in a race for survival, Agent Dales, I guess is what I’m saying,” Paramov added, sipping his black coffee. “My folks left Moscow when they saw what Lenin and his thugs were up to. If I believed in God, I’d say Stalin was the personification of Satan himself, just like Hitler ten years ago. We — America is the agent of world survival, and the scientist holds all the tools of Man’s salvation.”

Mr. Humble, this guy. But loyal? His orange Jell-O was starting to turn red-white-and-blue.

“You know the guys you’d be working with here on campus?”

“Met Dr. Finfrock at a seminar in Boston a couple years back. Biologist, of course — doesn’t know beans about physics. But he’s smart for a soft scientist, and open-minded. I’m looking forward to seeing what we can cook up.”

The metaphor sent a slight chill up my backbone, but I nodded in satisfaction.

“OK, now if we could go over just a couple of personal details…”

“Dr. Paramov?”

I looked up. A lanky, pallid man in a cheap Sears suit hovered behind my shoulder. His specs were greasy with finger-oil, and Brylcreem kept his curly brown hair at bay.

“Dr. Finfrock,” Paramov smiled, bowing slightly without rising.

“I heard you were coming to campus,” Marshall Finfrock stammered. “I’m absolutely delighted, delighted. I look forward to working with you.”

The astrophysicist cocked his head toward me with a dry, sharklike smile. “Well, that’s up to Agent Dales here. He wants to make sure I’m not going to feed state secrets back to the Kremlin.”

“Oh, Agent,” Finfrock stuttered, eyes wide, oblivious to his colleague’s irony, “I can assure you Dr. Paramov has nothing but our country’s best interests at heart.”

“I’m sure he does,” I reassured the absent-minded professor. “You know Uncle Sam — we just like to get our ducks in a row.”

“Why don’t you join us, Marshall?” Paramov murmured. Finfrock beamed at Paramov’s use of the familiar, like a puppy who’d performed a perfect somersault. He yanked a chair out and juggled his club sandwich and milk onto the table. “That is OK, isn’t it, Agent Dales?”

I was getting a better picture of Dr. Paramov, and not one I’d want to hang over the fireplace. I slid a Bureau card across the table, and then, on a whim, pulled out an extra for Finfrock. He stared at it like it was a Dick Tracy decoder ring. “Actually, I think I have what I need. I’ll give you a call, Doc, if there’s anything else I need, but I don’t see any problems here.”

Paramov hadn’t cared for the ‘Doc’ bit, but he was clearly relieved by my departure. I took my hat, bid the two scientists a fond farewell, and never saw Paramov again.

**

“Agent Dales? Arthur Dales?”

It was about seven months later, and Finfrock’s voice barely registered. It wasn’t just my memory; something had sapped the boyish energy from the biologist’s tone.

I’d been late at my desk, poring over reports of strange lights sighted off the Nantucket coast. Hoover wouldn’t have liked my rummaging in the X drawer, but to hell with the tubby Genghis Khan, anyway. A buddy in Manhattan had offered me a private badge with one of the nation’s topflight detective agencies, and I planned to hand in my Bureau papers at the end of the month. Preferably, on the end of a flaming arrow.

“Dr. Finfrock, right?” I managed, knowing right then I’d regret the impulse to hand out my number so freely.

“I’m dreadfully sorry,” Finfrock rasped, fear crackling over the line. “But you were the only one I could think of. Bill Mulder said…”

“Mulder?”

“Yes, when I realized how out-of-control things had gotten, I called him. He said you could be trusted.”

Thank you, Dr. Mulder. “Doc, are you OK?”

“For now. But I think it may have gotten out. It should have taken a lot longer…”

“Doc, what is ‘it’?”

Finfrock hyperventilated into the mouthpiece for a few seconds, then swallowed. “I did it. God help me, I did it. And I don’t know how to close it.”

This wasn’t working. “Doc, give me your address. It’s about an hour’s drive, but just hang tight.”

“If I can,” Finfrock said weakly. He fed me the address and hung up.

Cursing Bill Mulder, I dug for my keys.

**

It was a comfortably aging development — nice brick bungalows and colonial homes for nice people and the university folk. Young maples sprouted along the quiet street, and I could see Lucy and Desi bickering and flickering through a half-dozen curtained windows.

Finfrock’s house was lit up like New Years at the GE plant, and my breath puffed in cumulus rolls as I sprinted up the flagstone walk. The front door was unlocked; I pulled my piece and nudged my way in.

Dead silence. Or at least I thought so at first. Then I caught it — a Thanksgiving-meets-Halloween sound that yanked at my neck hairs. But this wasn’t Uncle Dave gnawing at a drumstick — the chewing/slurping/grunting sounds were from out of a particularly nasty reefer dream. I saw shadows shifting on the walls inside a set of French doors, and approached silently, willing my thumping heart to clam up.

The first thing I saw as I reached the nattily trimmed doorway was Finfrock himself — grayer, lanker, and paler except for the black-and-scarlet hole in his temple. He was slumped in a leather wing chair behind his desk, right arm sprawled over the blood-speckled blotter, raw and bleeding fingers tight around a Woodsman pistol. The hole and the gun and the smell of cordite told the story — Finfrock had decided a conversation with Old Uncle Arthur wouldn’t make the goblins go away.

I slumped against the doorjamb, and that’s when Marshall Finfrock twitched and slid forward. I’d seen rigor do a lot of tricks, but this was a new one. Then, as the shock began to wear off, I heard the gnawing again. It was coming from behind the desk.

Trigger finger poised, I steeled myself and crept on my toes around the perimeter of the study. When I reached the far end of the room, I gasped and nearly dropped my piece.

I knew now what had been eating Marshall Finfrock — or at least what was dining on him now. It was the size of a fox terrier, but if it was listed on the AKC Register, it was under Hellhounds. Finfrock’s leg was buried to the shin inside a leathery grey suitcase of a body, flecks of blood and bone dripping from a lipless, puckered opening. The leather pulsed and rippled as the thing feasted, and it braced itself against the planked floor with what I counted to be three clawed “legs.”

“Jesus and Mary,” I whispered. Or prayed. I can’t recall.

It stopped chewing, and my blood turned to refrigerator fluid. The creature pulled suckingly away from Finfrock’s mangled foot, and the mouth-hole smacked noisily and disappeared into a series of folds. The legs straightened, and it rose to full height, balanced on its tripod. The folds at the top of the ovoid body rippled and opened, and a trio of round, cueball-sized globes emerged. The “eyes” turned from inky black to silver as a trio of red pupils popped into view. I could see three Arthur Dales reflected in the huge orbs, and all of them looked like they were ready to soil their drawers.

Now, some things are universal — an epiphany I hadn’t fully grasped until that moment. Doesn’t matter if it’s some thug in an alley, a Mob enforcer cornered on a rooftop, or a commie spy who realizes red just lost the match. Or a giant medicine ball with three legs and billiard ball eyes. The second I saw those tripod legs tense and those silver eyes focus on the agent du jour, instinct kicked in. I unloaded five lead housewarming gifts into its tough gray hide, and it fell straight to the floor.

I approached carefully, unfamiliar as I was with alien organ placement. It lay still, on its back (?), the trio of eyes now white and pupil-less. I was considering my next move when the middle eye flashed silver and red and a mouth-fold unfurled to reveal a meat-grinder of razor-ridges.

I jumped to my feet, gun rattling at the end of my stiff right arm.

And it began to talk. Not Brooklynese, or Russian, or bad Mandarin. It was distant but distinct; sounds repeated and fluctuated. It wasn’t squealing or mewling or grunting its final animalistic death throes. It was talking. To me.

I unloaded the last bullet in my chamber, straight into that silver peephole into Hell.

**

“Fortunately,” Arthur Dales concluded, “It was a tough-skinned piece of work, and there weren’t any exit wounds or blood, at least from the beast.”

Dales speared a forkful of Mexican sausage and scrambled eggs, chewed the wad thoughtfully, and swallowed. “I hauled it to the basement, where, as I hoped, Finfrock had a nice big coal furnace. In the process of cremating the beast, I noticed Dr. Finfrock had been doing a little decorating. There was a brand-spanking-new cinder block wall in the basement — the mortar was still tacky in places. I found out later he’d bought one of those homemade bomb shelter kits that were so popular back in the day. I figured he must have intended to seal that thing in the cellar.”

“Or something else,” Mulder suggested. “Like a laboratory.”

“Whatever it was, I wasn’t about to grab a sledge hammer and find out. I was already on Hoover’s list, and I suspected that whatever Finfrock sealed behind that wall would make that thing I shot seem like the family collie.”

“I think he created that thing. You saw the note he left?”

Dales paused. “The suicide note?”

“Yeah,” Mulder confirmed curiously. “Can you tell me precisely what it said?”

“God help me?”

“That the exact phrasing?”

Dales frowned, then exhaled. “Of course. God-comma-forgive-me.”

“God, forgive me. Finfrock wasn’t asking for our forgiveness — he was asking God himself to forgive him.”

“For playing God.” The old agent fell back in his chair. “Oh, my. That might explain it.”

Mulder blinked as Dales rose and began to gather the dishes. “What, Arthur?” he asked the retreating senior.

“The other note.”

**

Scully was waiting at the carousels.

“Miss me, Babe?” Mulder purred as she ducked his embrace.

“Oh, baby, baby. Get your bags and haul ass. I’ll bring up the car.”

Ten minutes later, Mulder tossed her the yellowed envelope as he grumblingly shoved the driver’s seat back. The front was simply labeled ‘Dales.’ The contents, scrawled on a slip of stationary, were equally concise.

“‘Escape Hatch,’” Scully muttered. “That’s it. What did he mean?”

“Finfrock must have suspected he’d let something out of the basement, and he had limited time to write both his suicide note and leave a clue for Arthur. I suspect Escape Hatch was what he and Sheldon Paramov had been into, where they got their funding, and what was responsible for the disappearance of an associate professor.”

Scully scowled. “But Mulder, why? Why would the government create these pointless monstrosities? And how? And what the hell are we doing here?”

Mulder pulled in under the Blockbuster sign and scanned the rest of the strip plaza. “Movie and pizza night, Little Mamacita. Keep the screen-talking to a minimum, and we’ll see what transpires.”

Scully foraged in her purse for her rental card. “I think we both know the ending to this one.”

**

The sky was an unnaturally saturated azure, and the “ocean” frothed at the matte-black beach. Clooney stared about for signs of life, spotted none save the dark, surreal shapes drifting and jetting about in the shallows.

“Well, Kurt, looks like we ain’t in Kansas any more,” Goldblum said, nervously fingering the revolver he’d insisted on bringing across. The line was the director’s, not Paramov’s.

Clooney ignored the dry jibe, turning to Cate Blanchett, who stood transfixed, staring into the dual suns overhead. “Anna? Anna? You OK?”

Blanchett’s stare moved to her “ex-husband” (her character had been grafted onto Paramov’s original novel to secure the women 18-40 demographic and introduce the element of sexual tension the producer deemed crucial to box office draw).

hahhahahaha

[l13] “I was just wondering,” she murmured, calm and slightly contemptuous. “How much of this is your work? If that isn’t blasphemy?”

Clooney turned away, stung. Before he could respond to her indictment, Goldblum broke cheerfully in.

“Once life was established, a cycle of gas exchange began, much like the exchange of carbon dioxide and oxygen we screwed up back home,” the rangy, gnomish astrophysicist explained. The director was a key patron of both the Natural Resources Defense Fund and Greenpeace. “My guess is the polar bears don’t arrive for a few billion more years. At least we don’t need to worry about Sarah Palin showing up.”

“Who’s Sarah Palin?” The trio turned, frightened, to face the source of the rusty inquiry. The figure was incongruous, garbed in the archaic bell bottoms and Keep on Truckin’ tee of a seventies rebel but bearing a shaggy head of white hair and a beard that nearly covered the “Keep On” portion of the grimy yellow shirt.

“My God,” Goldblum whispered.

“Hey,” Harrison Ford smiled grimly, nodding toward Clooney. “Let’s give credit where credit is due.”

“So this is the kid who got sucked into the black hole?” a naked Scully interjected from the bathroom doorway, toweling her hair dry. Mulder paused the DVD. “Damon is a good head shorter — did he have a growth spurt at 50? And if we’re to assume he’s been alone on this planet for, what, 40 years, wouldn’t his larynx and vocal cords have atrophied? Not to mention what he’s subsisted on for all this time. Certainly, organisms living in a hydrogen medium would be unfit to eat…”

Mulder sighed. “We’re both going to be in an oxygenless medium if you keep sucking it out of the room. My notes on the laptop — find the name of the associate prof who disappeared after Paramov and Finfrock started working together.”

Scully frowned, but crossed to the hotel workdesk, launched Word and combed Mulder’s ramblings on the case. “Here. Frederic Wyckstrom.”

Mulder gestured toward Harrison Ford’s shaggy countenance, frozen in RGB. “Wyc Fredericks, the hippie grad student who was researching space-time anomalies with Wingert — Clooney — and Haalberg — Goldblum — before he disappeared in a lab supply closet 35 years ago. I think Wyc is pretty clearly Wyckstrom. Haalberg is Paramov, and Wingert is Finfrock, though only a very few aged academics might figure it out. While Paramov’s novel disguised Finfrock’s and his own identities, he didn’t bother to come up with a foolproof alias for Wyckstrom. Maybe out of guilt for Wyckstrom’s disappearance; a[l14] homage to a colleague who took one for the home team?”

“Or a hapless lab assistant who crossed the wrong wire or swallowed an overdose of radiation? C’mon, Mulder, writers tap their experiences, their friends, their families for source material. Are you trying to tell me Paramov and Finfrock created a black hole? In 1954?”

“It wasn’t a black hole, which you would have known if your attention span wasn’t so short. It was a wormhole.”

“Oh. Well. You may be a little more in the ballpark — the mathematician Hermann Weyl devised the wormhole theory in 1921, though the term wormhole wasn’t coined until 1957. So you’re trying to tell me Paramov and Finfrock created a wormhole?”

Mulder dropped the remote on the bedspread. “What happened to that spirited, inquisitive little coed who wowed the University of Maryland campus with her theories on Einstein’s Twin Paradox? At least you stayed a redhead.”

Scully pulled her thighs together. “Finfrock and Paramov managed to keep something that earthshaking a secret on a major college campus?”

“I don’t think it was on campus,” Mulder said. “I think it was — or is — behind a cinderblock wall in a basement less than a block from the Francks.”

“Ah, a brick wall. That should contain an intergalactic rift.”

“Finfrock finished plastering that wall after calling Arthur Dales in a panic. He was sealing something in — why not the doorway to another world? And why don’t you put something on? It’s really distracting when I’m trying to discuss quantum mechanics.”

“One can only hope,” Scully said, jumping up and crossing back into the bathroom. “But if this other world, and its exotic inhabitants, have been sealed behind a brick wall for 56 years, how did Callie the cat catch her ‘toys’?”

Mulder smiled in a Holmesian manner which, unfortunately, Scully couldn’t see. “Arthur disposed of Finfrock’s three-legged houseguest in the large coal furnace in the basement. The neighborhood was built in the ’20s, before gas heating became the trend, and coal was still being delivered daily when Finfrock lived there. You didn’t bring coal in the kitchen door or leave it on the porch with the milk.”

Scully reappeared, panties in hand. “A coal shute. I guess it’s possible — after the heating was switched to gas or electric, they might have forgotten to seal the shute, or left it there for character. And a cat likely could slip inside, if it was open or unlocked, for warmth, mice, whatever.”

“Except she found whatever, and a blue assload of it. Which reminds me: What did you find out from the former owners?”

Scully unconsciously crumpled the lingerie. “At least three suggested the house was haunted — no apparent rodent or insect damage, but they heard unusual noises, sometimes animal noises, apparently from inside the house.”

Mulder nodded cheerfully as his Droid buzzed on the bedside table. “What say we get us a couple of sledgehammers and make an evening of it?”

“If there’s some kind of electromagnetic or subatomic disruption in that basement, I’m not going in with a jackhammer and the missing Hardy Brother.” The phone vibrated again. “We need to get Rossner in on this.” Scully reached for the Droid as it continued to twitch. “It’s Mrs. Beltran.”

“Let it go to voicemail,” Mulder dismissed. “Look, Rossner’s an okay guy, but he is Homeland Security.”

“Mulder,” Scully breathed. “Don’t you think you should talk to her?”

“I think she’d understand we’re onto something just a little bigger here. Let it roll. And I guess you’re right: We’ll need Rossner’s clearance to take down that wall. What do you think? Should we tell him–”

The sharp slap of the bathroom door interrupted Mulder’s strategy session. He shrugged and retrieved the laptop.

**

It was the first day of sixth grade: Fox muttered pre-adolescent obscenities as the firm female hand shook him. Mom was no doubt frying sausages and eggs downstairs, and Samantha was already briefing her dolls on the exciting, unknown day ahead. Fox didn’t share her excitement: He learned as much in his own tramps through the woods and through the wilds of the public library, without the taunts and threats that met him each new September.

“Mulder, I said up.” He blinked. Scully hovered over him, face composed but cool. For some reason, she was wearing a black dress and jacket.

“Wha’ time?”

“Three-fifteen. We have about an hour — get in the shower and get dressed.”

Mulder sat up groggily, spotted the suit draped over a nearby armchair.

“Where are we going?”

“Get moving,” Scully said quietly. “Just get moving.”

**

Mulder’d sensed it was not the time to insist on driving, and Scully offered no clue to their destination as she drove soberly toward the edge of town. The rental slowed before a large, ornate iron gateway, and Scully signaled a right into the sprawling expanse of grass, marble, and limestone.

Easily a hundred uncharacteristically silent teens were on hand for Lucas Beltran’s interment, and Krista Beltran greeted each one personally as they filed into or around the graveside tent, grabbing an uncertain hand or pulling a sobbing youth into a consolatory embrace. Kids, neighbors, teachers poured out of the queue of vehicles forming along the path winding down to Luke Beltran’s final resting place.

“Is this big enough?” Mulder heard Scully murmur. The agent took in the scene of collective loss, grief, sharing, and looked helplessly down at his partner. Warm fingers captured his.

**

“Agents.”

Rossner quickly closed the distance between Mulder and Scully and himself, waiting until they were well away from the gravesite to speak.

“You might have told me what you were up to,” the DHS agent sighed as he glanced through the stones at Krista and her last few youthful mourners. “We got onto the posts about five minutes after you put them out, and your director and my boss are looking for scalps. What did you hope to do here?”

“Mulder, what did you do?” Scully groaned.

“Your partner hit every major conspiracy blog, discussion forum, and Facebook page asking for information on something called Escape Hatch,” Rossner smirked grimly.

“I told you you take too long in the john,” Mulder scolded Scully.

“You know I have resources, Mulder,” the Homeland Security man said. “Why didn’t you just ask me?”

“So what is Escape Hatch?” Mulder asked, slipping his hands into his jacket pockets.

“Glad you asked.”

“Look, Rossner — I’m sorry. But this thing is huge — somebody probably murdered Luke Beltran because he was asking questions about those things the Francks found, about Marshall Finfrock and his work. Getting it out on the web might give us a little protection while we find out what Escape Hatch is. And, hey, who knows better about dark ops and weird science than the paranoid cybermasses?”

“Paranoid is right. So far, the consensus appears to be that Escape Hatch was a plot to sneak Hitler out of postwar Germany, a tunnel constructed between Roswell and Los Alamos, a relocation program for the not-quite-dead JFK, and a secret airline for terrorists and war criminals.”

“You’re saying there’s no such thing?”

Rossner paused, stared at a stone cherub at Scully’s elbow. “No. I’m just saying the people who might know aren’t saying. Who knows, though — maybe you’ll shake something loose. Just next time, let me in on the play, though, OK?”

The DHS agent was smart enough not to wait for an answer.

“Thought he’d never leave,” Mulder said, pulling his hands out of his pockets. And his Droid. “Thing’s been vibrating for the last five minutes.” He swiped the screen and peered at the display. “Delaware, no ID.” Mulder started to redial, then paused.

“It can wait,” he declared, pocketing the phone.

**

“Thought I heard something in here,” Mulder said as he peeked around the bedroom doorway. “Sorry, but I didn’t want to bother you at the cemetery. No, don’t get under her.”

Krista Beltran was in a battered recliner next to the bed; a small flatscreen on the dresser displayed a couple of flashy but somehow sad women menacing each other in a public restaurant.

“Real Housewives, the Jersey version,” Mrs. Beltran informed Mulder. “This must look really awful after I just buried Luke and with a houseful of guests.”

“Please,” the agent assured her. “Actually, I figured you might need some time to yourself, and this is what you used to watch with Luke, right?”

Beltran grinned even as she tried to tuck a tear back into the corner of her eye. “Real Housewives Orange County/Jersey/Atlanta/New York/D.C., Top Chef, Flip This House, all the classic Bravo Network trash. Luke used to joke that after watching all that eye-clawing and bitching and drama, he felt better about our lives. But I truly believe he wanted to know what made people tick, what made them treat each other so horribly. He was an exceptional boy, talked about wanting to go into counseling even though he was in line for a half-dozen sports scholarships. I’m sorry; did you want to talk about the case?”

Mulder smiled and perched on the bench at the foot of the bed. “I just wanted your permission to go back into Luke’s web history. I want to see just how far he got into some things that may have happened in the neighborhood about 50 years ago.”

Beltran perked. “That house down the block? The old Finfrock place? You know, since I saw you and your partner last, I’ve had several neighbors tell me Luke had been asking all kinds of questions about the house and the professor. A few weeks ago, he was running late after softball, and when I called him, he was at old Ms. Paramov’s down the block. Probably gathering more intelligence on Finfrock.”

Mulder considered silently.

“You do whatever you need to to find out what happened to Luke.” Krista’s vehemence roused him from his new ponderings. Mulder nodded, rose, then sat down.

“Mind if I watch for a while?” he asked.

Beltran blinked, grinned, and handed him a Tupperware tub of chips. They sat and crunched through two segments of catty intrigue, laughing and gasping. It was during a network promo that it came to Mulder; he stiffened and stared at the commercial.

“Agent?”

Mulder turned to Krista, who appeared concerned.

“That Danielle,” Mulder laughed, adrenalin surging through his chest. “She’s such a bitch.”

“Yeah,” Krista mused, eyes filling anew. “Yeah, she sure is.”

**

“Quit looking at me,” Mulder growled as the hotel marquee came into sight. “I told you I was sorry I left you for so long.”

“Your profiling skills must be getting rusty,” Scully murmured, smiling serenely. “I was about to suggest we block out a few hours for relationship-building. I suddenly feel like exploring your masculine side, and I imagine you do to after two hours of Real Housewives.”

“Gawd, you think I can just turn it on and off, don’t you?” Mulder asked melodramatically.

“Yes. I do.”

“Nothing wrong with your profiling skills,” he grinned, goosing the gas.

Mulder was cursing the obstinate key card as his Droid activated. He wrenched it from his pocket and glared at the display. He glanced anxiously at Scully.

“Delaware?” she asked. “Take it.”

“Mulder, FBI.”

“Agent Mulder.” The voice was educated but slightly crusted from disuse. “Understand you’re investigating a murder, that boy lived by the university.”

“Yeah. You got something for me?” Mulder’d learned to recognize fame-seekers, conspiracy buffs, and paranoiacs a mile off, but somehow this didn’t seem like that.

His intuition was confirmed as a rusty chuckle filtered over the line. “Yeah. I guess I do. See, that’s my old stomping grounds down there, and I’m maybe the world’s last surviving expert on Project Escape Hatch.”

It took Mulder a moment. “You’re not…”

“No names, please. I read about you. Spooky Mulder. You think you can lose your fed buddies for a few hours, maybe have a cup of bad coffee and a slice of the best damned sugar cream pie on the Eastern Seaboard?”

Mulder had never heard of sugar cream pie and, at that moment, would have consumed a steaming wedge of elephant dung. “Where?”

“Marilyn’s Stop Inn, outside Parksley on the peninsula. GPS it. I got stuff to do, so make it 11 tomorrow morning. Come alone, or all you’ll get out of the drive is a full stomach and a sugar rush. And this is a disposable, so don’t waste your time with a trace.”

“Mulder,” Scully prodded as her partner stared at the dead phone. “What was that? You look like you’ve seen–”

“Don’t say it, Scully,” he laughed, uncertainly. “Looks like I have a breakfast date with the late Fred Wyckstrom.”

Scully’s eyes widened. “Then I’d say,” she drawled, “we better get a new keycard up here, quickly.”

5. The Disturbing Account of Frederick Wyckstrom

Ill-rested but nonetheless clear-headed, Mulder crimped the wheel, crunching into the crushed limestone before the long plate-glass window of the Stop Inn. Even at 10:50 in the morning, the diner’s neon was glowing — a huge red arrow pointed directly at Mulder’s bumper. He ignored the possible omen and locked up.

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The diner was relatively idle, suspended between the morning mob of seniors, farmers, fishermen, and lower-echelon pitchmen and the lunch crowd about to escape from the strip plazas and office parks surrounding the Inn. It wasn’t hard to pinpoint Wyckstrom, even with a tightly trimmed white beard and a Wilmington Blue Rocks cap. The only other patrons present were an obese pair of obvious tourists and a couple of sullen phone company linemen grunting about ex-wives and the “fucking Democrats.”

The booth was well away from the counter. “Another cup and two pies, Norah,” the man in the cap called. A tall blonde in jeans and an apron saluted from behind the cash register as Mulder slid in across from Wyckstrom. The former academic was fit for 77, and the effects of a life lived outdoors obscured his actual age.

“Randy Smalls,” Wyckstrom stated. “Don’t forget it, and don’t slip. Ah, yeah, that’s what I’m talking about.”

Norah placed two generous slices of what resembled a pallid custard pie before the men, and poured a cup of inky liquid in Mulder’s upturned china cup.

“How’re the granny smiths comin’ in?” the waitress inquired with a slight smile.

“I think you’ll be pleased,” “Randy” grinned. It was the only time Mulder would see him smile that day. “I’ll hold back a few bushels, you make me a cobbler.”

“Deal,” Norah snapped, pivoting back toward the counter. Mulder sliced into the creamy pie, sighing unconsciously as he tasted velvety sweetness fragrant with vanilla.

“State dessert of Indiana,” Wyckstrom reported. “Norah’s a Hoosier, came out here to study at Georgetown, wound up feeding the masses. I was going to discover new worlds, save the human race. Now I raise heirloom apples for the yuppie tourists.”

“I thought you’d been sucked into a wormhole.”

“That’s what I wanted Marsh and Paramov to think. I left my jacket, wallet and all, and my glasses in the lab one night when they went for dinner, left my apartment, car, my whole life behind, came here and got a job as a farmhand. Never heard a peep since. Figured Paramov would never dare tell, nor the folks he and Marsh were working with.”

“The government?”

Wyckstrom sipped his bad coffee, chased it with a glob of lard-based crust and sugar. “You know Marsh was obsessed with taking Miller and Urey’s work further, creating life from chemicals and electricity. Well, after the university put the kibosh on that, Paramov was approached by a group of scientists the Department of Defense had pulled together. It was just a few years after we’d seen what havoc we could wreak splitting the atom, and the Cold War had everybody here shaking in their boots. It was only a matter of time, they told Paramov – or at least, he told Marsh. The Russians or the Chinese would get their hands on The Bomb. And there was something else, what they called a threat to the planet – they wouldn’t discuss it.”

Mulder silently savored his pie.

“This group – top scientists from America, England, France, from every discipline – were to formulate a set of contingencies for human survival in the event of this supposedly inevitable catastrophe. They came to one irrefutable conclusion: Mankind – at least a cross-section of the human race – had to be ready to slip out the back door at the first sign of apocalypse.”

“The escape hatch.”

Wyckstrom nodded. “But we had to have somewhere to go. Paramov was recruited to study the feasibility of colonization. The space race was born out of that lunatic desperation.”

“But where did they hope to colonize? Even then, they had to realize the environment of any planet in our solar system was too hostile to sustain life outside some kind of biosphere. And any compatible planet outside our system would be beyond our rea–.”

Wyckstrom arched an eyebrow as Mulder paled. “Yup. You got it. We found a tunnel already dug. You think Marshall Finfrock was after a Nobel Prize and a Popular Science cover tinkering around with electrodes and amino acids? He was obsessed with creating life because he’d found the perfect laboratory.”

“A wormhole?” Mulder whispered.

“Didn’t call it that back then. Marsh was working in the basement one weekend and, the way he told it, he walked straight from his cellar into another world. Another planet, in a different galaxy. Lifeless, hot, he couldn’t breathe for more than a few minutes there. Somehow, he fumbled his way back out, but after the shock and the questions, he realized what he had. An incubator – a controlled environment in which Miler and Urey’s vague dream could be made a reality. Then the academic’s inevitable ego kicked in – he contacted Paramov, who was considered the top expert in astronomic phenomena.”

“Terraforming,” Mulder gasped.

“Nothing quite that grandiose – no Search for Spock stuff. But they figured if an imminently Earthlike planet could be seeded with amino acids, under the right conditions, they could develop a sustainable system for human existence. Basically, they wanted to start farming Finfrock’s world, developing food species adapted to that specific environment. Remember, this was the 1950s — they were thinking corn and fish, or the extraterrestrial equivalents. Course, I jumped at the chance to work with Sheldon Paramov. Thought we were 20th Century pioneers, forging a trail into outer space. What a load.

“But we went to it. The equipment to deliver a payload of electrically charged ‘soup’ through the chute — that’s what we called it — came in a Mayflower moving van disguised as a piano and a refrigerator. Couldn’t have people coming and going in a residential neighborhood, so it was just me and Marsh and Paramov working day and night in that basement. We weren’t allowed to go across — we were deemed too important to the project. So they assigned these guys — don’t know if they were soldiers or intelligence operatives or what — to test things over there. Ordinary protective gear and respirators were all that was needed over there.

“Things went great for the first few months — Marsh discovered the amino acids he’d seeded were developing some pretty complex chains, and it seemed like only a matter of time until we’d see the first chromosomal development. Then, we assumed, we’d see the first unicellular organisms emerge, and things would kick off from there.”

“That could’ve taken millions or even billions of years,” Mulder protested.

“If only,” Wyckstrom lamented sourly, waving for a refill.

**

“Thing is,” he continued as Norah retreated, “we didn’t know shit about the nature of space or the universe or especially things like wormholes. We — they went back and forth through that hole like they were going out to the field to walk beans. Of course, there were no beans to walk at that point. Or so we thought.

“The trouble started about four months into the project, when one of the guys came back practically ready to wet his jumpsuit. First thing he’d noticed when he got over there was that the surface had seemed to cool; on a hunch, he tested the air and found it breathable, at least for short periods. The other thing was, the surface of the planet — at least where we went across — was partially covered by this huge hydrogen cloud. We tested it and found gas had settled into massive craters — almost like an ocean. Part of the regular testing regimen was to check for signs of organic development within the cloud/ocean; Marsh thought the hydrogen would bond with the soup and create further amino chains.

“Well, apparently, he was onto something, because our guy almost stroked out when he reached into the cloud and felt something brush his arm. That’s when he realized there was a whole Seaworld of crap swimming around in there — scary shit out of one of the old pulp horror magazines. Marsh and Paramov were elated: Somehow, they’d managed to replicate and accelerate what had happened on Earth eons ago — the emergence of life in the primordial oceans. Maybe it was because I was relatively green or not as driven or Marsh or ambitious as Paramov, but I didn’t feel like celebrating. I felt like things were about to take a sharp turn south.

“And, of course, they did. The electromagnetic field surrounding the wormhole made any kind of radio contact with the ‘farmhands’ impossible, so we just waited for them to come back with samples and observations. But one night, one of the hands just simply didn’t come back. We thought maybe curiosity’d got the better of him and he’d decided to go exploring. After four hours, we sent a second man, and after five hours, we sent three more to locate the first two. One came back, but he didn’t have any useful insights about what happened to the others. He had a hole the size of a baseball in his gut, and one of his eyes had been, well, the best I can describe it is sucked out. The poor asshole was in profound shock and just babbled bullshit none of us could understand. He died about five minutes after he came back across.

“Marsh was baffled by the whole thing, but that prick Paramov was elated. Far as he was concerned, this was his crowning achievement — a fully evolved predatory organism he’d helped create from a beaker of chemicals. He didn’t care that the whole thing was utterly impossible. All I knew was that I wanted out, and I told him so. And that’s when he told me, very matter-of-factly, that he was very sorry, but given who was writing our paychecks, nobody was going to ‘get out.’ So I went to cry on the only sane shoulder I could find. We’d already been ‘consoling’ each other for months, anyway.”

“Irina Paramov,” Mulder breathed.

“Very good. Sheldon was a cold son-of-a-bitch, and she was a beautiful, funny woman. He was too absorbed in his work to notice anything fishy going on. So I told her everything — it was Irina who came up with my escape plan.

“I went back to Paramov, apologized for my emotional lapse, and threw myself into the work. A team of heavily armed men were sent back into the hole; this time they came back empty-handed. All they found were a few of the little oddfish — that’s what we’d collectively named the swimmers. No sign of any sabretooth aliens or extraterrestrial grizzlies. That’s when it should’ve hit me, but I was too addled with fear. I just kept up my act, bombarding Paramov with questions and talking about how one of us needed to do some firsthand reconnoitering. He warned me against it, but not too strenuously, if you catch my drift. The rest you know. Irina loaned me some cash and helped me get some phony documentation — she’d worked to get Soviet refugees into America, so it was a snap for her. Want another slice?”

“Yeah,” Mulder mumbled. “Uh, no. Did you two stay in touch?”

“She didn’t think it was a good idea, even though I tried to call her a few times. After I heard Sheldon had died, back in ’97, we reestablished contact — a few letters, a few cards. But I think the enormity of what we’d been involved in was too much, and we drifted apart again.”

Mulder dabbed the last few crumbs of his pie with his index finger. “Who else knows about this?”

“Just Irina, far as I know. And, of course, the folks who were underwriting the whole project. After I disappeared, they felt things were getting too hot, and they pulled the plug. Or so Irina told me.”

“They should’ve plugged the hole while they were at it,” Mulder said. “Marshall Finfrock tried himself, but something got out.”

Wyckham swallowed, hard, his mineral eyes popping. “The dumb bastards didn’t stop to consider the hole went both ways, or that sooner or later, something would get out of the pool.”

“Relax — the boogeyman’s long-gone. But the question remains: How did all this happen so fast? How did a puddle of chemicals grow into a three-legged, three-eyed people-eater almost overnight. Never mind the collection of biological misfits that have been spewing out of Finfrock’s hole over the last six months.”

“Need a visual aid. Norah, hey, the check please. You’re paying, Mulder.”

The agent trailed the orchardist around to the side of the restaurant, perplexed. Wyckham located a heavy black hose used, presumably, to blast grease and chowder from grates and kitchen gear.

“You stay back there for a second, OK?” Wyckham grunted. “A wormhole, as we theorize it, is a sort of shortcut in space. Picture this hose as the hole and this concrete pad here as our alien cornfield. The diner’s Marsh’s basement.”

The former physicist cranked the wall-mounted faucet, and water began to shoot from the nozzle in Wyckham’s palm. “It took me years, but I finally worked out that Marsh’s basement was a fixed point — the hole was anchored on his end.” Wyckham released the hose, and it thumped and danced on the concrete pad, spraying a radius two inches short of Mulder’s shoes. “The other end of the hole isn’t anchored — it flips and fluctuates between points.”

Mulder stared silently as Wyckham corralled the capering hose and shut off the water. “But not geographical points.”

Wyckham nodded grimly. “It explains why we found oddfish one day and man-eating monsters another. Why the climate and the air seemed to shift from one visit to the next. Marsh’s wormhole doesn’t just detour through space; it cuts back and forth through time. What us dumbasses didn’t get was that we were watching the evolution of Marsh’s manmade ecosystem, over millions, maybe billions, of years. All over six months.”

“’God, forgive me,’” Mulder muttered.

“All of us, friend,” Wyckham murmured, misunderstanding Mulder’s reference. “That’s why I called you when that poor kid got his brains battered in. They’ve been out there all this time, watching for any sign the box had reopened, and it’s well past time for you and me to try and clear up this mess.”

“Me?” Mulder asked, frowning.

“Why I called you. I knew you had the smarts and the open mind to accept what I’m telling you and that you weren’t afraid to man up when you’re told to shut up. After all, you are his son.”

It was like a minor shock to the brain. Mulder inhaled sharply as he recalled Dales’ evening trip to the Finfrock house. It made sense; he’d had his finger in so many dark and dank secrets.

“My dad was part of the group,” Mulder said, tonelessly.

“One of the head guys,” Wyckham said. “Sorry, know it’s a shock.”

At that moment, the numbed Mulder felt an adrenalized shock as a car or pickup backfired on the adjacent road. He turned to see a black blur squeal down the highway and out of sight, and spun back as he realized what had happened.

Wyckham was staring back at Mulder, his hand to his heart. As the agent processed the situation, blood burbled and burst from between the orchardist’s calloused fingers. He fell to his knees, and Mulder dropped beside him, scrabbling for his Droid and program-punching 9-1-1.

“Wouldn’t bother,” Wyckham said, as calmly as if asked whether the Red Deliciouses were in season. “Only thing is, you’re going to have to do this without me. You’re gonna need a big stopper, though, hear?”

Wyckham chuckled and slumped to the concrete, and Mulder went futilely to work…

**

Scully found him in the back booth of the diner, nursing a cup of bad coffee. She slid in on his side.

“No witnesses, no evidence,” Mulder reported before Scully could inquire about his emotional state. “Straight drive-by shooting, according to the state guys. There’s been some uptick in gang activity around the area, and they think Wyckham was just some poor yokel got caught in the crossfire.”

“And you didn’t try too hard to disabuse them,” Scully suggested, pressing his fingers under the table.

“For now. It seemed the smartest course.”

“Especially if they’ve begun killing to keep this thing under wraps.”

Mulder gently nudged Scully out of the booth and threw a five on the formica. “I don’t think there is a ‘they’ any more. I think they broke camp and moved on to some other hellish pasture. You can fill me in on what you found out on the ride home.”

As they stepped outside the Stop Inn, a beefy trooper stepped in their path.

“Captain,” Mulder smiled.

“You heading out now? OK. Just make sure you’re accessible — you feds have a habit of dropping into a black hole when we need you.”

The captain was far too dumbfounded to be offended as Mulder began to laugh, uncontrollably.

**

Chuck Burks arrived at the hotel like a love-starved kid at summer camp, laden with a half dozen aluminum cases bearing the University of Maryland imprint and a single gym bag of personal belongings.

“This isn’t exactly my field of expertise,” the owlish imaging specialist admitted, hugging Scully, “but I couldn’t pass up the chance to explore a new universe. Haven’t done that since Calcutta, back in ’78.”

“Same universe, different planet, Chuck,” Mulder amended.

“Well, then, that’s it for me. Locating this wormhole shouldn’t be a problem — ought to be a strong local electromagnetic signature.”

“I’d also like you to go over the whole place, infrared, ultraviolet, for any trace. I want to know if there’ve been any out-of-state houseguests lately.”

“Aliens, cool,” Burks goggled.

Scully assumed the role of buzzkill. “Chuck, you have to know this could be very dangerous. Two people have already been killed, and we think there may be some kind of predatory species on the other side of the hole.”

“Wicked awesome,” Burks breathed.

6. The Astonishing Revelations of Mr. Mulder

“Sorry again for the inconvenience,” Mulder said as he peered about the living room. Sun streamed in the front bay window, and the agent could hear amplified play-by-play from the softball field a few blocks away.

“No problem,” his host offered cheerfully. “When you live alone, there’s really no good or bad time. By the way, you any closer to finding out who killed the Beltran boy?”

“Maybe,” Mulder smiled smugly. “The killer made a stupid mistake yesterday. The guy I told you about — the witness in Delaware? I don’t think it was a drive-by, and I don’t think Mr. Smalls was the intended victim. On the way over here, I got to thinking: There were a couple of banks and a convenience store within a block of the diner where we were shot at. I’m willing to bet both have parking lot cams, what with the gang activity in the area. We have the time Smalls was shot. Through the miracle of modern imaging technology, we may be able to get a plate or even a shot of the shooter. Don’t tell Agent Rossner, though — I don’t want the prick grabbing the credit for Homeland Security.”

“No problem. That’s fantastic.” The tone was overplayed, tinged with manic enthusiasm, confirming Mulder’s theory.

“You know, this place is beautiful — you’ve done a really great job restoring it.”

“Well, I’ve had plenty of time to put in on it.”

“It must have been difficult,” Mulder empathized. “Even though I understand you hired a contractor to work on some of your other properties.”

Gary Huggins smiled uncertainly. “Well, that was before the recession kicked the market’s ass.”

“I dunno, Gary — the last project you contracted out was only three months ago. Even though, yeah, as you said, the market did take an ass-kicking. Before the floor fell out, this was an up-and-coming neighborhood. That reclamation project three blocks over — there were supposed to be bistros, new boutiques, even a luxury convention center. I heard things are scheduled to kick back in next year — some federal stimulus came through. Bet you can unload this place for twice what you paid.”

“Three times.” Huggins’ voice was tinged with frustration.

“But this is the only one of your properties in the neighborhood that isn’t posted, and the prime pick of the bunch. Looks like the work’s all done; what’s the delay, Gary?” Mulder asked, grinning. “Got a leak in the cellar? Looks like you patched that, though — I noticed you bricked over the old coal shute on the side of the house. Fairly fresh patch job. What, animals getting in? Or were things getting out?”

“You’re losing me, Agent,” Gary laughed. His eyes weren’t in on the joke.

“Luke Beltran must have been over here peppering you with questions about Marshall Finfrock, the house. He was starting to put two and two together — the creatures the Francks’ cat kept dropping on their doorstep, the disturbed scientist down the block who’d blown his brains out in guilt over some ungodly offense. You panicked when you saw the cat dragging another one of Finfrock’s interplanetary circus attractions out through the coal chute, tried to catch Callie, and then chased her over to the Francks. You must’ve freaked when you saw Luke disposing of the thing like it was a dead sparrow.

“Luke recognized the man who’d killed him, but like most teens, he’d forgotten your name. He was paralyzed, but he was a smart kid. Luke was determined to ID his attacker the only way he could. Luke read a lot of mysteries, and, improvising, he dragged himself over to the storage rack where the kids’ swimming gear was kept. He pulled the box over and grabbed the item he’d hoped would connect you to the murder. Luke didn’t know a fire would break out any second, destroying his dying clue, but I finally realized what he was trying to tell us.

“There were a couple of kids’ scuba masks, two of those foam noodles the kids used as floats, some goggles, and three pink swim fins. Three. Unless Long John Silver’s on your Iron Man team, that third fin’s not of much use. The fourth fin was what Luke grabbed. See, he spent hours watching trash reality on Bravo with his mom — Real Housewives, Top Chef, and that show with the obsessive/compulsive real estate guy. Geez, what’s it called?”

“Flip This House,” Gary croaked.

“Yeah, right. And that’s how Gary identified you. The guy who was buying up all the houses in town to turn them for a profit. The flipper.”

Gary reached for the wall, breathing hard.

“People will avoid buying a house where a murder or a flashy suicide’s occurred,” Mulder continued gently. “If Finfrock’s wormhole was discovered, you’d never sell the place. Worse, the government would probably confiscate the whole lot, maybe the whole block. You bludgeoned that innocent kid to death, followed me to Delaware, killed Randy Smalls for what? To protect your equity in this house? Jesus, Gary.”

“God, I was about to lose it all — the fucking downturn was about to wipe me out, and this had to happen,” Huggins whispered, near tears. Then he straightened. “Was that horseshit about the cameras around the diner?”

“Nah — I’m pretty sure we can put you there.”

Gary sighed. “Well then, I guess I should–” His face hardened, and a Dockers-clad leg whipped out, catching Mulder in the balls. The agent crumpled, unable to buffer the next kick to the head…

**

“Jesus,” Scully gasped as the series of sharp kicks crackled through the van’s interior.

“We have to move in,” Rossner declared into his headset. “We’ve got what we need.”

Scully spun as the DHS agent rose. “Huggins could be armed. We have to do this right. Please.”

Rossner looked down at his FBI counterpart, then nodded curtly. “Stand down for the moment, everybody.”

“Shit, oh, shit.” The voice seeping through Mulder’s wire was distraught, desperate. Scully and Rossner heard Huggins pace rapidly, cursing and moaning. Then the line went silent, and Scully began to wonder if they had played it right. She tensed for the shot.

Instead, they heard Huggins grunting, followed by a loud thump. A second thud followed, then a third and a fourth. Each thump sounded more distant.

“What is that?” Rossner strained.

Scully leapt to her feet, whipping her sidearm free. “He’s taking Mulder to the basement.”

**

Huggins fell back against the new gas furnace he’d invested in the house before the subprime shit storm had begun. His usually immaculate slacks were covered in dirt and cobwebs; sweat rings darkened his gold Polo shirt.

But even amid the fear and renewed guilt, the realtor felt no small measure of relief. Until he heard the reconditioned oak front door crash in and a platoon of footfalls stampeded down the basement steps.

“On the fucking ground, Huggins!” Rossner bellowed. A half-dozen men in Kevlar quickly surrounded him, and Huggins fell to his stomach. His arms were wrenched behind him and his wrists secured with plastic tie-cuffs.

“Mulder?” he heard the woman, the hot FBI agent, call. “Mulder!” More urgently. Huggins grinned, then grunted as he was rolled on his back and cold metal was thrust into the hollow of his throat.

“My partner, Huggins,” Scully panted, eyes full of an intensity that erased Huggin’s lunatic satisfaction. She dug the gunbarrel deeper; no one moved to restrain her. “What did you do to him, you bastard? What did you do?!?”

Huggins croaked two words.

“What?” Scully demanded.

“My lawyer,” he spat. “I want my fucking lawyer.”

Scully went silent. The leader glanced anxiously at Rossner, but Scully holstered her weapon and rose to her feet. Then she spotted it. Huggins apparently had taken out Finfrock’s cinder block wall to create more family-friendly space, but after he discovered the added feature in the crawl space, he’d replaced it with dry wall. Now, filthy Reebok prints indicated where he’d kicked a hole — a man-sized hole, in the new wall.

“He’s in there!!” Scully screamed.

**

When Mulder came to, head throbbing, tasting blood, he was on a beach, a black sand beach that resembled no Sandals resort or Cape retreat he’d ever seen. As he sat up, the sun glared in his eyes.

The suns, his brain corrected. His consciousness caught up, and he leapt to his feet. And took a deep breath. And coughed.

In any other situation, Mulder might have found amusement in the ill effect absolutely pure, fresh, non-contaminated air had on his lungs. No methane, no burning or shortness of breath. He kneeled at the edge of the sand, dipping a hand cautiously into the swirling white froth. It came back wet, though the liquid that dripped from Mulder’s fingers wasn’t quite water as he knew it.

He yanked his hand away, preventatively. Finfrock would have felt vindicated — he’d successfully terraformed the rabbit hole. Mulder peered into the horizon, where he could see a crisp blue ridge of rustling vegetation.

The vague, carnival mirror familiarity of the landscape filled him with fear. Dales had described what Finfrock’s “soup” had evolved into, and Mulder recalled the squadron of soldiers who’d vanished into the wormhole. Panic spiked as he looked up into the aqua sky of a few million, billion years ahead.

Thanks, Dad, Mulder thought. The bitter reflection was somehow calming, and he laughed tinnily, the sound somehow seeping into the air.

Where was the portal, the gateway?, a now-rational Mulder demanded. He’d been out when Huggins had somehow shoved him through, and he had no idea where the exit was. He began to walk the beach in grids, hoping he could slip effortlessly back into the Finfrock basement. As he marched across the sand, Mulder kept one eye on the tide, wary of what might arise from the depths.

And that’s when it emerged on his landward side. He first heard a low, whistling drone, then, as he whipped around to identify the source, Mulder felt a sharp, heavy blow to the sternum. As he was knocked to the sand, the agent perceived an ochre blur at least twice his mass. He tried to struggle to his feet, but his arm was pinned to the ground.

Mulder glanced to the side to see a trio of “fingers” circle his wrist. A second trio grabbed his other wrist. Mulder cried out as a third “hand” emerged to cup his chin.

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A smooth mound of creamy leather hovered above him, and as his vision cleared, he saw a mouth emerge from the finely pored hide. He tensed, anticipated the first razor-slash of fangs or claws. What emerged from the slitlike orifice was far more disturbing.

Low, shlussing, gutturally punctuated tones, in patterns, inflected. It was talking.

To him? I don’t see anybody else here, Mulder challenged in a Robert deNiro voice. He was mute with fear, and his body jumped as a jolt shot into his right arm. More sounds flowed with increased urgency from the mouth-hole, and Mulder felt another shock, this time in his left arm.

And then, the skin above the mouth began to reshape and unfold, and a trio of eyes emerged. Mulder yelped, and was rewarded with simultaneous charges up both arms and into his brain.

The eyes were smaller than what Dales had described, more almond-shaped than round, yellow with solid black irises. The irises scanned Mulder’s face, traced his body. Mulder felt his sphincter loosen, tensed his groin in an absurd attempt to maintain his dignity. Besides, urinating on a potentially carnivorous, easily offended alien that shot electricity seemed a questionable move.

As if gauging Mulder’s submissiveness, the eyes receded back into the skin folds. Fingers left his chin, and he yelped in surprise and pain. The ochre mound moved closer, blocking the suns.

Then a shot rang out, over a few million years and possibly a few trillion miles. Mulder momentarily entertained the notion Harrison Ford had galloped over the non-existent dunes to his rescue.

Whoever or whatever had fired the shot, it was effective. The creature above Mulder screamed in the universal language of sheer horror. His wrists were released as the beast reared back, searching the beach for intruders.

Mulder took in the whole of his host. Three spindled legs balanced three more finely developed arms — it was standing erect, like the Ridley Scott version of the claymation ‘Bominable Snowman, the eyes reemerging and moving slowly around the circumference of its head. It was easily as tall as a papa Kodiak bear, if the bear played on steroids for the NBA.

Mulder was about to scramble when of one of the roaming eyes suddenly exploded in a wet, pulpy pop. The huge creature staggered on its lower tripod and landed on its “back,” sending up a brief puff of black sand.

The beast’s height had saved Mulder — another bullet whizzed through the air a few feet above the agent’s scalp, then another. The gunfire ceased as Mulder identified its source. He prayed Scully would grant him credit for some intelligence before letting loose again, and sprinted for the hole.

Mulder accelerated rather than hesitated as he spotted, in the corner of his eyes, a blur of shapes growing larger with alarming speed. He closed his eyes as he closed in on his target…

**

…and nearly collided with Scully. Her weapon clattered to the concrete floor, and Rossner’s tactical posse circled the perimeter of the invisible gateway.

Mulder whoofed as Scully tackled him in a grateful embrace. Conscious of the official presence, she quickly released him and he winced. Alarmed, Scully worked his damp, filthy shirt open, goggling at the deep blue-yellow bruise over the center of his chest.

“God, what was in there?” she demanded.

“I’d’ve brought you back a trophy head, but I had a feeling the carcass cleanup crew was on its way,” Mulder groaned. “Nice shooting, Nikita. Thanks for not blowing my brains out.”

“Maternal instinct,” Scully suggested, leading him toward the stairs. Halfway up, he stopped dead.

“We have to make another stop,” Mulder announced in a voice that brought Scully up short.

“Mulder, you were almost killed in there,” she reminded him.

He grinned painfully. “I don’t think it intended to kill me.”

**

“Oh, fuck,” Bryan Francks moaned as he yanked open the front door. “You again. When can I have my specimens back?”

“They’re at a petting zoo in Guantanamo,” Mulder reported as he nudged past the disgruntled scientist.

“OK, that’s it,” Francks growled, fishing for his cell phone. “I’m getting my attorney in on this.”

“Where’s Callie, B-Ry?” Mulder called, stalking from room to room.

“What?”

“Bryan, don’t force me to make an off-color pun here. I want your cat.”

The man of the house dropped onto the arm of a Barcalounger, dumbfounded. “What the hell do want with my cat?”

As if on cue, the large tabby strolled casually into the room, regarding its visitors with utter contempt and settling onto a couch pillow. Scully began cooing at the animal, and its motor started. Scully settled in on the sofa, and Callie soon curled into her lap.

“My behavioral profiling skills normally don’t extend to the feline species, but something’s been gnawing at me since I first laid eyes on Callie’s hunting trophies,” Mulder began. “First, Callie brought you living trophies. There were no signs of physical trauma on any of them, except for the apparently advanced specimen Scully calls No. 32. The whole purpose of presentation is to gift fresh kill, to impress the resident humans with predatory prowess. Why bring these things, still intact and breathing, to your doorstep? And why fight potentially to the death with Luke over that last creature?

“Second, Agent Scully and Dr. Pradesh have documented that these were basically marine organisms, even if they lived in a sea of mostly hydrogen. That’s why none of them survived Callie’s careful care — they ‘drowned.’ And there’s the fact that Gary Huggins — who by the way murdered Luke Beltran — sealed the only access Callie had to the source of your mini-monsters days before Luke found the last one on your stoop.”

“Bryan, the girls and I are going to the mall,” Jennifer sang from the doorway, a terse expression undermining her cheer. Mulder beamed at Chloe and Britney as they gleefully rushed out the front door for an afternoon of shopping. The door tugged shut with compensatory gentleness.

“Can we cut to the chase, Agent?” Bryan snapped. “I want to call my lawyer.”

Mulder turned his dazzling smile on the researcher. “Don’t mess with me, Bry. I was just this close to some hot monster-on-human action, and I’m feeling a bit fragile. And that’s my point. Scully, what would be the ultimate biological adaptation?”

Scully blinked at Mulder’s revelation, absently stroking the now-blissful Callie. “I don’t know. Total self-reliance, I suppose. Producing its own food, asexual reproduction at the multicellular level?”

“You are smarter than a fifth grader,” Mulder nodded. “But how about this? The ability of an ecosystem to replenish itself even after a catastrophic event. We don’t know what Finfrock’s planet’s been through — sorry, will go through. I think that while your collection represented nearly three dozen separate species, they’re all from the same basic lineage. Think Madonna.”

“They screw anything that walks?” Bryan ventured.

“Or swims or, for all I know, flies. The virus is a more apt example — it can inject its own genetic material into a foreign species to persist in the environment. I think the species of that planet have — will evolve into one big Tennessee hootenanny of unrestrained interspecies sex. And I think Callie wandered into the hootenanny.”

Scully glanced down, her fingers frozen in the cat’s fur. Callie purred insistently, and the agent continued stroking her.

“Callie wandered into the former Finfrock cellar through the coal chute and stumbled into the wormhole. I think she met up with a primeval ancestor of my new BFF-with-Benefits, and voila. Cats and dogs possess amazing homing skills, and she somehow found her way back out. Callie visited the intergalactic catbox at least once more — witness the fate of the late No. 32 — but I think the critters in your deep freeze weren’t dragged over from another galaxy. They developed here, inside Callie. It’s why Callie brought them to your house live — she could sense they were dying, and she wanted you to save them. It was maternal instinct. They weren’t toys or trophies — they were her ‘children.’”

Bryan’s incredulous gaze moved from Mulder to his children’s beloved pet, who now began to tongue-wash her paws.

“It’s why she fought Luke over that last specimen. He wasn’t bonded family, and it was clear he meant to dispose of her ‘baby’ right there. And it’s why we need to get Callie to the lab. Given the spacing of her alien deliveries, it’s possible Finfrock’s spawn have also — will develop the ability to deliver offspring in time-released form. It makes sense in what may be their hostile, volatile environment — proliferation of the race, races, over an extended period, to assure at least some survive. There may be some more blessed little events in your future unless we get Callie thoroughly checked out.

“So what do you say, Bry? Can we take the kitty peacefully, or would you rather we leave you to start planning your new family?”

Francks’ defiant demeanor had vanished.

“Take the damned cat,” he muttered.

**

“What will you tell Chuck?” Scully asked as she redistributed the restless feline in her lap.

Mulder turned on Poplar, toward the police station where a veterinarian from the CDC was waiting. “Rossner and his guys have locked that basement down tighter than Bungalow 8 when Lady Gaga’s in town. I’ll just have to owe him the next three spectral phantasms or faerie photos I come across. Or I’ll buy him a steak tonight. After we make a stop, of course.”

“It probably won’t be a lot of consolation to her, you know,” Scully murmured. “At least, by the time you give her the authorized version.”

Mulder nodded. “Yeah, the authorized version.”

His partner studied him for a moment, then gave up. “And how do Rossner and the gang intend to deal with our little problem on Huxley Drive? They can’t expect to keep what might develop out there out there. Jesus, we don’t even know where out there is.”

“I wouldn’t worry your pretty little obsessive-compulsive head about it. They plan on closing the off-ramp forever. Rossner wouldn’t give me details, but he said some British physicists and the Fermi Lab in Chicago came up with a working wormhole eradication technology.”

“My God,” Scully breathed. “How can they be sure they won’t blow us to Alpha Centauri.”

Mulder drove silently for a moment. “He said they already know it works.”

As Scully allowed the implications of that reassurance to hang silently in the air, Callie drifted to sleep, growling drowsily at some creation of her dreams or memory…

Inverness, Scotland, UK

2:47 p.m.

As usual, Cullen arrived to take his post a half-hour early, a violation of Ministry protocol but one he dismissed with a juicy belch and the head of the facility — an Oxford dandy with no knack for dealing with the working classes — surrendered with dyspeptic good cheer.

Though no great fan himself of his “uppers,” Syme had goaded the young sassanack to hold his ground. Cullen smelled like haggis left in the sun for a fortnight, and his breath summoned unpleasant visions of things dredged from the depths of the nearby loch. Syme was a devout Presbyterian, and Cullen’s daily arrival meant a fresh litany of coarse sexual and scatological jokes and patently pornographic tales of Cullen’s doubtlessly fictional conquests. Syme’s morning pudding burbled in his gut every time he heard the heavy footfalls echoing toward the security center.

Cullen, of course, considered Syme his sworn mate, and looked forward to sharing the newest about some bit of duff he’d hit at the local. First, however, he’d take a daily danner by the vault, as he called it. The steel-reinforced door had two cameras, a keypad AND a retinal scanner, and an array of laser motion detectors in case some dobber heid stumbled too close. Cullen, of course, had been the first dobber heid to set off the klaxons and bring the soldier boys attached to The Cellar running. He’d only been interesting in straining to hear some sign of the vault’s contents.

Which, of course, was no major surprise. Cullen and Syme had seen the girders and beams and tell-tale sheets of thick missile-proof glass shipped in, and were aware of the water circulation/purification equipment that had come in on the sly — or so that well-dressed dobber upstairs thought.

Everybody knew what they’d hauled in there 13 years ago under armed escort, after evacuating the nearby villages with the threat of a hazardous chemical spill. Folks assumed the lack of any fresh, verifiable sightings was due to old age or Man’s tampering with the local “ecosystem.”

Someday, he’d catch a glimpse of the prize catch of all time, Cullen pledged. He glanced at his watch. Best get to it, make sure nothing came in through the hatch at the bottom of the loch — the one the science boys had assured him was sealed tighter’n his ex-wife’s shereen. Course, they were so positive of that, he and Syme wouldn’t have to sit all day watching video of underwater rocks and the occasional trout.

Cullen tapped his holster twice — his customary salute to the sole tenant of The Vault.

“Night, Nessie, y’auld bitch,” he muttered, affectionately.

That was great Martin , Your best yet.

Verto Cuspis

verto cuspis

TITLE: Verto Cupsis
AUTHOR: Starfleetofficer1
CATEGORY: Casefile, MSR, MythArc
RATING: PG-13
SPOILERS: Seasons 1-7, MythArc
DISCLAIMER: Two weeks exclusive with VS17. No copyright infringement intended.
SUMMARY: A trip to the woods with Matt Scully’s seventh-grade class reveals the
existence of a mysterious, supposedly benevolent, race of aliens.


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SCHOOL VAN

BACK ROAD, VIRGINIA

FRIDAY, SEPTEMBER 24th, 2010

18.30

“And then Cole’s like, ‘Jack, that would be suicide,’ and Jack’s like, ‘I have to do this!’ and he runs out and takes out a bunch of terrorists—BAM, BAM, BAM—and then he gets shot right here in the chest—twice! And he’s like, on the ground and he pulls out his 9 mil and he shoots one more terrorist, then one sprays a bunch into his chest—CHUGGA CHUGGA CHUGGA—and then he’s out! He’s down! And then you can see his head in the terrorist’s sights and then Rene comes up from behind and takes out that terrorist, and then she’s running and she’s like, ‘Oh crap, Jack!’”

Three boys sat in rapt attention as twelve-year-old Jeff Seigel, who was allowed to watch 24, recounted a recent episode he saw.

Meanwhile, three other boys nearby were talking about something much less innocent. “No way, that’s not even possible.”

“I swear, I saw it. THIS big.”

“That’s stupid, Tim, there’s no way that’s even possible.”

“If you were 7 feet tall, sure it would be!”

“What, can you prove it?”

“No—”

“Then there’s no way!”

A few other boys were telling jokes, and just as they cried in unison, “THAT’S WHAT SHE SAID!!” Mulder popped another Eccedrin. Twelve seventh-grade boys in a van for two hours really did a number on one’s head.

Matt Scully sat directly behind Mulder, talking quietly with two other boys. Suddenly, the twelve-year-old asked, “Uncle Mulder?”

“Yeah, what’s up?” Mulder asked, turning around to face the boy.

“Scott and Trevor and I have a question for you.”

“Don’t ask him!” Scott ordered, and gave Matt a ‘what the hell?’ look.

“No, he might know,” Trevor argued.

“What’s up, guys?”

Matt turned to Mulder. “Okay, if you had, say, this friend, who wanted to know how to uh…obtain…a certain product—”

“How much does porn cost?” Scott blurted out.

A few heads nearby turned, waiting for Mulder to answer. Mulder looked like he had been caught in his underwear, and he looked between the boys before catching Scully’s glance from the driver’s seat diagonally in front of him. She was now all ears, her eyebrow raised in the rear view mirror in that scrutinizing manner that told Mulder he was about to be dissected like a bug.

“You don’t need to watch that crap, guys,” Mulder said nonchalantly. “The key to getting a girlfriend is to be understanding, and kind, and uh…” he glanced in Scully’s direction, “Know when you’re being watched,” he added in a low voice.

The kids snickered, and Scully rolled her eyes. When she had turned back to the road, Mulder turned around again and spoke to the kids. “Seriously, guys, it’s a fairly normal thing…you just don’t want to get anything trashy. You want to get something classy. Do some research. Don’t spend hours on it—real women are a lot more rewarding.”

The boys’ eyes widened, and Matt’s intrigued expression wasn’t lost on Mulder. This was one of those ‘d’oh’ moments when he was damned if he did and damned if he didn’t. These kids were twelve, for God’s sake… “Of course, you want to wait until you’re both significantly older and more responsible…” he continued, realizing that he was digging himself further and further into a hole. Why did I volunteer for this?

“Look,” he said, and the kids stared at him in rapt attention, hoping to get some more ‘tips’. “You really should talk to your dads about this. But the biggest thing to remember is that everything you do, even things you do now, will have real-life consequences that follow. Does that make sense?”

Scott and Trevor nodded, but Matt looked slightly uncomfortable. Mulder realized what he had said. Matt didn’t have a dad to ask. But he couldn’t exactly take the kid aside in a van filled with hyperactive seventh-graders. He resolved to have a ‘talk’ with him later, when they were alone.

About fifteen minutes later, Mulder stood up and yelled, “Can I have everyone’s attention, please!”

It took a moment, but the van fell silent.

“We’re almost there, guys. Pack up all your electronics—everything, your cell phones, your PSP’s, your iPods, your iPhones, your laptops, your DVD players, and make sure they’re labeled. You should have already put your names on them. Then please pass them to the front. They’ll be stored on the van until the camping trip is over. You’ll get to use them on the ride back.”

A series of groans erupted from the boys who were in the middle of a level on a game, but most of the boys complied readily, excited to go camping. Mulder walked from the back of the van to the front with a large WalMart bag, collecting every little electronic the boys had. “What about my testing meter, I can keep that, right?” Joel asked. Joel was diabetic.

“Of course you can keep that,” Mulder answered the boy. “Still, make sure your name’s on it.”

“Can I keep my cell phone, then, ‘cause I’m allergic to boredom,” one obnoxious boy called out, and the boys around him started laughing, mimicking his question.

He gave the boy an annoyed look. “How ‘bout you put up the tent for your group, Peter,” he said, and held out the bag for him to drop his electronics into. “That oughta keep you occupied.”

A few minutes later the van pulled off the road and entered a dirt path. They traveled about a mile until they reached the clearing to which they were assigned.

“How far away are we from the girls?” one boy asked as he stood up.

“Are there any sasquatches in these woods?”

“What about vampires?”

“Are there any caves we can go explore?”

“How far away are we from the girls?”

“Okay, everyone!” Mulder called, and the van fell silent again. “We’re here. I want to get one thing out of the way before we get out of the van. Most of you know that Agent Scully and I are FBI agents. I want to make it clear that as far as I know, there are no vampires, sasquatches, ghosts, or serial killers in these woods. I’m making a group announcement because I don’t want to get the same question twelve times. Okay?”

The boys nodded, seemingly disappointed.

“But if there were a serial killer or someone who wanted to harm you, we’re fully capable of protecting you. What we ask is that you use the buddy system to make our jobs easier. If you plan to go anywhere, anywhere at all, even if it’s still in our sights, take a buddy with you. That way if you happen to trip and hurt yourself, your buddy can run back and get help. Does that make sense?”

They nodded again, anxious to get off the van.

“Finally, we want to know about it if you go anywhere out of our sights, for any reason. Even to take a leak. And no one is to go out looking for the other campsite—the girls are doing just fine on their own without you guys bothering them. They’re too far away, anyway, you’d probably just get lost. And that would really tick me off. Okay, grab your bags, find a buddy, and let’s go camping. It’s four to a tent, guys. And if I catch anyone with any electronics, I’ll take it away and make you clean up the dishes after dinner tonight and tomorrow night.”

The kids grabbed their bags from the overhead racks and followed Mulder out of the van. They streamed into the campsite and in a flurry of chatter, began choosing their buddies and putting their tents up.

Mulder stretched his bicep, doing the exercises the physical therapist had prescribed. “Doing okay?” Scully asked as she got off the van, carrying both her bag and Mulder’s.

“Still a little sore,” Mulder admitted. He massaged his muscle, which was prone to knotting after a large shard of glass from his Humvee windshield was embedded in it over the summer. “Long car rides don’t help.” But to prove to her that he was okay, he took his bag from her.

She changed the subject. “So really, Mulder, what kind of history do these woods have? Mothmen, mutant bugs, talking trees, what are we looking at, here?”

Mulder looked fairly disappointed as he said, “Actually, these are the most boring woods in America. Not a single soul has gone missing from the trails in fifty years, and the last person to get lost in this area was a ten-year-old girl who escaped from a mental institution in 1960. There have been no paranormal sightings in 150 years, and the last sighting was written in an eight-year-old’s diary and was almost certainly falsified. And as far as crime goes, twenty years ago, one escaped convict stabbed another escaped convict about ten miles from here, but was caught just a day later.”

Scully raised an eyebrow. “Are you telling me you couldn’t find one ghost story?”

He shook his head. “If we had gone about twenty miles north, maybe.”

“Well, that’s just unacceptable,” she said, and Mulder smirked. “You’re going to have to make something up.”

“Scully, I’m insulted! To suggest that I could falsify an encounter with an otherworldly being—”

“I’m not suggesting, Mulder, I’m ordering. We need something to keep these kids occupied tonight. And no one tells a ghost story better than Spooky.” She grinned and began to walk away, but then turned and said quietly, “If you manage to get them to bed early, I might have to pay a visit to your tent.”

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CAMPSITE VAUGHAN

NEAR SHENANDOAH NATIONAL PARK, VIRGINIA

FRIDAY, SEPTEMBER 24th, 2010

2100

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“—And I as hold this kid’s leg’s down, the walls suddenly begin to bleed yellow. Yellow goo is running down the walls, and the kid starts to sweat yellow. His teeth look like they’ve rotted right there before my eyes, and as the sweat pours down his face, he screams an inhuman scream. He’s squirming and writhing, and the priests are chanting in a language I don’t know, and then one of them yells at me, “Don’t let it look you in the eye! Don’t let it look you in the eye!” So I look away, and the kid continues to kick, and it’s all I can do to hold his legs down. He’s got the strength of a full-grown man.” Mulder paused, and looked at the kids in front of him. They were all staring in rapt attention. He continued, his voice quiet now, “And then the priests stopped chanting, and the boy stopped squirming. I looked at the walls—they were no longer yellow. The kid was still sweating, but he was calm, sleeping. It was done. As the priests left the room, one of them turned to me and said, “It saw you. It knows you now.””

He sat back, and caught Scully’s eye. She was surprised he had told that story. Although considered declassified after all these years, he had never actually talked about it. They had discussed the fact that demons seemed to follow them around after that case. But after their discovery in the Kingsbury Academy case of the very simple solution to demon presences—faith of any sort—they hadn’t had a problem with them since. Mulder hadn’t even brought up demons for months. His capture and torture in the Middle East had weighed much heavier on his mind. Now to share his first ‘demon’ experience with a bunch of twelve-year-olds over a campfire…it was surprising to her, to say the least.

The boys were silent for a few moments, before Peter, the annoying kid, asked, “Is that a true story?”

“You guys asked for a ghost story, and I figured a demon story was close enough. It’s up to you to believe what you want to believe,” he told them cryptically, and some of the boys looked genuinely afraid, while others looked at each other skeptically. “Now we have time for one more story before it’s time to go to bed. What do you want to hear next?”

There was a pause, and then Joel asked, “Can you tell us about what it was like to be a POW?”

The question caught Mulder off guard. Matt stiffened slightly, and Mulder saw Scully’s expression. She was silently asking him, ‘do you want me to intervene?’ He shifted his position uncomfortably on the log he was sitting on, and looked at the boys waiting for his reply. Only Peter and the boy sitting next to him failed to display a sort of reverence and respect. Trevor, Matt’s closest friend, even glanced at Matt to see if he was okay. The national news coverage of Mulder’s capture and extensive torture, as well as his rescue, had made his name known to every household in America for most of July and August. Although the latest political news had taken over in early September, Matt’s peers hadn’t forgotten so easily. It was hard not to pay attention when your friend’s uncle was captured by terrorists, as the cover story remained.

“It’s no picnic,” Mulder finally said, his voice quiet. The boys were silent and still. Scully watched him carefully. “It’s not a TV show…not a movie.” He looked at the twelve-year-olds in front of him, their faces so innocent and young. He didn’t want to scar the poor kids. “I mostly just thought about staying alive for my family,” he told them. “Makes you realize how much you should appreciate countries like this one,” he concluded. “Makes you realize that the bad guys are out there, and that we have something worth protecting.”

None of the boys, not even Peter, made any comments about that statement.

It was Scully who finally spoke. “I think it’s about time for bed. You’re welcome to stay up and talk, but I want it quiet by 11, okay? Agent Mulder and I will be getting you guys up at 6 am, sharp. We’ve got a big day tomorrow—we’ll make breakfast as soon as you’re up and we’ll set out for the hike at 8 am. If we want to hike the whole trail and get back before dinner time, we’ll have to leave then and no later. I suggest you get your science notebooks ready tonight, and pack any medication you might need to take during the day so you don’t have to bother with that tomorrow morning. Alright?” The boys nodded. “Okay, move out.”

Mulder couldn’t help but notice that she sounded very much like Ahab’s daughter when she addressed these kids. The typical chatter didn’t start until the kids had walked back to their tents. Only Matt stayed behind. He had stood up from his log, but then he joined Mulder at about the same time Scully did. “I’m sorry Joel brought that up,” he said to Mulder.

Mulder wrapped his arm around the boy and have him a friendly squeeze. “It’s alright, Matty,” he said quietly. “I know he didn’t mean anything by it.” He patted the boy, and said, “Go ‘head and get into your tent.”

Matt nodded. “Good night,” he said.

“Night,” Mulder and Scully said in unison. When the kids were in their tents and they could hear the chatter that indicated they weren’t listening, Scully turned to her partner and rubbed his back lovingly. He could feel her hands move over and around the burn scars that were still raised and red, but no longer painful.

“They’re really gonna make us sleep in separate tents, huh?” Mulder changed the subject.

“Unfortunately,” Scully responded, and looked at the fire.

“We could push them together like they did in the ‘50s.”

Scully laughed at the joke. “So what do you want to do tonight?”

“I already told you what I want to do tonight,” Mulder said with a mischievous grin.

She rolled her eyes. “We’re here with twelve seventh-graders, Mulder.”

“Bigger the risk, bigger the reward,” he said jokingly, and she shook her head. “Okay, fine, how about we finish off the marshmallows in the opened bag?”

“Sounds like a good start,” she accepted, still smiling. He got up and brought the bag over to them, along with two of the sticks in the pile they had collected before dinner. They both stuck the marshmallows on the end of their sticks and began roasting.

Mulder glanced over at his partner and noticed that she was still smiling. “You look pretty happy for someone who declared they’d never enjoy the woods again.”

“I didn’t—”

“Multiple times, I might add,” he interrupted her.

“I’m just happy to be here with you,” she said, and he slipped his arm around her.

“I think we oughta come to the ‘most boring woods in America’ more often,” he stated, and she leaned her head against his shoulder.

“You got it, G-man.”

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CAMPSITE VAUGHAN

NEAR SHENANDOAH NATIONAL PARK, VIRGINIA

FRIDAY, SEPTEMBER 24th, 2010

2350

Mulder wasn’t even close to asleep. After his return to America in July, he found that he was only able to rest with Scully next to him. And with her several feet away in another one-person tent, he was unable to come within a light-year of sleep.

He laid in his sleeping bag, hands folded behind his head, staring at the criss-cross structure of the tent rods. He heard some of the kids whispering to each other after 11 pm, but they had stopped a little while ago. There was some shuffling and he heard a tent unzip, but he figured one of the kids was just taking a leak and would return to the tent soon.

His mind drifted to that unfortunate place it so often did when he couldn’t sleep—to memories he wished he could erase. He still frequently saw the faces of the civilians he failed to save from the Bari Trasadi attack. He sometimes saw the map of the terrorist strongholds that his captors had forced him to stare at for what Scully told him was a full twenty-four hours. Sometimes he even felt sore where the muscles had healed after he was hung by his wrists and ankles for nearly two days.

More tent shuffling interrupted his thoughts, thankfully. He figured the kid was back, so he closed his eyes in yet another effort to doze off, but then he heard footsteps. His eyes shot open, and his hand went for his gun. Someone knelt in front of his tent and unzipped it, and Mulder extended his gun instantaneously. He was soon staring at the face of a very scared Tim.

“Aaah!” Tim screamed, stumbling back and falling on his butt. “Don’t shoot me!”

“Shh!” Mulder said, and lowered his gun. “Why didn’t you tell me it was you?” he whispered.

“Well, who else would it be?!” The twelve-year-old asked, failing to whisper back. People were stirring now, awoken by the rather loud conversation.

“What’s wrong?” Mulder demanded.

“Peter and Joel are gone from our tent. We heard them getting up but we thought they’d come back. At least I did. I don’t know what Ben thought. But now we’re worried ‘cause it’s been thirty minutes and they might’ve gotten eaten by a bear or something, and so I came to get you. Probably should’ve tried Agent Scully’s tent first,” the boy added the last in a lower tone.

Mulder rolled his eyes and struggled to get out of his sleeping bag and out of the small, one-person tent. He clambered to his knees and then his feet, slipping his hiking boots on and tucking the laces into the boot. He indicated that Tim should follow him, and waved Ben over from his tent as well. “Scully,” he whispered, and Scully stirred and unzipped her tent. “We’ve got a situation.”

It was clear she had been sleeping, and she rubbed her eyes before her gaze fell to Mulder’s gun. Seeing it, she grabbed her own. “What’s going on?” She whispered.

“Joel and Peter are gone. They’ve been gone for thirty minutes. I need to go find them—can you stay here and watch the kids? Make sure no one else leaves?”

Scully nodded, and climbed out of her tent. “Did they say where they were going?” She questioned Tim and Ben.

It was clear the two were scared. They were now being questioned by two federal agents with guns, and their friends had been gone for a half hour. It didn’t help that they had fallen asleep with a story about a demon. “Well, Peter was talking about maybe going out to look for the girls, to play a trick on them,” Ben admitted.

“But Peter talks a lot,” Tim said. “And Joel definitely didn’t want to go.”

“But Peter was saying how they wouldn’t need to find the girls, they could just put Blair Witch Project stuff in the woods to scare them when they go on their hike tomorrow,” Ben continued.

“Did Joel and Peter give any indication of where they were going when they left your tent?” Scully asked.

The boys shook their heads.

“Why did you let them leave?” Scully asked them, as if they were complete idiots.

Tim suddenly looked very worried. “We’re not gonna get in trouble, are we?”

“Just stay here—”

“What’s going on?” Matt interrupted Mulder. Scott, Trevor, and Jeff were behind him. Their entire tent was now up, and everyone else seemed to be shuffling around.

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Mulder rolled his eyes. “Great,” he said, no longer whispering.

“Okay, everyone, can I have your attention, please?” Scully called, seeing that everyone was up anyway. The last tent unzipped, and four boys stuck their heads out. “It’s come to our attention that Peter and Joel have decided to leave without permission. We need to know if any of you know of their whereabouts. It’s very important.”

The boys were silent.

“Well, in that case, Agent Mulder is going to go look for them. Everyone else, try to go back to sleep. We still have a hike ahead of us tomorrow and you should all take pleasure in the fact that Joel and Peter are going to be cleaning up after every meal till Sunday morning.”

Some of the boys snickered, their somewhat fearful expressions turning into ones of schadenfreude.

Matt and Trevor still stood outside their tents, though, along with Ben and Tim. “We want to go with you, Uncle Mulder,” Matt told him, and Trevor nodded. “Us too,” Ben added, and Tim said, “It’s our fault, we should go look for them.”

“No, you should all go back to sleep,” Mulder told them sternly. “The last thing I need is a lawsuit from one of your parents because you tripped on something in the dark.”

The boys, disappointed, turned and started back toward their tents. Unexpectedly, Scully said, “Matt, hang on a minute.” Matt turned around and Mulder shot Scully a confused look. “Mulder, it isn’t safe for you to go walking around the woods alone. And Matt’s got some first aid training…at the very least, he could use the safety whistle and call for help.”

“Scully, this isn’t a good idea. I can handle looking for two twelve-year-old boys myself, and what if Matt—”

“I’ll be fine, Uncle Mulder. And Aunt Dana’s right—it’s not safe for anyone to go out in the woods by themselves at night. It’s just not a good idea. If you tripped over a root and twisted your ankle, how would you get back?”

Mulder gave him a dissatisfied look. “You’re just looking for adventure, Matt, and we both know it.”

Matt frowned. “Well, maybe, but—”

Scully placed her hand on Matt’s shoulder. “Matt, I want you to listen to me. Peter and Joel probably made a poor decision and went exploring, and then got lost. That’s probably what happened, so you should keep that in mind. I want you to stay with Uncle Mulder and I want you to be in charge of the first aid gear, snacks and water, in case you two get lost as well. Do you understand? You’ve got a responsibility.”

Matt’s expression immediately switched to ‘duty’ mode and he nodded. “I’ll make sure we don’t get lost. I’ll even grab my compass.”

He turned and ran back to his tent, and Mulder gave her a sideways glance.

“Mulder, face it, it’s a bad idea for anyone to go into the woods alone, Matt has some minimal survival training, and there’s no way Tara would sue us for endangering him.”

He sighed. “I know, I just don’t feel comfortable taking him out there if something really did happen to Joel and Peter.”

“That’s no fair, why does Matt get to go?” Scott whined loud enough for everyone to hear.

“Well, that’s obvious,” Ben said. “Of course his uncle would pick him instead of us.”

“That’s enough, guys,” Scully said. “Back to sleep. I don’t want to hear any talking after ten minutes. I’m timing it.”

Mulder had thrown some granola bars and the first aid kit into a day pack. He grabbed his holster and belt and when he was properly dressed and ready to go, Scully brought two water bottles over. “Be careful. If there is an angry bear out there—”

“Stand still, wait till it gets close, and shoot it between the eyes. Got it, Dana Boone.”

Scully rolled her eyes and put the water bottles in the day pack, and then Matt picked it up and slung it over his shoulder. He grabbed the other strap as well and glanced at Mulder’s gun. “Do I get a weapon, too? Like, not a gun but maybe a sharp stick?”

“No,” Mulder answered curtly, and gave Scully a quick kiss before heading out into the woods, Matt at his heels.

“Maybe a rock?”

“No,” Mulder answered again.

“How about a…”

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INTO THE WOODS

NEAR SHENANDOAH NATIONAL PARK, VIRGINIA

SATURDAY, SEPTEMBER 25th, 2010

0010

Mulder had a strange feeling in his gut. It was the same feeling he had while walking through the woods with Scully on their first case. It was the same feeling he had when they had investigated the gender-bending alien in New England. As he walked through the woods, he couldn’t help but think that these kids’ disappearance was more serious than two pre-teens wanting to play Blair Witch Project.

“Do you think they’re okay?” Matt’s voice sliced through his thoughts.

“I hope they’re okay,” Mulder answered. He didn’t really want to speculate at this point. The fact that the kids hadn’t returned could point to anything from young boys losing track of time to a paranormal explanation.

Matt didn’t speak for a moment. “Peter’s got a big mouth, but he’s not a really bad kid. He just gets a little carried away sometimes.”

“Yeah, it’s common for kids your age. You’re pretty mature compared to your friends, Matt.”

“I am?”

“Definitely,” Mulder stated. His mind momentarily went back to their conversation in the van. “And sometimes, when we’re growing up, we want to try new things—it’s perfectly normal.”

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“Yeah, I know. We just shouldn’t try drugs or alcohol because it could mess up our brain cells. I get that.”

“That’s why you’re more mature than your peers,” Mulder told him, and matched Matt’s step so they could walk side-by-side on the trail. “You make decisions based on the consequences that they might come with.”

“Sometimes it can be hard to know what the consequences are, though,” Matt said wisely.

“Yes, you’re right,” Mulder answered, surprised at how quickly this boy was growing up. He remembered just two years ago, taking little Matty trick-or-treating. Just two years had transformed that little boy into a young man.

“Like if you eat Mexican food you never know how much you’re gonna fart.”

Well, not quite a young man. Mulder chuckled. Then he turned slightly more serious. “Or if your friends are watching porn, you don’t necessarily know if it’s bad or good.”

Matt was quiet.

“A famous judge said, when trying to figure out what is pornography and what isn’t, ‘You know it when you see it.’ That also goes for what’s good and what’s not—if it’s demeaning to women, if it has any kids in it at all, if it looks like one person isn’t having a good time…that’s not good. Also, it’s not good if you’re watching it all the time. If you can’t think about girls without thinking about pornography, that’s not good. If it doesn’t make you feel good, then you shouldn’t watch it.”

Matt nodded, absorbing the information.

“And the most important thing, Matt, is to remember that you’re going to do just fine in your first relationship without having watched porn.”

“Well, everyone else knows stuff,” Matt said after a moment. “They know all this stuff…and I don’t.”

“They’re mostly making it up, you know,” Mulder told him with a small smile. “They’re talking a big game, like Peter—they’re just trying to get attention. And it’s working.” He glanced at his younger companion. “You’re going to do just fine on your own, Matt. You don’t need to worry about what the other boys think, because they already think very highly of you. And if you take a stand when you see them doing something wrong—anything wrong—then even if they don’t tell you, their opinion of you will skyrocket.”

“Really? Usually when you tattle they think you’re an idiot.”

“I’m not talking about tattling. I’m talking about some of the things that you do. When that other kid, what’s his name, had his history book stolen right before the exam—”

“Jacob. Yeah, I lent mine to him and we studied together.”

“That’s one good example. You’re someone they look up to, because you know what’s right. This is the same—if you think it’s wrong, if it doesn’t feel right in your heart, then take a stand. They’ll respect you for it, even if they make fun of you. It’s just a show.”

“How do you know all this stuff?” Matt asked.

Mulder laughed. “I was a kid once, you know.” He paused. “I had a pet Tyrannosaurus, my mother’s name was Eve.”

Matt burst out into laughter. They continued walking for the next few minutes, before Mulder started to notice some oddities around them. “Matt, you recognize that?”

Matt stopped and looked at what Mulder was pointing to with his flashlight. “What is that?” Matt asked.

“Have you seen the Blair Witch Project?”

“No,” Matt admitted. “My mom wouldn’t let me, even though it’s free on OnDemand.”

“Well, I think Peter and Joel have, because that’s the same person-shaped twig contraption they had in the movie. I’m pretty sure they’ve been here. Point your flashlight there for a minute.” Mulder pulled out his cell phone and snapped a picture.

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“I thought you left that in the van,” Matt said.

“Chaperone’s privilege. C’mon, let’s keep moving. With any luck, they’ll be up here, fallen asleep with exhaustion. Wanna carry Peter?”

Matt rolled his eyes. “I hope you’re joking.”

“Don’t worry, I am,” Mulder said with a smile. They spotted another twig contraption not too far ahead on the trail, and Mulder suddenly felt apprehensive. He couldn’t explain it—this should have made him feel more relaxed. They were probably going to find the kids soon, so why would he—

“Uncle Mulder, look! What is that?!” Matt yelled, pointing his flashlight off to the side of the trail. There was a patch of red and teal, and what looked like a boot coming out of the brush.

“Be careful, Matt,” Mulder held Matt back. He didn’t like the look of this. He drew his gun, and pointed his flashlight around. There didn’t seem to be anyone there. “Okay, we’re gonna go in together, slowly.” Matt nodded anxiously. Mulder started to move, and they covered about ten feet before Matt tripped and fell right next to the boot. When he did, he let out a blood-curdling, terrified scream and scrambled up, falling backwards into Mulder.

Mulder held him steady with both arms and said, “Shh, shh, you’re okay,” as his eyes fell on what Matt had seen. There in the brush were two partially-decomposed bodies, maggots eating away at their flesh. A sight that would terrify most adults, let alone a twelve-year-old.

Mulder couldn’t spot any probable cause of death, which was most likely a good thing. If there was a hungry bear out here, there wouldn’t be anything left of the bodies. If there was an angry gunman, there would most likely be a bullet hole. He wondered if this was what had scared Peter and Joel further into the woods.

Matt couldn’t bear to look back at the bodies. He sniffed, trying not to cry. “What happened to them?!”

“I’m not sure,” Mulder admitted. “From the way they’re dressed, they look like hikers…they may have gotten lost and starved.” That was highly unlikely, he knew. They weren’t that far from the main road, let alone the campsite. These people were only about a mile away from a possible connection to civilization when they collapsed here. No missing persons reports had been filed for the past fifty years in these parts…something very odd was going on here.

He pulled his cell phone and snapped a quick picture. “Okay, Matt, we should turn back.”

“What? Why?! We can’t leave Peter and Joel out here when there could be some kind of killer bear or terrorist or something!”

“I’m not willing to take any chances here. If these hikers were hurt by something, it could potentially also hurt us. There’s only two of us and we’ve got one gun between us.”

“There’s only two of them and they’ve got no gun between them!” Matt argued.

Mulder gave it some thought. Matt was right—there were two young boys out there who had no survival training, and whatever killed the hikers could get to them too. If they hadn’t already run too far into the woods to find their way back, which is what Mulder figured a normal twelve-year-old boy would do after seeing two gruesome dead bodies. Modern ‘Lost Person’ psychology stated that children between eight and fifteen would run if scared, instead of staying put. This made them much harder to find, and put them at the most risk of starvation when lost in the wilderness. Younger children, by contrast, typically either didn’t know they were lost or were too scared to move, and were found faster.

Mulder pulled out his cell phone to call Scully, but predictably there was no signal. He looked at his watch. “Okay, Matt, here’s the plan. We’re going to walk around this area in a circle, and then head back if we can’t find them. If we’re at that point, we’re going to need help finding them anyway.”

“We can get everyone out here—all of us,” Matt suggested.

“No,” Mulder shook his head. “Professional help. If we can’t find them, we’ll head back to camp, get in the van, and drive to the ranger station six miles away. We’ll get a helicopter out here and we’ll spot them. They’re going to get found. Okay?”

Matt looked down, and nodded.

“You stand here. You don’t have to look if you don’t want to. I need to examine the bodies and see if I can spot any evidence. Okay?”

“I guess.”

“I need the latex gloves out of the first aid kit.”

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A few moments later, Mulder began inspecting the bodies. Matt stole a glance now and then, sheer curiosity getting the better of him. Mulder continued to concentrate on the details, hoping to spot some evidence as to what killed these people. They had been there a few days, but not very long. Their backpacks were filled with non-perishable food. Mulder took pictures with his iPhone and then took the food, just in case. It seemed wrong, but his survival instinct was kicking in and his gut told him they might need it. He took the unopened water bottles from the female hiker’s pack, as well.

He couldn’t find any marks or damage to the bodies, which was in part due to the advanced decomposition and in part due to the fact that he wasn’t a forensic pathologist. He really wished he had Scully here.

In the male body’s cargo pocket, he was surprised to find a badge. This man was an officer with the Shady Grove Police Department, clearly off-duty. But if he was carrying his badge he was definitely carrying…aha. Mulder found the small .380 backup side-arm in a shoulder harness underneath the man’s windbreaker. He checked it out quickly before Matt could see it. It looked like it had been fired several times. He took a picture and then pocketed it. He couldn’t leave a weapon at the scene with two twelve-year-olds lost in the woods.

He then found a gunshot wound on the man’s body. It looked like he had been hit with a .380 slug. Did he shoot himself? Mulder thought. The injury wasn’t in the right place to kill him, though. It looked like he had just barely been shot. It was almost a graze.

He continued looking through their possessions and found nothing remarkable at first. But then suddenly, he spotted it. Illuminated by his flashlight and just under the skin on the male hiker’s ankle was a tiny metal…something. He took a picture and then picked it up. Looking closer, Mulder’s stomach twisted. A computer chip. Shit, he thought, and then changed his investigative approach completely. He took off the female hiker’s boot and located another chip just under her skin. Oh, hell no, he thought. Not with Matt here…it can’t be them.

Mulder began looking for all the normal signs of alien abduction. He rolled up their clothes, but didn’t undress them any further than taking the boots and socks off. He looked in their eye sockets, brushing maggots away to do so, but could find no more chips.

“What’s taking so long?” Matt asked, still turned the other way.

“I’m just uh…checking out some evidence here. Documenting it with my phone. It’ll only be another few minutes.”

He inverted his latex gloves around the chips and tied them to secure the blood and bacteria inside. Then he snapped a picture of the male hiker’s rotted half-sandwich and took it out of its Ziploc bag, placing the latex gloves inside instead. He zipped it up and carried it over to Matt. “Okay, sport, let’s take off. Hand me your bag.”

Matt did so, and shined his flashlight at what Mulder was placing inside. “What is that?”

“The latex gloves,” Mulder answered.

“Where’d you get the Ziploc?”

“From them,” the agent admitted. “It’s sealed, though. No worries.”

Matt looked unsure. “Why do we need to keep the gloves?”

“Because if we left them here, they could blow away. As it is, they contain evidence I collected off the bodies.”

“Are you going to investigate the deaths?” the twelve-year-old asked as they headed back to the trail.

“Maybe, but it’ll probably go to local authorities,” Mulder lied.

Matt was silent for a few moments, but then he asked, “Uncle Mulder, do you think Peter and Joel are dead?”

“No,” Mulder said definitely. “I don’t think they are. You saw those twig people they made? They clearly set out here to scare the girls for their hike, but then they stumbled on the bodies and they probably got scared. My guess is that they’re just a little deeper into the woods. If we make a circle around this site and keep talking, they’ll probably hear us and realize we’re here to help.”

Matt nodded, but still looked apprehensive.

Mulder put an arm around his shoulders comfortingly, and said, “Don’t worry, Matt. I’m not gonna let anything happen to us. Do you trust me?”

“Yeah, I do,” Matt said immediately.

“Then let’s go find your friends.”

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CAMPSITE VAUGHAN

NEAR SHENANDOAH NATIONAL PARK, VIRGINIA

SATURDAY, SEPTEMBER 25th, 2010

0200

They had been gone too long, Scully thought. The boys were only gone a half hour…how was it taking this long to find them? If they had gone off the trail, maybe…

About a half hour ago, Trevor had quietly come over to her tent and told her he couldn’t sleep. He was a good kid, a great friend to Matt and was clearly worried about him. She and Trevor had spent the last half hour whispering back and forth about random things, and Scully discovered that the boy wanted to be a doctor when he grew up. So now she was sharing career advice with the twelve-year-old, telling him about medical school and interning for a hospital, and residency. She figured she’d either keep his mind off of Matt or put him to sleep.

She checked her watch and pulled out her cell phone. No service. Of course not.

“Do you think they’ll be back soon?” Trevor asked quietly.

“I hope they are. If not, I’m gonna have to get you guys into the van and drive to the ranger station,” she said, and glanced at the spot where Mulder and Matt had disappeared into the woods.

A while ago, they had heard a faint shriek. They couldn’t tell if it was an animal or not, and they hadn’t heard anything since. Scully had no indication that anything was wrong, and the safety whistle hadn’t been blown, so she didn’t think it was necessary to go to the ranger station then. But considering that Mulder and Matt still hadn’t returned, she was ready to set a time limit on how long they had before she went after them.

“If we had two search parties, we might find Peter and Joel faster. And Joel doesn’t have his insulin.”

Scully froze. She had that ‘oh shit’ look on her face that told Trevor they were in trouble. She looked at her watch. Four hours till his next shot. Certainly they’ll find him before then?

“Did Agent Mulder forget to pack the insulin?” Trevor asked.

She pursed her lips. “No, Trevor, I forgot to pack it for him. Joel’s next shot is in four hours…they’ll definitely find him before then. They couldn’t have gotten that far.”

Trevor looked a little worried.

He was a very expressive kid, and Scully realized that he seemed to get distressed easily. “Don’t worry, Trevor,” she said, trying to comfort him. “The worst that can possibly happen is that in an hour, if Agent Mulder and Matt aren’t back, we head to the ranger station. We’ll be there in a few minutes and they’ll have a helicopter in the air in under an hour, and we’ll definitely find them.”

“I guess. Are you sure we shouldn’t have two search parties?”

She smiled. “I’m sure for now. But you know what? I think I’ve thought of something you can do.” She turned around and crawled further into her small tent, rummaged through her daypack, and produced a paper map of the trails. She handed the map to Trevor. “Why don’t we work on plotting all the paths they could have taken, so the rangers can find them faster?”

“Okay,” Trevor agreed with a nod, glad to be doing something productive.

Scully and he got to work.

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INTO THE WOODS

NEAR SHENANDOAH NATIONAL PARK, VIRGINIA

SATURDAY, SEPTEMBER 25th, 2010

0230

“So Frohike turns to me and says, ‘What starship?’”

Matt burst out laughing. “Did he really?”

“Yeah,” Mulder said with a smile. “Now keep in mind this was during the Sci-Fi Friday marathon.”

“What’s Sci-Fi Friday?”

“It was around a while ago, in the early 2000s—they’d have Stargate SG-1, Stargate Atlantis, and Battlestar Galactica back to back from 8 to 11.”

“That must have been awesome.”

“It was a great way to spend Friday, before your Aunt Dana and I moved in together,” Mulder said with a smirk. “Then it paled in comparison.”

“I can’t imagine ever living with a girl full-time.”

“You live with two!” Mulder exclaimed with a laugh.

“I mean like a girl my age.”

“They’ll get better,” he promised. “Much better, trust me.” He glanced at Matt. “Any man can take out his own garbage. It takes a real man to take out garbage for two.”

Matt laughed. “Have you seen the Dodge commercial?”

“Which one, the Superbowl commercial?” Mulder asked, and Matt nodded. Then with his eidetic memory, Mulder recalled the entire commercial and recited it in monotone. “‘I will get up and walk the dog at 6:30 am.’ ‘I will eat some fruit as part of my breakfast.’”

Matt cut in, in imperfect monotone interrupted by giggling. “‘I will shave. I will clean the sink after I shave.’”

“‘I will be at work by 8 am. I will sit through two hour meetings.’ ‘I will say yes when you want me to say yes.’”

“‘I will be quiet when you don’t want to hear me say no,’” Matt said, and then continued laughing.

“‘I will take your call. I will listen to your opinion of my friends. I will listen to your friends’ opinions of my friends.’” Mulder continued, never breaking the dull-faced expression that kept Matt laughing. “‘I will be civil to your mother. I will put the seat down. I will separate the recycling.’”

“‘I will carry your lip balm,’” Matt barely got out.

“‘I will watch your vampire TV shows with you.’ ‘I will take my socks off before getting into bed. I will put my underwear in the basket. And because I do this…”

“I will drive the car I want to drive!” They exclaimed in unison, and then they both laughed.

“MAN’S…LAST…STAND!” Mulder said in a dramatic voice close to Matt’s ear. The twelve-year-old was nearly on the ground with laughter. Mulder never thought the commercial was that funny, but it just mattered that Matt was happy. And in part, the agent knew that Matt needed some male bonding time, and he was the closest thing to a father that the boy had.

When the laughter died down, Mulder said, “You know, Matt, despite all those things women make you do, I wouldn’t be here without your Aunt Dana. Or your Grandma Maggie, or your mom.”

“Yeah, I know,” Matt said.

Mulder chuckled, and hit Matt playfully. “Hey, at least you could pretend to think I could handle life on my own.”

“What’s the point?” Matt asked between snickers, and Mulder hit him with the back of his hand again. The agent was about to come up with a retort when Matt stopped, and shined his flashlight into the woods. “Hey, what’s that?”

“What?” Mulder asked.

“That light. Do you see it?”

Mulder squinted. “Move your flashlight,” he instructed, and when Matt put his flashlight down, Mulder saw a small halo of light coming from the distant part of the woods.

“It’s off the trail,” the boy commented.

“Yeah,” Mulder agreed. “Probably a cabin or something. It’s possible they could have heard your friends, and it’s in the direction we’re supposed to be going anyway. Let’s lay down a trail behind us, though, just in case we get lost and can’t find our way back to the trail.”

Matt agreed with a nod, and started picking up sticks and brush around him.

“No, no, Matt, we need something we can distinguish as ours. If you lay sticks down, it’ll just look like everything else out here.”

“You mean something like…rocks?”

“Open up that first aid kit.”

Matt complied, and handed it to Mulder. Unexpectedly to Matt, his uncle pulled out a tube of face makeup.

“Lipstick!?”

“Not lipstick—it’s face paint in a tube. It’s great for marking a trail on trees, and it’s waterproof. Plus all the guy trees like Red Dazzle.” Matt smirked as Mulder handed him the first aid kit and made a red X on the closest tree to the trail.

“How do you know all this stuff about survival?” Matt asked as they made their way toward the light.

“Well, the FBI trains you on survival skills when you first join. The rest is all experience.”

“You and Aunt Dana have built up a lot of experience,” Matt said, and Mulder caught the awe in his voice. There was no doubt in his mind—a bit of hero worship was going on here.

“You can say that again.”

“I want to learn this stuff. I think it’s really cool.”

“You’ll think it’s even cooler when it saves your life,” his uncle told him. He marked another red X on a tree. “If you’re really interested in learning, you should join Scouts.”

“I wanted to, but Mom says I have enough on my plate already,” Matt complained.

“Well, your grades are improving since you started the coaching, so maybe she’ll re-evaluate.”

“I think I might want to do what you do.”

“What’s that? Be an FBI agent?”

“Yeah, and investigate all this weird paranormal stuff,” Matt said.

“Not an easy job,” Mulder said. He didn’t want to discourage Matt from following wherever his dreams took him, but he also didn’t want to see the kid get hurt. Mulder had lost everyone, and Scully’s family wasn’t exactly untouched. The thought of Matt within ten miles of Strughold’s grasp made him want to pack the kid in bubble-wrap.

“I like challenges.”

Mulder smiled. “Whatever you end up doing, I’m sure you’ll do it well.”

The light was getting larger, but it wasn’t getting any clearer. Mulder expected to see an outline of a cabin or something, but there was nothing. Just this very bright light surrounded by haziness. With the thought of alien activity on his mind, he began to think that following this light perhaps wasn’t a good idea.

“Hey, Matt…maybe we should—”

Mulder was cut off by the ear-piercing screech of a pre-pubescent boy, followed by another high-pitched voice exclaiming, “HOLY SHIT! HELP!!!”

He grabbed Matt’s hand and ran with the boy, following the sound of what had to be Peter and Joel. It was coming from the light. “Matt, when we get there, I want you to stay behind me and do whatever I say—do you understand?” Mulder asked urgently.

“Okay,” Matt answered, his voice fearful.

“Blow the safety whistle—we’re probably gonna need help.”

“It’s in my bag!” Matt exclaimed. “We have to stop running!”

“Then blow it when we get there, but stay out of sight,” Mulder ordered.

Matt tripped on a root, but Mulder held onto him and he stumbled back into a run. They were almost there. One of the boys was still screaming at the top of his lungs.

They clambered over some brush and whacked tree branches out of their way, running as quickly as they could toward the light. When they finally arrived, they squinted to see anything in the brilliance. Mulder held Matt back with his hand as he tried to make out what it was that was in front of him, and see if he could spot Peter or Joel.

It was a tube of light, a sort of cylinder that emanated intense brilliance. About twenty feet long and five feet in diameter, it occupied a mini-clearing in the forest and was floating in mid-air.

“What the hell?” Matt wondered aloud, and Mulder pulled his gun.

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“Peter?! Joel?!” He called. “If you can hear me, answer!”

“Agent Mulder!” Peter cried, and scrambled up from some unknown location behind the object. He ran around the clearing and met Mulder at a full sprint, nearly running into the agent. The twelve-year-old had tears streaming down his cheeks. “It took him, it took Joel! He’s inside there—we have to get him out!”

Mulder looked from the boy to the object, and couldn’t spot any entrances. “How? How’d it take him? Explain to me what happened,” he demanded.

“We…we were in the woods, and…and, we saw this light, and…God, what’s gonna happen to Joel?!”

Matt put his hand on his peer’s arm. “Calm down, Peter. If you want to help him, tell my uncle what happened.”

“I…I…we went up to the light ‘cause we thought we could ask who it was how to get back, and, it was just this thing…we didn’t know what the hell it was, and…and then Joel said we should go back but then it started makin’ this noise, like this whirring sound, like a washing machine, and then this light came out of it, like a beam…and then Joel walked right up to it, like…he was in the light but he was just walking right up to it, and I tried to stop him, I did, I promise, but then he walked right into it. Just…like it wasn’t there, and then he disappeared into it, and he was gone. He was just gone! And I…I panicked, he’s gone, he’s not here…Agent Mulder, what are we gonna do?!”

“It’s okay, Peter,” Mulder said, and was prepared to grip the boy if he started to go down. He was hyperventilating, his face was pale, and his eyes were dilated. He was clearly terrified, and the last thing he needed was a collapsed kid. “Go sit down next to that tree. Matt, help him and then blow the safety whistle. I need to see if there’s an entrance to this thing. You understand?”

Matt nodded, his expression worried. He gripped Peter’s arm and started to lead him over to the tree. Peter was mumbling about how he had lost Joel, and how he was hungry, and that he didn’t feel right. Mulder began walking around the glowing object. He had gotten to the back side just as Matt blew the safety whistle. It was loud enough to wake the dead, which was a good thing in their predicament.

Mulder couldn’t spot a door at all. His options weren’t looking good…he had a diabetic kid who was stuck inside a glowing contraption without any obvious means of entry, he had about three hours to get the kid his shot, he calculated, and he had another kid who was near passed out with anxiety. They were off the trail and had stopped marking their path early on because of the screams they heard. If this glowing thing stopped glowing, he guessed that the search parties wouldn’t find them for at least a half hour, with the ground they had to cover.

He walked back over to Matt and Peter. “How’re you doing, Peter?” he asked, and squatted down to get a look at the boy.

“I feel funny…” Peter said.

“I checked his pulse—it’s pretty fast,” Matt said. “I gave him some water. I think that should help.”

“Give him a granola bar, too,” Mulder told him. “We blew the safety whistle—hopefully someone will be here soon.”

“How are we gonna get Joel out of that thing? Do we know whose it is? What is it, anyway?”

Mulder shook his head. He suspected it was some kind of alien vessel, and was probably connected to the two dead bodies. “I’m not sure,” he told Matt. “Listen, I—”

He was interrupted when the vessel suddenly started whirring again. He stood up, and extended his side-arm. “If anyone in there can hear me, I’m with the FBI!” He yelled for what it was worth. “If you are harboring a hostage, you’re committing a Federal offense.”

The cylinder whirred even louder, and started rising up out of the ground.

Mulder felt a flutter of panic. He couldn’t let this thing take off with Joel inside. He couldn’t stand there and allow a child to be abducted. But if Joel had walked into the cylinder, what would happen if his bullet went straight through and hit the boy?

He had to make a decision. The cylinder was taking off. He took a deep breath, steadied his grip, and fired.

The cylinder stopped moving, but the next thing he knew, he was down on the ground, the wind knocked out of him. He gasped for air, heard Matt scream his name in terror, and watched as the cylinder’s shape started to shift.

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CAMPSITE VAUGHAN

NEAR SHENANDOAH NATIONAL PARK, VIRGINIA

SATURDAY, SEPTEMBER 25th, 2010

0300

“Okay, everyone in the van. Come on, move it, people. We’ve got to get to the ranger station. No—Jeff, you can go to the bathroom there, it’s just six miles up the road. Come on, now!”

The boys hurried from their tents to the van, talking quietly amongst themselves. They were in their pajamas, some of them barefoot because no one told them to put their shoes on. Nine boys climbed into the van, buckled their seatbelts, and stared at Scully in the driver’s seat, hoping for an explanation.

They were about to take off when they heard the unmistakable shrill sound of a safety whistle.

Scully’s stomach plummeted. Oh, God, she thought. Please, Mulder, not again. Please watch over him, God. I don’t think he can take much more.

She put the van in ‘drive’ and peeled out of the campground, speeding all the way to the ranger station.

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INTO THE WOODS

NEAR SHENANDOAH NATIONAL PARK, VIRGINIA

SATURDAY, SEPTEMBER 25th, 2010

0305

“Uncle Mulder! Uncle Mulder, oh God…this is bad, this is really bad…”

Mulder’s vision was clearing, and he could see Matt kneeling over him, tears streaming down the boy’s face. “Hey, Matt, it’s okay,” he said, his voice sounding a bit weak. He tried to sit up.

It was then that the pain hit him. He gasped and fell back onto the ground, his hand immediately coming up to the source of the pain at his side. He ended up clamping his hand over Matt’s. The boy was already trying to staunch the blood flow.

“What happened?” Mulder asked, his voice strained. This wasn’t good, but this wasn’t nearly as bad as Matt probably thought it was. He hurt, that was for damn sure, but he didn’t feel the familiar symptoms of being seriously shot. He was no longer dizzy. He didn’t feel like his head was swimming. He could think clearly. The pain wasn’t as intense as it could have been. He was convinced whatever had happened, he was going to be okay in a few minutes when he got his bearings.

“You…you fired on that thing, and I think your bullet must’ve bounced back off of it and hit you, and…now you’re really hurt and I don’t know what to do…Uncle Mulder, please don’t die!” Matt cried.

“Hey, hey, shhh, it’s okay Matty. Calm down, it’s okay—I’m gonna be okay. It’s not that bad. I think it was just a graze. Here, I’m gonna sit up. It’s gonna be okay, just calm down.” The cylinder was still behind them, and Mulder glanced at Peter over by the tree. His eyes were closed and he was motionless. The boy had passed out at the sight of Mulder going down, no doubt.

The agent grunted at the movement, the pain bringing him right back to that torture room where he was held. He couldn’t afford those thoughts right now, he told himself. He had to stay focused. Matt was hysterical and needed to see that he was going to be okay.

He took a look at his own wound at his left side. It wasn’t a graze, but it had missed all the vital organs. He figured he had a few hours before he passed out from the gunshot, and surely the rescue team would be here by then. He thought after Matt blew the whistle, Scully would’ve heard it and gone to the ranger station to bring backup. He could afford to expend a little energy now.

“Help me up, okay?” Mulder asked Matt, and Matt sniffed, extended his hand, and helped Mulder to his feet. He was wobbly for a moment, but got his bearings and took a look at the cylinder. “Okay, so shooting it’s out,” he said in jest, but Matt didn’t laugh. The boy could see the sweat on Mulder’s forehead and knew his uncle was hurt. He was nearly scared stiff.

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“Matt, I need your head in the game. If we’re gonna get Joel out of there, I need to know what you saw when I shot it. What happened?”

“Well…it kinda…” Matt looked back at the vessel for a moment, trying to clear his head and think. “It like shifted, so you could see its insides.”

Mulder nodded eagerly. “What did you see? What was inside? Did you see Joel?”

Matt shook his head. “No, I couldn’t see it for that long. But it stopped making that noise.”

“I noticed that,” Mulder commented, and walked slowly over to the cylinder.

“Be careful!” Matt implored him.

“It’s okay, Matt, I’m not going to touch it. I just want to look at it…”

When Mulder got closer, it started whirring again and he stepped back as quickly as he could. His movements were slow and painful, and he gripped his side and bent over slightly. Matt was at his side immediately, giving him some support.

The cylinder started rising in the air again, and Mulder realized that it could take off with Joel and there was nothing he could do about it. His heartbeat quickened and he remembered the faces of the innocents he had killed with the Bari Trasadi.

Suddenly, as the cylinder reached a height of about ten feet in the air, it stopped and the whirring increased in frequency. The light got brighter, so bright that Matt and Mulder had to cover their eyes. Three bright beams shot out of the thing, two of which were aimed directly at Peter and Mulder.

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RANGER STATION/ RESCUE HELICOPTER

NEAR SHENANDOAH NATIONAL PARK, VIRGINIA

SATURDAY, SEPTEMBER 25th, 2010

0315

“—Listen to Ranger Halburg, get some sleep if you can. When we get back, we’ll have your friends and Agent Mulder with us,” Scully finished her instructions for the kids.

“Be careful,” Trevor told her, and she gave him a reassuring smile as she turned and left the kids in the ranger station. She entered the tiny surveillance chopper, put her headset on, and asked the pilot, “Is this gonna have enough room for four extra people?”

“We can squeeze six in if we have to,” the man said with a heavy Louisiana accent. Scully absently wondered how he had ended up in these parts. “People can always sit on each other’s laps.”

This was the best they could do on such short notice, so she wasn’t going to complain. But she couldn’t help but wonder what would happen should one of the boys or Mulder be injured.

They lifted off into the air, and they both immediately noticed the bright glowing light emanating from the trees. “What the hell?” the pilot muttered.

Scully ordered, “There—that’s it. That’s where they’ll be.”

“How do you know? We don’t even know what that is,” the pilot argued.

“It’s an unexplained glowing object in the woods—trust me, my partner will have found it,” Scully said dryly, and when he didn’t respond, she yelled, “Go!”

“Okay, okay, we’ll start lookin’ there, I guess. Sheesh. Yankees.” With that, he unpredictably hit a button on the control panel and the ‘80s song Danger Zone started playing at top volume.

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INTO THE WOODS

NEAR SHENANDOAH NATIONAL PARK, VIRGINIA

SATURDAY, SEPTEMBER 25th, 2010

0315

It was like something out of the Twilight Zone, or Star Trek. Mulder was enveloped in a bright white light, and he suddenly felt at peace. The pain was gone from his side, and he felt intense awe and wonder at what was going on around him. Whoever was behind the beam, he believed strongly, was more than friendly. They were downright benevolent.

Matt had a similar experience, as did Peter. And while this was going on, and all of them were mesmerized by the great white light, Joel was lowered out of the cylinder and placed gently in a sitting position on the ground below. The four of them simultaneously heard a woman’s voice speak in their heads.

We mean you no harm. Go in peace, it said, and then just as soon as it started, it was gone. The lights retracted from the cylinder whilst it whirred even louder now. It ascended into the sky, and took off at top speed.

Mulder and Matt looked at each other, a dumbfounded expression on their faces. Matt’s eyes fell to Mulder’s side and his own hands, where there was no longer any blood. Mulder’s shirt wasn’t even torn—there was no wound at all.

They didn’t have time to reflect on what had happened, though, because Joel and Peter both stood up, dazed expressions on their faces. And they could hear the sound of a chopper getting closer.

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RANGER STATION

NEAR SHENANDOAH NATIONAL PARK, VIRGINIA

SATURDAY, SEPTEMBER 25th, 2010

0400

“You didn’t get any pictures?!”

“How big was it? Was it like Avatar?”

“Did you see any aliens?!”

“What was it like inside? Did you go inside?”

A slew of questions flew at them as soon as they stepped off the crowded helicopter. Nine boys gathered around the tiny ranger station landing pad, and demanded answers. Meanwhile three Ranger Jeeps left the station to find the bodies Mulder had reported in.

When Scully had arrived at the UFO site and Matt gave her the entire story in one sentence, she had insisted upon examining Mulder. Somehow, and she had no idea how, the bullet wound was completely gone. The only marks on his torso were the scars that remained from the summer, and Mulder had happily declared it ‘the most pleasant gunshot wound ever.’

Joel hadn’t said much since the helicopter had landed at the site, and didn’t speak at all during the ride back. Peter was similarly silent.

When they were back inside the ranger station, Scully took Joel into an office and began to take his statement.

Mulder listened from outside, the thin walls easily transmitting the sound of the boy’s voice.

“The first thing I remember is the bright light…I had to walk toward it. I just…had to,” he implored.

Mulder saw Matt coming and stood up. Before walking away from the door, he heard Joel state, “They weren’t evil. It wasn’t like the movies. They were nice…they said I had a special kind of blood. They said they just wanted to take my blood and then they’d let me go.”

“Uncle Mulder,” Matt said, “what’s the plan for the camping trip?”

Mulder chuckled. Matt was so much like Scully. Things happened, he dealt with them, and then he moved on. “I think we might postpone it until we figure out what happened to those two hikers we found.”

He seemed visibly disappointed at the news. “But…maybe we should just move to another camp site.”

“Listen, sport, you’ve gotten next to no sleep tonight. How are you going to go on a science hike tomorrow with just two hours of sleep?”

Matt shrugged, but he clearly understood the logic.

“Listen, if the school doesn’t give you another Friday off, I’ll pick you up one Friday night and the two of us can go out camping closer to DC. That way we won’t have a long drive and you’ll be back for school on Monday.”

The boy grinned. “That sounds like a great plan.”

Mulder nodded. “So are you doing okay? I’m sorry I scared you back there.”

He shrugged. “I’m fine,” he said immediately.

Oooh, yes. Mini-Scully. Mulder clapped him on the shoulder and gave him a friendly shake. “You did a great job, Matt. You were a real survivalist. I wouldn’t have changed anything if I was in your place.”

Matt beamed at the praise.

“Why don’t you go tell your friends that we’ll head back to the campsite soon and pack everything up. Tell them they can sleep on the way back.”

“Okay,” Matt said, and turned to walk away. Before he got too far, he added, “Thanks, Uncle Mulder.”

Mulder smiled at the boy, and watched him go to his friends.

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J. EDGAR HOOVER BUILDING

WASHINGTON, DC

SUNDAY, SEPTEMBER 26th, 2010

1130

“I have the official COD!” Scully proclaimed as she entered the office. Mulder quickly picked his feet up off the desk and planted them on the floor as he leaned forward in his chair and listened. “Officer Leo Jackson and his girlfriend Renee McArthur both died of fright.”

Mulder didn’t say anything for a moment. “Really?”

“Really. Both of them died of massive cardiac trauma. There’s no telling what was going on in their heads that was bad enough to scare them to death, but that’s not even interesting compared to everything else.”

“Everything else?” Mulder asked as he stood and walked around the desk to look at the contents of the folder she was carrying.

She hadn’t seen him this happy since before the summer. He was practically bouncing on his heels. This little camping trip had done more for his emotional recovery, she thought, than anything else. “We ran the chips you recovered under the microscope. They don’t match anything we’ve got in our records. That includes the X-files, Mulder. This computer technology design…it’s not just ‘advanced’. It’s inconceivably advanced. You remember when we stuck my chip under the microscope.”

Mulder nodded excitedly. “The tech said it was decades ahead of our technology.”

“With these little chips, try centuries.” She watched as his eyes lit up. “And that’s not even all. Renee McArthur’s medical records show that she was diabetic. When we examined Joel, we found—”

“That puncture wound on his arm, yeah,” Mulder said, anticipating the next finding.

“Well, we found the same puncture wound on Renee McArthur’s arm.”

“You know what this means, Scully,” Mulder declared excitedly, and practically ran around the desk to the file cabinet. He pulled out three files, and spun his laptop on his desk for her to see. “You see this?” he pointed to the screen. “This is what’s called a ‘cigar-shaped’ UFO. It’s the closest thing I can find in any database that tracks UFO encounters, that even remotely matches what we saw. The last encounter with a glowing cigar-shaped UFO was in Ventura, California, in January 2008. It was red, and it was definitely four or five times the size of our UFO. The last encounter with telepathic aliens or aliens with healing abilities was in September 2009 in Colorado, but there are no witnesses. These,” he threw down folder after folder, “are all case files that fall short of the amount of evidence, put together, that we gathered on this one case.”

“It’s a big accomplishment,” Scully agreed.

“It’s bigger than a big accomplishment,” he said. “This is…this is legitimate evidence of an entirely new species of alien, one that likely hasn’t been to Earth before, or haven’t revealed themselves to humans in the past. Every single encounter with a cigar-shaped UFO is substantially different than ours, and only one includes telepathic aliens, and its evidence is greatly lacking. You said it yourself—that chip is centuries ahead of our technology.”

“And it’s made of materials that are entirely unknown to the computer engineering industry,” Scully added, fully aware that she was feeding into Mulder’s near-orgasmic state.

“This is spectacular!” He exclaimed, and she grinned at his excitement. “Now I’ve got a theory, Scully,” he said, moving to stand behind his desk. “We’ve got four witnesses who said they heard the same message, which included a female voice saying, ‘We mean you no harm, go in peace.’ Both Matt and I can vouch for the fact that I definitely had a gunshot wound before, and don’t have one now. My clothes even healed. And ballistics showed that the gunshot wound to Officer Jackson’s torso was almost definitely self-inflicted, because the .380 slug matches his barrel. But, the deformation of the bullet was so extensive that it’s likely it bounced off of the craft, like mine did, and he caught the ricochet.”

“Okay,” Scully said, following him so far.

“So imagine this. Leo and Renee are out hiking, having a great time. Suddenly, this glowing ship appears out of nowhere and Renee walks right into it. Scared out of his mind, Leo fires on the ship when it takes off. The ship releases Renee after a moment, but they’re both scared by the entire incident to the point where they go into cardiac arrest and die. The aliens take off, not knowing what else to do. Their second encounter with humans was extremely similar, except they tried communications when they saw that I did the same thing Leo did. And they healed my wound. Scully, I think that encounter they had with Leo and Renee was their first encounter with humans.”

“Assuming you’re right, if they’re so advanced, Mulder, why wouldn’t they attempt communication first?” Scully asked, humoring his ‘alien’ explanation at least for now.

“Because it’s not their culture,” he explained easily. “So they’re collecting diabetics’ blood samples. Why would they do that? Why would they go out of their way to expose themselves to us and then leave behind witnesses who can ‘out’ their plan to the rest of the world?”

Scully shook her head, and waited for him to continue.

“Because they know we have no evidence but each other’s word, and they know they need those blood samples. I think, Scully, that these aliens are on our side.”

“Wait, how’d you get there?” Scully asked, the skeptical eyebrow ascending to its usual position.

“What other reason would they have for their behavior? They healed me, their only communication was a peaceful greeting, they let us go, they let us keep our memories—”

“They were tracking Leo and Renee. Why would they tag them and not Joel and the rest of you?”

Mulder shook his head. “I’m not sure yet. But…what I am sure of, is that these aliens are doing research on the human race for our benefit. They’re benevolent, Scully. You know what I think?”

“I’m starting to have trouble predicting,” Scully said with a wry smile.

Mulder ignored her. “I think we just found ourselves an ally against colonization.”

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Scratch

Cook County Hospital

Chicago, Illinois

December 31, 2010

5:45 pm

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Scully was staring at the slightly bedraggled ‘Happy New Year’ garland strung over the Emergency Department’s intake desk, awaiting their turn in line. It was New Year’s Eve and as with many previous holidays, they were seeking medical attention for her partner.

Mulder, for his part, winced as he noticed the blood dripping on the highly polished floor of the Emergency Department’s check in area. “Uh, Scully. I think I need another tissue,” he whispered. When she looked at him with one raised eyebrow, he nodded to the floor and the interesting Jackson Pollack his red blood cells were creating.

“Oh, for crying out loud, Mulder, I told you to keep pressure on it,” Scully chided as she dug through her purse and found a slightly used Kleenex to wipe up the blood drips. “Raise you hand. The blood will drip down your sleeve.”

“And maybe someone will pay attention,” he added, dutifully raising his right hand with his left hand holding his forearm in a death grip so that he appeared to be answering some pertinent question in fifth grade — or requesting the hall pass to go to the restroom. “What’s another good shirt, anyway,” he sighed.

“It’s destroyed already, Mulder. The suit jacket, too,” Scully replied, even though she was sure he had been muttering to himself.

“No, not the jacket,” he objected. “Mrs. Wang can re-weave it. She did wonders on my navy blue jacket a couple of months ago.”

“That was a snag, not a bullet hole,” Scully reminded him as they managed to step one person closer to the window. “Geez, this is worse than the Craddock Marine on 8th Street at lunch hour,” she complained. When he simply shrugged she glared at him. “If you’d just allowed me to call for an ambulance, we’d be in the treatment room already.”

“It’s a scratch, Scully. It doesn’t even qualify as a flesh wound! I still don’t know why you wouldn’t just run past a Walgreens, get some gauze and tape and patch it yourself.”

“Because the Bureau doesn’t see fit to cover me for malpractice when you allow the wound to get infected,” she said sweetly but her eyes were pure malice.

“I would never sue you, Scully. I’ve seen you on the witness stand,” Mulder responded dryly. Amazingly, they moved up two more spots and were next in line.

Just as the nice intake nurse finished with the hacking cough in front of them, a matronly woman in a teal sweater and ‘mom’ jeans pushed her way past Scully to the window. “My husband — he was just taken in by ambulance. How do I get back there?” she demanded.

Scully raised her other eyebrow at Mulder who sighed again without further comment.

“Ma’am, if you’d give me your husband’s last name,” the nurse asked patiently.

“North. James North. I followed them, he’s having severe chest pains. I have to get back there, he’s probably having a heart attack right now,” the woman insisted frantically.

“Just a moment, let me check,” the nurse said evenly and left through a door in the back of her cubicle.

Mulder looked over at Scully who was studying the floor, probably looking for any telltale marks from his blood.

About three minutes had elapsed when the same intake nurse stuck her head through the double doors next to the registration cubicle. “Mrs. North — you can come this way.” The woman spun on her heels and in her haste, bumped into Mulder’s upraised arm. He let out a gasp but Mrs. North didn’t notice as she scurried through the doors.

“Mulder, are you all right?” Scully asked as she steadied him, being careful not to jostle his arm. It was a rhetorical question, her partner was white as a sheet and looked like he might hit the floor any minute.

“I’m fine,” he spat out through gritted teeth. “Can’t we just go? This place is a zoo.”

“No, you’re not ‘fine’. It’s still bleeding. You need stitches and I don’t like my patients moving around on me when I’m sewing them up,” Scully said with a sad shake of her head. Her words were flippant, but her expression was one of growing concern. “By now I think you might be a tad low on fluids.”

“Tell them to top me off with 10W40 — I’m high mileage,” he quipped but immediately bit down hard on his bottom lip.

Finally, the intake nurse was back at the window and miraculously, they were actually at the front of the line.

“Name and nature of your problem?” she asked tiredly.

“Special Agent Fox Mulder, and he has a gunshot wound to his –” Scully didn’t even have a chance to finish her sentence before the nurse’s eyes grew to the size of saucers and she was picking up the phone to alert the head nurse and simultaneously yelling over her shoulder for a gurney.

“Why didn’t you tell someone earlier?” she chided. “How long have you been waiting?”

“It’s just a scratch,” Mulder continued to insist, but the ashen color of his cheeks was making a different statement.

“Really, I think a wheelchair would suffice,” Scully said patiently. “He doesn’t need a gurney.”

The nurse had disappeared, only to reappear through the double doors pushing a wheelchair. “Good, because it appears we are fresh out of gurneys. If you don’t mind Officer Mulder,” she nodded, indicating he should be seated.

“Agent, not . . . never mind.” Mulder quietly accepted his fate and sat down in the chair. Once off his feet, he did feel a little better — but he wasn’t going to let Scully in on that little secret.

The nurse pushed the wheelchair and Scully trailed behind him through the double doors. On the other side, it was complete and utter chaos. From what Mulder could see every examination room was filled and there were people clogging the hall. The nurse looked around and started to push the chair over toward a room only to be beaten there by a crowd surrounding a gurney, doing life saving procedures on the fly on a hefty man in shorts and ratty tennis shoes.

“OK, um, this looks like . . . ” the nurse stood still for a moment, considering her options. “Yeah. Well, sorry about this Officer Mulder, but I think this is the best we can do for the moment.” She shoved the wheelchair over into an alcove in the hallway and set the brakes. “Sorry, Mrs. Mulder, but you’ll have to stand until I can find you a chair.”

“I’m not his — ” Scully gave up trying to explain their marital status because the nurse had already run off, presumably in search of the elusive visitors chair for the hallway.

Mulder reached over and tapped on her hand, bringing her attention down to his level. “Um, Scully. It’s really starting to hurt,” he admitted in a near whisper.

“Oh, Mulder,” she sighed. Looking around, she spied a counter with labeled drawers. Checking the labels quickly, she found a pair of scissors and some gauze and tape. She gave him a stern look. “Mrs. Wang can’t work miracles, Mulder. The jacket is toast.”

He sighed dejectedly. “Oh, all right,” he agreed with a huff and held out his arm. Deftly, she made short work of the sleeve of the jacket and then the sleeve of the white dress shirt.

Using the gauze to wipe away most of the blood, she bit her lip without realizing she was doing a perfect imitation of her partner. “Mulder, this is deeper than a scratch. It needs stitches, at least 7 or 8 from what I can see. See, it went diagonally — ” It was only her lightning fast reflexes that caught her partner before he slid to the floor, passed out cold.

“Oh my God, did he just pass out?” asked a new nurse. She stooped down and helped Scully get the unconscious agent back into the chair. “He really needs to be on a gurney,” the young woman said.

“Yes. If there was one to spare, I would definitely concur,” Scully said, blowing a wisp of hair out of her eyes.

“Hang on a sec. Don’t go anywhere,” the young nurse instructed.

“We won’t, I promise,” Scully replied, but the sarcasm was lost as the woman hurried off. Surprisingly, she was back in just a few minutes pushing a gurney, followed by an orderly big enough to be a nose tackle for the Washington Redskins.

“Jim here is going to give us a hand getting your husband on the gurney.” This time Scully didn’t even try to correct the misconception. In record time, Mulder was hoisted on the gurney and the nurse proceeded to take his vitals. “His pressure is pretty low. When did this happen?” she asked as she made notes on Mulder’s chart.

“About two hours ago,” Scully answered after checking her watch.

“Gunshot wound?” the woman asked, reading the chart.

“We’re FBI agents. We were a part of a team apprehending a suspect and things — got a little out of hand. I didn’t think it was that serious until I got a good look at it just now. Unfortunately, Mulder looked at it, too. He’s usually OK around blood, unless it’s his own.”

“He’s an officer? You should have said something,” the young woman chided.

Scully sighed. “We did, a few times now. Look, I understand how busy you are, but he really only needs stitches and some fluids. I’m a medical doctor.” She dug in her purse to find the small laminated card that identified her as a member of the medical community of the District of Columbia, in good standing. “If you would just get me a suture kit and some IV fluids — ”

The other woman regarded Scully’s offered card and frowned. “I’m pretty sure you have to have privileges at this hospital in order to treat anyone. Let me go ask.”

And before Scully could utter another word, the young nurse was gone into the chaos surrounding them.

By this time, Mulder was starting to come around. “What happened?” he rasped.

“You saw your wound and fainted,” she snapped. He bit his lip and she was immediately contrite. “I’m sorry, Mulder. This place is a zoo. But you do need stitches. And I think you could use some fluids — your blood pressure is pretty low.”

“Scully, if we were in some post apocalyptic world with no rules, what would you do in this situation?”

She raised her eyebrow and glared at him. “Mulder, I’m not going to ‘jack’ a suture kit and a unit of ringers solution. Just get that thought out of your mind right now.”

“Well, then we wait,” he replied. He moved his shoulder to try and find a more comfortable position and yelped when his arm caught on the side rail. When Scully looked down, he was bleeding again.

“Oh, for the love of — ” She shook her head while grabbing a corner of the sheet covering the gurney. “Mulder, apply pressure to this.” She turned and started off.

“Uh, Scully, where are you going?” he asked fearfully.

“To jack a suture kit and some IV fluid,” she told him with conviction born of exasperation.

She hoped she would find the necessary supplies in the same cabinet she had found the scissors and gauze, but that fate was not smiling on her. She wandered down the hall, looking in exam room after exam room, hoping to find one that didn’t either wasn’t in use, or perhaps the patient was in Xray. Finally, she was able to find such a room, only to discover the same woman from the lobby sitting in a chair, staring at the empty spot where a gurney had previously been.

“Oh, I’m sorry, I didn’t think this room — ”

The woman was shaking her head slowly. “I told him not to try and play basketball with the kids in the driveway. But he said ‘it’s Christmas and it’s nice out, how often does that happen?’ Then, before I know it, Jimmy comes running in yelling the Grandpa’s chest is hurting. I knew it, I knew it, I knew it,” she said, dabbing her eyes with a very wadded piece of tissue.

“Um, I hate to disturb you, uh, Mrs. North, but I’m looking for some supplies — ” Scully explained quietly as she went to the cabinets on the back wall of the exam room and started her search.

“He still thinks he’s a kid! I tell him, all the time, David — you’re 62 years old! You aren’t a spring chicken! Does he listen? Of course not. Might as well talk to the wind . . . ”

“I’m sure the staff is doing everything in their power, Mrs. North. Your husband is in good hands,” Scully said just as she opened a bottom cabinet and found her prize. “Oh, thank God,” she muttered, grabbing the kit. Now, if she could just find the where they hid the Ringers —

“Can I help you?” came a stern voice from behind her.

Scully straightened slowly, tucking the kit inside her suit jacket. “Um, yes. Mrs. North needs some tissue. I was just looking for a — ”

The nurse, wearing a steely expression, held up a box of tissue, sitting out in plain sight. “You mean these?”

“Uh, I thought maybe you had some of the ones with lotion,” Scully covered quickly. “Well, good luck Mrs. North. I hope you have some good news soon,” she said in a rush and headed back out into the chaos of the main area.

It was easy to get turned around in the large emergency department, but Scully was certain she knew the way back to the alcove where Mulder was waiting on a gurney. Until she arrived and found a portable X-ray machine where his gurney should have been. Shaking her head at her own foolishness, she retraced her steps and started off in the other direction. In the subsequent alcoves she discovered, she found assorted wheelchairs, a woman on a gurney who was sound asleep and a cardiac crash cart, but no Mulder.

Swallowing down her fear, she approached one of the harried nurses. “Excuse me, but can you tell me where I can find Fox Mulder. He was brought in with a gunshot wound — ”

“Oh, I remember! Officer Mulder, yes, just a minute,” she said, turning to step away but this time Scully tailed her until the young woman stopped at a computer terminal. “OR 7,” she said with a tired smile.

Scully sputtered and shook her head. “I don’t understand. He’s in surgery?”

“Looks like,” the nurse said with a smile. “Are you another officer?”

It was a bald-faced lie, and Scully always had trouble with those, but it was a time for drastic action. Remembering how quickly they fell all over themselves when Mrs. North had appeared at the ER intake desk, Scully squared her shoulders and stared straight into the eyes of the young woman. “No. I’m his wife,” she said, hoping her voice didn’t crack.

“Oh my goodness. Well, let’s get you up to the surgical waiting room right now!” The nurse looked around her and waved to a passing orderly. “James, would you please show Mrs. Mulder up to the surgical waiting rooms. Tell the desk nurse her husband is in OR7 and the surgeon should speak with her as soon as possible.”

“Sure thing, Nancy. Mrs. Mulder was it? If you’ll just follow me.”

Surgical Waiting Room

8:45 pm

Scully had thumbed through all 17 back issues of Sports Illustrated and had just started in on Architectural Digest when the nurse at the desk called her name, or at least her name according to Cook County Hospital. “Mrs. Mulder?” the nurse called above the hubbub of voices of other distraught family members.

Scully elbowed her way to the desk and gave the nurse a strained smile. “Is my . . . husband out of surgery?” she asked.

“The surgeon would like a word with you. Just go through this door and to your left, fifth door on the right,” the nurse said primly.

Scully followed the directions, finding what she hoped was the right office and let herself in. It was a sterile room with two chairs, a computer monitor on a desk and the standard box of tissues. She sat in the chair closest to the door and waited.

“I’m Dr. Ahad, I performed surgery on your husband,” said the tall young man with olive complexion and big brown eyes. He didn’t really look at Scully, only at the folder in his hands. “It was a tricky surgery, but I think we caught it in time. If you’ll take a look at the images I was able to pull from the scope — ”

“Scope?” Scully repeated, somewhat confused. “You had to use a scope?”

Dr. Ahad glanced over at her and nodded patiently. “Wouldn’t perform surgery without it.” He pulled a keyboard from under the desk and typed hurriedly, bringing up an image on the monitor. Grabbing a pen from his lab coat pocket, he pointed at the image. “As you can see, this protrusion — that’s was the source of the problems — ”

“What?!” Scully interrupted while staring in shock at the screen. “What I see there is an aortic dissection! That was not what Mulder had at all. It was a flesh wound! A little deep, but tissue, not even an artery. What the hell have you done?”

“Flesh wound? Madam, your husband presented at the ER with severe back pains and shortness of breath. His blood pressure was quite high, and three of the four tests we performed this morning — ”

“Hold it right there,” Scully said with a relieved sigh. “We weren’t HERE this morning. We were at the police station. My — husband — was shot during the apprehension of a suspect. He did not have back pain nor shortness of breath — at least not the last time I saw him, which,” she glanced at her watch, “was two and a half hours ago.”

“Then you aren’t Mrs. Miller?” Dr. Ahad asked, chewing on the edge of his lip.

“No. I’m . . . Dr. Dana Scully — MD. My, uh, husband is Fox Mulder — Special Agent Fox Mulder who ‘presented’ at the ER this afternoon with a gunshot wound to the upper arm. He needed stitches and fluids.”

“Then what are you doing here?” Ahad asked bluntly.

“I have absolutely no idea,” Scully replied.

Dr. Ahad looked nonplussed for a moment. “Wait right here, um, Dr. Scully was it? I’ll be right back.”

“Sure, fine, whatever,” Scully sneered as she leaned back against the wall. She let her head thump a few times just because it helped relieve the gnawing pain at the base of her skull that wrapped around her forehead, crushing all rational thought processes.

Much to her surprise, a mere ten minutes later, Dr. Ahad had returned. “I found him. If you follow me, I’ll show you were he is.”

Surgical floor, 9 West

9:35 pm

Scully pushed the door open and took in the sight before her. Mulder was lying on the bed, head elevated, arm in a sling, flipping through the meager channel selection on the overhead television.

“Oh, hey, Scully. You get lost somewhere?” he asked brightly when he saw her in the doorway.

“Mulder, how in the world did you get yourself admitted?” she asked, crossing her arms.

“Don’t ask me. They haven’t told me anything since somebody wheeled me in an OR and stitched me up. I must have fallen asleep because next thing I know, I’m here, there’s a dinner tray at my bedside and I have this,” he held up his good arm to show her the IV tubing. “I’d leave, but I think they took my clothes hostage.”

She shook her head and walked to the end of the bed, picking up the chart resting in the basket. She read through the pages and nodded. “You’re here for observation because you passed out at the sight of your wound,” she told him, dropping the chart back in the basket. Spying the visitors’ chair, she dragged it over closer to the bed and sat down tiredly. Feeling something digging into her side, she pulled out the suture kit and tossed on the bed near Mulder’s feet.

“Scully! You sly dog. You _did_ jack a suture kit! It must be love,” he grinned at her.

“Lot of good it did me. When I got back there, you were gone,” she said, stifling a yawn only to have another overcome her almost immediately.

“You look beat,” he said affectionately.

“I am. And I’m starved.”

He smiled at her and pushed the nurse call button. In a moment, the intercom in the ceiling came to life. “Yes, Agent Mulder? What can we do for you?”

“Patty? Did you tell me you keep sandwiches in the fridge at the desk?”

“Sure do. What can we get you?” came the answer.

“Got a turkey on whole wheat, with a packet of that Dijon mustard?”

“Let me look,” which was followed shortly by “no turkey, but I have a ham on rye.”

Mulder shot Scully a look, which she promptly returned with a tired nod. “That’ll work. Could you bring that in with a can of diet soda — something non-caffeinated, if you have it.”

“One ham on rye and a diet lemon-lime Shasta, coming up.”

“Mulder, those sandwiches are for the patients,” Scully objected, but her stomach was growling so loud she felt like she had to shout to be heard.

“Come up here,” Mulder ordered, after scooting over to make room on the bed.

“No, Mulder. The nurse will be in — ”

“Scully, she won’t mind. C’mon. You’re going to fall asleep in that chair, fall over, crack your head open on the hard floor and then you’ll be the one in the bed. Now get the cute little ass up here.”

She had just settled in when there was a tap on the door and the nurse came in with the promised sandwich and 8 ounce can of soda, balanced with a cup of ice. “As ordered,” she said, smiling. “Oh, hello. You must be Mrs. Mulder.”

Mulder started to correct her, but Scully jabbed her elbow into his rib. “That’s me. Thanks for taking care of my big lug here,” she smiled back.

“Oh, he’s been pretty good so far. Hey, since this is a private room, let me see if I can’t find one of the nice chairs — the ones that fold out into a bed. I think you’d both be more comfortable.”

“That would be great, Patty. Thanks,” Mulder said glancing suspiciously at his partner. The nurse smiled and left, closing the door partway behind her.

“What was that all about?” he demanded.

“What?” she asked around bites of the sandwich. “The Mrs. Mulder thing?”

“Yeah. You usually bite their heads off when they mistake you for my wife.”

Scully finished off the sandwich and chugged most of the soda before daintily wiping her mouth on the accompanying napkin. “Sometimes, you just have to play the system, Mulder,” she told him with a grin that soon turned into a long and wide yawn.

“I don’t think we’re going to be ringing in 2011 tonight, Scully,” he told her, brushing a lock of her hair behind her ear.

“That’s OK. We’ll catch it next year,” she said, snuggling into his side.

“2012,” he said quietly but when he looked down at his partner, he found her sound asleep. “Happy New Year, Scully. Love you.”

the end

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Twilight of the Howling Dead

Twilight of the Howling Dead

By Martin Ross

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Darryl glared across the dark, packed club, sipping his Shirley Temple. Though it was New Year’s Eve, he preferred to stay sharp. Actually, recent experience had driven home the wisdom of staying sharp.

Not that he couldn’t have used a drink – the percussive persistence of the DJ’s amped-up techno mix was giving him a world-class migraine. Darryl was hungry, too: He’d grabbed a Sabrett dog over near Rockefeller Center a few hours ago, but it did little to slake his real appetite.

And now, this. Of all the bars in all the world, he had to come into this one, he groaned, glaring anew at the athletically built man scanning the dance floor. While Darryl fancied himself a classic romanticist, he had no idea he was plagiarizing Casablanca. He was into contemporary romance – the kind where guys like him finally had a shot.

“You look familiar,” a blonde in a microscopic black dress and gold lame’ fishnet hose called, sidling up to Darryl.

“What?” Darryl shouted.

“I said, you look real familiar.” Heavy Queens accent; not quite Darryl’s speed. “You somebody?”

“Hope so,” he smiled.

“What?”

“I hope I’m somebody,” Darryl repeated with a hint of exasperation.

The blonde frowned momentarily. “No. I mean, are you like a celeb or something? I mean, I just barely got past the door – think it was because I got great tits.”

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The romance of the moment was waning rapidly.

“I got it,” the blonde yelled. “You’re that dude, the one in the movie.”

Darryl sighed.

“Yeah. Blood Dusk. Edgar.”

Darryl growled as the DJ started scratching some Gaga. The blonde moved closer, and the tequila fumes made him reel back a step.

“’Cept he’s more buff than you, an’ your nose is like, bigger. An’ of course, he’s dating that bitch with the show on E. He wouldn’t be hangin’ in some Times Square shithole tonight.”

He contemplated homicide, but then he’d probably be stuck with her forever.

“And, and,” the blonde suddenly giggled. “An’, a’course, you ain’t no vampire.”

Darryl smiled with a glint that, had his new friend been sober, would have chilled her blood. “That skinny puss was no vampire. That movie sucked – he looked like a freaking drag queen with all that eyeliner, and the way he kept whispering shit, I couldn’t even catch half what he was saying. Vampire, my ass.”

“Cause you know,” the blonde jeered.

Darryl drew up, and his lips peeled back. “Yeah, babe. Actually, I do know.”

The bimbo blinked as she stared into his mouth. “The fangs. They oughtta be sharper.”

“They’re not fangs,” Darryl snapped, stalking off to the bar for a refill of sugar water.

**

Jason grinned wolfishly as he watched that geek Darryl try to rattle or seduce the drunk blonde — he wasn’t sure which it was. The music in this rathole sucked, but the comedy was worth the inflated New Year’s Eve minimum.

Surprising the pale little sucker had gotten past the rope. Jason’s date hadn’t, and he’d wished her a happy New Year as she sputtered at the hulk on the door.

Still, it pissed him slightly that Darryl had shown his pallid face here. This was his haunt — no, he thought gleefully, his LAIR. Yeah, his DEN. Jason scanned the jerking undulating bodies, waving glowsticks and rubbing groins — meat on the bone, prey prancing in the…

Shit. Jason had never been out of the city, nor did he watch anything but CNBC, E!, or VH1, so he had no idea where prey hung out. But they were his, for the taking, if he chose. Fortunately for these sheep, it was a half-moon hanging over Times Square tonight — he’d Googled it up last night, and had been prepared to order a pie from Ray’s (one of about 45 Ray’s in the borough) and watch the Spice Channel until the urge passed (well, one particularly urge, anyway).

Jason and Darryl had been buds ever since joining the firm, but their bromance had festered soon after their encounter with the Triplets. It was the eternal battle, one that had waged on for centuries, maybe millennia. Jason had done his research, mainly at the Loew’s Midtown Cineplex, and he knew how it all would end. For now, of course, the battle consisted largely of snarky comments in staff meetings and petty office pranks. Both their work had fallen off, of course — Jason had muffed a key order last week while contemplating how to stuff elephant garlic into Darryl’s day planner, and Darryl’s call volume had dropped precipitously as he plotted revenge and watched his own narrow back.

Meanwhile, Vincent had merely sunken into work-obsessed depression, though in his current state, it was difficult to determine how much of his lifeless demeanor was due to emotional funk. He’d kept himself up well — a ton of product gave Vincent’s lusterless brown hair the appearance of life, and Jason suspected he’d invested most of his disposable cash over the last five months in Clinique. And, of course, losing the desire — indeed, the need — to feed kept Vincent at the phones. The Change had actually helped Vincent’s sales volume, and the talk was he was in for a promotion, as if that mattered any more to the poor schlub. Jason thought more and more in the upper case these days: It helped him put The Change and his Condition into perspective, his Fate into The Greater Scheme of Things.

Jason’d spotted Vince at the bar earlier, sipping morosely at what appeared to be a mojito. Once again, keeping up appearances — booze had absolutely no effect on someone in Vincent’s condition, or so Vince said. A night of New Year’s revelry, even less so. Well, guess the pathetic asshole just needed to get out for the night, Jason shrugged.

And that’s when he spotted her. The cute, brown-eyed blonde edging and bumping her way across the crowded dance floor. Squeezed into a little red dress and wobbling on red stilettos — nice legs, passable bod. But that wasn’t what drew Jason’s attention. She gave off literally waves of fresh meaty goodness, like a lamb wondering too close to the hole in the fence where the hungry things waited. The blonde jumped as she accidently heel-spiked some clean-headed gangsta type, and apologized profusely as the maimed mambo king stood mutely unable to respond. She wasn’t a hot mess; she was just a mess.

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Finally, the sheep in the tiny red wrapper made it to Jason’s side. His salivary glands were already working up to a froth, and he contemplated his approach. But that’s when she took a hard right and wobbled straight to the bar.

And, to Jason’s utter astonishment, Vincent.

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Special Agent Leyla Harrison had never roamed so far outside her comfort zone, and after impaling that poor man on the dance floor, she felt even more frazzled and disoriented. All that thumping, whumping techno music wasn’t helping, and it was as cold as a meat locker in this giant gymnasium of a club.

But getting outside the comfort zone was what tonight was all about. The guys at the Bureau were great and everything, but they could be a little stiff, and most of them had no imagination or adventurous spirit. And the one who had it all was unavailable — his relationship with his partner was no real secret, and, besides, the comptroller’s office had little interaction with the X Division. Leyla’s attempts to get into the field had met either with kindly bemusement or outright intolerance, and she was too straight-arrow to contrive some bogus inquiry about expenses or travel vouchers to get into Fox Mulder’s orbit.

So, three months ago, she’d logged onto eSynergy — America’s No. 4 online relationships site — in search of a kindred soul. Leyla knew full well the risks of dating — there was the Virgil Incanto case, and, of course, Edward Van Blundht. But she believed in her heart of hearts that not all men had to be serial-killing fat-suckers or shape-shifting seducers. There had to be a few good ones out there.

That conviction had led her to “No. 3215” — AKA Vincent, a successful young Wall Street dealer with a love for Asian cuisine and vintage horror films and three Burmese cats (proudly displayed in his online LifeGallery. Vincent had been impressed by Leyla’s slightly embellished career in law enforcement and, after mutual e-clearance, they’d agreed to meet in Manhattan on New Year’s Eve. Leyla had always wanted to meet Dick Clark, and she hoped maybe they could drift over to Times Square to watch the ball drop.

Leyla recognized the trim — nearly gaunt — shoulders and thinning brown hair as she approached the neon-trimmed bar. “Vincent?” she called over the throbbing percussion.

Her e-date jumped, sloshing rum and mint over the acrylic bartop. Leyla smiled and waited for the color to return to his pallid face, and when it didn’t, she settled onto the stool next to him.

“Leyla,” he finally grinned, his eyes brightening with deep hollows. He’d told her he often kept late hours attending to client accounts and following the global markets. He grasped her outstretched hand; the poor guy’s fingers were as cold as ice. They really needed to jack the thermostat in here. “Wow, you’re even prettier than in your profile.”

“Well, I scanned my Bureau ID for that photo, and they don’t really want you to smile too much,” Leyla blushed.

“Well, it’s a very nice picture even for an official ID,” Vincent smiled. His lips were pale and slightly blue — Leyla thought again about asking the manager about that thermostat — but there was something beguiling about his kindly, pallid features. “You want a drink?”

Leyla nodded cheerfully at the puddle on the bar. “That looks good — one of those.”

“Hey, two more mojitos,” Vincent called to a gothish barmaid. She regarded him briefly and began again to jerk her head in rhythm with the DJ’s mix. “They’re pretty busy tonight, New Year’s Eve and all. It may be a while.”

“It’s OK,” Leyla sang. “The night’s young. So you live around here?”

“Few blocks away — my folks had a rent-controlled efficiency they left me. Kind of a tomb, but it’s cheap and I just mainly crash there anyway.”

“Oh, I know what you mean,” Leyla empathized eagerly. “I burn a lot of midnight oil at the Bureau myself. I want to get out into the field, you know, out in the trenches, but they’ve got me chained to a desk. You, now — that must be exciting, working on Wall Street and all.”

“Well, it’s not all Michael Douglas-type stuff, though the pressure can be deadly. And every once in a while, something really interesting happens.” Vincent halted, taking a sip of his mojito dregs and wincing as he encountered a shred of macerated mint.

“See, that’s what I mean,” Leyla bubbled. “I want to find that little spark of adventure out there — the stuff the other agents see every day.”

“Drug cartels, terrorists, serial killers?”

“Well, yeah, of course that would be nice,” she murmured, wistfully. “But I mean real adventure. Take this agent I know — he deals with the most unbelievable cases. There was this time he helped track a giant flukeman in the sewer systems. It was actually some Russian who was mutated by Chernobyl. And of course, there was that golem right here in New York–“

Now, Leyla stopped self-consciously, waiting for Vincent’s vacant stare or frozen smile. Instead, worry was etched into his pallid features.

“Golem? That’s like a zombie, right?”

“Actually, a golem’s an animated anthropomorphic being created entirely from inanimate matter, like mud or clay,” Leyla corrected, tactfully. “A zombies usually a reanimated corpse controlled by somebody else through magic or a combination of psychotropic and metabolic drugs. I don’t really go with the whole George Romero walking dead, radiation theory. Sorry, listen to me babble.”

“No,” Vincent smiled tenderly. “I like to hear you talk. But I thought the zombie thing was like a Caribbean voodoo thing, witch doctors and dead chickens and that shit. Sorry.”

“Oh, that’s OK. I hear worse than that, especially when I ask for a field assignment. Actually, zombie reports began in West Africa, where a lot of Caribbean customs came from. But there’s a whole global cult thing now — there are as many books about zombies as there are about vampires.”

“And werewolves,” Vincent mumbled.

“And werewolves. And there are these organized ‘zombie walks’ — like performance art or social protests. The zombie thing’s huge. It’s the next Blood Dusk saga.”

Vincent pulled the sleeve of his khaki shirt up and laid his hand on the bar. Leyla’s eyes widened, then softened as she smiled shyly and placed her own hand in his.

“Ah, no,” Vincent said. “Higher. Hold my wrist.”

Leyla had been out of the dating scene for awhile, and she cursed her ignorance. She wrapped her freshly manicured fingers around his somewhat bony wrist. It might have been a lamb shank left on the counter to thaw. Leyla’s smile turned upside down, and her grip tightened. Her fingers then migrated along his forearm.

“I hope this doesn’t seem forward or critical or anything,” she finally said. “But it appears you don’t have a pulse.”

Vince looked into her eyes, meaningfully. Leyla recalled their most immediate topic of discussion.

“Oh,” she breathed.

**

“Vince, dude!”

Leyla jumped, still attempting to process the new data her eSynergy date had uploaded. The man who clapped Vincent on the shoulder was thin and somewhat short, with hair gelled and sculpted into a hairstyle known to every adolescent girl who’d ever dreamed of being passionately desanguinated. He was flashily outfitted for the occasion, but he had an unfortunate incisor overbite that made him look like a junior auxiliary vampire.

“Darryl Gruebner,” the newcomer beamed with a spark of malice in his eye, squeezing Leyla’s hand. “You the cyberchick? One of the girls at the firm told me Vince was looking for love on the laptop, and I’m glad to see she meant online dating.”

Leyla sensed Darryl had just dissed his buddy, but she was still reconciling Vincent’s utter lack of vital signs. Darryl grinned.

“Wow, she doesn’t handle her booze well, does she? Except she doesn’t even have any booze. Hey, Babe?”

The gothtender yawned.

“What you having?” Darryl asked, laying a clammy hand on Leyla’s bare shoulder.

“Tequila, straight,” she answered numbly. “A double.”

“Whoa,” Darryl brayed. “You hit the jackpot, Bro.”

“Darryl,” Vincent said through his teeth. “We’re kind of in the middle of something, you know.”

The Dark Purveyor of Alcohol sloshed a glass of tequila before Leyla.

“Well, now you are,” Darryl leered.

“What, we having a staff meeting here?”

Leyla turned to see a blocky blonde with Wolverine sideburns and muscles bulging through his form-fitting shirt. The unibrow matched his ‘do.

“Hi, Jason,” Vincent greeted glumly.

“Jason Wexler,” the brute announced to Leyla. “Me and Count Darryl here work with Vince at the brokerage. Good to see you got out for the night, Vince. Dude needs some sun or moon or whatever — looks like he lives in a crypt.”

Leyla caught a cryptically hostile look from Darryl.

“So what’s your gig, Linda?” Jason asked, crossing beefy forearms.

“Leyla. I’m an agent.”

“Movies?” Darryl asked hopefully. “TV?”

“FBI,” Vincent said pointedly, his theretofore hangdog expression hardening. Whatever he’d said or projected, his “friends” fell mute.

“Cool,” Jason finally ruled, staring at Vince. “Darryl, dude, let’s leave the young folks alone, capisce?”

Darryl nodded vigorously. “Later.”

“Sorry about that,” Vincent muttered as the mismatched pair huddled conspiratorially near the dance floor.

Leyla blinked. “So you’re a zombie?”

The young trader sighed and turned on his stool. “I wasn’t entirely upfront with you. Let me tell you a story, then I’ll tell you why I wanted you to come out tonight.”

**

It was one of those “reward” conferences (Vincent began), one of those freebies the senior partners toss you when they don’t want to cough up a bonus or they promise a presence at the latest industry snorefest, or both. Free five-star food and endless booze and schmoozing with the rich and famous in exchange for six hours of economic analysis and global projections.

This one was at the Trump — stuff about international currency rates and the European exchanges, stuff with virtually no relevance for Darryl or Jason or I. Just take a few notes, collect some Powerpoints, and blow off some steam, the bosses said.

The steam blew in that night at a reception sponsored by the London Stock Exchange, in the form of three Romanian financiers. Three female Romanian financiers. Three six-foot-nothing, ice-blonde Romanians of supermodel proportions. They were interested in mining emerging Eastern European venture capital and mounting a U.S.-based investment portfolio. Yeah, I know it doesn’t make total sense, but by the time they made their big entrance, we were already pretty buzzed, and when they descended on us for details on the workings of the U.S. exchanges, we didn’t ask any questions.

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At some point, we wound up in the Florescu sisters’ suite. At some point, I wound up wedged between Maria Florescu and the hotel bedspread, being ridden like a Six Flags roller coaster. At some point, we woke up in our respective sisters’ suites the next afternoon, being scolded by the Latino housekeeper. The Florescus had departed for their native Romania, and we celebrated an evening of debauchery without consequences or further followup, despite the missing gaps in memory.

Then, things got weird. It started when Darryl’s hangover wouldn’t go away. We’d suspected the triplets had slipped us some “E” or something, but three days after our encounter, Darryl was still wearing sunglasses in the office and flinching every time he walked past a window. He started coming in at night and working from his apartment, and his skin just started getting paler and paler.

And Jason started getting, well, hairier. He didn’t used to have that unibrow, and he’s had to shave several times a day in the office john just to keep his shadow down. And when we’d have lunch on the street or in the park, passing dogs would bark at him while ignoring me. We were still friends then, but when I’d suggest we go out for a drink after work, Jason would look at the sky before either suggesting a bar or making some lame excuse to dash home.

It took me longer to catch on — about three weeks after my liaison with Maria Florescu. I was at my gym down near the exchange when I noticed the heart monitor on my treadmill wasn’t working. The pedometer, all the other gauges were just fine, but I couldn’t get a cardio reading. The manager put me on another machine, but the result was the same.

At the same time, I had this interminable case of the chills — I couldn’t seem to get totally warm no matter how much I layered or cranked the thermostat. I figured I was coming down with something, so I took my temp. The mercury wouldn’t move. I threw away three thermometers before giving up.

But it didn’t fully hit me until the firm upgraded its security system. After all the fallout in the financial market, the bosses decided they need to protect our proprietary data more carefully, so they put in a biometric system. You know, where you put your finger in the groove and your body signature unlocks the door. Except I had no signature. I worked with the security guys for three days before the company gave up and put in a new key card system.

By that time, I’d taken — or tried to take — a full set of vitals on myself. I officially called time of death at 9:32 p.m. on a Wednesday night. It was like something out of a horror story, and that’s when the last piece came together.

I Googled the Florescus, and found out they’d been raised in central Romania, near the Carpathian Mountains. Specifically, Transylvania.

It hit me like a brick wall. Darryl’s aversion to sunlight. Jason’s abnormal hair growth and lunar fascination. My lack of, well, life. The Florescus weren’t looking to satisfy their sexual appetites — they’d been on the hunt. My guess is we were roofied, or maybe they did it with their powers or whatever. And in the process, they’d transformed us. Darryl’d caught a scorching case of vampirism, Jason had been turned into a werewolf, and, apparently, Maria had, if you’ll pardon the pun, sucked the life out of me.

**

“In a way, I was lucky,” Vincent concluded as Leyla’s jaw drooped. “Being anemic, pale, and lifeless allows you to fit right in in the city, especially on the near East Side. I had tried some acting in college, and I developed a knack for makeup. I couldn’t really date this way, you know, so I got more work done. I topped the quarter in volume.

“Darryl and Jason had a harder time of it. Jason couldn’t eat enough to satisfy his metabolism or hunger, and Darryl, well, he started telling me about these really weird urges he was getting. One day in the john, I saw these marks on his arm. At first, I thought he’d starting cutting, you know, out of depression. But then I realized he was just tapping the most socially acceptable vein he could find.”

Leyla placed a hand tentatively on Vincent’s lifeless arm. “You poor things. Oh, I don’t mean things. It took a lot of courage to tell me all this.”

Vincent sighed and looked away. “Not really, Leyla. In fact, I invited you here on false pretenses. I wasn’t looking for love. I was looking for help, and after I read some of your comments on a paranormal discussion forum, I knew you were probably the only person who could understand. And who could do something. Something official.

“See, I think it all finally got the best of Darryl and Jason, that they gave into their newfound impulses.

“Leyla, I think they killed somebody. Maybe somebodies.”

**

By coincidence, at that same moment, the Blonde in the Gold Lame Stockings was chatting about vampires and werewolves and zombies with The Dark Man. Well, not precisely by coincidence — her earlier conversation with the little quasi-fanged wannabe had tickled her little-used imagination, and the handsome man near the DJ stage was like some kind of shadowy presence at tonight’s festivities, garbed from head-to-toe in black and seemingly amused by the whole New Year’s Eve scene.

“Oh, yeah, I love all that shit,” she told The Dark Man, who seemed fascinated by the conversation rather than her quite commendable boobs. “I started reading Anne Rice when I was in junior high — that was during my goth phase, then the Blood Dusk books came out, and I’m hooked all over again. I’ve seen both Blood Dusk and Equinox four times now, and I’m watching Twitter to find out when New Morn is coming out. You know, I met that guy who plays Edgar. Well, I almost met him. They were doing a scene for some Gwyneth Paltrow thing he’s in down in The Village, and I was like 20 feet away from him. If the fucking goon movie security people had just stepped off, I’d have gotten his autograph. I don’t know why, but I just love all that vampire shit.”

The Dark Man smiled, mysteriously, she thought. “Well, the notion of eternal life appeals to all of us, but add a layer of dangerous, disease-free eroticism, and it’s not surprising women — especially young women — are attracted to vampire lore. The idea of a romantic figure shunned by society who offers the gift of immortality through sex? C’mon.”

The Dark Man was very smart — he’d probably been at least through community college. The blonde felt a little tingle of attraction. “My BFF, Cyndie, likes werewolves, says vampires suck. Werewolves? Would you believe? Yish.”

“Maybe your friend prefers the ideal of more primal romance, stripped of all civility and given free reign in feeding its appetites and urges.”

“She is a fucking wild mess,” she conceded. “The thing I can’t understand is this whole zombie shit. Zombie books, zombie games, zombie movies. Please don’t tell me that’s about fucking, too.”

The Dark Man shrugged. “Romero said he made the Living Dead movies to criticize social ills like government ineptitude, bioengineering, slavery, greed, exploitation. Personally, I think the current appeal of zombie lore is rooted in the desire of the powerless to take control, without bureaucratic or societal consequences. To utterly annihilate one’s enemies — what would be more cathartic than actually eating your boss or your ex?”

“Actually, my ex kinda liked–“ she grinned slyly, assessing an opening.

But her opening slammed shut as a piercing, animalistic sound cut through the bad techno-mix and the drunk chatter and the connection she’d begun to feel with The Dark Man. The howling stopped, and the room was momentarily silent. Then someone laughed nervously, the laughter spread through the crowd, and the bodies on the floor once again began to twitch and jerk.

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“That sounded like a fucking WOLF,” the blonde gasped.

**

“It started right after Rachel came to the firm,” Vincent related as Leyla worked on her tequila. “She was straight out of NYU — looked like a cross between Kate Hudson and Jennifer Aniston and had a business sense like a cross between Richard Branson and Michael Douglas in that Wall Street movie. The partners loved her — I suspect one more than the others — and every guy in the office became her coffee slave. Which was great, because I’m usually the guy who has to go on the Starbucks runs.

“ By this time, Rachel was not only out of my league but too organic to be interested in a relationship with an overachieving zombie. Now, Darryl and Jason, they were like totally blown over her, and that’s when it started, When they started embracing their true selves. Their new true selves. That’s when Darryl started cornering the marketing on styling product and Proactiv and Jason started hitting the gym twice a day and binging on whey powder and energy drinks. Darryl got darker, Jason got jockier, and Rachel loved watching them constantly whip ‘em out on the conference table for her. Metaphorically, that is.”

“Oh, I figured,” Leyla nodded. Her shock had given way to dejection and then to a low-grade professional tingle after Vincent raised the possibility of homicide. “So they were like rivals?”

“Just like in that movie Blood Dusk. You know, when Cara has to choose between Edgar the vampire and Gerard the werewolf? Except Rachel was no Cara — more like a wereshark. She played them against each other and played them individually. It was like she was sucking their brains dry. And their accounts. By the end of a month at the firm, she was No. 2 in volume. I was No. 1, and she hated that I was immune to her. Boy, if she’d have only known.” Vincent laughed morosely.

“The guys didn’t realize how Rachel’d played them until a week or so ago, when Darryl was having a drink with the boys at the Omni Plaza Midtown and saw one of the partners and Rachel getting off separate elevators at the same time. Darryl’s no Rhodes scholar, but he could tell they were trying to hard to ignore each other. It wasn’t so much that he and Jason had been cock-blocked by the boss — what must’ve hurt was realizing she’d been after their portfolios rather than their manhood.

“It was two days later she didn’t show up to work. Any of the rest of us, and we could go missing for a week. But Rachel? They practically called out the National Guard. One of the partners — the one who was doing Rachel — sent me to her apartment, but nobody answered. I checked her neighbors, and nobody remembered seeing her — or hearing her stereo, which she played too loud — the night before.

“Then we saw it on the news that night. The cops had found a body in Central Park, practically ripped to shreds. They later put out the body’d been completely dry of blood. Cops figured the woman had been the victim of some Satanic or serial ritual, then half-eaten by feral dogs. Feral dogs, in Central Park? What, runaway yorkies? All they knew was it wasn’t a robbery. Rachel’s purse was by the body, with her cash, cards, and ID.

“The cops were all over the office the next few days, but nobody had a clue but me. I was the only one who knew he had a vampire and a werewolf for coworkers. When they realized Rachel’d conned them both, they must have teamed up to get rid of her. You know what they say. Bros before hos.”

Leyla actually did not know what “they” said, and was about to request clarification when the howling began. She’d shaved her legs assiduously in preparation for her cyberdate, but the hairs at the base of her neck rose.

“Oh, Jesus,” Vincent whispered. The bodies on the dance floor turned as one, seeking the source of the inhuman cries. Then, the howling stopped abruptly, and a few laughs later, the partiers returned to their affairs and would-be affairs.

Vincent then sat bolt-upright, and Leyla followed his gaze to an entry to the right of the DJ. Two figures emerged from the darkened restroom corridor — one diminutive, one hulking. As the pair moved into the strobing lights, she gasped at the deep black shadow on the larger man’s face and the eerie red glint in the eyes of the smaller man. They were headed directly and swiftly toward the bar.

“I shouldn’t have brought you here,” Vincent breathed. “They know. C’mon, Agent, we gotta get outta here.”

**

The alleyway behind the club was illuminated alternately by a few backdoor fixtures and the glow of a few loft windows overhead. Vincent splashed through puddles toward the main street lights as Leyla trailed breathlessly on her precarious heels.

“Vince, dude!” The voice was deep, scolding, and definitely menacing. Leyla glanced back over her shoulder and spotted the two figures advancing from light pool to light pool.

“C’mon, Vince,” the other voice whined. “We can talk this out. Why’d you have to narc us out?”

“Leave her alone, Darryl!” Vincent screamed. “We won’t tell. I promise.”

“What the fuck you talking about, Bro?” the large man demanded. “Go ahead. Tell. You think she’ll believe you? Stay put, Dude; let’s talk.”

Leyla’s heart pounded. She glanced franticly around for help. Figures moved in a few windows — New Yorkers craning to hear what was brewing in the darkness below but straining to stay uninvolved. Leyla then scrambled for her purse and her largely decorative sidearm.

“OK!” Vincent shouted, surprising her. “Let’s talk this out. We’re here by the yellow dumpster. Leyla, relax. I got it.”

Agent Harrison spun to see her erstwhile date displaying her weapon. “I said, just relax, Leyla,” the zombie purred, strangely calm now.

“What’s going on?” Leyla slurred, her body suddenly heavy and immobile. One of his buddies — the vampire or the werewolf, she didn’t know which — sent a glass bottle skittering across the concrete as they closed in.

“I’ll make it quick, I promise,” Vincent murmured with a tinge of regret. In the spare light of the alley, she could see the color returning to his face. Too much color.

“You’re looking a lot better, Vincent,” a new voice called, cheerfully. A man emerged from the street side of the alley — a man clothed in black, from head to toe. The gun in his gloved hand was black, too. “Drop the weapon, Zombie Boy, or you’re a real dead man.”

“Agent Mulder,” Leyla croaked, beginning to feel the night chill creep back into her bare shoulders.

“See, Agent Harrison, bullets might not hurt a real zombie, if there is such a thing,” Fox Mulder grinned, advancing slowly. “But I bet a headshot might do a little damage to a witch. Right, Vince?”

Darryl and Jason had cleared the dumpster, and now they stood, transfixed, watching the drama unfold between their coworker and the two agents.

“Dudes,” Mulder called out. “Welcome to the party. Vincent was about to start your new year out with a couple of homicide charges. Yeah, that’s right. He probably had you believing you’d killed Rachel Krause, hadn’t he?”

Darryl looked at Jason. “That’s bogus, Vince,” the “werewolf” growled.

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“To say the least,” Mulder said. “Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, guys, but aside from your apparently immortal wit, you’re not gonna live forever or light up the sky with your name.” He paused, meeting blank stares. “C’mon, Fame. Don’t you kids ever watch anything older than Gossip Girl any more? Leyla, take your gun.”

Agent Harrison complied. “But I saw them, in the club. They were…different.”

“I’m sure it’s an illusion created by Vince, maybe with the help of some pharmaceuticals in your Cabo Wabo. That’s probably how he convinced these two whiz kids they were Count Chocula and Lon Chaney. You were the butt boy at the office, weren’t you, Vince? Always schlepping coffee for these two. Darryl’s reaction to daylight, Jason’s hairy temperament — those were part minor-league sorcery and part chemicals, right? Just like real voodoo.

“The lead on the case — detective I know named Doggett — was suspicious of Darryl and Jason. The two of you had no real alibis, thanks to Vincent making you paranormal outcasts. But Doggett couldn’t square you two daytraders with the savagery of Rachel’s murder, so he called me in. I took one look at you two rejects from a bad CW drama and figured something was rotten in Transylvania. Then I spot you, Vincent, and I have to say, you really overdid it with the undead act. Like you wanted to divert us from the disaffected, powerless zombie to the two predatory alpha dudes.

“So I looked at the firm’s records, and found out Jason and Darryl had been the big dogs in sales ‘til about six months ago, with Vince at a sad No. 3. Then, their figures started dropping as Vince became the rising star. Vince staged this whole vampire-werewolf thing to throw them off their game, and these two brainstems played along nicely.” Mulder turned to Vince. “But you didn’t count on Rachel the Wall Street Vampire. She was cutting in on your newly stolen action. So you decided to kill three birds — that is, kill Rachel and frame your buds for it. You lured her to the park and did the old Dracula Meets The Wolfman on her. My guess is, you put the hex on Darryl and Jason, and they’re missing a few strategic hours the night of the murder. Until now, they probably think they did it.”

“You fucking–” Jason snapped, moving forward.

“Down, boy,” Mulder chided. “Problem is, Vincent’s plot was a little too exotic for the NYPD, so he decided to take things to the next level. He arranged this meet-and-greet with Agent Harrison to plant the seeds of suspicion and put on that little howlfest in the club. You were going to be the next victim of the ”

“Wait — how’d he get Rachel to go to the park?” Leyla interjected. “She wouldn’t give him the time of day.”

“You kidding? Rachel had these two by their short hairs — sorry, Jason. What’s the challenge in that? Now, apathetic, disinterested Vince — that must’ve been too much for her monster ego to bear. He had all the power in the relationship. Which begs the question: You managed all this and you’re hustling stocks on the phone? Seems a little beneath your skill set, Vince.”

Vincent’s eyes flamed. “Yeah, you try to make a living with spells and potions in this economy.”

Darryl coughed. “Soooo, we didn’t do anything wrong?”

Mulder shrugged. “Depends on what state you’re in. You wonder how Vince here conjured up the lovely Florescu sisters? How many cats you got, Vincent?”

It took Leyla a second. “Oh,” she grimaced.

It took Darryl a second longer. Then he threw up on Jason’s Kenneth Coles.

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**

“No, she’s fine,” Mulder told Scully as he watched two of New York’s finest deposit the “zombie”-cum-sorcerer in the back of a black-and-white. “Sure, no prob. Oh, yeah, you bet I’ll find a way to make it up for me. Scully? Scully?”

He stared at the dead Droid for a moment, then grinned and slid it into his jacket. Mulder turned and located Agent Harrison at the curb outside the club, peering forlornly down Broadway as partiers stumbled and danced toward Times Square and staccato horns honked out the old year.

Leyla smiled sheepishly as he approached. “Bet you can’t guess what my New Year’s resolution is. I feel so stupid.”

“Aw, c’mon,” Mulder murmured. “Relationships are tough. You know what they say: All the good ones are either married, gay, or wizards. When Scully found out you were about to hit the town with my prime suspect, she insisted I sign on for chaperone duty. So, Agent Harrison, what do you say we hunt down Dick Clark? I heard he’s been sighted around here.

”**

“Hey, great show as always, Dick!” the producer shouted with a triumphant fist pump. “Have a great year!”

“Regards to the family, Steve!” Dick Clark returned with the famous smile that had rocked America and ushered Jan. 1 for decades. It’d been a particularly brisk night in Times Square, and he was looking forward to some nice hot java after the network makeup guy stripped away the blush and powder.

“Table for one, Mr. Clark?” Max invited as the host entered the warm trailer, snapping a fresh bib.

“Terrific job, as usual, Max,” Dick beamed, settling into the canvas director’s chair. “Some of these guys make me look like I’m ready for a noon burial.”

The burly, magenta-haired cosmetician chuckled modestly and reverently clipped the bib into place. “Oh, please. I should look half as good as you when I get to be your—Oopsie, didn’t mean it THAT way.”

“Max, never be ashamed of your age. It’s like Old Blue Eyes said, you gotta stay young at heart.”

“That was Zach Efron’s line?” Max squeaked in mock astonishment. “Just yankin’ you, hon. Now just relax, and I’ll have you on your way in a sec.”

It had been a tiring evening – there were some sound issues around 11:45, and this year’s diva du jour had turned out to be the Diva From Hell – and Dick closed his eyes as the makeup man sponged and gently scraped. But overall, it had been another satisfying night – Dick relished his role as Gatekeeper to the New Year, and hoped to be at it for at least another decade or two.

“Say, Max, did a delivery guy come by during the show?” the TV legend inquired. “He was supposed to drop some deli for the trip home.”

“Gosh, I’m sorry, Mr. Clark – nobody like that. There were a couple of little Miss Somethings got through network security, wanted to see you. I shooed them off.”

“Thanks, Max,” Dick nodded. “Probably young enough to be my granddaughters. Still, it’s kinda sweet.”

“Posh. You are an icon with a Capital I. What do they say, a timeless treasure?”

“You’re supposed to be scraping me off, not piling it on,” Dick jibed.

“Sorry, Mr. Clark. Aging drama queen. There!” Max peered into the facing mirror. “My God, I swear you’re actually looking younger. Well, see you when I see you!”

“Happy New Year, Max,” Dick said, dropping the bib onto the chair and clapping the man on the shoulder.

“May you live to be a thousand,” Max called as the trailer door closed.

Dick looked up into the Broadway marquees, soaked up the raucous sounds of joy and, what – hope? — that would continue into the wee hours. A new decade of a new millennium.

The former Bandstand host swallowed back a slight pang of disappointment. The post-midnight “deli” delivery was as much a New Year’s personal ritual as Auld Lang Syne (performed this year by Dan Fogelberg and Darius Rucker) and the descent of the glittering ball in the Square. The delivery – a standard Carnegie corned beef with Russian dressing, slaw, Kosher dill, and a small vial of iridescent lavender fluid – had been waiting after the show for 20 years now, without fail.

But all traditions fade at some point, Dick sighed — all good things come to an end, ideally with more good things on their tail. Maybe it was time to simply let Nature take its course, he reflected, absently touching a crow’s foot.

Dick nonetheless was concerned about his heretofore-diligent supplier. There had to be others in New York with his particular skills in crafting potions and talismans, and a few phone calls would line up a new contact, but it was puzzling.

Oh, well, Dick thought. “Have a prosperous New Year, Vince,” he murmured, “Wherever you are.”

*******

Permaceo Noctus

TITLE: Permaceo Noctus

AUTHOR: StarfleetOfficer1

RATING: PG13 for language

DISCLAIMER: No copyright infringement intended.

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

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L’ENFANT PLAZA

WASHINGTON, D.C.

DECEMBER 24th, 2010

1800

“Uncle Mulder? What causes poverty?”

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

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

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

Matt nodded slowly, deep in thought.

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

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

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

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

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

“Who’s that?” Matt asked, curious.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Matt put his phone away despondently.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Matt! C’mon!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“911 what is your emergency?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What were the descriptions?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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L’ENFANT PLAZA

WASHINGTON, D.C.

DECEMBER 24th, 2010

1900

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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L’ENFANT PLAZA

WASHINGTON, D.C.

DECEMBER 24th, 2010

1930

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He nodded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How many dead so far?” he asked.

Tara sighed. “Twelve…I think.”

“How’s Matt?”

“He’s working hard. He’s so brave…”

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

“That’s a really good idea.”

“How are you doing?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He sighed.

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

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

“What, was he Arabic?” Scully asked.

“No. I think he was a zombie.”

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

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

“You saw the zombie?”

“For just a second, yes.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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L’ENFANT PLAZA

WASHINGTON, D.C.

DECEMBER 24th, 2010

2100

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She nodded, and added, “And a toy?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m twelve,” Matt answered.

“You’re very big,” she decided.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“My head hurts.”

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

“Okay.”

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

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

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

“Will it hurt?” Chelsea asked.

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

“Okay,” she agreed.

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

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

“She said she’s tired,” Matt said.

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

Matt nodded.

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

She frowned, but nodded.

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

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

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

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

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

“Tomorrow’s Christmas,” Chelsea said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Does dust make you sad?”

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

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L’ENFANT PLAZA

WASHINGTON, D.C.

DECEMBER 24th, 2010

2200

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

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

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

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

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

He sighed, and nodded.

“Any cell reception?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The rescue had begun.

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MULDER AND SCULLY’S CAR

WASHINGTON, D.C.

DECEMBER 24th, 2010

2305

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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TARA SCULLY’S HOUSE

GEORGETOWN, D.C.

DECEMBER 24th, 2010

2320

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

“Hey, Buddy? You asleep yet?”

“Just got in bed,” he answered.

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

“I’m okay, I guess.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But—”

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

He frowned.

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

He nodded finally, and closed his eyes.

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

“I love you too, Mom.”

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