Category Archives: Season 9

Justice, Interrupted

cover

TITLE: Justice, Interrupted

AUTHORS: Dawn Zemke and Sally Bahnsen

EMAIL: bahnsen@alphalink.com.au

sunrise@avenew.com

RATING: PG

CATAGORY: X

KEYWORDS: Casefile, MSR

SPOILERS: VS9

ARCHIVE: Two weeks exclusively on VS9, then Gossamer

and Ephemeral. Others are fine, just let us know.

DISCLAIMER: Mulder, Scully and Skinner belong to

Chris Carter, 1013 and Fox. No copyright infringement

intended.

SUMMARY: How far will one man go to see justice served?

FEEDBACK: Gratefully accepted.

AUTHORS’ NOTES: Many thanks to Michelle, dtg, and Vickie

for insightful beta, and to Suzanne for both beta and

medical expertise.

Justice, Interrupted — Part 1

By Dawn Zemke and Sally Bahnsen

TEASER:

Behavioral Science Unit

Quantico

12:04 a.m.

“Gee, McNally, this letter from your mom is so sweet. It’s got me

feeling all warm and fuzzy inside.”

Sal DeAngelo ducked his head to hide a grin, watching from the

corner of his eye as Kyle McNally flipped Corey Peterson the bird.

With no major cases pending, most people had headed home hours

earlier and an unnatural quiet had descended on the bullpen.

Peterson’s smartass remarks were a welcome diversion.

“Damn computer virus.” McNally dropped into his chair and began

shutting down his computer, stabbing buttons and cursing under

his breath. “I’m still not certain who got pieces of what files. It

sent my mother a chunk of the profile I was working on. And I won’t

even go into the photos it sent Father Callahan.”

Sal clicked his tongue against his teeth, grinning. “Have you been

collecting dirty pictures from that sleazy Web site again? Shame

on you, ASAC McNally.”

“I seem to recall a few tasteless bookmarks in your collection,

Saint DeAngelo.”

“I got no idea what you’re talking about.”

“Don’t know what I’m tawking about, huh?” Kyle mimicked his

‘Brooklynese’ with sarcastic accuracy. “Why doesn’t that surprise

me?” He sighed, running his fingers through thinning blond hair.

“What are you still doing here, anyway? Please don’t tell me you’re

obsessing over the Mitchell murder again.”

“All right, I won’t tell you.”

“Saaaal.” Kyle stalked over to Sal’s desk and plucked the manila

folder from the blotter, closing it and tucking it under his arm.

“Gary Jansen is a serial murderer. He killed Monica Mitchell and

four other women in cold blood. He’s been tried, convicted, and

sentenced. Justice has been served–let it go.”

“Didn’t anything about this case bother you? Weren’t there any

pieces that just didn’t fit?”

“No.”

“Then tell me why the guy broke in through the window when he

could’ve come through the front door? Monica knew him; she’d

dated Gary for nearly eight months.”

“She also owed him money. Considering the threats he made in a

couple of those letters we found, I doubt he’d have gotten a warm

reception if he showed up on her doorstep.”

“Okay, what about the simple fact that they’d previously been

involved in a long-term relationship? He picked all the other

victims outta a hat, strangers right off the street.”

“Key word–previously. Gary and Monica had been split up for

nearly a year. You know as well as I do that it’s not unheard of for

a guy like that to hit someone he already knows.”

“The first time, maybe, or even the second, when he’s learning his

craft. But Gary had successfully whacked four other women,

paisan’. He’d gotten good at it. Why would he risk gettin’ caught by

playin’ in his own backyard?”

“He was pissed at her? Come on, Sal, how many times have we

caught an UNSUB because he just plain screwed up? You know

half of them subconsciously want to be caught.”

“He didn’t act like he wanted to be caught when he kept insisting

he was innocent.” Sal’s eyes turned distant, haunted. “Or when he

broke down in front of the judge and bawled like a baby.”

“What did you expect–he’d just been handed a death sentence.

Face the facts, Sal. We pulled several of Gary’s fingerprints off

the murder weapon. We found a shirt covered with Monica’s blood

stuffed into the back of his closet. The mode and execution of her

death match that of the other women–the signature is nearly

identical. And he was unable to produce a credible alibi for any of

the nights in question. A jury of his peers found him guilty. Why

can’t you accept that?”

Sal ran a hand over his face, then propped his chin on his fist.

“Because I looked into his eyes when he said he didn’t do it. And I

believe him.”

Kyle stared at him a moment, then turned away, shaking his head.

“I give up. I have to take a piss, then I’m out of here. If you’re

smart, you’ll do the same.”

“I just have to go through my email. I’m about a week behind.” He

opened his inbox, smirked. “Hey, McNally! Looks like I may be

the lucky recipient of one of your dirty pictures.”

Kyle flashed him the same finger he’d given Peterson and ambled

down the hall to the bathroom. Still chuckling, Sal opened the

email and began to read.

And the smile froze on his lips.

“If you think you can just dump me like yesterday’s trash, you’d

better think again. I’m not a whore and I don’t intend to be treated

like one. I wonder how the lovely Mrs. Kyle McNally would feel

about her husband if she knew he was screwing around? Maybe

she’d like a copy of this?”

And beneath the text, a photo of Monica Mitchell clad in a red

teddy, snuggled in Kyle McNally’s arms.

“All right, go ahead. Let me have it.”

Sal nearly jumped out of his skin. He quickly clicked on a different

email and pasted on a smile. “What a let down. It was a piece of

the Whitecotten profile.”

Kyle returned to his desk and began slipping files into his

briefcase. “You always have had rotten luck.”

Sal struggled not to squirm under McNally’s smile, which suddenly

felt sharp and cold. With trembling fingers, he forwarded the email

to his home computer and closed his inbox. “Think I’ll take your

advice and go home. Vickie’s had about enough of my late nights.”

“Good idea. But you’d better return the Carmichael file to records

on your way out. You know how they get.”

“Yeah. Good idea.” Sal logged off and gathered his own briefcase

with unsteady hands. “See you tomorrow.”

“I’ll be here.”

Kyle waited until Sal had disappeared into the elevator before

moving to his chair, logging onto his computer, and opening the

inbox. Being named ASAC had its advantages–including a master

password to all the profilers’ computers. He stared at the

incriminating email for a long moment, face expressionless.

In three minutes the file had been erased and he was headed for the

parking garage.

Thanks to a well-placed puncture, Sal’s tire went flat on a dark

stretch of road only ten minutes from his home. Intent on replacing

it, at first he didn’t see Kyle’s truck bearing down on him. By the

time he did, it was too late.

The growl of an engine, a blinding flash of light…

There were no witnesses.

Georgetown Medical

12:44 a.m.

The emergency room doors imploded, shattering the fragile peace

of what had been a slow night in the ER. Two EMTs, faces set in

grim concentration, shepherded a gurney bearing a man whose

gray-white skin contrasted sharply with the vivid crimson staining

his clothing and their own. On their heels, her expression a blank

mask of shock, a copper-haired woman trailed the procession,

speechless amid the volley of shouted information and instructions.

“Forty-one-year-old male GSW. Sucking chest wound,

right quadrant. BP 40 over palp; pulse 130 and thready.

Respiration rapid and labored.”

“Cyanotic, no breath sounds on the right. He’s on O2 at 8 liters

by mask, two IVs running D5LR wide open.”

Doctors and nurses flooded the trauma room, taking over as the

EMTs deposited their charge and got out of the way. Lost in the

flurry of activity, the woman hovered just inside the doorway,

fingers pressed to her lips.

“Get the lab on the horn, I need type and cross match for at least

six units, stat; a full blood work-up. And get a portable

chest x-ray in here.” The doctor in charge, a woman with streaks of

silver in her dark, close-cropped hair, barked orders like a drill

sergeant. “He needs a chest tube. Jackson?”

“I’m on it.”

“I’m not getting a pulse–we’re losing him.”

“Code blue! Connie, get her out of here.”

She resisted the nurse’s iron grip on her elbow, protest falling from

her lips without conscious thought. “I’m Special Agent Dana

Scully with the FBI, that man is my partner.” And as a final trump

card, “I’m a medical doctor.”

The nurse, a stout black woman with a kind face, hustled her

toward the waiting area. “Not here you aren’t, honey. You sit right

over there–someone will be with you shortly.” She was gone

before Scully could open her mouth to argue.

Scully stood beside a plastic chair, its backrest cracked and pitted,

for several long minutes before her legs folded and she dropped

heavily into it. The trembling began in her hands, spreading

quickly up her arms and down her legs until she shivered

uncontrollably. She felt oddly removed from her surroundings, as

though she were viewing them from the end of a long, dark tunnel.

Her only tethers to reality were the warm stickiness of Mulder’s

blood painting her hands and shirt and the terrifying barrier of the

trauma room doors.

“Agent Scully?”

Skinner’s voice jolted her out of her daze and onto her feet. She

watched his eyes catalogue her bloodstained clothing, saw the

flicker of dismay before they went studiously neutral.

“I came as soon as I heard. How is he?”

“He took a bullet to…to the chest at close range. Massive blood

loss…they won’t let me…his heart stopped.”

“Scully, sit down.”

Skinner guided her to the chair and promptly disappeared–or so it

seemed. She couldn’t drag her eyes from the trauma room doors to

look for him. He was back a moment later with a blanket and a cup

of coffee.

“Drink some of this.”

The blanket, draped across her shoulders, warmed her; the coffee,

sweet and milky, eased the shakes. She sipped it slowly, one eye

always on the motionless doors shielding Mulder from view.

“Scully, what happened?”

Her tongue felt clumsy, sluggish. “Didn’t they tell you?”

“Let’s just say I’ve heard conflicting reports. No one wants to

assume the blame for this one.”

Fury melted away the fog. “There is no conflict, sir. Agent

Glassman failed to properly secure the suspect. He broke loose,

grabbed Agent Glassman’s weapon, and opened fire. Mulder never

saw it coming.” Her voice broke but she tipped her chin up, eyes

dry.

“Agent Glassman is inexperienced. Some feel his partner should

have…”

“Agent Glassman is a fool. Even the greenest rookie should know

better than to…”

The trauma room doors burst open, discharging a rapidly moving

gurney surrounded by ER personnel and equipment. Scully had

thrust the coffee cup into Skinner’s hands and was across the

hallway before he could blink, squeezing between a doctor and a

nurse to reach Mulder’s side.

“How is he? Is he stable?”

“We’re taking him up to surgery.” The doctor, a young Asian man

who looked fresh out of residency, held the elevator doors while

Mulder was wheeled inside. Scully caught a brief glimpse of his

pale, still face before the doors began to close. “Dr. Stanton will

answer all your questions.”

She stared stupidly at the elevator for a moment, then turned on her

heel, nearly colliding with Skinner and the dark-haired doctor who

had been spouting orders in the trauma room.

“Agent Scully? I’m Dr. Alice Stanton; I treated your partner.”

Scully squared her shoulders and accepted the doctor’s outstretched

hand. “Dr. Stanton. This is Assistant Director Skinner, our

supervisor. What is Agent Mulder’s condition?”

Dr. Stanton gestured toward the waiting area. “Let’s sit down.”

When they had each claimed an equally uncomfortable chair, she

steepled her fingers and continued. “The bullet passed through the

right side of Agent Mulder’s chest, causing a dangerous condition

known as a hemopneumothorax.”

She paused and cocked an eyebrow at Scully. “Did I hear you say

you’re a medical doctor?”

“My specialty is pathology, but I’m quite familiar with the term.”

“I’m not,” Skinner inserted dryly. “What exactly is a hemo–?”

“Hemopneumothorax. To put it simply, when the bullet passed

through Agent Mulder it allowed air to be drawn into the chest

cavity, destroying the negative pressure that allows the lungs to

automatically expand and inflate. This trapped air, as well as the

internal bleeding, not only caused Agent Mulder’s right lung to

collapse, but his heart to stop beating.”

“But you got him back.” Scully’s voice trembled.

Skinner cast a sharp, assessing glance at her.

“Yes. However, he was down for nearly three minutes before we

did. I won’t lie to you, Agent Scully. It was a very close call.” Dr.

Stanton massaged the back of her neck. “We put in a chest tube

and got him stable enough to send him upstairs. They’ll repair the

tissue damage, debride the wound, suture the chest tube in place…”

“Dr. Stanton, what is Agent Mulder’s condition–really?”

“If you’re asking whether he’s out of danger, I’d have to say no. But

he’s young and strong–obviously a fighter. If he can make it

through the surgery and avoid any serious post-op infections… I

think he has an excellent chance.”

Scully pressed the back of her hand to her lips, her tightly closed

eyes unable to disguise the sparkle on her lashes. She drew a slow,

calming breath, then mustered a weak smile.

“Thank you.”

“You’re welcome. If I were you, I’d grab a cup of coffee from the

cafeteria before you head upstairs. You’re in for a long wait.”

Scully nodded, watching the doctor walk toward the nurses’

station. She could feel Skinner’s eyes on her, evaluating the

uncharacteristic display of emotion, and tried to shore up her

defenses.

“Thank you for coming down here, sir, but you really don’t need to

stay. I’ll be fine.”

Skinner took the hint. He stood, looking down at her briefly before

speaking. “I know you will, Scully. And so will he.” He started to

walk away, hesitated. “If you need anything…”

“I will.”

She held on until he was gone–just. The tears–a mixture of fear,

anger, and relief–left her feeling both utterly spent and strangely at

peace. She shed her bloody trenchcoat, washed her face, and

collected a coffee before heading upstairs.

Mulder was alive. For now, it was enough.

************

ACT I

************

Georgetown

Five weeks later

2:36 a.m.

He crouches beside the crippled car, cursing under his breath at

the last, stubborn lug nut that refuses to give. The wrench clangs

against the asphalt and he pops sore fingers into his mouth in a

vain attempt to soothe them. A gust of wind stirs the branches of

the large oak tree and a wisp of cloud veils the sliver of moon,

turning poor visibility worse.

He eyes the wrench distastefully; pulls out his cell phone instead.

“Vickie? You were right, cara mia, I should’ve called a tow

truck…Okay, okay–no need to rub it in. Just come get me and I’ll

call someone from the house…You be careful, too. The road is

tricky in the dark…Yeah, I’ll be the good looking guy by the dead

Mazda.”

He chuckles quietly as he pockets the phone, warmed by the sound

of her voice. She’s someone he can count on, now more than ever.

He closes his eyes, gut twisting, an image of betrayal burned on his

retinas.

How could you? he asks the moon, the sky. Why would you?

He snatches up the wrench, throwing his entire body weight behind

the motion of his arms. The nut wiggles, then slowly begins to turn.

Elated, it takes him a moment to register the light splashing across

his back and spilling onto the ground around him. He glances over

his shoulder at the approaching vehicle, frowning when its engine

kicks up from a hum to a roar.

Dropping the wrench, he stands, one hand shading his eyes against

the glare. The car is moving much faster than the posted limit–not

unusual for this deserted stretch of road. He steps back, well onto

the road’s shoulder.

His mouth literally drops open with shock when he recognizes the

approaching vehicle. How many times has he ridden shotgun in

that truck, out for a beer after work or to celebrate the successful

close of a case? His feet unconsciously drift several steps forward,

his hand lifting in an automatic wave.

Until the truck veers sharply to the right, homing in on him like a

beacon. Too late, he understands, but his feet won’t cooperate,

tangling together in his panicked flight from the blinding lights…

“NOOOO!”

“Mulder. Mulder, wake up.”

Hands–one cupping the back of his neck, the other stroking up and

down his left arm. Mulder blinked, sweat stinging his eyes and

trickling between his shoulder blades, his gaze darting around the

darkened bedroom. He was unable to suppress a shudder when the

bright glow of a streetlight momentarily brought his fading dream

back into sharp relief.

“I’m all right.”

“Sure you are. That’s why your heart is banging like the drums in

that band Langly loves.”

He deliberately slowed his breathing and mustered a smirk. “An

unavoidable side effect of sharing a bed with a beautiful woman.”

Her hand slid down his arm and gently pried the sheet from his

clenched fist, her fingers twining with his. “Nice try. Want to tell

me about it?”

“You asking me to talk dirty to you, Scully?”

“Mulder.”

He flopped onto his back, drawing her down and tucking her head

beneath his chin. “No. I do not want to talk about it.”

“Do you realize how long it’s been since you slept through the

night? Mulder, if you’re not comfortable sharing this with me, then

maybe someone at the Bureau, in the EAP…”

He made a disgusted sound, something between a groan and a

snort. “Thanks, but no thanks. Scully, I’m a chronic insomniac and

I’ve been coping with nightmares since I was a kid. There’s no need

to make a mountain out of a molehill.”

“This is different, and you know it. It’s the same dream every night,

and it began after the shooting.” Scully propped her head on one

hand, tracing the puckered red scar beneath his right nipple with

her index finger. “Mulder, your heart stopped. You were…dead for

nearly three minutes before they managed to get you back. It’s not

unusual, in the face of that kind of trauma…”

“The only trauma I’m experiencing right now is the fear that I’ll die

from terminal boredom before they let me come back to work.”

When she simply stared at him, a small line of disapproval marring

her pale forehead, he sighed. “Scully, you worry too much. You

know, all things considered, I think I’m the one who got off easy

this time. I just lay there and bled–you had to watch.”

“That’s not funny.” But the rebuke was soft, and her voice

wavered.

Mulder reached up and threaded his fingers into her hair, his thumb

brushing back and forth across her cheek. “I know. I’m only

saying… I’m all right, Scully. You think I’m still experiencing

aftershocks from that night, but maybe you’re the one who needs to

let go.”

Scully covered the hand cradling her face, eyes over-bright.

“There’ve been so many close calls over the years… I don’t want to

consider how often I’ve watched your life hang by a thread. But it’s

different now. Harder.”

“Harder? Because we’re…together?”

A barely perceptible nod, teeth worrying her lip. “Not because it

hurts more. But because I can’t…compartmentalize the pain.”

Though his eyes revealed only empathy, one corner of Mulder’s

mouth twitched. The small line between Scully’s brows deepened.

“You think that’s funny? Mulder, I practically fell to pieces in front

of Skinner! If he didn’t suspect anything before, he sure as hell

should now.”

“I don’t think it’s funny. I think–I know you went through hell that

night, Scully. It’s just… I personally have never been very good at

what you call ‘compartmentalizing.’ If we follow your logic,

Skinner would have been convinced we were doing it like bunnies

as far back as your abduction.”

It worked. She struggled to hold onto outrage for a moment, lips

quivering, until a giggle slipped past her defenses. Ducking her

head, face buried in his neck, she snickered helplessly.

“Oh, God. I’m remembering all the times I told him I’d cover your

back. Gives the term a whole new meaning, don’t you th–”

A giggling Scully was both rare and irresistible. Mulder silenced

her laughter with a long kiss, then touched his forehead to hers. He

pitched his voice low, husky. “Speaking of doing it like bunnies…”

Scully shivered when his lips grazed her neck. “I have to be at

work in five hours, Mulder.”

“No problem.” His teeth found the spot just behind her left ear, the

one that turned her into a puddle of goo. “What I’ve got in mind

won’t take nearly that long…”

Georgetown

Next day

1:32 p.m.

“You know, SCREW you! We’re done!” Words spat out in a fit of

anger.

“Okay. Let’s meet her.” With one arm thrown wide in a gesture of

showmanship, the talk show host introduced his next guest.

A loud round of applause, cheering, and whistling as “she” turned

out to be a “he.”

“Heeey, howya doin’, Jairry? Hi, Jairry. Listen. Jairry,

I’m here to let you know that Chuck is not gonna be wit’ her no

more. He’s comin’ home with ME, child.”

“JERRY! JERRY! JERRY!”

Click.

Mulder tossed the remote onto the coffee table, lips curling in

disgust. If he had to sit through one more minute of daytime

television, he would not be held responsible for his actions.

Flopping against the back of the couch, he scrubbed at his face,

hands scraping roughly along his unshaven jaw. He lifted his right

arm and took a sniff, wincing as he imagined Scully’s reaction

when she came home from work to find him still sitting there,

unwashed and brain-dead.

He leaned forward, both arms resting on his knees, and cast a

guilty eye around the living room. Not only did he smell like a

pig, he was living like one too. Sighing heavily, Mulder pushed

himself to his feet, swaying slightly when the sudden change in

position sent the blood rushing straight from his head to his feet.

For five weeks he’d done nothing more strenuous than dress and

feed himself–oh, and suffer through those torture sessions

disguised as physical therapy–yet he felt as if he’d just run a

marathon. The less he did, the less he felt like doing. If he didn’t

snap out of it soon, no amount of arguing, cajoling or sweet-talking

on his part would stop Scully from packing him off to a Bureau

counselor quicker than you could say “psychoanalysis.”

Guarding the right side of his chest with his left hand, Mulder drew

in a deep breath and it out slowly. He shuffled toward the

bedroom, collecting his carelessly discarded sweatshirt from the

back of the couch, his sneakers from under the coffee table, and the

latest issue of “Eye Spy”–courtesy of Langly–from where it had

fallen down beside the couch. On his way back, he gathered up

several items of crockery and glassware that were currently

decorating Scully’s apartment like cheap china ornaments.

Depositing the dirty cups and plates into the sink, Mulder padded

out of the kitchen and headed for the bathroom.

He studied his face in the mirror, smearing shaving cream over his

jaw and cheeks. Still pale, he’d yet to regain the weight lost

following surgery and an extended hospital stay. It had been close

this time. He knew that. When first released from the hospital,

he’d wondered if he’d ever get back to feeling normal again.

Weakness had consumed him from head to toe, so crippling he’d

had to depend on Scully for even his most basic needs in those first

few days of freedom.

Now that he was up and about again, he desperately wanted to

work. To forget range-of-motion exercises and sink his teeth into

an X-File. All attempts to bypass Scully’s Nazi-like supervision,

however, had been thwarted by his physical therapist, who had

steadfastly refused to sign the forms allowing him to regain field

agent status. During his last session, she’d grudgingly agreed that

he could resume limited desk duty in a week. Not until he could

prove without doubt that he was pain-free and had regained his

prior strength and stamina would he be allowed in the field.

Mulder skillfully worked the razor through a mask of shaving

cream, leaving a path of baby-smooth skin in its wake. The

instinct of performing a task by rote took over. He let his mind

wander as he gazed vacantly into the mirror, watching his face

shift and shimmer out of focus, colors blending together, his

features morphing like reflections in a funhouse mirror. Until, for a

second, the man looking back at him ceased to resemble himself.

“What the…?”

His hand jerked, the razor slicing skin as it slipped through his

fingers. Spinning as if in slow motion, it hit the basin with a loud

clatter, splattering little globules of shaving cream on the tiles and

floor. Mulder thrust his chin forward, fingers pressed over the now

bleeding cut, stopping mere inches from the glass. No sign of the

stranger who had momentarily taken his place. Heart thumping in

his chest, he reached out a trembling hand and tentatively ran his

index finger over the mirror. Cool. Smooth. Normal. No bumps,

wrinkles, or cracks. Nothing to account for what he’d just seen.

Huffing quietly to himself, but still eyeing the mirror suspiciously,

he figured that maybe Scully was right. Maybe the nightmares

were getting to him.

He shook his head, attempting to clear the image stubbornly

imprinted on his mind–a dark-haired man with olive skin and

intense black eyes staring back at him. He was quite certain the

man was no one he knew, yet…disquietingly familiar.

Picking up the razor, Mulder finished his shave with quick, well-

practiced strokes. He rinsed the blade, left it on the sink, and

ambled over to the shower, peeling off his sweat-stained undershirt

as he went.

Once under the spray, Mulder leaned against the tile, one hand

held protectively across his chest to cover healing, still-sensitive

skin. He focused his mind on how good the hot water felt beating

down on tired, tight muscles and effectively shoved the stranger

from his thoughts.

After donning jeans and a clean sweatshirt, he pulled on his

sneakers and tied the laces. He needed to get out for awhile. Clear

his head. Being cooped up in the apartment was making him stir-

crazy–no wonder he was seeing things. Maybe he’d go to the

grocery store, buy something for dinner. He smiled to himself as

images of Scully walking through the door to a home-cooked meal

flashed through his mind. Scooping up his car keys with one hand

and grabbing his leather jacket from the coat tree with the other, he

headed out the door.

Mulder pulled the car into the stream of traffic, mentally ticking

off possible dinner menus. The first time he’d made dinner for

them both, Scully had been convinced he’d paid someone else to

cook it. He had carefully explained to her that just because he

chose not to cook didn’t mean he was incapable, feigning

indignation when she’d demanded to see evidence of his endeavor.

And why should he have expected anything less? Scully practically

wore the motto “seeing is believing” tattooed on her forehead.

He laughed quietly as he recalled her reaction to the mountain of

saucepans and dishes precariously stacked in and around the

kitchen sink. Standing by his refrigerator, cheeks pink, her mouth

opened and closed as she struggled to form an apology. After that

night, she’d never doubted his culinary prowess again.

Mulder stopped at an intersection, left turn signal blinking

insistently. He watched the flow of cars, vans, and trucks without

really seeing them, fingers lightly tapping the steering wheel to the

beat of the Rolling Stones while he waited for the light to change.

When red turned to green, giving him the all clear, Mulder gently

depressed the gas pedal and the car eased forward. A brightly-

colored blur; the high-pitched screech of tires. Mulder slammed

on the brakes, narrowly missing the small yellow convertible that

swerved, then plowed on through the intersection. A group of

rowdy teenagers waved their hands in the air and whooped in

delight as they ran the red light.

Heart hammering in his chest, Mulder ran trembling fingers

through his hair. Squealing tires. Bright lights. The roar of an

engine. A truck bearing down… Hazel eyes grew wide, then

narrowed. Pupils dilated, leaving just a tiny ring of green at the

edges.

Mulder stared ahead, unblinking, face bland yet strangely focused.

Oblivious to the horns blaring behind him.

With steady, controlled hands, he gripped the steering wheel,

flicking the indicator off with one finger. Taking a deep breath, he

pressed the gas pedal and the car lurched forward. Instead of

making the left turn that would take him to the Qwick Mart,

however, he drove straight ahead toward Connecticut Avenue,

following the signs to Route 185 just outside the city limits.

~~~~~~~~~~~~

ACT II

~~~~~~~~~~~~

4424 Eagle Court

Chevy Chase MD

4:13 p.m.

Suburbia yawned out before him, conservative and predictable.

Condominiums and townhouses stood tall and uniform along a

quiet, tree-lined street. Leaves fluttered gently into the gutter.

They rolled and danced along the sidewalk, covering lawns and

flowerbeds with a layer of brown and gold.

On any other day, he might have appreciated the subtle beauty, the

warm, secure feeling of living in a close-knit neighborhood.

Invitations to barbecues and summer picnics; children running

barefoot and laughing; kicking soccer balls and shooting hoops.

But not today. Not here.

His stomach twisted, tight and painful, lips pressing into a thin,

hard line. How could he have been so blind? Why? The question

hounded him, but there was no logical answer. The man had been

his friend, his paisano. Was he really such a poor judge of

character?

Welcomed into his home, they had shared pasta and beer, laughed

together as they retold anecdotes about their fellow agents.

Entertained each other with stories of miraculous solve rates and

exaggerated acts of heroism where they were always the stars.

He hadn’t wanted to believe it. Felt sure there must be another

explanation. But now, there was no denying the truth.

Reaffirming his resolve to set things right, he pushed the car faster,

no longer idly contemplating life in the suburbs and a friendship he

now knew to be a lie. Ignoring the buildings around him, he

steered the car down a familiar side street, toward a house he had

come to know like the back of his hand.

The car coasted to a stop beside the curb.

Across from an unfamiliar building.

In the middle of an unfamiliar neighborhood.

Mulder leaned his head back against the headrest, pushing the

heels of both hands into tired, burning eyes. His head pounded as

he tried to think through the situation. Where the hell was he?

And more to the point, how did he get here?

Swiveling his head to the right, brow creased in confusion, he

stared at the two-story duplex outside the window. A strong feeling

of deja vu sent tingling fingers of ice running over his body. He

shivered. The building seemed familiar somehow, but the feelings

it stirred up left a queasy sense of foreboding in his stomach.

Deciding that offense was the best form of defense, Mulder tugged

on the handle and shouldered the car door open. He stood on the

pavement, hand shielding his eyes from the mid-afternoon sun. A

short, cement path bridged the distance between sidewalk and front

door. A white rattan chair sat on a small porch to the left of the

door, and a pot bearing the remains of a dry, shriveled geranium

stood to the right.

He sidestepped a tired-looking “For Sale” sign embedded in the

front yard, the tiny thatch of weeds huddled close to its wooden

post bearing witness that the house had been on the market for

some time.

Wiping a small cobweb from the doorbell, he firmly pressed the

button, ears tuned for the sound of approaching footsteps. But,

other than the bell’s hollow chime, there was silence. Already

formulating his next plan of action, Mulder rapped loudly on the

wooden door, just to be certain the house was empty.

A few minutes later, puffing slightly from the effort of climbing

the side fence, Mulder stood at the kitchen window, hands framing

his face as he pressed his nose against the dusty pane of glass. A

small gap in the curtains revealed empty shelves and counters,

devoid of the usual paraphernalia that would normally accompany

a thriving household. By craning his neck slightly to the left,

Mulder was able to get a limited view of the living room. Stark

and empty. No furniture anywhere to be seen.

He puffed a small sigh of relief. There was time to take a good

look around without fear of discovery. A tall, wood fence on the

eastern side of the unit sheltered him from nosy neighbors.

As he made his way around back, he found only chain-link fencing

between the house and its attached neighbor. Muttering quietly

under his breath about lack of privacy, he decided to go for broke.

Taking a quick glance over the fence, he strode confidently up to

the back door and jiggled the knob.

Locked. Well, what had he expected?

Stepping back he peered up at the second story windows. All

shuttered against the world with tightly drawn curtains.

About ready to admit defeat, Mulder hesitated, then dropped to his

haunches when a quick flicker of yellow drew his attention.

Caught amongst a tangle of overgrown dandelions was a ten-inch

length of plastic, flapping uselessly in the gentle breeze. Mulder

immediately recognized it for what it was.

A torn strip of yellow and black tape, used for cordoning off crime

scenes.

Dread pierced him and bile rose in his throat. He pursed his lips

together and swallowed hard, fighting back the inexplicable

nausea.

Pulling the errant piece of thin plastic free, Mulder rolled it up and

shoved it into his pocket. He wasn’t even sure why; just had a

feeling it was important.

“Excuse me?”

Mulder shot to his feet and spun around, feeling like a teenager

caught soaping windows. A young woman stood at the chain-link

fence, brown hair caught into a ponytail and a baby propped on her

hip.

“Can I help you–sir?” The last was an afterthought, dripping with

suspicion.

Mulder crossed the yard, rubbing his palms against his jeans to

remove the grit. He pasted on his most winsome smile and

extended his hand.

“Hello. I’m…” For an instant it was as if his brain locked, and he

fumbled awkwardly for his own name. “…Fox Mulder.”

She studied the hand, then his face with narrowed eyes. “Well, Mr.

Mulder, I can’t help wondering why you’ve been prowling around

that house like a cat sizing up its next meal.”

He chuffed softly, abruptly conscious of his worn blue jeans and

leather jacket. “It’s not the way it might appear. I’m an FBI agent.”

She shifted the squirming baby to the other hip, one eyebrow

executing an amazing Scully imitation. “Well, at least you’re

creative. I have to admit, I’ve never heard THAT one before.”

Mulder opened his mouth to protest; settled for producing his ID

instead. She leaned in close, eyes darting between the picture and

his face, then nodded.

“I’m sorry about that,” she said, in a tone that was anything but.

“After all the goings on over the past year, I’ve learned you can’t be

too careful–just too trusting.”

“Perfectly understandable, Ms…”

“Gilmore. Wendy Gilmore. Do you mind telling my why you’re

here? I mean, I just assumed once they convicted Monica’s killer

we wouldn’t be seeing the police anymore. The house has been on

the market for nearly three months.”

“Well…you’re correct, actually. I was just…ah…checking that we’d

cleared the scene. Good thing I did.” Mulder pulled the piece of

yellow crime tape from his pocket. “Not exactly the best

advertisement for selling a house.”

“At this point I’d be willing to try anything.” Wendy pried the end

of her ponytail from the baby’s fist. “It’s been kind of eerie seeing

the place stand empty. Just another reminder of Monica’s death.”

She frowned. “I don’t remember seeing you when the other agents

questioned me.”

“I came late to the party.” Mulder pressed on when her eyes

darkened at the flip choice of words. “I really don’t know much

about the case. You said she was murdered?”

Wendy clutched the baby closer to her breast, brushing her lips

across his downy head. “She was stabbed–with her own kitchen

knife. How creepy is that?” She swallowed hard. “She didn’t

deserve to die that way. She had everything going for her–beauty,

brains…”

“Sounds like you thought highly of her.”

Wendy huffed, amused. “Agent Mulder, I love my family. But

lately the highlight of my day is sharing a dinner of Hamburger

Helper with my husband. Sometimes I even get to sit down.” As if

to illustrate her point, the baby emitted a throaty whine and kicked

his chubby legs.

“Monica Mitchell had a high-paying job, an exciting social life,

and a body that most of us can only dream of. Let’s just say I got a

vicarious thrill listening to her talk.”

Mulder’s smile felt forced. A vague, intangible disquiet had taken

root somewhere in his chest from the moment Wendy began

discussing her neighbor’s murder. An extension of the overall

“wrongness” he’d felt since inexplicably finding himself at a crime

scene instead of the grocery store.

“At least they caught the guy who did it,” he said, glancing over

his shoulder when a sudden gust of wind rattled a shutter. “It may

be too late for your neighbor, but he won’t be able to hurt anyone

else.”

Wendy’s gaze turned distant and she slowly shook her head. “I

suppose. It’s just…I never would have thought him capable of such

a thing, you know?”

“Excuse me?”

“Monica’s ex. I met the guy, talked to him several times, and he

seemed real nice. Not that I’m naïve enough to think he’d have the

word “killer” tattooed on his forehead, but I guess I thought I was a

better judge of character.”

“Her ex-husband was the killer?”

It was more a verbal expression of his surprise than a question, and

Mulder momentarily forgot his audience. Wendy’s eyes clouded

with suspicion and her voice cooled ten degrees.

“Not husband. Boyfriend. And he didn’t just kill Monica; there

were four other women, too. For someone who’s supposedly

involved in the case, you sure don’t know much. Don’t they work

with you new guys–bring you up to speed?”

“I’m kind of an independent, ‘hands on’ learner.”

She squinted at him as if gauging his sincerity. “What happened to

that other agent–the one who asked me all the questions? You

should talk to him.” When Mulder hesitated, searching for a

response, she continued impatiently. “You know–the Italian guy.

Sam…no, Sal. He said his name was Sal something.”

She removed her hair from the baby’s fist yet again, this time

provoking an ear-splitting wail. Struggling to retain her grip on the

now wriggling, flailing child, she moved away from the fence.

“I have to go. Jack needs a bottle and my husband should be home

any minute. But I guess you’ll be leaving now anyway, won’t you,

Agent Mulder?”

Mulder’s lips twitched at the less than subtle message beneath the

innocent question. “Yes, I will. Thank you for your time, Ms.

Gilmore. You’ve been very helpful.”

She backed toward the house with a shake of her head. “If you

don’t mind me saying so, Agent Mulder, you really ought to do

your homework next time you get a new case. They’re never going

to trust you with a real investigation if you don’t know what’s

going on.”

“I’ll keep that in mind.”

Mulder watched her until she disappeared into the house, then

walked slowly back to his car. He slid behind the wheel and

plugged the key into the ignition, yet made no attempt to start the

engine. Instead he stared at the vacant house, thinking about

Monica Mitchell and wondering why the death of a stranger left

him feeling so unsettled and confused. He scrubbed at the

throbbing behind his right eye, abruptly exhausted.

Still eyeing the house, he turned the key. With a sigh, he grasped

the gear shift, nearly groaning aloud when his gaze caught the

LED display on the dash.

5:34.

Scully would be home by now, wondering where he’d gone, why

her apartment looked like a landfill, and what was for dinner.

He was a dead man.

Putting the car into drive and Monica Mitchell out of his mind, he

hit the gas and headed home.

Georgetown

5:32 p.m.

“Mulder?”

Scully nudged the door shut and slipped her keys back into her

pocket. Shadows bathed the apartment and the television stood

mute. She moved quietly down the hallway to the bedroom, half

expecting to find him draped across the mattress, asleep. Despite

his incessant moaning and groaning about returning to work,

Mulder had yet to regain his stamina. The legendary insomniac

was now known to nod off before 9:00, and often napped during

the day.

The nightmares weren’t helping.

She paused in the doorway to the bedroom, a frown creasing her

brow. Empty. He’d obviously gone out–but where? He’d known

she would be home early tonight, had made several lewd

suggestions regarding an “appetizer” before dinner. She was a bit

embarrassed to realize just how eagerly she’d anticipated the

possibilities on the drive home.

Sighing, she put away her briefcase and changed into jeans and an

oversized sweatshirt. Shoving the sleeves to her elbows, she then

made a circuit through the apartment, collecting dirty glasses and

sunflower seed husks. Once in the kitchen, she added her findings

to those already in the sink, filled it with hot, soapy water and left

everything to soak while she raided the cupboards for dinner fare.

After several minutes both her temper and her patience had run

out, and she phoned for a pizza. Vegetarian, extra mushrooms.

That’d teach him.

She curled up on the couch with a trashy romance novel in a

hopeless attempt to soothe herself. Instead, her gaze constantly

wandered to the clock and the restless tingle in her stomach

intensified.

It was ridiculous to worry about him–absurd. He was a grown

man, perfectly able to take care of himself. The surgical scar had

faded from angry red to pale pink, injured tissues and muscle

successfully knitted together. The pain, once crippling in its

intensity, had faded to an occasional twinge, though he’d formed

the unconscious habit of guarding the right side of his chest with

one hand. And even if he’d yet to recover his optimal weight and

muscle tone, he’d come a long way from those first weeks after the

shooting, when all his clothes seemed a size too large and his jeans

rode low on bony hips.

Mulder was right–she had to let go of her own fears regarding this

brush with death. But it was so much easier said than done. She

vividly recalled his first day home from the hospital, when simply

getting him to the bathroom had been a major ordeal. Forced to

accept her support while he relieved himself, he’d wept from the

pain and embarrassment, too weak to control his emotions. She’d

tucked him into her bed and held him until he slept, murmuring

over and over that he was alive and she loved him. That everything

else was incidental to those truths.

Realizing she’d read the same paragraph three times, Scully

checked the clock. 6:09. If he wasn’t home in twenty minutes…

Footsteps, the jingle of keys, and the door swung slowly open.

Mulder slipped in, saw her on the couch, and managed a weak

smile.

“Hey, Scully. You did get home early. Reading, huh? Is that a

good book?”

She bit the inside of her cheek, too irritated to let him see her

amusement. Everything about Mulder screamed guilt–from the

hunched shoulders and babbled greeting to his complete failure to

harass her about her choice of reading material. It was pitiful,

really. She ought to be kind and go easy on him.

As if.

“Where are they, Mulder?”

His face went blank. “What?”

“Where are the groceries? That’s why you’re late, isn’t it? Because

you were out getting groceries for the gourmet meal you’re going

to cook for me?”

The emotion that darkened his expressive features was strong,

brief, and not at all what she’d expected. Guilt, yes, but mixed with

confusion and something that looked like…fear.

“I’m sorry, Scully. I know it sounds lame, but I really did intend to

make you dinner. I just…I lost track of time.”

He moved toward her as he spoke, peeling off the leather jacket

and laying it on a chair. When his face hit the light from the

reading lamp she saw lines around his eyes and the corners of his

mouth–unmistakable signals of pain and fatigue.

It doused the remainder of her anger like a bucket of cold water.

She set aside the book and reached her hand toward him. “Mulder,

come here and sit down. Are you all right? Are you in pain?”

He came willingly, sinking into the cushions with a soft grunt, one

hand pressed to his chest. “I’m okay, it’s just a headache. I…I took

a drive and wound up going farther than I intended. I’m sorry if I

worried you.”

No impatience with her concern? No jibe to stop mothering him?

Scully frowned but said nothing, tugging him down until

his head rested in her lap, long legs stretched the length of the

couch. She gently massaged her fingers through his hair,

concentrating on the area around his temples. Mulder sighed like a

weary child and turned his face into the soft fabric of her

sweatshirt, one arm slipping around her waist.

“Sorry, Scully. Was gonna make dinner. Got sidetracked.”

Short, mumbled phrases and heavy eyelids. He was drifting off

already.

“You have to pace yourself, Mulder. No matter how good you feel,

you can’t go running around like nothing happened; you’ll only set

back your recovery.”

“Didn’t mean to. Went to the store. Don’t know how…how I got…”

The words trailed off into slow, deep breaths and he grew heavier

in her arms.

Scully continued to absent-mindedly thread her fingers through his

hair while she attempted to rationalize the tingling disquiet his

words provoked. After several minutes, when it appeared Mulder

was truly down for the count, she extracted herself from his

embrace and returned to the kitchen to wash dishes.

The sink emptied, the pizza man came and went, and Mulder slept

on. All hopes for romance relinquished, Scully had plopped two

slices of pizza on paper plates and was pouring drinks when the

first soft sounds of distress drifted in from the living room.

Another nightmare.

She braced her palms on the counter, fighting the rising tide of

frustration and weariness that threatened to overwhelm her. As

distressing as the chronic nightmares were for Mulder, they were

fast becoming hazardous to her own mental health. Reserves

depleted from five weeks spent nurturing the man back to health–

sometimes kicking and screaming–she found it increasingly

difficult to be cast in the roll of therapist as well as doctor, lover,

and occasional babysitter.

Another soft moan and the sound of thrashing limbs put her in

motion. Mulder was huddled in the corner of the couch, wide eyes

staring through her at whatever personal hell his mind had

conjured. He was muttering something, but so low and garbled she

could barely make it out.

“…my friend…trusted, I…no…NOOO! Vickie! Vickieeeee!”

The name ended in a sharp cry and he doubled over, one hand

pressed to his chest as he struggled for breath.

Scully sprinted the last few steps to the couch, heart pounding.

Mulder’s behavior–the hand clutching his chest, the frantic gasps

for air–was eerily reminiscent of the moments after the shooting.

She squeezed onto the cushions, facing him, and laid one hand on

his leg.

“Mulder. Mulder, are you all right? Talk to me.”

He lifted his head just enough for her to make out features

contorted in pain. “Hurts…can’t…can’t breathe…Vickie…help me.”

Vickie? Who the hell was Vickie?

Scully grasped his chin but was unable to make his glazed eyes

focus on her own. Stunned, for a moment all she could do was

watch him pant and shiver.

He was still asleep.

Breaking out of her daze, she cupped his face between both palms

and resorted to her rarely-used Skinner voice. “Mulder! Wake up,

you’re dreaming.”

His entire body jerked as if zapped with live current and he

blinked, eyes clear but confused. She watched, astonished, as his

respiration immediately dropped to normal and he slowly uncurled,

hands coming up to tug hers from his cheeks.

“Scully? What’s the matter? Where…?”

“You were having a nightmare. Do you remember?”

Comprehension, and for an instant his open, unguarded expression

revealed fear. Then his gaze slid away to the window and she

could practically hear the bricks sliding into place as the walls

came up.

“It’s pretty fuzzy.”

Something inside her snapped and she abruptly became furious.

She yanked her hands from his and stood, eyes like flint.

“Don’t you dare hold out on me. In case you haven’t noticed, this

isn’t just a partnership anymore, Mulder–it’s a relationship. That

bullet tore my life apart as surely as it did yours, and I’ll be damned

if I’m going to let you treat me as if I’ve somehow got less invested

in your recovery.”

“Scully, it’s not a big deal. I just…”

She’d turned her back and walked halfway across the room before

he called out, voice breaking, “If I don’t understand what the hell is

happening to me, how can I explain it to you?”

She turned; studied his face. Fear. Anger. Devastating

vulnerability.

“Who’s Vickie?”

His complete bewilderment could not have been feigned. “Vickie?

I don’t know a Vickie.”

Scully retraced her steps; sank down beside him on the couch.

“You called for her during your nightmare, Mulder. Begged her to

help you. You sounded terrified.”

“Scully, I don’t know anyone named Vickie. You’re the only one

I’d call for help.”

“What was the dream about?”

Shoulder companionably nestled into his side, she clearly felt him

stiffen. “Same thing it’s always about. My death.”

Shocked, she leaned forward to peer into his eyes. “You’re

dreaming about the shooting? Mulder, why haven’t you said

anything? You need to talk to someone, to…”

“Not the shooting.” His voice was biting.

“Then what?”

A long pause. “I’m on a deserted road, changing a tire. It’s dark.

I…I think…”

She took his hand, wriggling her warm fingers between his cool

ones. “Go on.”

“There’s bright lights…an engine. I think…I think I get hit by a car.”

Scully tightened her grip, considering. “It’s not as odd as it might

seem, Mulder. Gunshot or car, it still points back to extreme

trauma. Your mind has just chosen a different image to…”

“There’s more to it than that.”

“More? How?”

He chewed on his lip, shifting uneasily. “I’m… There’s this feeling

of anger, of betrayal. When the lights come, I…” He turned his face

to the window.

Scully waited. When he didn’t continue, she touched his cheek,

gently redirecting his gaze to her face. “When the lights come…?”

“I think…I think it’s someone I know.”

“You mean it’s deliberate?”

His gaze dropped to their joined hands, but she saw the admission

in his eyes.

“Mulder…”

“Scully, I already know what you’re going to say. You’re going to

tell me that these dreams are an extension of my feelings of

helplessness during the shooting. That I need to get some therapy,

talk to a shrink.”

“You’re very perceptive.”

“But it’s not that simple! I’m a psychologist; I know all about

repressed trauma, PTSD, and this isn’t it.”

“How can you say that?”

“Because in my dream I’m not even me!”

Silence. Mulder flushed, releasing her hand and standing up. “I’ve

got a killer headache. I’m going to get some aspirin.”

“Mulder, what did you mean, ‘I’m not even me’?”

He ran an unsteady hand down the side of his face, reasserting

control. “Nothing. I don’t know what I’m saying. Scully, I really

don’t want to talk about this any more. I’m going to find those

aspirin, and then we can have dinner. I smell pizza, don’t I?”

“Mulder…”

But he was gone, and a moment later she heard the bathroom door

close. Shutting him off from her as firmly and decisively as his

words.

~~~~~~~~~~~

ACT III

~~~~~~~~~~~

Quantico

10:02 a.m.

“Can I help you, sir?”

Mulder flipped his ID open and held it up for the guard to see.

“Special Agent Mulder. I’m here to collect some casefiles.”

“Yes, sir.” The man disappeared inside the guardhouse and

returned with a clipboard and a visitor’s pass. “Sign here.”

Mulder scrawled his signature and pinned the pass onto his jacket.

The guard checked to see if the signature on his ID matched the

one in front of him. Deciding all was in order, he raised the boom

gate and waved Mulder through. “Have a nice day.”

He drove toward the honey-colored building, its architecture more

akin to a five-star hotel than an academy that taught both green

recruits and seasoned agents how to catch serial killers, rapists and

kidnappers. Mulder ignored the various items of military

paraphernalia lining the road, his thoughts centered on his yet-to-

be-resolved argument with Scully. Strained silence and small talk

had dominated breakfast, a poor cover-up for the real issues being

sidestepped. He knew his refusal to discuss his dream both

hurt and angered her, yet couldn’t bring himself to bare his soul for

her analysis. As much as he loved Scully, there were times when

her strict rationalization drove him to distraction.

Not that he could blame her for jumping to the wrong conclusion.

Outwardly he was displaying all the classic symptoms of a man

experiencing the aftermath of extreme trauma. How could he

explain to her the details of what was going on inside his head

without reinforcing her suspicions? Vivid flashes of memory that

bore no relation to his life. Winding up at the scene of a crime with

no recollection of driving there. And his nightmares…Real enough

to make him believe he was reliving an actual trauma. But whose?

No, this was different. And if Scully needed proof, then he’d find

it. Starting with Monica Mitchell’s death.

Flapping against the lapel of his jacket with each footfall, the

visitor’s pass allowed Mulder hassle-free access to the BSU

bullpen. Computer keys clacking out an erratic beat, men and

women with faces too worn and haggard for the early hour sat

huddled together, poring over autopsy reports and crime scene

photos, lab data and eyewitness testimony. So engrossed in their

investigations, they failed to notice him weaving his way between

desks and white boards towards the elevator.

“Hey! Hey, Spookster! Is that you?”

Instinctively Mulder turned, cursing his reflexes when he saw the

smiling face of his one-time colleague, Joey Marcos, bearing down

on him like a shark scenting blood. The man, a good six inches

shorter than Mulder, approached with hand extended in greeting

and a bounce in his step that was far too carefree for a man in his

line of work.

“Hey, it is you, man. How ya doin’, Spooks?” Joey gripped

Mulder’s hand in both of his and shook it with exaggerated

enthusiasm.

“Joey. Long time no see.” Mulder discreetly wiped the lingering

clamminess from Joey’s palm along the leg of his pants.

“You got that right. What brings you to this neck of the woods?

Aren’t you supposed to be off chasing little green men or

something?” He whizzed his index finger through the air making

suitable UFO sound effects.

Mulder gave him a well-practiced look of long-suffering that

involved rolled eyes and incorporated Scully’s eyebrow.

The look he kept on standby for just this kind of remark.

Oblivious to his former co-worker’s silent rebuke, Joey continued

on, “Heard a rumor, Mulder. That you were down for the count.

Looking pretty damn good for a dead guy.”

“Yeah, well, you know what they say: ‘The reports of my death

have been greatly exaggerated.'”

“So, watcha doin’ back here?”

“Confined to desk duty. I’m stuck with grunt work at the moment.

Fetch this, bring that–at least till the doc declares me fit enough to

return to field agent status.”

“Bummer.”

“Hey, you might be able to help me, Joey. I’m looking for some

information on a recent murder victim. Monica Mitchell. She was

killed in her home. Lived in Chevy Chase.”

Marcos crossed his right arm over his chest, propped his left elbow

on his clasped hand and stroked his chin. “Monica. Mitchell. Help

me out, man, you know we’re working 40 or 50 cases at any given

time. I need more information–we don’t all have your mystical

powers of recall.”

“She was fourth in a string of serial murders, killed by her ex-

boyfriend. Stabbed. She…”

“Wait a minute, wait a minute. Yeah, I got who you’re talkin’

about. The guy…damn, what was his name…what the hell was his

name…? Yeah, anyway, he swore he was innocent–find me a perp

who isn’t, right? The judge gave him the death penalty. ‘Course

he’s appealing, still swears he didn’t do it.” He gave a soft snort,

not really laughing. “Want to hear something funny–strange, I

mean? The agent who worked that case went and got himself

killed. A hit and run, no witnesses. Still…”

Joey’s voice droned on. Drowned out by the sound of an engine.

Headlights. Pain. Can’t breathe…

“Hey!” A firm hand gripped his shoulder, and Mulder jolted back

to the present. He blinked, eyes gradually focusing on Marcos’s

worried face.

“Spooks? You okay, man?”

“Yeah. Yeah, I’m fine.” A sudden sense of urgency arced through

him, making his skin tingle and his heart race. Mulder checked his

watch. “Hey, listen Joey, I gotta go. AD Skinner’s breathing down

my neck for those files. Maybe…”

“The case is closed, Mulder. ‘Fraid you’re gonna have to go diving

deep to find ’em. Better you than me, man. I hate crawlin’ around

in that rathole.”

“I know what you mean. Still it beats the alternative.”

Joey raised his eyebrows.

“Wire tap.”

“Ooh, you got it. ‘Kay, Spooks, catchya later, man. Say hey to

your pretty partner for me.”

“I will.”

Mulder continued toward the elevator, berating himself for his

carelessness. Joey “The Mouth” Marcos. Of all the people to meet.

If Scully heard about his latest little jaunt, he’d be traveling on a

one way ticket to the hotel with the padded rooms. Wearing one of

those nice jackets with the long arms that tied in back.

Two quick shoves at the call button, then Mulder stood back,

waiting for the elevator to make its way up from the basement.

Preoccupied with his own thoughts, Mulder didn’t notice the agent

with thinning blond hair who had set aside his work in favor of

tracking Mulder’s progress through the bullpen. Or realize that the

same man had been unobtrusively listening to his conversation with

Joey.

A soft rumble, a ding of arrival, and the doors slid open to an

empty car. Mulder stepped inside, pressed the button marked “B,”

then stood against the back wall.

The elevator descended on well-oiled cables, the smooth, steady

ride an antithesis to the turmoil that writhed in Mulder’s stomach.

The deeper he traveled, the stronger the urgency thrummed

through his body.

Mulder stepped into the corridor and headed toward the vault

where closed cases were filed. His breath sounded unnaturally

loud in his own ears and his footfalls echoed along the empty hall.

When he reached the door he was looking for, he stopped with one

hand on the knob, heart hammering in his chest.

What the hell was wrong with him?

By sheer will alone, he pushed the feelings of disquiet aside and

entered the room. The air smelled musty and stale. Like the victims

in their graves, this was the final resting place for days, months or

sometimes years, of hard investigative work.

He wandered along the rows of cabinets, keen eyes scanning the

alphabetically labeled drawers until he reached the start of the ‘M’s.

All five rows of them. Within seconds he found the correct

drawer. He yanked it open and started flicking through names,

stopping when he hit the jackpot: “Mitchell, Monica.” With a little

patience and cross-referencing, he’d soon collected folders for the

four related murders, as well.

Balancing the Mitchell folder on top of the stack, Mulder rifled

through the contents, eyes skimming the various documents.

Autopsy reports, findings from the Coroner and the ME,

statements from potential witnesses–all were clipped together, an

envelope marked “crime scene photos” tucked underneath. As he

sifted through the papers, he checked names and signatures at the

top and bottom of each page.

All seemed routine and in order. What was he supposed to be

seeing?

Then, from amongst the thick wad of papers, a name jumped out at

him.

The hairs on the back of his neck stood on end and gooseflesh ran

in tiny bumps along his arms.

Wendy Gilmore’s voice and puzzled expression played through his

mind.

What happened to that other agent, the one who asked me all the

questions? Said his name was Sal something…

And Joey, obviously shaken…

The agent working that case went and got himself killed.

Hit and run.

Mulder swallowed hard, fear like a physical presence peering over

his shoulder as he stared at the name in front of him. The agent of

record: Sal DeAngelo.

Weak-kneed, heart racing, Mulder flipped the folder shut. Then,

with very little thought for the consequences, he slipped the files

under his arm and left the vault. Moving catlike along the corridor,

he returned to the elevator and pushed the button. He watched the

floor indicator, willing it to move faster, foot tapping a nervous

patter on the ground and legs jiggling like a hyperactive toddler.

His uncanny run of luck continued when the elevator arrived, still

empty. Climbing aboard, Mulder licked dry lips with an equally

parched tongue. Sweat dribbled between his shoulder blades,

gluing cotton to skin.

The ride up seemed interminably longer than the one going down,

and the unconscious foot tapping resumed. When the doors finally

opened onto the BSU bullpen, Mulder tucked the files inside his

suitcoat, pasted on his best “butter-wouldn’t-melt-in-my-mouth”

smile, and strode purposefully towards the exit, making sure his

gaze didn’t waver from his destination.

He never noticed the blond man make his way casually to the exit.

Standing quietly in the shadow of an indoor plant, he watched

Mulder walk to his car and drive off.

Alexandria

11:46 a.m.

He moved through his apartment with all the finesse of a runaway

freight train. Keys hit the coffee table with a muted clank. Jacket

went flying across the living room in the general direction of the

couch, settling across the armrest and seat cushions. The soft thud

as his ID and wallet slipped from the inside pocket and landed on

the floor was completely overlooked in the frenzy of activity.

With a quick jab of his index finger, and a flick of a switch, both

computer and monitor whirred into life.

Now what? He stood by the computer desk and looked around the

apartment. The air smelled stale, musty. After nearly six weeks

since he’d spent a night here, it felt like a stranger’s place and not

his home. Cold and stark. But perfect for what he needed to do.

Mulder sat on his couch, feet propped on the coffee table and the

files resting on his bent knees. Paging quickly through the sheets

of paper he found what he was looking for.

The profile written by Sal DeAngelo. He stared at the name on the

page, ignoring the throbbing pain building behind his left eye.

Photos. Lab reports. Testimonies. Five violent deaths laid out in

excruciating detail. For nearly two hours, Mulder studied the

contents of each folder–comparing, contrasting. Looking for

something, anything to tell him why an unknown force seemed

determined to involve him in the death of a woman he’d never met.

As he moved back and forth between the profile and each case, he

found it.

A male, thirty-five to fifty, the profile stated. Highly intelligent,

yet lacking interpersonal skills. A loner, an ugly duckling with an

extreme hatred for the type of beautiful woman he’s certain will

never give him a second glance. He’s meticulous about the details

of each murder–from the type of victim to the execution. It’s all

about violating them–forced entry into the home, rape, even the

removal of valuable personal items as trophies. The depth and

proliferation of the stab wounds are indicative of the extreme fury

that drives him to kill.

Sal DeAngelo was obviously very good at what he did. His profile

fit the perpetrator of first four crimes like a glove, the details of

each scene so similar as to be nearly interchangeable. He’d painted

a vivid picture of an individual whose deep sense of inadequacy

and uncontrollable rage had compelled him to commit a series of

heinous crimes.

Monica Mitchell’s death, however, was not one of them. And

unless Mulder had completely lost his touch, Gary Jansen was no

serial murderer.

Far fewer stab wounds, their depth–except for the fatal strike

through her heart–shallow. Though a rape kit revealed she’d been

penetrated, there was no accompanying bruising or tearing.

Perhaps most telling of all, a thorough inventory had turned up no

missing valuables. Add to that the fact that she and Gary had a

prior, long-term relationship, that he’d been dating another woman

for nearly six months at the time of Monica’s murder…

“You convicted the wrong man. Gary Jansen is going to die for a

crime he never committed.” Mulder lifted a crime scene photo,

staring at the dark-haired man crouching over Monica Mitchell’s

body. “Is that what this is all about?”

Moving to his computer, Mulder wiggled the mouse and brought

the screen to light. He clicked on bookmarks and went straight to

“The Washington Post Online.” Following the links he surfed his

way to the archives, hesitating for a second before pulling up the

obituaries. He typed “Sal DeAngelo” into the search engine,

holding his breath as the computer sifted through files.

Bingo!

Oh God.

He sucked in a deep breath, a useless attempt to still the trembling

that wracked his body. “Salvatore DeAngelo, 42, died of injuries

sustained when he was struck by a car sometime during the early

morning hours on August 2, 2002.” Mulder read the sentence four

times, one hand pressed to his chest.

He’d been shot on August 2nd. While Sal DeAngelo had been busy

dying along a deserted road, he’d been lying in a hospital across

town, engaged in the same activity.

Skimming further through the listing, Mulder searched for more

details. “…an agent with the Federal Bureau of Investigation…

survived by his wife, Victoria…”

Vickie.

The dream. Scully’s worried voice. Who’s Vickie? His confused

response. Vickie? I don’t know any Vickie.

Mulder buried his head in his hands, fingers massaging the

nagging pain in his temple. God, what was happening to him? He

needed to know. To find out everything about Sal.

He pushed himself back from the desk, opened a drawer, and

pulled out the phone book. He had a name, and a suburb. Within

minutes, he had an address.

Scooping his jacket off the couch and the keys from the table,

Mulder headed out the door.

***************

He felt strange. Disconnected. As if his body had staged a coup,

limbs functioning according to their own, private agenda. Mulder

tightened his fingers on the steering wheel, squinting against the

headache that pulsed just behind his eyes. He passed a dry cleaning

establishment, then a bank, skin tingling with an increasingly

powerful sensation of déjà vu. For a split second he could picture

himself fumbling to hold onto several clean suits in slippery plastic

bags that slithered out of his grasp to puddle on the concrete.

Could hear himself bantering with the teller at the drive-up

window, a young girl named Rose who teased him about his

accent.

Accent?

Mulder blinked, gave a sharp shake of his head. Where had that

come from? He tore his gaze from the buildings and focused on the

road, turning right, then left, and right again.

Ten minutes later he’d exchanged the bustling city atmosphere for

a quiet, nearly deserted stretch of road lined with mature trees. As

he rounded a curve, a particularly large tree caught his attention.

His foot slammed down onto the brake with such force the tires

squealed in protest. More screeching tires, and the driver directly

behind him leaned on his horn. Mulder pulled onto the shoulder,

oblivious to the shouted obscenities and upraised middle finger of

the irate driver who zoomed past.

He got out of the car, left it idling on the edge of the road as he

walked slowly toward the tree–an oak, long dead, its branches

twisted and devoid of leaves. His gaze dropped to the ground

beneath the tree, the dirt still bearing faint impressions of multiple

tire tracks. His heartbeat doubled and gooseflesh broke out on his

arms as the world narrowed to a pinprick of light and sound.

Night air, cooling the sweat on the back of his neck as he struggles

with the wrench in his hands.

Headlights–brilliant and blinding in the darkness.

Recognition, followed rapidly by disbelief.

Betrayal.

Terror.

Heart pounding, legs tangling, falling…

Bright agony.

clip_image001

He clutched his chest, legs crumpling until he was kneeling in the

dirt. His lungs burned like fire as he gasped and panted for air.

“Mister, are you all right? Do you need help?”

The voice cut through the haze and he abruptly realized both eyes

were clamped tightly shut. He cracked them open, turning his head

toward the road. A yellow Volkswagen Beetle hovered on the

shoulder about ten feet away. The driver, a young girl who could

not have been more than seventeen, was watching him uneasily.

“‘S okay. ‘M all right. Just…just tripped.” He pried one hand away

from his chest and waved her onward, forming his lips into what

he hoped was a convincing smile.

She hesitated only briefly before nodding. “Okay, then. If you’re

sure.” Her car was moving before she finished speaking, the relief

on her face painfully obvious.

The vise across his chest was loosening, his respiration easing. He

stood and dusted off his pants, frowning at the dark stains on his

knees. Vickie was gonna kill him.

He walked slowly back and climbed behind the wheel, carefully

maneuvering the car into the light flow of traffic. By the time he

pulled into the driveway his breathing had returned to normal, the

terror of his experience on the roadside fading, eclipsed by the

need to find his files.

He tried three different keys before conceding that he’d somehow

lost the one to the front door. Ringing the bell produced no result–

Vickie must be out shopping. Whistling softly he walked around to

the back porch, retrieved the spare key taped under the picnic

table, and let himself inside.

Drawn drapes left the living room heavily shadowed and silent

except for the hushed ticking of the mantle clock. He slipped off

his suitcoat and laid it over the back of a chair, one hand gliding

along the banister as he climbed to the second floor. Four steps

down the hallway and he paused in the bedroom doorway,

forehead creasing at the rumpled bed and scattered clothing. Not

like Vickie to leave a mess–she was normally almost anal in her

neatness.

Shrugging, he continued to the room kitty-corner from the

bedroom. His room. The study.

He dropped into the desk chair and flicked on the computer.

Lacing his fingers behind his neck, he swiveled, letting his gaze

wander as he waited for the machine to boot up. The bookcase,

shelves lined with texts on law, psychology, and forensics. His

doctorate in criminal psychology from Georgetown, framed and

hanging beside the letter of commendation received after his

successful resolution of the Berkshire kidnapping. His “lucky”

paperweight, the marble surface polished smooth by the many

hours spent in his hand as he worked through a profile.

He sat forward, frown returning as his gaze continued to pan across

the room. No empty coffee mugs, no soda cans, and not a single

article of shed clothing. Everything in its place, but neat as a pin.

Why had Vickie been cleaning in here? She normally referred to

the study as “your territory,” steadfastly refusing to tidy the area

for fear of disturbing vital paperwork.

And speaking of paperwork, what about all his files? He’d been

researching a couple of profiles, but the folders no longer rested in

their customary spot on the corner of his desk. Where would

Vickie have moved them, and why?

Resolving to question her later, he pulled a floppy disk from the

drawer and loaded it into the drive, then pulled up his email

account. The mechanical voice cheerfully told him what he already

knew–he had mail. All animation seeped from his features as he

opened his inbox and retrieved the email that had changed

everything.

I’m not a whore and I don’t intend to be treated like one. I wonder

how the lovely Mrs. Kyle McNally would feel about her husband if

she knew he was screwing around?

Bright red silk and long pale legs. Snuggled in the arms of a man

he’d have sworn he knew as well as himself.

He copied the file and stuffed the disk into his pocket. Reaching

for the mouse, he froze, hand stilled by another photo–this one

perched on the far edge of the desk. Taken more than a year

earlier, at Jack Kaminski’s retirement party. The BSU’s answer to

the rat pack–Corey Peterson, Steve Pendleton, himself…and Kyle

McNally. Arms around each other’s necks, drinks in hand,

mugging for the camera.

Rage tightened his muscles to knots, caused a flush to creep up his

neck and across his cheeks. He snatched up the photo, spun, and

flung it against the wall. The impact, a spectacular crash and

shower of broken glass, did little to diminish his fury.

The voice, small and trembling with fear, quenched it completely.

“Who…who’s there?”

Contrition immediately followed. “It’s just me, sweetheart. I’m

sorry, I…accidentally broke something.”

Dead silence.

“Vickie?”

“Who are you? What are you doing in my house?” Higher pitched

now, wavering between fear and something that sounded like

anger.

He chuckled a little at the tough edge–his little wildcat. “It’s my

house, too–unless there’s somethin’ you want to tell me. I’m up in

my study.”

When she didn’t answer he heaved a sigh of frustration, got up, and

strode down the hallway to the top of the stairs. She stood rigidly

at the bottom, one hand clutching the railing in a white-knuckled

grip. Her dark eyes looked huge in a face paler and thinner than he

remembered. Even so, in a bright red sweater and short black skirt

she stole his breath.

“Whatsamatta with you? You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”

She squinted against the shadows, slowly shaking her head. “You

can’t…it’s not possible.” She tentatively climbed one step then two,

halting halfway up the flight.

“Who ARE you?”

He was starting to worry now. Had something terrible happened

while she was out, some kind of trauma? He started down the

steps, freezing when she drew back with a hiss.

“Vickie, cara mia, it’s me. It’s Sal. What’s wrong?”

Her hand darted to her mouth, unable to repress a strangled sob.

“Stop it! You’re not my husband, you can’t be Sal!”

The wild, hysterical tone to her voice provoked both sympathy and

irritation. He lunged down the steps between them and seized her

arm.

“You’re not making any sense. Why the hell can’t I be Sal?”

“Because Sal is dead, you bastard!” Her fists came up to beat on

his chest as she sobbed. “He’s dead and I buried him; I watched

them put him in the ground. Get out, get out! Why are you doing

this to me?”

She shoved him hard and fled down the stairs, her arm slipping

easily from his nerveless fingers. He sat down heavily, spinning

head cradled in his palms, vaguely registering the sound of weeping

and running feet. The headache, forgotten for a time, returned with

a vengeance. He dug the heels of his hands into his temples with a

soft moan.

After several minutes Mulder lifted his face to stare at his

surroundings. Where the hell was he? DeAngelo’s house? How had

he gotten here? He grasped the banister and hauled himself

upright, staggering down the steps. A voice carried from the back

of the house, a flood of words between hiccuping sobs. Speaking

to someone on the phone, from the sound of it. Alarmed, Mulder

let himself out the front door and walked quickly to his car.

He grasped the door handle and tugged, grimacing when the latch

refused to budge. Locked. Stealing a peek over his shoulder, he

reached into the front pocket of his pants.

No keys.

He patted himself down without success. Jiggled the door handle

and peered through the window, half expecting to see the ring

hanging from the ignition. Nothing.

A gust of wind set him shivering, and like a lightbulb snapping on

over his head, Mulder realized he was missing his suitcoat. He

glared at the house, feet shuffling, then jogged back and cracked

open the door. A cursory scan of the living room located his jacket

folded over the back of a chair. In a matter of seconds he’d

snatched it up, fished the keys from its pocket, and returned to the

car.

He heard the distant wail of a siren as he slid behind the wheel. His

hands were shaking so badly that when he tried to insert the key

into the ignition the whole ring tumbled to the floor. Cursing, he

ran his fingers over the mat, snagged the ring, and fumbled the

correct key into place.

He’d just shifted into reverse when the police car pulled up,

blocking the end of the driveway.

Mulder pressed his forehead to the steering wheel, stomach rolling.

He reached into his pocket for his ID, frowning when his fingers

encountered smooth plastic. What the…? He stared at the disk

until the sound of slamming car doors jolted him to action. He bent

and slipped it under the mat beneath his feet.

Then, squaring his shoulders, he opened the door and got out,

hands raised.

**************

ACT IV

**************

Hoover Building

4:39 p.m.

“Agent Scully?”

Scully turned from the filing cabinet, startled to see the Assistant

Director standing beside Mulder’s desk. She tugged the manila

folder from its slot and shut the drawer.

“Sir? Is there something I can do for you?”

“I’ve had a rather disturbing call from the Silver Springs PD. I was

hoping perhaps you could shed some light on the circumstances.”

Scully crossed the room and laid the folder on her desk, forehead

creased. “Silver Springs? We don’t have any cases pending under

that jurisdiction.”

“Nevertheless, this situation concerns you on a more…personal

level.”

At Scully’s folded arms and raised eyebrow, he continued. “I’ve

been asked to come down to the station. Earlier this afternoon, one

of their units responded to a breaking and entering call at a private

residence. The suspect was still on the premises when they arrived,

and was taken into custody without incident. He claimed to be an

FBI agent, but was unable to produce valid ID.” He paused,

watching her face. “Scully, it’s Mulder.”

Scully’s jaw literally dropped. “Mulder? Sir, that’s ridiculous, why

on earth would Mulder…?”

“The residence belongs to a Vickie DeAngelo.”

She blinked, abruptly lightheaded. “Vickie?”

“DeAngelo. Coincidentally, her husband used to be a profiler for

the BSU.” His eyes narrowed. “Or maybe not so coincidentally.

Scully, if you know something…”

Still reeling, she pasted on her poker face. “Sir, I am just as baffled

by this news as you are.”

“Then I suggest we go to the source. I’ll drive.”

She could do little more than nod and follow him out the door.

They drove in silence. Scully kept her eyes fixed on the road,

though peripherally she could see the little muscle twitching in her

boss’s jaw as he ground his teeth together. Her stomach churned

and she had to fold her hands in her lap to keep from fidgeting.

What’s going on in that head of yours, Mulder? Who is Vickie?

“Sir, you said Mrs. DeAngelo’s husband used to be a profiler. Is he

no longer with the Bureau?”

“He died a little over a month ago. Hit and run–they never caught

the driver.” Skinner studied her profile before turning his gaze

back to the road. “Scully, I was under the impression that Mulder

was recuperating well. He’s scheduled to return for light duty next

week. Is there something I need to know?”

Don’t ask me this.

“Physically he’s almost completely recovered. There’s some

lingering pain and weakness, but…”

“You and I both know the physical effects of being shot can be

only half the problem. Level with me, Scully.”

She stared at a passing minivan, a harried-looking woman at the

wheel, the back crowded with children. “There have been

some…symptoms of emotional trauma.”

“PTSD?”

“Nothing so severe. Nightmares, trouble sleeping…” She flushed.

Yes, Skinner had helped her settle Mulder into her apartment after

his release from the hospital–when he could barely walk across the

room without extreme pain and fatigue. Her partner’s need for 24-

hour nursing, however, had long since expired. “That’s what he

tells me, anyway.”

For just an instant she could have sworn amusement replaced the

concern in her boss’s eyes. Then he frowned, and she was certain

she’d imagined it.

“Has he talked to anyone?”

A pause. “No, sir.”

Skinner pulled the car into a parking space and shut off the engine.

Rather than open his door, he turned to face her.

“Scully, it’s non-negotiable. I don’t care if he sees someone from

the Bureau or a private psychologist on his own dime. He’s not

coming back to work until he’s been cleared, both physically AND

mentally.”

“Yes, sir.”

“I can tell him, if you’d like.”

“No, thank you anyway, sir. I think it might be better coming from

me.”

Skinner’s mouth twitched and he reached for the door handle. “No

doubt.”

******************

Mulder was seated at the table in a small interrogation room, head

cradled in his hands. He looked up, lifting his shackled wrists with

a smirk when Scully stepped inside and shut the door.

“Would you be shocked if I confessed this is a common fantasy of

mine?”

“I’m glad you find this humorous. Maybe if you’d been the one

riding with Skinner on the way over here you’d feel differently.”

Scully produced a key and unfastened the cuffs, her words clipped

and her movements brusque.

Mulder sat back, massaging the red marks encircling his wrists.

“They actually called Skinner? I was hoping…”

“Yes, Mulder, they called Skinner. They thought he’d like to know

that one of his agents was pulled in on a B&E. They were right.”

“Look, Scully, I’m sorry. I…”

“What the hell is going on, Mulder? Who is Vickie DeAngelo, and

what were you doing inside her house?”

His lips tightened and his eyes evaded hers, dropping to the

tabletop. “I don’t know.”

“You don’t know what? You don’t know who Vickie is, or you

don’t know why you were in her house?”

“Either. Take your pick.”

His soft admission defused her anger. “Mulder, I’m worried about

you. You need…”

“Listen to me for a minute, Scully. Something’s going on;

something I’m having a difficult time understanding myself. It’s

related to the shooting, but it’s NOT what you think.”

Scully dropped into the chair opposite him with a sigh. “Go on.”

“For the past few weeks, I…I’ve been having some disturbing

visions.”

“The nightmares.”

“Yes. The same dream, over and over. Bright lights bearing down

on me…pain…and most of all, the feeling that I’m not myself.

That I’m seeing through someone else’s eyes.

“But that’s not all. The other day, when I was shaving, I looked in

the mirror and for a split second…Scully, I saw the face of a

stranger. A man I’ve never seen before in my life. Black hair. Dark

eyes.” He hesitated. “Italian.”

Scully laid one hand over his fingers as they drummed a staccato

beat on the oak tabletop. “Mulder…”

“Just hear me out. The past few days I’ve been getting impulses,

compulsions that I can’t explain. I’ve wound up in unfamiliar

situations and places, with no recollection how I got there. But

every time it’s served to involve me in a specific case–a homicide.

One of a string of serial murders investigated by our own BSU.

I’ve seen the files, Scully. The profiler’s name was Salvatore

DeAngelo.”

She stared at him, her chest tight and her heart pounding, as a

confusing jumble of words and images clicked into place.

The residence belongs to a Vickie DeAngelo.

There’s bright lights…an engine. I think…I think I get hit by a car.

Her husband used to be a profiler for the BSU…He died a little

over a month ago–hit and run.

She shook her head, her mouth speaking reason though her brain

shrieked that something was terribly wrong, that logic could not

explain away the facts that clicked neatly into place. “Mulder, I think

I see where you’re going with this, and…”

“Sal DeAngelo died sometime in the wee hours of the morning of

August 2nd, Scully. Sound familiar?” When she didn’t answer, her

face pale and set, he plowed on. “I was clinically dead for nearly

three minutes. What if Sal DeAngelo died at that same moment?

What if our souls somehow became linked, so that when I came

back I brought a piece of his along with me?”

“Why, Mulder?” Scully’s voice turned sharp, anger a means to

conceal her fear. “Setting aside the fact that your hypothesis

violates the most basic rules of nature, of life and death, WHY

would this Sal latch onto you like some kind of…of…spiritual

parasite?”

“Maybe because he died too soon. What if there was a greater

purpose to his life–a vital task to perform, an injustice to correct–

but he was interrupted before he could fulfill it?”

“Are you suggesting he picked you to do it for him?”

“Why not? Profiling requires a specific mindset, a way of thinking

outside the box. Maybe there was a…a kinship between us, even

though we’d never met. Something that convinced him I’d finish

what he started.”

“Why do I get the sense you’re going to tell me exactly what that

was?”

“I’ve gone over the casefile, Scully; I can show it to you. They

arrested, tried, and convicted a killer based on evidence gathered

from the last crime scene. Yet the crime itself contained some

major deviations from the four previous homicides, and the man

they arrested didn’t fit the accepted profile. If Sal knew they’d

convicted the wrong man, if he was killed before he could act on

that knowledge…”

Jack Willis. Luther Lee Boggs. Melissa Ephesian. Memories

bombarded her, tightening her chest and sending chills up and

down her spine. The “craziness” Mulder was spouting wasn’t

really so crazy, was it? Then an image of him in the ER, pale and

lifeless, blotted out all other recollections.

Three minutes without a heartbeat, without oxygen. From the

moment she’d heard those words, residual brain damage had

been her greatest fear. Physical injury coupled with the post-

traumatic stress…

“Stop it, Mulder! Please. Stop.”

The strength of her emotion cut off his words and stilled his feet.

“Scully?”

“Mulder, I think you’ve immersed yourself in a fantasy to keep from

facing a more plausible reality.”

He propped his hands on his hips. “All right, Scully. Enlighten me.

What reality is that?”

She walked over and took his face between her palms. “Occam’s

Razor, Mulder. The simplest theory is usually the correct one. You

suffered a terrible trauma, and your brain isn’t about to let you

proceed as if it never happened. You have to deal with it, Mulder.

You have to talk to someone.”

He stared at her, dumbfounded, then pulled away. “Scully, did you

hear a word I said? This has nothing to do with…”

“It could have everything to do with it! Mulder, I know you aren’t

going to like this, but the AD and I are in complete agreement–you

need to see a counselor. And I…I’m recommending you see a

medical doctor, as well. You could easily have suffered residual

damage from hypoxia while you were arresting. Your tests at the

time showed no adverse impact, but under the circumstances, I

think it would be wise…”

“Let me get this straight–you want me to see a shrink AND check

for brain damage? Why not just get Skinner and sign the

commitment papers now, Scully? You’ve done it before.”

His cruelty stole her breath. “That’s not fair.”

“The hell it’s not! The fact is you’d rather believe that I’ve lost my

marbles than open yourself to the possibilities.”

“Mulder…”

“Am I free to leave? Or am I going to be charged?”

She drew in a deep breath, released it slowly. “You can go. Mrs.

DeAngelo decided not to press charges–she was more upset than

angry. Skinner had someone get your car. It’s parked out front.”

“Fine.” Mulder yanked open the door.

“Mulder. Mulder, wait!”

He kept his back to her, shoulders rigid. “What now? Are you

going to tell me I’m too mentally impaired to safely operate a

motor vehicle?”

Scully winced at the sarcasm before her own temper flared. “Of

course not. It’s just…I rode down here in Skinner’s car. I was

hoping we could drive home together.”

Fingers tightened on the doorjamb, followed by a sharp shake of

his head. “If you mean your apartment, I don’t think so. I’m going

back to my place. I need some space.”

Though his words cut her deeply, Scully tipped her chin up.

“Fine.”

He disappeared into the noisy squadroom without a backward

glance. Scully bit down hard on her lip and blinked against the

sting of tears, wondering if she’d made the correct decision.

Bewildered by how things had so quickly spiraled out of control.

Alexandria

10:18 p.m.

She thought he was crazy.

Mulder paced back and forth across the small room, turning the

basketball in his hands. He squeezed his eyes shut, remembering a

hospital room and agony so overwhelming that for a time he’d been

convinced death would be preferable to life…

The lights blazed too brightly against his eyelids; the slightest

sounds a deafening cacophony. His chest felt as if it had been

smashed to bits and then reassembled by harsh, uncaring hands.

The machine breathed for him–the rhythm all wrong, too slow, too

deep–yet he could not muster the energy to protest. He wanted to

disappear, to retreat back to the darkness that erased the pain, but

gentle fingers moved across his brow, detaining him.

“I know it hurts, Mulder. I know how tempting it must be to let go.”

The voice wavered, broke, and the fingers vanished. He waited,

latching onto the phantom touch with all his strength.

“I’m here. I’m not going anywhere. And I know you can do this.

You hear me, Mulder?” Hands slipping something around his

neck, her warm, sweet breath against his skin. Lips brushed his

cheek. “You have the strength of my beliefs. You came back to me.

Please stay.”

When had she stopped believing?

Mulder tossed the ball onto his couch and sat down at the

computer. He plucked the floppy disk off the blotter, turning it

over and over in his hands. He had no recollection of acquiring the

disk, no clue what might be on it, and yet…

It was important. The key to what had been happening to him. He

felt it in the fluttering at the pit of his stomach, the pricking of his

fingertips. Gnawing on his lower lip, he popped the disk into the

drive and pulled up the directory. Blank save for a single file.

“Judas.”

Mulder grasped the mouse and double-clicked on the icon.

He read the text twice, stared at the picture for several minutes,

then read the text again.

I wonder how the lovely Mrs. Kyle McNally would feel about her

husband if she knew he was screwing around?

His gaze drifted to the original header.

From: kmcnally@fbi.gov

To: sdeangelo@fbi.gov

FWD: Better think again

K. McNally. Kyle McNally? Why did the name sound so familiar?

Mulder moved to the couch and began rummaging through the file

folders spread across the coffee table. He found what he was

looking for on the official copy of the profile. Submitted by Sal

DeAngelo to Kyle McNally, ASAC. He stood, profile in hand, and

returned to stare at the picture on the computer screen.

“So Kyle McNally, ASAC was getting a little on the side with you,

huh, Monica? Maybe threatening him wasn’t such a good idea.

Maybe it was the last mistake you ever made.”

He dropped back into the chair, scrubbing his palms over his face.

Say Kyle McNally had killed Monica Mitchell and made it look

like the work of a serial killer. Why would he send Sal a piece of

incriminating evidence like this email? Especially when, from all

appearances, he’d successfully pinned the murder on another man?

Had the guilt finally overwhelmed him? Or was it somehow just a

serendipitous mistake?

And what about Sal’s death? Was it really a tragic accident? Or one

murder calculated to cover another?

The phone rang and he scooped it up, half of his mind still working

the problem. “Mulder.”

“Is this Special Agent Fox Mulder?”

A man’s voice–unidentifiable. Mulder straightened, tucking the

receiver between shoulder and ear.

“Who wants to know?”

“My name is Kyle McNally, Agent Mulder. I’m an ASAC in the

Behavioral Science Unit at Quantico.”

Mind racing, Mulder kept his voice low and even. “I’m familiar

with it.”

A chuckle. “Yeah, I know. I’ve studied your cases. You were a

helluva profiler.”

“I’m sure you didn’t call me to reminisce about my glory days in

the BSU. What can I do for you, Agent McNally?”

“Sal DeAngelo was a good friend of mine, Agent Mulder. This

afternoon I received a very upsetting phone call from his wife,

Vickie. I’m sure you know what she had to say, and can understand

why I found her story so disturbing.”

“I’m a little disturbed myself, Agent McNally. I’ve been going over

Monica Mitchell’s casefile.”

A short pause. “That’s understandable; it was the last in a string of

terrible crimes. Though I must say, I’m at a loss as to why you’d be

going through our casefiles–especially one that was resolved

months ago.”

“After reading the file, I’ve my doubts about that resolution.”

“A judge and jury felt otherwise. You left the BSU years ago,

Agent Mulder. I think I have a right to know why the head of the

X-Files division is suddenly second-guessing our work.”

“I guess you could say I was doing a favor.”

“A favor? For whom?”

“Sal DeAngelo.”

Dead silence. When McNally spoke again his voice had gained an

edge.

“I think we need to talk, Agent Mulder. There are some things I

can tell you about that case, things you won’t get from the files.”

“I’m listening.”

Another laugh, this one with far less warmth. “Not over the phone.

If I’m going to do this, I need to see your face.”

“I’m assuming you have a meeting place in mind?”

“Are you familiar with Rock Creek Park?”

“I know it.”

“I’ll meet you there, by the main pavilion, at 11:30.”

“Tonight? Hold on a minute, I’m not sure…”

“Look, you’re the one dredging up old casefiles and terrorizing my

good friend’s wife. You want to know more about that case? We do

it now, tonight.”

Mulder hesitated, eyes wandering to the computer screen. “All

right. I’ll be there.”

“Good. And Agent Mulder? You’re the only one I’m willing to

discuss this with. Bring anyone else, and the deal’s off.” A dial tone

punctuated McNally’s warning.

Mulder glanced toward the clock. 10:30. Enough time to call

Scully and let her in on what was happening. He punched in the

first three numbers before his brain caught up with his fingers,

stilling them.

“Mulder, I think you’ve immersed yourself in a fantasy to keep from

facing a more plausible reality.”

Scully had made up her mind–it would take a significant

investment of time and patience to convince her otherwise.

Unfortunately, at the moment he was operating under a deficit of

both. This meeting was a chance not only to confront McNally, but

also to get a better handle on Sal DeAngelo. He couldn’t pass up

such a golden opportunity.

With physical pang of regret, Mulder replaced the phone on its

cradle.

Rock Creek Park

11:28 p.m.

“Agent Mulder?”

Mulder moved from the shadow of a large pillar into a pale shaft of

moonlight. He’d spent enough time studying the photo of McNally

to easily recognize his features, but was unprepared for the icy jolt

that shot up his spine upon confronting the man in person.

“I’m Kyle McNally.”

McNally extended his hand, flushing when Mulder chose not to

reciprocate, hands tucked into his jacket.

“You said you had information for me.”

“I just want to save you a lot of time and effort. If you talked to Sal

about this case, I think you probably got the wrong impression.”

Mulder raised an eyebrow. “Really.”

“Look, Agent Mulder…” McNally placed steepled fingers under

his chin, then tapped his lips. “I don’t know how well you knew

Sal, but he was a good friend of mine. He was an excellent agent,

and a damn fine profiler. I gotta tell you, though, he wasn’t exactly

himself those last few days before the accident.”

“How so?” The headache was back–not a gradual ache but a

sudden, intense throbbing.

“Something about the Mitchell murder just…set him off. He

fixated on it, couldn’t let it go.”

“That’s not atypical for a profiler, is it? I seem to recall eating,

sleeping, and breathing a few cases myself.”

“I understand what you’re saying, but this…this was different.”

McNally shook his head with a pitying expression. “Even after

we’d caught, tried, and convicted the killer, he couldn’t move on.

Kept poring over the file, looking for something we might have

missed. I was starting to really worry about him.”

Mulder tamped down the fierce anger bubbling up inside him. “As

I said, Agent McNally. I read the file, and I can understand Agent

DeAngelo’s concerns. Your convicted killer never fit the profile.

For that matter, the Mitchell crime scene held some significant

deviations from the previous murders.”

“Hardly significant when you’ve caught the killer with the victim’s

blood on his clothing,” McNally snorted.

He was too cool, confident. Time to shake things up. “Perhaps Sal

knew more than he let on. Maybe he’d found something, some

piece of evidence that would prove someone else killed Monica

Mitchell.”

The amusement froze on McNally’s face and he turned hooded

eyes to scrutinize Mulder. “That’s absurd. Agent Mulder, I’ve tried

to be a good sport, but I think I’ve reached my limit. You’ve been

sticking your nose in files that don’t concern you. And as if that

weren’t enough, you’ve badly frightened a good woman with your

bizarre behavior. That little stunt you pulled at her house today was

cruel and in bad taste. Now if you don’t drop this unauthorized

investigation immediately, I’ll be forced…”

Mulder gritted his teeth, feeling his temper slip between his

fingers. “It has been authorized–by the man who saw through the

web of lies and deceit. Agent DeAngelo…”

“Sal DeAngelo has no authority! He’s dead, and the case is closed.

Now I’m warning you…”

Hands knotted in McNally’s jacket, he jerked the man forward until

their faces were nearly touching. “How could you do it? I trusted

you; you were like a brother to me.”

Kyle hung limply in his grip, face white. “S…what?”

He shook him, Kyle’s hands fluttering in protest. “You screwed us

both, didn’t you, paisan’? We thought we knew you, but we didn’t

have a clue. Which was harder–looking Monica in the face while

you cut her or running me down on the street like a dog?”

Kyle’s eyes nearly popped from his head. In an adrenaline-fueled

burst of strength he grasped Mulder’s shoulders, bringing a knee up

to connect squarely with his midsection. When Mulder doubled

over, clutching his stomach, Kyle stepped back and pulled his gun.

His voice shook, but his grip was steady.

“Hands up in the air.”

Mulder straightened slowly, arms laced across his gut. “It’s…it’s

over, McNally. You turn yourself in, you’ll buy yourself some

points.”

“Turn around. Put your hands on that picnic table and assume the

position.” When Mulder complied he frisked him, removing both

his service weapon and the gun from his ankle holster.

“I don’t know what kind of game you’re playing, but I’ve come way

too far to turn back now. We’re taking a little ride. Move.”

Mulder walked toward the parking lot, McNally at his side, the gun

pressed to his ribs. “You’re never going to pull this off. My

partner…”

“Shut up! One more word and I’ll end this here and now.”

The park, closed since dusk, was deserted. McNally marched

Mulder to a shiny new sedan and popped the trunk. He motioned

for Mulder to get inside, scowling when he remained motionless,

expression blank.

“What is it?”

“You got rid of it.”

“Got rid of what?”

Mulder turned slowly toward him, something in his eyes shifting

and changing until they looked nearly black in the dim light.

“The truck. Whatsamatta, paisan’? Couldn’t get the blood out?”

With a strangled cry, McNally lifted the gun in both hands and

brought the butt down on Mulder’s head. Mulder crumpled toward

the ground with a soft grunt, eyes fluttering shut. He was a dead

weight, limp and unresisting when Kyle shoved him into trunk and

locked it.

No one saw the sedan that pulled out of the parking lot and sped

off in a squeal of tires and spray of gravel.

To be continued in Justice, Interrupted Part 2

Firestorm

cover

Title: The Firestorm

Author: The IMTP Producers

Rating: PG

Category: X

Keywords: Case file, MSR, M/S/Sk friendship

Spoilers: Fire, VS9

Archive: Two weeks exclusively on VS9, then

Ephemeral. Others, please contact any of the

producers for permission.

Disclaimer: Mulder, Scully and Skinner belong to

Chris Carter, 1013 and Fox. For the moment.<g> No

copyright infringement intended.

Summary: “Where there’s smoke, there’s fire” takes on

a whole new meaning when Skinner joins Mulder and

Scully on a case.

Feedback: A note in the IMTP VS9 guestbook would be

greatly appreciated!

Authors’ Notes: This special producers’ offering is a

team effort written by Vickie Moseley, Susan Proto,

Sally Bahnsen, Theresa Filardo and dtg. Many thanks

to Dawn for her spot-on beta delivered at light

speed, and to Suzanne and Michelle for their timely

suggestions. If you have even half as much fun

reading this as we did putting it together, it will

be time well spent!

clip_image002

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

The Firestorm by The IMTP Producers

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Teaser

Clifford Heights, IL

Early June, 2002

Kara Brooks looked around her newly painted bedroom

and sighed. She’d just been moved from the only home

she’d ever known, and Kara was still having trouble

reconciling herself to it. She tried to imagine what

it was going to look like once she’d unpacked all of

her belongings. The robin’s egg blue was a soothing

shade that coordinated perfectly with the bright,

royal blue carpet. Kara loved the feeling of her toes

sinking into its plush, deep pile. But no matter how

lovely it might be, it still wasn’t “home”.

She stood up and opened another cardboard box. She

couldn’t believe how many boxes were scattered around

the room. “When the heck did I get all this junk

anyway?” she asked herself aloud. When she finished

digging out the top layer of crumpled newspapers, she

discovered the box of stuffed animals that had always

graced her bed. Her mother used to joke that there

was barely enough room for Kara amidst all of her

“loveys”. She wondered if she should bother taking

them out of the box. After all, she was a teenager

now, and she wasn’t sure it was still cool to have a

bevy of stuffed animals lodging on her bed.

She heard a knock on her door. “Kara, are you

hungry?” It was her dad.

“No,” she replied. “Not right now. Maybe later.”

“Okay, well, we’re gonna call in for a pizza in a

little while, okay?”

“Sure, Dad. Sounds great.” She knew her tone said

otherwise. Her dad must have heard it, too, because

he opened the door.

“Kara, are you okay, hon?”

“Yeah, I’m good. Just a lot to do here, that’s all.”

“Well, Bonnie and I offered to help -”

“Dad, I know. But I gotta go through this stuff

myself and decide where I want it all, ya know?”

“Yes, but if you’re going to sit in your room all day

getting bummed out over having to unpack

everything…” he began, but stopped when he saw her

withdraw even more. “Okay, okay. I’ll leave you alone

for now. But when the pizza comes, I expect you to

join the family, understand?”

She nodded and watched him finally leave, closing the

door behind him.

“Family?” Kara muttered aloud to herself. She’d never

heard him refer to them as a family. Sure, her dad

had invited her to join him and Bonnie for a meal,

but never to join ‘the family’. “Oh, yeah… we’re a

family,” she whispered to herself.

Now the question was, did she believe it?

She returned her attention to the box of gray, furry

elephants; brown-spotted puppies and soft, multi-

striped snakes. She smiled at the small, gray seal

pup that her mom had bought for her at the aquarium

gift shop on their last vacation together. It had

always been one of her favorites; it held a good

memory for her.

But now she had to decide what to do with all of the

junk in these boxes.

“God! I don’t want to do this now!” she cried out in

frustration.

Being thirteen years old and figuring out stuff was

hard enough without adding a new house, new school,

new friends, and a new stepmother into the mix. In

all honesty, Kara liked the house. Her room was

bigger than the one she’d had at the old house. And

she did get to paint it whatever color she’d wanted.

And she knew school wasn’t going to pose a problem.

Sure she was a freshman at Clifford Heights High

School, but she was taking all advanced courses and

she was sure that she’d be able to keep up with her

studies. That had never been a problem, even when

she’d had to get through the time her mom was in the

hospital. When she was dying. She’d still managed to

ace all of her classes.

Friends. Well, that was a bit more of a cause for

concern. Kara had always been seen as an egghead and

therefore not cool to hang around with. She’d managed

to nurture one friendship with Anna Lynn Collins, who

was as big a nerd as Kara. The two girls hung out

together and got along well. Best of all, no one

bothered them, for which Kara was very grateful. It

wasn’t uncommon for those who were deemed uncool to

be bullied by certain cliques at her old school. She

hoped to avoid that at Clifford Heights.

Okay, then there was the matter of her stepmother. It

wasn’t that Bonnie was a bad person; she was actually

a very nice person and her dad was obviously very

much in love with her. But she wasn’t her momma, a

fact that had been heavy on her mind for the last

year, ever since Bonnie had come into their lives.

From the time her dad had started dating Bonnie to

the moment they’d said their “I Do’s” at St. Mary’s

Church, Kara could not escape the thought that Bonnie

might actually take her momma’s place. It was crazy;

Kara knew it was crazy because she loved her mom and

always would. But Kara liked Bonnie; she liked having

a woman to talk to about…women things. She was more

than grateful for Bonnie’s assistance when

‘womanhood’ had hit with a vengeance that first time.

Kara still blushed with embarrassment at the idea of

asking her dad to buy her “personal care” products.

And now they were in the new house, and Kara had to

decide which of the things from her old life to

include in her new one. Hard decisions for a

thirteen-year-old. She wished her momma were here

now.

She left the box of stuffed animals and moved to

another box. Not finding what she was looking for,

she opened yet another carton, and then another.

“There you are,” she said, relieved. Kara pulled out

the carefully-wrapped item, and removed the

newspaper wrapping. She looked at the silver photo

frame and breathed warm air onto it. She buffed it

with her cotton sleeve and smiled as she saw its

shine reappear. Kara set the framed photo of Lisa

Brooks on her nightstand. “Welcome to your new home,

Momma.”

Then Kara scrunched up the strewn, crumpled

newsprint and jammed it into the wastebasket. She

looked over at her mom’s photo and stared at it.

And stared at it.

And stared.

Downstairs, Kevin and Bonnie Brooks were in the midst

of a somewhat heated and sadly familiar discussion.

“Kevin, I think you’re overreacting.”

“You didn’t know her before. She was never like

this.”

“Like what? A thirteen-year-old girl who’s going

through enough physical and emotional changes to send

any normal human being into a straight jacket?”

retorted Bonnie.

“No! It’s just that she’s never been this withdrawn

before.”

“Kev, she’s got a lot to deal with. She’s never

exactly been Miss Popularity, has she?”

“No, but–”

Bonnie cut him off. “Listen to me. She’s a good kid.

C’mon, how ridiculous is this? I’m supposed to be the

evil stepmother complaining about the stepchild, not

defending her! What’s wrong with this picture,

Kevin?”

He had to smile at that. “Okay, maybe I am being a

worrywart over nothing. You know what? I’m starving.

Let’s call for that pizza now, okay?”

Bonnie nodded and dialed the number on the pizza-

shaped refrigerator magnet that had come in their

“welcome” kit. After calling in the order, she said,

“Why don’t you go up and let Kara know I’m gonna have

dinner whipped up in about twenty minutes.”

Kevin laughed. “Emeril, eat your heart out!” He

turned and started up the stairs to his daughter’s

bedroom.

Kara was gazing so intently at her mother’s

photograph that when her door opened and her father

called out to her, she nearly jumped out of her skin.

“Kara! What the hell are you doing?”

“What?” she asked, her voice filled with confusion.

“Jesus Christ, Kara! We just moved in for God’s

sake!”

“Daddy, what’s wrong?” she cried out as she saw him

rush over to the wastebasket.

The crumpled wads of newsprint were aflame in the

basket, sending glowing bits of paper floating lazily

to the carpet at her feet.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Act I

J. Edgar Hoover Building

Washington, D.C.

Six months later

Monday, 4:40 p.m.

One minute, forty-five seconds from portal to portal.

Down the hall to the elevator, up three floors, then

twenty-three paces to the A.D.’s office door. How

many trips did it take to start earning frequent-ass-

chewing miles? And what did it say about him that he

had this level of detail in his head?

“Mulder? If you go in there with that look on your

face, you’ll guarantee us an extra ten minutes on the

carpet.”

The picture that popped into his head had nothing to

do with their boss’s floor covering. Visions of a

recent Saturday afternoon in front of Scully’s

fireplace and a well-earned complement of rug burns

put a grin on his face. “Nothing like a few extra

minutes on the carpet with the one you love.”

The elevator doors opened onto a small crowd of their

fellow agents, cutting off her snappy comeback, but

Mulder saw the smile before she turned her face away.

Kimberly looked up and smiled as they entered. “He’s

waiting for you. Go right in.”

Scully and Mulder exchanged glances. Kimberly’s

greeting was generally a pretty fair indication of

her boss’s mood. Whatever he’d called them up here

for, it wasn’t something he’d been ranting about to

his assistant. That could mean that the report Mulder

had turned in Friday afternoon, the one Scully had

been so concerned about, had made it past the first

hurdle.

Mulder leaned down and put his lips close to his

partner’s ear. “You owe me a buck.” He gave her an I-

told-you-so wink and turned to Skinner’s door,

pushing it open as he knocked.

“Come in, agents.” Skinner glanced up quickly, then

returned his attention to the folder in front of him.

Mulder tried to assess the A.D.’s mood. ‘Awkward’ was

as close as he could come, and his burst of optimism

took a sudden downturn. Scully apparently felt it,

too, judging by the look she gave him as they took

their seats.

The man wasted no time getting to the point. “I’ll be

accompanying you on this next case. Let’s just get

that out of the way so we can move on.” He folded his

hands and looked directly at Mulder.

His statement was greeted with stunned silence.

Mulder was actually at a loss for words. His partner

was not.

“Sir, may I ask why?”

Skinner pinched the bridge of his nose with two

fingers, then readjusted his glasses and refolded his

hands. “Expenditure validation was, I believe, the

term that was used. What it boils down to is that

your creative record-keeping has finally surpassed my

tap dancing ability.” He turned his focus to Mulder.

“It was either agree to accompany you on the next

case personally, or allow your favorite bean counter

to go in my place. Which would you have preferred?”

Mulder found his voice. “And what is this supposed to

accomplish? Teach us not to have that second snifter

of brandy after dinner? What the hell do they think

we’re doing out there?” He was leaning forward, both

hands clenched around the arms of his chair.

Scully touched his arm. “Mulder–”

“We already have our names in the roach motel hall of

fame. I’ve replaced three cell phones out of my own

pocket this year alone, not to mention the suits that

haven’t survived their first trip into the field. I

know I don’t need to tell you of all people that what

we do is a little outside the norm. So, what’s this

really about? Another lame–”

Skinner held up one hand and Mulder stopped. “It’s a

formality. Let’s not read anymore into it. I’ll

verify that your expenses are valid, and that will be

the end of it.” He opened the case file and pulled

out a stack of photographs. “A postal employee in

Clifford Heights, Illinois is recovering from burns

suffered when his backpack caught–”

Mulder heard Skinner stop in mid-sentence, but his

focus was elsewhere. The silent debate he was engaged

in with his partner required his full attention.

“Agents?”

Scully’s eyes flashed a parting shot and she turned

to face their boss. “Yes, sir?”

“If I could have your full attention?” The corner of

his mouth was twitching in what, on anyone else,

Mulder would have seen as a smirk.

“Yes, sir.” They answered in unison, and this time

the smirk almost got away from Skinner, but the stern

mask quickly returned.

“The victim was burned over sixty percent of his

body by what at first appeared to be a letter bomb.

He insists that his entire pack burst into flame as

he was leaving the last house on his route. Not just

the contents, the canvas bag as well.”

Scully reached for the photographs and began to leaf

through the stack. “Why couldn’t it still have been a

letter bomb of some kind?” She leaned to her right

and held the photographs so Mulder could see them.

“I can see why this would fall under Federal

jurisdiction, but why assign it to us? What makes it

an X file?” That was usually Scully’s line. He saw

her glance up at him, stifling the same smirk he’d

seen on Skinner a moment ago.

“The victim claims that the letters in his hand

ignited at the same time.”

Mulder looked up. “Spontaneous combustion with two

separate points of origin?”

“The initial forensic evidence would seem to bear him

out. There’s also the fact that the house he was

leaving when the incident occurred has had four

unexplained fires in the six months since the new

owners moved in. The only common factor in all of

these incidents, including the attack on the postal

employee, appears to be the owners’ thirteen-year-old

daughter, who seems to have been present each time.”

That got his attention. “Has the girl ever shown any

telekinetic ability before this?”

Scully dropped the photographs in her lap. “Who said

anything about telekinesis?”

“At the moment, it’s as plausible an explanation as

any. Unless you prefer spontaneous combustion?”

“Mulder, the evidence is inconclusive. That does not

automatically open the door to something paranormal.”

Skinner cleared his throat, and both agents turned to

face him. “We leave for Chicago tomorrow morning.

Clifford Heights is an hour’s drive south. I’ll pick

Scully up at 6:30. Mulder, we’ll be by for you at

7:00.”

Scully stood up and handed the photos back to him.

Mulder remained in his chair.

“Was there something you wanted to say, Agent

Mulder?”

“Sir, will this trip answer any questions regarding

the… legitimacy of our budget, or–”

“Or will I be tagging along on future assignments?”

Skinner’s jaw tightened, and Mulder could swear there

was another smirk in there somewhere. “Not if I can

help it.” He closed the folder and held it out to

Mulder. “I’ll see you in the morning.”

Scully opened the door and turned to wait for her

partner. Mulder tucked the folder under his arm and

followed her out, closing the door behind him.

~~~~~~~~~~~

The Brooks Household

Monday, 4:54 p.m.

Kara sat in the center of her bed, waggling her

number two pencil between her fingers. If she moved

her hand up and down at just the right speed, the

stiff yellow piece of wood and graphite would begin

to look rubbery. After about five minutes of zoning

out on the “flaccid” pencil, she finally dropped it

onto her open textbook. It bounced once, then settled

into the crack between the pages.

Word problems. It wasn’t that she disliked Math. It

was just that the problems never seemed to relate to

anything useful. She stared at the open page which

displayed a color photo of an Amtrak train zooming

across the great plains somewhere in America. It was

always a train, wasn’t it? Who cared if two trains

raced from New York to Boston? If anyone really

wanted to get somewhere sooner, they should have

taken an earlier train.

She sighed heavily and noticed a smell just on the

farthest edges of her perception. It was not quite

sweet, and it carried a hint of garlic and herbs

along with it. Mmm… food. Her tummy reacted with an

elongated creaking sound. She glanced down at her

assignment: five more problems to go. Kara wondered

if she had time to finish those before…

“Kara?”

Nope.

“Kara, dear, would you be able to take a break and

set the table for me?” Bonnie called from downstairs.

“Be right down!” she groaned, loathing the choice

between pointless story problems and chores. She

didn’t like her options.

It was nice, though, to be able to reclaim the role

of “daughter” again. At least she was no longer the

one juggling both homework and cooking until her

father came home from work. Bonnie seemed to be

getting into the Holly Homemaker thing. “Let’s see

how long it takes her to get tired of it,” Kara

thought darkly.

As she hopped off the last step and rounded the

corner into the kitchen, Kara was hit with the full

olfactory onslaught of Bonnie’s experimentations. She

gasped at the hanging sting of onion acid in the air.

She had to smirk as she let her mind return for the

briefest moment to her homework upstairs. If Bonnie

were to use three more vegetables and two more cubes

of tofu in her “Bonnie’s Special Veggie Surprise”,

how much more time would I have to spend in the

bathroom from all the fiber intake?

“What’s that, K?” Bonnie asked. Kara hadn’t realized

she was muttering under her breath.

“Oh, smells great, Bonnie. Um, what did you want me

to do first?”

Her stepmother turned from the sink, wet hands

cupping a dripping mound of soaked beans. She blew a

stray clump of curly brown hair from her forehead and

pointed her chin in the direction of the hutch. “Why

don’t you start by setting the table? I think we’ll

eat in the kitchen tonight.”

Kara strolled over to the china closet and found her

Dad’s Aztec-patterned dinnerware, the ones he had

bought especially for his weird culinary excursions.

When he was feeling brave, he used to invite Bonnie

over to try out Emeril’s “hot dish of the week.” The

plates were his special guest-ware, because he wanted

the “perfect canvas” to present his masterpiece. They

seemed fitting, seeing as how Bonnie was in an

experimental mood.

She grabbed three plates, some napkins and

silverware, then carried everything over to the

kitchen table.

Bonnie glanced over her shoulder as she piled the

beans onto a bed of green leaf lettuce. “Oh, no,

dear, use the everyday Corelle dishes. This is

nothing fancy we have to bother over.”

Kara bit back an urge to argue. Did she want her to

help or not? What difference did it make which dishes

they used? She held the plates a moment longer,

feeling a little defiant, almost setting the table

her way anyway. Instead, she pursed her lips and

said, “Fine,” and carried the Aztec guest-ware back

where she found it.

It was a funny thing, Kara realized. They had never

used the everyday plates before the wedding. Since

Bonnie had been living with them and had settled

herself into their lives, it felt weirdly intimate —

like telling someone what kind of deodorant you use.

People weren’t supposed to know stuff like that. And

guests weren’t supposed to see the everyday dishes.

Now Bonnie was telling her, in her own house, to use

them… just like it was any normal weekday evening –

– nothing special. She wasn’t sure, but when Kara

thought about it, she almost enjoyed that idea.

She found the white Corelle plates in the cabinet

next to the refrigerator, and was about to pull one

down, when her finger snagged on a rough spot, right

on the edge of the plate. She jerked her hand back

from the sharp pinch, pulling down the plate in the

process. It crashed to the floor and seemed to

explode in a hundred pieces all over the linoleum.

Bonnie gasped, and Kara flinched, expecting the usual

barrage of anger thrown in her direction. Instead,

her step-mom rushed over to her; agitated, yes, but

more concerned than anything. “Kara, are you all

right? Let me see.”

She presented her cut finger like a little girl. She

half expected Bonnie to kiss it, the way she was

hovering.

“I’ll be right back with a Band-Aid and some

antiseptic. Run it under some water to clean it out.”

Kara did as she was told, a little shaken just from

the noise of the crashing plate. She noticed one of

the larger pieces of debris — the one that actually

had the chip that cut her. She remembered that

accident as well. She’d been washing the dishes for

her *real* mom, helping her because she *wanted* to.

The little bump against the porcelain sink had

sounded like she broke the whole plate. Her mother

instantly began yelling at her for her clumsiness.

Kara knew she’d had a bad day at the doctor’s. That

was the reason she was helping. She tried to remind

herself while her mother unloaded on her that it was

the stress talking, but she’d finished the chore in

miserable silence.

And now, the plate had actually broken but Bonnie was

showing nothing but concern for her, like her mom

used to before she’d gotten so sick. Before Kara had

had to grow up too early and become the caregiver.

Before everything–

Her stepmother returned and nursed her wound. “You

OK? You know, it can happen to anyone. Let’s clean

this up before your father gets home.”

Bonnie grabbed a dustpan and they were both sweeping

up the tiny pieces when a whiff of something foul-

smelling wafted past their noses.

“My tofu!” Bonnie yelled in distress, and dropped the

dustpan, scattering the pieces again.

At the same moment, Kara heard the front door open

and her father called into the house, “I’m back!” As

she bent down toward the mess on the floor, she heard

him walk through the dining room.

“Whew! I must have just saved this! Funny, nothing

seems to be burned…” Bonnie mused, but got cut off

by a very angry sounding man.

“What the hell!”

Suddenly a flurry of motion swept through the

kitchen. Kara vaguely processed the image of her

father diving across the kitchen for the fire

extinguisher and flying back into the dining room.

Bonnie followed after him, and Kara heard her scream.

A smoky smell filled the air, and it definitely

wasn’t Bonnie’s bad cooking.

Kara felt dread sink into the pit of her stomach, for

she knew it was happening again. She slowly got up

and inched around the corner of the doorway to peer

into the dining room. White foam splattered the

floral wallpaper and covered a smoldering rectangular

object on the wall. Her father put down the red tank

and wiped at the wall, revealing a singed wooden

frame, and a very charred, slightly melted image

behind the cracked glass.

She knew that photograph well: her father in a brand

new blue suit, his hands resting on the shoulders of

his two “best girls.” One wore her white chiffon gown

and held a large bouquet of daisies. The other in her

first formal gown, powder blue with short sleeves.

Kara loved that dress.

She could see the image of his and Bonnie’s wedding

day with her eyes closed, which was the *only* way

she’d ever be able to see it now, for it was forever

stained with burn marks from the flames that her

father had just extinguished.

He turned toward her slowly. “Kara, I don’t know what

you’re trying to do here, but it’s got to stop now!”

“Kevin, she was with me the whole– ” Bonnie stopped

in mid-sentence. She glanced quickly at her

stepdaughter. Kara could see her processing the

information behind saddened eyes. She hadn’t been

with her the whole time. So, she was taking her

father’s side!

Kevin Brooks slapped his hand against his thigh in

frustration, wiping sticky foam over his suit-pants.

“Her bedroom, the videotapes. . . now this?”

Kara was jolted by the anger in his voice. She opened

her mouth once, then ran upstairs, slammed the door

shut, and flung herself onto the bed.

“It wasn’t me…” she whimpered into her pillow. She

stared blurry-eyed at her mother’s picture. “Momma, I

wish you were still here.”

~~~~~~~

Mulder’s Apartment

Monday, 10:35 p.m.

Mulder was attempting to stuff another pair of black

socks into the already straining-at-the-seams side

pocket of his two-suiter while juggling the phone

between his right shoulder and ear.

“I’m telling you, Scully, he made this whole thing

up,” he said with as much conviction as he could

muster while grunting at the uncooperative footwear.

“Why, Mulder? Why on earth would the man make up a

story like that? Besides, you know as well as I do

that Accounting has been on the warpath lately. I’m

surprised we haven’t been brought before the OPR on

some of your expense reports! So how can you say

Skinner is making this up? Do you think he’s just

bored behind that desk and wants to come out and

play?”

“I think he suspects something. I think he’s on to

us.”

There, it was out in the open. Mulder could

practically *feel* the little frown line forming

between her eyebrows.

“So why not just come out and ask?” she countered.

“Why all the game playing?”

“Because he wants to be sure,” Mulder shot back. At

that precise moment, the socks slipped into the

pocket and he was able to zip it shut. Another sign

that he was right about their boss and his sudden

interest in what went on out in the field. At least

to Mulder it was.

“I just think you’re being . . .”

“If you say ‘paranoid’ that’s TWO back rubs you owe

me,” he interjected before she could finish her

thought.

“I was going to say ‘overly concerned’,” she replied

dryly.

“Same thing. Two back rubs. Payable upon demand.”

“Sure, fine, whatever.” Her voice had the quality

that came from being strained through gritted teeth.

“I still think you’re making too much of this.”

“Then explain to me why I’m sleeping on my couch,

without my favorite ‘blanket’ and that same ‘blanket’

is going to be across town, sleeping in her awfully

big and cold bed tonight?”

“Because our boss is picking me up at 6:30 and you at

7:00,” she reminded him.

“I could have been out before he got there,” he shot

back.

Her snort was most unladylike. “Mulder, you have

never managed to wake up before 7:30 any time we’ve

slept together.”

“Face it, Scully. You’re thinking the same thing.

Skinner is going to be watching us like a hawk. We

have to be very careful.”

She sighed, and he knew she was about to change the

subject to something he wouldn’t like. “It’s fire,

Mulder,” she said quietly.

A shiver went down his spine. “I know.” He couldn’t

have said more if he’d tried.

“Are you OK with this? I mean, with Skinner there and

everything…”

“I managed to get Thor out of that building, Scully,”

he reminded her. It still caused a little pang in his

heart to think of the huge, loveable mutt, even if he

couldn’t recall all of their time together. Maybe

some memories were better left buried.

“When you found Thor, the fire was out, Mulder. This

time the fires seem to be ongoing. And spontaneous.

We won’t have any warning. I just don’t like the

thought of you–”

“If you’re there, I’ll be fine,” he said with more

confidence than he felt.

“I’ll be there, but Skinner will be, too. And he’ll

be watching,”

“See! You do think he’s up to something! You just

don’t want to admit it,” Mulder taunted.

“Whether he’s ‘up to something’ or not, we have to be

very careful. We’ve managed to keep this from him so

far, and I want it to stay that way.”

“I know, Scully. I know. I’ll promise to be on my

best behavior. I mean, how bad can it be? It’s not

like I have to room with the guy.”

She chuckled lightly into the phone. “He’d be asking

for another room the minute you started to snore,”

she teased.

“I do not snore!” he exclaimed, putting on his best

‘I’m offended’ voice.

“Yeah. Must be that other guy I sleep with,” she

teased.

“Scully, keep this up and I’m coming over…” They

both knew he was only half kidding.

“Sweet dreams, G-man. I’ll see you in the morning.”

“Back at ya. Hey, and Scully?”

“Yes, Mulder?”

“If I do have to room with Skinner, would you shoot

me? I usually get private rooms in the hospital.”

“Good night, Mulder.”

~~~~~~~~~~

Act II

404 Millbrook Lane

Clifford Heights, IL

Tuesday, 12:20 p.m.

There were certain privileges that came with being an

Assistant Director in the FBI, Mulder knew. A big

office, a polished oak desk, a personal assistant

who could be summoned with the flick an intercom

switch.

And it apparently also included the power to

commandeer the front seat of a car and take over the

driving.

Sometimes protocol sucked, Mulder mused to himself

from his assigned spot in the back seat.

“Scully will be my navigator, Mulder,” Skinner had

announced. “It’s a documented fact that you couldn’t

navigate your way out of a paper bag.”

Squished into the tiny space behind his boss, long

legs alternately slung into the space behind Scully

and then back to his own side where his size-13 feet

were jammed underneath the seat in front. (It would

seem that being an Assistant Director didn’t extend

to having enough influence to obtain a bigger rental

car.) Mulder had even toyed with the idea of sticking

his toes up so they would form a hard lump underneath

his boss’s rear end, but he’d opted instead for the

more constructive activity of flipping through the

case file to familiarize himself with the police and

fire reports before they arrived at the Brooks’

residence.

Telekenisis. Mulder’s skin positively tingled with

the thought of pursuing such a possibility. It was

only the fact that Skinner was tagging along like a

bad impersonation of someone’s kid brother that had

thrown cold water on his excitement. Well, that and

the obvious problems inherent whenever Mulder and

fire came into close proximity. But he’d been okay

with that, knowing Scully would be at his side. *His*

side.

Currently ensconced in the Brooks living room, Mulder

glared silently at his boss.

It should have been him sitting beside Scully during

the long drive from Chicago, not Skinner. Just as it

should be him now, leaning back in the two-seater

couch, ankle crossed over knee and elbow brushing

against Scully’s as he conducted the interview. Not

Skinner! A.D. Skinner, the observer. Mr. “Its-just-a-

formality”.

If eyeballs were bullets, Skinner would be a dead

man.

Mulder forcibly reined in his hostility. No use

dwelling on what couldn’t be helped. Maybe if he just

ignored Skinner, pretended he wasn’t there, he might

be able to handle this unwanted invasion of his

investigative privacy without resorting to violence.

Sighing quietly to himself, Mulder sat up straight in

the chair and pulled a notebook and pen from his

pocket.

They had dispensed with the formalities earlier and

been led into a very comfortable living room

furnished in the American version of an English

country house: elegant dark oak tables, faux open

beam ceilings and floral print overstuffed furniture.

A large bowl of potpourri waged a futile battle to

hide the lingering smell of smoke and burnt timber

that hung in the air.

No matter how hard he tried not to stare, Mulder’s

gaze kept returning to the blackened hole in the wall

beside the dining room table. The affected area

looked as if an acetylene torch had been held against

it until the wallboard turned to charcoal. He

wondered what could have ignited that would allow the

damage to be so contained.

When Scully started to speak, Mulder turned his

attention back to the two people sitting diagonally

across from him. A man and woman who held their

bodies too rigid, whose strained expressions told him

that they would rather be doing anything else other

than sitting here talking to the FBI.

“Mr. Brooks, as my partner explained when we arrived,

we’re here investigating an incident that nearly

killed an employee of the U.S. Postal Service in your

front yard. Do you recall the incident?”

Kevin Brooks huffed a humorless laugh, “It’s not

something we’re likely to forget in a hurry. But as I

told the police, Bonnie and I were in the kitchen. We

had just sat down to lunch, so we really didn’t see

anything.” He leaned over and laid a reassuring hand

on his wife’s arm.

“Do you normally come home from work to eat lunch?”

Mulder asked, keeping his expression bland and non-

threatening.

“I work from home. My office is out back.”

“What do you do, Mr. Brooks?”

“I’m an electrical engineer.”

Mulder nodded thoughtfully, leaned back in his chair

and made a note in his book.

Scully picked up on Mulder’s cue and resumed her line

of questioning. “Did either of you hear anything?”

“Of course. The man was screaming for help not twenty

feet from our front door,” Kevin answered testily.

“What did you do?”

Kevin shrugged, “We went to see what the hell was

going on. When I opened the front door and saw that

man rolling on the ground with his clothes in flames,

I yelled out to Bonnie to call 911.”

“Did you do anything to help the victim?”

“I grabbed a blanket off the back of the couch and

tried to smother the flames.” Kevin’s brown eyes lost

focus, his expression dark and serious as his

thoughts seemed to turn inward, perhaps reliving the

horror of watching a man burning to death in front of

him.

“Mr. Brooks, where was your daughter at the time of

the incident?” Mulder asked.

Kevin Brooks snapped back to the present as if he had

been doused in icy water.

“What?” He couldn’t have sounded more outraged if

they’d asked him to consider selling his daughter

into the white slave trade.

“We have eye witness testimony that puts your

daughter at the scene just before the postal worker’s

bag ignited,” Mulder said, holding the man’s angry

gaze.

“What the hell has that got to do with anything? Just

what are you implying?”

Scully gave Mulder a look that told him she wondered

where he was going with this. When it became obvious

that he wasn’t going to answer the man’s question,

she said, “We’re interviewing all witnesses, Mr.

Brooks. We are not implying anything about your

daughter. If she is able to help…”

“Leave her out of this!” Kevin snapped.

Mulder saw Bonnie take her husband’s hand and entwine

her fingers with his, rubbing soothing circles over

the knuckles with her other hand. Scully was

watching, too, he noted. It was the same gesture she

often used to comfort him, and Mulder could see the

shared memories in her eyes. How at the end of the

day they would lay in each others arms, safe and

protected for a few short hours from a world that

sometimes felt as if all that existed in it were

unimaginable horrors. Mulder knew that his partner

wasn’t conscious of the angry look she was shooting

in Skinner’s direction. If it wasn’t for him, they

would be sharing a bed tonight as usual. She was as

upset about this as he was.

“Kara didn’t see anything. The police have already

questioned her. They’ve questioned us. *We* didn’t

see anything. I don’t understand why you’re here.

What do you want from us?” Bonnie turned pleading

eyes to her husband.

Mulder studied the couple for a second, trying to

make sense of the defensive stance they were taking.

He wondered what his boss was making of this and

glanced quickly at Skinner. He tried to gauge the

expression on his boss’s face, but the A.D. was

giving no indication of what was going on in his

head.

Scully spoke up again, her voice calm and soothing.

“Mrs. Brooks, we are simply trying to get to the

bottom of this. A man is in the hospital with burns

over sixty percent of his body. We need to find out

what caused this, and to do that we have to talk to

anyone who might have seen what happened.”

Breathing deeply, Bonnie Brooks nodded and gave

Kevin’s hand a gentle squeeze.

“I believe you’ve been the victims of several house

fires yourselves over the past few months.” Mulder

said, uncrossing his legs and leaning forward.

“Who told you that?” Kevin asked, slipping his hand

out from his wife’s grip and folding both arms across

his chest.

Scully flipped through her note pad, the pages

rustling loudly in the still room. “We have four

reports from the fire department documenting their

attendance at four separate fires here. The police

report also says that neighbors mentioned several

smaller outbreaks around the home. What do you think

is causing them, Mr. Brooks?”

Mulder didn’t miss the way Kevin dug his fingers into

the flesh of his upper arms, a small muscle twitching

along his jaw line. Nor did he miss the flash of fear

that sparked for just a second in Bonnie’s eyes.

“Mr. Brooks, can you think of anyone who might hold a

grudge against you, or your wife and daughter?” This

from Skinner.

Mulder had wondered when it would become too much for

Skinner to remain the silent observer.

“A grudge? You think someone is doing this

deliberately?” Kevin’s hostility receded a little,

genuine surprise coloring his words.

“It’s a possibility we need to consider,” Scully

said.

“What about your line of work?” Skinner asked, “Any

disgruntled clients, bad debts?”

One field trip in how many months and suddenly he

thinks he’s Magnum, PI. The A.D. was really starting

to get under Mulder’s skin. Not content to simply

take over the car, the driving, and his partner, now

the man was muscling in on his investigation. There’s

gotta be a way of ditching him, Mulder thought as he

stared daggers at his boss.

“No. No unhappy customers and no bad debtors.”

“Any problems with the neighbors?” Mulder asked,

determined to reel this investigation back into his

own lap.

“None. Mostly, we all keep to ourselves. We say hey

every now and then, and we talk about the weather,

but that’s about it.”

“Can you think of anyone that might want to hurt you,

Mrs. Brooks?” Scully asked.

“No, nobody. We’ve never had anything like this

happen before, it’s only since we moved here. The

first fire got started on the day we moved in. There

hadn’t been time to make enemies.”

“Is there a history of this happening with the

previous owners?” Scully asked.

“I wouldn’t think so. The house wasn’t in great shape

when we bought it, but there was no sign of fire

damage. We’ve pulled up carpets and put new ones

down, and painted the house inside and out. I’m sure

we would have seen *something*,” Bonnie answered.

Mulder scribbled in his notebook, then looked up and

asked, “How has your daughter settled into her new

neighborhood? Is there any possibility that these

fires might be directed at her?”

“Of course not. She’s thirteen, for God’s sake, what

the hell kind of a question is that?” Kevin’s eyes

burned and his nostrils flared as his anger started

to climb again.

Ignoring Kevin’s outburst, Mulder pressed on. “Any

problems at school? How are her grades?”

Kevin ran a hand over his face, sighing loudly before

answering. “Kara is a good kid. An ‘A’ student. When

her mother passed away nearly two years ago it was

really hard on her…”

“I…I’m sorry. Mrs. Brooks,” Mulder turned to

Bonnie, “you’re not Kara’s mother?”

Kevin answered for his wife, taking one of her hands

in both of his before doing so, “Bonnie and I married

seven months ago. When Lisa, Kara’s mom, died of

breast cancer, Kara took it pretty hard. It wasn’t

easy for either of us, but we got through it.

Together. Kara took on the role of homemaker. It

seemed to help her cope.” Kevin shook his head and

chuffed a soft laugh. “She would always make sure

there was a meal on the table at night, that I had

clean clothes to wear…she’s a good kid, Agent

Mulder. I can’t for the life of me imagine her making

enemies anywhere.”

“How did she react to you marrying again?”

“Kev, let me answer that.” Bonnie smiled at her

husband. “When Kev and I first started dating, I

could detect a note of resentment from her. But as

time went on and she realized I was in for the long

haul, she started to relax. We got along fine, we

*do* get along fine. I try to be there for her, and I

think she appreciates having another woman in the

house to talk to. I don’t try to take the place of

her mom; I couldn’t be what Lisa was to her, I know

that. We take one day at a time, and I really think

she is starting to accept me as part of the family.”

Scully asked, “Mr. Brooks, would you agree with

that?”

A slight hesitation, a quick lick of his lips, an

almost imperceptible twitch of his eyebrow, but

Mulder noted them all. “Kara likes Bonnie. We don’t

have anything to worry about there.”

“How do you account for the fact that Kara has been

the only one present at all the fires that have

broken out around your house?” Mulder asked, deciding

a change of tack was in order.

But before either of the Brooks could answer, there

was a soft popping sound followed by a hiss and a

crackle. A bright orange light ignited in Mulder’s

hand.

“Oh my God!” Scully and Skinner raced to where Mulder

was sitting. The A.D. began stamping his foot on the

flames as the small notebook Mulder had been holding

lay burning on the floor.

“Shit!” Mulder jumped to his feet, too, but his focus

was on his arm, frantically batting the flames

licking at the sleeve of his jacket.

“Here!” Bonnie helped Scully wrap a throw blanket

around Mulder’s hand and arm, effectively smothering

the flames.

“Get me some water, hurry.” Scully said to Bonnie,

not bothering with the niceties of “please and thank

you”.

“Mulder, sit down.” But Mulder had other ideas. He

stood, hunched over his injured left hand, cradling

it in his right and cursing softly.

“Sit, Mulder. Let me take a look.” A bucket appeared

at Scully’s side. She took it and carefully lowered

Mulder’s hand into the cool water over his hisses of

protest.

clip_image003

Mulder sat on the edge of the chair, right forearm

leaning on his knee and left hand submerged in the

bucket between his legs. His whole body felt as if

all its nerve endings were centered around his

burnt hand. It both throbbed and stung, intense heat

resonating from fingertips to wrist. The pain sent

his stomach into nauseous spasms.

“Agent Scully, is there anything I can do?” Skinner

was crouched beside her, eyebrows pulled into a tight

frown, voice strained with concern.

“Yes, help me remove his watch. Be careful of any

clothing that might be stuck to the skin. Don’t pull

on it if it is.”

Skinner gently pried Mulder’s watch loose, stifling a

gasp as a small strip of skin came away with it.

“Should I call 911?” Kevin Brooks asked, a slight

tremble to his voice.

“NO! No. It’s okay.” Mulder said, eyes darting

between Kevin and Scully.

But it was obvious he was anything but okay. His face

was pale, the features drawn and pinched, and his

lips were pressed so tightly together they almost

appeared bloodless. Scully reached up and pressed two

fingers to the pulse point in Mulder’s neck, frowning

at what she found.

“We need to get him to the Emergency Room.” Then

turning to the Brooks, who were helplessly looking

on, “Where’s the nearest hospital?”

“It’s Clifford County Medical Center. I’ll draw you a

map.” Kevin Brooks hurried off to find a pencil and

paper, obviously glad to have something constructive

to do.

“Bonnie, could you get me a clean sheet? An old one

will do. I need you to wet it with cold water. And I

need some ice in a plastic bag.”

“I’m sorry, I’m so sorry.” Bonnie’s apology followed

her out of the room as she left to find the sheet and

ice.

Scully turned back to Mulder, her expression deeply

concerned. He sat hunched forward in the chair, head

now propped on his right hand, teeth biting into the

fleshy area under his thumb.

Ignoring the fact that their boss was squatting right

beside her, Scully reached up and cupped Mulder’s

jaw. Gently stroking his cheek with her index finger.

“How are you holding up, partner?”

“‘m ‘kay.” But he couldn’t help a low groan as the

intense pain in his hand drove all pretense of being

“fine” right out of his head. “I think I need to get

out of here, Scully. I don’t feel so good.” Mulder

swallowed thickly as his stomach gave him a not-so-

gentle reminder that it wasn’t doing too well either.

“Here you go, Agent Scully.” Bonnie Brooks handed her

the wet sheet and a bag of ice.

“Thanks.”

Carefully, Scully pulled Mulder’s hand from the

bucket of water and wrapped it lightly in the cool,

wet sheet, wincing at the red, blistered skin

covering his fingers, palm and wrist. She laid the

bag of ice across the sheet.

Scully turned to Skinner, “Sir, can you help me get

him to the car?”

Skinner hooked his left arm under Mulder’s right and

helped him to his feet, stumbling slightly when

Mulder’s knees seemed to give a little. “Easy,

Mulder. I’ve got you.”

Scully supported his left arm, making sure the wet

sheet and ice didn’t slip and that his hand was

elevated above his heart.

“I’ll get the door.” Kevin went ahead of them, making

sure the path was clear.

Back in the living room, Bonnie stood alone. Arms

hugging her chest as she watched the three FBI agents

leave her home. Her eyes strayed to the ruined

notebook lying on the floor, reduced to nothing more

than a small pile of ash. She scanned the dining

room, eyes coming to rest on the blackened wall where

their wedding photo had hung. She thought of the

various other fires that had broken out around the

house during the past six months. “God, why is this

happening?” She pleaded quietly to herself.

Footsteps thundered down the stairs. A stifled sob,

then a blur of red and blue clothing whizzed through

the dining room and disappeared into the kitchen.

“Kara?” Bonnie called after her stepdaughter, but the

only answer she received was the creak of hinges and

the sound of the back door slamming shut.

~~~~~~~~~~~

Skinner had helped get Mulder out to the car, then

had stood back and watched while Scully helped her

partner situate himself in the front seat. He had

sensed their awkwardness; her need to touch him was

as obvious as his need to be touched. This was the

first opportunity they’d had to hold on to one

another legitimately in front of him. Helluv an

excuse, he thought to himself. The careful distance

the two of them continued to maintain in his presence

only reinforced his recent decision to have a talk

with them about their…situation.

After his agents drove off, the A.D. turned and

started to walk back to the house. A flash of color

drew his attention to a tree behind the house. There

was a tree house near the top, and he realized that

he’d just seen someone moving around in it.

Skinner moved to the large oak and called upward.

“Hello? Who’s up there?” He wasn’t surprised by the

lack of a response, but the idea of having to climb

up the somewhat rickety-looking ladder didn’t sit

well with him either.

“Kara? Is that you?” Once again, silence prevailed,

and Skinner played his trump card. “Kara, I know that

it’s you up there. If I have to, I’ll climb up to

speak with you, but I don’t know if your ladder is

going to hold me. So how about making it easy on the

old guy and come down here so we can chat?” He waited

a moment and added, “Honey, I just want to talk to

you. Please.”

The small, almost mousy-looking child peered out from

the treetop framework, and appeared to be debating

what to do next. Finally, as if deciding to face the

inevitable, she backed out of the doorway and climbed

down the ladder.

“Thank you, Kara, for coming down to speak with me.”

She remained mute, standing with her head down. “Do

you have any idea what’s going on?”

She shook her head without saying a word.

“Kara, I bet it’s pretty scary to have to move to a

new neighborhood after living all those years in your

old one. Probably a little frightening to have to

start a new school, too, I guess.” He waited for a

response, a small reaction at the very least, but got

nothing.

“Kara, I have to ask you– what’s going on? How come

there’s been all of these fires lately?”

At this the child looked up, and her eyes searched

his. Finally, she said, in a small, almost weary

voice, “I don’t know. I don’t know how they start or

why.”

“Is it possible, Kara, that you– ”

She cut him off immediately. “–No! I haven’t done

anything! It’s not my fault! It’s not– Oh, no!”

The young teenager’s eyes widened; fear evident all

over her face. Skinner’s eyes turned to what had

caught hers, and immediately jumped to his side as

heat and flames danced uncomfortably close to his

body.

“Jesus!” he yelled out, but once he was a safe

distance from the fire, he quickly ascertained the

situation.

A damned rose bush just burst into flames, he thought

incredulously.

He moved quickly to look for something to put the

fire out, and noticed a garden hose that lay near the

foundation of the building. He squeezed the trigger

nozzle, and was relieved to see water spout out. He

pulled the hose along with him and sprayed the bush,

effectively putting the fire out almost as quickly as

it had started.

Skinner took a deep breath and allowed his heart rate

to return to normal. Damnedest thing, he thought. At

that moment it dawned on him that he was standing out

there alone. “Kara? Where are you?” He received no

answer. “Damnedest thing.”

He looked up and once again perceived movement, only

this time it was by the back door. “Kara?” he called

out.

“Please don’t talk to my daughter without her

stepmother or me present, Mr. Skinner. You’ve upset

her greatly.” Kevin Brooks’ tone matched the stern

look on his face.

Skinner wondered, exactly when had Mr. Brooks

appeared at the back door?

~~~~~~~~~

Motel 6

Tuesday, 6:20 p.m.

After his aborted interview with the girl, Skinner

had attempted to get back on track with her father

and stepmother. The atmosphere had become decidedly

chilly and, although the Brooks grudgingly took him

through the house and described the fires they’d

experienced, it became abundantly clear that he had

worn out his welcome. He’d eventually decided that a

cooling off period was needed, and called a taxi to

take him back to wait for his agents. His cab pulled

up in front of the motel just in time to see Scully

kneeling next to the passenger side of the rental

car, talking softly with her partner. Skinner paid

his fare and moved quickly to join them. Scully

started to rise when she saw him, but he motioned for

her to stay where she was.

“You stay here and keep an eye on the patient,

Agent.” As he turned to go register their rooms, he

couldn’t help the small smile that found its way to

his face. This was not going to be easy on any of

them, he mused to himself, not easy at all.

“Hurts like hell, doesn’t it?” she asked, once

Skinner was out of earshot.

“You know, Scully, you’d make a helluv an FBI agent,

what with your astute powers of observation,” he

replied with obvious weariness. “I still can’t

believe this happened.”

“At least it’s not your right hand.”

“God, Scully, it really does hurt like hell. You sure

the doc said it wasn’t too serious?”

“Just have to watch for infection, that’s all. So as

soon as we get you settled, you’re going to take your

nice little pink pills and lay down and rest for a

while.” Her expression brooked no nonsense. “No

arguments, Mulder.”

“Okay. Right now, the idea of a nap actually sounds

pretty good.”

She murmured some sounds of sympathy but quieted as

she saw Skinner leave the front entrance of the

motel. “Well, now the fun really begins, doesn’t it?”

she mused aloud.

Skinner returned to the car and climbed into the

driver’s seat. He handed Scully a keycard, then put

the car into gear and drove them around the back. As

he pulled into the parking space, he remarked, “I got

us a first floor, Mulder. Scully, yours is the corner

unit.”

“Corner?” asked Scully.

“Us?” piped up Mulder.

“Agents, I’m traveling with you so I can make

recommendations regarding cost-cutting measures on

your trips. Did you honestly think I was going to get

us three separate rooms? Besides,” he muttered,

almost as an afterthought, “I figured Mulder would

need a nursemaid to watch for a fever or something.”

Once Scully found her voice, she said, “Let’s get our

things inside,” and she got out of the car. Skinner

popped the trunk, and she hauled out her and Mulder’s

bags.

“I can carry my bag, Scully.” She handed it to him.

“Drop your things off and then come to my… our–”

Mulder hesitated and looked at his superior with a

hint of disbelief, and then continued “–room so we

can discuss Skinner’s findings.” He then turned to

his boss when he realized that he was essentially

giving the orders. “Um, assuming that’s okay with

you, sir.”

“Mulder, this is still your case to run.” He gestured

to both of them. “I’m here as a third wheel, an

observer. But I do have something to discuss with you

regarding the Brooks family. I think it might be very

relevant to the investigation.”

“Very well, sir. I’ll be there momentarily.” Scully

then looked briefly at Mulder, and silently urged him

to “hang in there”. He nodded slightly in response,

and she left to drop her bag off and freshen up.

Mulder then followed Skinner to their room. He

wondered how in hell he was going to deal with being

roomies with his boss; it was certainly a far cry

from rooming with his partner. They entered the

small, somewhat antiquated room and dropped their

bags on their respective beds. Both men sighed at the

short length of the full-sized beds, resigned to the

necessity of keeping expenses in line for their

friends in Accounting.

Mulder tried to unzip his suit bag but was having

difficulty manipulating the zipper with only one

hand. As he became more and more frustrated with his

limitations, he began muttering under his breath.

“You got a problem, agent?” asked Skinner.

Mulder stopped momentarily and then looked at the

Assistant Director. He nodded and simply pointed to

his “problem”. Skinner nodded and quickly unzipped

the suit bag so Mulder could hang his extra suits up

in the closet. He then pulled out the underwear that

was at the bottom of the bag and placed them in a

drawer. The shaving kit bag was moved to the bathroom

vanity.

“How’s the hand, Mulder?” asked Skinner.

“Throbs a bit,” he answered honestly.

“You scheduled to take anything for it yet?”

Mulder checked his watch and shook his head. “Got

another hour or so before I’m due, unfortunately.

Don’t worry; I’ll survive.”

Skinner shook his head slightly and muttered

something about “having enough practice at it” when

he heard a knock at the door. He walked over and let

Scully into the room.

“Sorry I took so long. I had to call the front desk.

Our lovely accommodations include my very own petting

zoo,” she said irritably.

“Petting zoo?” both men echoed.

“There was a mouse in the bathroom. She and her

family will be removed while they find me another

room. They’re checking to see what’s available,” she

explained.

“Hard to believe that they have to ‘check’ what’s

available in this rat trap…um, no pun intended,”

commented Skinner. Mulder and Scully both smiled at

the remark; even Skinner broke into something akin to

a grin.

“Well, sir, why don’t you fill us in on your

information?” suggested Scully.

Skinner nodded. “Well, something rather odd happened

while you were at the ER,” he began, somewhat

hesitantly. He then filled them in on the incident,

doing his best not to color the facts with opinion.

The reaction was immediate.

“Are you all right, sir?” asked Scully, assuming her

physician’s demeanor.

“Yes, Scully, I’m fine.”

“Do you think the girl is somehow responsible?” she

asked.

“No,” replied Skinner quickly. “No, actually, I

don’t. She just looked too surprised for me to

believe that she actually had a hand in setting that

bush on fire.”

“But there’s precedent for just this type of

behavior, sir. Remember Cecil L’ively?” Scully began,

then noted Mulder’s slight shudder at the memory she

had just evoked. She touched his arm in gently. “I’m

sorry, Mulder.”

“It’s okay, Scully. But to be honest, I don’t think

it’s the same thing.”

“Mulder, she’s got to be the one setting the fires.

She’s always present,” Scully insisted.

“No, Scully, I don’t think it’s her,” interjected

Skinner.

“Then who?”

“The father. He’s an electrical engineer, people. And

he works at home. He very well may have a hand in

this. I’m not sure how, but the man’s background

suggests that he could have the expertise to rig up

some kind of incendiary device.”

“But why? I mean, I can understand a disturbed

teenager seeking the attention. She just lost her

mother and her father remarried, all within the last

two years. What possible reason could the father

have?”

“I suspect it goes back to the mother’s illness.

There would have been large medical bills to pay.

Since the man is self-employed, it’s possible that

his insurance was inadequate to meet all of those

bills.”

“He’s doing it for the insurance?” she asked. “I

don’t know, sir. I find it hard to believe that the

man would go to the trouble of selling his old house,

buying a new one, and then constantly setting fire to

it. It seems to me that’s an awful lot of effort for

comparatively little return.”

“He most likely sold the old house to help pay off

the medical bills. Their former house was apparently

a real showcase, Scully.”

Mulder was observing the exchange silently, but with

obvious interest.

“I’m reasonably certain that you have a theory, Agent

Mulder. Would you care to share it with us?” asked

Skinner.

Mulder looked a little surprised at being addressed

directly. “Sorry. To be honest, I don’t think it’s

either one of them.”

“Mulder? How can you say that?” asked Scully. “If

this isn’t a repeat of Cecil L’ively, I don’t know

what is.”

“I don’t think you can discount the father as a

possible suspect either,” offered Skinner.

“I understand what you’re both saying, and I haven’t

rejected anyone at this point. It’s just that it

doesn’t add up when I put either of those two into

the equation,” explained Mulder.

“So? Who do you think it is? Surely not the mother?”

asked Scully.

“Depends which one you mean, Scully.” Mulder watched

as two pairs of eyes rolled simultaneously, just as

he’d anticipated they would. “Let’s just wait and

see, okay?” he countered. “I think I’m ready for a

pain pill, and taking that catnap sounds like a

really good idea,” he announced with a yawn. The

trauma to his hand was catching up with him.

“I guess I should go see if they found me another

room… though I should really check your hand out to

make sure there’s no infection, Mulder.” She was

aiming for her cool, professional tone and not quite

making it.

“Why don’t *I* go and see if they’ve found you a room

Agent Scully? In the meantime, you can check

Mulder’s hand,” offered the AD.

“Oh, thank you, sir. That would make a lot of sense.

Thank you. Thank you very much,” she said, though she

realized it was probably one or two times too many.

Skinner looked at her with a curious expression,

shrugged his shoulders slightly, and left to go to

the front office. As soon as the door closed, Scully

immediately moved to Mulder’s side. “You know, this

is going to drive me crazy.”

“You? I’m the one who’s rooming with him, Scully.

Besides, you promised to shoot me if I had to room

with him, remember?” Mulder smiled and tried to

stifle a yawn, but he wasn’t successful.

“Doesn’t look like I’d be getting any tonight

anyway,” she said with a grin, but when she leaned in

to kiss him, she brushed against his injured hand.

“Damn,” he hissed.

“Oh, Mulder, I’m sorry. I’ll get you a pain pill.”

She rose, got the painkillers and some water. “Take a

nap. You’ll feel better when you wake up.” She

quickly planted a kiss upon his lips and was about to

get up when she felt herself grabbed and dragged down

on top of him.

“Mulder, your hand!”

“I’ve got my hand way over there, Scully,” he said,

indicating the protective posture he had assumed.

“And if Skinner walks in on us?”

“Well, then maybe he’ll realize we’d appreciate it if

he took the other room and left you in here with me,”

he retorted with a small chuckle.

“Oh, yeah. I’m sure that would be the first thing

Skinner would offer to do– after he drummed our

sorry asses out of the FBI, that is.”

“Well, at least I wouldn’t have to play ‘musical

roommates’ any longer,” proclaimed Mulder.

“Oh, stop whining and get some rest. If any one of

us is in the ballpark with respect to a possible

suspect, I have a feeling that means we’ll be paying

another visit to the Brooks’ home all too soon.”

~~~~~~~

The pale blue wall silhouetted Kara’s shadow as she

lay in bed, huddled under the multicolored afghan her

mother had made for her so long ago. It had been

knitted from all of the remnants of her past

projects, and it served as a reminder of all the

sweaters and blankets her mom made for her and her

dad. “Momma,” she murmured in her sleep. Tears ran

down the teenager’s cheeks as she dreamed of times

long passed.

Gentle fingers tried to wipe away evidence of sadness

on the child’s face without waking her, but Kara woke

up with a start. “Who’s there?” Kara looked around,

but saw no one. She felt her heart race at the

possibilities, and sat up straight in her bed.

“Please, if anyone is here, answer me!” She paused

momentarily and then called out, “Bonnie?”

Suddenly, a gust of wind swept through the room

accompanied by a brilliant flash of light. “Who’s

there? Please, who’s there?” she pleaded with a

trembling voice.

clip_image005

Kara felt a light probing touch on her face, the

tears that continued to fall seemingly absorbed by

something unseen. She thought she should feel afraid,

but the gentle touch was actually very soothing. Kara

closed her eyes and allowed herself to be washed in

the comfort of it, unlike anything she had

experienced since–

“Momma?” she whispered aloud.

Kara felt warmth pressing against her forehead…a

kiss.

“Momma, I miss you so much. I want to be with you,

Momma. Please, take me with you.”

Kara felt a sudden chill and she cried out, “Don’t

leave me! I’ll stay here, but don’t leave me yet!”

The chill was instantly replaced by a sweet warmth,

as if loving arms were embracing her. Kara nuzzled

into that warmth and fell peacefully asleep.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Act III

Motel 6

Tuesday, 11:00 p.m.

“Agent, is that absolutely necessary?” Skinner lifted

his face from the pillow and waved in the general

direction of the television.

Mulder immediately muted the sound. “Sorry. It’s the

only way I can sleep. Do you want me to turn it off?”

Skinner rolled to his side and propped himself up on

one elbow. He gave Mulder a speculative look. “If you

can live without the sound, I can live with the

light.” He punched the pillow into shape, stretched

out on his stomach, and buried his face in the crook

of his arm. “Get some sleep.”

“Yes, sir.” Mulder settled back against the headboard

and tried, without much success, to find a position

for his hand that didn’t make it throb like a

toothache. As pathetic as it sounded, all he wanted

to do was sneak down to Scully’s room so she could

fuss over him. He pushed the thought away and

concentrated on the silent flickering screen.

An hour later, his erstwhile roommate was snoring

softly, and Mulder was ready to climb the walls. He

glanced balefully at the brown plastic bottle on the

nightstand. Childproof caps. He couldn’t get a pill

out if his life depended on it.

But Scully could open the bottle for him. What better

excuse for a trip down the hall? Except that it

wasn’t a hall, it was an outside walkway. And he

couldn’t get his shoes on without help, let alone tie

the laces. He considered the possibilities for all of

twenty seconds before climbing carefully out of bed.

He was almost to the door before he remembered the

pill bottle, and crept quietly back to get it. His

hand had just touched the doorknob for the second

time when Skinner’s voice froze him in his tracks.

“Where are you going?”

He felt like a teenager sneaking out of the house

after curfew. “I, um– I need some ice. For my hand.”

It was the best he could come up with on such short

notice.

Skinner sat up and squinted at him, then grabbed his

glasses from the nightstand and looked again. “You

won’t get much ice in that little bottle.”

When had the man developed this propensity for

smirking? It was beginning to get on his nerves. “Oh.

Right. Guess I was half asleep.” He headed for the

dresser and exchanged the pill bottle for the ice

bucket.

“You’re going outside in your bare feet?”

While Mulder was casting around for a suitable

response, Skinner reached for his shoes and began

putting them on. “I’ll get it.”

“No, no– that’s not necessary, I’ll just–”

“Sit down, Mulder. I said I’ll get it.” And with

that, he took the ice bucket and was gone.

*Great*

Skinner reappeared a few moments later with a full

load of ice. He put it down on the dresser, picked up

one of the unused pillows and stripped off the

pillowcase. “Can you take the bandages off yourself

or do you need some help?” He snagged the plastic

laundry bag from the closet and began to fill it with

ice.

“I’ll just hold the ice against it like this. It’ll

be fine.”

“You’ll get the bandages wet.”

For the next few minutes, Mulder sat in embarrassed

silence while his boss gently unwrapped his hand and

placed the makeshift ice pack against it.

“Do you want a pain pill?” Skinner jerked his head

toward the plastic bottle now on the dresser.

Ah, the damn bottle that started all this. “No, this

is fine. Really.” Oddly enough, the ice *was*

helping.

That earned him another speculative look. “If you

change your mind, wake me up. We’ll redo the bandage

in the morning.” He put his glasses back on the

nightstand and got back under the covers.

“Thank you, sir.” He was beginning to feel more than

a little ashamed of the dark thoughts he’d been

sending Skinner’s way all afternoon. “I’ll be fine.

Scully can put a new bandage on tomorrow.”

The A.D. raised his head and gave Mulder a look that

was once again too close to a smirk for comfort. “I’m

sure she can.” He rolled over with his back to his

‘patient’. “Good night, Mulder.”

“Good night, sir.” If he didn’t known better, he’d

have to wonder if the man might not be on to their

little secret. Yes, it was going to be an interesting

couple of days…

~~~~~

Wednesday, 8:40 a.m.

They were on their way back to Clifford County

Medical Center, this time to interview George

Bostleman, the injured mail carrier. The man’s

physician had refused their request to see him

yesterday, citing traumatic shock. The police

interview had done enough damage, he’d said. The

F.B.I. would have to wait until Bostleman was

stronger. Otherwise, they would have been here

yesterday rather than in the Brooks’ living room

getting Mulder’s hand barbequed.

Breakfast had consisted of burned coffee and stale

bagels with a strangely reticent Skinner. He’d

insisted that they handle the interview without him,

claiming to have a number of phone calls to return.

Scully had found his behavior very puzzling until

Mulder shared last night’s events with her after they

got in the car.

“Mulder, are you out of your mind?” She gave him a

look that said she’d already answered her own

question. “What were you thinking?”

“Obviously, I *wasn’t*.”

The contrition in his voice was sincere, and she

turned back to him with a much softer expression. “I

wanted to see you, too, Mulder. But it was a foolish

risk. That’s why we need to make a new rule–” at his

knowing grin, she continued, “–and *stick* to it

this time. No fraternizing in the field.” She pulled

into a parking space and shut off the engine.

“But look at the money we could save by just getting

one room.” Mulder added his patented eyebrow waggle,

and wisely prepared to duck.

She shot him a look. “Let’s stick to business for the

remainder of this trip, shall we?” But her eyes were

twinkling.

Mr. Bostleman was sitting propped in his hospital

bed, his blistered face, and arms glistening with

ointment. His attention was focused on the

television, and he didn’t look at his visitors until

Mulder spoke.

“Mr. Bostleman? I’m Special Agent Mulder with the

Federal Bureau of Investigation. This is my partner,

Special Agent Scully. We have a few questions, if you

feel up to it.”

“Oh, I’m up to it, all right. The cops in this town

seem to think I’m imagining things. I’m hoping for a

slightly more open mind from the Feds.”

Mulder glanced quickly at Scully . The corners of her

mouth twitched dangerously for an instant before

her cool, professional mask returned. “Yes, Mr.

Bostleman, I think you’ll find Agent Mulder in

particular to be quite open minded.” When she looked

back at Mulder, her eyes were positively dancing with

amusement.

“Uh, yes, Mr. Bostleman. What is it that the police

think you’re imagining?” Mulder shot back a look that

he hoped would convey just how amusing he thought

this all was. Scully’s expression remained impassive,

but the merriment in her eyes actually kicked up a

notch.

“Well, to start with: they don’t believe there’s

anything unusual going on in that house. Hell, any

fool in town can tell you these new people are very

strange.” At the “any fool in town” comment, the

postman made a sweeping gesture and winced as the

movement stretched the burned skin. “Their neighbors

told me that there have been a half-dozen unexplained

fires since the Brooks moved in.”

Scully called him on that one. “Our information makes

it four fires, Mr. Bostleman, not six.”

“Four, six, what’s the difference? Besides, they

haven’t called the fire department every time, if

that’s where you’re getting your *information*.” He

almost sneered the last word.

Buddy, you do *not* want to get into a verbal

fencing match with this woman, Mulder thought. “So,

what is it that you think is causing the fires?”

The man turned his attention back to Mulder. “I think

these people are in deep financial difficulty and

they’re making it look like there’s a poltergeist or

something in the house. Setting little fires so that

when the big one finally *happens*, they won’t be

under suspicion. They got a pretty large insurance

windfall coming if they torch the place, but only if

no one suspects them of arson.”

“What makes you think the Brooks are in financial

trouble?” Mulder had been resting his hand in his

overcoat pocket, but hanging down like that was

making it throb again. He quickly tucked it into his

jacket in a Napoleonic pose.

“Hey, what happened to your hand? Was it *another*

fire?” He gave Scully a triumphant glance before

eyeing Mulder carefully. “Did you get that in the

house?”

Mulder ignored the question. “I asked why you think

the Brooks have money problems.”

Bostleman shrugged as much as his injuries permitted.

“It’s not hard to figure out when you deliver them a

mitt-full of bills every day of the week. And not

just bills, *past due* bills. Lots of them, from

two hospitals and a shitload of credit card

companies, not to mention three or four collection

agencies. My sister-in-law, Ruthie, works at the

Publix supermarket. Said Mrs. Brooks was in there a

few weeks ago trying to charge her groceries with a

Visa Gold card. Not only got declined, but the credit

card company made Ruthie take the card away from

her.”

“That doesn’t necessarily add up to arson.”

“No, ma’am, it doesn’t. But there’s just an… *aura*

around that house. I can feel it whenever I’m there.”

Predictably, Mulder jumped in. “An aura? Is this

something you see, or just a general feeling?”

Scully shot him a *don’t go there* look. “Mr.

Bostleman, can you tell us what happened when you

were injured?”

“Not much to tell. I dropped off their day’s crop of

bills and picked up a couple of outgoing pieces.

Before I made it ten feet from the mailbox, every

piece of mail I had on me went up in flames. I

dropped the pack and ran, but the letters in my hands

set my coat on fire. By the time I got it off and

rolled on the ground, everything above my waist

looked like this.” He raised his arms slowly and

gestured at his torso and face.

“Was there anything unusual about the mail you picked

up from the Brooks?”

“No, ma’am. Nothing out of the ordinary. Just a few

letter-size envelopes. No wires, no suspicious white

powder. Nothing. The daughter was at the door to get

the mail from me. She handed me the outgoing mail and

shut the door. Didn’t even come out when I started

screaming my head off.”

“This *feeling* you said you had about the house.”

Two pairs of eyes turned to Mulder. “Can you describe

it?”

Another careful shrug. “Creepy. Like someone’s

standing behind you but you can’t turn around fast

enough to catch them there.”

Scully nodded and wrote a few lines in her notepad.

“Thank you, Mr. Bostleman. That’s all the questions I

have for now.” She looked over at Mulder. “Agent

Mulder?”

“Not at this time.” He placed a business card on

Bostleman’s tray table. “If you think of anything

else, call the number on the card.”

They were halfway out the door when Bostleman called

out, the strain of his injuries finally apparent in

his subdued voice. “I’ll give you the same advice I

gave the police: Believe me, don’t believe me–

that’s up to you. But watch yourself.” His burst of

adrenaline depleted, Bostleman closed his eyes and

sagged back against the pillows, asleep before his

visitors could respond.

~~~~~~~~~~~~

Clifford Heights Police Station

Wednesday, 12:15 p.m.

Scully’s cell phone had rung as she and Mulder were

getting back into the car after their interview with

Mr. Bostleman. It was Skinner, wanting to rejoin the

party. He had made no progress trying to work from

his motel room and suggested they try the local

police department’s resources. The Chief of Police

had been more than accommodating, handing over his

own conference room, barely bigger than a supply

closet, but equipped with a fax machine and modem.

Scully glanced at her partner sitting next to her

when she heard the growl. Mulder’s famous stomach.

Better than an alarm clock when it came to

determining lunch time. But as she looked at his

unconcerned face, glasses perched on his nose, going

over the credit reports on Kevin Brooks, her ears

heard the sound again, coming from a different

direction. She looked across the small conference

room table and just caught the embarrassed look on

their boss’s face.

“Sorry,” Skinner mumbled.

Mulder was too engrossed to hear anything, but Scully

shot a quick look at the clock on the wall, noting it

was a quarter past 12. That made it an hour past

lunch to their East Coast appetites.

“Mulder, I think it’s time we feed the A.D.,” Scully

said calmly, but her eyes were sparkling with her

amusement.

“Hmm?” came the reply for her partner. He still

hadn’t bothered to look up. From the moment they had

arrived at the police station, Mulder had been buried

in every scrap of paper he could find about the

Brooks family and the other fires. He’d been calling,

faxing and downloading local newspaper accounts for

over two hours and even her stomach was starting to

protest a lack of real food.

“I’m hungry. Let’s stop this and get some lunch,” she

said slowly, as if trying to talk her partner off a

ledge.

He finally looked up, seemed confused that she’d

interrupted him. This time, he noticed when his

stomach made the now familiar sound.

“Let’s get some lunch,” he declared, as if he were

the first one to think of it.

“Great idea,” Skinner said dryly.

“Yeah, wish I’d thought of it,” Scully shot back,

smiling when her boss tried hard not to chuckle.

They walked out of the police station, which was

situated just off the main street of beautiful

downtown Clifford Heights, and headed for the car.

Mulder turned abruptly in the other direction.

“Where’s he . . .” Skinner started to ask, but Scully

was way ahead of him. She looked in the direction

Mulder was heading and groaned loudly.

“Mulder. No!” she cried out and ran after him,

catching up to him in just a few steps.

“Scully, it’s right here. We don’t have to drive;

we’ll be able to get back inside and get some work

done. We can even get the stuff to go and get back at

it,” he reasoned, not slowing his pace one bit.

“Mulder, I will not have greasy wrappers littering

the same table top I’m trying to write notes on,”

Scully shot back. Then she tried to touch his hand,

but remembered the bandages and let her arm drop to

her side. “Please. Can’t we try to find someplace–

*anyplace* else?”

“You rode through this one-horse town just like the

rest of us, Scully. There is no ‘anyplace else’ here.

Unless you want a stale sandwich from the same gas

station we got our stale bagels from this morning?”

By this time Skinner had caught up with them and even

figured out their destination. “Hey, look! They have

99-cent Whoppers!”

“And Two for Two fries,” Mulder pointed out

enthusiastically.

Scully looked for any chance of escape, but realized

she was doomed. “Sure, fine, whatever,” she sighed

and trod grudgingly toward Clifford Heights newest

eating establishment–a shiny new Burger King.

She watched in horror as Mulder ordered a Whopper and

two fries. Skinner ordered just one Whopper, but

added cheese. It appeared to be an unspoken agreement

between the two of them that they’d split the two

fries between them. It was her turn. “Grilled chicken

sandwich, no mayo, and a glass of water, please.”

The waitress, an older woman at least 70 if a day,

winked at her. “Keep that girlish figure, honey.

Their eyes start to wander before you know it.” The

older woman nodded in the direction of Mulder and

Skinner. “And you’re one lucky little lady with those

two!”

“Don’t I know it,” Scully said with less enthusiasm

than the comment would normally warrant.

By the time she sat down, after getting her water,

Mulder was struggling to figure out a way to pick up

his sandwich without the mayonnaise-slick tomato and

lettuce squirting out the bottom. He was just about

to get ketchup all over his bandage when she pulled

the sandwich away from him, dug her pocketknife out

of her purse, and cut the sandwich into more

manageable quarters. He smiled his thanks and went

back to eating.

“So, what have we got?” Skinner asked, breaking the

silence.

“This isn’t the first occurrence of unexplained fires

breaking out in Illinois,” Scully started, putting

her sandwich down and taking out her notebook.

“Alton, Illinois, late 1920s. A young girl’s family

was terrorized by unexplained fires that broke out

almost constantly. The girl was thirteen years old,

was emotionally disturbed by family accounts. When

she passed puberty, the fires stopped. No reason was

ever found.”

“I think I saw those movies,” Mulder said with a grin

as he popped a few more fries into his mouth.

“They’re heeeeere,” he mimicked.

Scully shot him a look. “We still don’t know all the

chemical changes a body goes through when it reaches

puberty, Mulder,” she chided. “I would think that was

the one explanation you’d jump at.”

“Close, Scully, but I really don’t think it’s like

the Alton case. In that case the girl had been

’emotionally disturbed’, as you put it, for years.

And the fires were usually small in nature, although

you are right; they were going on almost continually

during the year it happened. As a matter of fact, the

family started placing buckets of water every few

steps around the house to put them out as they broke

out. The fire department just threw up it’s hands

after a few months.”

“So why is this different?” Scully asked, sipping

from her water.

“It just doesn’t feel like it’s that easy,” Mulder

said with a shrug.

“I think I’m beginning to agree with you, Agent

Mulder,” Skinner said, with an almost surprised look

on his face.

“But sir, I thought you were going with the father

setting the arson fires, using his electrical skills

to set them off?” Scully turned to him with a raised

eyebrow.

“How could he have started Mulder’s notebook on

fire?” Skinner countered. “That’s been bothering me

since it happened. Kevin Brooks had no access to that

notebook. It was in Mulder’s pocket or in his hands

the entire time, and the analysis of the remains

showed no sign of accelerant.”

“But why not think it’s Kara, as Scully just

explained?” Mulder asked, holding back a grin. C’mon,

Walt, you can do it, he mentally encouraged.

Skinner was quiet for a moment, thinking. Finally he

looked over at Mulder. “Her eyes. I looked at that

little girl when the rose bush caught fire and there

was fear in her eyes. She didn’t know what started

that fire, and she was afraid of it.”

“It could still be puberty,” Scully countered.

“Remember what it was like as a teenager. Your body

betraying you at every turn. You wake up one morning

and your face is broken out, your hair won’t comb

right, your feet are too big and you stumble a lot,

your legs are suddenly too long for your body . . .”

“I feel like that every morning, Scully,” Mulder

interjected. She rewarded him with a smirk. “I think

you’re on to something, sir. I don’t think it was

Kara.”

“Then who?” Scully asked, sitting back and crossing

her arms, ready to duke it out, if necessary.

“Kara’s mom,” Mulder said, wiping some ketchup off

his tie one-handed.

“Bonnie?” Scully asked, her forehead knotted in

confusion.

“No, Lisa. Kara’s natural mother.”

“Back from the dead?” Scully asked with a smirk.

“Not everyone has all the loose threads tied up when

they die, Scully. We’ve seen this before, at an Air

Force Base not that far from here.”

“Mulder, that was a murder victim. And I’m still not

entirely convinced that the ghost of Rebecca Barnes

helped solve that case. Besides, there is no murder

here. Lisa Brooks died of cancer.”

“Maybe she still has issues,” Mulder said with a

shrug.

Skinner looked from one agent to the other. “Well, I

think until we have some way to prove that, we better

get back to checking out the evidence we can prove,”

he said, picking up his tray and carrying it to the

trash.

“What? No dessert?” Mulder whined, but picked up his

tray and followed suit.

~~~~~~~~~

The Brooks Household

Wednesday, 6:05 p.m.

“I really love this arrangement you made today in

school, K.,” Bonnie commented as she admired the pine

needle and orchid centerpiece.

Kara shook a colander full of fresh string beans

above the sink, and shut off the faucet. She tore off

two paper towels, brought everything over to the

table and sat next to her stepmother.

“Thanks. It was a Japanese flower-arrangement

workshop. We have workshops like that all week before

this weekend’s ‘International Picnic.'” The two began

taking string beans one by one from the colander,

snapping the ends off onto the paper towels and

tossing the results into a glass bowl.

“So what kind of food should we bring to the picnic?”

Bonnie asked, trying to jump-start a new project with

her stepdaughter. Perhaps taking more of an interest

in her social activities would bring them closer.

“Don’t want a hibachi,” the girl said with some

solemnity weighing her voice down.

“No fires, that’s for sure,” Bonnie said warily. “We

don’t want to have to bring buckets of water with us.

Unless you want to show off with a wet t-shirt

contest!”

The girl gasped and blushed bright red. “You! You,

wouldn’t…” then she saw that Bonnie’s face was beet

red as well, trying to hold back her giggles. The two

of them broke out into a laughing fit instantly. “I

have… nothing to show… for it anyway,” Kara

continued between deep breaths and laughter.

“Oh, you’ll get there,” Bonnie encouraged in a more

serious tone. “Don’t worry, you’re perfectly normal,

K. I didn’t start ‘blooming’ until I was seventeen.”

They resumed snapping the string beans, giggles

breaking out every so often.

“So, really, Kara. What should we bring for the

picnic? A new recipe?”

“Actually, we had to sign up for a country to

contribute to. There will be several tables there in

the field, something like food-stands for different

ethnic foods.”

“Did you choose Germany, for your Dad’s origin?”

“No, USA.”

“Well, that’s not very international…”

“No, but our family right now is from the US. I mean,

you, me and Dad,” she mumbled quietly, a little

embarrassed at revealing such a personal feeling

toward Bonnie. She really didn’t do that too often.

When she looked up from her pile of green pointy ends

she saw that Bonnie still had some tears from the

laughing fits, making her eyes glassy. Wait a

minute… that wasn’t the laughing doing that.

“That’s really nice to hear, Kara. I think it’s a

wonderful idea.”

Kara responded with a wide grin, and grabbed another

handful of beans.

Bonnie cleared her throat and shook her curly locks

slightly before she changed the subject back. “So,

you have anything in mind? We’re committed to

bringing something now, since you had to sign up.”

“I figured we could make something that reminds me of

home. Momma used to make this spicy fried chicken.”

Bonnie shifted slightly in her seat. “Is that

healthy?” she said, a little strained.

“C’mon, how often do we go to a picnic? Besides, we

always used to have that at big family events. I’m

sure Dad still has the recipe,” Kara prodded.

The older woman nodded her head.

It was quiet for a while as they finished up the

vegetables. Kara could feel a little creeping

sensation up her spine. There was suddenly some kind

of tension in the air. Had she said the wrong thing

by praising Momma’s recipe? But it was true; she did

feel like Bonnie was family. Even with all the

longing she had felt for her mother popping up here

and there. She couldn’t forget her, and she would

never stop loving her, but Bonnie really cared for

her, too. And she really liked the feeling of having

a mom again, in the flesh.

She thought back to that moment in her room when her

momma’s kiss and hug felt so real. She was so sure it

wasn’t a dream. But how could she tell? Dreams felt

real sometimes, and it did happen in her room, while

she was falling asleep.

It really wasn’t a choice she was making. She just

needed someone to talk to. Bonnie was taking that

role for her now. She had to tell her how she felt.

And the tension felt as if it were growing thicker

with every second she let pass by.

“Bonnie?” Kara gently began. Her stepmother looked up

at her, waiting for her to continue. “Do you think

it’s okay to call you something else? I mean,

‘Bonnie’ sounds like I’m talking to a friend, which

is okay…”

“I am your friend, K,” Bonnie responded, and put down

the last of her string beans to cover Kara’s hand.

“Yes, but…” Kara fought to keep her emotions in

check. “You’ve really, um, gone out of your way to

take care of me and… it’s not like I want to forget

her… EVER… but…” Bonnie’s grasp loosened a

little. Kara continued, “…I used to call her

‘Momma.’ I was thinking, maybe, if it’s okay with

you, that I could call you ‘Ma.’ You know, something

a little shorter.”

“Oh, Kara, of course you may!” Bonnie got up from her

seat and embraced her stepdaughter tightly. They both

held onto each other that way for a while. It was

comforting, it was warm and nice…

…And it was ruined when the orchid centerpiece on

the table suddenly burst into flame! Bonnie pushed

Kara away from the table and grabbed one of the fire

extinguishers they now kept in strategic places all

over the house.

The flames ate at the stems of the flowers, making

them seem to melt. Kara panicked as her mind began to

replay all of the fires she had seen in the last

months. It was like a slide show, flashing before her

eyes. So many of them… and all of them trying to

burn out symbols of the new life she and her father,

and now Bonnie, all shared together.

The tension in the room seemed to double. Kara was a

little surprised. She’d gone through so many

spontaneous fires lately that she was almost numb to

them. Sure, the initial shock was intense, but it

felt like there was something else — a lingering

spirit about the room…

A spirit…

Kara raced up to her room and slammed the door, the

sound of Bonnie calling after her muffled behind the

wood panel. She sat on her bed and waited. And

waited.

Anger and distress and sadness were building up

inside her — a jumble of emotions as she waited for

that presence to appear. And it did, but very

cautiously, like it was standing in the corner,

watching her.

“Momma.” the girl said with a quavering voice.

“Momma, I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I still love you!

Please, Momma, let us be a family. I still love–”

her words cracked in her throat, tears inched down

her cheeks.

“Momma, please…”

*****

Act IV

Brooks Household, Kitchen

Wednesday, 6:28 p.m.

Bonnie unwrapped another disposable sponge and filled

the cleaning bucket with water. Dealing with the

foamy mess of a newly-extinguished fire had become

disturbingly routine.

She began by removing the remains of Kara’s Japanese

centerpiece, now nothing more than a melted plastic

pot with some sticks jutting out from the burnt foam

block.

As she started to wipe the mess off the table, she

heard the front door close. Kevin was home. She could

hear him pause in the entrance hall and curse under

his breath. He recognized the smell that accompanied

another combustible outbreak, as they all had learned

to do. Next she heard the keys in the glass bowl,

then the heavy, exhausted footsteps through the

dining room. She continued her work.

“I can’t believe this,” he grumbled in frustration.

“She’s doing it for attention, you know. That’s got

to be it!” His voice became louder as he went on.

“Kevin, just stop it!” Bonnie snapped, splashing the

soaked sponge into the cloudy water.

“I don’t know what to do anymore, Bonnie! I’ve been a

good father to her! This is just revenge for the fact

that we moved away. I have no other ideas!”

“Well, you can start by talking instead of yelling!”

“I AM NOT YELL – – ” Kevin gritted his teeth, then

lowered his voice. “One of these days someone is

going to get killed. There’s only one thing left to

do.” He went over to the wall-mounted phone in the

kitchen and began dialing.

“Who are you calling?”

“The FBI agents.”

“Kevin, your own daughter!?”

“She has to be stopped! I can’t do anything anymore.

She just won’t–”

A shrieking scream cut through their argument. It

stopped Kevin’s heart. He let the receiver drop and

it swung by its cord as the two parents raced to the

second floor.

An orange glow filled the staircase and smoke hid the

ceiling from view, as if a bad storm were brewing

inside the house. It was, and the heat of the storm

was centered around Kara’s bedroom door. Kevin pulled

the sleeve of his sweater around his fist and banged

on the door.

“Kara, open the door, baby! Kara, we have to get you

out of there!”

All they could hear was Kara hiccupping and sobbing

inside. Every few seconds a high-pitched squeal would

escape. Kevin banged on the door harder with

increasing urgency, but it was no use. The strength

of the door was otherworldly, and he could do nothing

to save his baby girl.

He coughed and shouted in frustration. Bonnie pulled

at his arm to get him downstairs, away from the

danger.

“We have to call for help or she’ll die in there!”

“No! I have to save her! I’m her father!”

“And now, I’m her mother. I’m calling for help.” She

left his side and ran down the stairs, covering her

mouth against the thickening smoke as she went.

When she got downstairs, the phone was still dangling

from its cord, and she heard a faint voice calling

from the receiver.

“Mr. and Mrs. Brooks? Kara? Hello? Can anyone hear

me? Hello. . .?”

Bonnie grabbed the phone, “Hello?”

“Mrs. Brooks, thank God!”

“Agent Scully, please hurry, there’s a fire! Bigger

than before and we can’t get to Kara! She’s trapped!”

“We’re already on our way.”

Bonnie hung up the phone. It probably wouldn’t matter

in a few minutes. She stumbled over to the staircase

again, crouching below the growing clouds of smoke.

She called up the stairs, into the obscurity, “Kevin!

We have to try from the outside! The agents are on

the way!”

It took a moment before her husband’s heavy footsteps

tramped down the stairs. He sought her hand and they

rushed out to the front yard together.

~~~~~~~

Wednesday, 6:40 p.m.

Clifford Heights wasn’t a particularly large town, so

the three agents arrived at the house in record time,

even managing to beat the volunteer fire department

to the scene. Skinner pulled haphazardly to the curb

and jumped out of the car.

Mulder had to reach awkwardly across his body with

his right hand in order to open the passenger door,

so Scully climbed quickly out of the front seat to

help him. Both agents then made a dash for the

Brooks’ front door.

Skinner was banging his fist urgently against the

wood. Just as Mulder and Scully joined him, Bonnie

Brooks opened the door, crying hysterically.

“She’s in her room. We can’t get her out! We can’t

get her out!”

“Where the hell is the fire department?” asked

Scully.

“We called; they said they’d get here as soon as they

could. Another emergency across town… Oh, God! Help

me, get her out, please!” she cried.

“Do you have a ladder?” Skinner had grabbed Bonnie

gently but firmly by the shoulders, speaking intently

into her face.

“We can’t get her out!” she cried again, oblivious to

the A.D.’s question.

“Mrs. Brooks! A ladder– do you have a ladder?” He

shook her slightly and her eyes snapped into focus.

“Ladder? Yes, yes, out back.” She brushed by Skinner

and rushed out to the backyard, pointing frantically

at the rickety treehouse ladder. “This is all we

have. Will it do?”

Skinner gave the ladder a swift appraisal and hoisted

it over his head. “Show me Kara’s window!” Whether

the thing would support him or not was a question

that would be answered soon enough.

Bonnie pointed to a window on the side of the house,

and Skinner sprinted for it with the panicked woman

right on his heels.

Meanwhile, Mulder and Scully had dashed into the

house, where they immediately heard Kevin Brooks’

screams coming from the second floor.

Scully spotted a fire extinguisher on the coffee

table to her left and grabbed it before heading up

the stairs with Mulder right behind her.

“Kara! Kara, please, sweetheart, open the door!

Daddy’s not angry! Please, just open the door!” They

found Kevin Brooks screaming desperately toward

Kara’s door as the flames danced around it, blocking

his path. Scully pointed the extinguisher nozzle and

sprayed the foamy white substance along the floor and

at the door, emptying the container in moments. The

fire raged on unabated.

“Is the door stuck? Is that why she’s not coming

out?” Scully shouted above the roar of the flames.

“I don’t know! A few minutes ago I was able to get

over to it, but I couldn’t turn the handle. It felt

like it was jammed or maybe locked. I don’t know! But

now I can’t get near it because the whole damn

hallway is on fire!” he cried out in frustration.

Brooks turned back towards the door and pleaded with

his daughter. “Kara, please, open the door!”

Scully turned to ask Mulder where the hell the fire

department was, but he was nowhere in sight. “Mulder!

Where are you?”

Their situation was all too similar to the L’ively

case, and she wondered for an instant if Mulder was

reliving the fear he’d felt that night. She could

only imagine what he must be feeling.

Then suddenly he reappeared, awkwardly hauling a

wastebasket filled with water that spilled over the

lip with every step. “Move away, Scully. Let me try

this.” His grip was precarious, trying to spare his

injured hand, but he managed to toss the contents

toward the bedroom door.

Miraculously, it made a path large enough for him to

pass through, which he quickly did before Scully or

Brooks could react. He pushed against the door once

with little success and then, bracing himself, plowed

his way through on the second try.

He was momentarily relieved to find the room filled

with smoke but free of flames, until he tried to take

a breath to call for the child and the acrid fumes

seared his throat. He choked and immediately got down

on his knees, balancing on his right hand. It was

impossible to crawl and cover his mouth at the same

time, so he opted for forward movement and tried to

take shallow breaths.

“Kara? Kara, it’s okay. Where are you?” Mulder called

out, trying to keep his voice as gentle as possible.

The smoke was overwhelming and blinding. He had to

find the child quickly, or they’d both be dead in

minutes.

Images of the hotel fire years ago flashed through

his mind as he crept through the choking darkness. He

hadn’t made it to the children that time, though the

arsonist had. And this was far worse than that night

had been.

“Kara, please, say something so I can figure out

where you are!” he called out again.

“Here,” she whimpered.

“Again, Kara. Where are you?”

“Here. I’m over here,” she cried out a little more

loudly, then began to cough helplessly.

Mulder crawled toward the sound of the child’s voice,

eyes streaming from the smoke. He could hear Scully

calling frantically from the hall, but he couldn’t

draw in enough air to make his voice carry that far.

He crawled around the end of the bed and bumped

directly into the girl crouched low on the floor.

“Kara! Grab onto my coat and stay low. We’re going to

get out of here. Do you know where the window is?” He

peered through the thick smoke, searching for the

light.

“I think it’s that way, but I can’t see!” She pointed

over his shoulder.

Mulder could now hear sirens in the distance but the

sound of shattering glass was even more welcomed, as

was the resulting draft, which made it easier to

breathe, but not to see.

“Kara! Kara, are you in there?” It was Skinner’s

voice, and Mulder crawled toward it, dragging Kara

with him.

“Sir! I’ve got her. We’re coming!”

Within a few feet, Mulder’s hand encountered broken

glass from the window and he turned to Kara. “Stand

up, Kara. We’re here.” They came slowly to their feet

and Mulder reached toward the draft with his right

hand. He stepped forward and felt a strong hand grasp

his.

“Okay, Kara, time to get you out of here,” Mulder

said to the child. “Here she is, sir.”

Skinner reached in and lifted the child up over the

small, jagged pieces of glass that remained in the

window frame. He began the slow descent, using one

hand to hold onto the ladder, and the other to

support Kara as she followed him down the ladder.

Mulder looked at the ladder and tried to figure out

how the hell he was going to manage this. His hand

was throbbing again, and he knew he’d need the

support of both his hands to get himself safely onto

the ladder. Once he got to the point where he could

start descending, he’d be okay. It was maneuvering

himself out of the window that gave him cause to

grimace.

“Well, here goes nothing,” he muttered to himself. He

pushed one leg out the window and began to turn. “Oh,

damn!” he cried out. He’d grabbed onto the ledge of

the window with both hands for support, and the pain

shot through the injured hand from the impact. At

that point he realized the damn thing was going to

hurt no matter what he did, so he gritted his teeth

and forced himself out the window and onto the

ladder. Once outside, he managed to descend without a

problem.

Once Mulder reached the ground, he turned to find the

area surrounded by volunteer firemen and a squad car.

Bonnie was standing, holding her stepdaughter, while

Kevin was speaking with a member of the local PD.

Skinner stood nearby as Kevin answered the questions

posed by the cop. Scully saw Mulder and rushed toward

him.

“Are you okay?” she asked anxiously.

“Yeah,” he replied and immediately began coughing

uncontrollably.

“Oh, yeah. You’re fine.” She gathered him in her arms

and began gently leading him toward the rescue

vehicles.

One of the EMTs met them and sat Mulder on the bed of

his rig. He placed an oxygen mask over Mulder’s face

and instructed him to take deep breaths. He felt

better almost immediately and tried to remove the

mask.

“Oh no you don’t, Mulder. Leave it on for a few

minutes, or you will find yourself making yet another

trip to the emergency room,” admonished Scully.

He nodded in response and then, rather than attempt

to speak through the mask, merely pointed toward the

Brooks family.

“Kara’s fine, Mulder, though she’s obviously upset.

But physically, she’s fine.”

Just as Scully gave Mulder her assessment of the

situation, as if on cue, Kara screamed loudly, “No,

please, let me go!” She twisted out of Bonnie’s

embrace and ran directly into the house, leaving her

stepmother frozen with shock.

Almost instantly the flames that had mere seconds ago

threatened to engulf the structure simply winked out,

leaving only puffs of smoke wafting from the doors

and windows. The firemen stared open-mouthed. A fire

that extinguished itself was completely impossible.

And so they stared.

Bonnie recovered almost immediately and ran after the

teenager. Kevin and Skinner both tried to stop her,

but Bonnie would have none of it. She escaped their

grasps and ran into the house. As she entered the

front door, she heard Kara coming down the stairs.

“Kara?”

“I’m sorry. I had to get it.”

“Get what, sweetheart?”

“My momma’s picture. I couldn’t leave it up there. I

had to get it.” She paused and looked around her, as

if just now realizing where she was. “Jeez…pretty

stupid of me, huh?” she asked breathlessly.

“No. Not stupid, Kara. Maybe a little impulsive, but

not stupid.” Bonnie reached out, and Kara tentatively

placed the silver-framed photo into her stepmother’s

hand. Bonnie used the hem of her tee-shirt to

carefully wipe the frame, polishing it to its former

gleam.

“It looks none the worse for the wear, does it?”

Bonnie asked as she handed it back to the teenager.

Kara agreed, and fingered the frame with tenderness.

“Maybe we should get ourselves back outside into the

fresh air. It’s a bit of a mess in here, isn’t it?”

Kara looked around her again, nodded, but then said,

“But it’ll be okay, won’t it Bonnie? We’ll be able to

come back and live here, right?”

Bonnie’s expression couldn’t hide the surprise at

hearing her stepdaughter’s words. “You want to come

back here?” she asked incredulously.

“Yeah. I like it here, Ma,” she replied shyly.

“I don’t understand…with all of this craziness

going on…” She hesitated.

“It wasn’t me; it was my momma. She was the one that

wasn’t sure. She was the one who thought I’d

forgotten her. But she does understand now. It’s

okay. She knows I really do love her, and that you

and Dad are both okay with that.” Kara finally

managed a small smile.

“Oh, Kara, it really is, you know. Neither your dad

nor I would ever want you to forget about her.”

Bonnie reached over to embrace Kara. “And you’re

right, kiddo, for a place that was up in flames just

a little while ago, it doesn’t look like it’s in too

bad shape. I think with a lot of elbow grease, this

place is going to become our home again.” The two of

them walked out the front door arm in arm.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Epilogue

Motel 6

Thursday, 9:12 a.m.

“Is this everything?” Scully dropped a stack of

shirts onto the bed next to Mulder’s open suitcase.

“Scully, you don’t have to do this. I can–” Then he

proceeded to prove otherwise by dropping the shaving

kit he had been balancing on his one good hand.

She flashed him an indulgent smile. “So I see. Would

you rather have Skinner pack for you?” Mulder winced

at the prospect, and Scully nodded in agreement.

“That’s what I thought.”

He retrieved the shaving kit from the floor and

placed it on the bed. “First aid in the middle of the

night and tying my shoes for me was weird enough. I

drew the line at zipping my pants, although he did

offer.”

Scully’s expression was priceless. Then she began to

giggle, which never failed to get Mulder going right

along with her. They were soon holding each other up,

tears running down faces crinkled with mirth.

“Agents?”

They hadn’t even heard the door open. Skinner was

back from checking them out of the motel. He stood

just inside the door with his hand on the knob,

seemingly frozen by the vision before him. The solemn

X-Files division, dissolving into mild hysterics.

They straightened up immediately.

“Yes, sir.” Scully found her voice first. “I was just

helping Mulder pack.” She sidestepped so he could see

the suitcase and clothing on the bed, then turned

back to complete her task.

Mulder busied himself with opening drawers and closet

doors, checking for anything left behind. Skinner

watched from the door.

“I can finish that for you, Agent Scully. Don’t you

have to pack your own things?”

Mulder wasn’t sure he could maintain a straight face,

so he carefully avoided meeting Scully’s eyes. She

shook her head, apparently feeling the same urge to

snicker that was tickling his own throat.

“It’s no trouble. I’ll just be another minute.” She

literally stuffed the last items into the case and

zipped it shut, with a little assistance from

Mulder’s good hand. “There.”

She seemed to be avoiding eye contact with Skinner,

too. “I’ll meet you at the car.” She nearly ran from

the room, leaving Mulder struggling to keep his

expression neutral.

Skinner stepped quickly out of the way to let her

pass. When she was out of earshot, he turned back to

Mulder. “I don’t suppose there’s any point in asking

what that was all about?”

Mulder could feel the flush in his face. “It was…

we were just–”

His boss held up one hand and shook his head. “That’s

okay. I’m sorry I asked,” but there was a glint of

amusement in his eyes.

In desperate need of a diversion, Mulder gestured

toward the pile of sooty gabardine in the corner. “I

don’t think this is quite what accounting had in mind

when they sent you out here, sir. I would have only

wrecked *one* suit.”

Skinner gave him a rueful smile. “They wanted me to

‘validate the expenditures’. I think I’ve done that.”

His expression sobered. “Mulder, is this the way it

always is? Leaving a case with so many questions

unanswered?”

“You don’t buy my theory?”

“That the fires were caused by Kara Brooks’ dead

mother? That there won’t be any more now because Kara

has convinced a ghost that she’s still loved? I guess

I’d have to say that I don’t accept that as the most

logical answer.”

Mulder smiled. “You sound just like someone else I

know.”

“I’ll take that as a compliment.” He picked up his

own packed suitcase and grabbed Mulder’s from the

bed.

“Sir, you don’t have to do that. I–”

“At ease, agent. You can get the door.” He shouldered

his way past Mulder and headed for the door. “And you

can write the expense report for this trip.”

“Two suits and a toasted notebook? Piece o’ cake.”

~~~

END

Lone Hearts

cover'

Title: Lone Hearts

Author: Susan Proto (STPteach@aol.com)

Website: http://susanprotofreeservers.com

Keywords: Mytharc, MSR

Rating: PG-13 for language

Spoilers: References to:

Disclaimer: Some of the characters in this story belong

to Chris Carter, 1013 and Fox. No copyright infringement is

intended.

In addition, it should be noted when I first submitted

my pitch, there was some concern of similarities to a

story line shown on the Fox, Inc. show, The Lone Gunmen.

Please note the only time I have ever viewed this show

was during the one scene in which David Duchovny made a

much too short cameo appearance. Therefore the

character of Dr. Alan Byers is totally and completely

mine; any similarities to CC’s version is purely

coincidental.

Archive: This story was written especially for IMTP’s

Virtual Season 9. After two weeks, you may view this

story at The Garden Site, MTA, Gossamer, and Ephemeral.

All others please send a request unless previously given

permission.

Notes: Thanks to Vickie Moseley and Michelle Kiefer

for their CyberEyes, and to my cohorts at the VS9. It

continues to be a helluva ride, folks!

Lone Hearts

By Susan Proto (STPteach@aol.com)

TEASER

Hilton Hotel

Bethesda, MD

6:20 a.m.

The heavy, richly textured bedcovers lay in a heap on

the floor, along with quickly discarded outer clothes,

underwear, and lingerie picked especially for this

occasion. The silk top sheet fell softly over her legs

while carelessly covering her breasts.

Even after all this time, he still felt slightly self-

conscious about looking at her in that raw, beautiful

state, while also exposing himself totally to her. But

he lay beside her, unencumbered by blankets, and reached

out to gently stroke her arm. The early morning sun

tried to part the blinds of the lush hotel room, but it

barely succeeded, allowing small rays of light to caress

her hair.

“Oh, God, I love waking up next to you,” she murmured in

response to the gentle touches. She looked up at him

with sleepy, but adoring eyes.

He returned her gaze, loving and sensual. “I love

waking up next to you, too. I want to be able to do it

every morning.”

“I know, I know,” she replied, as she leaned over and

nuzzled his neck. “Someday.”

“But not tomorrow,” he said, resigned.

“No,” she agreed, “not tomorrow. But we can enjoy being

together today, can’t we? I want to make love to you

all day, today.”

He smiled. “Like how we made love together all night?

How can I argue with that idea?” He leaned over and

began to kiss his love’s sun touched hair and then began

slowly tasting her body beginning at her forehead and

working his way down all along her sensuous form.

Her body responded to his gentle overtures feeling the

need for more, but he refused to give in to her unspoken

pleas. He continued to minister to her body as if it

were a priceless Stradivarius. The gentle moans began

to grow in their strength as he probed her body, when

suddenly the entire room lit up like a Fourth of July

celebration.

“Ohmigod!” she cried out. “Ohmigod!”

He was gone.

The lights disappeared and the only noise came from the

gentle flapping of the window blinds that were now

hanging in the open bay window. She sat up and grabbed

the silk sheets protectively around her before she

reached for the phone. With shaking hands, she dialed

the number she’d learned by heart so many, many months

ago.

“Hello? Langly? Turn off the tape.”

Silence greeted her on the other side.

“It’s me, Susanne.” Her hands trembled, as did her

voice. “He’s gone. John’s gone.”

““““““““““““““““““““““““““““

“““““““

ACT 1

Mulder’s Apartment

Alexandria, VA

7:05 a.m.

The trill woke them both, but Mulder chose to ignore it.

Scully on the other hand was quick to point out one very

important fact.

“We’re at your place; you get phone duty.”

He grunted something unintelligible and then reached for

the phone. “Mulder,” or some such equivalent.

“Mulder, it’s me.”

“Langly? It’s fucking 7 a.m. on the first Saturday

morning I’ve had off in I don’t know how long. This

better be damn good.”

“They’ve taken Byers.”

“What?”

Scully sat up at hearing Mulder’s voice break. She

touched his arm, which he unwittingly shrugged off. He

looked at her quickly for reassurance that she

understood. She smiled. She did.

Now he could deal with the matter at hand. “What are

you talking about?”

“He’s gone, Mulder. I don’t know where they’ve taken

him, but he’s gone.”

“When?”

“This morning. He was in Bethesda, and they took him.”

“Bethesda? Maryland?”

“Yeah. He was in the damn Hilton.”

“Oh, shit.”

“Mulder? Mulder, what is it?”

“Is she there with you?”

“She? What? You knew?”

“Yeah, I knew. C’mon, Langly, just answer the question.

Is Susanne there?”

“Yeah. She’s here.” The irritation was clearly evident

in Langly’s tone, and it carried over into his next

words as well. “Just get here as soon as you can, okay?

Oh…and tell Scully to get dressed. We could use her

help, too.”

The phone clicked before Mulder could respond, not that

he figured he’d have had one to give. “Damn it.”

“Care to fill me in now?”

Mulder looked up and searched for any evidence that

there was annoyance attached to her words, but he

couldn’t find any. Curiosity mixed in with some

anxiety, but no annoyance. He took a deep breath, since

he figured with his next words that was probably going

to change.

“That was Langly.”

“So I figured.” She pursed her lips, biting her tongue

in an attempt to keep herself from jumping all over him

to cut to the chase.

He stood up and walked to his dresser. He pulled out a

pair of clean boxers and a tee shirt. “They took

Byers.” He said this as he walked to his closet to pull

out a pair of well-worn jeans. “I’m gonna jump into the

shower.”

He started walking toward the bathroom, but then stopped

and without turning around said, “I can finish telling

you what’s going on in the shower. They want you to

come with me, too.”

“Okay,” she replied, when suddenly it hit her what he

really meant. “They know about us?”

“Apparently so.”

“For how long, do you think?”

“Knowing them, they probably recorded the first time we

ever kissed,” he answered with a shake of his head.

“Damn.”

He waited for more declarations of annoyance but none

were forthcoming. “Scully? You okay?”

“Well, at least we know they can keep a secret, Mulder.

C’mon, let’s take that shower and you can fill me in on

everything else.”

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

The LGM Headquarters

Building # 566

‘C’ Street

Anacostia

Washington, DC

8:40 a.m.

Frohike greeted the couple after having unlocked the

numerous locks that kept the outside world apart from

the inner workings of The Lone Gunmen’s Headquarters.

Scully walked in dressed as casually as her partner,

with Mulder’s ever present hand guiding her as it

pressed against her lower back.

“Any news?” he asked.

Frohike shook his head and followed the pair into the

main room. There, they saw Langly sitting at the

computer attempting to retrieve data, though for what

purpose neither Mulder nor Scully knew.

“What’s going on?” Mulder asked.

“Nothing. Yet,” Langly answered.

“Where is she?”

“Here. I’m right here.” Susanne Modeski entered the

room looking exhausted and slightly disheveled. Her

blond hair was hastily pulled back into a ponytail, and

she wore no makeup. “Hello, Mulder. Agent Scully.”

“How are you doing, Susanne?” Mulder asked.

“Not too great,” she said, her voice hitched.

“Can you tell us what happened?” Scully asked.

“They took him.”

Langly grimaced as he punched another symbol on the

keyboard. “Yeah. You said that already.”

Frohike broke in and said, “He’s upset. Hell, we’re all

upset. Just tell Mulder and Scully what you told us,

okay?”

Susanne nodded and smiled slightly at the small man’s

attempt to comfort. “We’d gotten together…” She

turned and looked directly at Mulder. “It’s the first

weekend of the month, you know…”

Mulder nodded. He knew, though it was apparent that he

was the only one who had been fully aware of anything.

Scully was still in the dark.

“The first weekend?” Her expression reflected her

confusion.

“Yes, John and I…we always….”

As Susanne broke down crying, much to Scully’s surprise,

it was Mulder who reached out to comfort her. He pulled

her into his arms and held her as she sobbed.

“Mulder?” Frohike looked at his friend with a quizzical

expression, which quickly changed to understanding. And

then anger. “You knew about this, about them. Damn!

You always knew.”

Mulder nodded. “We confided in one another,” he replied

softly.

“But he never told us. For that matter, the two of you

never told us what you were doing, either,” Frohike

retorted, eyeing Mulder, then Scully, and finally Mulder

again.

Mulder averted his eyes momentarily and looked over at

Scully. He knew she was most likely putting two and two

together, but he also knew it was up to him to confirm

her thoughts.

“No, we never told you, but you knew anyway, didn’t

you?”

Frohike looked quickly at Langly who at least had the

good grace to blush. “Yeah, we knew,” responded

Frohike. “We figured you’d tell us when you were ready;

but we still felt it was important to keep tabs on you

both. It was always for your protection, you know.”

“You’ve been spying on us,” confirmed Scully, no less

incredulous.

“Scully, you’re not really surprised, are you?”

responded Langly, who left his computer and walked over

to where the small group sat. “C’mon, how many times

did you want us to locate Mulder or did Mulder want us

to locate you in the past? Well, how the hell do you

think we did it? Yeah, we spied on you, but we never

abused the privilege. We never spied on you when you

and Mulder were…’together.'”

“Well, thank goodness for small miracles,” shot back

Scully.

“Wait a minute,” interrupted Mulder, quickly changing

the subject back to their necessary focus. “If you were

spying on us, then how the hell didn’t you know about

Byers?”

“Friends don’t spy on friends,” said Langly.

“What the hell does that make Scully and me? Chopped

liver?”

“No, of course not,” interrupted Frohike. “But you two

are in positions that place you in situations a little

more precarious and dangerous than any one of us, don’t

you think? We’ve always had the means to keep tabs on

one another, but have chosen not to do so until there

was an emergency.”

“And this doesn’t constitute an emergency, Melvin?”

asked Susanne who had finally calmed down.

Langly turned and stared directly at her. “Yes,

Susanne, this constitutes an emergency.” He stalked off

back to his computer and sat down in front of the

screen. “What the hell did you think I’ve been doing for

the last hour? I’m trying to home in on him using a

tracer program.”

“Tracer program? What’s he wearing? Some kind of a

bug?” asked Mulder.

“Yes.”

“How? Was it in his clothing?” Scully asked.

Susanne gasped. She knew any type of tracking device

placed in his clothing would be useless given his state

of undress at the time of his abduction.

“No. It wasn’t in his clothing. Just like you, Scully,

we’ve had implants inserted in our bodies for the

purposes of keeping track of one another in times of

emergency,” answered Langly.

“Would they take him to the lab?” asked Susanne. “Would

they be that obvious?”

Langly’s jaw locked and his expression became

determined. “That’s what I’m trying to find out. If

they are, we can get over to where ever the hell the

little subversive laboratory you’re probably working in

is, grab Byers, and kick the shit out of anyone who

tries to stop us.”

“We couldn’t go now, not in daylight,” Susanne

disagreed, much to Langly’s chagrin. “The security

system is highly sophisticated, and the goons they have

guarding the entryways are not exactly what you would

call ‘evolved’. I’m afraid what they might do to

John…or…or anyone else.”

“Well, if we can pin down exactly where Byers is, then

we can decide what our next plan of action is,”

suggested Scully.

“Let the man do his job. I can use some coffee – my

treat,” offered Frohike who turned to Langly and asked,

“You want any?” Langly shook his head, so Frohike led

the others into the small, but functional kitchen.

“How long have you known, Mulder?” asked Frohike.

Mulder raised an eyebrow at the elfin man. “Known

what?”

“About Susanne and Byers.”

Mulder shrugged. “Not as long as you seem to

think…less than a year. I guess it’s around the time

Scully and I made the decision to…um…well,

become….”

“Intimate, Mulder. We became intimate,” said Scully,

smiling. She couldn’t help it. Her partner was turning

a glorious shade of crimson that was usually reserved

for her fair complexion, and she found it rather

endearing that it was he who felt the embarrassment.

“But I don’t understand why he confided in you and not

us,” said Frohike.

“C’mon Melvin. Surely you realize he probably

understood that you already knew and were following our

fearless leader’s ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy?” asked

Mulder.

“Of course. I mean, we’re sure he must have thought

that, but Byers never actually said anything to us; you

know how he protects his private life even from us.

What I don’t understand is why talk to you?” answered

Langly.

“I can guess the answer to that,” said Scully. She

walked over to Susanne and said, “He and Mulder had

something in common. We all felt the need to keep our

relationships a secret, but the guys also found that

they could have one another to confide in.” Scully

looked at Susanne, turned briefly towards her partner,

and then back to Susanne.

“I just wish the men in our lives would have given

Susanne and me the same luxury.”

“Once again, my kung fu has done the deed,” announced

Langly upon entering the room. “I tagged him.”

“Where is he?” asked Susanne.

“Nearer than I’d ever have thought,” he replied with a

wry grin. “Right here in D.C.”

Susanne nodded, knowingly. “They took him to the lab.”

“You’ll show us, when it gets dark?” Mulder asked.

“Of course.” Susanne lowered her head. Some moments

passed before she looked up and turned back to look at

Scully. “I’m so sorry, Agent Scully.”

“Sorry?” Scully echoed.

“About keeping our relationship a secret. I knew it was

hard on John, but I was the one who felt it was

necessary to keep our relationship quiet. I hadn’t

realized John spoke with Mulder about it. If I had,

maybe we….” Susanne looked sadly at Scully, who in

turn took note of Mulder’s downcast eyes; it was

apparent he’d not considered the toll that their

clandestine relationship had on her, or Susanne for that

matter.

“It must have been hard for you to ask him to do that,

to keep your relationship a secret from his friends,”

suggested Scully more for Mulder’s benefit than

Susanne’s.

“So you did force Byers to keep your affair from us,”

accused Langly.

“You don’t give your friend much credit, do you?”

Susanne’s brow furrowed and her tone turned sharp. “I

never forced John to do anything he didn’t want to do.

He agreed with my reasons for keeping our relationship a

secret.” She looked away and said, almost in a murmur,

“But they must have found out. I don’t know how, but

they must have….”

“Who do you think found out?” asked Mulder bringing her

focus back to the group.

She looked hesitant, but said, “My employer.” Everyone

remained quiet as they waited for Susanne to fill in the

blank that all who were present were more than likely

able to fill without any help. Finally, after having

taken a deep breath, she said, “Roush Pharmaceuticals.”

Frohike whistled softly while Langly just threw his

hands up in frustration. Mulder, ever the peacemaker,

advised everyone to calm down. His words were forceful,

but the tone was soft, “It’s not like we shouldn’t have

suspected it; after all, she is a chemist. Where the

hell else would you expect them to have her work?” The

disdain for ‘them’ was clearly evident in Mulder’s

voice.

Susanne placed her hand on Mulder’s arm in a silent

expression of thanks. “I’ve been working on a pet

project of theirs for quite some time, but John knew

nothing about it; I swear I made sure to never say a

word about it. I didn’t want him in danger.”

“Well, you sure did a fine job of that, didn’t you?”

accused Langly.

“Enough. Stop looking for who to blame and start

thinking about how to get Byers back,” admonished

Scully. She looked around the room and asked the

obvious question, “Why would they take him?”

“I don’t know,” replied Susanne. The two Lone Gunmen

shook their heads in defeat as well.

“I think — I think I may have an idea,” stammered

Mulder.

Scully saw the look of dread in his face. She knew what

he was about to say was not going to be easy for him,

nor for any of them.

“I think it may have something to do with his father.”

“His father? Jeeze, Mulder, the old man has been dead

since he was a kid,” said Frohike.

clip_image002

“No. I don’t think so.” The confusion on everyone’s

face was evident, so Mulder tried to explain. “I know

that’s what John believed; I know that’s what he’d told

you and me. But, I – I have good reason to believe that

Alan Byers’s death is a lie; it was faked. I believe I

know the reason why,” Mulder confessed.

“Reason? He dropped dead of a heart attack; Byers said

he remembered watching him go off in the ambulance.

What other reason is there?” said Langly.

“No. That’s not what happened–” Mulder held his hand

up to stifle the objections that both Langly and Frohike

were about to make. “Apparently, John and I had

something else in common.” Everyone remained quiet; all

eyes watched Mulder intently as they waited for an

explanation.

“Byers’s father worked for the government. He worked

for the likes of Cancerman and –” Mulder’s voice choked

slightly as he completed his thoughts — “my father.”

“Are you sure?” asked Frohike.

“No,” Mulder replied quickly. “I mean, I don’t have

absolute proof, but I have it on good authority….”

“What all adds up?” asked Langly to which he added

angrily, “and what the hell is this so-called proof?”

The ire and frustration in his voice was clear; to whom

the hostility was directed was not, though everyone had

a pretty good guess.

“It came from unauthorized channels,” he responded,

purposefully vague.

“Oh, c’mon, Mulder. You’re talking to the kings of

unauthorized channels. What the hell are you talking

about?” demanded Langly.

“Mulder,” Frohike interjected softly, “what do you

know?”

Mulder looked over quickly at Susanne and saw it, an

imperceptible nod. He shook his head slightly, but

Susanne would have none of it. She said in a clear,

firm voice, “I told him.”

Three pairs of eyes moved as if watching match point at

the U.S. Open, one moment their gazes were on Susanne

and the next on Mulder. This continued until Mulder

clarified it all for them.

“I’d had my suspicions for some time. In all of my

research over Samantha’s abduction, I kept coming across

a set of initials…’A.L.B.’ The family history of this

‘A.L.B.’ included a son named John F. and a wife named

Helen. No last name was ever disclosed in these

records, but the dates and family history all seemed to

fit.

“I’d never told Byers, because I never had absolute

proof that the ‘A.L.B.’ listed in those files belonged

to his father. I couldn’t do to him what G.C.B. Spender

did to me; I couldn’t give him hope on the chance that

it would be a false hope – based on lies.

“But when Byers confessed to me that he and Susanne were

seeing one another and that Susanne felt it was

imperative that it be kept a secret, I knew in my heart

that Byers’s father was the one referred to in those

files. But I didn’t tell him. I couldn’t; Susanne

contacted me soon after Byers confided in me; she’d

overheard him telling me about their relationship and

begged me to not tell a soul. She never told me exactly

why, but I felt she was sincere in her concern, so I

chose to keep it from you all.”

Turning to his partner, he said forlornly, “Even you,

Scully. I’m sorry for that; but she felt it would cause

more harm than good if more people were aware of their

relationship. To be honest, if I had it to do over

again I still don’t think I could have told you.”

“Please, Agent Scully,” intervened Susanne, “understand

that I put Mulder in a very difficult situation. He

asked me about John’s father, and when he asked me, I

felt he should know the truth. I told him that it was

Alan Louis Byers who was referred to in the files, and

that he was a working member of the consortium.”

The room was quiet, as no one knew quite what to say at

that moment. Tension was evident; Langly and Frohike

were both visibly upset with what Susanne had just

informed them of. Scully, on the other hand, was

working very hard to maintain a neutral facade;

professional decorum was called for and no one could put

on their professional mask better than Agent Scully.

Finally, after several moments of awkward silence

passed, Scully cleared her throat and decided to get

back to the business at hand. “In what capacity?” she

asked.

“Capacity?” echoed Susanne.

“In what capacity was Mr. Byers a member of the

consortium,” she clarified, looking toward Susanne.

But it was Mulder who responded instead. “It’s Doctor

Byers and he’s a scientist,” he said and then turning

toward Susanne, he elaborated, “Byers is a chemist, too,

isn’t he Susanne? He’s still alive and kicking, and

working on some top-secret, super government project.

I’m right, aren’t I, Susanne?”

She nodded, though her head hung in a defeated posture.

“You knew this? How could you not tell Byers that he

was alive, much less that you worked with him?” asked

Frohike.

“I couldn’t. Alan begged me to keep his secret.”

“Alan? You know him personally?” asked Scully in

amazement at the new turn of events. She looked at

Mulder, her face full of question marks for him as well.

He held his hands up in defeat; he was, obviously, as

unaware of the senior Byers’s relationship with Susanne

Modeski as everyone else.

Susanne took a deep breath and said, “Yes, I know him

personally. I work with him, Agent Scully. He’s my

direct superior in the lab I work in at Roush. He

learned that I was seeing John and Alan begged me to

keep my knowledge of his existence a secret. He feared

for both John’s life and his own if John ever found

out.”

“I’ll bet; more like he was afraid of being exposed by

the Lone Gunmen,” retorted Langly.

“Maybe,” said Susanne, “but the fact of the matter

remains that he feared for his and his son’s life, and

rightly so I might add. But someone did find out. I

don’t know how; we were so careful.”

“Susanne, surely by now you know that you can never be

too careful,” Mulder said. “Hell, even these two clowns

knew something was going on, though admittedly they

weren’t exactly sure what that was,” and then with a

resigned smile at Scully added, “and they figured

something was going on between us, too.” Mulder’s smile

took some of the sting out of his words. It worked, as

the tension seemed to dissipate for a moment or two.

“So, now what do we do?” asked Scully. “How do we go

about getting Byers back home where he belongs?”

“Well,” answered Mulder, “the first thing I suppose is

to find something black and sexy, boys _and_ girls.

We’re gonna do a little par-taying tonight at a certain

super secret laboratory.”

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Roush Laboratory

284 Stealth Avenue

Langley, VA

9:30 a.m.

“You promised you wouldn’t hurt him if I kept my end of

the bargain. Well, I did damn it! I did, and you

brought him here, unconsciousness,” Alan Byers said

angrily.

His companion stood with his arms crossed and looked

disgusted. “C’mon Doc, you know as well as I do that he

was just put under for a bit; he’ll come around soon.”

“And that means I’m supposed to be jumping for joy?” he

asked rhetorically. “Why did you bring him here? Why

now?”

“You’ve been wanting to see him for years, haven’t you?

I’ve finally given you that chance, and all I’m getting

is grief about it,” he remarked sardonically.

“Who ordered you to bring him to me? There has to be a

reason for them to suddenly decide to allow us a family

reunion. What’s going on?”

“You think I’m privy to everything, Doc? You give me

too much credit,” said the man in black leather.

“But you do. Damn it to hell, I’m sure that you know.

Tell me. What are they going to do with him?” demanded

Alan Byers.

“Now, Doc, do you really think they would tell me

something like that? Hell, I’m just their messenger

boy, remember? I don’t know a thing, except perhaps

that the powers that be aren’t necessarily happy with

your performance of late. Rumor has it that you’ve been

a little lax in the productivity department, Doc. Seems

to me, and mind you, I don’t know anything for sure,

but, well it seems to me that the people in charge just

want to give you a little incentive to produce a little

more in a more timely manner…”

“What are they going to do to him?” asked the scientist

panic-stricken.

“How the hell am I supposed to know, Doc? I’m just a

one-armed lackey, right? But if I were a betting man, I

wouldn’t be surprised if our benefactors shared a little

something with your boy in there to motivate you a

little bit to finding a solution to that problem you’ve

been working on…”

“Sweet Jesus. They wouldn’t.”

“You know they would. You know they may have already.”

“Krycek, you are a bastard.”

“No, Doc, I’m not the enemy here. One of these days

everyone’s going to figure that out.”

“Funny, the other sonofabitch always says the same

thing…” Dr. Byers said. “Get the hell out of here,

Krycek. Let me go be with my son.”

“Sure, Doc, though I wouldn’t just hang around and visit

too long. Seems to me that you have your work cut out

for you, you know.” When his words were met with a

hateful glare from Byers, Krycek waved him off and said,

“Well, I’ll be on my way. Never let it be said that I’d

keep father and son separated…I never interfere with

family,” he said with a deceptive smile gracing his

face.

The scientist watched with consternation as the younger

man left. “Damn you, you sonofa -”

Dr. Byers moved quickly into the small office space that

was attached to his laboratory. The room had the busy,

disorganized appearance of an absent-minded professor’s

workspace. Scientific journals were piled high in

various corners of the room. Reams of xeroxed papers

sat in stacks throughout the four corners of the office.

Finally, the desk showed a method of organization known

only to its owner; papers, file folders, and computer

printouts lay strewn across the desktop. To Alan Byers,

it was home for the last twenty-seven years. When he

heard a sound, the scientist looked down at the now not-

so-still body of his son, who lay on the small sofa,

usually reserved for late night respites in the lab.

John Byers was regaining consciousness.

“Oh, God, my head,” moaned the younger Byers.

“John?” the doctor called out softly as he gently shook

his son’s shoulders. “It’s okay, John. You’re safe

now.”

In response, he opened his eyes slowly, as the

fluorescent lights glared harshly in his line of vision.

He turned even more slowly to his right and then back

toward his left. The pain that shot through from the

base of his head to the front of his forehead made him

gasp; he reached out, groping for anything to latch onto

in order to ease the discomfort.

Alan Byers reached out and grabbed his son’s searching

hand. “You’re going to be fine, John. Take a deep

breath and let it out easy.” He waited for him to

follow his directions and then repeated the

instructions. The doctor watched carefully, looking for

any signs of proof to Krycek’s veiled threats, as his

son slowly became more cognizant of his surroundings.

He didn’t observe any of the known symptoms and waited

until John was lucid enough to ask questions, which

didn’t take long at all.

“What happened?

“Where am I?

“Why does my head feel like it’s going to explode, and

who the hell are you?”

“I’ll answer your questions, but first take these. They

may help.” When John looked at the man suspiciously,

Alan Byers assured him, “Acetaminophen. That’s all they

are. Extra strength acetaminophen.”

John nodded as he accepted the pills and a glass of

water to wash them down with. He then looked back at

his benefactor and waited for his questions to be

answered.

“You were brought here without your consent.”

“Brought here? Where’s here? And why? I don’t

understand –” John responded in a panic stricken tone.

“I know. I wish they hadn’t resorted to this. God

knows the last thing I ever wanted was for you to be

involved in this, or for you to be hurt. I’m so sorry.

I’m so very – John, listen to me – ”

“You know who I am? Do I know you?” John asked,

confused as he looked at the clean-shaven, balding man.

Moments passed when his mind cleared; he said with

resignation, “I do know you, don’t I. The beard is

gone, the hair sparser, but you’re him.”

Alan Byers wasn’t sure how to feel at hearing that.

Sitting before him was the son he’d loved for the last

thirty-eight years, but hadn’t been able to share that

love for over the last twenty-five of them. He wasn’t

sure how John would react. There was only one way to

find out.

“Yes, John. You know me, though we haven’t seen one

another in a very long time. I’m sorry for that, son.”

Byers stared at the older man but remained silent. He

needed a minute or two, or three, to assimilate what

this stranger whom he seemed to know intimately had just

said.

“Dad?” He cleared his throat in an attempt to rid

himself of the tremors that clearly occupied it… “You

are my father, aren’t you?”

Alan Byers could only nod in affirmation; suddenly he

didn’t trust his voice either. His eyes threatened to

betray him by watering up, but that didn’t stop him from

breaking into a nervous smile. He wanted desperately to

extend his arms out and hug this man, his child, and

show him that he’d never stopped thinking of him, never

stopped loving him. But all he did was stand still,

waiting as patiently as he could for the younger Byers

to make the first move.

“You’re supposed to be dead,” his tone, almost defiant.

Those were not the words he’d hoped or expected to hear.

He hesitated before he said, “I know that’s what you

were told. I’m sorry.”

“I’m sure you are,” replied the younger Byers with

little affect.

“John, you have to believe me. It was never my choice;

I mean, it was in a way, but it was the only choice I

could make.” He sighed in exasperation. “How can I

make you understand?”

John attempted to sit up, but it felt like ball bearings

were ricocheting around in his head. He found himself

being gently helped to lay back down on the couch.

“Thank you,” he muttered to the older man whose eyes so

resembled his own.

“I didn’t want to leave you and your mother.”

“I’m sure.” But he wasn’t, not really.

“John, you have to understand. The work was – no, is

important, and the men involved in it are very, very

powerful.”

He looked at his son with hope that he understood the

dilemma that was posed to him so many years ago and

followed him throughout the rest of his life. John

returned his father’s gaze, trying to understand, when

it suddenly dawned up him that his life seemed to

parallel someone else’s.

“Do you work for him?” he asked.

“Work for who?”

“The Cancer Man.” Byers looked at his father’s confused

expression and clarified his question. “Do you work for

C.G.B. Spender?”

Dr. Byers sighed and nodded. “I did. The belief is

that he’s rather ill at the moment, quite near death.”

“Right. And I’ve got some swampland to sell you,” Byers

retorted. “Go to hell.”

“I wish I could explain it to you, son.”

“Son? You think you have the right to call me that?

How dare you! You lost that right when you walked out

on Mom and me almost thirty years ago! My God, I

thought you were dead…I mourned for you.”

“John, I’m so sorry, but you have to try and understand.

The choices they gave me; I couldn’t let them – ” Alan

stammered. He didn’t want to reveal too much, but he

felt he had to defend himself in order to allow his son

to see that he wasn’t the monster he was making him out

to be. “John, it was the only viable choice; I made the

right decision.”

“They wanted to take me, didn’t they? Just like

Samantha Mulder.”

“Yes, John, just like Bill Mulder’s little girl. They

were going to take his son, but at the last moment they

decided to take the girl instead. I couldn’t let that

happen to you.” He paused and his voice became a

whisper, as if trying to hide his words, “I refused to

allow you to be subjected to that. I know Fox has been

through several ordeals himself, he and that partner of

his.”

“Jesus, what else about me and my friends do you know?

My relationships?”

“I’ve been kept informed.”

“Informed…you’ve been kept informed. Well, isn’t that

comforting?” His consternation belied his words.

“I wish I could convince you of how sorry I am that you

had to find out.”

“That’s what you’re sorry about? You’re not sorry about

leaving me, but you’re sorry that I found out the truth?

Jesus Christ! What kind of twisted sense of priorities

do you have?”

“Priorities that kept you and your mother alive, John

Byers, and don’t you forget it!” The elder Byers stood

tall, but shaking with anger and hurt. He didn’t know

how to make his son realize; the consortium was a

powerful entity that he simply would not fight at the

expense of his family’s life. “You have to understand,

I did what I thought was best in order to keep you both

safe. I left you because I love you, John. I didn’t

want to see you harmed.”

John sat up and shook his head. “I want to leave.”

“Wait. Please. Let me try to help you understand – ”

Alan watched helplessly as John chose to ignore his

words.

Standing up on wobbly legs, John began to move toward

the door. But the motion caused his vertigo to return,

and he began to sway. Alan rushed to his side and

caught him before he made full contact with the floor.

When he looked down into his son’s eyes, he was greeted

with a horrific sight.

Once blue eyes were covered in a sea of oilian black.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Scully’s Apartment

Georgetown

Washington, DC

11:30 a.m.

They’d driven home in silence after having agreed to

meet back at the Lone Gunmen Headquarters eight o’clock

that night. The boys had decided they needed to gather

as much intelligence as possible in terms of pinpointing

Byers’s exact location. They’d already figured out he

was somewhere with the D.C. area and were fairly

confident that he was at the Roush site. Susanne agreed

to take them to the lab that night, after the large,

daytime security force departed for the evening.

Although Scully had offered Susanne a chance to stay

with her and Mulder, much to no one’s surprise, she

declined. She decided to go back to the hotel she and

Byers were staying at to collect her things and move to

another location. When it had been pointed out that

plan was probably a futile one, she agreed immediately,

but said that she didn’t want to make it easy for them.

“If nothing else,” she’d said, “at least it feels like

I’m doing something. Besides, I think we all need a

little space and time to think about everything we’ve

just discussed.”

Scully remembered agreeing with Susanne and saying they

would get together that night, but if there was anything

she needed to give her or Mulder a call on their

cellphone. Scully took out one of her business cards and

then printed Mulder’s cell number on the back. “In case

mine’s busy,” she’d said as she handed it to Susanne, “I

want you to have a way of reaching us.” Susanne

expressed her thanks, nodded her good-byes to Frohike

and Langly (the former begrudgingly acknowledged her

while the latter steadfastly ignored her,) and left.

“You think she’ll come back tonight?” Langly had asked.

Mulder looked surprised; apparently it had never

occurred to him that she wouldn’t. “Of course she’ll

return tonight. Guys, I think you’ve got her all

wrong.”

“Jeeze, Mulder, whatever happened to ‘trust no one?'”

Langly had asked with a disgusted tone.

“She loves him, Langly.”

“Yeah, right.”

Mulder had shaken his head slightly and told the guys he

and Scully would see them later. They’d departed and

decided to return to Scully’s apartment, as it was

closer.

And now they were there in Georgetown, after a ride of

total silence. Neither had even turned on the radio;

they both needed to think about what had just transpired

and consider how they were going to deal with it.

Scully broke the silence first. “Why?”

Simple enough question; too bad Mulder had no idea as to

how to express his answer. “Are you angry?” he asked

instead.

“Angry?” she mused in low tones, “No, not angry. I

think I feel something more akin to hurt, but I’m not

angry. I know you had your reasons for not discussing

it with me, and I suspect at the time they seemed like

very good ones. I’m just curious as to what they were

that’s all. Help me understand, Mulder.”

Mulder didn’t answer right away; he had a feeling this

could be yet another turning point in their

relationship, and he needed to find the right words so

as not to screw this up. “He was scared, Scully. The

thing of it was, he didn’t know why. But I knew; I knew

the truth, and I couldn’t tell him because I hadn’t any

proof.

“And all this time I thought – I mean I was – ” Mulder

pressed his hands together as if he were praying to some

unknown deity for the right words. “I know you once

said that it’s not always about me, but Scully? This

time, I can’t help but wonder if Byers’s life and mine

were somehow intertwined to the point that his

association with me – ”

“Hold it right their, buster. Are you trying to tell me

that you think Byers was taken because of his

relationship with you?” Scully looked at her partner in

exasperation.

“I don’t know,” he replied in kind. “I don’t understand

what the point is in taking him now if it isn’t to get

to me! I mean, he told me about his relationship with

Susanne, and they must have found out that I knew.”

“Mulder, honestly, don’t you think this is a bit of a

stretch?” she asked with as light of a tone as she could

muster.

“He asked me to not tell anyone of his relationship

because Susanne told him _her_ life would be in danger.

He never associated the danger with himself, though

after I spoke with Susanne it was clear that she was

more concerned for John’s safety. But, Scully, they

both spoke with me about their affair. They both feared

reprisals if it were to become common knowledge, but I

knew. I was the only one privy to that information, so

maybe I am the common link and therefor the reason for

Byers’s abduction?”

Mulder looked totally forlorn. Scully reached up and

pulled his hand down to convince him to sit next to her

on the couch.

“I think you may be looking for a connection that’s not

there, Mulder. I just wish you would have told me; I

could have tried to ease your mind before this,” she

said sadly.

“How could I not keep their secret? Up to this point

keeping the affair to myself had harmed no one, so I

made the determination to honor that request. I’m sorry,

if you think my not making you privy to it was a

reflection on our relationship. It wasn’t, Scully; I

hope I can convince you of that.”

She listened carefully with an open mind and remained

silent throughout. There was a time that she would have

seen Mulder keeping this kind of information from her as

a betrayal. Back at the Gunmen’s headquarters she felt

herself almost falling into that mindset, but at this

point she found that not to be the case. Things were

different now.

“Mulder, have I told you lately how much I love you?”

His eyes met hers, and he said, “Yes, Scully, as a

matter of fact you have.” He paused and before he could

say it, Scully interrupted him.

“I know you do, too.” She raised her hands up to his

face to pull him down slightly to meet hers. Their lips

met and both of them knew that what could have proven to

be an obstacle in their relationship was nothing more

than a small reminder of how important they were to one

another.

And how much they depended upon something every bit as

important as loving one another.

Trust.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

ACT 2

Roush Laboratory

284 Stealth Street

Langley, VA

3:00 p.m.

As soon as Dr. Byers saw the black plague cross his

son’s eyes, the scientist quickly lifted his son and

carried him into the closest of one of many experimental

lab rooms located at the site. He set John onto a

gurney that laid dormant after one of the several test

subjects had succumbed to the latest strain of the black

oilian. The older man was having a difficult time

imagining that his own son might face the same fate.

“What’s the matter, Doc? Sonny boy falling asleep on

the job?”

Without turning around, Dr. Byers said angrily, “Damn

you, Krycek! How could you?”

“How? Well, I had this rather large hypodermic needle

and I pretty much just plunged it right – ”

Krycek didn’t finish that sentence as Alan Byers lunged

at his young nemesis and tackled him to the ground.

Unfortunately, youth and strength proved too much for

the older man and Krycek easily subdued Byers with one

quick strike of his artificial limb. When it was

apparent that Dr. Byers would no longer be a threat,

Krycek released him, leaving the scientist to struggle

on his own to a chair.

“Need a hand, old man?” Krycek asked as he extended his

prosthesis.

Byers stumbled slightly as he stood up; he sought the

security of a chair. “Go to hell,” he rasped.

“I’m already there, Doc, already there….”

“Why? Why do this to him?” he cried out as he gestured

helplessly toward his unconscious son. “He’s never done

anything; I’ve never done anything but give my soul to

the project at the expense of everything I’ve held close

to my heart, and this is the thanks I get? My son is

infected with an alien virus? For what ungodly purpose

would you do this to him and me?”

Krycek remained silent as he decided just how much he

should tell the old man. His superiors hadn’t given him

specific orders on how to go about accomplishing his

goal nor whether to share said details with the

scientist of how he planned to complete his mission.

And it was a mission. One that he was placed in charge

of, and Krycek was determined not to screw it up.

“We needed to give you and those who work with you a

little more incentive, that’s all,” the young Russian

offered. “Too much is dependent upon the successful

completion of your experiments. You’re being counted on

to find an antidote for the latest strain of the oilian

virus. You did it for the first strain of black oil.

That vaccine even had a negating effect on the second

strain. But this latest type is proving to be a bitch,

isn’t it?

“So, Doc, it’s been left up to me to give you a little

encouragement, ya know?” Krycek couldn’t help wonder

why no one had considered using the old man’s son before

this. The fact that John was involved in a secret

affair with one of the top Roush chemists certainly made

his participation in any plot that much more appealing.

“As soon as you develop the vaccine,” Krycek offered,

“you’ll be allowed to use your son to test it on to cure

him. Does that seem so difficult to understand?”

“But what if I can’t? What if I can’t develop it in

time? This latest strain; it’s not a patient one.”

“True, true. But don’t worry, Johnny boy here is just

the bait to bring in the surefire ‘tool’. And believe

me, that tool will be ready, willing and able to

voluntarily walk right through the doors of Roush to aid

in the research, now that one of his closest friends was

in captivity there.”

Fox Mulder come on down, mused Krycek.

“What if I don’t have the right tools to do it? Damn

it, Krycek, this is my son’s life you’ve placed in my

hands!”

“Then I’d say you have your work cut out for you, Doc.

I’ll leave you to your work.” Krycek turned and

practically strutted out the door.

“Bastard.” Byers turned to his son and placed his hand

on his forehead and began to gently brush the hair off

of it. He stood there for a few minutes and tried to

clear his mind so he could begin to do what he did best,

assess the situation and develop a plan of action. But

for the moment all he wanted to do was hold the son he’d

neglected for the last thirty years and figure out a way

to make amends.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

The LGM Headquarters

Building # 566

‘C’ Street

Anacostia

Washington, DC

3:40 p.m.

Langly and Frohike sat quietly, each at their own

terminal, trying to gather as much information as

possible to best help them secure Byers’s release that

night. Langly continued his research on the actual

location, hacking into sites that revealed the

blueprints of the Roush laboratory building. How he

managed to do that was always a wonder to Byers and

Frohike; apparently Langly’s ‘kung fu’ was one to be

reckoned with.

Frohike, on the other hand, worked on trying to

determine exactly why they would bother to take Byers.

What made Byers such a valuable commodity that the

consortium would see fit to abduct him? Surely ‘the

powers that be’ had recognized that since he and Susanne

had a relationship, she would assist them in locating

Byers inside the lab, no?

If it had something to do with a project that Susanne

and Byers’s father was working on, then they obviously

felt that taking Byers could benefit the project in some

way. Frohike sighed with frustration; they’d never been

actual targets before. It had always been Mulder or

Scully, or even Skinner’s ass they were dragging out of

the fire. Never one of the three of them. Why? What

did Byers have to offer that could assist a man he

hadn’t seen in almost thirty years and a woman he’d seen

only once a month, if that?

Frohike continued his research by hacking into

government sites, which gave him access to specific data

banks and chemical testing sites that the government

sponsored. Frohike smiled to himself; his ‘kung fu’

wasn’t anything to sneeze at either.

“Come up with anything?” asked Langly.

“Nothing that seems to help me figure out why the hell

they took Byers. I mean, why didn’t they just take

Susanne; she’s the damn scientist. What could they

possibly gain by taking Byers?” asked Frohike more

frustrated than ever.

“I know,” Langly quietly agreed. “I found the

blueprints; the place is one huge maze. Should be a

bitch to figure out where the hell he is.”

“You don’t think she’ll show up tonight, either, do

you?”

Not surprisingly, Langly shook his head. “I’m still not

sure why he’s so enamoured with her. She’s part of them

and he doesn’t see that. No matter what she says, I’ve

never been able to trust her. And what’s up with

Mulder? All of a sudden he’s Byers and Susanne’s best

friend to the point where they’re confiding in one

another? Shit! He even left poor Scully in the dark.

Don’t know if I’d want to be alone in the same room with

her right now…”

Frohike smiled at that; he’d always appreciated the

sassy side of Dana Scully. He also knew that Mulder did

too, and he would never do anything to intentionally

hurt her. There was something wrong with this whole

scenario. Byers was a pawn in this plot, of that

Frohike was sure, but why? For what was Byers being

used as bait?

“Not for what,” Frohike said aloud, “For whom?”

Langly looked over at him. “What was that?”

“That’s it!” Frohike looked up to see total confusion

written on his friend’s face. “Byers is just the bait.

But who are they baiting? Susanne already works for

them, so it wouldn’t be her, right?” Langly simply

nodded his head. Once Frohike got in a zone, there was

no shutting him up.

“So who do they want? One of us? I can’t think of a

reason why they’d want one of us….” Frohike’s voice

trailed off. He remained silent momentarily until he

looked directly at Langly. “Scully? That would be

pretty farfetched. They’d gotten to her once already;

would they take Byers as a means of getting her back

now?”

“That makes about as much sense as them wanting one of

us,” Langly said. “No, this has to have something to do

with Byers’s father. Either good ol’ Doc Byers is a

bastard and knee deep in Consortium shit and forcing

John to do God knows what, or… someone wants to

control the doc and is using John as the incentive.

Jeeze, Frohike, this is so damned schoolyard. Why take

John now?”

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Enroute to LGM Headquarters

Unknown local streets

Washington, DC

7:55 p.m.

They’d packed the trunk with everything they thought

they could use and got in the car to begin the maze-like

drive back to the Gunmen Headquarters. Though the first

few minutes of the drive were quiet, Mulder finally

announced, “I’m hungry.”

“You’re always hungry, Mulder.”

“What can I say? I’m insatiable,” he retorted with his

trademark leer, to which Scully agreed wholeheartedly.

“That you are, my love.” She entwined her fingers with

his and said in a husky voice, “And I’m glad you are.”

“Scully, you keep talking like that and we will be

awfully late getting back to the Gunmen.” While his

eyes remained on the road, he gently squeezed his

partner’s hand and then brought it up to his lips for a

tender kiss. “God, Scully, you really do know how to

bring out the mushy side of me.”

She could only laugh in response to that mainly because

it always surprised her how little about himself that

Mulder seemed to know. He proved to her time and time

again just how sensitive and ‘mushy’ he was, whether it

was towards her, a victim, or even a perp. Mulder was

sometimes too damned sensitive for his own good and

often got himself into trouble because of it.

“There’s a Seven-Eleven. Want anything?” he asked.

“Yogurt?”

“Oh, Scully, you do live dangerously!” he teased.

So, sometimes ‘practical’ can still win out, she mused.

She watched him walk into the convenience store, eyeing

his butt with more than just a passing interest. Not

thirty minutes before that beautiful rear end was buck

naked and lying next to her on the same bed they’d just

made love in. The smile on her face was one of smug

satisfaction, and she had no qualms about sharing it

with the world.

That is until he appeared at her window.

“Hello, Dana. How nice to see you again.”

She flinched, though God knows she didn’t want to give

him the satisfaction. “Go to hell, Krycek.” She looked

at him dressed in his black leather jacket, black jeans,

and black turtleneck. She half expected to see his face

covered in soot for effect, but Krycek was too damn vain

to cover up his pretty face.

“Tut, tut, Dana, is that anyway for a lady to speak?”

He smirked at her and then quickly said, “You look good

in basic black, Scully. Where’s the party, and why, oh

why wasn’t I invited, too?”

“You’re already involved in this you sonofabitch, aren’t

you? Damn it, I should have known. What’s your role in

this, Krycek? Why Byers? What can he possibly do to

help you get ahead in your little game of one-up-man-

ship with the consortium?” she asked in a steely tone.

“Silly girl, Byers is nothing more than the catnip. A

mere enticement for the real prey. You knew that,

didn’t you, Dana? Well, I must be off. Have fun

tonight, Agent Scully. Until we meet again…and we

will meet again.” Before she could say another word, he

vanished into the night. She hadn’t even time to get out

of the car when seconds later, Mulder returned to the

car with a couple of bags in tow.

“What?” he asked defensively. “Even rescuers have to

eat, Scully.”

“We had a visitor,” she said with resignation.

“Visitor? Who?”

“Alex Krycek.”

“What?” Mulder set himself to jump back out of the car.

“Mulder, wait! He’s gone.”

“But what did he want? He knows about Byers, doesn’t

he?”

“Yes. He knows about Byers.”

“Well?” Mulder’s impatience was apparent as he tapped

his thighs rhythmically. “What did he say?”

“I’m not sure what he meant by it.”

“Scully, what is it?”

“Byers isn’t the one they really wanted. He said he was

just the catnip for the real prey.”

“Shit,” he muttered. He started the car and pulled out

of the parking lot.

“Mulder, talk to me.”

He said nothing for several seconds as he made his way

back onto the beltway. It never seemed to matter what

time of day or night it was, there was always traffic on

the damn beltway. “I think, maybe, one of us is the

prey. If Krycek is involved, you know he never takes

the direct path. Scenic route is more in keeping with

his style. It’s just a game to him, Scully. He does

this shit for his amusement, and whatever monetary

benefits he can derive from it.”

“Mulder? This time, it really is all about you, isn’t

it?”

He nodded, imperceptible, but most definitely a nod.

“Let’s go see what the boys have learned. Maybe Susanne

will be there by the time we get there.”

“You think she’ll show up?” Scully asked, knowing full

well what his answer would be and knowing full well that

he’d be wrong.

“Yes.”

“Okay.” She reached into the bag for her yogurt, though

she didn’t bother to open it. Sometimes knowing you’re

right makes you lose your appetite.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Apartment Complex

Unknown Address

Bethesda, MD

8:10 p.m.

Susanne wrapped herself in the large bath towel after

she finished her shower. It was one of the few luxuries

she’d allowed herself when she first moved into the tiny

apartment several months ago. No one knew of its

existence, not the consortium nor Byers. This was her

own little, private hideaway; it was a place for her to

escape to when the pressures from the lab became too

great.

It was for that reason that the loud rapping on the door

startled her. When the door flew open, she tried to

flee, but longer legs clad in black caught up to her.

“Hello Susanne. Nice to see you again.”

“Go to hell, Alex.”

“You know, Susanne, you have to be at least the fourth

person who’s said those exact words in the last ten

hours. I’m beginning to get a complex.”

“What the hell do you want from me?”

“Such language! What happened to being the more genteel

and fairer sex?”

“Cut the crap, Krycek, and tell me what you want.”

“You know what I want; it’s time for you and Doc to get

ready to go back to the old drawing board. Oh, and you

have a new guinea pig, my dear.” His expression was one

of pure glee. And evil. Susanne gasped at a

realization.

“You didn’t? Oh my God, you infected John? Why? Why

would you do that?”

“Well, that seems fairly obvious, doesn’t it? Susanne,

we need a victim for our savior to rescue. I decided it

wouldn’t behoove us to take Agent Scully again; we don’t

need the entire FBI force to be engaged. But one lone

man, whose lover just happened to work with one of the

top research scientists who just happened to be that

man’s father – Oh, c’mon, Susanne! Soap Opera Digest

couldn’t have created a better scenario than that!

“And I suspect the rescue effort will be taking place

tonight. Am I correct about that, Susanne?” They both

knew it was a rhetorical question.

He moved easily to where her bedroom was located, as if

he were as familiar with the layout of her apartment as

she was. Susanne realized that’s because he probably

was.

He pulled out various clothing items from her dresser

drawers and handed them to her. “Here, get dressed.”

She took them but made no move to dress. “I have no

plans for tonight, Alex.”

“No? Well, then that works out great then, doesn’t it?

Now we can go out. Together. You and me, babe.” He

smiled. Then his face took on one that brooked no

nonsense. “Get dressed. I want to leave within the

next ten minutes.” Krycek reached into his jacket

pocket with his good hand and pulled out a small

revolver. “I suggest that you do not want to make me

late, Susanne. Move. Now.”

She was dressed within nine and they immediately left,

his gun, pointed at Susanne’s back the entire time.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

The LGM Headquarters

Building # 566

‘C’ Street

Anacostia

Washington, DC

8:32 p.m.

The loud knock froze them both momentarily, until

Frohike rose to see which of the players waited at the

door. “Yeah?”

“It’s me, Melvin. Open the damn door.”

Frohike went through the ritual and finally unlocked the

last of the locks to allow Mulder and Scully to enter.

He watched as the two walked in, obviously with more on

their minds than what had been when they’d left earlier

that day.

“You figured it out, too, didn’t you?” asked Frohike.

Scully looked directly at the oldest of the gunmen and

ask, “What do you mean?” She wondered if the man in

black paid them a visit as well.

“Byers is just a pawn. They’re after someone else. We

figured it ain’t Langly or me; not that either one of us

couldn’t be of some benefit to them, of course…”

“Frohike, get on with it,” Mulder interrupted.

It was Langly who picked up the ball, however. “We

decided that it’s probably not Susanne either, who by

the way still isn’t here. They’ve already proven they

can get access to her at will.”

“No,” agreed Frohike, “and we don’t think it would make

sense for them to go to the trouble of taking Byers just

to get to Susanne. I mean, she works right at the lab;

they could arm twist her every day of the damn week, if

they needed to. Which of course leaves you two.

“I want one of you to stay here with Scully,” declared

Mulder.

“Like hell!” retorted Scully with equal determination.

“It’s Mulder they’re after.”

They all nodded in quiet agreement. Langly spoke up

with the sixty-four dollar question. “Why? Why now,

Mulder? What have you got they’ve decided they need.

They’ve already probed your brain, and most likely

didn’t find much, so it can’t be to tap your incredible

intelligence….” Everyone managed a chuckle over that.

“So what is it, Mulder? They ever do anything to you

that would make them want you now? What have you got

that they need?” asked Frohike.

“I don’t know,” he answered. “Every time I was released

from a military base, I came out with a clear mind…and

no memories. I don’t know what our good old U.S. of A.

wants from me this time.”

“But what if…?” Scully hesitated, but she looked

directly at Mulder. He nodded and urged her on.

“Mulder, remember who’s involved here – Krycek. We

never know which side of the fence that bastard stands

on, so what if…?”

Just as Frohike asked, “When did he come into the

picture?” Mulder’s eyes opened wide with understanding.

“Damn it,” he gritted out.

“What is it?” she asked.

“Russia. It was when I was in Russia; remember, when

you were called to testify at the congressional

hearing?”

Scully nodded. He’d never spoken to her of that time in

Russia with Krycek, but she’d always suspected it was

not a holiday. Each time she’d asked about it, he had

brushed the question off; he often said that there

wasn’t much to tell, but someday when they were old and

gray and bored to tears he’d fill her in.

Scully sat down next to her partner. “Mulder, what

happened in Russia?”

“You feeling bored, Scully?”

“I never could get you to tell me what happened.

Mulder, but you have to tell me now. John’s life may

depend on it.”

He nodded, knowing she was right.

“Krycek and I were spying on some kind of prison camp,

but we were spotted. I started running like crazy.

Would have beat out the damn horses too if I hadn’t

tripped.” He shrugged.

“Go on.”

“Not much else to tell. They caught us, tied us up, and

threw Krycek and me into a dirt pit with bars. They

came for me, dragged me out of my cell and beat the hell

out of me. Then – then they brought me to – “He began

to unconsciously rub his neck.

“Where, Mulder? Where did they bring you?”

“They brought me into this large, gray room with rows

and rows of small cots…no, they were like cages. Oil

started pouring from above all over me. Shit felt like

it was crawling right through me. Now that’s one memory

I wouldn’t have minded being wiped out.”

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~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

ACT 3

The LGM Headquarters

Building # 566

‘C’ Street

Anacostia

Washington, DC

9:00 p.m.

Mulder excused himself for a few minutes to use the

bathroom. Scully excused herself and followed him. Just

before he walked into the small lavatory, he turned to

her.

“I’m okay, Scully.”

“Yeah?”

He smiled. “Yeah, but it’s nice to know that if I

weren’t you’d be there as my back-up.”

“Always, Mulder. Anytime, anywhere.”

“I know. It’s nice to be reminded every now and then

though.”

Now she smiled and reached out to hug him. “Oh,

Mulder,” she sighed as she drew him in towards her. She

felt his arms go around her small waist and hold her.

“This feels good.”

“Yeah, it does, except…”

“What? What’s wrong?” The smile disappeared and worry

lines appeared.

“Except I really do have to use the bathroom, so, if you

don’t mind…?” He chuckled at the exasperation that

clearly showed on her face.

“Oh, for crying out loud.” She slapped him gently on

his ass, gave him a quick kiss, and walked back into the

small living area of the headquarters.

“He’s okay for tonight, isn’t he?” Frohike asked.

Scully nodded in the affirmative.

“She’s not going to show up, is she?” asked Langly.

“Did you expect her to?” asked Frohike.

“No,” he replied and then pointed towards the head.

“But he did.”

“She was going to come, Langly,” said Scully. “Mulder’s

sixth sense kicked in about her, and he really believed

she would have shown up. It’s possible she didn’t show

up because someone didn’t want her to show up.”

“And who might that be, Agent Scully?” asked Langly.

“A certain rat bastard,” she replied and then proceeded

to fill the two men in on Krycek’s little visit with

her.

“Damn,” Langly responded, and looking at Frohike said,

“So that’s where he fit into the picture.”

“Yeah, damn,” echoed Frohike. He then looked

thoughtfully at Scully and asked, “Did you have any idea

about it? About Russia?”

Scully shook her head. “No, he never even hinted at

it.”

“But I thought that stuff killed everyone,” remarked

Langly.

“Me, too,” she replied to which Frohike nodded in

agreement.

“Me, three.” Mulder reappeared. “They injected me with

something when they’d first captured me. They threw me

into the cell and-” he unconsciously brought his hand

back up to his neck, “shot me up with it. It must have

been some kind of a serum to counteract the effects, and

they were using me to test it. I never felt any symptoms

after that first day they’d given me the ‘black oil

beauty treatment’.”

He looked around for a moment and observed, “Susanne’s

not here yet.”

“No, she’s not,” and before he could comment, Scully

added, “I’m sorry, Mulder. I don’t think she’s going to

make it back here.”

Though he finger-combed his hair in frustration, he

didn’t disagree. “I think she wanted to come back,

Scully. I really think she did.”

“Yeah, right,” muttered Langly.

“Would you knock it off?” retorted Mulder angrily. When

Langly looked at him with the classic “who me?”

expression, Mulder eagerly accepted the job of

explaining himself. “Langly, putting her down and

making her out to be the total villain is not going to

endear yourself to Byers.”

“That’s assuming he’s still alive!”

“He’s alive,” Mulder replied adamantly, “and I don’t

want to hear anymore negative shit like that, do you

understand?” Mulder stared down Langly and Frohike and

practically dared them to disagree. He couldn’t bear to

look over at Scully, though, for fear that she felt the

same way as the boys.

But Scully understood that and let him know immediately

where she stood. “I think so, too, Mulder. But we’re

going to be on our own tonight looking for him. Susanne

won’t be here; I don’t think she can.”

“Krycek,” he replied resignedly.

Scully nodded in agreement. “You think you’re up to

this?”

“Sure. Besides, I don’t have a choice. Byers needs all

of us.”

To that all of them agreed, so they sat and finalized

their makeshift plans.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Roush Laboratory

284 Stealth Avenue

Langley, VA

9:45 p.m.

“Hey, Doc! Doc, you got company!” called out Alex, as

he entered the laboratory with Susanne in tow.

Dr. Byers came out of the room he’d brought John to

earlier and shook his head. “How could you, Susanne?”

Susanne stared at the older man, not believing what

she’d just heard. “Alan, if you think for one moment I

had anything to do with this asshole infecting John -”

She paused momentarily to catch her breath, and then she

realized she was wasting valuable time. “Oh for

Christ’s sake, it really doesn’t matter what you think,

does it? Where is he, Alan?”

Dr. Byers didn’t hesitate; he pointed toward the room

he’d just left and watched as she pushed her way through

to the lab. Both Byers and Krycek followed her in.

“Gee, your little boy isn’t looking to too great, is he,

Doc?”

“Shut up, Krycek,” hissed Susanne. “What are his

vitals, Alan?”

“He’s holding his own, but I don’t know how long he can

last like this. I swear, Krycek, if he doesn’t survive

this, I will kill you.”

“Oh, c’mon, Doc…sticks and stones will break my bones,

but idle threats will never hurt me….” He smiled, but

none present felt like celebrating.

“Susanne, I was considering using the protocols from the

last trial,” offered Byers.

“For what purpose? It failed miserably on the last

three patients,” responded Susanne.

“But it might give us time, don’t you think?” he asked.

“We can’t be sure,” she responded uneasily.

“Do we have a choice?”

“Yes, Susanne, do you have a choice?” interjected Krycek

with a syrupy tone.

“Maybe we should just inject you with the little

critters, Krycek?” retorted Susanne.

“No, thanks,” he said as he held up his prosthesis, “I

paid my dues, thank you very much. But in case you have

some other ideas, I’ve brought a few of my nearest and

dearest friends to stay nearby and stand watch over you

and the good doctor here.” As if on cue, several very

large men, holding equally large weapons, appeared in

the room behind Krycek.

“What the hell are they here for?” asked Susanne.

“Just want to make sure you stay focused, dear, that’s

all,” said Krycek.

Suddenly the monitors began squealing and both Susanne

and Alan rushed to check John over. They adjusted IVs

and readjusted the oxygen flow. Susanne grabbed a

stethoscope and listened to his heart and lungs.

“I don’t like the sound of his lungs; he’s got fluid

accumulating.”

“What do you suggest we do, Susanne? He’s not going to

get any better without some kind of intervention,” asked

Dr. Byers.

“We need to hold out a little longer.”

“Oh? Why, Susanne Modeski, why ever are you willing to

wait? Could it be that you’re expecting, oh say…some

visitors tonight?” asked Krycek, the sarcasm practically

dripped out of his mouth.

“I don’t understand you, Alex. What kind of deadly game

are you playing here?” asked Modeski.

“Oh, but don’t you know? The deadly kind are the only

kind worth risking your own life for.”

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~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Roush Laboratory

284 Stealth Avenue

Langley, VA

10:18 p.m.

“This has got to be the ugliest building I’ve ever

seen,” observed Mulder wryly. “No wonder they decided

to hide it among all this foliage.”

The concrete fortress rose seemed to rise above the

trees the closer they got to the building. It was

nothing more than a square rectangle with several

smaller square boxes layered above it in an almost

haphazard pattern. The windows appeared to be

nonexistent; they also wondered where the entrance was.

Frohike pulled out his small palm pilot and brought up

the blueprints that he’d so carefully downloaded

earlier. He zoomed in on the ground level, West End of

the building and searched for possible entryways.

“Bingo!” Frohike practically shouted.

“SHH! Why don’t you just get a bull horn, and let

everyone know we’re here?” admonished Langly.

“Sorry. Jeeze, ya don’t have to get that touchy,

Mulder.”

“Okay, okay…where is it?”

All was forgiven and Frohike pointed out the most likely

entrance points on the palm pilot and then pointed out

toward the building itself. “Let’s go.”

The quartet, dressed from head to toe in black, headed

out toward the most likely site of entry. They kept low

and looked carefully for any sign of barriers, both

physical and electronic. Several minutes later, having

found none, they stepped up in front of the concrete

slab and knelt down to catch their breath.

“What’s wrong with this picture?” gasped Scully as she

drew in some fresh air.

“What do you mean?” asked Langly, wiping the sweat and

long blond wisps of hair off of his forehead.

“I know what you mean, Scully,” agreed Mulder.

She nodded. She figured Mulder would understand and

pick up on what she was thinking. “Doesn’t this seem

just a tad too easy, boys?”

“Easy?” echoed both Frohike and Langly in stereo.

“No guards? No electronic fences? Do you see anything

that even remotely resembles a monitoring device?” she

asked.

All three men shook their heads. Frohike said, “But you

gotta admit, Agent Scully, they’ve got us stymied about

how to get into the damn place.”

Scully had to agree with that as she looked over the

wall and tried to discern where the entryway was. “Bet

ya wish Susanne was here now,” she muttered quietly.

“Yeah, damn straight,” mumbled Langly, not realizing he

was heard.

“Be careful what you wish for,” whispered Scully, so

that only Mulder could hear. He gave her a quick smile.

Next, he started feeling his way all around the

perimeter of the concrete wall of the building, as he

hoped to find a trigger device that would gain them

access. Scully began to follow suit as did Langly and

Frohike.

“Ouch!” cried out Scully.

“What happened?” called out a chorus of male voices, but

before Scully could answer, they heard a rumbling from

the concrete fortress and suddenly, a wide opening

appeared before them. Meanwhile, Scully placed her cut

finger in her mouth as she tried to control the slight

bleeding that appeared when she’d caught her finger on

the trigger mechanism.

“I thi’k I fou’d it,” she mumbled.

“Good job, Sherlock,” teased Mulder. “You okay?” When

she nodded in the affirmative, he said, “Great. Let’s

go see what the hell they’re letting us walk right

into…”

It was the silence that assaulted them first, and then

it was the enormity of the size of the entrance hall.

They determined there was no upper floor, though they

knew from the blueprints there were several lower

levels.

“Well, which way, Wrong-Way?” asked Mulder of Frohike.

The little man smiled at that, sucked on his index

finger, and lifted it up as if to test the winds. “Oh,

how about thataway?” he asked as he pointed directly in

front of them.

“Sounds as good of a plan as any,” answered Mulder.

“Let’s go.”

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Roush Laboratory

Experimental Lab

284 Stealth Avenue

Langley, VA

10:30 p.m.

“Well, it appears our guests have finally arrived,”

announced Krycek, as he viewed a video monitor near the

door. “All I can say is it’s about time, right, Doc? I

mean, Sonny Boy doesn’t look too well at the moment,

does he?”

“Damn you, Krycek,” hissed Dr. Byers.

The smirk on Krycek’s face was evident, so much so, that

both Suzanne and Alan turned in disgust. The two

scientists had been quietly consulting with one another

over what their next course of action should be.

John’s level of consciousness continued to diminish. It

was apparent that his reaction to pain was decreasing as

well, and it was obviously of great concern to both of

them. Susanne was the first to admit, for her

colleague’s ears only, that they most likely had only

one hope to cure John, as it was apparent that the old

vaccine was not providing a remission of the symptoms.

Krycek’s announcement sent a sense of relief through

them, knowing that the rescue team had finally showed

up. They needed to create a new vaccine. As in right

then and there.

“So, boys and girls? Shall we go have someone greet our

guests?” With a nod to the five goons standing guard

near the entrance, Krycek sent a signal to bring their

‘visitors’ to them immediately.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Before they’d even had a moment to say “What the hell?”

Mulder, Scully, Langly, and Frohike were surrounded.

“Damn, you guys are big,” observed Frohike, whose mouth

remained opened slightly in disbelief.

“C’mon, Frohike, anyone you stand next to is gonna look

big,” retorted Mulder. At that moment, Goon Number 1

stood directly in front of Mulder. The agent found

himself looking up in order to make eye contact with his

captor. “Okay, ‘you’re big’,” Mulder acquiesced,

raising his hands in a defensive posture. Even Frohike

managed a smile at that.

“So, take me to your leader,” proclaimed Mulder and

wondered why he didn’t feel more threatened. The

foursome were lined up side by side and directed to

raise their hands and place them on the back of their

heads. Goons 1, 2, 3,and 4 remained directly in back of

their prisoners, while Goons 5 and 6 stood guard at each

side, as they walked them down the obviously very wide,

but very long, bare corridor.

“What the hell is this place?” asked Scully

incredulously as she surveyed the area. “There doesn’t

seem to be any sign of life here at all.”

“Something’s wrong with this picture; I just wish I

could figure out what the hell it was exactly.”

“You get the feeling,” began Frohike, “that we’ve just

been given an ‘engraved invitation’?”

All of them nodded in agreement.

They’d finally reached the end of the corridor when the

guards to their sides pointed their weapons toward the

right. Obviously they were being directed to turn

right, but Mulder had other ideas.

“What’s going on? Where are you taking us?” he asked.

“Yeah, where’s Byers?” piped in Frohike.

The hulking men simply pointed their weapons again to

the right. Frohike was getting pissed off, which

unfortunately sometimes led Frohike to do foolish

things. This was one of those times.

“No!” he shouted as he tried to break away. Goon Number

3, the man who was guarding Frohike, immediately reached

out and, with one hand, grabbed the little man up and

raised him up off of the floor. Neither man made a

sound, at least not until Frohike practically squeaked

from lack of oxygen.

“C’mon, man, put him down,” urged Langly who

instinctively moved to help his friend, but who was also

immediately blocked by Goon Number 2.

The giants observed all of their captives, but the one

holding Frohike made eye contact with Mulder and held

his gaze. Mulder realized that they were waiting for

some kind of response from him, and suddenly he knew

what was going on.

“Put him down. Let’s get this over with,” he said.

And with that, the group turned right and headed toward

their appointed destination.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

The door slid opened with a whoosh, as if an airlock was

released. Frohike and Langly were pushed through the

opening first, with Scully and Mulder following. They’d

entered a small outer office that remained dark and

shadowy. They didn’t see anyone at first, but there was

no mistaking that voice.

“Hail, hail, the gang’s all here.”

“Gee, what a surprise to find you here,” said Mulder.

Krycek responded with a mirthless chuckle. “Oh, you’re

just saying that because you’re so happy to see me,

aren’t you, Mulder?”

Scully was standing by and watching the exchange with

frustration. “What the hell is going on here? Where’s

Byers? Where’s Susanne? You do know where they both

are, don’t you? What have you done with them? And

what, Krycek, do you want from us? I don’t-”

“Enough! I don’t want anything from you, Agent Scully,

or from your two little lap dogs either for that

matter,” snarled Krycek.

“Then why are we here?” she demanded to know.

“Because you come with the package,” he replied snidely.

The look of confusion on Scully’s face prompted Mulder

to intercede. “Me. I’m the package, right, Krycek?”

“Give the man a kewpie doll!”

“So what now, Alex? You finally got me here, but I’m

still not sure why.”

Suddenly another rush of air was heard and light

penetrated the small room illuminating Krycek, which

allowed the others to see him pointing toward the

opening. “Why don’t you follow me, Mulder, and I’ll

show you why,” and then as an afterthought he added,

“Oh, and the others can come, too, if they want.”

The two gunmen, Scully, and Mulder followed Krycek into

the larger laboratory area with a little help from the

large bodied goons that walked behind them with guns

prodding their backs. When they’d all entered, the

airlocks reversed in sound and all noted that they were

now locked in what seemed like a seamless room. There

appeared to be no escape.

“Oh, damn!” gasped out Langly as he rushed over to where

Byers lay on the hospital bed. He was hooked up to

numerous monitors, but there appeared to be no signs of

consciousness. Frohike was quickly behind him as were

Mulder and Scully.

“What’s wrong with him?” demanded Langly. “What have you

done to him?” The blonde’s face contorted with anger.

Frohike appeared no calmer.

“Why him? Why John?” asked Frohike softly, with

concern.

“Let’s just say he provided very good incentive,”

answered Krycek.

“For me?” asked Mulder who was now confused and worried

that his friend’s condition was a direct result of their

association.

“No,” called out a male voice, husky with emotion, “for

me.”

“And for me as well,” echoed someone else with equal

desolation.

“Sonofabitch, I knew you were behind this!” cried out

Langly as Susanne approached them. Mulder immediately

moved to protect Susanne from Langly’s lashing out.

“Calm down! You’re not helping him by hurting her,”

Mulder admonished.

“It’s her fault!”

“No, it’s his fault,” Mulder hissed as his eyes pierced

Krycek’s. “Byers was just a pawn in all of this, a

means to an end.”

Alan Byers finally came forward and was seen by the rest

of the room’s inhabitants. The family resemblance was

strong and caused both Frohike and Langly to gasp in the

immediate recognition of their fallen comrade’s father.

“I tried to protect him all of these years. I never

meant for this to happen,” he said, trying to contain

his emotions. “And you have to believe me when I tell

you that Susanne kept my existence a secret for as long

as she did because I pleaded with her. I feared for

John’s life as well as his mother’s…Susanne knew

that.”

“If she hadn’t gotten involved with her,” Langly argued,

“he wouldn’t be laying in that bed dying. You will

never convince me differently of that.”

Krycek jumped in and said, “Yada, yada, yada…Look, you

wanna go kick her ass, be my guest, Langly, just not on

my watch, okay? Susanne and the esteemed Dr. Byers have

a job to do, and they do not need to interrupted by a

sniveling hippie wannabe. So, do me a favor, can it,

and let them get on with the business at hand.”

“Which is exactly what?” interjected Scully. “What do

you expect us to do?”

“I don’t expect you to do anything, Agent Scully. I

don’t expect Tweedle-dum and Tweedle-dee to do anything

either. Agent Mulder, on the other hand, is another

story.” Turning to Mulder, Krycek said, “Have a seat,

Foxy. Oh, and take off your shirt, okay?”

“Why?”

“The good doctor needs to draw some blood, don’t you,

Doc?” replied Krycek. Both scientists nodded in the

affirmative.

“I can just roll up my sleeve, doncha think, Alex?”

Mulder asked wryly.

“Can’t blame a guy for trying,” retorted Krycek with a

smirk.

Mulder was just about to seat himself when Scully cried

out, “Just a God damned minute here!”

“Has she always had such a way with words, Mulder, or is

this your influence?” asked Krycek.

Scully pulled Mulder’s arm, and practically pulled him

up off of the ground with the unbelievable tug. “Why

are you so willing to do whatever this bastard says you

should do? Mulder, I don’t understand you? I see, once

again the idea of ‘trust no one’ has gone out the

window. You want to give me one good reason?”

Mulder pointedly looked over at the bed. Byers

continued to lay still under the scrutiny of beeping

monitors, inflating respirators, and dripping IVs.

Mulder sat and rolled up his sleeve.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

ACT 4

Roush Laboratory

Experimental Lab

284 Stealth Avenue

Langley, VA

12:30 a.m.

Susanne drew several vials of blood, while Mulder

cringed each time a new one was filled. As hard as he

tried to keep from looking, his eyes returned to

watching the needle each time. Finally, she pronounced

the task finished, as she withdrew the syringe and

placed a folded up gauze on the needle mark. Susanne

bent Mulder’s arm and instructed him to hold it tightly

for a minute or so, while she labeled the blood samples

and then got a Band-Aid.

Scully took the bandage from her and applied it to her

partner’s arm. And then there was nothing left to do but

wait, while Susanne and Dr. Byers returned to their own

laboratory to get to work.

“How long will it take?” asked Langly as he looked

worriedly at his friend.

Scully shrugged her shoulders, but she attempted to

explain the process anyway. “They’re going to clot the

blood in order to separate it into plasma and the serum

that’s unique to Mulder’s blood that will, hopefully,

cure Byers. It takes anywhere from a half-hour to an

hour just to clot the blood. I assume they have methods

of ringing the clot that is faster than standard

procedures given the time factor.”

“Time factor? Scully, what do you mean, exactly?” asked

Frohike.

Scully looked at the two men who had been in Mulder’s

and her corner more times than she could count. She

wanted so much to say the words they wanted to hear, but

she respected them too much to not tell them the truth

as she saw it.

“He’s very ill, Melvin.”

Frohike shuddered slightly at her use of his given name;

if he hadn’t wanted to believe there could be a possible

fatal outcome before, there was no doubt in his mind

now. Scully would never lie to him and as much as he

appreciated that in her, this one time, he almost wished

she had.

“How long does he have?” he asked.

“I don’t know. I’ve only had indirect experience with

this before.” She turned to Mulder and asked, “Do you

remember anything from that time? Anything regarding

the symptoms and how long your recovery was?”

Mulder shook his head. “I honestly don’t; I’m sorry.

Of course I don’t know how relevant it would be even if

I did, since I received the vaccine before I was exposed

to the damn oilians.” He looked over at his friend and

felt a frustration interlaced with an anger he hadn’t

felt in a long time. It was bad enough that his own

life was turned upside down by the consortium; it pissed

him off royally that his friends were being subjected to

their evil as well.

As if reading his mind, Scully reached for his hand and

said, “This is in no way, shape, or form your fault,

Mulder.” He shook his head, but before he could

verbally disagree, she continued, “Listen to me. Dr.

Byers knew exactly what he was getting into when he made

his decision. Do you hear me, Mulder? His decision.

Just like your father made decisions that you may

question, but you had no say in. William Mulder and Dr.

Byers made adult decisions a very long time ago. You

were just a little boy. There was nothing you could

do.”

His rational self knew she was right, but his heart

wondered if there wasn’t anything that he could have

done to prevent this. He kept his doubts to himself.

Scully sat next to her partner for a few minutes more,

but her need to do something compelled her to get up and

check the patient’s vitals once again. His respiration

remained low, and his blood pressure appeared too high.

He was running a low-grade fever and he was not

responding to normal stimuli. Though it made her

uneasy, Scully decided to check and see if Byers

responded to pain stimuli. She made a fist and forced

pressure near his sternum.

He moaned.

Langly jumped up to object to whatever the hell Scully

was doing, but stopped when he saw her relieved

expression. “Oh, that’s a good thing, isn’t it?” the

lanky blond realized aloud.

“Yes, it’s a good thing.” Scully continued checking

Byers’s reflexes and jotted notes on the chart that lay

nearby. The others, however, had nothing to keep them

occupied other than their worrisome thoughts.

“How much longer do you think it’ll be, Scully?” asked

Mulder.

“Not too much.”

There was a sudden rush of noise; the doorway’s airlock

had been released again and in swaggered Krycek. No one

had even realized he’d left.

“Here,” he called out to no one in particular as he

tossed a few bags of fast food restaurant bags onto the

table. “Need your nourishment, kiddies.”

“Yeah, right. Like we’d eat anything you brought in,”

declared Frohike.

“Suit yourselves,” he responded as he opened one of the

bags and pulled out a paper wrapped burger. He unfolded

the paper, pulled out the burger, and proceeded to take

a large bite. He grabbed a package of french fries as

well and began munching on them. “Good shit.”

Mulder’s stomach had the audacity to growl at that very

moment. “Oh hell,” he mumbled as he stood up and

retrieved his own burger and fries.

“Mulder, you crazy?” asked Langly.

“If Alex wanted to kill us, he certainly could do it

more expeditiously than by poisoning us with Big Macs.

Besides, I’m hungry.”

The others gave Krycek a sideways glance and then aped

Mulder’s actions. He was right, if Alex wanted them

dead, he’d have certainly done away with them before he

spent the dough on dinner.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Roush Laboratories

Experimental Lab

284 Stealth Avenue

Langley, VA

3:45 a.m.

The senior Byers’s voice startled them all awake as he

rushed back in from his laboratory. “We’ve got it. I’m

sure this is it!” he cried out excitedly. Susanne

followed him into the room, her relieved expression

seemingly pronouncing the same claims.

“Well, well, well…see what a little incentive can do?”

asked Krycek, his eager tone belying his sarcastic

words.

They all watched as Susanne injected the latest vaccine

into Byers’s IV. They all watched and waited silently

for several moments.

“I doubt it’s going to work instantaneously, folks,”

Scully said. “Maybe we should sit down.” They did.

Finally, Mulder broke a long anxious silence. “What I

don’t understand, Krycek, is why the hell did you have

to get John involved in this; why not just nab me and

draw the blood?”

“Well, like I said; everyone needed a little more

incentive to get this vaccine in working order. I

figured using Johnny boy here would not only encourage

Daddy and Lover Girl a little more, it would also not

necessitate me having to risk my life yet one more time

to get you to do what is necessary to save this world’s

sorry ass.”

“So, you’re trying to tell us that you’re out to save

the world, Krycek?” retorted Mulder with a snort.

“Hey, I’ve been telling you all along; I’m one of the

good guys.”

“Sure. Sure you are.” Mulder would have liked nothing

more than to stand up and punch the guy’s lights out,

but with the goonies still standing guard, he didn’t

think that would be the wisest move on his part. Byers

had to be their main concern at the moment.

And Mulder’s patience was rewarded. It appeared that

the patient was finally starting to come around.

“John,” called Susanne in an effort to awaken him.

“John, you need to wake up now.” She leaned over and

placed her lips gently onto his forehead.

It was obviously an effort, but Byers’s eyes fluttered a

bit and, finally, opened. They appeared to stare

blankly at first, but as seconds ticked by, their focus

seemed more and more.

Both Mulder and Scully looked on with great concern,

oblivious to everything around them except their friend.

They knew what was most likely going to happen next.

“Holy shit!” shouted Frohike. Langly even jumped back a

bit in reaction to what they were seeing coming out of

Byers’s eyes, nose, mouth, and ears. Small, black oily

worm-like entities appeared out of no where. They

seemed to inch their way out of Byers’s body, and then

die on his face until most of his face was covered in

the ebony mask.

“They’re dead,” declared Scully after careful poking and

prodding. She quickly picked up an implement to aid her

in removing the offensive material off of Byers’s face

and placed it in a plastic bag for evidence.

Byers’s eyes darted from face to face of those who

stared down at him. He opened his mouth to mouth to

speak, but coughed a bit instead. He was still

intubated and Dr. Byers asked him if he were ready to

have the endotracheal tube removed. He managed a small

nod. Just as Dr. Byers was about to tell John what to

do next, Scully beat him to it.

“Cough when he says to, okay, John? It’ll make the

removal a lot less painful,” she explained.

Scully couldn’t help but wonder how many times she’d

said those very words to Mulder. “Ready?” she asked

Byers. At his nod, Alan Byers proceeded to pull out the

tube. “Cough, John,” and as he did, the tube was

removed. When the tube was removed, the scientist

stepped back.

John attempted to talk, but nothing other than a slight

rasp escaped his lips. “Don’t try to talk yet; you’re

throat is going to feel extremely sore.” She reached

over and grabbed a cup of water that Mulder had

knowingly prepared. Byers gratefully sipped from a

straw.

Several minutes passed and all eyes remained on the man

lying in bed. Scully monitored his vitals and appeared

pleased with what she saw. “Your respiration is getting

back to normal levels and your blood pressure is a lot

lower. It looks like the vaccine worked, John. Welcome

back.”

John nodded and then looked over and beyond his four

friends. He looked confused and even a bit distressed.

Finally he managed to rasp out, “Susanne? My father?”

The quartet turned about quickly and realized they were

alone. Apparently Krycek had gotten what he wanted but

was not about to leave his unwitting accomplices behind.

They were gone.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

EPILOGUE

The LGM Headquarters

Building # 566

‘C’ Street

Anacostia

Washington, DC

Several days later

6:55 p.m.

The knocking was loud enough to wake the dead, so the

three friends knew it could be only one person.

“Hold your horses, Mulder. I’m coming,” called out

Frohike.

“Hurry up, the beer’s getting warm, and the pizza’s

getting cold!” he answered.

Frohike smiled; at least when Mulder showed up

unexpectedly he bore gifts. As he unlocked the last of

the series of protection devices, Mulder pushed in the

door. “Ah, I see the lovely Agent Scully is joining us

as well. Come in, come in.”

Scully couldn’t help but smile; the little gnome was a

royal pain in the ass sometimes, but she knew that

Frohike could be counted on to cover her and Mulder’s

ass. She could put up with his archaic and totally

unpolitically correct forms of flattery.

“Hello, ‘Hickey’,” she said, using the endearment she

now reserved for his ears only. He returned her smile,

but lost it as soon as she asked, “How’s he doing?”

“Not so great, I’m afraid. He hasn’t heard from Susanne

at all. He’s afraid that she may have disappeared for

good this time.” Scully nodded and followed Mulder into

the main room.

“Hello, boys,” she greeted.

Langly nodded in acknowledgment, while Byers said a soft

hello.

“Hungry?” she asked. “We’re starved, so you’ll notice

we got two large with everything on it, and one small

one with some mushrooms and peppers for us normal ones,”

she said with a smile as she looked directly at Byers.

“Not really, but don’t let that stop you,” he said.

“Hey, Byers,” retorted Mulder, “don’t ever tell Scully

that you’re not hungry. She’ll go into doctor mode

faster than a C-note disappears in Vegas!” When that got

nary a smile, he sat down next to his friend on the

couch and gently patted John’s knee. “Not doing so

great yet, huh, my friend?”

He silently shook his head. No, he wasn’t, but he was

damned if he was going to talk about it. Not yet. He

couldn’t talk about it yet.

“I remember what hell it felt like,” Mulder said.

“Which ‘it’?” asked Byers.

Mulder chuckled a bit; sadly enough there were a number

of memories that were the equivalency of going through

hell. “Oh, we can pick a dozen from Column A and a

couple of more dozen from Column B.” He was pleased

that he was able to bring a small smile to Byers’s face,

even if it was at his own expense.

Several minutes passed before Byers decided that maybe

it was time to talk about it. At least Mulder would

have some semblance of understanding. “I finally get a

chance to see my father and I tell him to go to hell.

Great son I turned out to be,” Byers said softly.

“You weren’t given much of a chance to be his son, were

you?” To this, Byers shook his head in agreement.

Mulder then said, “I’m sure he understood, John.”

John looked at his him and wondered if his friend

believed that of his own father. He hoped so, but

somehow, he doubted it. His attention then turned to

Scully who offered both him and Mulder a beer. Byers

felt an overwhelming sense of sadness.

“What is it?” asked Mulder gently, though he already

knew what was on John’s mind.

“I don’t think she’s coming back this time,” he said.

“You don’t know that for sure.”

“No, but I never felt this complete sense of abandonment

before either. I think they’ve taken her from me for

good, Mulder,” and he turned away for a moment to try to

compose himself. When that didn’t work, he turned back,

his eyes glistening, and he said, “And damn, it hurts.

It hurts so damn much.”

“Susanne’s a smart woman, John. She’s a valuable

commodity for them, and as long as she has something

that they want, they’re going to keep her around.”

Mulder then placed a comforting hand on Byers’s

shoulder. “And we both know that if there’s some way

for Susanne Modeski to find her way back to you, she

will.”

“You really believe that?” asked Byers hopefully.

“I do. I really do believe.”

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

End of Lone Hearts

Feedback gratefully received at: STPteach@aol.com

Programmable Children

cover

PROGRAMMABLE CHILDREN

By: Char Chaffin and Tess

Category: Case File, MSR

Rating: PG-13

Summary: A rash of crimes, from shoplifting and robbery escalating into

murder, committed in seemingly random fashion, by young children of affluent

families all over the East Coast – Mulder and Scully are called in when one

of the childish crimes turns murderous.

THANKS TO: David Stoddard-Hunt and Aly C for reading and beta work –

clip_image002

~ PROLOGUE ~

EAST BURLINGTON, VT

8:35PM

OCTOBER 28, 2002

Ben Thacken had worked swing shift at the ‘2-Go’ mini-mart on Temple

and Main for almost twenty years. He could walk the store with his eyes

closed and never bump into a single end display; could stock the shelves in

his sleep. He knew most every man, woman and child – and dog – in a ten mile

radius of the store, and they knew him. Ben was that rare breed of worker,

who found the job he liked and stuck to it regardless of the money. He made

$13.00 an hour managing the ‘2-Go’…and he was one happy guy. He had a

little house on the outskirts of East Burlington and although he’d never

married, he had a lady friend who went dancing with him frequently and who’d

gone with him twice to Cape Cod on vacation. He had a small fishing boat and

because he’d saved his money religiously and had made tiny yet wise

investments, he had a nice little savings account. He had no bills to speak

of. He worked a lot of overtime at the store because sometimes it was so

hard to find good, reliable help – and it was important to him that the store

run smoothly – for he took his responsibilities very seriously. The upper

management of the ‘2-Go’ chain adored Ben; he was a valuable asset to them.

He never got sick and he was always more than willing to work holidays. And

in all the years he’d worked that place he’d never been robbed…

Until tonight.

Ben whistled off-tune, constantly. It was his trademark, of sorts – a manner

of identification between him and his customers. He loved music, any kind of

music; he whistled everything under the sun. His co-workers didn’t mind;

they were used to it. Sometimes when it was a slow night, he’d whistle very

loudly, even dance around a little. A few of his regular customers had

caught him doing this and they teased him – and Ben was very good-natured

about it. He was a happy guy, after all – and it showed in his manner and in

the cheerful way he dealt with everyone who came into the store.

So on this quiet night in mid-fall, in the evening when almost everyone was

still up at Hancock Elementary watching the annual Halloween play put on by

Mrs. Thomas’ third-grade class, Ben sure wasn’t expecting to see one of her

most dedicated students push open the door and slowly walk in. Ben was

behind the counter stocking gum and breath mints; whistling off-tune as

usual. His head popped up when the door alarm chimed, and his eyes crinkled

into a surprised yet pleased smile when he beheld a diminutive figure dressed

as the Pink Panther shuffle over to the counter in over-sized Pink Panther

feet, and stop front and center. A plastic Pink Panther mask obscured the

little face but Ben knew who it was, for the costume had been hand-made and

Ben had been fortunate enough to get a fashion show when its owner had run

into his store two weeks ago, so excited to show it off…

“Penny! The show over already? Can’t be – I thought you had that little

dance to do!” Penelope Mason, ‘Penny’ to her friends, was outgoing and

extroverted and had a sweet little singing voice. She could tap-dance up a

storm and was a straight-A student, the youngest of three Mason children; her

parents were both accountants and the family lived just five miles from

Hancock Elementary. Penny had begged to dance in the show and Mrs. Thomas

had been glad to have at least one child who was eager to perform. Much of

her class was too shy to participate, especially the boys who usually had to

be persuaded, although when they actually began rehearsing they enjoyed

themselves. But Penny was a born performer and reveled in it.

Which was why Ben expressed such surprise to see her in his store, three

blocks away from the school where the show was still in full-force. Penny

would never walk away from a performance, unless she was sick, or something.

Suddenly worried, Ben came around the counter and squatted in front of the

dainty little girl, reaching out a hand to push her mask off so he could see

her face, murmuring, “You okay, sweetheart? Are you sick? Where’s your

mom?” As the mask came off, Penny’s blue eyes stared into his, wide and

unblinking and…odd. Ben tilted his head to the side, noting the flushed,

slightly damp cheeks and the vacant look. He placed a hand against her

forehead; she felt a little warm but not unduly so. Ben looked behind her,

toward the door. He hadn’t seen anyone else come in with her – the store was

empty except for them. And it was a cold night. Her parents wouldn’t have

let her walk even three blocks this time of night when it was this cold…

“Penny, where’re your parents? Your brothers? Are they home? Up at the

school?” A blank stare was his only answer; Penny was looking straight

through him. Something was definitely wrong; Ben was really worried now. He

didn’t know the number at the school but he could look it up. He spoke

softly and reassuringly to the little girl. “Penny, you stay right here,

okay? Don’t move. I have to go get the phone book and then I’m going to

call the school and see if I can find your folks.”

Standing up, Ben moved toward the counter, reaching into his back pocket for

his cell phone. He pulled out a phone book from behind the counter and was

thumbing through it when Penny spoke for the first time since walking into

the store.

“Put that down. Open the register and give me your money.” Ben dropped the

book in shock. He looked at Penny Mason, dressed in her cute little Pink

Panther costume, the plastic mask still stuck on top of her head holding her

long pale blonde hair out of her sweet face. She stared back at him

and the look in her blue eyes chilled him.

But what chilled him even more was the gun he saw, held in both of her tiny

pink-gloved hands…aimed straight at his heart. Ben shook his head and

blinked. An eight-year-old little girl, holding a gun like a pro, with legs

spread and hands cupping the deadly weapon in the standard police stance.

Her arms were perfectly steady and her eyes narrowed and concentrated tightly

on his face. She hadn’t blinked once. Ben found his hand inching slowly,

under the counter – toward the silent alarm underneath. In all his years

working at the ‘2-Go’, he’d never had to ring the alarm.

Ben could not fathom in his wildest imaginings having to ring it now, because

of a delicate little girl dressed in pink and holding a gun on him. It was

damned surreal, yet here it was. His fingers inched closer, to within a foot of

the button…

“Don’t do that. You’ll be sorry if you do that. Give me the money, NOW.”

The little-girl voice was harder now, still high-pitched the way a

child-voice should be – but hard as nails. Ben’s hand immediately paused in

mid-reach, and he stared into Penny Mason’s cold blue eyes. Empty eyes…

emotionless. Worse than that – dead. Dead eyes, on a little girl. There

had to be a medical reason… Ben made a sudden decision. This was a darling

child, one he’d known almost from the day she was born. And Penny’s folks

were so nice. She obviously needed his help.

His mind made up, Ben continued his reach toward the alarm button…and

Penny raised the gun and pressed down on the trigger…

It was the last thing in this world Ben Thacken reached for.

************************

GEORGETOWN

6:10 AM

OCT. 30, 2002

“We need a bigger apartment.”

Mulder forced open one eye and managed to lift his head off the pillow, that

bleary orb searching around for the source of the voice. The room was cool

and dark but the closet door was open and a narrow band of light streamed

out. He could hear clothes hangers rattling… Turning his head a little he

checked out the bedside clock and groaned, flopping his head back into the

pillow. His sleepy mumble was raspy and thick.

“Well, we could always use mine. I can just strip it of trivial and

unnecessary things, like furniture.” He stretched beneath the covers,

feeling achy and overheated. Damn flu…he couldn’t believe a flu shot

could have backfired on him. And damn the FBI policy that required every agent

get it in the cheek. Mulder rubbed a soothing finger over the knot in his

left buttock, looking up into Scully’s sympathetic eyes as she leaned over

his side of the bed and brushed her lips over his damp forehead. She perched

on the edge of the mattress, still wrapped in her terry-cloth robe and with

one hand clutching a blouse. She threaded the fingers of her free hand

through his bed-hair and smiled when he sighed.

“Poor baby. A boo-boo on your heinie…and the indignity of shot-induced

influenza, too. You’re just a lucky guy, Mulder.” She leaned in and kissed

the top of his head, noting, “At least your fever broke. I used to get sick

from flu shots all the time, you know. I don’t understand why you didn’t

just refuse the shot.” Her smile widened at his affronted grumble.

“Like I had a choice, Scully. You should have seen the size of that nurse.

She had arms like hams. I was afraid she’d sit on me and stab me with that

damn huge needle, regardless of my protest.” He looked up pathetically at

her and added, “And in the midst of my pain you want to move. Can I have a

moment to recuperate first?” Scully tugged at his hair lightly.

“Mulder, I had the same nurse. She wasn’t any bigger than me. You could

have said ‘no’ and that would have been the end of it. And as far as the

moving is concerned, I don’t think either place is big enough; actually my

apartment is a little smaller than yours. It just looks larger because I

don’t have any clutter.” She chuckled when he sat up, favoring his sore

rump, and frowned at her.

“I don’t have clutter, Scully. I have organized disorder. I know where

everything is, and can find whatever I need. Next time we’re over there go

ahead and ask me to find something; I’ll have it in hand ASAP.” As if to

prove his point by heading over there at that very minute Mulder pushed aside

the covers, swinging his legs over the side, smirking a little when Scully

put out a hand and stayed him.

“It’s okay, Mulder! I believe you, really. Besides we don’t have time to

goof around; we have to fly to Vermont. We’ve been called in on a case; I

talked to Skinner while you were sleeping like the drugged dead.” She

slipped to her feet and grabbed at Mulder’s hand, pulling him up and bracing

an arm around his waist when he swayed a bit. He leaned on her as she

maneuvered him into the bathroom, propping him against the sink and tossing

him a clean washcloth. Mulder ran it under cold water and wiped it over his

face and neck as he asked his questions.

“What’re we up against?” Scully paused in the task of brushing the snarls

from her hair and gave Mulder a hand towel. She thought for a moment

before she replied.

“Well, Skinner says it’s a murder. A clerk at a corner convenience store in

Burlington was shot and killed. There was a surveillance camera that caught

the crime, so you’d think they’d have it all figured out. I said as much to

Skinner.” Scully smoothed the brush over her hair one final time, then turned

to Mulder and added, “But it seems the killer was a bit – unusual, to say the

least. An eight-year-old girl dressed in a Pink Panther costume killed the clerk.

She shot him in cold blood, Mulder.”

Mulder’s wide-eyed stare at Scully reflected his shock at her words. He

shook his head and squeezed toothpaste on his brush, commenting, “An

eight-year-old female Pink Panther murderer, huh? Well, Happy Halloween,

Charlie Brown…”

*************************

Burlington, VT

Burlington Juvenile Center

1:15 P.M.

OCT. 30, 2002

Mulder and Scully watched Penny Mason through the one-way mirror that

overlooked the recreation room of the juvenile center where the child was

being held. The tiny, blue-eyed blonde seemed incapable of the crime she was

accused of committing.

“It doesn’t seem possible,” Scully murmured quietly. Penny sat at a table in

one corner of the room, listlessly doodling on a white piece of paper with a

green crayon.

“I want to see the surveillance tapes as soon as possible.” Mulder leaned

closer to the glass and squinted, trying without success, to make out what

Penny was drawing.

The two agents turned at the sound of the door opening behind them. A woman

pushed her way into the room, her face nearly obscured by the small mountain

of file folders clutched protectively in her arms. She hurried to set her

burden onto the small table in the middle of the room and looked up.

“I’m Penny’s caseworker – Jenny Kim.” She extended her arm and shook hands

with the two agents. Tall with almond shaped brown eyes and sleek, dark hair

caught back in a loose ponytail, Jenny seemed too young and too beautiful to

be mired down in the sadness and despair so often associated with Youth and

Family Services. Appearances can be deceiving Mulder thought, as he glanced

back over his shoulder at the frail eight-year-old girl standing accused of

cold-blooded murder.

“I’m Agent Dana Scully.” Scully introduced herself. “This is my partner,

Agent Fox Mulder.” Jenny nodded and swept a hand toward the table.

“Please, let’s sit down.” Mulder and Scully sank onto the metal folding

chairs set up on one side of the table. Jenny sat down on the other side of

the table and pulled one thin manila folder from her pile.

“What can you tell us about Penny?” Scully asked. Jenny shook her head and

opened the folder.

“Not much,” Jenny admitted. “I was only assigned to the case yesterday

morning.” She flipped through several sheets of paper in the file, running

one thin finger along down the page as she read aloud.

“Penelope – Penny – Mason. Eight years old. She’s a third grader at Hancock

Elementary School. Straight-A student; has two older brothers, Brian, who is

a freshman at Franklin High School and Timothy, an eighth grader at Hancock

Junior High. Solid family life. Mr. and Mrs. Mason both work as

accountants. Mrs. Mason worked out of the house until all three children

were in school full-time. Penny has never been in trouble before this – none

of the Mason children have ever been in trouble. Penny’s teachers say that

she is a gifted student who has worked hard to overcome a reading

comprehension difficulty.”

Jenny looked up. “Everyone we’ve spoken to is completely shocked by what

happened. Her parents…teachers, neighbors. Everyone we’ve interviewed

says the same thing. Penny is a bright, sweet girl who would never raise a

hand to hurt another living being.”

Mulder and Scully were pouring over the meager contents of the file. “And

yet, here we are,” Mulder murmured, looking up from the folder and meeting the

social worker’s eyes. She nodded ruefully.

“Here we are.”

“Ms. Kim, can you tell us what will happen next with Penny?” Scully

twisted around in her seat to find the little girl still sitting in her

solitary corner, the same green crayon clutched between her fingers.

Jenny reached out and pulled the file back. “The Masons have hired a lawyer,

of course.” She began to straighten the papers in the file, neatly lining the

edges of each piece of paper up with the others. “They want Penny to be

released into their custody while the investigation continues and in most

cases, the judge would allow that.”

“I sense a but,” Mulder injected quietly. Jenny nodded.

“But…this case is different from many others.” She pushed her chair away

from the table and moved toward the mirror separating them from the

recreation room. “Because there is no doubt that Penny did commit this crime

– the evidence on the surveillance tape is overwhelming – she is going to be

held here pending the results of your investigation. She’ll also undergo a

battery of court ordered tests, both physical and psychiatric.”

“And then?” Scully joined her by the mirror. She crossed her arms over her

breasts and studied the younger woman’s face. “What happens then?”

“I guess that’s up to you and Agent Mulder.” Both women watched as Penny

dropped the crayon and folded her arms on top of the table. The little girl

rested her cheek on her arms and even from a distance they could see the

tiny tremors wracking her thin frame.

Was it possible? Scully wondered. Did the heart of a killer lurk behind the

cherubic blue eyes now blurred with tears? She had one more question to ask

the caseworker. “What about the gun? How did she get her hands on a loaded

gun?” Jenny sighed and pressed the clasp on her briefcase.

“The gun belongs to Penny’s father. It’s anyone’s guess about the bullets; I

would assume he must have kept the gun loaded with the safety engaged. We

are only guessing at this point but it seems Penny must have known where to

find the gun. The pocket sewn into her costume was meant for her to hold

gloves; I asked her mother. It was also a perfect fit for a gun.”

clip_image004

Scully nodded, chilled at the probable mindset of this most incongruous of

murderers… She turned at the sound of a chair scraping against the cheap

linoleum floor.

“We’d like to view the surveillance tape as soon as possible.” Mulder stood

and looked hopefully at the social worker.

“I’ll make the arrangements right away.” Jenny gathered her files back into

her arms and strode through the door. Mulder leaned against the mirror and

watched Penny’s eyes flutter closed. Exhausted from fear and confusion, the

girl had drifted into an uneasy sleep. Scully studied Mulder’s face and

recognized the speculative gleam in his eyes.

“What are you thinking?” she asked, knowing that he was forming opinions,

rejecting some ideas and refining others as his mind furiously sifted through

the meager information provided them.

“I’m not sure…”

**************

“Again?” Scully nodded wearily and Mulder thumbed the button on the remote

control sending the videotape in the VCR whirring into reverse. Moments

later, he hit “play” and once again the partners watched the grisly scene

unravel in all of its black-and-white glory.

The camera mounted above the doors of the ‘2-Go’ mini-mart had perfectly

captured the murder in its lens. Mulder and Scully watched Ben Thacken’s

head pop up from behind the counter and saw a smile light up his face and

curve his lips. A second later Penny Mason – resplendent in her Pink Panther

costume – walked into view.

“I wish this thing had sound,” Scully complained. She leaned forward, trying

in vain to read Ben Thacken’s lips as his image crouched down in front of the

costumed child and spoke. Mulder glanced down at the remote control again

and pressed another button, causing the images to move slowly, frame-by-frame

across the television screen. He and Scully watched the man push the mask

away from Penny’s face, gentle fingers running over her cheeks and forehead.

They saw him glance over his shoulder, a frown of concern wrinkling his brow,

before he pushed to his feet. Saying something to the child, he took a

couple of steps toward the counter.

“There!” Mulder exclaimed. They watched the frames advance in slow motion as

Penny pulled the gun from a hidden pocket sewn into the belly of her costume.

They both strained forward in their seats. Penny’s lips moved and even in

the grainy black-and-white of the surveillance video, Scully was sure that

she could see the shop manager’s face pale. His eyes expressed his shock –

the same shock Scully felt each time she watched the events play out on the

television screen.

Mulder winced as the muzzle of the gun in Penny’s hands flashed brightly on

the screen and then Ben Thacken was falling. Slowly, endlessly tumbling

towards the floor and death. Blood blossomed in a dark gray cloud that

Mulder knew in reality was a bright, vivid red, staining the dead man’s shirt

and splattering over Penny’s hand-stitched costume. Penny was knocked to the

floor by the kickback of the gun exploding in her hands and Mulder dragged

his gaze away from the victim’s shocked death mask to the face of his killer.

“My God.” Mulder could hear Scully’s quiet whisper and it echoed in his own

heart when he watched Penny rearrange herself so that she was sitting

cross-legged on the tile floor, the gun held limply in her lap. She was

rocking and her lips were moving in rhythm with the slow, hypnotic motion of

her body. She was still sitting there moments later, staring into space when

the lights of a patrol car flashed across the store. Two uniformed officers

burst into the mini mart, their eyes taking in the sight of Ben Thacken lying

dead in a pool of his own blood and little Penny Mason sitting dumbly next to

him, a gun in her lap. One of the police officers moved cautiously through

the store, looking for the gunman, never for a moment suspecting that the

shooter was an eight-year-old Pink Panther impersonator. His partner

crouched on the floor and checked Ben Thacken’s pulse. He shook his head and

the sigh that lifted his shoulders was visible on the tape. He turned to

Penny and carefully lifted the gun from the girl’s unresisting fingers. He

looked up when his partner completed his sweep of the otherwise empty store.

The two officers traded a long, silent look before turning twin stares of

shock to Penny who was still rocking back and forth; still staring

sightlessly across the room.

***************

Jenny Kim pulled the car into the driveway of the Mason home and turned off

the engine. She pushed open the driver’s side door and climbed out of the

car. Mulder and Scully followed her, closing the doors quietly behind them.

They followed Jenny along the path that led to the front door.

Scully looked around as they approached the house. Dried cornstalks were

tied to the lamppost at the end of the driveway. A trio of carved

jack-o-lanterns grinned at them from stairs leading to the porch and a

colorful assortment of pumpkins, gourds and potted mums was artfully arranged

on and around a small table to the left of the front door.

Jenny rapped her knuckles on the wooden frame of the screen door. Waiting

behind her, Mulder ran his hand down Scully’s back. His fingers curled

briefly over her hip, offering them both a moment of support and comfort.

Scully’s lips quirked upward but she didn’t look at him. Mulder let his hand

fall away and he resumed a more formal stance by her side. The inside door

swung open and a young face peered out at them from within the dim interior

of the house.

“Brian?” Jenny stepped closer to the young man. “I’m Jenny Kim. We met

yesterday – do you remember?” Brian nodded jerkily and his eyes darted to

the two agents standing behind the young social worker. Jenny glanced over

her shoulder briefly before turning back to face Penny’s oldest brother.

“This is Agent Mulder.” She nodded to toward the tall man standing behind

her. “And Agent Scully, of the FBI. They’re here to try and find out what

happened with Penny the other day.” She smiled sympathetically at the

frightened youth. “Are your parents at home?”

Brian nodded again and swung the screen door open, gesturing for the three

adults to enter. He led them down a short hallway to the family room.

“Mom? Dad?” His voice cracked. “Some people are here to see you.” Brenda

and Jeremy Mason stood.

“Penny…” Brenda Mason moved toward Jenny and held out her hands pleadingly.

“When can she come home?” Blonde hair, a shade or two darker than her

daughter’s was scraped into a messy knot at the nape of her neck. Both she

and her husband had the haggard, rundown appearance of people who haven’t

slept and their clothes hung awkwardly from their bodies as if they had lost

weight in only a couple of days.

Jenny quickly made the introductions again and the Masons sank back down onto

the sofa. Jeremy Mason waved his hand, indicating that the others should

also sit. Mulder and Scully arranged themselves on the loveseat while Jenny

chose a seat close to Brenda’s side.

“Why…” Jeremy Mason’s voice broke and he cleared his throat. “Why has the

FBI been called in on this case?” His eyes darted back and forth between the

two agents sitting across the room from him.

Mulder leaned forward, his hands dangling between his spread knees. “Agent

Scully and I investigate the unexplainable,” he said briefly. “An

eight-year-old girl dressed in a Pink Panther costume and accused of

murder…well, that seems to fit the bill.”

Scully shifted on the seat next to Mulder. “Mr. and Mrs. Mason, is there

anything you can tell us? Anything that will help us to understand what

happened?”

Jeremy closed his eyes for a moment, shaking his head. “Should our lawyer be

here?” he asked suddenly. Mulder blinked, surprised by the question.

“You are certainly welcome to contact your lawyer, Mr. Mason,” he affirmed.

“But we really just wanted to ask a few questions.”

“Mrs. Mason.” Scully directed her words to Penny’s mother. “We need you to

tell us about Penny. What she’s like. Whether she had been behaving in an

unusual manner lately…anything that you can tell us that may help explain

what has happened.”

Brenda lifted fearful, blue eyes to Jenny’s. She was seeking affirmation

that it was okay to speak to the agents without further jeopardizing her

daughter. Jenny reached out and squeezed her hand gently over the other

woman’s, nodding her approval. Knowing that Jenny had been assigned as

Penny’s caseworker and trusting that the young woman had her daughter’s best

interests at heart, Brenda exhaled in a long, shaky breath.

“I…I don’t understand.” Her voice was soft, barely intelligible and

Mulder and Scully both struggled to hear her. “Penny isn’t…Penny

wouldn’t…” She nervously shredded the tissue in her hands. “This is a

mistake. My daughter would never… My daughter…oh God! She’s just a

baby!” Brenda’s voice broke on a sob and she threw herself into her

husband’s arms. Jeremy Mason ran a soothing hand down his wife’s back and

looked over her blonde head to the pair of agents seated on the other side of

the room.

“You’ve seen the surveillance tape?” Scully took the lead in asking the

questions, leaving Mulder free to study Brenda and Jeremy Mason. She knew

that he was watching their facial expressions and studying their body

language. She knew too that he was peripherally aware, as was she, of

Penny’s brothers lurking just outside of the family room. Scully understood

that Mulder was quietly absorbing every detail of the Mason home and the

people who lived within its sheltering walls. He was cataloging and

assessing – profiling – the home and the family that had nurtured an alleged

eight-year-old murderer.

Jeremy closed his eyes as the memory of the tape washed over him. His wife

shuddered in his arms and he tightened his grip on her.

“Yes,” he replied. “We both saw the tape, Agent Scully.” His eyes met

Scully’s briefly before darting away again. “I don’t… I can’t…”

“Let’s go through this slowly.” Scully’s voice was sympathetic but firm.

They needed answers from these people. If she and Mulder were ever going to

figure out what had caused Penny Mason to shoot a man in cold blood, their

best chance of getting those answers would, in all likelihood, come from her

family.

“Has Penny been ill recently?” Brenda Mason mopped her eyes with the

shredded tissue and pushed away from her husband’s chest. She drew in a deep

breath. Straightening her back, she looked at Scully. Her frightened gaze

swept over the female agent’s compassionate, but composed face. A quick

glance at the man seated next to Scully showed an alert intelligence peering

from behind kind eyes. At that moment, Brenda made the decision to trust.

She would answer any question asked if it would help to bring her baby back

home.

“No,” she replied in a shaky voice. “Penny has always been a healthy little

girl.”

Scully nodded and scribbled something into the notebook propped open on her

knees. “Has she exhibited any strange behavior?”

The Masons shook their heads. “No.” Penny’s father said. “She’s been

fine.”

Scully glanced up from her notes. “Nothing uncharacteristic?” She tilted

her head to the side. “No sudden fits of temper or crying?” Once again,

Brenda Mason started to shake her head no, but stopped.

“She…she was a little depressed at the beginning of the summer…” She

laid her hand on her husband’s thigh and he covered it with his own.

Alerted by the concern shading Brenda’s voice, Mulder focused all of his

attention on the trembling woman. “Penny…she’s a very bright little

girl.” Mulder noted the pride evident in Brenda Mason’s voice. “She’s a

straight-A student. But…” she sighed heavily. “She struggles with

reading.”

“Is she dyslexic?” Scully asked curiously.

“No. It’s similar in some ways to dyslexia.” Jeremy Mason spoke. “Penny

doesn’t invert words or letters, but she does have difficulty comprehending

what she reads. It takes her almost three times longer than either one of

our boys to process the written word.”

His wife took up the narrative. “We enrolled her at the Burlington Learning

Center this summer. She took special reading comprehension classes three

times a week for about ninety minutes a session.” Her eyes brightened.

“Penny really thrived in the classes, but once regular school started…”

Her voice trailed off. Mulder and Scully waited quietly for her to continue.

“Penny enjoys her extracurricular activities so much – soccer, Scouts…she

loves to dance and sing. She was supposed to sing with her class at the

Halloween show that night…” Brenda’s head fell forward and she swallowed

around the lump in her throat. She swiped at the tears that slipped down her

pale cheeks. “We didn’t want her to miss out on all of those things by

sending her to the Learning Center after school three days a week.” She

glanced up at her husband and he sent her a supportive smile. They had

discussed Penny’s reading difficulties at length and were confident that they

had made the right decisions.

Once again, Jeremy Mason picked up the story. “Her teacher at the Learning

Center was so pleased with Penny’s progress over the summer. He felt that if

her mother and I worked with her at home using some textbooks provided by the

Center, she wouldn’t fall behind again. He even recommended that we buy a

computer reading program that Penny could use to keep up with her studies.”

“Readin’ Rocks,” his wife interjected. “It’s a series of CD-ROMs for

children ages five through twelve,” she explained. “The lessons are songs –

like a music video. It seemed crazy to us at first, but Penny seems to love

it. She spends hours at her computer now working with the CDs…sometimes

she even hums the songs as she runs around the house.”

“You said that Penny was a little depressed at the beginning of the summer,”

Scully interrupted firmly. The discussion had skewed well away from the

topic at hand and she had several other questions for the Masons before they

could call an end to the interview. “Does that mean that she was no longer

depressed by summer’s end?”

Beverly Mason clapped a hand over her mouth. “Oh! I’m so sorry. We really

did get carried away…it just was so nice to talk about a problem that we

could *solve*.” She bit her lip and her eyes clouded again with a film of

tears that were never far from the surface. “No. She was so happy with the

progress that she had made over the summer and was looking forward to school

starting again.”

“Has Penny ever been in any fights at school?” Scully asked.

“No. Never.”

“Does she have assigned chores here at home?”

Penny’s parents nodded.

“And does she finish them? Do you have to argue with her more now than you

used to in order to get her to do her chores?”

“No. Penny is a very obedient child,” Jeremy said.

Scully sighed. “Mr. and Mrs. Mason. Please. We need to get a true picture

of what kind of child Penny is. Other than the depression over her reading

difficulties, you’ve described a perfect child. Does she ever argue with her

brothers? Stall or put off doing her chores? Does she fight with you about

her bedtime? Does she…”

Brenda surged to her feet. “Yes! Of course. She does all of those things.

She turns her nose up when I make vegetable soup and refuses to eat it. She

bickers with her brothers over what television show they should be watching.

We argue over what clothes she should wear to school in the morning. She’s a

normal child. NORMAL! She’s a little girl. She’s my little girl! And she

would never…she could never… She’s a baby – not a monster!”

Jeremy Mason climbed to his feet and laid a soothing hand on his wife’s arm.

She raised tear-drenched eyes to his face, then spun away and raced out of

the room. Her husband started after her, but Jenny held out a restraining

hand.

“I’ll go,” she offered. “You need to finish up here.”

Mulder and Scully stood as well.

“Mr. Mason,” Scully began. “Please, understand. I meant no – ”

Jeremy shook his head. “Look Agents. I know you have a job to do.” He

walked across the room and lifted a picture frame from the mantel over the

fireplace. He turned the frame around so that Mulder and Scully could see

the picture. Wearing a green and white uniform with a soccer ball tucked

into the curve of her arm, a gap-toothed Penny Mason smiled into the camera.

“Mr. Mason, I -” Scully tried again to explain.

Jeremy turned the frame again and looked down into the grinning face of his

youngest child. “Do you have any children, Agent Scully?” he asked.

Scully pushed down the familiar ache that came with that question. “No, Mr.

Mason,” she replied. “I don’t.”

Jeremy Mason nodded thoughtfully and placed the frame back onto the mantel.

“Well, then you probably won’t understand, but… I know what that

surveillance tape shows.” Tears swam in his eyes and spilled over his

cheeks. “But, as God is my witness, I am telling you – that wasn’t my

daughter. That wasn’t my Penny.” His voice broke on a heaving sob.

“Please, you’ve got to believe me. That wasn’t my little girl…it couldn’t

be my little girl.”

Mulder laid a sympathetic hand on the man’s arm and squeezed lightly. “We’ll

be leaving now, Mr. Mason. Thank you for speaking with us.” His voice was

soothing. The other man nodded and swiped his sleeve over his wet face,

struggling in vain to hold back the tears streaming over his face.

“I’ll see you out.”

Mulder waited while Scully gathered up her notebook and pen. They followed

Jeremy Mason down the short hallway that led to the front door. He pushed

open the screen door and the two agents stepped out into the brisk autumn

air.

“Wait!” Brenda Mason’s voice cried out from inside the house. They turned

around as she flew through the front door. She reached out and grabbed

Scully by the hands.

“Please,” she sobbed. “Please. If there is anything you can do to bring my

little girl home to me… I’m begging you. She must be…be…so scared.”

Tears ran unheeded over her cheeks, dripping off her chin. “I’m her mother.

Please. She needs me…she needs me.”

Jeremy stepped forward and pulled his wife into his arms and she buried her

face against his chest. “We’ll be in touch,” Scully promised and climbed

down the steps, walking toward the car. Mulder followed her down the

pathway. Something…something was niggling at the back of his mind.

Something the Masons had said. He turned back again and found Jenny speaking

to them in a low voice. He shook his head and spun away, worrying at the

elusive thought.

It would come to him, he knew. Later on, when he and Scully were rehashing

the interview over dinner, he would remember.

He hoped.

*************

Mulder locked the door and slid the security chain home, then plopped down

on the bed next to Scully, who was toeing off her heels and flexing her feet.

Silently he raised her foot into his lap and began massaging it, working the

kinks out and soothing her ankle. She sighed in relief and leaned back

against the headboard.

“God, that feels good. Why did I have to wear new shoes, today of all

days?” Mulder smiled and worked at her arch, careful not to tickle her.

“Well, they’re very nice shoes. Very sexy on your feet. But yeah, I’d say

you picked the wrong day to get stylish…okay, other foot.” He traded

feet and started in again, thinking aloud as he massaged. “Did you feel as

though we got nowhere today, talking to Penny Mason? That is one frightened

little girl. No memory whatsoever of what she did – that much I can see is

genuine. Children are so open – it’s impossible for them to fake it, unless

they are just so inherently evil that they were born that way – the ‘Bad

Seed’ syndrome. I have always had a hard time buying into that theory. And I

just don’t see that with Penny; I think if she had that inclination her

parents would have seen it a lot earlier in her life.” He finished massaging

and gave her foot a final pat, then kicked off his own shoes and joined her

at the headboard, propping himself up against the pillow, their shoulders

touching. Scully sighed again and leaned her head on Mulder. Her voice was

thoughtful.

“I agree, Mulder. All I could see was a scared kid. I looked into her eyes

and I saw nothing evil there. Just a child’s innocence. Which makes this

case all the more frightening and baffling.” She turned her head a bit and

looked up at her partner, noting the far-off blur of his eyes. Profiling,

in retrospect, so to speak – his ability to do this after the fact was

strong and amazingly accurate. Scully resumed her former position and sat

quietly, content to let him puzzle it out. He’d speak when he had

something…

It had been a difficult and non-productive interview – Penny Mason truly

didn’t remember the crime she’d committed, of that Mulder was positive.

They’d sat facing her, both of them taking turns asking her questions. Jenny

Kim had sat next to the frightened little girl, holding her hand; Penny

visibly shook and the dark circles under her eyes were something no young

child should have to suffer. Her free hand was tiny and thin with equally

thin fingers that trembled frequently. Mulder had studied that little hand,

having the hardest time reconciling in his mind the picture of something so

small and defenseless holding a loaded gun, and shooting with deadly aim, to

kill. He’d met Jenny’s dark eyes, knowing she’d seen him staring at Penny’s

hand and figuring she understood all too well the incongruity of it. He

re-focused on Penny and his voice was gentle.

“Penny, what’s the last thing you remember doing, the night of the school

play? Do you remember leaving the school?” Mulder kept his face neutral and

watched the child carefully for any indication of deceit. Penny’s

tear-soaked eyes met his and her trembling got worse. Her little voice was

clogged with more tears and laced with fright.

“N-no, sir. I was in the gym. Waiting for my turn. My mask kept slipping

and Mrs. Thomas had to fix it. I didn’t do anything, honest! I stayed and

waited. I didn’t do anything!” Huge tears poured over the little girl’s

pale cheeks and she turned into Jenny’s arms, sobbing. Jenny soothed a hand

over the child’s soft hair and blinked hard, affected as well by the fright

in Penny’s voice. The distraught girl spoke again, her words muffled in

Jenny’s shoulder.

“I want to go home. I want my mom. Why can’t I go home?” Mulder sighed and

rubbed at his tired eyes. It was impossible not to want to hug this child

and assure her everything would be fine. She was delicate and soft-spoken

and seemed incapable of telling anything but the truth. He dropped his hands

and looked at Scully; met her sympathetic eyes. There was no way they could

explain it to this little girl. That she couldn’t go home. That she had

with cold intent murdered someone… He’d signaled at Scully with his eyes

and she had nodded; they both stood up to leave. After promising to get

back to her with their decision, they’d said good-bye to Jenny Kim. Penny

had never lifted her head from the caseworker’s shoulder, but Mulder noticed

her body rocked back and forth in Jenny’s arms, and a high-pitched humming

emanated from her throat. At the time Mulder hadn’t given it a whole lot

of thought, but now…

Sitting next to Scully on the motel bed, Mulder re-hashed it all and Scully

quietly leaned against him and laced her fingers through his, her thumb

running soothingly across the top of his knuckles. Mulder thought about the

rocking and the humming. It was almost as though Penny was hearing something

in her head; something that compelled her. As soon as the idea popped into

his head he couldn’t seem to let it go. A compulsion of some sort. Children

were so susceptible to any sort of suggestion. So open and willing to

embrace it all – up to a certain age they were extremely malleable. Mulder

sighed and turned to Scully, murmuring, “Did you notice the way -”

She was asleep against his shoulder, the faint smudges under her eyes a

testimony to her exhaustion. Smiling slightly, Mulder arranged her more

comfortably against his side, sliding them both down on the bed until they

were mostly prone. He slipped his arms around her and smiled again when she

huffed in her sleep and burrowed into his arms. Mulder winnowed his fingers

through her hair in a gentle, rhythmic motion and felt himself dozing off;

just before the waves hit him he pressed a soft kiss to the top of her head

and got a sleepy, “Mmmm, love you, Mulder”; he whispered the words right back

to her and snuggling close, they both slept.

**************************

OUTER BOROUGH, GAUTIER, MISSISSIPPI

2:45 AM

OCT. 31, 2002

On the outskirts of Copper Landing the moon was obscured by angry dark

clouds. It would rain, and soon. The night was very silent and in the

distance the traffic along Highway 90 could be heard as a mere whisper in the

gathering storm. It was murky out, but Dwayne Dobbs could see just fine.

He squatted on the porch of his house, an older place that had been in his

family for four generations. His Great-Grandpa Franklin Dobbs had built it

as a summer home. It was big and rambling and hard to heat in the winter;

damp and sometimes smelled of mildew. All the carpets were made of expensive

wool; all the drapes were heavy silk. Lots of woodwork.

Nothing was treated with any sort of flame retardant…a fact that made

Dwayne’s job a whole lot easier, tonight.

Under the glow of a porch light Dwayne finished wadding up newspaper and old

brown supermarket bags. He scooped up an armful of the crumpled paper and

walked through the open door of the house, feeling his way in the dark;

depositing paper with careless precision in certain areas of each room. When

he ran out of paper he went back out onto the porch and crumpled up some

more, bringing another armful of it inside and trailing it up the stairs to

the second floor landing, where he left a pile of it. He hesitated for a

moment, thinking – then reached out and grabbed a handful from the top of the

pile, walking silently down the carpeted hallway to the bathroom. He dropped

it on the floor in front of the sink. As he raised his head he caught sight

of himself in the mirror, and regarded his emotionless face with eyes just as

dead and emotionless.

Turning from the mirror, Dwayne paced back down the stairs and out onto the

porch, scooping up a load of rags that had been sitting next to the wadded

paper. Walking back inside he dropped rags next to each pile of crumpled

paper. Slowly and methodically…carefully. Precisely.

When all the rags were doled out Dwayne went back out to the porch and hefted

a red plastic two-gallon drum with a long nozzle attached. He carried it

inside and began pouring the contents over each bunch of paper and rags. It

didn’t take long, and along the way he spilled the liquid on his shirt and

over some of the furniture. He never stopped to wipe it off his clothes or

his hands, either – just finished emptying the drum and then carried it back

outside. Standing on the porch, Dwayne looked up at the clouds rolling past

the moon, flirting with hiding the huge glowing orb one minute and revealing

all the next. Dwayne stood quietly, watching. When a dark mass hid the moon

completely, he turned back to the doorway of the house and reached in his

pocket; drew out a box of wooden matches. Carefully he lifted one out;

firmly he scratched across the flinted side of the matchbox, and let the

match ignite. Somehow he avoided catching himself on fire as he stood

holding it between his fingers, watching it burn down. When it got too small

for him to hold, he dropped it on the porch and stepped on it with the toe of

his sneaker. He paused for a moment, looking up at his home – clouds still

covering the moon and blanketing everything in a murky charcoal. He tilted

his head to one side, hearing something from the silence that perhaps no one

else would have been able to hear – then he walked into the house and up the

stairs, lighting a match as he went.

Five minutes later Dwayne had deposited a lit match for every pile of soaked

papers and rags. He’d had to light the last two piles in a dead run – the

flames were beginning to devour the downstairs – but at last they were all

lit and Dwayne was running silently out of his house, pausing only long

enough on the porch to grab up the remaining rags and the empty drum, which

had been filled with gasoline. He leapt off the porch steps and kept on

running.

Toward the end of the driveway he veered off into the trees and stopped to

catch his breath. Dropping the rags and drum behind a huge weeping willow

tree, Dwayne Dobbs turned and faced his burning home, watching as hot red

flames licked at the inside windows and the drapes caught fire; observed the

way curls of orange death exploded out of the beveled glass and those ruined

drapes fluttered out of the gaping window, the fire feeding greedily on the

outside air. Dwayne watched it all with a face so completely still and

emotionless that he looked more like a photo and very less like a living,

breathing, seven-year-old boy…

When, on the still and thick humid air surrounding his home, he heard the

first screams of unutterable pain and anguish trapped within the second

floor of a nightmare Hell he’d created all by himself… Dwayne Dobbs turned

and walked away, down the rest of the driveway and onto Pagan Road, headed

somewhere beyond Copper Landing. And as he walked, he hummed, and rocked

from side to side, a little.

clip_image006

***********************

It seemed as if they’d only been sleeping a short time – instead of most of the

night – when the shrill buzzing of the phone snapped them both awake at once.

Scully raised her head, disoriented and dry-eyed from sleep; Mulder sat up

beside her and reached over her for the phone.

“Mulder.” The voice on the other end sounded as wiped out as he felt.

“Agent Mulder, is Agent Scully there with you?” AD Skinner’s voice was tinny

on the phone but Mulder could detect the worry underneath the professional

tones. He stretched hard and swung his legs over the side of the bed as he

answered.

Yes sir, she’s here. What’s going on?” A hard sigh in his ear.

“I need both of you to catch the first flight out to Mississippi. Gautier,

to be exact. I have no idea how big a town it is, so fly in as close as you

can get. We’ve got another murder, this time a multiple – and the

perpetrator is a year younger than Penny Mason.”

**************************

OUTER BOROUGH, GAUTIER, MISSISSIPPI

12:30 P.M.

NOV. 1, 2002

Helen Dobbs sat across the scarred, wooden table from the two federal agents.

Her dark-skinned fingers nervously traced the names of the countless juvenile

offenders who had met in this same room with their parents and attorneys –

names defiantly, sometimes proudly, gouged into the wood by the young

perpetrators for all to see. Thirty-two years old and single, she now found

herself to be the sole guardian of her young nephew, Dwayne. Her breath

caught on a choked sob as her thoughts turned to the rest of her family. Her

older brother – strong, handsome and funny – his beautiful wife and their two

little girls. Dead. Horribly burned alive while they slept. She shuddered

at the thought. Helen scrubbed her fingers across her aching forehead.

There were so many things to do, so many responsibilities suddenly heaped

upon her. Her mother had collapsed and was heavily sedated at the county

hospital. Her father, always strong despite his advancing years, had become

an old man overnight. Helen’s thoughts flitted from funeral arrangements to

speaking with her mother’s doctor, to checking up on her father and making

sure that he had eaten, to Dwayne. Oh God. Dwayne.

“Ms Dobbs?” Agent Mulder’s voice jolted her back to the present.

“I…I’m sorry,” Helen whispered. The female agent filled a glass with

water from a pitcher and pushed it across the table. Helen lifted it with

shaking hands, gratefully swallowing the icy water.

“I’m sorry,” she said again. “What…what was your question?” Her brown

eyes darted back and forth between the two agents and she struggled to focus

on their questions.

“What can you tell us about Dwayne?” Mulder repeated gently. His hands

rested quietly on the tabletop. Under normal circumstances his fingers would

be restlessly playing with a pencil and his leg would be tapping an impatient

beat on the floor. Scully knew that he was carefully suppressing all of his

normal, jittery movements as he sought to calm the distraught woman seated

across from them.

“I…I’m not sure exactly what you want to know.” Helen slid her fingers

over the condensation-slicked surface of the glass in her hands.

“Did he get into trouble at school?” Scully asked. “Did he get along with

his family? Does he have trouble making friends? What kind of grades does

he get?”

Helen shook her head and dug through her purse. She pulled out a small

bottle of aspirin and fumbled impatiently with the childproof lid. Mulder

reached out, took the plastic bottle from her and popped the lid free. He

handed the open bottle back to Helen who shook two tablets into her hand and

swallowed them with a quick gulp of water.

“No.” Helen put the aspirin bottle back into her purse and continued to dig

through the bag. She was busily rearranging the contents of her purse.

Keeping busy to avoid the agents and their questions. She did not want to

have this conversation, she didn’t want to think… She suddenly became aware

of the unnatural quiet of the room. Helen blew out a ragged breath and set

the purse to the side, knotting her fingers tightly together on top of the

table.

“Dwayne plays Pee-Wee football in the autumn and Little League in the spring.

He has lots of friends. My brother…” Her voice caught on a sob. “Oh,

sweet Jesus…my brother.” She dropped her forehead onto her tightly

knotted fingers. Mulder and Scully shared a pained look as Helen poured out

her grief in keening sobs. Scully bit her lip and dropped her gaze to her

lap. Her own natural reticence at publicly displaying her own emotions,

always left her feeling a little awkward in the face of other’s. Mulder

pushed a box of tissues closer to the overwrought woman and they waited in

sympathetic silence. Finally, Helen lifted her head and drew in a long,

shuddering breath. Tear tracks left silvery paths down her dark cheeks. Her

soft, brown eyes were rimmed with red and swollen from her emotional bout.

“Forgive me.” She sniffed and snatched a handful of tissues from the box.

Embarrassed at having broken down in the presence of the FBI agents, she

blew her nose and took several slow, deep breaths to center herself.

“Can we get you anything, Ms. Dobbs?” Helen shook her head at Scully’s

softly spoken question and raised the glass of water to her lips. She

drained the glass and set it back onto the table with a quiet clinking noise.

“No, thank you.” Composed now, she thought back to Scully’s questions. “My

brother was so proud of Dwayne,” she told them in a steady voice. “First

born son and all of that. Dwayne always said that he was going to grow up to

become a lawyer just like his daddy and granddaddy. Dobbs and Dobbs…” Her

voice was a whisper.

“What about school?” Mulder prompted softly. Helen frowned and lifted her

hands helplessly.

“I don’t know what to tell you,” she admitted. “Dwayne is well-liked by his

teachers and classmates. My sister-in-law always told me that he was a

leader on the playground. He organizes the games at recess. He makes sure

that all of the children get a chance to play. He’s a good boy like that.

He’s…he’s just a good boy.”

“Grades?” Scully asked.

Again Helen shook her head. “His grades are good. His parents showed me his

report card at the end of the school year last spring and he had straight

A’s.” She smiled. “I gave him a dollar for every A…” Her voice trailed

off thoughtfully for a moment. “Dwayne is a good student, although he does

have a bit of a reading problem.”

Scully had been jotting notes down in her notebook and her head snapped up at

the other woman’s words. She turned her head toward her partner but he

wasn’t looking at her. Instead he was leaning across the table toward Helen

Dobbs. Like a hunting dog catching the scent of its prey, he was practically

vibrating with leashed excitement.

“What kind of reading problem?”

*************

“That’s gotta be it, Scully.” Mulder dumped two packets of sugar into a tall

glass of iced tea with one hand and pointed at Scully’s notebook with the

other. He absently reached for a third packet of sugar and Scully plucked it

from his fingers.

“I think it’s sweet enough,” she admonished. She tucked the tiny paper

packet back into the plastic basket on the formica table and looked back down

at her notes. “Both children were well liked by their friends and teachers.

They were outgoing, athletic and social. Neither child was ever in any

serious trouble prior to these incidents. Both children were excellent

students who struggled with reading problems,” she said. “I agree that it’s

a strange coincidence.” She looked up. He was nodding eagerly.

“Right. And according to Helen Dobbs, Dwayne was using the same at-home

reading tutorial program that Penny Mason was using.” Mulder fished an ice

cube out of the glass with his fingers and popped it into his mouth,

crunching it between strong, white teeth.

“Readin’ Rocks,” Scully said. She squeezed a lemon into her own glass of tea

and took an experimental sip. “When I was a kid,” she said, “they used to

show these little educational snippets between cartoons on Saturday mornings.

Schoolhouse Rock.” She looked at her partner. “Do you remember it?”

Mulder nodded. “Yeah. Sam was into it more than I was,” he recalled. “She

drove us all crazy singing those silly little songs about adverbs and

adjectives,” he said.

A grin curled Scully’s full lips upward. “Conjunction Junction,” she

remembered fondly. “It wasn’t just grammar though,” she remembered. “They

had songs about science, math and American history.” She grinned again.

“That’s how I learned the Preamble to the Constitution,” she informed him.

Mulder laughed and stretched his arms across the vinyl back of the booth.

“Wanna sing it for me?” Scully wrinkled her nose and propped her chin on her

hand.

“I’ll pass,” she told him. “Seriously, Mulder. What do you think the

connection is?” Scully was fairly sure that she knew exactly what Mulder was

thinking, but she wanted to hear him say it out loud.

The waitress arrived with their dinners and Mulder took an appreciative sniff

of meatloaf and mashed potatoes swimming in gravy when she set the plate

before him. He picked up his fork and looked at Scully from the across the

table.

“Mind control,” he said. He smiled when she mouthed the words along with

him. He scooped up a forkful of potatoes and popped it into his mouth.

“Mmm.” Mulder loved diner food. He swallowed and nodded toward her own

dinner. “Eat up, Scully. After dinner, we have some research to do.”

Scully speared a piece of grilled chicken with her fork. “Research?” she

asked curiously. Mulder nodded enthusiastically.

“Yep. I’d like to do some digging into this Readin’ Rocks program,” he said.

“Maybe we could get a copy of their customer list.” Scully eyed him

thoughtfully from across the table.

“Penny wasn’t the first,” she said slowly. “This has happened before, but no

one has made the connection until now.” Mulder smiled. He loved it when

Scully started thinking the way he did. His grin widened when she added,

“Okay – I’ll get started on the digging if you’ll call Skinner and tell him

we’re staying here a few more days. Tell him you like the meatloaf too much

to leave yet.”

Mulder snickered, bringing a hunk of meatloaf covered with potatoes to his

mouth and shoveling it in. He mumbled as he chewed.

“Like he’d believe it, Scully…”

************

UNDISCLOSED LOCATION

LAB

6:43 P.M.

NOV. 1, 2002

Most days Harold found his work so rewarding.

The company was doing very well, and he had just received a hefty raise and

had opened another investment account in a new credit union that had great

interest rates. When he thought of all the rotten jobs he’d had over the

years, with rotten bosses and inadequate pay and horrible hours – and then at

last to find his place in the working world…he could feel a huge smile

break over his face and it made him laugh aloud, as he downloaded the last of

the orders.

Thirty in all; a very good day’s work. Thirty families that would be helped

immensely by a product he personally believed in, with all his heart. If he

had a family he’d sure be using it, as a tool for the better comprehension of

his own children – if he had any. As he packaged instructions and selected

workbooks and wrapped everything in new cellophane he tried not to bemoan his

lack of a life outside his professional sphere. It was all right, he told

himself. Hadn’t he just laughed aloud at the sheer joy his job could bring

him?

No, Harold corrected himself firmly. It wasn’t merely a job. It was a career –

his career. His life’s work and he loved the way it lent importance to his

existence. Nothing else had ever lent the same level of importance as this

service did.

As he added the necessary CDs to the almost-complete package, and uploaded

the identifying codes from the label into the spreadsheet that was rapidly

expanding into a complicated, linked work file – Harold thought of the child

this program would help. A little girl; he could almost picture her. Not quite

eight years old, living in Wisconsin. On a dairy farm, he’d bet; he liked to

try guessing what these young customers’ environments could be like,

depending upon where they lived. She had very loving and supportive parents,

that much was obvious. They’d recognized a need in their darling child, a

need to improve greatly upon her comprehension skills. They could foresee

the future, knowing how important those skills would be as she grew to

adulthood and drew upon her knowledge to obtain that one vital job that would

become her career. Maybe she’d love that career as much as he loved his.

Somehow the thought made him feel very close to her. He decided to give the

sweetheart a discount; after all, if her folks were farmers then they probably

struggled to make ends meet the way so many farmers did, these days.

He went back into their account and changed their total to reflect a

twenty-five percent discount. He knew his superiors would not mind. He was

their top manager. He owned stock in the company. He was their best and

most enthusiastic salesperson. He was a one-man cheering section for

“Readin’ Rocks”…he would do anything for the promotion and ultimate

success of a product he believed in with all his heart and soul.

Harold was so proud that he was in a position within the company to be

considered valuable enough for this sort of action to not only be allowed but

approved one hundred percent. It meant everything to him. It was almost as

good as having children of his own, when he went to bed at night knowing he’d

given assistance to yet another precious child.

He hummed as he finished wrapping the order for little Joy Henley. A sweet

name for a sweet little girl. He attached her mailing label and stacked it

atop the other orders he’d readied during his day. He’d take them to the

post office tomorrow, first thing. Sighing with satisfaction for another day

Well spent, he closed all his open files and left the hard drive running. He

stood and stretched, snapped off his desk lamp and gathered up his briefcase,

jingling his office keys in his free hand. He strode to the door and locked

it carefully behind him, his dedicated and busy mind already planning out his

next work day. As he stepped into the elevator at the end of the carpeted

corridor, he found himself whistling under his breath. Maybe he’d treat

himself to a steak dinner at Antoni’s on the way home…

The elevator doors whispered shut exactly three seconds before another door

in that long corridor opened, and a figure draped in a dark trench coat

stepped out onto the thick carpet. The figure walked quickly to the office

so recently vacated, fished in a deep pocket of the coat for a small set of

keys and unlocked the door; strode in the darkness to the computer glowing

faintly in the nicely appointed room. Sitting in the chair still warm from

its last occupant, the figure typed a few commands on the keyboard and a

spreadsheet appeared. A few seconds later a printout of the sheet appeared

in the laser printer and the seated figure scanned the printout carefully,

then set it aside and began typing in the codes found on the spreadsheet

beginning with the last order of the day…Joy Henley. As her customer

profile appeared on the monitor the figure pulled out a small bound notebook,

flipped it to a marked page and using the ten-key pad typed in a series of

numbers. Watching the monitor carefully, the figure waited patiently for his

efforts to load into specified fields in the profile, checking for accuracy.

Satisfied the entry was correct, the figure pressed ‘enter’ and the numbers so

carefully typed in began to generate into a series of commands that attached

neatly to the profile of a little girl who perhaps lived on a farm in

Wisconsin and had a comprehension problem.

*****************

GAUTIER DAYS INN

7:15 P.M.

NOV. 1, 2002

“Is that what I think it is, Mulder? Where did you get it?” Scully stood in

back of his chair and stared at her laptop monitor. Mulder pumped up the

volume so she could better hear the music that accompanied the colorful words

dancing in rhythm over the screen. Bright colors that would really draw a

child’s attention, and a happy little tune as well…

“…My name is “Have” and I bet you’ve seen

The way I complement “I” and “Been”!

I make a sentence fun to read…”

“Catchy little tune, isn’t it? I could hear a kid singing it under his – or her –

breath; maybe bopping around, a little.” Mulder glanced up at Scully as

she hung over his chair and her eyes followed the rest of the song bouncing

over the screen. The colors were mesmerizing; Scully found herself trying to

follow them with her eyes. The music played on, the beat getting faster, the

colors flashing more rapidly; she could feel herself rocking on her feet, a

little…

“Scully! Hey!” Mulder’s voice was firm and urgent, breaking into her

concentration. Scully lifted dazed eyes from the swirling and flying colors,

staring in confusion at her partner, who had actually reached out a hand and

yanked at a lock of her hair. Her eyes focused on him and Mulder frowned in

worry at the bewilderment he saw in her face. He turned sideways in his seat

and pulled her down across his knees; Scully sank against his chest, her back

to the monitor. Her voice came out sounding as confused as the clouds in her

eyes.

“Mulder…that was weird. Those colors…that music. It sucked me in, so

fast.” Mulder nodded and looked over his shoulder at the screen. It was

ablaze now, with all sorts of flashing words etched in over bright colors, the

music spinning in time with the words. And below the surface of the music

Mulder could sense something else; very hypnotizing. In the colors, although

for him the pull of the music was stronger. Probably because of his color

weakness…

With a decisive hand he grabbed the mouse and closed the window; closed

everything down. He turned back to Scully and ran the same hand over her

hair, then pressed his fingers over her forehead noting the slight dampness

there. He murmured thoughtfully.

“It got to you very quickly, Scully. And I could feel it, too. I can’t help

but wonder why it would grab at us like that – and not affect the parents who

had this in their homes everyday.” Scully sat up a little straighter on his

knees, coiling an arm around his neck for balance. Mulder noted her eyes had

cleared up and she’d stopped perspiring. Her voice sounded better, too.

“You still didn’t answer my question, Mulder. Where did you get this?

Everything burned up in the Dobbs’ fire; and there’s no way you could have

ordered one and have it here in just a day. So…” She dropped off and he

obligingly took it up and answered her.

“It was Helen Dobbs. While you were rooting around on the Internet over at

the local library, I called her to see if she remembered seeing “Readin’

Rocks” anywhere around Dwayne’s room, or knew anything about her brother

ordering it for the kid. She told me that she’d heard about the program

first and had mentioned it to her brother, then she’d ordered it for Dwayne

at the same time his parents thought to do it. With Federal Express faster

than UPS, her brother got his order before she got hers, and Dwayne just used

the first one received. Helen kept the second set, not bothering to return

it – just in case Dwayne’s set got torn up. She figured kids are hard on

CDs.” Mulder tapped a finger on the empty CD box sitting next to the mouse,

adding, “She was kind enough to swing by the motel and drop it off for us to

see.”

Mulder gave her a quick squeeze, which Scully returned with enthusiasm before

she slid off his lap and got to her feet. Reaching for the CD box she turned

it over in her hands, reading the label. It looked like any learning

program, nothing different or special. There were three other CDs in the set

besides the one Mulder had loaded on the hard drive; each one was labeled and

it appeared that they represented different levels. She raised questioning

eyes to her partner and commented, “Nothing odd – pretty innocuous, from the

looks of it. So why did it hit us so hard, Mulder? Wouldn’t it also do the

same thing to the parents of those children, if they were in the room with it

running up on the monitors?” Mulder stood up and stretched, then ran his

hands through his hair until it stuck up on his head, before answering.

“Well, I thought of that. I put in the last in the series, not for any

specific reason – but now, seeing what the CDs are capable of doing to the

human mind… I wonder if the intensity of the mind control increases with

each level, and that maybe a seed is planted in the child’s mind early on in

the program, that warns the child to keep certain parts of the lessons

secret? Maybe Penny Mason’s and Dwayne Dobbs’ folks never got to see that

final level.”

Scully prodded at the box again with an index finger before raising her eyes

to her partner again. “You think these kids could be that devious? They’re

so young, Mulder.” He nodded thoughtfully and looped his arms around her

waist, snuggling her close. He knew it distressed her to think of anything

bad happening to children; Scully was especially susceptible to it because of

her own Emily. He pressed warm lips into her temple, then kissed the end of

her nose before taking her lips in a very tender kiss. Their mouths clung

for a long moment and Scully sighed into his neck when the kiss ended.

Mulder kept her close and his reply was as soothing as he could manage.

“They ARE young, Scully – and that’s exactly why they would be perfect for an

experiment, program – whatever the hell we call it – because they are still

relatively unformed at this age. They are sponges. And someone has found a

way to make them soak up something very, very rotten.”

********************

HOOVER BUILDING

WASHINGTON, D.C.

7:45 P.M.

NOV. 2, 2002

“Scully, look at this!” Scully raised her head at the sound of her partner’s

excited voice. She leaned her hip against the edge of the desk and looked

toward the computer monitor glowing harshly in the dimly lit basement office.

“What am I looking at?” She absentmindedly dug a morsel of sweet and sour

pork out of the cardboard box with her chopsticks and popped it into her

mouth. Mulder reached out to take the container from her hands.

“Right there,” he mumbled around a mouthful of pork. He pointed toward the

screen with one chopstick. Scully squinted and leaned closer to the screen.

They had been digging through juvenile crimes records from every one of the

fifty states since they had arrived back in D.C. earlier that morning. Their

search had yielded a lot of statistics about juvenile crime – enough to send

Scully into a major depression, she thought wryly – but so far they had been

unable to establish any kind of link between the young criminals and “Readin’

Rocks”.

“Terrence Hewitt, age eight of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.” Scully read aloud.

“Cub Scouts. T-ball. Honor Roll.” Her eyes skimmed tiredly over the screen

looking for the connection. Mulder jabbed at the screen with one finger.

“Right there, Scully!” he exclaimed. “Don’t you see?” He tilted his head

toward her and Scully could see the blue-tinted screen reflected in the

glasses perched on his nose. “Terrence had a reading tutor in first and

second grades, but by the time he reached third grade, his reading skills had

improved to the point that he no longer needed a tutor.” He looked up at her

with an expectant look on his face.

“Mulder…” Scully held up one hand in a ‘so-what’ gesture. “A lot of

children need help learning to read.”

Mulder nodded and pinched the bridge of his nose between his thumb and

forefinger. “But how many of them go on to choke a younger cousin to death

with a jumping rope?” he asked.

The fax machine whirred to life and began to sluggishly spit out a sheaf of

papers. Scully pushed away from the desk and walked across the room to

gather up the papers lying in the output tray.

“What’s that?” Mulder asked. Scully walked back to his desk and placed the

stack of papers onto the desk blotter cheerfully decorated with doodles of

alien heads and spaceships in various sizes and shapes.

“See for yourself,” she said as she leaned over his shoulder to read along

with him. Mulder glanced down at the list of names piled on top of his desk.

“A customer list for Readin’ Rocks, Inc.?” he asked incredulously. “Where

did you get this?” He turned his head and stared into her eyes only inches

away from his own.

She grinned. “When I was researching the corporation this afternoon, I found

out that they had gone public with a number of Class B shares of stock last

year,” she explained. “The majority of the stock is still owned by a small

number of people, but when they went public with the Class B stock, their

records – including their customer list – became public as well.”

Mulder’s gaze was openly admiring. “You’re a genius!” he crowed. Scully

blushed and tucked an errant strand of hair behind her ear. She picked up

the list of names and arranged herself comfortably on the edge of his desk.

“Let’s get started,” she said. Mulder flexed his fingers over the keyboard

and awaited the first name from the list.

Two and a half hours later, they had gone through the entire list of names

and were able to match nine children from the Readin’ Rocks customer list to

the juvenile offenders database. They had all been charged with their crimes

in the last year.

Scully was slumped in her chair, her cheek resting against arms folded on top

of the desk as Mulder read off the list of names.

“Amanda Lowell, age seven, Atlanta, Georgia. Armed robbery.

“Sheila Anders, age eight, Long Island, New York. Assaulted a classmate on

the schoolyard with a knife.

“Robert Madison, age seven. Boston, Massachusetts. Bludgeoned his

babysitter over the head with a bicycle pump.

“Gerald Smith, age seven. Nags Head, North Carolina…”

Scully held up one hand. “No more,” she moaned. She scrubbed her hands over

her face dejectedly. “I don’t want to hear any more.” Mulder looked up to

object when she pushed herself to her feet tiredly and began stuffing papers

into her briefcase.

“Tomorrow,” she said. “We’ll get back to it tomorrow.” Mulder peered into

her face, pale with exhaustion, and he felt the pull of his own weariness

across his shoulder blades. He saved their work onto the hard drive of his

computer and made a back-up copy onto a disk that he slipped into his pocket.

“You’re right,” he agreed. “We’ve got a lot of traveling ahead of us. We

should get some rest.” As she followed Mulder toward the office door Scully

suppressed a groan at the thought of traveling up and down the Atlantic coast of

the United States, interviewing these children and their families.

“Let’s go home,” he said as he snapped off the light and pulled the door

closed behind them. Placing a comforting hand at the small of her back, Mulder

kept their bodies close as they walked toward the elevators.

***********

UNDISCLOSED LOCATION

3:45 AM

NOV. 3, 2002

The room was elegant and richly appointed, reeking of money and privilege.

Side by side at a large, oval mahogany table, aromatic brandy dregs floated

in cut-crystal balloon glasses – two cigars smoldered in a matching

cut-crystal ashtray. The wisps of smoke curled around the head of a man who

tugged at his silk tie and slumped back in his chair, twiddling an expensive

gold-plated pen between his fingers. He forced himself to look up when he

spoke; made himself keep his voice level and solid.

“We have a problem.” In sudden exasperation he threw the gold-plated pen

across the room, uncaring of the way it broke apart upon impact. A creak

from the chair next to him was the only indication that his words had been

heard.

“What problem? Illuminate, please.” The voice was calming and yet firmly

commanding. There was leadership in the tone. Authority. The man took a

deep breath before replying.

We may have been breached by a Federal office. I received notification

about an hour ago.”

The voice next to him remained controlled, although there was a cold edge to

it. “An hour ago? And you are just now getting around to telling me? Explain

yourself.”

The man sighed nervously; they were the same age, but in level of power…

years apart; maybe even a generation. It had always been that way between

them, for as far back as he could remember. They had grown up together,

double-dated together – and the imbalance in their relationship was never

more apparent than now. The man tapped his fingers on the leather chair arm

beneath his hand, wondering how much trouble his answer would bring him. He

took another deep, fortifying breath.

“I would not have been able to report any sooner; I was still gathering

information.” That much was true. He swallowed thickly when his companion

frowned at the half-baked explanation. The man hastened to add onto his

excuse.

“Harold emailed me and told me that someone had requested a copy of our

customer list from the public records. You know I’d arranged to have

restrictions placed on that list… I gave the job to Harold. Usually the

man is completely, one hundred percent dependable when asked to carry out

these taskings. Harold apologized profusely for not completing the task;

apparently he has been bogged down in orders and felt that was more important

than stopping long enough to program the proper restrictions. Of course, we

appreciate his dedication -” The man’s voice petered off at the slightly

imperious hand waved in his face in reaction to that last sentence.

“Do NOT offer any further excuses. I am well aware of Harold’s dedication,

as I am aware of the man’s technical genius – AND his blind devotion and

blithely happy demeanor. He has been the perfect foil for our work – I

concede on that truth. But Harold becomes a liability when his dedication,

however sincere, puts this project in jeopardy.” The chair beside him

abruptly scooted backwards as its occupant leapt to his feet and began to

pace. The man swallowed several more times, each one gaining in nervousness.

This was not good. Anger and impatience, actually rapidly developing fury –

all directed toward him. This truly wasn’t good… He closed his eyes in

panic when his companion’s narrowed, cold stare locked onto him. Oh,

Jesus…he knew he was really going to HATE the next words he heard –

“Take care of it. I’ll let the others know their worry has been assuaged.”

A decisive turn of one highly polished boot heel, clicking across the wood

parquet floor. The man jumped to his feet and called after his companion in

a voice he fought to keep from trembling.

“Take care of it? Wait – do you mean to ask me to…” He trailed off when

those cold eyes glared at him from across the expensively appointed office.

“Yes. I do mean to ask you – to do exactly what you think I am asking of

you. These plans have been in place for a long time. We all knew what would

have to be done should a breach occur. We have prepared from the beginning –

and we have chosen our path. Our vow to each other – that we would protect

the project, at all costs. A Federal office has received our customer list.

It’s now just a matter of time before we are found. And one life is not so

very much, is it? To protect something this important? So,” as he opened

the mahogany door and stepped through, tossing one last command over his

shoulder, “do as I ask. Take care of it.” The door whispered shut behind

him, and the man sank down into his comfortable leather chair, running a

shaky hand over his damp face.

Looking around at the opulent room, taking due note of the rare, bound books

covering one whole wall…all the result of the project – of the kind of

money it had generated for them. Borrowed money, much of it – money offered

in good faith, on the premise that they could deliver what they had promised

their benefactors.

Oh, at first it had been a game to them – a fascinating, heady game. They

were the “A” class of their academies; the ones most likely to take over the

world. Their brilliance knew no equal; singly they were amazing but together

as a team they’d been unstoppable. When they’d begun developing the project,

each golden day of planning, trial and error – it had been magical. All of

them, moving into the lab together; working day and night…none of them

complained; the importance of what they were doing far outweighed the need

for such things as sleep and food.

When their project, first created for the sheer exhilaration of knowing their

formidable abilities allowed for it – when that project caught the attention

of some serious influence – well, how could they resist? How could they not

say ‘yes’? And their agreement had fueled their passion for the project –

and had helped to fund the world of which they had now become accustomed.

Once more, he looked around the room. He didn’t want to lose this world.

He’d grown up poor; had depended upon scholarships to make his way through

college and graduate school. His brilliant mind demanded he rise above his

circumstances, and feed his thirst to learn. And once he’d learned; once

he’d been afforded the chance to let his mind have full creative engineering,

along with his fellow project partners – once he’d lived in a world of such

privilege…

He didn’t want to give it up. And yet, to protect his fellow partners – his

friends and colleagues, known and admired for years – he would have to give

it up. All of it. Starting with setting in motion the plan that would

safeguard his team.

The man rubbed at his red-rimmed eyes. His walk was slow as he approached a

mirrored bar and poured himself a fresh brandy, using a clean cut-crystal

glass. He held the drink up to the glow of the fireplace and watched the

amber liquid swirl, before raising it to his lips. It burned going down,

brighter than the flames curling around the logs. He looked at himself in

the mirror hanging over the bar. Bloodshot eyes, lines around his mouth.

Worry lines on his forehead. His hair was thinning; a bit of gray around the

temples. Jesus.

He was only twenty-eight years old…much too young to heft this sort of

burden. Much too young to have to carry out this sort of task…

He set down the glass and walked to the mahogany desk, framed in the

floor-to-ceiling bay windows – sat down in front of the computer. Logged in.

Opened several windows. Began downloading programs. As he typed he forced

himself to look at the screen; made himself check the codes for accuracy…

forced himself not to gag when those codes repeated the name “Harold” several

times…

*************************

MIAMI, FLORIDA

3:38 P.M.

NOV. 4, 2002

Mulder climbed out of the airport shuttle van. Turning, he took Scully’s

laptop from her and held out his other hand to help her out of the van. He

squinted in the late afternoon sun and watched Scully shrug out of her suit

jacket in deference to the Florida heat.

“Hot enough for you?” Mulder smirked as the driver stacked their luggage onto

the sidewalk. He had long since abandoned his jacket. His shirtsleeves

were rolled up and his tie hung loosely around his neck, the top two buttons

at the collar unfastened. Scully plucked at the turtleneck of her ribbed

sweater and pushed the tight sleeves as far up her arms as they would go.

“Let’s just get in the car,” she groused. Earlier that day they had been in

Boston interviewing the parents and teachers of Robert Madison, the boy who

had attacked his babysitter with a bicycle pump. They had intended to visit

the babysitter later that afternoon, but when they had heard a report on the

radio of a bizarre incident in Florida, they had rushed to the airport to

catch the first available flight to Miami. There had been no time to change –

and what had been comfortable clothing for a brisk November day in Boston,

was decidedly uncomfortable in what passed for autumn in Florida.

Mulder checked the paperwork in his hand and led the way across the parking

lot toward their rental car. They quickly stowed their luggage in the trunk and

climbed into the car. The moment Mulder engaged the ignition, Scully leaned

forward to turn on the air conditioner. Pushing the controls to maximum, she

tilted the vents up to allow the cool air to wash over her. Mulder also took

a moment to enjoy the refreshing blast of air before turning his attention

back to the matter at hand.

“Which way?” He backed out of the parking space as Scully withdrew a sheaf of

papers from a pocket in the soft-sided case protecting her laptop and consulted

their notes. They had spent the relatively short flight reviewing what little

information they had managed to gather and contacting the local authorities by

air phone. She read aloud the directions provided to them by the police and

within twenty-five minutes they turned onto a street lined with palm trees and

modest, but well kept middle-income homes.

Mulder climbed out of the car and spared a glance toward Scully before

returning his attention to the spectacle being played out before them. He

nodded his head and they began to push their way through the throng of people

gathered outside of one of the houses. They reached the police barricades

and flashed their badges to slip under the yellow tape stretched around the

neatly manicured lawn.

“I’m Agent Mulder and this is my partner, Dana Scully.” Scully was dimly

aware of Mulder introducing himself to the police lieutenant in charge of the

scene as she studied the multitude of people gathered in the street. Men and

women. Young and old. Some with children. She could hear the soft murmur

of voices lifted in prayer, some speaking Spanish, others in English. A few

people held vigil candles in their hands; others clutched rosaries

between their fingers. She felt Mulder’s hand brush against her elbow and

she returned her attention to him and the lieutenant.

“There’s not much more that I can tell you,” Lieutenant Morales said. “This

is the weirdest thing I’ve ever seen,” he admitted. He brushed one hand

through his dark, wavy hair and sighed. “There’s no evidence of a crime so

we can’t make an arrest.” He planted his hands on his hips, revealing the

service revolver tucked safely in the holster attached to his belt.

“My captain tells me that you two have some experience with this kind of

thing?” His eyes were dark and incredulous.

Mulder nodded and glanced over the lieutenant’s head at the ever-growing

crowd assembling in the street. “We’ve been investigating a series of

crimes, all seemingly committed by children, and all of them the same age

as Maria Rodriguez.” His eyes continued to rove over the peaceful throng

of people for another moment before he returned his gaze and his full

attention to the lieutenant.

“We’ve established a connection between each of these children and we have

reason to believe that Maria fits the same profile as all of the other

children we’ve investigated so far,” he continued. Maria’s name did appear

on the Readin’ Rocks customer list that Scully had obtained.

“Lieutenant,” Scully asked. “Why are all of these people gathered outside of

the Rodriguez home?”

Morales scrubbed one hand over the back of his neck and took a deep breath.

“Well, like I said, there’s no evidence of any crime having been committed.”

His shoulders rose and fell as he shrugged. “The Rodriguez family is well-

liked and respected in this community. They own two local restaurants. Luis

Rodriguez took over the management of the family business when his parents

retired about ten years ago. He coaches Little League over at the community

center and is president of the Home and School Board at Saint Joachim’s

parish.” Morales glanced over his shoulder at the small house bathed in the

late afternoon sun.

“His wife, Rose, was a teacher at Saint Joachim’s, but when Maria was born,

she quit her job to stay at home and raise their family. She’s also very

active in the parish as well as in the community. She heads the local town

watch and organizes the summer carnival every year.” He realized that he had

strayed away from Scully’s original question.

“Anyway, that’s why no one can believe that anything like this would happen

to this family,” he said. “Maria is known by everyone around here as a

sweet little girl and every person standing out there in the street will

tell you that Rose would never lift a hand toward either of her children.”

Mulder’s eyes locked on Scully’s for a moment before he turned back to the

lieutenant. “Wait,” he said urgently. “Rose? How was Rose involved in

this?”

Morales looked back and forth between the two agents in confusion. “You

didn’t know?” he asked incredulously. They both continued to stare at him

with identical looks of bewilderment on their faces. Morales sighed.

“Luis Rodriguez says that he found his wife and daughter trying to murder his

six-month-old son. There’s no rational explanation for what happened and

many people believe that it is the work of the devil. Father Tom is in with

the family right now.”

Both in shock, the partners watched the softly chanting crowd gathered behind

them for a moment before hurrying along the path that led to the Rodriguez home

and the mystery that lay within.

************

Mulder and Scully stood in the kitchen speaking with Father Thomas Martin in

hushed tones. In the living room, Yvette Rodriguez bounced her grandson, Angel,

in her arms while her husband cuddled his confused granddaughter on his lap.

“Come now, Maria,” he cajoled. “Don’t you have a smile for your Poppy?” The old

man fished a piece of candy from his pocket and held it out enticingly to the

little girl, but she pushed it away and settled her head against his shoulder.

“Bad girls don’t deserve candy, Poppy,” she sighed dejectedly. Joseph Rodriguez

smoothed his hand over his granddaughter’s tousled curls and looked across the

room to where his son tried in vain to comfort his distraught wife.

“Baby,” Luis Rodriguez whispered. “Rose, please,” he begged. “We need to talk.”

He set one strong hand on her shoulder and tugged. His wife lifted her head from

where she had buried it in the sofa cushions and stared at the beloved and

handsome face of her husband.

“How can you even bear to look at me?” she whimpered miserably. Luis’ heart

contracted painfully.

“Because I love you,” he whispered fiercely. “And I know you. You would never

willingly hurt our children; never willingly hurt anyone. Rose…”

She covered her face with her arm and turned away from him, curling up into a

ball as fear clutched at her heart. She almost did, she thought. She had almost

hurt her baby boy. She peeked across the room to where Maria was curled up in an

equally miserable ball on her grandfather’s lap and mother and daughter shared a

look of sadness and fear and…remembered exhilaration. Rose shuddered and once

again hid her face behind her arm, willing herself to forget.

Luis shared a worried glance with his parents. He didn’t understand any of the

things that had happened in the last two days. He turned his face toward the

kitchen, not sure if he wanted to know what was being discussed between his

priest and the two agents from Washington, DC. His lips moved in a silent

prayer for help.

****************

“Father, you don’t truly believe that this is the work of Satan, do you?” Scully

leaned her hips against the kitchen counter and crossed her arms over her chest.

The Rodriguez house was mercifully cool and she was comfortable for the first

time since landing in Florida.

The priest’s eyes flicked down to the tiny gold cross glittering against the

black turtleneck of Scully’s sweater.

“You don’t believe in the devil?” he asked curiously. That curiosity was further

peaked when he saw her blue eyes flash with emotion before becoming flat and

cool again. A movement to Agent Scully’s left had the priest chancing a glance

toward the other agent as he moved closer to the petite woman in an almost

protective gesture. Mulder’s face bore the same studied calm that graced his

partner’s pretty features.

“Scully and I have both seen enough in our work to know that evil does exist in

this world,” Mulder said in a slightly strained voice. “We’d like to know what

you think happened here yesterday.”

The priest tugged one of the kitchen chairs away from the table and straddled

the seat. He rested his chin on his fingers steepled against the back of the

chair and watched the two agents who were patiently awaiting his reply.

“I don’t know,” he finally admitted. “I’ve known Rose for many years. I baptized

Maria and her brother. My instincts tell me that there is no evil in them.” He

rubbed his fingers over his forehead. “Yet they are both insistent that they DID

try to kill little Angel and Luis corroborates that story…” The priest’s voice

trailed off in frustrated confusion.

Mulder sat down on one of the other chairs and leaned across the table. His

voice was low and urgent.

“Father Martin, we believe that there is evil at work here. But that it is an

evil very much of this earth and of human hands.” Mulder glanced toward Scully

and she nodded for him to continue.

“In the last year there have been a rash of crimes committed by children aged

seven or eight up and down the Atlantic coast. Children like Maria. Smart

children with attentive parents – children who have never before been in

trouble. But this is the first case where a parent has been involved with the

crime.”

Scully waited for Mulder to take a breath before she picked up the narrative.

“As you might understand, it has been difficult for us to interview the children

and get a coherent explanation for what drove them to behave in such an aberrant

manner,” she said. “We’re hopeful that Rose will be able to give us some insight

into what is going on.”

“What makes you so sure that the Maria and Rose are connected in any way to

these other children?” Father Tom asked.

Mulder leaned against the back of his chair. “How much do you know about Maria’s

reading difficulties?”

*****************

Rose Rodriguez sat on the sofa, flanked on either side by her husband and her

priest. Her daughter sat on the floor, her head resting against her mother’s

knees. Her in-laws had taken her baby boy upstairs for a nap.

“We need to know what happened here yesterday,” Scully began. Her voice was soft

and compassionate, yet authoritative. “Mr. Rodriguez, perhaps you could begin by

telling us what you witnessed.”

Luis swallowed convulsively. He tightened his grip around his wife’s hand and

looked toward Father Tom for reassurance. The priest nodded and smiled slightly

and Luis took a deep breath.

“I heard an odd noise coming from the baby’s room,” he began. “I knew that Rose

and Maria were both up there, so I didn’t think much of it. When I heard the

noise again, I called up to them, but they didn’t answer.” He laid one hand on

his daughter’s frail shoulder. “I went upstairs to see what was going on. The

door was half closed and when I pushed it open, I saw my wife standing over the

baby’s crib with a knife in her hands.” He shuddered in remembrance and Rose’s

fingernails dug into his hand as she clutched it tightly.

Mulder and Scully waited patiently for him to continue.

“Her eyes…her eyes were so strange,” Luis recalled. “Her pupils were dilated

so that her eyes were almost completely black. Tears were streaming down her

face and she seemed frozen in place.” He wiped his face on his shoulder and

stumbled on through the rest of the story. “Maria was standing next to her

mother, rocking back and forth; shifting her weight from one foot to the other.

Everything seemed to be happening in slow motion, you know?” The look he

directed toward the two agents was bewildered and frightened. “Rose lifted the

knife over her head and as I lunged forward, she suddenly screamed ‘NO’ and

staggered away from the crib.”

Rose hung her head and tears dripped from her chin to soak the dark curls on her

daughter’s head. Father Tom rubbed her back comfortingly with his free hand and

whispered something into her ear.

Luis hurried through the rest of his story, eager to be finished. “Rose crumpled

to the floor, sobbing – and Maria let out this horrible shriek! She snatched the

knife away from her mother and turned back toward the crib. I couldn’t believe

what was happening. I froze.” His voice was a shamed whisper as he continued.

“Maria isn’t tall enough to reach over the top of the crib rail and she tried to

get at the baby through the bars. I shouted out her name and she looked up at me

with eyes that were as black as her mother’s had been. She hesitated and in that

instant I was able to knock the knife out of her hands.” He laid his hand on his

daughter’s head, wanting to shield her from this retelling of those awful

minutes, but knew that he couldn’t. “She fought me, trying to get to the knife.

She was so strong.” His voice reflected the horrified amazement he had felt as

he had struggled to subdue his tiny daughter.

“Finally, she slumped in my arms, exhausted. I let her go and she crawled across

the floor to her mother. I picked up the knife and put it on a high shelf and

then I stood between them and the baby. Rose and Maria sat on the floor, wrapped

in each other’s arms, rocking and crying and humming a song.” He hummed a little

bit of the cheerful little tune.

Maria lifted her head from her mother’s knee. “Daddy, that’s the song from my

Readin’ Rocks CD.”

Father Tom’s head shot up and he stared at Mulder and Scully in stunned

amazement. The tale they had told him in the kitchen had been as hard for him to

swallow as the idea that a demonic spirit had possessed Rose and Maria. But,

now…

Mulder slid from his chair to take a seat on the floor. “Maria,” he called to

the little girl. She popped her thumb into her mouth and carefully watched the

man with the nice eyes make himself comfortable on the rug where she liked to

play with her toys.

“Can you tell me about Readin’ Rocks?” he asked. “Do you like it?” She sucked

her thumb thoughtfully and nodded her head. Mulder smiled.

“Why do you like it so much?” Mulder asked. The little girl narrowed her eyes as

she thought about her answer carefully.

“Sometimes I have a hard time making sense out of words.” She eased her

glistening thumb out of her mouth. “But when Mommy brought me Readin’ Rocks, I

started to do better!” she pronounced gravely.

Mulder nodded wisely. “It makes it fun to learn?” Maria sat up straight and her

entire body was quivering with excitement.

“It’s sooo awesome!” she proclaimed. “The songs are the best part aren’t they,

Mommy?” She turned to her mother for confirmation. Rose rubbed her aching

forehead against her husband’s shoulder. She couldn’t figure out why Agent

Mulder was so interested in her daughter’s reading program. His partner was

leaning forward in her seat, her attention fully captivated by Maria’s words.

“Yes, honey,” Rose murmured dutifully. “The songs are the best part.” She looked

up when Scully began to speak.

“Mrs. Rodriguez, you’re a schoolteacher, is that right?”

Rose nodded. “Yes, but I stopped working when Maria was born so that I could

stay at home with my children.” The female agent seemed very interested in this

line of questioning.

“Do you spend a lot of time working with Maria on her reading?” she asked.

Again, Rose found this line of questioning to be strange, but she was so tired

and her mind moved sluggishly as she tried to answer.

“Yes. Maria is a very bright student, but has been held back because of her

difficulties with reading.”

Scully bit her lip thoughtfully. “Where did you learn about Readin’ Rocks?” she

asked.

“I still subscribe to many of the publications that I received when I was

teaching,” she explained. “There was an article in one of them about the program

and how effective it’s been for children with comprehension problems like

Maria’s.” She pulled her hands away from Father Tom and Luis and knotted her

fingers in her lap.

“Agent Scully, I don’t see what all of this has to do…”

Mulder looked up. “Please bear with us, Mrs. Rodriguez. I know it seems strange,

but we do believe there is a connection.”

Rose Rodriguez sighed and slumped back against the sofa cushions. She raised one

hand and indicated that they should continue with their questions.

“Can you explain how the Readin’ Rocks program works?” Scully asked. Rose closed

her eyes tiredly.

“It’s a series of CD-ROMs,” she explained. “There are four CDs in all, and

each one is more advanced than the previous one.” Her breasts ached – it was

time to feed Angel, but she was afraid to touch her baby boy…afraid to hurt

him. She crossed her arms over her chest, pressing against her breasts to

relieve the pressure.

“The program is very easy to use – in fact it’s designed so that a child can use it

on his or her own. But I miss teaching and I wanted to give Maria the extra attention

so I worked with her on it every day after school while Angel took his nap.” Her

voice broke as she mentioned her son’s name and she wiped a tear away from her

cheek with her thumb.

“The CDs teach a child how to read using a series of songs set to cartoons or

whirling patterns of color and light. The kids are fascinated by the bouncy

tunes and pictures and they become hooked on it. The lessons are easy for them

to memorize because they are set to music.” Her voice trailed off. She didn’t

know what else there was to say about the program and she still couldn’t figure

out where all of this was leading.

“Maria and I began using the program over the summer and her grades have

improved drastically this year. She loves it, don’t you, honey?”

The little girl had been distracted from the horror of the last two days and she

bounced to her feet. “It’s great!” she chirped. “And wait’ll you see the cool

present they sent me.” She scampered out of the room.

“Mrs. Rodriguez, have you noticed anything…” Mulder’s question was cut short

when Maria raced back into the room.

“Lookit!” she cried as she thrust her treasure toward Mulder. He reached out

to take the stuffed lion cub out of her hands.

“You got this from Readin’ Rocks?” Mulder asked. The little girl bobbed her head

excitedly.

“Yeah!” She reached out with one pudgy hand and stroked it over the stuffed

animal’s back. “It’s neat. See what it can do?” As she rubbed her hand over the

fur, the toy began to vibrate gently in Mulder’s hand and a loud purring sound

could be heard in the room.

Rose stiffened in her seat and began to knead her temples with her fingers.

“Ohhh,” she moaned softly. Maria began to sway back and forth. Her lower lip

trembled and she turned to face her mother.

“Mommy? It’s happening again, isn’t it?”

*************

A general dissection of Leo the stuffed lion cub yielded squat.

Mulder had been tinkering with it for well over an hour, finding nothing more

alarming than a basic sound-and-motion box that was touch-sensitive. It looked

like any other sound-and-motion box – not that Mulder had seen all that many –

and certainly seemed non-threatening. He poked at it one more time with the

tiny screwdriver in his hand, glancing up when Scully entered the kitchen.

“Anything?” She sat down across from him and stole a sip of the iced tea he’d

been nursing. Mulder shook his head and set the screwdriver down, rubbed at his

eyes.

“Nope. Nothing odd-looking. Of course I’m not an expert in toy terrorism…”

He stretched and yawned, then reached out a hand and squeezed Scully’s shoulder,

noting the look of exhaustion clinging to her. “Scully, you look beat. How are

they doing in there?” He tipped his head in the direction of the Rodriguez’

living room. Scully sighed and leaned her cheek on Mulder’s hand for a moment,

before answering.

“Well, Maria finally fell asleep on the sofa and Luis carried her to bed. He’s

sitting with her right now, I think as more of a precautionary gesture. I can

tell he’s still worried Maria could act out in some way. Rose also fell asleep.

She’s on the sofa. The baby is still with the grandparents, upstairs. And I

feel…numb. I’m sure you can relate.” Mulder nodded and gave her shoulder a

final caress, before picking up the stuffed toy and examining it again. He

found himself irritated that he couldn’t figure it all out – not quite all of it

– not enough to find a way to solve it, yet.

Before Scully came into the kitchen he had already decided to send the toy to

Frohike, and see if he and the guys could find anything. They had the right

sort of equipment. Now Mulder murmured, “Well, let’s send this – and the last

CD of the set – to the guys, and see what they can decipher. If I send it Fed

Ex they can have it by tomorrow evening.” Scully frowned as she thought about

the CDs.

“Mulder, do we really want to let them have both the CD and the toy, at once?

What if that combination proves deadly?” Mulder shrugged and stood up,

collecting his jacket and the stuffed lion.

“That is why we’re only going to send them CD number four, Scully – just to be

safe. God knows what would happen if the guys had the full set…” He led the

way out of the kitchen with Scully following him and muttering to herself.

“Makes sense…”

After assuring that Luis Rodriguez’ parents were staying, at least for the next

several days, Mulder and Scully spoke one last time with Lt. Morales and got a

recommendation from him for a good local motel. They had decided to stay put

for the rest of the week, waiting for the guys to complete their examination of

the stuffed toy and the fourth CD.

Mulder finished his call in to Frohike and turned to Scully who was driving

slowly through north Miami, looking for the Lassitude Motel. He pocketed his

cell phone and remarked, “Well, Frohike’s a happy Gunman…give them a toy to

play with and we’ve made their month.” Scully chuckled wearily and made a right

turn into a modest but nicely landscaped motel complex.

“I’m so happy that they’re happy. Let’s just hope they find something we can

use.” Parking the car, they got out and dragged their overnight bags from the

trunk of the rental car, trudging their way to the motel office. Both too wiped

out to bother with the decorum of two rooms, they just secured a small suite

with two double beds and got themselves settled into Room 1102.

Flopping down on the bed closest to the air-conditioner, Mulder snagged one of

Scully’s hands and pulled her down beside him. She kicked off her shoes and

curled next to him, her head resting on his stomach. Mulder winnowed his

fingers through her hair as he spoke his thoughts aloud.

“You know, for Rose Rodriguez to be affected so strongly by the program, she

would have had to be in on the study sessions right from the very beginning –

every one of them. I bet she never left Maria alone with them for a minute.

That’s one dedicated mama.” Scully sighed and traced a random pattern over

Mulder’s thigh with her finger while she mulled over her own thoughts.

“Well, I think Rose is a very dedicated teacher, as well – I would think she was

mostly in teacher-mode when she and Maria went through the lessons. You said

earlier this week that you wondered if something in the early CDs would caution

a child against letting Mom and Dad see the learning process… I really think

you hit on something, Mulder.” She turned around to face him, propping her head

on his thigh as he bent his knee – needing to see into his eyes. “I think those

other children were instructed to keep their parents away and I think the only

reason Rose circumvented that command was to be not so much a mother – but a

teacher – during those early sessions. I think that’s the way Maria responded

to her, and that’s why Rose was able to become affected by the mind control.”

Mulder nodded; it made complete sense. He soothed his hand over Scully’s cheek

as he replied. “But we still haven’t solved anything, Scully. We still have a

deadly program out there, sent to God knows how many children. We don’t know if

all or only part of them have been set for the mind control procedure – and we

haven’t got a clue as to how the trigger works – and how many of those damn toys

have been sent out. Today one potential tragedy was averted, thanks to whatever

made Rose Rodriguez snap out of her daze. But Maria didn’t snap out of it.

Maria had to be forced out of it by her father.” His hand dropped away from her

cheek as Scully sat up next to him and rubbed hard at her tired eyes.

“It’s what you said before, Mulder – the children are much more vulnerable.

Sponges, right? They soaked it up deeper. Harder. More difficult to break

away from whatever insidious messages they were receiving. We’ve got to find

these people, fast – we’ve got to find out how many more of these programs are

out there and we’ve got to retrieve them before anyone else gets hurt – or

worse. God, Mulder! What if they…” Her words trailed off as a new thought

struck her, and her face paled as she stared into Mulder’s worried eyes.

“Mulder…what if the crimes are pre-programmed as well? Somehow chosen

specifically to match the child who uses it? I can’t imagine how it could

happen, but…after what we have seen of this program, I am beginning to think

anything is possible!”

********************

UNDISCLOSED LOCATION

LAB

5:43 P.M.

NOV. 6, 2002

The elevator doors swished open and Harold stepped out, his nose buried in the

stock exchange section of the newspaper. Pleased to see that his latest stock

investment was doing well – knowing this meant he could finally afford to take a

little vacation. This was good…not that his work was so stressful, or full

of daily tension and difficult supervisors. It was quite the opposite – he

loved his chosen career, but sometimes it was nice to get away. It had been a

long time since he’d taken a vacation, too. Maybe he’d use a week, and when he

returned it would be with even more renewed excitement…

He was so engrossed in his paper that he never looked up as he fumbled for the

key in his pocket; placing it in the lock by feel. Likewise opening the door on

autopilot, and reaching out a hand to the light switch –

And found himself spun around and shoved up against the wall, handcuffed and

spun back around; his confused brain couldn’t immediately grasp what was

happening to him. A rough voice and a flash of dark blue; a badge shining in

the harsh overhead light as the words began to register…

“Harold Grimes? You’re under arrest for suspicion of murder. You have the

right to remain silent -”

What…who? Him? Murder? God… Harold shook his head, struggling to

assimilate and failing miserably. He could feel panic swamping him, drowning

out the words of protest he couldn’t seem to form; his silence no doubt making

him seem as guilty as his accusers were imagining. Somebody pushed his shoulder

and he found himself perched on one of his ‘visitor’ chairs – he could remember

how proud he’d been to get those chairs – he raised his blurred eyes and watched

five, no six uniformed men tearing through his office…

One of them yanked open files and pulled out all his neatly-catalogued orders

and receipts. One of them sat at his computer and brought up his spreadsheets

and files – and was busily printing out everything on the monitor. One of them

tore into his well-organized binders, all shelved and labeled. One of them

ground his fingers into his shoulder and rattled off a list of names…

“…Mason. Terrence Hewitt. How about Sheila Anders? Dwayne Dobbs – you

remember him? Cute little boy; I got his picture tacked up in my office, you

son-of-a-bitch…Maria Rodriguez – oh, but that one got away from you, didn’t

she? Sick bastard, at least one of them got away! Tell us how you did it,

Harold. Show us how you found a way to make a bunch of innocent little kids

into criminals…murderers…”

The words churned through his aching head. The words cut into him like the

sharpest knives. His children. All his sweet children. He didn’t understand.

Penny, and Terrence? Murderers and criminals? The children he adored helping;

those adorable tykes whose loving parents gave him the privilege of helping them

learn? Harold could feel his aching eyes begin to tear up; his voice croaked

out, “I don’t…please, I can’t – what happened to my children?”

Those broken words seemed to infuriate the cop holding his shoulder. He cursed

violently, the string of obscenities causing Harold to flinch. The beefy face

pushed itself close to his and the tone went from surly to hate-filled.

YOUR children. Jesus…you are way beyond a sick fuck, buddy. You need a

refresher on what you did to YOUR children? What you made YOUR children

do to others? I’d be glad to tell you! Hell, I’ve got pictures…I’d be happy to

SHOW you! On your feet, Grimes!”

Harold was pulled off the chair so hard his shoulder felt dislocated. Spun

around – again – pushed roughly toward the door. Dragged into the elevator,

blue uniforms surrounding him. He could barely stand upright, for the fear

cramping his belly. Those lovely children. Somebody hurt them – and he was

being blamed for it…

As the elevator crept toward the lobby, Harold’s knees buckled, and he began to

weep.

*********************

LASSITUDE MOTEL

MIAMI, FLORIDA

7:05 A.M.

NOV. 7, 2002

The insistent chirp of his cell phone roused Mulder from a semi-stupor. He sat

up in the armchair, the book spilling from his hands. Must have fallen asleep

while he’d been reading…he ached all over; felt like that damn flu was coming

back…his hand groped on the nightstand on Scully’s side of the bed, finally

latching onto it and managing to cut the ring before she awoke. Flipping it

open he yawned out a sleepy, “Mulder.”

“Mulder, hey. I think I got some answers for you.” Mulder rubbed at his eyes

with his free hand and sat up straighter, suddenly wide-awake.

“Go ahead, Langly.”

“Well, we were able to break down some coded components in the CD-ROM that were

attached to the sound card in that stuffed lion…”

The sound of a call-waiting beep on the phone drowned out some of Langly’s voice

and Mulder sighed and interrupted, “Langly, hang on a sec, got another call and

it may be Skinner.” He put Langly on hold.

“Mulder.”

“Mulder, you and Scully had better get yourselves to the airport, pronto. First

flight you can find, to Battle Creek, Michigan. An anonymous tip was received

by the local police, who contacted our field office. They caught the person

behind the “Readin’ Rocks” program. He’s in custody – and from what the local

blue tells me, his grasp on reality is slipping fast.” Skinner’s voice had an

edge of urgency to it that Mulder seldom heard; he murmured an agreement and put

out a hand to gently shake at Scully’s shoulder. She came awake quickly and sat

up next to him. Mulder mouthed Skinner’s message and Scully nodded, her eyes

red-rimmed and worried. Mulder smiled faintly at her and spoke low into the

receiver.

You said ‘person’. Just one person is responsible for this, sir? Seems hard

to believe.” Skinner blew out a tired-sounding breath into the phone.

“Yeah, one person. Name of Harold Grimes. Seems to be a one-man show. All the

evidence was found in one place – a lab in North Battle Creek. And everything

points to this Grimes. Just get there as soon as you can, Agent – we need to

get this one tied up, fast.” A grunt in his ear, Skinner’s own form of ‘good-

bye’ – and the phone went dead. Mulder flipped it shut and swung his stiff body

out of the chair and into bed next to Scully. He snaked one long arm around her

and snuggled her close; his other hand thumbed a few cell phone numbers,

speed-dialing for airline tickets. Beside him Scully rested her head on his chest,

listening to the steady beat of his heart. Her voice was a rusty murmur.

“They got him – where?” Mulder paused in the middle of reciting his credit card

over the phone, and let his mouth play over her temple, reassuringly.

“Battle Creek. One guy – overwhelming evidence against the bastard.” Scully’s

lips parted in a grim smile.

“Good.” Mulder’s smile was as grim – then he stiffened, and cursed aloud.

“Shit! I hung up on Langly!”

****************

BCPD – HEADQUARTERS

BATTLE CREEK, MICHIGAN

9:10 P.M.

NOV. 7, 2002

“Agent Mulder? I’m Captain Terschak.” The man was tall and brawny, with a

head full of steel-gray hair and piercing light blue eyes. Mulder put out a

hand and shook the police captain’s bear-like paw, Scully doing likewise as

Mulder introduced them, watching in fascination as her small hand was swallowed

up in the man’s huge grasp. The captain waved them to a seat in the spacious

office and Mulder declined, preferring to stand behind the chair Scully

gratefully took. She felt achy and slightly feverish. Damn flu…

“Captain, what can you tell us?” Scully’s voice sounded a little scratchy to

Mulder; he’d just lay money he’d given her the flu. He re-focused his attention

on the grizzled Terschak, whose voice was as gruff as his appearance.

“Well, we got a tip yesterday. Email message. Couldn’t trace the damn thing.

It was sent to me – gave an address and a building number, details about this

bastard Grimes. Just enough about those kids that committed the crimes. Enough

to let us know it wasn’t a crank call.” Terschak turned to grab a coffeepot

from its warmer, filling two styrofoam cups and doling them out to Mulder and

Scully without bothering to ask them if they wanted any. Scully wrapped her

hands around the cup gratefully, starting to feel chilled. Mulder sipped at his

and nodded his head, encouraging the police chief to continue.

“Some building in the north end – on Bryant Street. Said we’d find everything

we needed to convict – including Harold Grimes. So we got a team together and

tore over there. Building was empty, but we found three offices and a lab,

chock-full of evidence. Well, we started digging and while we were pulling

evidence Grimes came walking in. We slapped the cuffs on him and read him his

rights. Local FBI has been with him all afternoon but this guy is wasted. I

don’t think they got anything good. Maybe you’d have better luck.”

Mulder set down his empty cup and his eyes met Scully’s, knowing she was

thinking the same thing – too easy. This whole situation, of finding this

mystery man, so fast – way too easy. He voiced his concerns aloud, and watched

Terschak’s busy gray brows snap together into a single, irritated line of fur.

“Well, shit – of course! Goddamn easy! But regardless of who emailed me – it’s

there. All of it. Pointing the finger at this Grimes asshole. We got it

all…company records. Test journals. Software up the fucking wazoo. Names,

dates, addresses of all the kids and a profile on each one that actually

committed a crime. Detailed codes and a shitload of other stuff that made my

head ache just to look at it. I got it stashed in the other room; you can take

a look at it when you’re ready.”

Scully nodded and stood up, slowly. Mulder steadied her with a hand on her

shoulder and she spared him a faint smile, then grimaced when Terschak scowled

at her damp, pale face and accurately diagnosed, “Flu, right? I feel for you –

had it last week. You want to see this guy?” At their dual nod, Terschak led

them out of the office and into an elevator, taking them down two floors to

the holding cells.

In the smaller holding cell there were no bars – just plates of one-way glass.

Terschak led them to the far wall and Mulder stepped close, getting his first

look at the mastermind behind the “Readin’ Rocks” mind control catastrophe.

A more ineffectual-looking Mastermind, Mulder had never seen…

Harold Grimes sat slumped on the edge of a rumpled cot. Short – his feet not

quite touching the floor beneath them – and balding, rounded narrow shoulders

and a paunch belly. Eyes owlishly peering behind thick eyeglass lenses.

Dressed in an orange prison coverall, Grimes looked incapable of injuring a

gnat, much less creating a program that destroyed young children’s minds. He

was pale and perspiring, face blotchy with tears, it appeared – and beside

Mulder Scully murmured out loud, “No way, Mulder. How in God’s name could this

man have done what he’s been accused of? I know appearances can be deceiving,

but I can’t see it.” Mulder nodded; he was thinking the same thing. He

couldn’t help but wonder if Grimes was one of a team, and the one unlucky enough

to get caught… Terschak’s gritty tones broke into his thoughts.

“Well? You want in to talk to this guy? We can shackle him. He seems pretty

harmless – blubbered like a baby all the way to the station. Sobbed some more

during the Fed questioning; like I said, he more or less fell apart.” Mulder

shook his head and at a soft affirmative from Scully, he stepped closer to the

bolted door.

“No, don’t shackle him. I want to see how he truly reacts to us and to our

questioning – and if he’s restrained I can’t get a good reading.” Nodding

grimly, Terschak punched in a code and the door swung open.

********************

Harold Grimes raised a puffy, tearstained face at the sound of the door opening

and his bleary eyes registered the tall man and petite woman, both dressed

severely in black, enter the small room and sit down at the table in front of

his bunk. They looked very stern. Harold didn’t think he could handle any more

stern, not after what he’d been through…

He couldn’t even begin to wrap his mind around what he’d been accused of doing.

Couldn’t imagine how anyone who knew him could think this of him. But then

again, these policemen didn’t know him. They didn’t know the level of his

dedication to his career. Couldn’t comprehend the degree of devotion to his

darling children and their hard-working parents. Why, he could no sooner hurt a

hair on their precious little heads, than fly around the room! Somehow he knew

these two people with the stern faces, sitting in front of him – they were

instrumental in the belief of his validity. They exuded authority – and Harold

knew he had to convince them of his innocence, and his devotion – if he ever

wanted to be allowed to take care of his children again.

**********************

Thirty minutes into the interrogation it was clear to Mulder that this man was

on the fine edge of insanity.

Harold Grimes had no concept of what he’d done. He repeatedly denied everything

the evidence had presented to him. He was under the delusion that the nine

children whose crimes had come to the public surface were in effect his own

children. He referred to them as his “Little Darling Ones” and rattled off

their addresses and personal likes and dislikes, as if he’d raised them himself.

It was creepy, Mulder concluded. And he was even more certain that Harold was

but one piece of the overall puzzle, for he could swear this man wasn’t

intellectually capable of the mental machinations necessary to create something

like “Readin’ Rocks”. Mulder cleared his throat and glanced at Scully’s weary

face, before he resumed his questions.

“Okay, Harold. Once again…do you deny that the evidence found at your lab

and office are codes, spreadsheets and other software designed specifically for

the “Readin’ Rocks” program? Do you deny that the program exercised a mental

control over select children whose parents bought the CD set? The evidence is

right in front of your face, Harold.” Mulder’s hand indicated the stack of

confiscated materials that Terschak and his men had found at the lab. Harold

stared at it in utter confusion – again – and his voice was soft and trembling

and sounded more like a frightened child than an evil genius.

“Mr. Mulder…Miss Scully. I swear to you I don’t know anything about mind

control! I helped design these CDs. I’m very proud of that! I help children

to comprehend what they read. I help them to become better students! I love my

children! I would never hurt them, never! Please…you have to believe what

I’m saying. You have to!”

The sincerity in Harold’s voice was genuine. The pleading in his damp, chubby

face was also believable. So was the pile of evidence on the table between

them, Scully thought. She watched the perspiring man carefully, noting that her

partner also observed every small detail. Harold Grimes looked each of them

straight in the eye. A man who looked you in the eye while pleading innocence

had to be given the benefit of the doubt – this her father had taught her, from

an early age. But she’d seen some monsters in her career…she’d seen them

look her in the eye and lie through their teeth.

Was Harold Grimes a monster? Or was he a small pawn in a larger game? Scully

truly didn’t know. This one stumped her. The man’s body language, his entire

demeanor – it just didn’t add up to a monster. She glanced at Mulder again,

thinking she might get a clue from him. Mulder was staring intently into

Harold’s eyes, profiling hard. Scully could feel it…

A knock at the door distracted all three occupants of the room. The door swung

open and Terschak poked his head into the room.

“His lawyer’s here,” the veteran cop said tersely. His pale blues eyes flashed

with annoyance. “He doesn’t want us talking to his client again until he’s had

a chance to meet with him.”

Scully pushed away from the table, eager to take a break and maybe grab a cool

glass of water to soothe her increasingly sore throat. Terschak turned and

mumbled something to someone behind him. A moment later a young police officer

shouldered his way through the door to escort Harold from the interrogation

room.

Mulder stood up and stretched, trying to work the kinks out of his aching

muscles. “This could take awhile,” he said. He shared a look of frustration

with Scully.

“Come on,” Terschak rumbled. “I’ll buy you both a cup of coffee.”

***********

Harold Grimes was led into a small room and pushed unceremoniously into a hard

plastic chair.

“Wait here,” the young cop said. “Your lawyer’ll be with you in a minute.”

Harold clasped his shaking hands together on top of the formica counter and

stared through the plexiglas divider at the door on the other side of the room.

Lawyer? He didn’t have a lawyer. Some of the panic that had been threatening

to overwhelm him receded when he saw the man who strode through the door. His

chin wobbled as fresh tears filled his eyes.

Oh, sir! I couldn’t imagine who… Thank God it’s you.” His eyes latched

gratefully onto the controlled face of the young man who stared at him through

the thick plexiglas>. “You won’t believe what they’re accusing me of. The

children – my sweet little boys and girls -” He swallowed a lump of fresh tears

clogging his throat and looked with pathetic hopefulness into the face of his

visitor.

The other man pulled his chair away from the countertop with his foot and sat

down, resting his hands in his lap, careful not to touch anything and leave

behind fingerprints. The handsome face rearranged itself from irritation to

warm friendliness as soon as he met Harold’s watery eyes.

“Harold,” he said. His voice was low and soothing and Harold felt himself relax

under its rhythmic quality. “We need to talk.”

****************

For Mulder and Scully the wait seemed interminable. Scully winced visibly as

she sipped from a bottle of water, her throat protesting even the slip of the

cold liquid past its inflamed tissues. Mulder leaned his head against the back

of the chair he was sitting in and indulged himself in a fantasy of curling up

between cool sheets and sleeping for the next forty-eight hours or until the

worst of the symptoms had passed. Damn, worthless flu shot…

They both looked up when Terschak walked back into his office. “You two look

like hell,” he said, not unkindly. Scully grimaced and straightened in her

chair. Mulder continued to loll about indolently, too tired to force his

muscles into some semblance of dignity unless he absolutely had to.

“Well, I’ve got good news for you,” the captain said. He leaned his hips

against his desk. “You’re not gonna believe this, but Grimes is back in the

interrogation room.” He crossed his arms over his chest. “He wants to talk to

both of you – says he wants to confess.”

Mulder sat up, startled by the older cop’s words. “You’re kidding me, right?”

he croaked hoarsely. Scully was sitting on the edge of her chair, looking every

bit as stunned as her partner by this turn of events.

“Nope.” Terschak’s face reflected his own incredulity. “He’s waiting for you

right now.” Mulder and Scully scrambled to their feet and followed Terschak from

his office. They walked down the long hallway toward the interrogation room and

paused outside for a moment to watch their prisoner through the mirror. Harold

Grimes was pacing around the room, muttering to himself. Each lap around the

room, brought him past the stack of files and papers that Mulder and Scully had

left lying on the table when their interrogation had been interrupted. He

paused and his eyes swept feverishly over the papers where the names of his

beloved children leapt from the pages and burned themselves into his mind’s eye.

“Ready?” Terschak asked. The federal agents nodded and he stepped aside to

allow them to enter the room. Scully twisted the lock on the door and pulled it

open. Just as she stepped into the doorway, Mulder burst into a violent bout of

coughing. He bent forward as the painful spasms tore through his chest. Scully

turned back to her partner, a look of concern crossing her face. Caught off-

guard, she gasped as Harold yanked her into the room. Scully kicked back with

one foot and Harold howled in pain as the thick heel of her boot caught him

square in the shin.

Scully was stunned by the strength and speed with which this formerly pathetic

creature moved. He threw his not inconsiderable weight at her, pinning her

against the door and driving the breath from her lungs. She was dimly aware of

Mulder’s frantic shouts as her head rapped smartly against the steel door. A

second later the door flew open under the combined weights of Mulder’s and

Terschak’s bodies and she and Grimes stumbled away from the door.

Mulder sprang into the room with Terschak and his officers close behind. His

hand swept up, his forefinger caressing the trigger of his weapon…and he

froze at the sight that met his stunned eyes. How had everything gone to hell

in only a few seconds, he wondered dazedly?

Harold Grimes had one arm hooked securely around Scully’s throat. Her small

hands clawed at his shirt as Grimes’ big arm threatened to compromise her air

supply. A thin trickle of blood ran down the side of her face. In his other

hand, Harold Grimes had her service revolver pressed against her temple.

Mulder lowered his weapon. My fault, he thought. If I had let Terschak shackle

him, this wouldn’t be happening. His eyes met Scully’s. He could see the fear

in her blue eyes, but he also saw an unshakable faith that they would figure a

way out of this. He took a calming breath, determined not to let her down.

“Harold,” he said in a soothing voice. “You wanted to talk to us, right?” He

glanced toward the table and held out one hand toward the chairs. “Let’s sit

down and talk,” he suggested. “What you’re doing…Harold…this isn’t the

answer.” He motioned behind his back with his hand and Terschak quietly ordered

his officers to lower their weapons.

Harold’s lips moved soundlessly and his arm tightened spasmodically around

Scully’s throat. She coughed and her eyes watered and Mulder leaned forward

frantically.

“Harold,” he said urgently. “You’re hurting her.”

Mulder had noticed a difference in Harold’s eyes and his expression when he had

crashed into the room. Eyes that had been so filled with passionate pleading

for understanding only an hour or so ago, had been dimmed. As if a light had gone

off – and it was such a cliché, that notion that the eyes could dim that way,

but that’s the way it seemed. His lips continued to move soundlessly and his

eyes were odd. They looked…vacant. But at Mulder’s pleading words,

Harold’s eyes flickered oddly and now his words could be heard.

“My fault. I did it. My fault. I did it.” He repeated the same five words

over and over.

“What’s your fault?” Mulder asked, not daring to pull his gaze away from

Harold’s feverish eyes to look at Scully. He needed to get into this man’s

head, needed to get him to pull that gun away from Scully…

“Harold?” Mulder called softly. “What’s your fault?” he asked again. He edged

closer to them until he stood less than two feet away.

A pained expression crossed Harold’s face. “Those children,” he whispered. “My

fault. I did it.” He grimaced and his arm fell away from Scully’s throat. He

pressed one hand against his forehead and the gun against his own temple.

Mulder grabbed at Scully and put her behind him.

“Scully, you okay?” he murmured softly. His eyes never left Grimes’ face, but

he felt her hand fall reassuringly on his back.

“Yeah,” she wheezed. “I’m fine.” Mulder nodded, vastly relieved. He turned

back to the dangerously unbalanced Grimes, and held out one hand to him.

“Harold,” Mulder said softly, “just put the gun down and we can talk about

this.” Harold shook his head and tears streamed down his cheeks.

“NO!” he shouted. “My fault. I did it. Got to make it right.” His finger

tightened on the trigger.

“Noooo!” Mulder’s cry was lost an explosion of sound and violence and shouts

from behind him. The smell of sulfur and blood filled the air as Harold’s heavy

bulk fell, the gun clattering to the floor beside him. He lay in a rapidly

expanding pool of blood and Mulder saw the light in his eyes flare briefly

before dimming forever.

Shoulders slumping with defeat, he turned to find Scully at his side, her gaze

riveted to the dead man lying at their feet. Her hand slipped into his, chilled

fingers gripping his tightly, then she shook her head in resignation and stepped

toward the open doorway, stopping only to squeeze gently at Mulder’s hand and

assure that he was following her.

****************

Two hours later they were still sitting in Terschak’s office, untouched cups of

cooling coffee resting on the desk in front of them. Terschak paced back and

forth in front of his desk and drained his third cup.

“I don’t get this. Was he playing some sort of game? Come to think of it…

were you?” He stopped and his eyes snapped over Mulder impatiently. Mulder

sighed and rubbed hands over his weary face.

“No, I wasn’t playing games. I don’t think Harold acted alone. No way. But I

can’t help but wonder if he was programmed to admit to it. I saw something

strange in his eyes.” Scully stared at her partner and nodded slowly.

“He was perspiring a lot,” she said, remembering the heat that had poured off

his body as he held her tightly against him. “It was almost as if he had a

fever,” she commented. She paused as Mulder’s idea took form in her own brain.

“You’re thinking he was under the influence the same as those children, aren’t

you. Well, it could happen…how would he know, if this was being programmed

into him? Subliminal is just that…subliminal. He’d never know.” Mulder

smiled faintly and nodded.

“Exactly. He’d never know.”

****************

UNDISCLOSED LOCATION

2:30 P.M.

NOV 8, 2002

Tooling down the highway in a sporty, red convertible, a young man threw back

his head and laughed. He reached out with one hand to tune the radio away from

the all-news station that had announced the capture and subsequent suicide of a

man from Battle Creek, Michigan who was a suspect in a number of child-related

crimes. He signaled for the exit ramp that would lead him to the airport and

the private jet that awaited his arrival. It was time to pull up stakes and

leave. But he wasn’t finished. Not yet. No…he was only just getting

started. He sighed in satisfaction.

Another challenge. How he lived for them…

**************

GEORGETOWN

7:30 P.M.

NOV 8, 2002

Scully saved the file that contained her report of their interviews not only

with Harold Grimes, but also with all of the victims and their families,

beginning with Penny Mason. She shut down her computer and set her glasses on

top of her desk. Muffling a cough behind her hand, she shuffled toward the bed

where Mulder was sprawled on top of the covers. He had been helping, calling up

details of the case with his eidetic memory for her to insert into the report,

but he’d dozed off several long minutes ago.

They had spent the night and much of the next morning in Battle Creek, wrapping

things up with Captain Terschak before they caught an early afternoon flight

back to Washington, D.C. Terschak had recommended that they both just go back

to their motel to get some rest, but Scully had longed for the comfort of their

own bed and Mulder had acquiesced to her need to go home. The flight from

Michigan to D.C. had only been made tolerable by the fact that Scully had

medicated them both with a liberal dosing of an over-the-counter medicine and

they had slept for much of the flight. Their short periods of wakeful lucidity

were spent trying to sort through and tie up the many dangling ends of the case.

The worst was the fate of the children. It was heartbreaking and Scully could

barely stand to think of it – and of course having to write up the final report

only made it linger like the most hurtful wound.

Penny Mason had been hospitalized two days ago; Jenny Kim had updated them.

Unable to handle what the poor child finally understood she’d done, the dainty

little girl had fallen apart, and had been rushed to Burlington General in a

state of collapse. Her mother and father were beside themselves with grief and

worry…

Dwayne Dobbs had also been institutionalized. He’d withdrawn into himself to

such a dangerous degree that it was feared he’d never re-surface. His aunt was

ill-equipped to deal with a mentally unstable child; she’d consented to have him

committed to the state’s only mental institution.

The other children who’d been convicted throughout the past year were still

locked into whatever verdict had been brought upon them at the time of their

individual trials. All the families’ attorneys were contesting, claiming that

these children’s innocence had been proven at the revelation of the Readin’

Rocks conspiracy. It was too soon to know what the judicial system would make

of this new evidence.

As hard as Scully tried not to dwell on it she found she just couldn’t close her

mind off to it – and Mulder had wanted to let it all go, as well – but it was

their case and they had to discuss it. On the flight home they tried to keep

the discussion to a minimum. They were both so wiped out, emotionally as

physically.

“I think we can both agree that Harold Grimes was manipulated every bit as much

as ‘his’ children were,” Mulder had said as he adjusted the tiny airplane

blanket over Scully’s shoulders. Her cheek had rested wearily against his chest

as she mulled over and lamented the lack of hard evidence. This case, like so

many others, would remain open and unsolved – an X-File for which there was no

imminent resolution.

“Someone else was masterminding the whole thing,” she said thoughtfully. “Why?”

She tipped her head back to look up into his reddened eyes. “What’s the

motivation?” Her head rose and fell on his chest as he shrugged his shoulders.

“Who knows?” Mulder stifled a yawn behind his hand. “Maybe the person behind

Readin’ Rocks is looking to create an army of malleable children.” Scully

rolled her eyes and snorted softly.

“You watch too many movies,” she complained. Deep down inside, she was

privately afraid that Mulder was right, but for so many years now, it had been

her job to make him work for it…to make him prove his theories – it was

simply second nature for her to question him.

Mulder huffed out a tired laugh, familiar with the game and their roles in it.

“Or maybe this person just wanted to see if he could get away with it.” Scully

had felt a chill travel along her spine that had nothing to do with the flu.

Neither idea was very comforting, she thought now as she shrugged out of her

chenille robe and threw it across the foot of the bed. Shivering, she hurriedly

slipped under the blankets, tugging them up to her chin.

“Mulder.” She rolled onto her side and pulled on his shoulder. “Mulder!” He

groaned and turned away from her, flopping onto his stomach. “Mulder,” she

called again. “You’re sick and you should be under the blankets,” she told him.

“Too hot,” he mumbled, flipping his pillow over and burrowing his cheek into the

cool cotton of the pillowcase. The doctor in Scully wanted to protest and make

him crawl under the covers for his own good. Selfishly, she had hoped that he

would slip under the blankets where she could snuggle up against him. She could

feel the heat radiating off him from where he lay on his side of the bed.

Chills wracked her body from head to toe and she longed to curl up with him and

soak up his body heat. But she was too tired to argue with him.

Mulder cracked open one eye and peered blearily at Scully as she burrowed under

the blankets. She looked pale and as worn out as he felt. He reached out and

clasped her chilled fingers between his own much warmer ones. Knowing that

sooner or later his body would cool down, he managed to get himself under the

covers and spoon Scully into him, back to front. She uttered a relieved sigh at

the bounty of body heat pouring into her and turned her head to press a kiss

into his chin. Her half-closed eyes met his.

“Good night,” he whispered as she blinked at him sleepily. His lips quirked up

in a weary smile when she kissed him again, then turned her face back into her

pillow. Tucking their clasped hands under her chin, she closed her eyes. A few

minutes later, Mulder joined her in a restless sleep.

****************

LIMA, PERU

11:30 A.M.

FEB 18, 2003

Eight-year-old twins, Patty and Lisette Rojas raced through their house when

they heard the mail arrive. Patty darted around the four-month-old puppy that

was nipping at their heels and got to the door seconds before her sister. She

triumphantly held a cardboard box over her head and tore down the hallway toward

the kitchen and their mother.

“Mira mama! Loque na venido en el correo para nosotros,” she panted

breathlessly. “Es el software ‘Leer es Divertido!’ (“Look Mommy! Look what

came in the mail for us. “It’s our ‘Reading Made Fun’ software!”) Lisette

caught up with her and the two girls tore the box open. Patty held the shrink-

wrapped package of software in her hands and Lisette dug through Styrofoam

packaging, squealing with delight as she withdrew an adorable stuffed tiger cub

from the box. Both girls giggled happily as the toy began to vibrate and purr

under their stroking hands…

END

48

Layers

cover

TITLE: “Layers”

INFO: Written for I Made This Productions Virtual Season 9

AUTHOR: Ten

EMAIL: kristena@ocean.com.au or kristena@netconnect.com.au

RATING: PG-13 to a Light R (adult situations not gone into in

detail)

CLASSIFICATION: X, Angst, MT, MSR

SPOILERS: “Je Souhaite”, “Sein Und Zeit/Closure”, “Biogenesis”

trilogy, “Detours”, “Zero Sum”, “Anasazi” trilogy, “Unusual

Suspects”, “Dreamland”, “Demons”, “Grotesque” and “Young at

Heart”. Also there are spoilers for past Virtual Season 9

cases, especially “Hollow Earth” by Suzanne Bickerstaffe,

Unforgettable” by XScout and “Apogee” by Brandon Ray. A cameo

appearance is made by the red negligee from Kestabrook’s “A

Christmas Peril” <G> and there is a spoiler for my VS8 story

A Burden Shared“.

SUMMARY: With his personality and life experiences, Mulder is

an incredibly complex and multi-layered man. But then a

strange form of progressive amnesia starts removing those

layers…

NOTE: The dates for various episodes were taken from the

Timeline at the Deep Background website and if a date was

unavailable, I took an educated guess while trying to fit it

in with my plotline.

ARCHIVING: IMTP has a two week exclusivity to all Virtual

Season 9 stories from the day each first appears on the

website. After that, please drop me a note if you’d like to

archive “Layers”.

DISCLAIMER: The X-Files, the episodes referred to, Mulder and

Scully and all other characters from the show belong to Chris

Carter and his team of writers, Ten Thirteen Productions and

Fox Broadcasting, and are used without permission. No

copyright infringement is intended, no profit will be gained.

Characters not recognized from the show are either mine, or

from previous VS9 stories (thanks Suzanne!).

THANKS TO: Susan and Suzanne for having the patience of saints

and for all their help. Also to Mac and Gerry, and to the VS9

crew for keeping the flame burning.

FEEDBACK: Yes, please! I like to know who’s out there in the

ether.

“Layers”

by Ten

xXx

Tuesday 1 October 2002

Mulder’s apartment

Bedroom

Scully smiled up at her reflection in the mirrored ceiling and

watched it smile back. Last night had been wonderful. And

lying here, holding and being held by Mulder, was just as

good. Her partner was still asleep, but that didn’t matter at

all.

He was well again. Whole again. And in her arms.

In his last brush with serious harm, Mulder had been injected

without his knowledge with neuroelectrical impulses from his

sister’s DNA. He experienced flashbacks of Samantha’s

abduction and experimentation from her point of view. The

flashbacks stopped as the causative drug left his system and

to Scully’s relief Mulder was able to deal with the experience

because he now knew that Sam did not blame him – she knew he

had tried to save her.

The agents had decided to ask for a few days off for a long,

long weekend. Skinner had been happy to grant the leave days,

though unaware of their intentions. “Both of you deserve some

time off that isn’t for illness or recuperation.” It was a

luxury to be lying in this morning on a weekday, together.

After doing day-trips and sightseeing on the weekend and

Monday, today was going to be a lazy one.

They had such a great time on Monday night that Mulder had

teased her he didn’t want anything for his approaching

birthday. “Apart from more of that, of course!”

Scully was pulled back to the present. Her partner was waking

up. “Morning,” she said sultrily as Mulder’s eyes focused on

her. She knew he loved it when she used that tone.

At least, he usually did. But this time Mulder stared at her.

She saw amazement. Astonishment. Shock. The panic face. “S-s-

scully?” he stammered out in disbelief.

He looked around wildly, his eyes growing bigger with

everything they were taking in. Him and her. Naked. In his

bed.

He sat up. “What are we…? Did we…?”

“Mulder, are you all right? What’s wrong?”

“You’re…” He floundered, practically nailing his gaze to her

face to avoid his eyes straying downwards. “I-I don’t remember

us going to bed…”

Scully was trying to make some sense out of this. “Well, we

did start off on the couch, so I guess you were tired by the

time we got into the bedroom.”

“No, that’s not…” He ran a hand through his hair. “How many

beers did we have? I thought we only had one each. Not enough

to -”

“Beers? Mulder, we didn’t have any alcohol last night.” The

only thing they ‘had’ was each other.

“Yeah, we did have a beer each. But I don’t feel like I have a

hangover. I guess I must be in shock or something, that we

actually…finally…” He was rambling and edging away from

her.

“Mulder, we didn’t have anything to drink last night,” Scully

stressed. Occasionally they had some wine or beers, but that

was it.

“We did. I remember one beer each at least,” he insisted.

Scully was desperately trying to figure out what was going on.

She felt his forehead. No fever. She asked, “What else do you

remember?”

“We were watching ‘Caddyshack’ and you asked me what my third

wish was.”

Scully studied his face. Even though the room was dim, she

could see that he was serious. “Third wish?”

“I used it to set Jenn free.”

“Jenn – the female genie? The jinniyah?”

He nodded.

“Oh God…” she whispered.

“I don’t know what to say…” Mulder’s voice was soft and

upset. He looked at her helplessly. “I’m sorry that I can’t

remember last night…”

Scully sat there, fear welling up in her, trying to find the

words to break to him that his ‘last night’ actually took

place two years ago.

xXx

ACT ONE:

Georgetown Hospital

Same day

No sign of head trauma. Or trauma to any part of Mulder. No

sign of a virus. Scans yielded no clues. Bloodwork clean. No

needle marks – the injection points from his last crisis and

hospitalization had healed by now. His responses and reflexes

were fine.

They were still waiting on the results of some tests, but

Mulder seemed to be all right.

Apart from the matter of a two year chunk of his memory having

vanished.

Mulder was sitting up in his hospital bed. Scully knew he was

trying not to stare at her. Look, yes, but not stare. This was

not the dim bedroom anymore – she supposed he was now picking

up little differences about her that he had not been able to

before. Perhaps a few lines on her skin or a change in the

length of her hair. Markers of time that had passed.

Though ironically those wonderful sessions they had been

having since embarking upon an intimate relationship had made

her feel a lot younger. Scully knew she glowed in the mirror

after each one.

And Mulder’s mindset was back in 2000. Before they became

lovers. So the way in which he had woken up this morning must

be reeling around and around in his brain.

Before he opened his eyes this morning, she had been lying

there, blissfully unaware. She had thought that things could

not get any more perfect. True. But they could, and had,

gotten worse.

Scully ached to touch him, but didn’t dare. She did not know

how he would react.

“Scully?”

“Yes?”

“What you were talking to the doctor about – our last case.

Something about Sam’s DNA…”

She explained what had occurred. “It could be a reason for why

you’re experiencing this amnesia. Actually, Mulder,

considering everything you and your poor brain have been

through over the years, and especially in this last year,

we’re rather spoiled for choice with possible causes. It could

be a mixture of a lot of factors too.”

At his insistence, she filled him in on the possibilities that

he couldn’t remember, and reminded him about the ones that

could be coming back to haunt them. “Don’t worry, Mulder.

We’ll find out what happened.” She took his hand and squeezed

it.

“I could even wake up tomorrow with my memory back, right? Or

you might have to hit me on the head to restore things. Sure

you’ll enjoy that.”

Scully gave him a look but he kept a straight face. She

reluctantly let go of his hand and said, “I’m just going to

talk to your doctor and phone Skinner.” Their boss was in San

Diego for a week of conferences. “I’ll be back soon, okay?”

He nodded. She resisted the urge to kiss him on the cheek.

That would be dangerous in public even if Mulder was at full

memory.

But as she was turning to go, Mulder’s voice came hesitantly

from the bed, “So… We were… We are…”

There was no doubt what he was asking about. She nodded

mutely.

“Damn. That’s something I really wouldn’t want to forget.”

She was sure he wanted to ask ‘when’, but the walls could have

ears and he was still in absorption mode. Was it their first

time? Their hundredth? Or a result of the jinniyah giving him

a free wish for helping her?

Mulder looked miserable. “I’m sorry.”

“Why?” Scully asked. “This wasn’t your fault. You didn’t ditch

me and go running off. Whoever is responsible for this –

*they* will be sorry.”

A trace of a smile and a nod. Some things had changed, but not

everything.

xXx

Next morning

Mulder woke up still ‘two bananas short of a fruit basket’, as

he put it. But he was optimistic. “If I don’t get my memory

back, I can still reconstruct it. Two years isn’t so bad.”

Though the pain of his mother’s death and of knowing Sam’s

ultimate fate was still fresh in his eyes. Scully cursed

whoever or whatever had done this to Mulder, causing him to go

through that ‘double-whammy’ of grieving again. It was

something that would always be with him, but he had lost two

years of progression and acceptance.

And a year of complete closeness with Scully.

Half of her was angry when he announced that ‘two years wasn’t

so bad’, wondering how he could just accept the loss of their

relationship.

But the other half of her countered with some undeniable

facts. They still had each other. He was still alive. They

could rebuild. It would take time though. She didn’t want to

rush him into anything too soon, no matter how much either

wanted it. This Mulder would also be finding it hard to

believe they had actually taken that step – he might have

hoped or longed for it, but at that stage of their lives, a

number of factors had prevented them.

Since medical science was drawing blanks and Mulder was

otherwise fine, the hospital saw no point in keeping him any

longer. Scully felt he should remain in for observation but

was overruled.

She decided to take him home to his apartment, hoping that the

familiar surroundings would help.

In the car, Mulder said, “I’m sorry for how I reacted when I

woke up with you yesterday. I’ve wanted to wake up like *that*

with you for… Hard to believe it’s two years in the future.”

His future. Not hers.

“I understand. It’s okay,” Scully said, trying not to think

about how much she missed his touch. Not just the oh-so-

intimate touching, but the handholds and hugs and kisses. And

how when they were alone he would not have to hide or ‘water

down’ that look in his eyes that said how much she meant to

him and how happy he was.

Now she didn’t know how to act around him and he was unsure

how to act around her. How comfortable or intimate to be with

each other? Two people at different points in their lives,

trying to find middle ground.

“I’m staying with you,” Scully announced as they walked up the

hallway to Mulder’s apartment.

His face held a mixture of emotions. “You don’t have to.”

“I want to.” Scully wondered if he realized she wasn’t just

talking about the rest of the day, but tonight too.

In the apartment, Mulder put his overnight bag down, out of

the way, and stood there, looking around. Scully tried to see

the place as he was – what differences two years had brought.

Oblivious to her scrutiny, he said, “Well, it’s definitely not

as bad as that time I found the waterbed here…” He smiled.

“Do you want a drink? Then I’ll see what I’ve got in stock and

make us something for lunch.”

“I can do that. You should rest. ”

Mulder gave a wry grin. “I’ve rested long enough. I’m sure I

got more sleep than you. Consider it a thank you.”

“All right.” He probably wanted to reestablish some normality,

a familiar pattern.

First, Mulder went to the bathroom, then returned looking

slightly stunned.

“Decor changed?” Scully asked, mentally picturing that room.

Mulder had never been big on interior design. When his

apartment had mysteriously become neat and graced with the

waterbed and mirrored ceiling back in 1998, he had sworn that

the Gunmen must be behind it.

Now he looked even more shell-shocked. “There’s been some

redecorating, yeah. Nylon stockings hanging in the shower. And

a bra over the bathtub that’s um, torn…”

“All mine.” She could tell he wanted to ask about the

condition of the bra. He hesitated. “Ask about the bra,

Mulder. Before you explode.”

“Did I do that? Am I usually that…rough?”

“Actually, you had me so excited and eager that *I* did that.”

The look on his face was priceless. Finally he managed to say,

“When you said you’d be staying I wasn’t sure if you meant

overnight – I guess I still don’t. If yes, I was wondering if

I had a spare toothbrush you could use and thought that I

could lend you a t-shirt to sleep in. A t-shirt which I would

then treasure for the rest of my life.”

Scully couldn’t help laughing. “I have a supply of things

here. Bathroom and bedroom.”

“Oh. Good.”

“And I am staying tonight. But I won’t take advantage of you.”

“Fair enough. Do you need a t-shirt or something to sleep in

though?”

Scully mentally frowned. She had just told him she kept a

supply of things here, so why would he be… Then she

realized. After waking up with her as naked as the day they

were born, he was probably wondering if that was their

standard night attire now… “I’m covered,” she replied.

“Oh.” With that cryptic comment – disappointment, relief? –

Mulder set to work in the kitchen. While they ate, he asked

questions about the last two years and she filled him in as

best and as honestly as she could. Not just about their

relationship, but the X-Files and other experiences too.

After a while, Mulder wanted to go for a jog, probably both

for the exercise and to ponder everything that he had been

told, but he must have picked up on Scully’s hesitancy. “We

could both go,” he suggested.

It was on the tip of her tongue to say ‘It’s not my favorite

form of exercise anymore’. The last year had certainly had an

effect on her innuendo gland. Instead, she said, “I’m not sure

if running would be such a good idea at the moment. How about

a walk instead?” It could bring back memories of the places

they went together. He agreed.

Mulder had come home from the hospital wearing casual clothes

and sneakers, so he didn’t need to change. He watched the

sports news on TV while Scully slipped into the bedroom to get

changed.

The bed was how they had left it yesterday morning. Rumpled

and unmade. Scully stood there, gazing at it. Not for long

though, because tears threatened to fall.

Automatically she began straightening up the sheets and

blankets, then wondered if she should change the sheets

altogether. After all, Mulder might end up sleeping in here

tonight.

They went for a long walk, but nothing triggered off Mulder’s

memory. Scully had doubted it would work, but was still

disappointed. She hid her feelings. They still had other

options.

She suggested that they visit the Gunmen, who were doing their

best to get to the bottom of their friend’s plight. The visit

turned out to be entertaining, despite the trio not being able

to provide any leads yet.

Her partner laughed so hard at one of Frohike’s jokes that he

ended up spilling his drink on his pants leg. When Mulder and

Scully returned to his apartment, he went to his bedroom to

change.

Mulder’s bedroom door was closed, but now he opened it and

looked in for the first time. His gaze was caught by the

ceiling. “I still have those mirrors up? I always thought

about removing them, but it would have been so much effort…

And a messy ceiling as a result.”

“You ended up really liking them.” Both she and Mulder had

agreed soon into their relationship that the mirrors really

‘added’ to the experience.

A slight flush appeared on his face as he realized how she

probably knew this information.

Scully turned to go back into the living room to let Mulder

change in private. But then he opened a drawer and went,

“Wow…”

“What?”

“Either in the last two years I became a cross dresser, or

these are yours.”

Scully crossed the room to find Mulder was contemplating the

drawer, which was full of her underwear and lingerie, of types

both ordinary and bedazzling. Two years ago his undergarments

had graced this space.

“You think these might be yours? They’re a little small on

you,” Scully pointed out. “I told you before that I’m

covered.”

“I’m not so sure about that if you’re wearing that red one.”

Mulder pointed to a red lacy negligee.

“I bought that for Christmas. Um, you now keep your underwear

in this drawer here.”

Her partner quickly retreated to the designated drawer and

found that it too had a number of garments in it that had

clearly been bought with fun and games in mind. Mulder then

hurried off for a shower that he definitely needed, though

Scully doubted the hot water system would get much of a

workout.

xXx

Hours were also spent going over the medical test results and

Mulder’s medical history and any X-Files that could provide

leads to his condition. Finally, bedtime came.

“I’ll take the couch,” Mulder said.

“No way. I’ll take the couch.”

“You won’t find it comfortable,” he warned.

I usually do when I’m curled up with you, she thought.

“You have the bed,” Mulder insisted. Then a thought struck

him. “Just might have to check how clean the sheets are…”

“We changed them a few days ago. They’re okay.”

“Oh, okay. Well…” He hesitated. He looked like he wanted to

kiss her, but didn’t dare.

She felt the same. In a way it would be easy, oh so easy, to

take him into the bedroom and show him the joys of the last

year.

But not tonight. It would not be fair to either of them. Not

yet.

They were exchanging awkward ‘Good night’s when they met each

other’s gaze and then started laughing at the situation. The

tension eased and both headed to their respective beds.

Scully curled up in the sheets, inhaling Mulder’s scent, lost

in vivid memories. Her reflection was just visible in the

mirrored tiles. One body where there should have been two. She

could hear that Mulder had the TV on. In the last year, often

the only ‘white noise’ he had needed of a night was that of

her breathing and heartbeat.

Was it better to be the one left with the memories or the one

who had lost the memories?

I still have Mulder. What about that woman in the paper last

week – her husband went off to work and was killed in a car

accident. Never to come back. Our Christmas Day could have

easily ended up like that.

She shuddered at the memory, then reminded herself of the

happy ending and focused on trying to sleep instead.

Before going to their separate beds, Scully had asked Mulder,

“How are you feeling?”

“No memory of the last two years, but it could be worse.”

It could be, and next morning it proved to be.

Scully padded out of the bedroom into the living room as

Mulder was stirring. He opened his eyes and although they were

unfocused, she could see a great sadness in them.

Then he noticed her and sat up, startled. “Scully, what are

you doing here? Are you all right?” He saw the overnight bag

on the floor nearby – neither of them had gotten around to

putting it away last night. “Sorry … I didn’t hear you

knock. Did you want me to take you to the hospital after all?

I can be ready in ten.”

Scully stared at him. What was he talking about? He knew

perfectly well that it was *his* overnight bag. She had bought

it for him as a gift in 1998. “To take *me* to the hospital?”

she asked in confusion. “Me? Why?”

“For the tests.” The sadness in his eyes was different from

that of the last two days. But recognition of it came

nonetheless, as Mulder continued reluctantly, “The tests your

oncologist wanted to perform.”

“For my cancer?” Scully was amazed that her voice did not

shake.

“Yeah…” Mulder looked like he wanted nothing more than to

come over and hold her, but the only thing he was holding was

himself – in check – as if afraid she would rebuff the

gesture. And she saw the effort it was taking. An effort she

had often missed because during that dark period of their

lives when she was sick, she had often been afraid to keep his

gaze for very long. She had felt too vulnerable. “Scully, are

you all right?”

She could not help the tears from falling. Not again. It could

NOT be happening again. Wait – she could be wrong. With Mulder

thinking this was 2000, he could simply have gotten confused

about when her next check-up was, and not realized it was a

few more months away.

“Mulder, what day do you think it is?”

“Scully?”

“Humor me, please. What date do you think it is?”

Still half-asleep and rattled by her behavior, Mulder fumbled

for the answer. “April 1997. The twenty… Um… Something-

th…”

She said softly, “Yes, a trip to the hospital would be a good

idea.” But not for the reasons he thought.

xXx

ACT TWO:

“So, you don’t have cancer anymore? You’re in remission? Have

been for ages?” Mulder had asked that several times. It was as

if he wanted to believe her affirmative reply, but kept

worrying he had misheard.

“Yes. No more cancer. You saved me. I’ll tell you all about it

when we’re at the hospital.”

His own condition was more of an afterthought to him in his

relief and happiness. “I forgot two years of my life and now

I’ve lost another three? It’s actually 2002?”

While on the way down to Scully’s car, Mulder caught his

reflection in one of the polished elevator walls. The

carnival-mirror exaggeration effect probably didn’t give him

any startling clues to the years that had passed – and Mulder

had always looked young for his age – but it was clear he had

serious bed hair. Scully had insisted they head for the

hospital right away as she threw on some clothes and shoes, so

there had been no chance for grooming. So in the elevator

Mulder made an attempt at finger combing, frowning a little.

Scully tried to remember how he had his hair in 1997. Was he

thinking it was shorter or longer now?

He did his best and parted the hair that fell onto his

forehead in the middle, so that it now hung as bangs. Of

course.

But, apart from that, he was far more interested in looking at

her. She surmised that when he woke up and saw her there, he

had been too dazed to take in much about her actual

appearance, just her presence.

“I look a lot older, right?” Scully said.

“You look healthy.”

She thought that the last few days of worry had probably not

done her any favors, but her complexion had always been on the

pale side.

“You don’t look as thin and gaunt,” Mulder continued in

amazement. “Your hair’s…brighter. Perhaps you’re a clone. I

don’t think so. I hope not anyway.”

In the car she asked him to clarify what tests she had been

going to have at the hospital.

His voice was matter of fact, though she could sense the

undercurrents. “Your oncologist was worried that your tumor

was growing larger, so he wanted you in the hospital for

tests. I wanted to take you to the hospital, but you insisted

you’d get there by yourself.”

Scully had been about to turn the key in the ignition. She

stopped and faced him. “I really wanted to let you. I should

have. I was just so scared. And at that time, instead of

opening up to you, I held back. I wanted to be in control and

independent. It wasn’t until later that I could admit that

being so entrenched in that attitude wasn’t worth it. Not in a

situation like that.”

Mulder stared at her in shock. Here was a Scully that was not

only cured, but also far more open than he was used to.

xXx

Georgetown Hospital

Mulder seemed in good health, but Scully couldn’t help asking,

“How are you feeling?”

“It could be worse. At least I’m the one in the hospital bed

instead of you.”

“I’d change places with you in a second if it meant that you

would be okay.”

“I know.” He paused, then asked, “Did I have a stroke? Or do I

have a brain tumor?” His manner appeared calm, but Scully knew

otherwise.

“No. There’s no evidence of stroke or a tumor,” she replied.

“Is it Alzheimer’s disease?”

“No. The tests have come back negative for that. And you’re

not experiencing the sorts of degeneration that accompany it.

Physically you’re in good health. Everything appears fine

mentally.”

“Though it isn’t. There must be something, something that the

instruments and tests just can’t pick up or don’t recognize,”

Mulder said.

“We’ll keep looking. The only aspect about you that is going

backwards is your memory.”

“Onion amnesia. I keep losing layers,” he joked. “You once

told me that I kept unfolding like a flower.”

She had phoned Skinner. He said he would leave San Diego

immediately and return to Washington. Scully convinced him to

stay where he was. As much as she appreciated the gesture,

there was nothing he could do.

And when Skinner heard about the point Mulder had regressed

to, there had been silence. Scully was not surprised. Mulder

was back at a time when Skinner had been firmly in Cancerman’s

grip.

Scully was pulled back to the present by Mulder shifting

around in the hospital bed. There were EEG wires attached to

his head. The setting up of the equipment had just been

completed. Scully and the doctors wanted a reading when and if

Mulder experienced another memory loss. And to make sure his

brain was operating the way it should be in the meantime.

“Scully, do you have any idea what might be causing these

‘setbacks’?” Mulder asked.

She explained that there was a long list of suspects –

incidents as well as people. “I’m going over your test results

and medical records, and I’ve got the Gunmen digging too. Any

clues, and we’ll find them. There are some X-File cases that I

want to go back over. Also, and it may be too early yet to be

anything more than a coincidence, there is one thing,” Scully

said. “Both times that you have regressed, it is to a date

that is the 27th. The month and year varies, so far without a

pattern that I can pick up. The significance of the 27th,

however, could be…”

“That it was the day that Sam was abducted. November 1973.”

“Exactly. So it could tie in with some strange side effect of

a drug you were given last month. It was giving you flashbacks

of the night of your sister’s abduction, but through her

eyes.” She opened her mouth to tell him more about that case,

expecting more questions.

He didn’t jump on the ‘hows’ straight away though. “You think

it could be sending me back towards that night? Back to twelve

years old…”

Or even eight years old, Scully thought, since he had

experienced Sam’s memories after being injected. “Perhaps.”

Mulder sighed. “I was a cute kid, Scully, but I really don’t

want you to find out in this way. Perhaps this is someone’s

twisted idea of giving me back my lost childhood. The

Consortium might have watched that Tom Hanks movie – what was

it called? ‘Big’?” Then he started asking the questions she

was expecting. “How could I experience the abduction from

Sam’s point of view? How did I get injected with the drug?”

She opened her mouth to explain but found herself hesitating.

Mulder seemed so relieved about her health that before now he

hadn’t asked about his mother or sister or other questions

that could bring upsetting answers and so much pain. The fact

that his quest to find his sister had ended as it did… The

2000 Mulder had a hard enough time dealing with the knowledge.

How would the 1997 Mulder react at this point of his life?

The hospital’s tests had so far shown no link between the drug

that he had been given last month and his progressive amnesia.

But should she lie to Mulder about it or withhold the

information?

If she withheld it, someone else might slip up. Or she could

be holding back a piece of the puzzle that Mulder might need

to be able to put things together. He was still a brilliant

investigator – he could be the one to work out the reason for

his own affliction.

At the very least, he would sense if she were holding

something back. Although since he was entrenched in their

‘Cancer time’, he was probably expecting such behavior and

would be less likely to call her on it.

Scully took a deep breath and opened her mouth again, but then

a nurse appeared with some folders. “These are the medical

files you requested, Agent Scully.”

“Thanks, Bette.” Scully added them to her pile.

Mulder looked at the folders. “Are they all mine?”

“Yes.” She selected a file, worry about the ‘Sam talk’

momentarily forgotten. “This is the one I wanted to have a

read through first.”

“Which is it?”

“When you became an X-File, Mulder. Back in 1999.” She

explained about the UFO in Africa and what it had set off. The

memories were painful for her to recall. And Mulder with his

crown of EEG leads was also reminding her of that time, though

at least this Mulder was not comatose. “When you were exposed

to the rubbing from the artifact, your brain – your *whole*

brain – was engaged. It opened up entirely. This is the

reverse, in a sense. Now it’s closing down – the memory area,

that is.”

He started questioning her about the case. Instead of

answering, Scully first addressed the fear that he was doing

his best to hide.

“We got through the cancer, Mulder. Together, even though

sometimes it didn’t seem like it. We’ve gotten through a lot

of things. We’ll get through this.”

He nodded. He believed her.

Then they went back to their work, with the hospital room

standing in as their office (with occasional interruptions

from hospital staff), going over that case and its sequel in

the space station. Mulder was amazed. “I got into outer

space?”

“Yes.” Her partner had always been a space fan, absorbed with

the exploits of astronauts in childhood even before his

interest in the paranormal.

“I always thought that the odds of me going into outer space

were the same as us…” He stopped and went red.

As us getting together.

Scully realized that this Mulder had even less an idea that

they were an item than the 1997 Mulder did.

Again – to tell or not?

Mulder caught a look at the time on her watch as she sat

there. Immediately he forgot about the awkward blip in their

conversation. “Scully, you need to rest. You can’t go running

yourself into the ground like this! Not in your condition…”

Again Mulder halted. He gave a sheepish grin. She recalled all

the ways that Mulder had cared or tried to care for her during

her illness. Often subtle by sheer necessity. He shrugged and

said, “This is going to take some getting used to. But

seriously, cancer or no cancer, you should have a break.”

“I will. Soon. There is a lot for us to talk about though. A

lot has happened.”

“I can imagine.”

Her look told him there was even more than he would dare

imagine…

“Fill me in. Starting with these memories of Sam’s.”

xXx

The ‘filling in’ had been one of the hardest conversations

they had shared in their life.

Mulder took the news about his mother fairly stoically. Scully

decided that could be due to a mix of things. More of a

reaction could hit later. To him, it had also not been long

since she had suffered a stroke and he had been braced for her

death. And to him it was also not very long ago that he had

gotten holes drilled in his head and demanded answers from his

mother about her relationship with the Cigarette Smoking Man.

That had created a rift it took a while to heal.

Sam’s fate caused him to curl up in Scully’s arms, crying. She

and one of his doctors ended up giving him a sedative. Scully

wondered if the Paper Hearts case – again, a recent case to

Mulder’s mind – had affected his reaction. And also her own

condition.

Because just before he let the sedative take him under, Mulder

had whispered, “You’re okay…” and it had sounded more like a

mantra than a comment.

xXx

When Mulder woke up he was more composed but the sadness was

back in his eyes. He took a deep breath and Scully had an

image of him shutting a few doors in his mind, in a ‘too

painful, will deal with later’ gesture.

He looked at all the files and notebooks she had spread out.

He reached for her hand. “Back to work.”

xXx

More tests. More waiting. Mulder even talked Scully into

finding a hypnotherapist to come see him. “There’s hypno-

regression therapy, where you go back into your past. Let’s

see if a therapist can do that with my missing years, even

though to me, it feels like my future…”

It didn’t work. The Gunmen found another hypnotherapist, but

the same story. There seemed to be a ‘block’ in Mulder’s mind.

Scully went back over previous X-Files that could be connected

to Mulder’s plight. Often the scientists or people involved

were already dead or had disappeared. Research and equipment

gone or destroyed…or experiments unable to be replicated.

Mulder had pitched the idea that if he had been injected with

Sam’s memories in the last case, then his own memories should

be ‘gathered’ now, so that if he lost ground again he could be

re-injected and brought ‘back up to’ 1997.

Scully had to reject that idea. It only worked with certain

strong memories; it was not a total recall. And it would need

triggers to keep setting them off. While Mulder had the drug

in his system, bright lights had triggered the flashbacks to

Sam’s abduction and the experimentation on her – but the

memories and feelings were overwhelming, incapacitating even.

Scully still went over the case carefully and consulted with

the surviving researcher, but they ended up at a loss.

xXx

It was morning. Another 48 hours was up. Scully was sitting by

Mulder’s bedside, watching him sleep. They had tried

everything they could think of in the timeframe, to no avail.

Now all she could do was wait while continuing to think the

problem through and see what reality he woke up in. She had

kept the lights in the room dim, not wanting any significant

changes in her appearance to hit him in the moments he woke

up.

A few minutes ago the EEG had shown a change in the frequency

of Mulder’s brain activity, before going back to normal. Mu

rhythms only happened in sleep, but the chart had displayed a

lot more of them, as well as the usual delta sleep activity.

His breathing and heart rate did not alter – nothing to bring

the staff racing into the room.

When Mulder had been afflicted by the rubbing from the African

UFO, Scully researched extensively about the brain, trying to

find answers and a solution. And she had kept up with that

field since, just in case. While the appearance of a greater

than usual number of runs of mu activity was not the dramatic

breakthrough she was hoping for, it was

the only thing that was unusual. The trouble was, no one knew

for sure

what mu rhythms represented…

When Mulder did wake up, he was confused. “Why am I here?

What’s this for?”

Scully grabbed at his hand – he was about to yank one of the

EEG leads off. “Mulder, it’s okay! I’ll explain. You’re in the

hospital for observation.”

“For what? I’m fine. I’m not sick anymore – I’ve been running

around West Virginia!” Then his tone went from impatient to

concerned before she could get a word in. “And whatever’s

going on, your mom needs you more right now.”

“She does?”

Her tone took him by surprise. “Oh no, she’s not blaming you,

is she? If Melissa’s death is anyone’s fault, it’s mine.”

Scully had to remember to breathe. Mulder was peering at her

worriedly through the gloom, his forehead furrowed, trying to

judge her emotional state and also most likely puzzled about

the change in her hairstyle, but not game to ask such a

trivial question as ‘When did you get a haircut?’ at a time

like this.

She asked him what day he thought it was.

27 April 1995.

The day after Melissa’s death.

Gently Scully told him he was experiencing amnesia and what

the real date was.

He stared at her, clearly worried that grief had affected her

mind. “You’re kidding me.”

She boosted the lights. Mulder looked at her. Scully knew he

was trying to rationalize any changes he was seeing to be a

result of her grief.

She looked around, seeking a mirror, then realized there was a

quicker way. “Mulder, take a look at your shoulder. The

shoulder that I put a bullet through. Check out the scar.”

“It’s not a scar just yet, Scully. It only happened about

thirteen or so days ago. But actually, my shoulder isn’t

hurting…” Puzzled and curious, he lifted the collar of his

hospital gown to take a look and was suitably stunned. “It’s

healed. It’s still there, but it’s so faint. Like…”

“Like years have passed.”

His next question came swiftly. “Was I abducted?”

“No. Not you physically. Just your memory.”

And so the next hours brought more tests and questions – or

rather mostly the same tests and questions repeated, like:

“So, after all this study, is there any sort of pattern to my

brain deciding to go retro, apart from the fact it seems to

happen every 48 hours or so?”

The doctors and specialists studied Mulder’s EEG and confirmed

what Scully had thought. No one could tell what it might mean,

even experts from outside D.C. that she contacted.

Nor could they come up with a reason or factor as to why the

regression was happening at those intervals.

And once again there was the task of Mulder and Scully

adjusting to each other from their different ‘vantage points’

or time periods. This Mulder was dealing with Melissa’s death,

his father’s death, his own near death, the fact that his

water had been drugged, the fact that his father had been

involved in some way with Cancerman and his cronies…

Mulder’s discovery of Sam’s file in that gigantic storage

system and that it had his name on the label underneath Sam’s

name.

Her partner seemed poised for Scully to be grieving or for

blame to come his way about Melissa, despite being reassured

otherwise. When told that Maggie Scully was coming to visit

him and in fact that a bunch of flowers was from her, Mulder

was stunned.

xXx

At the end of the next 48 hour period, the EEG repeated the

characteristic rhythm, but Mulder kept sleeping. Whatever year

he had dropped to, he wasn’t sharing it so quickly this time.

Scully sat and waited. And waited.

All the readouts were normal – Mulder was just sleeping in,

unaware. She was tempted to wake him, but things were going to

be hard enough when he woke. She could handle few more hours

of blissful ignorance.

She could, but her bladder couldn’t. Skinner had come back

from San Diego by this stage and had dropped by to visit. He

took up position by his agent’s bed while Scully hurried to

the bathroom attached to the room.

She had finished and was splashing water on her tired face

when the chaos started.

“I can’t be lying in a hospital bed while Scully’s missing! I

have to be out looking for her!”

“Mulder, she’s here! She’s fine! Scully!”

She raced back into the room. Mulder was half out of bed and

half out of some attachments, grim-faced, fighting against

Skinner’s hold. His focus was on his boss. “Let me GO!” he

yelled with a fury and determination that rocked Scully.

“Mulder!”

Instantly Mulder stopped struggling and turned. “Oh God…

Scully?” His eyes darted to Skinner as if to confirm that this

was not a hallucination.

“It’s me, Mulder. I’m here.” Scully hurried over to the bed

before Mulder could try to make a leap over to her. Skinner

let go and stepped back.

Her partner was staring at her like she was an angel come to

earth.

And like most of those angels, she had a message to impart.

But not just yet.

xXx

Several hours later, events had been explained and

possibilities were being gone over, many for about the tenth

time. Reeling from the news, Mulder was doing his best to

cope.

“I don’t want to forget you, Scully. That would be death.”

This from Mulder – a Mulder who was from a time well before

they had admitted and acted on their feelings. Though he was

from a time where his emotions were close to the surface, even

if they were unnamed.

He did know now that they were lovers in his future.

“When you forget me, you won’t even know,” Scully found

herself saying.

“I’ll know that something is missing. Though I probably won’t

be able to believe that I’ve found my soulmate. That I could

love and be loved. But you… You’d be the one *to* know.

Though perhaps that’s for the best. Then you would be free of

me and I don’t want you staying out of obligation to -”

Dana Scully reached her boiling point. She nearly decked him.

She did yell at him. “After all these years I thought we got

the whole ‘You’d be better off without me’ spiel out of your

system! Especially after Christmas! And -” She stopped and

sighed. “Of course you don’t remember any of that.”

At Mulder’s stricken look, she moved towards him. “It’s okay.”

She embraced her partner. “I’m sorry, I forgot.”

“That should be my line…”

His expression was still somewhat shell-shocked, both because

of her outburst and because of this unexpected and rare – to

him – display of such affection from his partner.

She felt Mulder stiffen slightly as her arms went around him,

then his arms slipped around her. His hold was tentative, like

a man freed from a dungeon finally stepping into the light,

wanting it, but tensed that the contact might burn him alive.

She imagined that there was also probably a residue of worry

along the lines of: ‘She’s just back from her abduction – I’ll

hurt her’ in there.

xXx

She kept remembering two things in particular that he had said

during two separate, difficult, times of their lives.

“I believe that what we’re looking for is in the X-Files and

I’m more certain than ever that the truth is in there.”

and:

“I think that the truth will save you, Scully. I think it will

save us both.”

Something in the X-Files…

Looking for a cause or trigger was proving futile – too

inconclusive. But looking for a cure…

They could be two separate things.

The first idea that had sprung into her mind days ago was the

African UFO – the artifact with its pieces and the rubbings.

Even if that whole ordeal was not the cause of Mulder’s

current affliction, if a simple rubbing of a piece of it had

been enough to expand Mulder’s mind back then, what if they

could locate one of those pieces now?

A rubbing that had been in the case file produced no effect

when given to him at intervals over several days.

There was another possibility – one she had kept to herself

and on hold because of the logistics and distance to travel.

And in the hope that science and logic would have come through

for her and Mulder by now.

But they had not, and her mind turned to an alternative that

was definitely ‘out there’.

xXx

ACT THREE:

Mulder had regressed again. Scully had feared that this jump

might send him to a time before he knew her, however he ended

up in 1993. His mindset was that he was still on the case

where they had met Max Fenig.

She had lost some ground and time herself too – stress and

overwork had caused her to pass out and a doctor had sedated

her so she would get some rest. She was not a happy camper

when she awoke.

The irony was that she had passed out before she could do

anything about her ‘extreme possibility’. Now she was no

longer in a hospital bed herself, but would have to wait until

that night to get her plan rolling. At least the enforced stay

in bed before the staff would let her up had given her time to

plot and go over things.

She had to act now, before her partner regressed again, this

time probably to a point where he couldn’t remember her.

Mulder was awake, staring at the wall. He turned when she

said, “Hey.”

“Hey.” He smiled at her. “Are you all right?”

“Yeah.”

“What time is it?”

“After midnight.”

He blinked and said, “Midnight? What’s up? You should be -”

“I’ve come up with something – someone – who may be able to

help us. But we’ve got some traveling to do to get there.”

“Who? Where?”

“I’ll explain on the way. In another 30 or so hours, you’re

going to lose more of your memory, and chances are that…”

“I won’t be able to remember you,” Mulder finished bleakly.

“So I’d prefer that not to happen in mid-transit. It could

make life difficult. I’d prefer it not to happen at all. If we

go now there should be plenty of time to reach our destination

and find your friend.”

“My…?” Mulder curbed his questions, with an effort, she

could tell.

“You’re going to have to sign out against medical advice.”

He shrugged. “I’ll still have my primary physician with me.

Are we going to tell anyone where we’re going? The guys?”

Earlier he had been surprised that Scully knew the Gunmen.

After all, in his mind, he hadn’t actually introduced her to

them yet. She had made up a little photo album of pictures to

show him of various people, more proof of time passing for

when he ‘jumped’, and he was amazed at a picture of her with

the Gunmen, Frohike making sure his arm was around her. “What

about Skinner? Can we tell him?”

“We can’t, not specifically. I’ll leave Skinner an email at

his work addy from my hotmail account. Then he shouldn’t read

it until sometime in the morning. I’ll use a code we worked

out once for times like this, so he knows it’s genuine.”

“He’ll be thrilled…”

Scully imagined Skinner’s reaction. He would have to wonder

whether it really was her who checked Mulder out. At least the

hospital’s security cameras would not have their lenses spray-

painted over, not that it would be much reassurance.

But this had to be done. And now.

Mulder asked, “What about your parents? Or will this be a

short trip and they won’t have time to worry?”

“I’ll send my mother a hotmail message too, telling her I’ll

be away this week. Um…my father died soon after Christmas in

1993.”

“I’m sorry…” He already knew the fates of his own parents.

Once out in the car, Scully debated about turning her cell

phone off or not. She didn’t want their location to be traced,

but at the same time, if the Gunmen or Skinner or anyone came

up with information on Mulder’s condition… Finally, she

turned it off.

Mulder ran a hand through his hair, partly, she suspected, to

smother a yawn. But she could not tell for sure, only catching

a glimpse in her peripheral vision.

“So, care to fill me in?” he asked.

“We’ve got a red-eye flight to catch.”

“Where to?”

She hesitated.

“You think the car is bugged?”

“It could be, but then again we could just as easily be

followed or traced by many different means.” She thought of

the chip in her neck. And even though she was going to book

their tickets under false names and with cash, if someone was

looking for them, she and Mulder would probably be easily

noticed at the airport even if they tried to alter their

appearances. Airports would be one of the first places to

look. But Skinner would have no reason to realize anything was

up yet. And to get to California quickly, driving was

definitely out. “No one may be bothering. It’s impossible to

tell.” She would keep an eye out for a tail anyway. “I’d

prefer not to tell you our final destination. Not yet.”

He frowned, then laughed. “I’m getting a taste of my own

medicine. All those times I hauled you off to mysterious

locations and cases at a few minutes’ notice. So I guess I can

roll with this one. But is there anything you *can* tell me?”

“We’re going to see someone you met once.”

“In which of my pasts? The past that I actually can remember

or -”

“The past you can’t remember. ”

Mulder was less successful at disguising his next yawn – it

cut off the start of his next question.

“Get some sleep,” Scully told him. “A quick stop to get some

things we need, then on to the airport. We’ll be on the flight

soon enough.”

His head was back against the seat. “But I want to know… And

I doubt we’re going to discuss it on the plane…” A few

seconds later he was asleep, his body overriding even his

rampant curiosity.

The fear went through Scully that he would wake up and not

recognize her, even though another lapse was not ‘due’ yet.

She stopped briefly at her apartment to do things like sending

short emails and grabbing a store of cash she kept. She had

already gone to Mulder’s apartment before midnight to grab

suitable clothing for him. At the airport, when Mulder saw the

tickets she purchased with the cash, he said, “California,

huh? Don’t suppose you packed my Speedos?”

At San Francisco they changed flights for Redding. Scully knew

that Mulder wanted answers but he was so tired he spent most

of the travel time asleep or dozing. She took the opportunity

to catch up on sleep herself, knowing that she probably

wouldn’t get any the next night. The payoff she was hoping for

would more than make up for the exhaustion.

When they changed into a rental car at Redding and loaded in

the camping gear and supplies she had ordered, she knew it was

time for explanations.

Mulder thought so too. “Are we nearly there?”

“This is the final leg of the trip. It’s a little remote.

We’re going to the town of Manzanita Lake. Or rather the

Lassen Peak Volcanic National Park, which is near it.” She

waited to see if this sparked any flicker of memory in her

partner, but he shook his head. An irrational hope remained in

her that when they got there, everything would come flooding

back.

“Okay, I know the where. But NOW will you tell me *why* we’re

here?”

“We came here several months ago on a case.”

“So why didn’t you let me read the case file on the plane?

Were you worried someone would read it over my shoulder?”

“There isn’t a report on it. Well, not of what really

happened.” At his raised eyebrows, she continued. “Skinner

gave us a case regarding some less than upstanding residents

who had gone missing from a town in Kentucky. A town that

proclaimed itself the home of Bigfoot. There had been

sightings of a large man-like creature that glowed. Even the

sheriff claimed to have seen it.”

“So why aren’t we in Kentucky?”

“Because then unpopular people disappeared from Manzanita Lake

and it also coincided with similar sightings. We came here and

stayed at the police captain’s cabin, near one of the

sightings. That night, you saw a tall glowing man and raced

after him. All you got was a sprained ankle. Yes, in that way

you’re still a klutz after all these years.”

Mulder gave her the wounded puppy dog look, which also had not

changed over time.

“Then Skinner called and told us that one of the missing men

in Kentucky had been returned. Not only that, but with a

complete attitude adjustment. I went back to Kentucky to

interview him – Purdy. He swore he had seen the error of his

ways and would do his best to be an upstanding citizen.”

“Because?”

“Because a ten foot tall glowing man in a toga had taken him

and his friend to a world beneath the earth. An amazing and

advanced place where their host said they would remain until

they learned the error of their ways.”

“Hearing a theory like this coming from you, Scully, I gotta

admit…” He trailed off with a grin.

“That it’s a turn on?” she asked.

He shrugged, almost apologetically.

“Anyway, you remained at the cabin near Manzanita Lake. And

you got to have a close encounter. One of those giant men came

to you and healed your ankle by touch.”

“So you think he could do the same to my mind? My memory?”

“I don’t know for sure. I hope so. The mind is a much more

complex and complicated thing than an ankle, but Purdy

underwent such a radical personality transformation… Last I

heard, he really was making good on his new leaf, and his

missing friend had also reappeared and seemed determined to do

the same. Another man from there still has not been returned,

to my knowledge anyway, but Purdy said he was a much harder

case. And one of the men from Manzanita Lake was returned a

month or so ago. He also seemed ‘rewired’, for the better.”

“So I got to meet ‘Bigfoot’ and all I got was a lousy healed

ankle?”

Scully said, “Not quite. You told me the giant man – Lathos,

his name was – communicated by telepathy. He took you to his

world and explained that his people, the Agarthans, were

trying an experiment. They were seeing if it was possible to

change the destructive habits of humans. To enlighten the scum

of the earth, then work their way up. By doing so they could

help the planet, which in turn would mean their world would be

less threatened.”

“Did they come from outer space originally? Are they aliens?”

“I don’t know. But what happens to our world affects them.

Lathos was worried they would be discovered, since the

sightings were attracting a lot of attention. He could sense

that you were a believer, so sought you out to explain. You

came back with your ankle healed and also looking like you’d

spent weeks at a health farm, and we cooked up a report that

would keep Lathos and his secret, his world, safe.”

“So you didn’t get to see that world, or him? Geez, THAT

hasn’t changed.”

“I didn’t get to see ‘Hollow Earth’, like a lot of theories

have described it. I almost got to meet Lathos – I just got a

faint glimpse – but I was so exhausted and just waking up

under a tree, so I guess the two of you decided that your

reappearance, alive and well, would be enough for me to deal

with. Though I could have done with a zap of that healing

energy.”

“What were you doing asleep under a tree?”

“I was out in the forest, looking for you. Purdy had said that

these beings were telepathic, so I went and sat and hoped one

of them could ‘hear’ me and bring you back to me.”

“But, you don’t believe… Well, ‘my’ Scully doesn’t.

Didn’t’…”

“Things changed over the years. And I believe in it enough to

take you back there. It’s our best shot. You said at the time

that we should come back here one day, and that if we hung

around long enough in that area, Lathos should be able to

sense our presence and come for us. There’s no way we could

find the place by ourselves.”

“But what if I regress before he comes?”

“Then I had better do some very quick talking and hope you’re

in a receptive frame of mind. It’s an isolated spot, so you

can’t exactly go to a payphone and call the police on me.

There’s my cellphone, but it might not work in the woods

themselves. The cabin was in a clear spot. And the Agarthans

usually appear at night – so hopefully one of them will come

before dawn tomorrow.” But she remembered how Mulder had said

it could be a few days before their presence was felt. They

would just have to see. There were plenty of supplies anyway.

She had debated about whether to borrow the police captain’s

cabin or to camp in the forest itself. In the end she had made

sure a tent was included in the supplies and damn the cost.

The weather report was good, and she did not really want the

captain to wonder why they were back in the area. It wasn’t

like they could pretend they were on a holiday. Though Captain

Lopez had seen how she reacted when Mulder was missing, and

Lopez *had* asked her if they were more than partners.

Her partner made a ‘hmmmm’ noise. “Well, just in case I do

regress, I’d better write myself a note now. I believe in a

lot of things, so it will be interesting to see if I believe

myself…”

Scully pulled over to let Mulder rummage in the trunk for a

legal pad and pen. When they got underway again, he sat and

thought for a while. “It’s funny, trying to profile myself. To

work out what to say that will convince me.” Then he started

writing. A few minutes later he tore the page off, folded it

and put the sheet in a pocket of his coat.

“Among other things, like what the hell is going on, I told

myself that you are a very special woman and that I can trust

you. I should be able to sense that anyway…”

“You thought I was a spy at first.”

“Not for long,” he countered. “Though if I ever get to

encounter my future self – the one with you – I’d like to give

him a kick for waiting so damn long to…y’know. But I guess

it did happen eventually.”

xXx

The weather was fortunately good enough that the tent, good

sleeping bags and appropriate clothing would suffice without

the addition of a campfire or cabin. So Scully did not stop at

the combined police-and-fire station. Besides, she thought

that Lathos would be more likely to appear to them out in the

forest itself instead of the cabin.

Carrying the tent, their sleeping bags and enough supplies for

a day, the partners went to the spot where Mulder had first

met Lathos. It was not a clearing as such, however there was

more than enough room to pitch the tent.

“And now?” Mulder asked.

“We set up the tent, then settle down and wait. And

concentrate on Lathos, I guess. It might bring him to us more

quickly.” She spread out a ground sheet next to the tent,

under a tree to have a comfortable place to sit. It was the

same tree that she had spent a lonely night under before. “I

don’t think anyone will stumble across us out here. The

walking tracks and tourist areas are just far enough away.”

She hoped.

Once their camp was made, Mulder sat down beside Scully on the

ground sheet. Not close, but not a mile away either. He looked

into the tent, at their sleeping bags. “Someone told me once

that the best way to conserve warmth was to crawl naked into a

sleeping bag with someone who is already naked.”

She nodded. “You told me that.”

“When?”

“1997.”

“And did we?”

“We were stranded out in the woods on one of your monster

hunts. We were lost. We had no provisions, let alone sleeping

bags, it was night and cold and you were injured.”

His tone did not change, but his grin grew a little wider. “So

did we?”

“I just told you -”

“You said that I was injured, not that I was dead.”

He did have a point. “No, we didn’t. We weren’t lovers then.

Not in that sense. You did, however, sleep in my arms, fully

clothed.” She decided not to mention the singing. He might

expect an ‘encore’. And she did not want to risk scaring

Lathos away… “But when we were investigating the ‘Bigfoot’

sightings several months ago, you and I spent the night out in

the woods in Doob Creek, Kentucky, on a stakeout. THEN you got

lucky.”

“Hmmm, mixing business with pleasure. Hope we weren’t

caught by anyone.”

“Well, in the morning we found large footprints nearby, so one

of the Agarthans might have got an eyeful.”

Mulder looked at the two sleeping bags that were laid out in

the tent, side by side – though with a respectable gap in-

between – then at her. “I guess I’d better keep myself

‘chaste’ until my remembering night, right? Like any good

bride-to-be.”

“Yes.”

“I was afraid you’d say that.”

“As soon as you’re well again -”

“Well, there’s nothing actually physically wrong with me,” he

supplied helpfully with a grin. “But mentally… I guess if it

took us eight years to get together in that way and I’m back

at year one… Must be hard for you though. I mean, you can

remember us as lovers.”

“Difficult in ways, yes. But also glad to have those

memories.”

“I’d like to ask…about us… Feels weird though, like I’m

intruding or being nosey, yet it’s *about* you and me.”

“You can ask me about it. It’s okay. What do you want to

know?”

He hesitated, then he began asking questions. Not so much

about their physical intimacy but the other things they did

together and enjoyed together.

“I watched chick flicks with you? Geez, I must have been in

love.”

It hurt to hear him say that in the past tense, as though the

man next to her had fallen out of love with her and was

talking as though they were two exes who had met up again in

the mall one day. Mulder could not help that though. Losing

his memory was just as awful as being the one watching it

unravel, even if he could not remember the process.

Scully defended her choice of movies. “You watched them with

me. I didn’t say it wasn’t without a certain amount of

complaining and whining, though I think a lot of that was for

show because you actually did find yourself enjoying some of

them but wouldn’t dream of letting me know. Or instead of

complaining you’d do your best to distract me. And not just in

the way that you’re thinking of now. Though your arsenal of

diversionary tactics certainly increased once we did get

together. And I found some ways to get your attention when

sports were on TV.”

“Really?”

“Yeah. You didn’t mind. At least you knew that your team would

score.”

In-between their talks, they ate and spent time concentrating,

trying to summon Lathos or his friends. But eventually night

fell and steadily progressed, and there was no sign of any

sort of glow apart from the stars beyond the light of the

lamps Scully had turned on. She and Mulder were inside the

tent by this stage, sitting on their sleeping bags. The walls

of the tent had windows of clear plastic in them, so the

agents could still watch the forest as they waited.

At one point, Mulder chuckled. “It’s hard to believe that

we’re trying to summon someone that you yourself never

actually got to see, from a place you never got to go. From

what I remember, even when you saw things, you wouldn’t let

yourself believe in them. But I appreciate you doing this for

me. No one else would.”

“I would have done this for you during any of the years we’ve

been together.”

“That’s right – from what I remember of my rescue from Ellen’s

Air Base, you sure hauled me out of the fire. Not many people

were willing to take hostages for me… Though by the sounds

of all you’ve lost along the way…”

She spent some time reassuring him, then said, “Lie down and

get some sleep.”

“But when I wake up, I might not be able to remember you.”

“We tried keeping you awake but whatever happens still

happens. You’re exhausted. If you don’t remember me in the

morning, then you’ll be easier to reason with if you’ve had

some sleep.”

Mulder said, “I’m always easy to reason with! Though you

haven’t gotten any sleep either. How are you going to reason

with me when you’re… What am I saying? No matter what the

circumstances, you’ll be the voice of logic and reason.”

“Lathos should be here soon anyway.”

Mulder nodded. He went to speak, but either he could not find

anything to say, or the words he wanted would not come out. He

leaned across and kissed her on the lips. They clung that way

for a minute, then reluctantly he settled down in his sleeping

bag, on his side, facing her. Scully held his hand, and ran

her other one through his hair. And kept running it gently

through, even after he fell asleep.

Please, Lathos, hear me. You brought him back to me once

before. Please be able to do it again.

She concentrated until her head ached. Sometimes she stared

out at the forest as she did this, but most of the time she

spent looking at her partner’s face.

He had one nightmare, around three in the morning, calling out

Samantha’s name. Scully soothed him, and Mulder settled

without properly waking.

Mulder was back at a time of his life where Samantha was the

main subject of his nightmares. Before Scully’s own abduction,

the cancer, the mutants and monsters, the losses of so many

family members and friends, before Cancerman and the

Consortium were known to him or them…

But even before Mulder’s work on the X-Files, his nightmares

and burden had been horrific enough. Samantha’s loss, his

family’s disintegration, and the cases and human monsters he

had encountered while profiling.

He had never really had a particularly easy path through his

adult life, whatever the year.

Gradually light appeared, but it was that of the approaching

dawn, not of anything paranormal.

Scully felt like crying. She had dragged Mulder out here. And

it could well have been for nothing. How much longer should

they stay here?

She was broken out of her thoughts by Mulder opening his eyes

and staring blankly at the sleeping bag he was in.

“What the…?”

“Mulder?” she asked softly, hopefully.

He nearly jumped clear out of the bag. His hand slapped at his

waist, seeking his gun. It wasn’t there. “Who are you? What am

I doing here?”

“You don’t recognize me?”

“No.”

Her heart broke. But she forced herself to sweep it and her

tears into a corner. For now. “Mulder, I’m Special Agent Dana

Scully. I’m also a medical doctor. You’re suffering from a

form of amnesia and I’m trying to help you.”

He studied her proffered badge as he freed himself completely

from the bag. He remained in a half-squatting position out of

arms reach, as if ready to bolt. Mulder eyed her carefully.

“Where are we?”

“Lassen Peak Volcanic National Park in California.”

He took in his surroundings from his crouch, still very wary

of her. “Why? And what the hell do you mean ‘amnesia’? Okay, I

certainly don’t know you, but I know who I am.”

“Yes, but what year do you think it is?”

“1989.”

Mulder had regressed further this time than she had thought he

would. This was even before he had heard of the X-Files!

“What date is it?” Mulder asked. When she was slow to answer,

he demanded, “What date is it?”

She told him.

“No!” He leapt up. “I don’t know what mental hospital you

escaped from, but it is NOT 2002!”

“Look. Here’s a magazine I bought on our way here. Look at the

date.”

His expression was contemptuous. “That can be faked. And it’s

not October. It’s May. Oh, who cares about which month – even

if it *is* October, it is not and cannot be 2002!”

Silently she produced a mirror from her bag and offered it to

him. His reflection gave him a start. Mulder poked at his

face, as if hoping the changes were simply make up.

“I guess…” he said quietly.

“What?”

“I do feel… Um, fitter. More muscular than when I went to

bed. But that’s…”

“You told me that there were a few times when you were

profiling or on some bad Violent Crime cases where you were on

a constant treadmill of cases. With no time to use a gym

treadmill.”

Mulder was feeling the size of one of his biceps and absently

nodded at her words, too dazed to pick up and comment on the

fact she had said profiling in the past tense. “I squeeze in a

jog as regularly as possible, but never get to do weights as

much as I want to…” He shook his head to clear it and

started putting his boots on. Scully was still wearing hers.

Mulder asked, “When did this start? My amnesia?”

“Nearly two weeks ago.”

“Then what the hell am I doing out here?”

“We’re looking for a cure or treatment here.”

“Cures don’t grow on trees. Well, perhaps in the Brazilian

rainforest, but this doesn’t look like that. And if it is

Georgetown Hospital, then their Emergency wing has really

changed its decor!”

Scully tried to explain, however her partner was focused on

his boots and not listening. Then he exited the tent. Scully

was right behind him, but Mulder had only gone a few paces,

looking around.

Scully said, “We have to stay here for now. It’s a long story,

but you believe in extreme possibilities. I’m hoping that one

of them will come and help us.”

Mulder was not looking happy. “How do you fit into all this?”

The pieces of her heart were not lying quietly. They were

stabbing inside her with each breath. That and Mulder’s

complete non-recognition of her were causing tears to rise up

in her eyes, despite her best efforts at calm and control.

“I’m your partner.”

“Partner as in ‘work partner’ or as in…”

She knew that with him in this frame of mind it would be

easier to just say ‘work’, but she could not lie to him. Not

about this. Not after years of withholding her feelings.

“Both.”

“Oh.” He looked on the verge of making a Mulder-remark like

‘It looks like I still have good taste in my later years,’ but

then his sensitivity came to the forefront. He dug around in

his pockets and offered her his handkerchief. “I’m sorry, but

I don’t… I can’t remember you…”

“I know.” She nodded at the handkerchief. “Thank you.” She

couldn’t tell if he was buying her story or not though.

“So does the whole Bureau know about us, or what?” His tone

was not caustic or amused. It was simply curious.

“We’re discreet.”

“Ah.”

“And there’s a note in your coat. The right-hand pocket. Take

a look at it.”

Mulder kept some space between them and didn’t take his eyes

off her as he reached into his pocket. But then he took a few

paces back and read the note.

“Well?”

“That does look like my handwriting…” he conceded. “But…

This is too weird.”

Words she never thought she’d hear from her partner.

“How do I know you’re not some kidnapper or serial killer? Or

– and I don’t mean to sound arrogant or crass – someone from

the secretarial pool wanting some action? Besides, Reggie’s

going to be wondering where I am, and Bill Patterson borrowed

me to do a profile. I’ve got people counting on me, including

dead ones. If I screw this up, a killer goes free and keeps

killing, and I lose my chance at a spot in Behavioral Science.

Catching the killer is higher on my list of priorities

though.”

“Mulder, you don’t work for Violent Crimes or Behavioral

Sciences anymore.”

He looked at her in frustration. “What do you mean ‘anymore’?

I *haven’t* worked for BSU – this is just a ‘show us what you

can do and we’ll see’ job.”

“You did work for them. Like the note says, time has moved

on.”

“So did you convince Reggie – or Patterson, if I’m working for

him now – to let me come on this jaunt, or what?”

“Reggie died in 1994.”

Mulder stared at her. “And Patterson…?”

“He died in 2001.”

She braced herself for the questions that would lead to the

causes of death. What was Mulder going to think of Patterson

dying in prison, a serial killer? And that Mulder himself had

been the one to catch him?

Her partner’s jaw set. He was digging in his pockets again.

“I’ve heard enough. Where’s my phone?”

“We didn’t bring it. I’ve got mine, but there won’t be a

signal.” She had tried yesterday.

He stared at her phone. “That’s a cellular? It’s tiny…

You’re lying to me. This is just some kid’s toy or something

that operates as a calculator.”

She had forgotten that difference. The last few ‘jumps’,

Mulder had been cocooned inside the hospital, so technological

advancements like that had not been encountered or not noticed

due to everything else going on. Or perhaps the changes

weren’t as obvious as this one.

Mulder looked like he was at the point of bolting off into the

woods, away from this crazy woman. Scully said, “You told me

you think it’s May. The 27th?”

“Yes.”

She thought back over his history. “So, you wouldn’t have had

the regression hypnosis yet. With Doctor Werber.”

Mulder gaped at her. “How did you know about that? It’s

supposed to be confidential!”

“And your appointment is in a week, by your mental calendar,

right?”

Mulder scuffed the ground with the toe of his sneaker. “If I

don’t cancel first,” he muttered.

Scully knew he actually would cancel, then later change his

mind, and be booked in for June 16, which would be the day he

actually did end up going through with the regression. And a

quest would be born.

He had always looked for Samantha – first as a teenager,

looking at girls of the right age he came across. Then as an

FBI agent, examining the evidence he could find from the old

records of her disappearance. Then in Violent Crimes,

wondering if any of these killers or crazies had also been

responsible for his loss.

So perhaps the actual quest to find his sister had not been

born with that regression tape, but his slant on the

perpetrators had certainly been shifted.

Scully said, “I know the events that led up to you making the

appointment. Suzanne Modeski. You met the Lone Gunmen for the

first time.”

“The who?” he interrupted. Suzanne Modeski he did know, and

his surprise at Scully’s knowledge of her was clear.

Scully reached back into the tent and pulled out a knapsack,

glad it was not further away, in case Mulder decided to run

off. She produced the mini photo album. “These guys have

become great friends of ours. They help you with research and

hacking.”

When she produced the correct photo. Mulder nearly choked with

laughter. “Those guys from the Expo? The ones I wouldn’t trust

to change a light bulb – they’re a help? The world is

doomed… You’re not making a very strong case here, you

know.”

“When you found them at the warehouse you were sprayed with a

hallucinogen you think may have started to unlock memories

from your past. Memories about your sister’s disappearance.”

Scully braced herself for questions about Samantha. About

whether his twelve missing years had produced his sister or

the answer to what happened to her.

But Mulder, as amazed as he was at what she knew and his

reflection in the mirror, was still not quite buying her

insistence that time had actually passed. He considered Scully

gravely for what seemed an eternity, then came and sat down on

the groundsheet. Mulder was still a distance from her, but he

had decided to stay. For the moment. “Well, I guess there are

worse things than being stranded with an attractive woman in

the woods. So, while we’re ‘waiting’, tell me this story about

what’s going on and just what we’re waiting for.”

“Let’s have some breakfast while I do that.”

They sat under the tree. She told Mulder about how he and she

worked on the X-Files together, and that the cases were about

paranormal phenomena. He looked bemused. His working world was

full of serial killers, not UFOs. He was still a curious and

passionate man, but his thirst for the paranormal was only

just starting to make its presence felt in his subconscious.

So when she explained their Hollow Earth case, Mulder was

giving her the skeptical look that she so often wore.

“Some giant toga guy and his pet elephant?”

“Pet mammoth,” Scully corrected.

“You dragged me out here for that?”

“I couldn’t sit there and watch you disappear.”

“And what if these creatures can stop what’s happening to me,

but then can’t reverse it? Then I’m an almost twenty-eight

year old stuck in an almost forty-one year old body, and I

have no memory of you.”

“It would be worth that if it saves you,” she said frankly.

“You care about me that much?”

“Yes.”

“But…” Mulder was at a loss.

“I know you’re not used to anyone feeling that way towards

you, but I do.”

Mulder took a deep breath, then asked, “And if the cure won’t

‘stick’ unless I remain in Hollow Earth, then what?”

“From what you told me, there are worse places to live. It’s

like a paradise.”

“So you’d be happy to come visit me?”

“I’d stay with you. After coming up with a good cover story

for our vanishing act. And as long as I could visit my mother

occasionally.”

No reaction.

Then she realized that Mulder wasn’t listening to her. Or

looking at her. He was staring past her. She turned. There was

a glowing through the trees. This was not the sun as it

climbed into the sky. This light was nearby, amongst the

trees, and coming towards them. She heard Mulder curse and

knew that he had automatically gone for his gun again.

“I hope you’ve got your weapon,” he said, but his voice was

distracted. The weapon was just a precaution. Her Mulder, or

the Mulder of the X-Files, would see a light like that and

think he was close to aliens and the truth about his sister or

conspiracies, and head right for it.

But this Mulder was on the cusp. He had not undergone the

hypno-regression yet to fixate on alien abduction as the

answer to Sam’s disappearance and the focus of his quest.

However, it was a mystery, and this was still Fox Mulder.

Then they saw the source of the glow. A man. A nine foot tall

man was coming towards them, dressed in robes.

“Who…?” Mulder gasped out.

Scully said, “Well, he and I didn’t actually get introduced

last time, but I believe – and hope – that this is your friend

Lathos.”

clip_image001

xXx

ACT FOUR:

The glowing man stepped fully into sight. And the glow was not

from a lamp or any similar light source. His hands were raised

and they were empty. It was his skin that glowed. His face

looked human and was very serene.

Mulder stepped in front of Scully. Some things never change,

she thought wryly, and stepped around to stand beside him. She

pushed through her awe and amazement to get to the task at

hand. The Hollow Earth race was real. Thank God. And Mulder

was counting on her, though he didn’t really know or accept

that at the moment.

“Are you Lathos?” she asked. Then she wondered if she should

have thought her question instead, seeing as this giant was

supposed to be telepathic.

But the man smiled and nodded in response.

That’s right, Scully thought. Mulder had said that they could

talk, but they preferred to use telepathy. And if she thought

her question, then Mulder would not hear it.

As for Mulder, the surreal nature of the situation and

probably his own fear brought his inimitable wit to the

surface. “What, no mammoth?”

Then Scully heard Lathos speak, but his lips did not move. ‘I

am pleased to see you both again.’ She had heard it in her

mind. And from Mulder’s gasp, he had heard it too. ‘This time,

Miss Scully, we actually meet. Though you are almost as tired

as you were last time.’

Mulder swore, then said incredulously. “He’s real.”

‘You do not remember me, Mr.. Mulder? You should have retained

at least some memories. Especially since your brain is more

open and advanced than most.’

“Um, thanks, but I’m afraid it isn’t anymore. According to

Miss Scully here, I can’t actually remember the last thirteen

or so years.”

Hearing herself be called ‘Miss Scully’ was surreal.

Scully forged on. “Somehow Mulder has been afflicted with a

form of amnesia. This is the twelfth day, and he has

progressively forgotten more and more years of his life. He

doesn’t even remember who I am anymore. Our medical and

scientific communities are at a loss. They can’t say for sure

what caused it or how to help him. So, I hoped…”

‘That I might be able to.’

“Please.”

Lathos kept speaking in her mind. ‘You have kept knowledge of

our land secret. We are grateful for that. We know Mr. Mulder

has a good heart. I will see what I can do.’ Lathos moved

forwards. ‘Miss Scully, please keep watch. It is unlikely

anyone will come across us at this early time, but it is best

to be vigilant.’

Scully opened her mouth to ask why they did not go somewhere

like Hollow Earth or to a cave where they would be even less

likely to be seen, but remembered that from Mulder’s

description it had been quite a trip. Also, the ankle healing

had come before the trek – not to mention essential for Mulder

to be able to walk any distance at all – and the healing

process had been very swift. So Lathos was going to see if he

could heal Mulder as quickly now. Perhaps they would not need

the ‘expansive’ effect that Hollow Earth itself had on the

human brain.

Lathos came forward again. Mulder looked half fascinated and

half like he wanted to back away. ‘Spooky’ Mulder won out, and

he held his ground. It also seemed to unnerve him slightly

that here was someone who actually towered over him instead of

the other way around.

Mulder threw Scully a quick glance, nodding at her cross. “Now

would be a good time to start praying.”

“I’ve been doing that for twelve days.”

Lathos put his hands on either side of Mulder’s head. The

agent shut his eyes. Lathos concentrated. The glow around the

giant became even more pronounced, though not enough to make

Scully need to close or shield her own eyes. She could pray

just as well with them open.

Time passed. Scully tried not to get worried. Ankle healing

had only taken around a minute, supposedly, but this time the

brain was being dealt with.

Then she saw the frown on Lathos’ face and did get worried.

Lathos concentrated again and glowed even brighter, but then

resumed his ‘normal’ glow and removed his hands from Mulder’s

head.

Mulder opened his eyes and regarded the two of them. No words,

telepathic or otherwise, had to be exchanged for the trio to

know it had not worked.

Scully turned to Lathos. “There’s still a chance, isn’t there?

If we take Mulder to your world we can expose him to the

atmosphere there. That’s how you were able to cause such a

change in those men, right?”

‘They became enlightened. But I do not believe we have

encountered anyone with this particular condition, whether

Agarthan or human. I need to discuss this with the others and

they need to examine Mr. Mulder. We will journey to Agartha

and pursue a cure there. Come with me.’

Scully hesitated, looking at their supplies. “What should we

bring?”

‘Whatever food and water you wish for the journey. You will

not require your portable bedding; we will not travel for that

long. We should go now, before any of your kind encounter us.’

Scully hastily gathered items she considered necessary. She

and Mulder were in warm enough clothing for a hike.

Mulder, who looked like he still couldn’t work out if this was

really happening or not, spoke up. “Agent Scully said you and

your kind tended to stick to nocturnal wanderings. Though that

glow would ruin the low profile you want.”

Lathos simply gave him a look and started walking. It was an

overcast morning, so not as light as usual, even this early.

Lathos moved fast. Scully was thankful she was used to keeping

up with long legs. “I was worried that you wouldn’t come,” she

told him.

‘I was delayed. I knew you wanted to see me urgently, but

could not sense that it was a medical problem.’ Lathos did not

elaborate any further on his lateness or seem to think he

should keep up a conversation with his guests, so Mulder and

Scully stayed silent for a while and concentrated on not

lagging behind. Scully seemed to get a second wind, not as

tired as she thought she would or should be. She wondered if

it was to do with her proximity to Lathos and his glow…

Eventually they came to a rocky area and to what appeared to

be a solid rock wall, but Scully realized there was an

entrance with a very well blended-in opening. They went

through the opening, and then down a steep path through

beautiful caverns. Mulder and Scully marveled at the sights

they encountered, as they followed Lathos through the twists

and turns and more caverns.

Mulder turned to Scully.

“Still sure about this, Agent Scully?”

“Scully. You usually call me ‘Scully’.”

“Oh. Even after all those years? Anything to do with me not

liking my first name?”

“Yes. Although you let me call you that sometimes.”

“Okay… So, are you still sure about this, Scully?”

“When you told me about your first encounter with Lathos, you

mentioned how he was actually able to blank or suppress your

memory at certain stages of your trip to his land, so you

wouldn’t be able to retrace the route. To do that indicates a

sophisticated knowledge of the workings of the brain. You said

that he made a gesture at your head and then there was a gap

in your memory.”

That intrigued Mulder. “Sounds like he can blank my mind

easily enough then. Let’s hope he’s as good at retrieving.”

At this Lathos turned and actually spoke to them. “It is too

much for me to undertake alone. I am hopeful that the

atmosphere of Agartha will be beneficial, as well as a healing

circle with others of my kind. That is how we help enlighten

those we take. What one may not achieve alone -” He made a

wide, sweeping gesture with one hand.

“- a committee might,” Mulder finished. “Let’s hope you’re

right, and that it sticks. Actually, you said something before

about my mind, but I wasn’t sure if you were being serious or

not. But I can see you aren’t a flippant type of guy. You said

my brain was more open and advanced than most. Did you mean

‘open’ as in my supposed ability to accept the paranormal? Or

does my eidetic memory make me ‘advanced’ in your way of

thinking?”

Lathos reverted to telepathy. ‘Both of those characteristics

are a factor, yes. But there is also something else. We

Agarthans use a much greater proportion of our brains than

humans do. When we bring humans to our land, they are able to

function on a higher level while they are there. We realized

that at some point in your past, Mr. Mulder, before you even

came to Agartha, your brain had an intense period of operating

at full capacity, past even what we are capable of.’

“I have? I did?”

Scully nodded and said, “Yes, it was a few years ago. Mulder

can’t remember it now, thanks to this amnesia, but it was so

intense and overwhelming that he couldn’t function properly.”

Mulder was staring at her and nearly hit his head on a

stalactite in the process. She outlined the case. “You started

to hear people’s thoughts, Mulder. But when you were around a

lot of people it was too much for you to handle or filter out.

Your mind became more ‘unlocked’. You ended up catatonic in a

hospital bed. Your brain was running so hot it was inevitable

that your body would not be able to withstand the strain for

long. And apparently you were aware of people around you, but

you couldn’t respond. The medication they gave you to try to

slow your brain waves down may have caused that effect. Or you

were starting to master your ‘gift’, but the drugs were

hindering you.”

“And how was I cured?”

She explained about him being kidnapped and turning up in the

DOD.

“Geez. Too bad none of them came for me while I was in the

hospital this time.”

Scully continued, “What happened to you when you started

hearing the voices may be linked to a retrovirus you were

exposed to years beforehand. You believed it to be alien in

origin. All this, plus whatever was done to you at the

Department of Defense… Mulder, there are so many

possibilities for what could be happening to you now. It could

be a combination of things.”

“Or my brain getting fed up with the way I treat it.”

Scully told Mulder and Lathos about what Mulder and his poor

head had gone through, even in just this last year.

“I was implanted with Sam’s DNA?”

“Involuntarily. Her memory impulses.”

Lathos remarked that he had sensed some sort of change had

occurred when he had touched Mulder’s head in the forest

today. ‘Perhaps it is related to that. But I cannot be

certain.’

Not long after that:

“I let a quack doctor drill a hole in my HEAD?” Mulder nearly

yelled.

“Two holes, actually. Voluntarily.”

‘Perhaps you are not as intelligent as I thought…’ came from

Lathos.

“Obviously not,” Mulder agreed.

She told Mulder and Lathos her theory about the DNA injection

now making Mulder mentally drop back towards the age of

twelve.

“I’d prefer not to let it get that far…” Mulder said.

xXx

The discussion had kept Scully from dwelling too much on the

surreal nature of her current situation. Here she was, with a

partner who was shedding years mentally like a stripper

dropping items of clothing and also accompanied by giant man

from an advanced tribe down in the earth, traveling to a land

beyond her comprehension. Hard to believe. Hard to swallow.

Unbelievable. But life without Mulder was unthinkable, so she

kept going.

She wondered if Chimene, the guilt vampire she and Mulder had

once encountered, was originally from this race or somehow

shared a common ancestry with them. Chimene possessed unique

powers that enabled her to sense guilt and take it from a

person’s mind and had alluded that she had lived an extremely

long life.

Lathos halted. Scully could not see another opening in the

rock, but knew that didn’t mean there wasn’t one. She thought

that the giant was giving them another rest break, but then he

raised his hand and made a gesture. Her eyes closed.

And when she opened them, she was sitting in a strange room.

Her mind started to process what she was seeing but her heart

jumped over that and she looked frantically for Mulder.

She did not have to look far. He was sitting next to her, his

eyes open too. Their eyes locked, looking at each other

intently, making sure they were all right, then their FBI

training made them do a quick scan of the room even as their

mouths were opening to ask ‘Are you all right?’ and provide

reassurance.

But even as Scully was doing this, she was aware of other

things. When she first opened her eyes, she had only had the

briefest of impressions of her surroundings before seeking

Mulder out. Yet as she looked at him and also reassured

herself they were alone in the room, her brain was able to

recount to her the details of the wall she had been facing,

including the intricate designs painted on it.

I’m a trained investigator. I’m supposed to notice my

surroundings. It’s an unconscious reflex.

That’s what Scully told herself, but she knew there was more

to it than that.

She was recalling the wall and its murals while at the same

time scrutinizing her partner with great care, neither thought

sequence interfering with the other. And she was recalling

other details of the room at the same time, after a quick

scan.

A person can rub their stomach while patting their head… But

this is odd, like my brain can and is operating on more

levels. Or am I imagining it?

And what a room…

The colors were incredible. So bright and clear to her eyes.

Almost painful.

So this is Agarthan art… But then she realized almost

instantaneously that it wasn’t just the interior design. It

was her vision. The colors of Mulder’s hair and eyes were so

well known to her – things she had gazed upon countless times

over the years. Yet here as she beheld him, the colors seemed

to have a life of their own, as if she could fall into them.

Vibrant.

“Mulder, the colors…”

Now that he seemed reassured that she was okay, he turned his

head back to where they had been facing – the mural wall.

Mulder nodded. “It’s fantastic…”

Scully tugged at his hand. “All colors. Isn’t it wonderful?

Every strand of your hair…”

“My hair?”

“Doesn’t my hair look different to you? My eyes?” She realized

that she was asking this question of a man who could only

recall an acquaintance with her of a few hours, not years. But

still, surely he could see the difference? It was like being

used to string all your life, then being presented with gold

thread instead. Like having a veil lifted from her eyes. And

touching Mulder usually sent pleasant sensations through her

body, however in touching his hand now it was like all her

senses were magnified, not just her vision. It felt

incredible.

There was a noise and Lathos walked into the room. ‘I believe

that Mr. Mulder’s amnesia may be interfering with his

perception somewhat. But that may change the longer he is

here. Welcome to the city of Lesser Shamballa. It is a major

city in our land of Agartha.’

‘Thank you,’ Scully sent to him. Then she turned to Mulder.

“Mulder, I can feel that my brain has ‘opened up’. Can you

remember anything? Is anything different?”

“Yes, in a way. But I still can’t remember what you said I’ve

forgotten.”

Lathos drew their attention to a table which was full of food

and beverages. Some fruits Scully recognized, but they looked

like they were twice the size that she was used to. Dazed, she

got up and looked around the room again.

Draperies hung at intervals around the walls and Scully could

tell from the light that one at least was some sort of doorway

to outside. If one could actually be ‘outdoors’ when under the

earth…

‘I thought it best to introduce you to your surroundings

gradually,’ Lathos explained.

There was a tiny fountain in the wall. At first Scully thought

water was issuing from it, but then she realized it was light.

“What’s that humming noise?” Mulder asked.

“Our mode of transport.”

“I always wanted to see a flying car,” Scully said.

Both Scully and Mulder went to a window and peered out. They

saw the ‘flying cars’. And Scully found herself instantly

understanding them – how they worked, their method of

propulsion, even though there was nothing like them at home.

Lathos drew them out of their staring. ‘I have sent word for a

gathering of those I believe most able to help you, Mr.

Mulder. They will examine you and then we will see what they

concur on.’

“How long will it take them to gather?”

Scully knew that time was different here, but when Lathos

informed her that it would take two ‘reta’, she found herself

instantly knowing how long that would be, both in Agarthan

time and converted to her time. “About twenty minutes.”

‘You may wish to go out on the balcony or eat and rest. I will

return with the others. If you need me in the meantime, tap on

this chime.’ Lathos departed.

The room was so beautiful. If it were an exhibit in a museum

at home, Scully knew it would take her hours to go over every

little detail. Yet here that scrutiny was effortless. Though

colors were so bewitching now that she could spend five

minutes marveling at a shade of green.

The walls themselves generated an artificial light. The bed

against one wall had a cover it would take a village of people

ages to embroider. And the food tasted delicious.

Mulder turned to Scully. “Well, even if I don’t get cured,

thanks for the trip!”

They went out on the balcony, gazing at the sights in wonder.

At the appointed time, which came very quickly, Lathos lead a

group of Agarthans into the room. There were four males and

five females. All were tall and serene-looking too.

Lathos put Mulder’s chair in the middle of the room, in a

space that was completely clear. ‘Please sit, Mr. Mulder. We

wish to examine you.’

“Clothes on or off?”

‘We will examine you telepathically. There is no need to

remove your garments.’

The ten Agarthans formed a circle around Mulder’s chair. He

sat there, quiet and motionless, staring out at Scully, who

was standing. If an Agarthan happened to block their view of

each other, Scully would shift a step or two, back into his

line of sight.

The Agarthans closed their eyes. Their glow did not increase,

but Scully heard a sound in her head. It was a humming and

seemed to be coming from the circle.

All the ten giants spoke in harmony. ‘Your memories are not

lost. They merely need to be made accessible again. And kept

that way.’

Scully felt herself comprehend. The drugs that Mulder had been

injected with had somehow left a build up, untraceable to

conventional medicine. Something that was interfering with the

transfer of his memories into his conscious mind. It was not

doing any physical damage as such, but had properties that

were causing the regressions. It had to be removed. Vibrated

away to nothingness.

This time the glow of the giants did increase and blend, and

it and the humming became so intense that it blocked out

everything, even consciousness.

xXx

Scully woke up. She was lying on what felt like a bed. Her

head hurt, but she made herself sit up. Mulder was her focus.

He was lying next to her, apparently asleep. “Mulder?”

He murmured and shifted.

“Mulder?” She shook him gently. Had it worked? Her brain was

not ‘multi-layering’ to such a degree at the moment, perhaps

because of what had happened at the ceremony, but she knew

that they were alone in the room and they were still in

Agartha. “Mulder?”

It seemed a very long wait before he opened his eyes and

looked up at her. He blinked.

“Mulder?”

Then she saw a rush of feelings and knowledge go through his

eyes. And what remained there was the look she wanted to see.

“Scully. My Scully.” He hugged her. “I’m back.”

“You are?” she asked hopefully, gently pulling away a little

to regard him.

He proceeded to give her a list of things, including things

she had not had time to ‘update’ the 1989 Mulder about. Things

that only she and the 2002 Mulder knew.

She let out a cry of relief and gratitude and nearly choked

him with her hug.

Lathos entered the room and came up to the bed before they

were even aware of him. Scully went to get off the bed and

stand up, but he shook his head. ‘Remain there. Please. The

healing circle was successful.’

Mulder said, “Thank you. But will my mind remain ‘open’ once

we head back into the wide blue yonder, away from the

specialness of this place?”

‘We are very confident that it will. The congestion has been

cleared without harm.’

Scully could have hugged him. She thanked him instead. Lathos

gave them a brief healing treatment to banish their headaches.

It worked very quickly. Scully could feel colors ‘kicking in’

again.

Lathos then offered to take them on an extensive tour.

At that, she hesitated. “As much as we would love to, we had

better go back to our world very soon. There are people who

will be looking for us. I don’t want to worry them any more

than we already have.”

“Next time we come back, we’ll make sure that no one will miss

us for a while,” Mulder said. “Then we can have a nice long

holiday and sightsee. There are things here that I’d love to

show Scully.”

Lathos looked regally regretful. ‘That visit will probably not

be permissible for a long while.’

“Why? Have we done something wrong?”

‘Saving people in this manner is not our mission, even though

we are capable of it. It is important that humans learn their

few limitations and their innumerable capabilities. We were

willing to help this time, especially since you were dealing

with something unknown to you, but we cannot do it again. The

time has not come for us to reveal ourselves in such a

manner.’

Lathos produced a device that looked like an hourglass, only

it did not have the tapering section in the middle. The grains

simply hovered at the top of the container and gradually

drifted down like in a snow globe. ‘Rest until this finishes.

Then we will leave here and you will get to see some of the

city on the way out. Then you will be back on your world a

single-day cycle after you came with me.’

Scully could tell that this version of an hourglass would last

for two human hours. She checked her watch, which still seemed

to be functioning properly, and rapidly did some calculations.

“I think we’ll be back ‘on’ earth for your birthday, Mulder.”

“You’ve given me a great present already, Scully.” And she

knew he wasn’t just talking about his restored memory.

“Thank you, Lathos,” Scully said again. “How can we ever repay

you?”

He spoke. “Keep our secret.” He inclined his head and left the

room.

Mulder moved up close against Scully and put his arms around

her. They held silently for several minutes, reveling in the

closeness and sensations. He ran his fingers through her hair,

then lifted a lock and studied the strands, fascinated by how

vibrant the color was.

“Soooooo… Our brains are working at a higher capacity,” he

remarked. “They can take in a lot more. Not just knowledge,

but all the senses are enhanced.”

“Yes.”

“So, what sort of an affect do you think that would have on

something like…” He paused and ‘casually’ picked a word out

of the air. “…Sex?”

Her reply was deliberately just as casual. “I’m not sure,

Mulder. I have wondered that myself, though only briefly,

being somewhat more concerned and occupied with other matters.

But now that you’re all right and have raised a very

intriguing question, I guess the only way to find out is to

put it to the test.”

“Do you think that they’d think we were being rude if we put

out a ‘do not disturb’ sign for a while?”

“I think they’d understand.”

xXx

Scully blinked. Mulder was in her arms, also stirring.

Awareness came to her in pieces: forest. Day. Early. Not long

after dawn? The tent. They were lying on top of one sleeping

bag, with the other over them like a blanket. They were

clothed.

Scully blinked again. They were back in the national park. But

how? There were memories… Some she couldn’t quite grasp,

some stronger than others.

But the main thing…

“Mulder?”

He sat up enough to meet her eyes. He knew exactly what she

was asking in her one word question. “I’m here. All forty-one

years of me, both in body and mind. Though I feel like a

thirty-five year old!”

That was true. Just like after his first visit, Mulder looked

fit and tanned and glowing, and from the look in his eyes, so

did she. Scully certainly felt great. But that could be

explained by how relieved and happy she felt.

She hugged him fiercely.

One strong memory was the incredible-on-every-level-and-plane-

of-existence-and-then-some lovemaking they had shared in

Agartha.

Agartha!

She couldn’t remember it anywhere near as clearly as she knew

she should. Just like Mulder when he had returned the first

time. Either a quirk of not being in that beneficial

atmosphere anymore or Lathos had selectively tinkered with

their memories.

“I’m glad he left our ‘session’ intact.”

Scully knew her partner was not referring to the circle of

healing. “Mulder, I think our ‘session’ was such a vivid

experience that it was seared into our brains.”

She could recall aspects of the city, but knew there was a lot

more. It did not matter though. She had what she wanted.

Scully stretched. “I guess we’d better get up soon and get out

of here, hopefully away from the town before any earlybirds

get a good look at us. Then decide where and when to start

spreading the news that we’re back and okay… First on the

list is my mother.”

Mulder’s face fell. “I’m sorry. She’s one of the last people I

wanted to cause more worry for.”

“She’ll be happy that you’re okay.” Scully checked her watch

as they stood up. It was definitely after dawn. “It’s the

13th. Happy birthday!”

“Thank you. Perhaps we can tell her we went away for a private

celebration…”

“And this was the day that you were due to ‘drop back’ again.

But you haven’t.”

“Things are looking up. No cobwebs on the brain. Thanks to

you.” He picked her up by the waist and swung her around in

joy.

xXx

EPILOGUE:

In San Francisco the agents went to the FBI field office there

and found Paul Kells, an agent they and their A.D. knew. In

Kells’ office they called Skinner, then handed the phone to

the agent so he could corroborate to their boss that they were

alive and all right. They would face Skinner’s unique blend of

wrath and relief in D.C. when they reported to him next

morning. He was glad that Mulder was now okay – though wanted

to see for himself.

But they were able to spend that night in Scully’s apartment.

The jetlag they expected did not arise, and Mulder attributed

this to their ‘post Agartha glow’. Other things, however,

certainly got to arise…

“Happy birthday, Mulder.”

“It certainly is so far!”

They might not have been able to have the ‘all encompassing

Agartha experience’ again, but neither of them minded. They

had the memories. And what they had just shared was quite a

slice of heaven as is.

“And at least I’m fighting fit,” Mulder bragged with a grin,

“able to make up for all those days of abstinence.”

“True, but sometime in the next few weeks, you’re due for a

flu shot.”

“You’re kidding.”

“No, I think it would be a good idea.”

“I’m in perfect health! And you’re telling me that out of all

that time I spent in the hospital when I was losing layers

like an onion, that nobody bothered to update that shot then?

Out of all those zillions of jabs I did get?”

“We didn’t want to do anything that might adversely affect

you, especially when we didn’t know what was happening with

your mind.”

He let loose a put-upon sigh. “One thing,” he said after a few

minutes of drifting.

“Yes?”

“Where are we going to tell Skinner that we spent the last few

days?”

“At an amazing secret health spa that only caters for

exclusive clientele. Or something like that. We might have to

powder down our golden tans though.”

He chuckled.

“Scully.”

“Yes?”

“Thanks for the memories.”

“Even the bad ones?”

“You make them worth remembering.”

THE END.

Unforgettable

cover

Title: Unforgettable

Author: XScout

Rating: PG-13

Spoilers: Sleepless,Grotesque, Demons, Closure, VS9

episode Devil’s Advocate

Classification: X,A

Summary: Mulder has the chance to find out the truth,

and learns some things are best left alone.

Disclaimer: All characters related to the television

show ‘The X-Files’ belong to Chris Carter, Fox

Studios, and 10-13 Production. All characters related

to the Virtual Seasons of ‘The X-Files’ belong to

their respective authors. The background story and a

few lines are from the movie ‘Unforgettable’,

copyright MGM. No money was made.

Author’s Notes: Only for distribution at the Virtual

Season Nine for two weeks before posting at other

sites. Please send feedback to: Xscout@hotmail.com

******************

Unforgettable

******************

Prologue

Virginia State Correctional Facility

Tuesday

5:20 am

The loud drumming in his head drew him out of his

foggy sleep. His eyes were crusted shut and his mouth

felt like it was full of cotton. Must have been one

hell of a night; too bad he couldn’t remember what

happened. The last thing he could recall was being

taken to the infirmary for some routine medical

checkup or some such nonsense. Wouldn’t want the

inmates of purgatory to get sick, would we?

Rolling over on his cot, Arnie Bunkwater pried his

eyes open to stare out past the cell bars. The lights

were dim and he saw a shadow pass by – the stiff form

of the night guard making his rounds. That meant it

was still before dawn. The guards rarely came down

death row but twice a night. No one liked to be spend

a lot of time here, guards and inmates alike.

Leaning back into his bunk, Arnie watched the shadows

play across the cinderblock ceiling, his early

morning ritual beginning even earlier now that he was

awake. He closed his eyes and replayed that fateful

night that was both the pinnacle of his life as well

as his downfall.

It had been approximately one in the morning when he

was crouched outside her window, surrounded by

flowers, their scent strong in his nostrils. He’d

quietly slid open her window, careful not to make

even the slightest noise. A cool breeze had swept

past him, billowing the lacy curtains out towards the

girl in the bed, reaching for her as though to warn

her of his coming. He had crept over the windowsill

and across the floor, moving stealthily by the

moonlight. Just as he had reached her bedside and

stared down at her angelic face, her eyes suddenly

popped open. He never discovered what it was that had

brought her out of her dreams, but then he hadn’t

given her time to tell him. He had clamped a rough

hand against her mouth and pushed his larger body

down onto hers. Her wide blue eyes had clouded over

with fear and tears streamed from them. He had

savored her fear like a connoisseur does a fine wine,

felt her trembling body through his muscles. Then

he’d killed her. Right there in her own bed, across

from her parents’ room.

The pure pleasure he had experienced that night still

rushed through him when he thought of it. Then anger

would follow, knowing that it was his overconfidence

in his abilities that led to his capture. He had

thought of everything, leaving no fingerprints, no

semen, and no evidence as to who had once again

stolen a life out from under the nose of the little

girl’s parents as well as the FBI agents on his case.

But he hadn’t counted on the flowers crushed beneath

his boots, smashing into the crevices in the soles.

Who really thought of those things? Apparently

someone had and they had come for him. They had come

for him and thrown him in this godforsaken cell where

he had spent the last fourteen years of his life.

Appeals kept him out of the gas chamber until now and

he sometimes wondered if it was worth it.

Snorting at his own musings he leaned over and pushed

himself to his feet, moving over to the center of the

floor. Kneeling down he began to do some push-ups,

felt his muscles strain with the effort. There was an

odd burning sensation in his left arm and he pushed

harder, hoping to let the exercise work whatever it

was out. As he counted under his breath he noticed an

odd smell permeating his cell. It was sweet and

tropical, cutting through the harsh odors of the

prison.

He knew that smell.

She felt a soft breeze blow across her face, bringing

with it the heady bouquet of night-blooming jasmine.

It grew outside her room on a huge bush that crawled

up past the roof, the thick scent filling the summer

nights. Her window must be open. But she didn’t open

it. What? Opening her eyes she saw a shape looming

above her, its eyes bright pinpoints in the dark. Her

mouth formed a silent scream just before a hand

clamped over it. Struggling against the restraint,

she felt a heavy weight place itself on top of her

and the dark shape coalesced into a man. He was lying

on her now, his face a mask of glee and a hellish

light dancing in his eyes. She knew that she was

going to die. Terrified out of her mind, she writhed

against his massive body but he barely noticed her

efforts. She saw something bright glint from the

corner of her eye and her gaze flicked over to it. A

knife. Oh God. Mommy! Daddy! Please, help!! The blade

arced in a swift graceful movement and she felt

warmth spread across her throat. It took a moment for

the pain to come and when it did she almost passed

out. But her mind knew that she only had a few

seconds of life left and fought to keep every one of

them. Her lungs burst as she struggled for air,

darkness creeping along the edges of her vision. The

last thing she saw was the man’s face, pleasure and

triumph etched across it. Then everything went black.

Dr. Sycaroe smiled as he placed the lid back on the

jar. Standing just outside Arnie Bunkwater’s cell he

stared down at the lifeless form on the floor, dark

bruises forming on the inmate’s thick neck, just

under the Adam’s apple. The serum had worked

perfectly, absolutely perfectly. Turning on his heel

he walked back towards the exit, dropping the jar in

his hand into the wastebasket at the end. He pushed

the buzzer on the wall next to the door, putting on a

face of distress as the door slid open.

“Something’s wrong with Bunkwater, I need you to let

me in,” he instructed the guard who had opened the

door, his voice breathless as though he had rushed

for help.

The two men ran back down the hall, their feet

clapping on the concrete floor in their haste.

Skidding to a halt in front of cell 16-A, the guard

pulled out a mess of keys, fumbling for the correct

one. Finding it, he opened the cell and allowed the

doctor to enter first. Sycaroe knelt next to the

downed inmate and felt for a pulse.

“He’s dead.”

The guard stared in shock, wondering what could have

possibly happened. There was no sign of injury except

a thin bruise across Bunkwater’s neck. The cell had

been locked. Suicide? Harry Gibson had been a guard

for eight years and he had never seen any suicide

like this. He left the doctor in the cell and hurried

back to his station to call the warden.

He never noticed the small jar in the trashcan

labeled ‘Scent of Jasmine’.

*****************

ACT 1

FBI Headquarters

X-Files Office

9:07

Scully quickened her pace, not wanting to be any more

late than she already was. As she neared the office

door she noticed that there was no light coming from

beneath it. Mulder was usually here before she was.

Even if they spent the night together they always

made sure to arrive in different cars at separate

times. It kept rumors to a minimum. Reaching the

door, she turned the handle and let it swing open,

the hinges squealing noisily.

Oh God.

The room was dark except for a bright light

illuminating a square patch on the wall. A shiver ran

down the female agent’s spine and settled in her

stomach. It was one of her worst fears come to life

once again.

A slideshow.

“Scully! About time you got here. I’ve got something

to show you that’s going to knock your socks off!”

With a groan Scully dropped her briefcase on her desk

and slumped down in her chair. She covered her eyes

with her hands and shook her head in denial. “I

haven’t even had a cup of coffee yet, Mulder, can’t

it wait?”

“Ah, how you underestimate me, Scully.”

Suddenly a delicious aroma wafted up to her nose, the

warm steam beckoning to her. Eyes popping open,

Scully saw a large mug of rich brown coffee sitting

in front of her. Glancing up and to the right where

her partner was standing, she noticed a smug grin on

his face. She couldn’t help but return the smile as

she picked up the hot cup and sipped gratefully,

waving with her free hand to continue.

*Click*

The first slide ratcheted into place, the bright

light on the wall replaced by a washed out picture of

a prison cell. There was a body lying in the center,

easily identified as the resident of the cell by the

bright orange jumper he was wearing.

“Two days ago Arnold Everett Bunkwater was found dead

in his cell from what can only be described as

asphyxiation and a heart attack. A bruised larynx is

offered as evidence.”

*Click*

A close-up of the victim’s head was displayed across

the wall. Black and blue marks ringed the neck and

his lips had a distinctly purple tinge.

“He was found by the prison doctor, who was the only

visitor Bunkwater had that night. The fingerprints

left on the body match those in Bunkwater’s file. To

all intents and purposes it appears that Arnie, as he

was more commonly known, choked himself until he

passed out. Whether the subsequent heart attack was a

direct consequence of the choking or not is still in

question.”

“And this is an X-File because….” Scully trailed

off, her eyebrows raised.

Mulder just smiled and pressed the button in his

hand, the next slide portraying a black and white

mugshot. The subject was a big man, at least six foot

four and weighing two hundred and fifty pounds. He

had a long scar on the right side of his face and

black stubble gracing both his head and his jaw. His

beady eyes stared out from overhanging brows and just

above a crooked nose that spoke of repeated breakage.

“This handsome devil you see before you is Joshua

Crane, better know as the Mississippi Mangler. He was

found dead last week of a heart attack. An autopsy

showed that his innards had been twisted up so badly

that it was a miracle he could function at all.”

“Uh-huh. So….”

“Mississippi Mangler, Scully. You remember what he

did to his victims?” Mulder waited until realization

dawned on her face. “Yup, he disemboweled them. Does

his death seem coincidentally similar?”

“But he wasn’t disemboweled, he had a heart attack.”

“True, but the fact that his intestines looked like

they had been pulled out and then stuffed back in by

a first year medical student with one hand tied

behind their back doesn’t strike you as odd? Besides,

I’m not done.”

*Click*

“This is Max Krokoff, who back in 1996 went up and

down the West Coast raping and murdering young girls.

What do you think killed him?”

Scully studied the grainy photograph. It showed a man

lying on a concrete floor, his wide open eyes

severely bloodshot and dried blood on his upper lip.

“I would have to say an aneurysm.”

“That’s the first conclusion the ME came up with.

There was swelling of the intracranial tissue and

bleeding around the brain that could have been caused

by an aneurysm or a heavy blow to the head. Odd thing

is though, it wasn’t what killed him.”

“Let me guess, a heart attack.”

“Bingo. Now try and guess how he killed his victims.”

This time Scully’s voice was tinged with interest.

“He crushed their skulls?”

“Two for two, Scully.” Mulder walked over to the

light switch and flipped it on, then returned and

powered off the slide projector. He moved around to

sit at his desk, rifling through a mess of papers

filed on top. “I was aware of the previous deaths

through the news but the latest victim of this

mysterious heart attack hasn’t been announced to the

press yet. Jackson Plover, an old colleague from VCS

brought it to my attention early this morning and I

knew it fit with the others.”

“Why did he call you? Do they suspect someone is

systematically killing off these criminals?” A spike

of fear shot through her gut as she considered the

implications. “Do they want you to profile the

UNSUB?” Over the past several months, the VCS had

been asking far too much of the ex-profiler and

Scully didn’t think she could handle another foray

into madness.

Mulder’s tone was soft with understanding. “No,

Scully, nothing so exciting. Jackson just thought I

would like to know because I was the primary profiler

on the original investigation that put Bunkwater

behind bars. He keeps me apprised of any news

regarding the scum I helped put away during my tenure

with the ISU.”

Scully relaxed slightly, relieved by the explanation.

“So, since you believe this is an X-File, does that

mean you don’t think there is someone behind these

deaths? That some*thing* is responsible?”

Mulder grinned. “Someone is definitely behind these

deaths, of that I am certain. But the how is far more

uncertain. Psychic projection perhaps or even

vengeful spirits; I haven’t exactly come up with a

particular theory yet.”

An eyebrow raised high and disappeared beneath some

wayward strands of red. “You? No theory? That is

definitely beyond the realm of believability.”

He just gave her a dirty look. “We’re heading to

Virginia State Correctional Facility to talk with the

doctor who discovered Bunkwater’s body.” He picked up

his jacket from the back of his chair. “Let’s go.”

Scully shrugged, having learned after so many years

together that she should always be prepared for

sudden departures. She stood and grabbed her jacket

as well, pulling it on as she headed towards the door

Mulder held open for her. She paused when she reached

his side. “Mulder, you still haven’t told me how

Arnold Bunkwater’s death fits into this equation

other than the heart attack.”

A dark look crossed Mulder’s face as his thoughts

slid into the past. “He strangled seven nine year old

girls in their own bedrooms while their parents

slept.”

*************

Virginia State Correctional Facility

11:56 a.m.

Their dress shoes slapped loudly on the hard floor of

the prison hallways as they were led to the warden’s

office. Though the warden hadn’t been thrilled with

the idea of the FBI coming into his world and shaking

it up to see if anything fell out, he was complacent

enough to allow them to conduct their investigation.

He had accepted their request to speak with him just

before his break for lunch.

The guard who had shown them to the warden’s door

stopped and did an about-face that would make any

military man proud. “The warden is expecting you.”

Mulder reached over and turned the doorknob, letting

the door open and dropping him arm. He let Scully

enter first, never taking his eyes off the guard,

waiting to see if the stiff man would snap a salute

or not. He stared a moment longer before giving up

and then followed his partner into the office.

Warden Harbrook was a slender man, easily considered

underweight and his frame appeared almost scarecrow-

like in the straight edges of his freshly pressed

suit. He was seated behind a large mahogany desk,

glasses reminiscent of the sixties perched on his

nose as he went over some paperwork. The other

furniture in the office was the same dark wood as the

desk, giving the room a somber feeling, the only

accent from a cold frame surrounding a certificate

that proclaimed his authority.

Without looking up, the warden waved at two large

leather chairs in front of his desks. “Please, sit

down. I’ll be with you in just a moment.”

The agents moved into the room, automatically taking

positions that mirrored their customary places in

Skinner’s office. They sat in the oversized chairs

for several minutes until Mulder became restless and

started drumming his fingers on the arm. He heard a

quiet sigh of impatience from his partner and decided

that they had been kept waiting long enough. Opening

his mouth, he prepared to insist they get to

business.

He didn’t get the chance to utter a sound.

“Thank you for your patience, Agents, I’m afraid I

had to finish some pressing business.” Harbrook

closed a folder in front of him and set it on a

larger stack of similar files. “Now, I believe that

you have come to discuss the death of Arnold

Bunkwater?”

Mulder looked at Scully and her head inclined

infinitesimally as a signal that the floor was his.

“Thank you for seeing us on short notice, Warden.

We’ll try not to take up too much of your time and

our investigation shouldn’t hinder the operation of

the prison as long as we have your cooperation.”

Harbrook nodded sharply, his eyes glaring down his

beaky nose so that he resembled the crows Mulder had

imagined he should be scaring away. “I will allow you

access to anywhere you need to go as long as a guard

accompanies you. As a safety precaution of course.”

“Of course.” Mulder’s tone implied what he thought of

the warden’s ‘safety precaution’. “We’ll try to keep

you apprised of any developments in the case.”

“I doubt there will be any developments at all.

Bunkwater died from a heart attack, end of story. He

deserved worse and I imagine the only one upset by

his untimely death is his lawyer. But if you want to

investigate a death that should have happened years

ago, then be my guest.” Harbrook stood, signaling the

end of the meeting. He opened his office door to

reveal the marine stiff guard who had brought them

there earlier. “Guard Flores will take you where you

want to go.”

Mulder and Scully shared a glance, their minds on the

same frequency. They silently agreed to discuss their

observations later when there wasn’t an audience.

They pushed themselves out of the enormous chairs and

moved out into the hallway they had so recently

vacated. Mulder threw a contemptuous glare at the

warden before quickly striding down the hallway, not

caring whether the guard was with him or not. Scully

tossed a hasty “Thank you” at Harbrook and hurried

after her partner, the guard following at a more

dignified if not less hasty pace.

Mulder was waiting for them just around the corner

where his way down the next corridor was barred –

literally. Flores pulled a ring of keys out of his

pocket and unlocked the cell-like door. He allowed

the FBI agents to pass through and then came after,

locking the door behind him. “This way; Bunkwater was

kept in 16-A.” Flores pointed down the hallway on his

left then followed his own directions. He led the

agents to a heavy door just to the right of a guard

station. A small placard above the door identified it

as ‘Death Row’.

The guards nodded at each other and Flores and his

charges were buzzed through. Hoots and catcalls

followed them as they walked down the cellblock.

Mulder instinctively moved so that Scully was between

him and the guard, as though his body could protect

her from the leering inmates who would kill just to

touch a woman again.

“Here it is.”

Flores sure was a chatty fellow. Mulder stepped into

the open cell and looked around, trying to get a

sense of a man he had profiled more than a dozen

years ago. In his peripheral vision he saw Scully

step back to allow him to soak in the scene. She

began to question their chaperone about the night of

Arnie Bunkwater’s death.

The cell was nothing special, nothing marked it as

out of the ordinary. A bunk, a latrine, and a shelf

containing Arnie’s meager belongings. Turning in a

slow circle, he imagined the last few moments of the

convicted killer who had spent over a decade in this

room. Most likely Arnie spent his dying minutes

thinking about the girls he had taken away from their

parents forever. Mulder closed his eyes and was taken

back to the original case, pictures flashing across

his closed eyelids as his perfect memory played back

detailed scenes. Arnold Bunkwater was on the short

list of suspects, matching the profile to a tee, but

there was no evidence linking him to any of the

crimes. Until he killed Janice Lopez. That was when

Mulder noted that the flowers outside Janice’s room

had been crushed by large feet, the rich scent almost

masking the smell of death. It was then that Mulder

realized that such a powerful smell may have been

ground into the killer’s shoes. It was a long shot

but it was enough to obtain a warrant to search every

suspect’s house and examine their shoes. Mulder

wasn’t there but he’d heard that Arnie didn’t even

deny it when he was arrested, simply smiled and let

the FBI agents take him away.

Eyes popping open, Mulder turned to see Scully and

the guard watching him. “Can we speak with Dr.

Sycaroe?”

Flores nodded. “It’s his lunchtime, he’ll be in his

office.” Waiting until the agents had moved out of

the cell, Flores shut the barred door and led them

back down the row. They paused at the guard station

for a moment as they waited to be buzzed through.

“Scully, you smell that?”

Scully looked up at her partner, a question on her

face. “Smell what?”

Mulder’s head turned left and right, bobbing slightly

as he sniffed the air. “I don’t know, it smells like

flowers or potpourri or something.”

Bemusement replaced confusion. “In a prison? On death

row? Think they’re doing some arts and crafts in

their spare time?”

He gave her a reproachful look. “I know, it’s just

that… Never mind, must be my imagination, leftover

from memory.”

Scully’s eyes squinted as she tried to make sense of

his remark but was stopped from commenting on it when

the guard cleared his throat. The two agents had been

standing in the doorway for a while after it had been

buzzed open.

Mulder shook his head and slid between Scully and the

guard station, following Flores down the hallway with

a look of concentration on his face. As Scully turned

to go with them, a strange scent wafted up to her

nose, reminding her of candles that Melissa had

burned in their room when they were children.

Shrugging it off as Mulder’s influence, she proceeded

after the two men.

****************

Dr. Alan Sycaroe’s Office

12:53 p.m.

“Doctor Sycaroe, some FBI agents wish to speak with

you.”

Sycaroe’s eyes widened slightly before he ducked his

face to wipe his mouth on a cloth napkin. “Show them

in please.” He pushed back from his desk and stood as

the pair of agents walked into his office. Holding

out a hand he grasped the man’s hand first and then

the woman’s. “Please forgive the mess,” he indicated

the plate of half-eaten ham and beans before him.

“No need to apologize, Doctor, we should apologize

for interrupting your lunch. I’m Agent Scully and

this is my partner, Agent Mulder. We’d like to ask

you a few questions regarding the death of a

prisoner.”

“Yes, Arnie Bunkwater I assume. Please, have a seat.

What would you like to know?”

“I understand that you were the one to discover the

body. Can you tell us about that?”

Leaning back in his chair, Sycaroe rubbed at his chin

in thought. “Well, I had just begun my rounds-”

“It said in our report that you found him at five-

thirty in the morning, isn’t that a bit early?”

Mulder interjected.

Sycaroe shook his head. “Actually, no. This is a

large facility and the day starts early. I usually

get here at five to get things in order and then

begin my rounds. I had just performed a physical on

Bunkwater the night before and discovered an abnormal

heart condition, which I treated with conventional

methods. I wanted to see how he was doing after

treatment.”

“What kind of heart condition?” Scully sat forward in

her seat, her eyes bright with interest.

“Unusually slow heart rate. I thought it might be

indicative of deterioration of his cardiac tissues

and wanted to run some more tests. Apparently I was

too late. I found him in his cell, lying on the

ground with his hands wrapped around his throat. I

immediately contacted Harry, the guard on duty, and

he opened the cell so I could try to revive him.

After several minutes of CPR I deemed it impossible

to bring him back and called the time of death.”

“Did you notice anything odd when you went into his

cell?” Mulder asked.

Sycaroe’s eyebrows raised. “Odd? Like what?”

“A strange smell, something out of place here.”

Scully shot her partner a surprised look and so she

missed the fear that flashed across the doctor’s

face. Mulder hadn’t though.

Without waiting for an answer he stood and offered

his hand to Sycaroe. “Thank you, Doctor. We’ve taken

up enough of your time. One last thing – is

Bunkwater’s body available for an autopsy?”

The doctor stood as well, taking Mulder’s

outstretched hand and shaking it firmly. “Yes, it’s

downstairs in the morgue. I’m sorry I couldn’t give

you any more information.”

Mulder just gave him an enigmatic smile.

****************

Virginia State Correctional Facility Morgue

2:03 p.m.

It wasn’t until they were alone in the morgue that

Mulder felt it was safe to talk. Flores had fled to

the outer room when Scully made the first incision in

Bunkwater’s chest.

“Dr. Sycaroe is definitely involved.”

“Why do you say that? And what was with that question

about an odd smell?”

Mulder went on to describe to Scully how Bunkwater

had been caught all those years before and how the

smell he’d noticed earlier reminded him of the

crushed flowers on the killer’s shoes.

Now Mulder’s previous comment about ‘leftover from

memory’ made sense but it still didn’t explain his

logic. “What does that have to do with Dr. Sycaroe?”

“He is hiding something, I know it.”

“Mulder, these inmates died of heart attacks, that

much is obvious from the autopsy reports of the first

two inmates. There are ways to cause heart attacks

with the right drugs and I’m not saying that they

weren’t murdered, it’s just that there isn’t any

evidence of paranormal causes. Perhaps someone is

exacting revenge and everyone else is turning a blind

eye because the victims were convicted killers.”

“You mean Warden Harbrook?”

“You have to admit that he wasn’t exactly worried

about the idea that Bunkwater might have been

murdered. He was rather emphatic about the fact that

it should have happened a long time ago. All the

victims were on death row for years, their sentences

being prolonged by appeals. Maybe someone just

decided to cut through all the red tape.”

Mulder licked his lips, his mind processing this

idea. “Perhaps. But there is something more to this.

Those men didn’t just die of heart attacks, there was

also secondary trauma to each one that can’t be

explained.”

Scully put down her scalpel. “Do you have a theory

now?”

“I’ve got one forming but I’m going to need to do

some snooping around first. I’m going to have the

boys do a background check on the good doctor, see

what turns up. I don’t think we’re gonna need to

visit the other two prisons where the previous deaths

occurred; talking to the prison doctors should be

enough.” Flipping open his cell phone, Mulder punched

in some numbers.

Scully just nodded and turned back to her work,

letting her partner’s voice drift into the

background.

****************

ACT 2

Virginia State Correctional Facility Infirmary

4:17 p.m.

“You know who that was, Doc?”

“Hmm?”

“The FBI guy. You know who that was?”

Sycaroe shined the light into Darryl’s left eye and

the prisoner blinked.

“That was Fox Mulder. You know, Doc, the profiler who

put half of us in here. C’mon, you musta heard about

him.”

Looking up from his instruments, Dr. Sycaroe frowned

at the inmate before him. “You mean to tell me that

the agent who was just here is the one that you all

curse constantly?”

Darryl looked smug, as though his knowledge somehow

made him important. “Yup. Pretty little partner he’s

got. Wonder if they hump like bunnies?”

Ignoring the prisoner’s crude comment, Sycaroe

proceeded with his examination. “I seem to remember

someone saying that the reason he caught so many

killers was because he could think like one. Why’s

that?”

“Johnny Dunlap said that the guy killed his own

sister back when they were kids. Hid the body where

it couldn’t be found.”

“Johnny Dunlap is insane.”

“Yeah, but he didn’t make this up. He spent a couple

of years in Lorton a while back and there was this

guy there who used to work with Mulder. Bob Patterson

or something. Anyhow, the guy said that Mulder was so

good at what he did ’cause he thought like a killer,

had the experience if you know what I mean. Wouldn’t

surprise me; most cops are crooked.”

The conversation ended with the exam and when Darryl

Covington left the room he immediately forgot about

it. But Dr. Sycaroe didn’t.

*************

Mulder’s Apartment

7:25 p.m.

“Mmm-hmm, yeah, I got it,” Mulder mumbled into the

phone as he scribbled something on a piece of paper

he had scrounged off his cluttered desk.

Scully moved over from examining the lone survivor in

the fish tank to see what he had written. ‘Institute

of Neurological Studies – Dr. Hanson’ was scrawled

almost illegibly on the notepaper. It was a good

thing she had plenty of practice reading doctors’

writing or she may never have been able to make sense

of her partner’s notes through the years.

Mulder was nodding now, not the agreeing type of nod

but the one that indicates you just want the other

person to shut up so you can get on with your life.

“Yeah, Frohike I’ll tell her. No, I don’t think…

Frohike!!” Throwing a look over his shoulder at

Scully he growled something harsh into the receiver,

too low for her to hear. Finally he hung up and

flopped down on the couch with a sigh. “Sometimes I

wonder about that little mole.”

Scully raised an eyebrow, afraid to ask.

“Oh, nothing, he just sends his undying love.” The

frown that crossed Mulder’s face implied that more

was said but, knowing Frohike, was too inappropriate

to be repeated.

Dana couldn’t help the smile that emerged. “He’s got

a good heart, I hope you weren’t too hard on him.”

His own eyebrows raised in reply so she moved on.

“Well, how is the INS involved?”

For a second, confusion clouded Mulder’s eyes at the

use of an acronym that seemed out of context but soon

recognition dawned. “Dr. Sycaroe used to work for the

Institute. Spent several years there trying to

develop a drug that would improve neurological

functions in impaired patients. His partner, a Doctor

Hanson, is still there.”

“Why would Sycaroe leave such a highly regarded

position at the forefront of neurological research to

be a prison doctor?”

“Better pay?”

Scully snorted. “Not likely. Perhaps he just got too

burned out on the high level of stress to produce

results. It wouldn’t be the first time a physician

took a sabbatical in a different field.”

Pursing his lips, Mulder considered her suggestion.

“Or maybe he reached a point in his research where he

needed human subjects and was too impatient to wait

for approval. Are you sure you didn’t find anything

unusual in Bunkwater’s autopsy?”

“Nothing, just an elevated level of adrenaline and

traces of norepenephrine, which Sycaroe said he’d

given Bunkwater for his heart.” Her brows furrowed

slightly as she thought back through her findings.

Knowing that look, Mulder nudged her. “There’s

something else.”

“Well, there is one thing. As far as I can tell,

there was absolutely nothing wrong with his heart.

It’s like he suddenly had a heart attack for no

reason at all.”

“Maybe he was scared to death.”

Scully’s head drew back and she cast her partner a

puzzled look. “Why would you say that?”

“If you thought you were being choked to death, you’d

be pretty scared too,” Mulder reasoned.

Silence reigned for a moment. “Are you saying that

you think this is related to Augustus Cole, who you

claim could create vision in other people’s heads?

He’s dead and so are all the other men in his unit

whose sleep patterns were altered.”

“No, I don’t think it has anything to do with sleep

deprived soldiers but that case does prove that a

person can die from fright if he truly believes he is

dying. Psychosomatic death isn’t that far-fetched

anymore.” Pushing himself up off the couch and moving

into the kitchen, Mulder continued his line of

reasoning. “Arnie killed his victims by

strangulation. Wouldn’t it be the ultimate revenge to

have him die the same way he killed?”

Having followed her partner to the kitchen, Scully

lounged against the doorframe and watched him rummage

through the refrigerator. “It still begs the question

of who is behind this, if anyone.”

Pulling his head out of the fridge with two beers in

one hand, he flashed her a grin. “That’s why we’re

going to pay Dr. Sycaroe’s ex-partner a visit

tomorrow.” Reaching up to a cupboard above the sink,

Mulder selected a large bowl and held it out to

Scully. “Now, you make the popcorn, it’s my turn to

pick the movie.”

With a theatrical groan, Scully accepted the

proffered bowl and proceeded to make the popcorn,

shouting over her shoulder to Mulder, “Don’t you dare

pick anything with aliens in it, I’d had enough of

them to last me a lifetime!”

Laughter drifted back from the living room.

****************

Wednesday

6:11 a.m.

Feeling the blood pumping through his body and the

crisp morning air burn in his lungs was a joyous

reminder of how good it was to be healthy. After so

many trips to the hospital this past year, it had

taken Mulder a long time to gain his stamina back. He

still wasn’t back to one hundred percent but he was

determined to get there in record time. Pushing

himself a little harder, he increased his pace and

rounded the last corner that led to his apartment

building. Slowing his jog as he made it up to the

front door, he came to a stop and put his hands on

his knees, breathing deeply.

Putting out a hand to open the door, he felt a heavy

blow to the back of his head. The next thing he knew

he was on the ground, his cheek scraping against the

concrete. A deep voice growled in his ear, “Where’s

yer wallet??” The stench of alcohol wafted from his

attacker’s mouth and Mulder squirmed beneath the iron

grip pinning him to the ground. Rough hands patted

him down, presumably searching for anything of value.

A sharp pain suddenly shot up his arm from just below

his shoulder and he had to swallow a groan. Then the

pressure holding him down was gone and he could hear

feet running off into the distance.

Rolling over to lay on his back, Mulder took a moment

to regain his senses. Slowly drawing himself into a

sitting position, he used the wall to support himself

as he stood. He stared out across the lawn, looking

in all directions but there wasn’t a soul in sight,

no sign of the mugger or even a witness. Turning back

to enter his building, he muttered, “Figures. Why

me?”

Careful of the pounding in his head, he made his way

up to his apartment, unlocking the door to be greeted

by the warm rich scent of coffee. Scully’s cheerful

voice came from the kitchen. “Did you have a good

run?”

“I wouldn’t go as far as to describe it as good,” he

groused as he moved to sit gingerly at the dining

room table.

Scully appeared in the doorway with two cups of

steaming coffee in her hand, a look of worried

surprise on her face. “Mulder! What happened??”

Wiping at the blood running from the scrapes on his

cheek, he angrily answered, “Damn mugger knocked me

down and tried to steal my wallet. Good thing all I

carry with me when I jog is my ID.”

Judging from his temperament that he wasn’t seriously

injured, Scully set down the coffee in front of him

and then took his face in her hands, turning him so

she could look at the abrasion. “Did you get a good

look at him?”

“No, he got away before I had a chance. I should have

gone after him.” He flinched as she gently probed his

head for signs of trauma.

“Unarmed and with a lump the size of an egg on the

back of your head? That would have been foolhardy.

Track my finger.”

Following her commands they both went through the

well-rehearsed process of judging whether he had a

concussion or not. “Well, it looks like you came away

with nothing but a bruised face and damaged pride.”

“Don’t forget a king-sized headache.” Mulder didn’t

mention the burning in his right shoulder, assuming

it was just a bruised muscle.

“I can always take you to the hospital if you think

it’s worse,” Scully offered sweetly.

Panic flashed across Mulder’s face. “No, no, that’s

okay. I think I’ve had enough of hospitals. Let’s

just forget about it and get ready. We don’t want to

miss our appointment with Dr. Hanson.”

***************

Institute of Neurological Studies

Dr. Hanson’s Laboratory

8:57 a.m.

“Are you my nine o’clock appointment?”

Dr. Hanson was a tall reedy man with thick glasses

and shaggy hair that had to be constantly brushed out

of his eyes. His hands were constantly in motion,

reminding Scully of her partner when his mind was

racing far past that of the common man. She smiled

inwardly as she answered, “Yes. We’re Agents Scully

and Mulder with the FBI. We would like to ask you

some questions about your work and about your

previous partner.”

A pair of bushy eyebrows disappeared under the mop of

hair as he shook their hands. “Alan? Is he in some

sort of trouble?”

“Can you tell us what you two were working on while

he was here?” Mulder deflected quickly.

“We were working on enhancing the brain functions of

subjects by ‘borrowing’ neuroelectrical impulses from

others. Where you could teach something to one person

and then simply transfer it to another without having

to go through the same arduous steps. By copying the

impulses of one subject, I can put them in another

subject who was previously unable to perform the same

impulses. My original thesis of transferring

intelligence is quite simple actually, the

implications obvious for the mentally impaired or

those with learning disabilities. A child who cannot

feed or dress themselves due to neurological problems

might be ‘taught’ how to do so with a simple

injection of neuroelectrical impulses from a child

who can.”

Mulder looked at his partner for a translation. She

was staring at Dr. Hanson with a look of astonishment

on her face. “You mean you can take *memories* from

one person and put them in another?”

The doctor nodded excitedly. “To date I have made

successful transfers of neuroelectrical impulses in

lab rats. My finding shows that the rats respond more

to certain memories than to others. These would be

things like your first date, your first kiss, or your

first car accident; events or traumas in our lives

that are so powerful that they are unforgettable. In

the past 3 years I’ve…”

Mulder interrupted with something akin to suspicion,

“So you’ve really transferred memory.”

Hanson shrugged. “Well in lab rats at least. Not the

most advanced brains I admit but a good jumping off

point.”

“How?”

Hanson walked over to a small cage and pulled a gray

and black striped cat from the container. “It’s

easier if I just show you.” Next the doctor moved

over to a large table that took up a good percentage

of the room. A maze was built on top of the table,

its walls approximately a foot high and no ceiling to

allow spectators from above. Attached to one end of

the table was a small box with a sliding door that

opened into the maze. Next to this small box was a

larger one exactly like it. It was in this box that

Hanson placed the cat, petting it and making soothing

noises. In the smaller box he put a large white rat

that he had extricated from one of the many cages

along the wall of the laboratory. Then he opened the

door to the small box, allowing the rodent entrance

into the maze. After a moment he did the same for the

cat.

In an instant the cat sprang after the rat, who

squeaked in fear and bolted through the maze,

navigating the corridors at a frantic pace. Only

making one small mistake, the rat reached the end of

the maze in seconds, evading its pursuer. Hanson

scooped up the tiny animal, scratching its small

body. “Neuropeptides mediate memory storage and

retrieval in your brain. In theory a person’s

thoughts and memories are contained in the cerebral

spinal fluid but if you injected CSF you wouldn’t see

a thing because there’s no primer, no starter. I

started thinking about neuroactive drugs like

norepenephrine and adrenaline.”

Scully was nodding in understanding as the doctor

returned the rat to its cage. “Because they increase

the brain’s sensitivity during memory retrieval, so

hence, your starter.”

“Right.” He walked to a long counter and picked up a

vial from a tray containing countless others. “This

is it, my transfer formula; it’s a combination of

norepinephrine, a GABA inhibitor and a few other

things.” Drawing liquid from the vial with a large

needle, Hanson went to a different cage on the other

side of the room as the others and pulled out another

rat. With no further ado he plunged the needle into

this new rat. Mulder flinched in sympathy, rubbing

his sore arm absently.

“When injected, the brain experiences the new memory

impulses as if they were it’s own. But for these

impulses to be triggered they require outside

stimulants such as a sight or sound that’s familiar

to the other brain’s memory. This is a rat that has

never been in the maze you just saw.” Another vial

from the table was retrieved and injected with

similar efficiency as before. “This is the CSF of a

rat who is familiar with the maze. By injecting this

CSF into this rat he should be able to run this maze

perfectly. The cat is the outside stimulus, to make

the memory more vivid.” Hanson returned to the table

maze and put the rat in the small box, performing the

same demonstration as before. The FBI watched in

amazement as the rat ran the maze perfectly.

“It has an eighty percent success rate,” Hanson

beamed.

Mulder stared at the rat, safe in its enclosure at

the end of the maze. “When do you start human

trials?”

“That’s a long way off.” Hanson replaced both feline

and rodent in their respective cages.

“Why?”

“Well, there are a few complications, not to mention

about six years worth of paperwork.” The doctor

grimaced at this.

“What kind of complications?” Scully asked.

“The norepenephrine stimulates the heart. The heart

rate and blood pressure of all the rats increased and

unfortunately thirty percent of them…”

“Have heart attacks,” Mulder finished.

Hanson shrugged. ” I can’t reduce the dosage and

anything that would inhibit the side effect would

also inhibit the retrieval.”

Scully was staring at the maze as though she was

imagining the rat racing through its course once

again. She looked up, her eyes clouded with thought.

“What about nitroglycerin?”

Hanson nodded. “I’d thought of that but while it

might solve the short term problems, it would still

run the risk of long term damage to the heart.”

Mulder pinned the scientist with a sharp gaze. “And

Doctor Sycaroe was involved in all processes of the

development of this drug?”

“Yes, in fact Alan was instrumental in us reaching

this point in the experiment. It was a shame that he

left but he was so devastated by the loss of his

daughter that he was no longer interested in his

science.”

Scully could feel her partner tense from across the

room. “What happened to his daughter?”

Hanson lowered his voice, whether to show respect for

the subject or whether he felt the need to act

conspiratorially, Mulder wasn’t sure, but he listened

with great interest. “You remember that serial killer

about a year ago that was killing children up and

down the eastern seaboard? Well, Alan’s poor little

girl Leanna was one of his last victims before he was

caught. The man nearly went mad with grief. What a

shame,” he repeated with a sigh.

Scully shuddered and looked up at her partner, whose

eyes were dark with emotion. Putting a hand on his

arm, she turned to the scientist. “Thank you, Dr.

Hanson, you’ve been very helpful. I wish you luck in

your valiant endeavor.”

Hanson smiled. “No problem. If there’s anything more

I can do, feel free to call me.”

Guiding Mulder out of the laboratory, Scully let go

of him and let him sag back against the hallway.

“Mulder. Earth to Mulder.”

Shaking his head as if to clear it, Mulder flinched

as his headache flared back to life. “Hmm? What?”

“What were you just thinking right then?”

“Oh, I was thinking about Arthur Stark.”

“Who?”

“The Midnight Killer. He was the one who killed

Leanna Sycaroe. You and I were working on the

religious killings case with Kenny when they caught

him. I remember hearing about it on the news when I

had the TV on for noise. I didn’t realize she was

related to our Dr. Sycaroe.” Looking down at his

hands he murmured, “Wish there was something I could

have done.”

Scully grabbed him by the shoulders and gave him a

shake. “Mulder, don’t even think about blaming

yourself! You were a little preoccupied at the time

and another case certainly would not have gone over

well. Besides, they caught him and now he’s behind

bars where he belongs.”

“Actually, no. He was on death row with a whole slew

of appeals lined up to go but he died of a heart

attack a month and a half ago. I hadn’t included him

in my list of victims because he was a perfect

candidate for a heart attack,” he muttered, thinking

of the mug shots of an overweight man with teeth

yellowed by tobacco.

They began walking down the hallway, their dress

shoes loud on the slick floors. “I bet the parents of

those kids Stark killed were angry and hurt by the

seemingly blind justice system.”

Mulder looked pointedly down at his partner. “Angry

enough to take matters into their own hands.”

“I think we just found our motive.” Scully pushed

open the large entrance door and stepped out into the

bright sunlight, putting a hand up to her eyes.

“Now all we need is a weap- Aaaggh!!” Mulder’s

sentence was cut off by a strangled cry as he

suddenly fell to his knees, his hands flying up to

his head.

For a moment Scully was taken back several years to a

time when she and her partner had been in a similar

situation after he’d had a hole drilled in his head.

But that was too long ago to be the same thing.

Unless the recent blow to his head might have

triggered it.

“Mulder?? Mulder, can you hear me?” She knelt next to

him, putting one hand on his shoulder and the other

on the side of his face. His eyes were wide open as

though he was staring at something in utter terror.

All of a sudden he sprang to his feet. “Noooo!” he

cried out, taking a few stumbling steps before

falling back to the ground, his palms flat on the

pavement.

Scully ran to him, bending down to his level. His

breathing was ragged and perspiration spotted his

brow. Placing two fingers on his neck she felt the

thrumming of his pulse as it raced through his body.

His eyes no longer seemed to see something unearthly

but they hadn’t lost the fear that had so startled

her. “Mulder, what happened?”

Leaning back on his haunches as he took in huge gulps

of air, it took him long moments before he answered.

“I… I’m not sure, but I think I just witnessed

Samantha’s abduction.”

Scully’s brows knitted together. “You had a

flashback?”

This time Mulder’s answer was quicker in coming. “No.

Well, yes, maybe, oh I don’t know. I had a flashback,

but it wasn’t like any I’ve ever had.”

Concern was thick in her voice when Scully asked,

“What do you mean?”

“I saw Sam’s abduction as if it were through her own

eyes.”

**********

George Washington Memorial Hospital

11:21 a.m.

She lay flat against the table, her arms pinned to

her sides and her legs strapped down about a foot

apart. Above she could see a large cylindrical

machine, something sharp protruding from the end

facing her. As the machine began to move closer and

closer she struggled against her bonds, crying out

for help. Tossing her head side to side all she saw

was darkness as though the entire world had

disappeared except for the circle of light that

enveloped her.

Tears began to stream down her face as she realized

that no one was coming to help her, no one could hear

her cries.

The machine came closer and closer, the sharp drill-

like projection spinning faster and faster. Closing

her eyes as if that could somehow stop this

nightmare, she tried to think of good things, happy

thoughts that would put her in a safe place. When the

drill pierced her skin she screamed out the name of

someone she had always trusted to come to her.

“FOX!!”

“Get him out of there right now!” Scully ordered the

nurse. Spinning on her heel she ran out the door of

the control room and burst into the MRI lab where her

partner was slowly emerging from the scanner. His

body was trembling as though from fright and his

breathing was coming in harsh gasps. Occasionally a

hoarse whimper emerged from a throat raw from a

desperate cry for help.

Scully didn’t know what was going on but she was

beginning to suspect that Mulder’s devastating

flashbacks had something to do with Dr. Sycaroe and

his miracle memory drug. The how was going to have to

wait until she got a handle on Mulder’s condition.

They had arrived at the hospital about an hour ago

and met with Dr. Kurtz, who was familiar with

Mulder’s background from previous visits. Promptly

running about every test imaginable from tox screens

to x-rays, it wasn’t until the MRI scan that Mulder

had another episode. He had started to struggle

against the bonds that kept him in place during the

scan and then had suddenly called out his own name in

an anguished cry. Quickly surmising what was going

on, Scully had the operator shut down the scanner and

rushed to her partner’s side.

Pushing back damp hair from his sweaty forehead, she

murmured softly, “Mulder?” When it was apparent that

he was fairly lucid, she continued. “What happened?

What did you see?”

His Adam’s apple bobbed twice as he swallowed.

“Tests. They were performing tests on her and she

called out for me. I couldn’t save her, Scully.” This

last was uttered in despair.

“Mulder, you did everything you could to find her and

now she is in a better place. There is no need for

you to feel guilty about something you had no power

to fight against.”

“I know but before I could at least imagine that she

wasn’t so completely frightened, that the tests

weren’t too painful.” He turned bright eyes to stare

up at Scully. “But now I know she was absolutely

terrified.”

“Maybe not. If what you saw was real, then it was

simply a memory, not what she felt but what she saw.”

He was shaking his head as she spoke. “It wasn’t like

memory, it was like an experience. It makes the past

into the present as if you’re really there. I know

how scared she was.”

“But how?”

“Because *I* was terrified.”

**********

ACT 3

1:41 p.m.

“Stop fidgeting.”

“I can’t. This damn gown flaps in the back and it’s a

bit chilly in here.”

“Personally I don’t mind the flapping.”

“Scully!”

Scully chuckled at the sight of her partner clutching

at the back of his hospital gown. The sound of a door

opening interrupted their banter and they both

straightened to attention.

“I have good news,” Dr. Kurtz announced. The MRI came

back clean; there’s no sign of any kind of damage.

The blow to the head was superficial and there

appears to be only a slight swelling. The EKG came

back normal as did the tox screens.”

“What about his heart?” Scully asked, trying to find

a link to the effects Dr. Hanson had mentioned showed

up in his rats.

Kurtz checked the clipboard in his hand, leafing

through the test results. “No bruits, regular rate

and rhythm. No murmurs, rubs or extra heart sounds

and the lungs are clear. The only thing that might

point to an answer is a raised level of adrenaline.

Have you been under a lot of stress lately, Agent

Mulder?”

Mulder just grunted.

Scully pursed her lips, thinking back on the past

several months. Stress? What stress? She almost

laughed out loud at the thought. “Dr. Kurtz, Agent

Mulder has been in stressful situations before and

never had these…episodes. They seem completely

random as though it was an external stimulant that

caused them, not an internal one.”

“A trigger.”

Scully turned to look at her partner, who was staring

at her with realization dawning in his eyes. “A

trigger, something that is reminiscent of the

memories I’m flashing back to. Like a bright light or

being strapped down while a big machine hovers over

me.”

“Is there something wrong with your arm?”

Kurtz’s question caught him off guard and Mulder

actually had to look down at his own shoulder. He

hadn’t even realized he’d been rubbing it. “Not

really. It just burns a little. I think I bruised it

when I got mugged this morning.”

“Let’s have a look.” Dr. Kurtz pulled up a chair and

sat down next to the agent. Pushing up the gown

sleeve to look at the spot Mulder indicated. “Oh, one

of the nurses must have pushed the needle a tad too

far, it appears they bruised the muscle. I’ll have a

word with them about it.”

Scully nodded absently, her mind focused on the

puzzle that was starting to fall into place.

************

En Route to Mulder’s Apartment

2:35 p.m.

“Mulder, we are not going to the prison. You need to

rest and stay in a place that is familiar so there

won’t be any stimuli to trigger another episode.”

“Scully, holing up in my apartment isn’t going to

help, and sleep certainly won’t either. We have to

see Dr. Sycaroe and find out how to stop this.”

“You have no conclusive proof that he did anything.”

“Yes I do. Scully, this morning when I was mugged I

felt a sharp pain in my shoulder, like something had

stabbed me. Don’t give me that look! I didn’t tell

you because I didn’t see any obvious damage and just

figured it was a bruise.”

“Dr. Kurtz says it was an injection site and that one

of the nurses was careless.”

“He was half right. It was an injection site all

right but not from one of the nurses. I pay close

attention when people are poking me with needles, and

I remember very clearly that they never came near my

right arm with a needle. They took everything from my

left arm.”

Scully licked her lips as she considered his words.

“I’m not saying I don’t think you’ve been injected

with the memory drug, since there is a lot of

evidence pointing towards it.”

“But…”

“But if you really had been injected with the same

drug as the prisoners, then why aren’t you dead?”

“I’d thought of that. The rats had heart problems,

right? Well, they had been injected repeatedly and

their hearts are much smaller than ours, so isn’t it

conceivable that what might cause a heart attack in

them may only cause a racing heart in a human?”

Scully nodded. “I suppose, but those prisoners *did*

die from heart attacks.”

“But not from the drug,” Mulder insisted. “Think

about it. Suddenly you have a flashback to someone

trying to kill you and there is nothing you can do to

stop it because you already know that you’re going to

die. That would certainly qualify as a frightening

experience and combined with a racing heartbeat could

lead to a heart attack.”

“That’s all fine and dandy, but it still doesn’t

explain why you haven’t had a heart attack,” Scully

pointed out.

“You seem awfully stuck on the fact that I should be

dead. Something you’re trying to tell me?” Mulder

smirked evilly.

Scully frowned. “Don’t even joke about that, Mulder.

You know what I’m getting at.”

“Unlike the others, I didn’t kill the person who I’m

flashing back to. She was abducted by aliens and

experimented on, but they didn’t kill her. Add to

that the fact that I’ve spent the last thirty years

looking for her and delving into what she may have

experienced, that I’ve become sort of immune to the

horrific aspects of it. In other words, I couldn’t be

scared to death because I knew that she lived through

it.”

“But you said yourself that you were terrified,”

Scully reminded him.

“Yes, but not because I thought I was going to die. I

was experiencing the fear she felt at the time but I

was able to counter it with the knowledge that it

wasn’t going to kill me. Her. Whatever.”

clip_image001

Scully’s lips tightened into a thin line. “So you

want to confront Sycaroe and ask why he’s doing

this.”

“Oh, I know why he’s doing it. A monster took his

daughter away from him, and the justice system that

was supposed to give him peace by destroying that

monster has failed him. He’s taking justice into his

own hands and giving the killers a taste of their own

medicine so to speak. I can’t say that I blame him.”

Scully shot him a surprised look.

“I’m not saying he’s right to do what he’s doing, but

it doesn’t mean I don’t agree with him.”

They drove on in silence for a while. When the exit

came up that would take them to the prison instead of

Mulder’s apartment, Scully took it. “Mulder, why

would Sycaroe think your sister’s memories would kill

you?”

“It’s not that I’m wondering about. What I want to

know is *where* he got Sam’s memories.”

**************

Virginia State Correctional Facility

3:24 p.m.

Without waiting for Harbrook’s permission, the two

FBI agents went straight to Sycaroe’s office,

ignoring the guards’ protests with a wave of their

badges. Not finding the doctor there, they moved on

to the infirmary.

In the middle of giving an inmate his yearly exam,

Dr. Sycaroe was unprepared for an interruption.

“Dr. Sycaroe?”

“Yes, what is it?” he asked impatiently, no even

looking up from the chart he was busily writing on.

“Dr. Sycaroe, might we have a word with you.” It

wasn’t a question.

Finally raising his head to see what impudent guard

was bothering him, Sycaroe was surprised to find two

federal agents staring back at him. Despite the fact

that one of them was supposed to be dead, he hadn’t

planned on seeing either of them ever again.

“Oh, um, yes, certainly. Let me just finish up with

Mr. Dumas here and I’ll be right with you.”

Mulder and Scully stood patiently, never letting the

doctor out of their sight. He finished examining the

inmate named Dumas, jotted down a few more notes and

sent the man on his way. It was then that he turned

to the pair of agents and cleared his throat. “All

right, now, what did you want to speak with me

about?”

“Perhaps we should discuss it in a more private

location?” Scully suggested.

“How about my office?” Sycaroe held out a hand and

gestured to the door.

“Lead the way.” There was no way that Mulder was

going to turn his back on this man.

Sycaroe nodded, his face expressionless. “Certainly.”

The trio filed down the hallways, eerily absent of

other people. If Mulder was a superstitious man, he

might have felt as though the prison itself was

conspiring against them. Which meant that Mulder did

indeed feel as though there were unseen eyes watching

them.

Reaching the doctor’s office, Sycaroe entered first,

moving to sit at his desk. Folding his hands on the

wooden surface, he waited expectantly.

Mulder decided to get straight to the point. “Dr.

Sycaroe, we know that you’re responsible for the

death of at least four inmates.”

Instead of surprise or remorse, the doctor simply

raised his eyebrows and cocked his head as though he

was confused. “And how do you believe that I killed

them?”

Scully spoke up. “With an experimental drug you and

your partner Dr. Hanson developed at INS. You

implanted the inmates with memories from their

victims and they died because of it.”

Sycaroe neither confirmed nor denied the accusation.

“Why should you care whether or not someone killed

them? Those men were monsters who deserved much worse

than they got. They were all on death row, why would

it matter *when* they die?”

Mulder spoke in a low and soothing tone. “I know what

it is like to lose a loved one, Dr. Sycaroe. The

anger at the person who took them away, the need to

bring swift justice with your own hand. But this

isn’t the way.”

“You?? You lost someone? Ha! I know all about your

sister, Agent Mulder. About how you killed her and

buried her somewhere she’d never be found. You think

that no one knows? Well, they do! Your own peers have

betrayed you to me! It takes a killer to catch a

killer, Agent Mulder.” Sycaroe’s voice had grown in

intensity as his rage increased. Suddenly he sprang

from his seat and started pacing back and forth

behind his desk.

Neither agent moved to stop him, knowing that the man

was lost in his own mind, words pouring out of his

mouth without conscious thought. It was a confession

they were waiting for. The only movement taken was by

Scully, who placed a hand on Mulder’s arm when

Sycaroe accused him of killing his sister. She knew

it was still a tear in her partner’s heart and she

offered what small comfort she could.

“Arthur Stark killed my little girl! He killed my

precious baby, the only person I had left who meant

anything to me! All I had left was my anger and my

work, my research and my vengeance. The longer I

waited for justice the more I realized it was futile;

there is no justice. I wanted that monster to know

exactly how my Leanna felt when he killed her and if

felt so good to see the fear in his eyes when he knew

that he was going to die. But why stop there? Why not

let all the other baby butchers die by their own

hands??”

“No matter how many of them you bring to your form of

justice the pain will not go away. I spent almost

thirty years searching for answers about my sister

and when I finally discovered the truth I felt as

empty as ever. Nothing will bring her back.” Mulder

held out his hands as if to appease the tortured soul

he saw before him.

Confusion warred with anger and a flash of doubt

crossed Sycaroe’s face. “NO!!” he screamed, his hand

lashing out at the closest thing to him, which

happened to be a tall lamp near the window. The lamp

crashed through the glass, sending shards out onto

the yards below and shafts of light streamed into the

room.

The loud noise and sudden burst of light may have

been simply the shattering of a prison window but for

one occupant of the room it was a window into the

past.

She couldn’t move as the light enveloped her, holding

her body aloft. The only part of her that still

seemed to obey her mind was her voice, crying out for

her brother. She could see Fox scrambling across the

room towards the large bookcase where Daddy kept the

old books they weren’t allowed to touch. He climbed

up on a chair and reached for a small lock box on top

of the bookcase. His fingers barely brushed it but it

was enough to send the box careening off onto the

floor, spilling its contents over the carpeting.

She watched her brother pick up the gun that had been

hidden in the box; her mind dimly wondering how he

knew it was there. He pointed the gun into the light

and the clicking of the trigger was heard over the

droning noise that permeated everything. He called

out to her with such desperation that she knew there

was no hope.

“Help me, Fox!”

Sycaroe watched as Mulder fell to his knees, and his

hands moved up to his face as a flashback overcame

him. He trembled and shook as though experiencing

some sort of seizure. Scully was next to him in

seconds, one hand on his arm, the other on his back.

“Mulder, can you hear me?”

There was no response, but he did lower his hands to

reveal wide eyes staring into nothingness. Suddenly

his arms stretched out as though reaching for someone

and he cried, “Help me, Fox!”

Mulder doubled over, one hand braced against the

floor, the other moving up to be placed on his chest

as he sucked in deep breaths. Harsh words were pushed

out between each gasp and Scully had to listen hard

to understand them.

“I tried, I tried so hard and I couldn’t save her.

There was nothing I could do.”

“Shh, it’s okay.” Scully’s hand moved in circular

motions on his back, trying to calm him. “Take it

easy, long and slow breaths.”

Sycaroe, seemingly forgotten in the corner of his

office brought back reality with a strangled sob.

“I’m sorry. I’m so sorry, I thought you… I almost

killed an innocent person. I would have been no

better than the monsters I loathe. I’ve become that

which I despise.”

Mulder and Scully looked up to see Sycaroe shaking

his head in disbelief. “No,” Mulder said hoarsely.

Coughing once to clear his throat he stood up with

Scully’s support. “No, you are not like them, because

you did what you thought was needed to uphold your

value of life. Those men cared not for whose life

they destroyed or what kind of grief their actions

brought.”

Sycaroe appeared to be slowly accepting Mulder’s

words, his gaze intense upon the agent’s face. “I

didn’t know what to do, I was so angry. I had the

means to bring to those men the same fear that they

had wrought upon others. Power without knowledge is

dangerous.”

“How did you get admittance into the prisons where

the other inmates were held?” Scully asked.

“With documentation provided by the Warden, I was

able to enter the other prisons and inject the

prisoners under the pretense of doing blood tests so

transfusions would be easily procured between

facilities.”

“Harbrook? You mean Warden Harbrook is involved?”

Sycaroe opened his mouth to reply but his answer was

drowned out by a gunshot. The doctor fell to the

floor with blood pouring from a hole in his chest,

his dead eyes wide with shock.

The agents turned to see the Warden standing in the

doorway, a smoking gun in his hand. At the moment the

weapon was currently pointed directly at them. “Damn

doctor never could quit his whining. Too bad, his was

a most promising intellect.”

“You’ll never get away with this,” Mulder protested.

Peals of laughter poured from Harbrook’s lips. “How

cliché, Agent Mulder, and how naïve. Imagine my

horror when I arrived moments after I heard several

gunshots to find that Dr. Sycaroe had killed two FBI

agents and then shot himself, because he could no

longer live with the death of his daughter.”

“And you, with Sycaroe’s drug, will be free to

administer your version of justice to anyone you

believe deserves it. How far will you go? How long

will it take before you decide that your neighbor

complains too much and needs to be taught a lesson?

Or a woman turns down your advances and you want to

punish her for dealing a blow to your manhood?”

“It doesn’t matter. No one will ever know, because

all the deaths will look like heart attacks. Too bad

yours won’t be as clean.” Harbrook raised the gun and

leveled it at Mulder’s head.

*Bang*

A shot echoed down the hallways and Harbrook fell

forward, a bullet in his shoulder. Scully lunged

forward and scooped up the gun that had fallen from

the warden’s grasp. Mulder moved just as quickly,

pulling the man’s hands behind him and cuffing them

securely. His phone was out moments later, calling

for an ambulance and the police. He nodded to the

figure in the doorway, who was holstering his own

weapon.

Scully stood, holding out Harbrook’s gun. “Thank

you.”

Guard Flores inclined his head in a solemn bow.

“Don’t mention it.”

*************

Epilogue

Federal Bureau of Investigation

X-Files Office

Thursday

10:27 a.m.

“Frohike, I swear, if you say one more word…” The

threatening tone in Mulder’s voice was enough to warn

Scully that the Lone Gunman was once again professing

his undying love for her. Ah, one of the few

constants in life.

“Well, what did he have to say?” she asked when

Mulder hung up the phone.

Pursing his lips, Mulder leaned back in his chair.

“You’ll never guess who funded Sycaroe’s work; our

favorite cover pharmaceutical company, Roush.”

Scully perched herself on the edge of Mulder’s desk

and handed him a steaming cup of coffee. “I suppose

that explains where he got your sister’s DNA.”

“I guess.”

“Had any more flashbacks since last night?”

“No. Hanson did say they would fade as the drug left

my system.”

After arresting Warden Harbrook for murder and

accomplice to four other counts of murder, the agents

had gone to see Dr. Hanson for answers regarding

Mulder’s condition. The doctor, while saddened by the

death of his ex-partner, was thrilled to know that

the drug was effective in humans. He’d explained to

them that the drug would be gone in a few more hours,

whether absorbed by his body or expelled through his

waste.

“Something good did come from this whole fiasco.”

Scully raised an eyebrow.

When I had that flashback in Sycaroe’s office

yesterday, I felt what Sam felt when she was being

abducted. She was so scared and she wanted me to help

her. I couldn’t.”

Lowering her hand to take his in her own, Scully

murmured, “Mulder…”

“I couldn’t help her, but she didn’t blame me for

that.”

Scully cocked her head in an unspoken request for an

explanation.

Mulder leaned forward in his chair and looked up into

his partner’s eyes. “All these years I’ve blamed

myself, so sure that she must have blamed me as well

for not being able to save her. But now I know that

she didn’t. She never once thought that I had given

up on her and let her go.”

Ducking her head, Scully placed a tender kiss on

Mulder’s forehead, moving to his lips. “She didn’t

blame you because she loved you. Never forget that

she loved you, Mulder.”

A soft smile played across Mulder’s lips. “That was

Sam for you. She was unforgettable.”

*********

End

Walk Like a Man

cover

TITLE: Walk Like a Man

AUTHOR: Windsinger (aka Sue Esty)

E-MAIL ADDRESS: Windsinger@aol.com

DISTRIBUTION: IMTP for the first two weeks, then Ephemeral,

And Gossamer. All others, please contact the

author.

SPOILER WARNING: Fire, Fearful Symmetry, The End, CC season 7,

previous VS8 and VS9 universe.

RATING: PG-13

CLASSIFICATION: X-File, A, MSR

SUMMARY: A side trip to report on a fire in the FBI field office

brings Scully face to face with an old ‘boyfriend’ and Mulder

makes a couple of new friends of his own. Mulder and Scully are

soon hip deep in arson, riverboat gambling, prostitution, dog

hair, revenge, and death.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

PROLOGUE

September 12, 1am

George Tienne, stared briefly into the small room. There was not

much to it but a bed. A single, red bulb burned. The old Korean

woman had been there and for the amount they paid her had done as

adequate a job of cleaning up after the night’s excesses as one

could expect. In any case they were as clean as they needed to

be. This wasn’t the Hyatt after all, the man thought with a

sardonic smile. He headed for the narrow stairs.

Leaving the stairwell, he first locked the flimsy door behind him

and then turned to face the vast, shadowy cavern that was the

warehouse floor. As usual, he felt a twinge of primitive

apprehension. All that dark. Not ‘as usual’, he heard a growl.

Confused, Tienne stared in the direction of the sound and spied

three points of light, all roughly knee high, glowing from one of

the deeper shadows. Pulling a small flashlight from the pocket of

his silk suit, he pointed its wavering, feeble beam towards the

three sparks. He need not have bothered. The spots moved forward

until the figure was full in the dim light of the cavernous

space.

With a sigh, Tienne flicked off the beam and slipped the light

back into his pocket even as his heart rate slowly dropped back

to normal. “What a bad boy you are,” he said with nearly his

normal voice. “And what’s that you got there? A cigarette? A lit

cigarette? Who would ‘ave believed it.” For there was a lit

cigarette butt contrasting with the dark head and white teeth.

There were also no more growls, just an almost comical grin, until the

head lowered over a pool of what looked like water on the floor.

The slightest puff and the tip of the butt reddened and a flicker

fell to the floor. By the whoosh of flame the fluid had been

anything but water.

With an oath that was more alarm than fear, Tienne spun on the

toes of his expensive Italian shoes to run, to find a fire

extinguisher, to call the fire department. No, not the fire

department. But before he could decide what to do something heavy

and black streaked forward to latch onto the sleeve of his suit

coat.

“What do you think yer doin’! You crazy?”

Even as he cried out the flames found fresh tinder in the piles

of dust-dry packing material stacked everywhere about the

warehouse. The flames were man-size now and racing hungrily across

the floor.

In the man’s terror, he stripped off his coat, but the demon’s

teeth only took a new hold, this time into the flesh of the man’s

arm. There it hung, a dead weight that would not be dispelled.

Human screams were drowned in the fire’s roar as the flames

joyously swirled higher and higher around them both.

~~~~~~~~

ACT I:

September 13, 3pm

She should have parked farther away, Dana Scully thought as she

completed the distance between the Mississippi Visitor’s Center

and where she had parked their rental car. Easing back behind the

wheel, she was pleased to see that her companion in the

passenger’s seat slept on. She didn’t see how. Even with the seat

pushed back as far as it would go, he looked uncomfortable with

his arms and legs all in a jumble. She took a moment to examine

his face. At least in sleep the lines of strain were less. He

didn’t seem to be dreaming either, another reason to give thanks.

As quietly as possible, she turned the key in the ignition. The

motor chugged to life, not as smoothly as she would have wished.

In response Mulder turned, stretched, or tried to, and reversed

the drooping slouch so he was sitting more or less upright.

Groggily, he blinked the sleep from his eyes.

“Sorry to wake you, but since you’re up anyway do you need to

make a pit stop?”

With an effort he squinted against the glare, towards the cluster

of rest stop buildings that looked exactly like so many others

all over the country. He probably didn’t even remember what state

they were in. Not enough sleep, not nearly enough.

“Where are we? We must be close if you’re doing the bladder

thing.”

She jabbed him lightly in the shoulder.

“Ow!” He clutched at the affected area as if he were actually

injured. The broad smile took ten years off that face.

“So I don’t like to appear on the scene and immediately start

looking for a bathroom. Do you need to go or not?”

He waved her on. “I’m fine. I’m not the one who had two cups of

coffee at lunch.”

“You’re not the one who has to be able to function once we get

there.”

The grin faded. She shouldn’t have said that.

“Trying to tell me that the Energizer bunny is not what he used

to be? That I know.”

Sulking, he slid back down onto his backbone, knees almost to his

chin. Scully found her exit and headed towards town. She would

have liked to cheer him up but had learned long ago that she

might as well save her breath. Her talking about his moodiness

only made him moodier. He’d come out of it. His mind was too

active, too starved for input, to run in circles for long. If you

want a sensitive man in your life, it was the price you paid. For

this particular sensitive man, she’d sell her soul.

“Where’s Skinner again?” he asked.

She had told him before, but he must not have been paying

attention or he would have remembered. “Paris. Some Marine unit

reunion.”

“Paris? His unit served in Vietnam.”

“You’d hold a reunion in a malaria-invested swamp?”

“Why not? Can’t beat it for atmosphere. I just hope he gets back

soon. Having Kersh hand out the homework assignments makes me

nervous.”

“Skinner will be back Monday. I know that you don’t see eye to

eye with Kersh –”

“Aim lower. The man hates my guts. He looks at me like I was

something the dog just rolled in.”

Scully resisted giving her partner a sisterly pat on the head. In

his present mood he wouldn’t find the gesture either comforting

or humorous. She settled for, “He just doesn’t know the real

you.”

“That’s fortunate.”

“Skinner would probably have assigned us here anyway. We were in

Arkansas.”

A “hrump” from the passenger seat indicated that Mulder clearly

believed it unlikely.

He had a point. Skinner always had had an amazing ability to read

between the lines of their well-laundered case reports. He was

also a pro at reading body language or, in this case, of reading

voices over the phone.

Returning to his subject, Mulder grumbled, “Kersh must have gone

into my records.” Hazel eyes stared morosely out the window.

“I’ll bet that he made notes on everything I hated and when

something came up that fit the bill — bingo!” His palms came

together in a loud smack that made her jump.

“You don’t have to go near the fire. It’s really my case. You’re

–”

“I know, just along for the ride. Useless…again.”

Ouch, Scully thought. Lookin’ bad.

“Mulder, I know that it’s primarily my assignment, but I’m still

grateful to have you along. And you know that I’ll be as quick as

I can. It shouldn’t take long. They called me in because I know

what should be stocked in district level laboratories. I set up

two during my internship. And look on the bright side…if the

fire was anything like what was described in the report they sent

us, then there won’t be much to salvage. It’ll be a total loss.

One night, maybe two and we’ll be home.”

The buildings of Vicksburg’s small downtown area appeared on

their right. Where the land dipped they’d find the river, the

mighty Mississippi that they’d already crossed earlier in the day

on their trip from Arkansas. Where the smoke curled high and

black and oily, they would find the fire. Almost at the same time

that the smoke came into view, Scully could smell it. Troubled,

she shot a look in Mulder’s direction. He hadn’t moved. He still

stared unblinking out the window though his jaw had tightened. He

had to have smelled it, too, and she thought that she saw him

swallow, not once but multiple times.

After that, she was forced to pay attention to the road. Somehow

even this place with its mild winters had managed to accumulate

its share of car-mangling potholes and they were not entering the

best part of town. Maybe not the worst either, but certainly the

oldest. Within blocks of leaving the interstate she was

navigating down a narrow street. On her left, tall warehouses

which must have stored cotton for decades even before the Civil

War, blocked her view of Old Muddy. On her right were mills just

as old. Huge, dirty, many-paneled windows looked out on the

street. The warehouses and mills were mostly empty now, decaying

and stocked with pallets of goods no one needed anymore. Oh, a

lucky few of the ancient behemoths were close enough to the good

part of town to make it worth someone’s time to renovate them

into trendy outlets, boutiques, sports clubs or apartments, but

she saw none of those here. One, however, had been leased and

cheaply renovated by a certain budget-poor and space-hungry

government agency.

Scully took a shallow turn where both road and river curved as

one, and all at once there it was. Squatting on an entire block,

black with soot and charred timber, it smoked under a low sky of

the same color. She was almost relieved to see that it was nearly

as dead as a building can get. Maybe what she had told Mulder

about seeing home soon would actually turn out to be true. She

would know soon, for at the far end of the dead mass she could

make out the distinct flashing lights in blue and red, white and

yellow. There must be two dozen emergency vehicles, though even

their brilliant colors found it hard going to cut through the

smoke-polluted air.

She drove slowly past the south end of the building. They built

well a hundred or so years ago. Even as damaged as it was,

even with its roof and most of its upper floors burned through,

much of the outer brick walls still stood. Ash-covered pools were

everywhere, however, evidence that the fire department had been

here and moved on, following or trying to get ahead of, the

inferno’s hungry advance. They hadn’t kept very far ahead, but

then buildings of seasoned wood and decades of accumulated dust

burn fast and hot. At the north end of the block, the fire

department was still cleaning up the last bits of orange flame.

From what Scully could see as she pulled up behind the yellow

police tape, there was a good deal less damage here than at the

southern end.

“Local relations must not be too bad,” Mulder’s voice announced,

the sudden break in his silence startling his partner. “The

Bureau’s offices may not be a total loss.” His head was inclined

towards a sign on an intact section of the old brick wall above

where two fire fighters conferred. A blue and white four-by-three

foot rectangle was miraculously untouched except for the streams

of dirty water running down its face — Federal Bureau of

Investigation, Central Mississippi Field Office.

“Sorry. Guess we won’t be going home as soon as we had hoped.”

“When have we ever gotten so lucky?”

Not that often.

For the next few minutes they watched the elaborate choreography

of fire fighters, trucks, ladders, and hoses dramatically framed

within the high arcs of water. All the while, the lights of the

emergency vehicles cut like colorful light sabers through the

murky haze.

And always there was the smell. It wasn’t the worst Scully had

ever run into, not by a long shot. Then again maybe that sense

had dulled in her over the years. It wouldn’t surprise her

considering the hours she spent among much more noxious odors. Or

did the smell bother her so little because she saw it as another

player in the drama that she found so immensely satisfying? The

thrill racing through her body at this moment reminded her of why

she had gotten into this. Law enforcement, fire and rescue,

emergency medicine. Helping when help was needed. This excitement

was why she had considered a nice, safe family practice for only

about a minute and a half during all her years of medical school.

She found that she longed to plunge in among all those lights and

hoses. She wouldn’t even mind the soot or getting her hair wet

from the spray.

But there was Mulder. She looked over her shoulder. He hadn’t

moved a step from his place beside the passenger door, which kept

the car’s body between him and the ruin of the building. Just

then the wind shifted and a cloud of oily smoke rolled down the

street towards them, temporarily obscuring the scene to an opaque

gray. Scully felt as if she were watching the last gasps of a

fallen monster whose bones, already blackened in death, stretched

from one end of the block to the other.

Shifting her attention, she noted with satisfaction that her

partner was equally fascinated, but then he also found flesh-

eating mutants that would just as readily eat him fascinating.

She was struck again at how tired he looked. Even the complex

emotions he must be feeling couldn’t mask his obvious fatigue.

“There’s nothing much to be done here now,” she said. “It will be

at least tomorrow before we can get near this end. Why don’t you

go find us someplace to stay. Call me with the specifics.”

His gaze shifted warily, as if she had asked him to make a coffee

run.

“Mulder, admit it, you’re beat. Get some sleep. Find something a

little upscale this time. Something with ESPN and room service.

Just make sure that it’s upwind from here.”

When his expression failed to change, she dropped her voice and

looked up at him through her eyelashes. “While you’re at it, get

one of those rooms with a king-size bed.” They would get two

rooms so that everything would look kosher for the bean counters,

and because they each liked to have their own space, but no one

said anything about where they actually slept. “It’s been a long

time,” she added just in case in his suspicion and weariness he

missed her point. It HAD been a long time since they had done

more than just sleep together.

His response this time was a slight widening of his eyes, a

straightening of his spine. There was still no alteration in his

features, but his whole form seemed to have taken on a little

glow. It was enough. It would do very well. Before the sudden

intimacy became too uncomfortable she turned away, her body

humming in pleasurable anticipation.

Before either had time to say more Scully’s attention was caught

by a tall, solid male figure, striding energetically in their

direction.

For a long moment she just stared. “Shit,” she breathed. Hastily,

she turned back in Mulder’s direction as if her only intention

was to reach for something in the back seat of the car.

“You thought Kersh was after you?” she stage-whispered just

barely loud enough to be carried over the sound of idling engines

and swimming pools of water being forced under pressure through

hoses. “You were wrong. He’s after me, or both of us.”

She lingered only long enough to catch the change in Mulder’s

expression. Eyebrows raised, face subtly changing with curiosity,

he looked beyond her at their visitor. Reluctantly, she turned

back, busying herself unnecessarily with adjusting the strap on

her shoulder case.

The newcomer’s voice boomed. “Agent Scully! Scully! They could

have knocked me over with a feather when I heard they were

sendin’ you!” Ignoring her stiffly outstretched hand, the man

grasped her in a rough, enveloping bear hug that lasted several

tenths of a second too long for old friends. A single tenth of a

second, however, was enough time for Scully to feel her partner

bristling at her side, though how he had moved from the opposite

side of the car as quickly as he did she had no idea.

“You must be Agent Mulder,” said the deep voice with its affected

Southern drawl. “Heard about you.” He gave no hint of what he had

heard, however, though the tales had most likely been neither

good nor true. Neither did he extend his hand or look at Mulder

very closely. His hands were still occupied in gripping Scully’s

upper arms, an affectation he must have picked up from the

movies. “Let me look at you,” which he did with an intensity that

made Scully wish that she was wearing about three more layers of

clothes.

“Special Agent Fox Mulder,” she introduced, awkwardly, inclining

her head in her partner’s direction, “this boa constrictor is

Horace Samson. He was the mentor assigned to me during my field

internship.”

“That’s Special Agent in Charge Horace Samson to you, Scully, and

what’s this talk about ‘mentors’? We were partners.” Eyes never

leaving her face, he added, “She ever tell you stories about us,

Fox?”

“Mulder,” the current partners said together, to which Scully

added, “And that’s ‘Agent Scully’, Agent Samson.”

“Sure, sure, though don’t be none too surprised if I forget.

We’re a lot less formal down here in the swampy South. She ever

tell you, Mulder, that she had a kind of a thing for me back

then? Older agent, hero worship, all that stuff. All under the

blanket though, fraternization bein’ frowned on, but where

there’s smoke, there’s fire, they say. Ha! Ha! Get it? Smoke?

Fire?”

All this time he still had her at arm’s length as if she were a

picture he was thinking of buying. “My, but you’re looking good,

Scully. Classy, real classy. Maybe you can show the female agents

in my neck of the woods how to dress while you’re here.”

Scully extricated herself with difficulty on the pretense of

digging into her shoulder bag for the file folder that held what

little information they’d been given on this inter-bureau

assignment.

“Speaking of ‘here’, tell us about ‘here’. We weren’t sent many

details.”

Horace Samson shrugged with obvious false modestly. “I’ve been

squattin’ here for two years, ever since my promotion –”

“I mean about the building and the fire.”

“Oh, that. Bureau got a ten-year lease on this monstrosity about

five years ago. It was temporary, they said, while they argued

over funding for a permanent structure. Argue is all they’ve

done. Conditions of the lease required that we take the whole

thing. Now you could house a battalion in there, but,

unfortunately we couldn’t move into most of it because the budget

won’t support the renovations and OSHA would have a field day if

we tried to use it without, so we only use about a third. Fire

started up before midnight, up the street in the end unit that a

J.A. Lazarus Corp sublets from us. That’s just used for storage

as far as I know. As for me, I won’t miss this particular black

hole, I’ll tell you that. It’s been a maintenance nightmare.”

“And where were you last night in the hours before midnight,

Agent Samson?” Mulder asked in his driest tones.

Samson’s face darkened for a moment to a swarthy purple and then

just as quickly it pinked as he started to laugh. “Good one! Yes,

that was a good one!”

Mulder took a step away to avoid a manly slap on the back which,

from the thickness of Samson’s arm, looked capable of bruising

ribs.

“Thought for a second you were serious, but then you don’t know

about the other fires.”

“Other fires?” Scully inquired with interest. “There have been

others?”

“Two others, also old mills, all within six blocks. Someone is

starting their own urban renewal project, but that’s a whole area

of investigation that you don’t need to worry your over-paid

heads about. Our arson guys are already working with the local

arson guys. Three is no accident.”

“What shape are the labs in?” Scully asked, praying that the

rooms had been reduced to ash. It would be good to be able to

drag their tired bones home.

“Amazingly good. Water and smoke damage mostly, and heat, of

course. They’re housed in an annex, a series of those modular

units in an inner courtyard. The old building’s electrical and

plumbing just couldn’t be brought up to code. We should be able

to save a fair amount of the supplies and equipment, but not

without a lot of work.” A big grin aimed in Scully’s direction

broadened even further the wide, beefy face. “Which is where you

come in.”

Scully hoped that the SAC didn’t notice her shoulders sag in

disappointment. She hadn’t even needed to look to know that

Mulder’s had as well. “Can we get in there yet?”

“To a limited extent. I have staff moving things out now. We’ve

taken over an empty grocery store some blocks from here where

we’ll actually be separating the wheat from the chaff. That’s

primarily where you’ll be working, but not until tomorrow. If you

want to see anything today, you’ll want to change.” He eyed her

in a way that indicated that he was not simply estimating her

size. “I think we do have coveralls, boots and a hard hat that

will fit you. They’ll be a little big, but I’m sure that a woman

of your experience can manage.” The sliver of a grin that

followed the oh-so-innocent comment was enough to heat a certain

red-head’s temper to a near boil. Before she could muster an

attack, however, Samson’s attention had turned to Mulder.

“Nothing left your size though, I’m sorry to say,” though from

the tone of his voice he wasn’t sorry at all.

Scully stepped in before the two actually began snarling at each

other. “That’s no problem. Mulder has a critical report to finish

from our last case, don’t you, Mulder? As we discussed, why don’t

you go find us a couple of rooms.”

Mulder’s eyes narrowed as his shoulders bunched again but after a

moment, she saw the wrinkles in the suit jacket smooth out. He

had given up quickly, too quickly. He must be even more tired

than she thought.

“Here, now,” announced Samson, “you needn’t bother about scouring

the city for accommodations.” With that his big right hand went

to his coat pocket from where he pulled two keys. With a sudden

snap he tossed these to Mulder who, rising to the challenge,

deftly caught them despite the intentionally bad throw. These

were not the modern programmable pass cards most hotels now use,

but real keys, the kind with large and, in this case, well-worn

plastic tags. “I took the liberty of getting you some rooms. A

real bargain and right across the street from the command center

and our temporary office digs. Sorry, no Ritz this time; got to

save our mutual boss a few bucks. Course, it’s going to smell

gawd-awful being so close to the scene, but after a few minutes

bathed in the stuff, who’s to notice?” Having clearly noted

Mulder’s well-tailored suit — one of her partner’s few vanities

— the SAC asked, “You don’t mind roughing it, I hope? Good for

public relations considering that the businesses around here are

going to suffer.” Almost happily, Samson glanced over his

shoulder at the devastation. “Well, come on Dear — excuse me,

‘Agent’ Scully — let me show you what’s left.”

Scully made a mental note of the section of the building his hand

pointed towards. “Why don’t you go on, Agent Samson. I’ll follow

in just a moment.”

With a wink in Mulder’s direction that could have implied

anything, Samson headed back to what remained of his field

office. Good thing, too, Scully thought, as her partner’s right

hand had unconsciously clenched into a fist at his side.

“Never thought that jocks were your type,” he quipped with a

brittle smile. “He’s got former fullback written over every

sagging muscle.”

“Horace may have said there was smoke but that was just the dust

from my back-pedaling,” she replied, stiffly. “At its height our

‘relationship’ was about as warm as day old coffee. Coming out of

medical school, my first assignment was forensics, as you might

imagine, but I wanted field agent status. You know that rookies

are always teamed with a mentor.”

“And Samson was someone’s idea of bad joke.”

“The ol’ boy neckwork strikes again. Stick it to the little

woman,” she replied glumly, squaring her shoulders as if

preparing for battle. First, however, she took a step closer and

allowed her hand to come up stealthily between them so that she

could just touch his sleeve. “You going to be all right?” She

meant the fire, of course, not Samson. She had no serious

problems with the big lug as she knew Mulder didn’t. Even now

Mulder’s eyes had left the broad back of the ASAC. His attention

had returned to the blackened brick and timbers of what remained

of the warehouse.

“Problems? Me? Seriously, I can manage. I just don’t have to like

it in the same way that I don’t have to like disemboweled bodies,

formaldehyde, old urine, or Brussel sprouts. How about you and

that man’s sticky hands? I thought you were going to slug the

guy.”

“And I thought _you_ were. No, don’t worry about me. I can deal

with Samson. We do have a ‘history’ of sorts though not the fairy

tale he remembers. I’ve let him have his fun. If he didn’t get

the hint, however, he’ll end up with my fist in his teeth next

time he tries to feel me up.”

“That’s my girl. Subtlety incarnate.”

She laughed on cue though something in her tingled with an

unexpected brightness. ‘My girl.’ It was the sort of thing that

should have rankled but didn’t. Had he been trying to get a rise

out of her or had he meant the remark as an endearment?

But he didn’t seem to have meant either. Distractedly, he was

studying the building. More significantly, he was idling flipping

the keys Samson had given him so, somewhere in that brilliant

mind, thoughts were grounded in the here and now, even if

subconsciously.

“I guess that you’d better give me one of those keys,” she said.

“No,” he replied, drawing out the word thoughtfully, “I don’t

think so. I have a bad feeling that the dives I normally pick are

going to look like the Taj Mahal compared to Jim Bo Bob’s

selection. And then there’s the room numbers.” He held them up

for her to see.

“In addition to broadcasting to the world where we’re staying,

they’re a floor apart and likely to be on opposite ends of the

building.”

“The creep,” Scully snarled.

“I’ll see what I can do,” he said pocketing both keys.

She wanted to give him a kiss. Much as it was against their code

of no overt intimacy when anyone could see, she wanted this more

than anything. Nothing passionate, just a peck on the cheek but

he was gone, physically as well as mentally. Pausing first to

slide the driver’s seat back as far as it would go, he had folded

his lean form into the car. Within seconds he had backed up and,

with a wave and the travesty of a smile plastered on his face,

was heading down the empty road parallel to the long block of

what was left of the warehouse. She watched until he reached the

end of the block and turned right, lost from view. Without

enthusiasm, she set off in search of Samson.

Once around the corner and out of sight from Scully and everyone

involved in cleaning up the last of the fire, Mulder stopped the

car and turned off the engine. For a moment he sat as if making a

decision. Finally, he unwound slowly from behind the wheel.

Blackened beams towered above him. In many places, crumbling

walls of brick remained upright but precariously so.

Occasionally, there was a glitter from broken glass or pool of

standing water.

Samson had confirmed their suspicions. This was the first area

where the fire had been controlled, also where it had started.

Occupied with saving what they could of the offices of the

building’s most illustrious tenant, the fire department had moved

on from here rather quickly. Mulder looked for remaining hot

spots and found only a few places where smoke rose lazily into

the leaden sky. His body tensed when, to his right, a beam

shifted, charred wallboard slipped and a stream of water flowed

down to spit and sizzle momentarily on a warm area below. Nothing

more than that. Slowly, tense muscles relaxed.

He knew why he was here. True, the Lively case so many years

before had broken his near phobia about fire — it no longer

paralyzed him — but, as he told Scully, that didn’t mean that

he enjoyed being around it. Just to be sure that the demon stayed

in its cage, therefore, he took readings from time to time when

he found a place like this. He was glad to be able to report that

his reaction was no worse than it had been over the last few

years. No better either, but no worse. He could manage. True, he

was a little light-headed from the smell — even the long months

trying to recover what he could from the charred remnants of his

beloved X-files hadn’t cured him of that.

As if the strain on one sense heightened others, he thought he

could hear the gentle plop of a single drop of sooty water. His

lips actually curled in a grim smile. He was thankful for the

hyper-awareness that came with the adrenaline rush. Their lives

had depended on such awareness before and would again. It was

reassuring to know that he would still have that, whether fire

was in the vicinity or not.

Their lives… Scully’s life was what he meant. Scully of course,

had always been important, but these last months her place in his

life and his future, as heart of his heart and bone of his bone,

had taken on a new and deeper significance. That made their

mutual survival even more critical if that was possible. And so,

this need to be sure. Even his agreeing without protest to get

some sleep had been for her, for her safety. Theirs was a

dangerous life and he felt more acutely than ever with every

twinge in the morning, with every second off his running time,

his own mortality, and hers. So again, the need to be prepared…

always.

‘After all, just look at me!’ he thought. Over 40. Middle-aged.

Still in pretty good shape, but it took longer all the time to

stay that way, took longer to recover from even the little

injuries, not to mention the big ones. Was his own biological

clock telling him that it was time to settle? And what did that

mean to a person with his kind of history?

Undiscovered country, that was for sure, and something he was

going to have to work on, which meant taking the time. Meanwhile,

there was still the job, and his safety and Scully’s, fire or no

fire.

With irritation he rubbed the back of his neck to dispel a little

numbness there. And where had these serious thoughts come from?

Maybe he really did need to get some sleep.

Not eager to crawl back into the car immediately, he stood a

while longer, leaning against the bumper, thinking of nothing in

particular, when a change in the wind brought a cloud of ash down

on his head. Coughing, he reached through the open window for the

remains of a soda and accidentally leaned on the car horn.

Leaping back from the sharp blaring, he stared guiltily around.

He need not have worried. There wasn’t anyone close enough to

hear. The nearest team of firefighters was far, far down the

block. They could possibly hear a bomb go off, but nothing less

than that.

He was taking a drag on the soda straw when he heard the first

cry. Instantly, he stopping drinking, stopped breathing. Couldn’t

be. But within five seconds the sound came again, very like a

child’s cry — and it seemed to be coming from deep within the

burned out hulk of the building, maybe forty feet to his left. It

was so weak that if he had been any farther away it would never

have registered. The cry couldn’t be what it sounded like, of

course. No child could have lived through such an inferno but

Mulder, more than anyone, knew that stranger things had happened.

Again the cry, the whimper, weaker this time, like a child and

yet not like a child. A child with smoke-damaged lungs and

scorched throat might sound that way and there was a particularly

impressive pile of unburned debris in the very direction from

where the fading whimper seemed to originate.

Mulder raised his voice to call out to anyone from the emergency

team who might be able to hear but as they could never have heard

the car’s horn, they wouldn’t be able to hear him either. He

thought of the time lost if he were to run or drive from help.

Calling Scully would take as long, as his cell phone was locked

in the trunk deep in his bags. His instincts told him to just go.

But then there was the building — dirty, still hot, unstable,

unsafe. Scully would kill him.

So when had that ever stopped him?

He dove in. Actually, dove was not the right word. He had to

watch every step, had to be careful that each irregular surface

would hold his weight before going on. Still, he hurried as fast

as he could. Remembering that the cry began as a response to the

car’s horn, he called as he picked his way through the rubble,

“Is anyone here?” After waiting a moment, and despite the fear

that the charred remains of plaster and wood beams and floor

boards would come raining down, he shouted again, more loudly

this time.

The choking half-whine, half-cry came again and more clearly than

before. There was no doubt in his mind now that there was someone

here. The sound was only fifteen feet away, but each foot gained

took at least twenty seconds and that didn’t count the detours.

By repeatedly calling and receiving answers of a sort, Mulder

located the place, if not the victim. Under a metal staircase

that had survived, twisted from the heat though nearly intact, he

made out what appeared to be the remains of a cluster of desks

and file cabinets. One of the desks was of the huge World War II

executive kind made of solid hardwood that would burn slow. It

was badly scorched but in amazingly good shape thanks to the

metal staircase above that had protected it from the worst of the

falling debris. The crying originated from somewhere near there.

He crawled over one burned timber after another, heat still

rising from some, only to step into one filthy puddle after

another. Wiping his sweating face with a grimy hand, Mulder began

to seriously question his trying to do this alone. What if he

twisted an ankle here? And it was so hot, both from the humid

heat coming up from below and from either side of him, as well as

from the sun, which was blazing down from somewhere above the low

ceiling of smoke. His throat, raw both from coughing and from the

ash and dust, was making it increasingly painful to breathe.

Still he had no choice but to push on for the responses to his

anxious calls were becoming weaker.

The short distance seemed to take an interminable time to cross,

but at last he could begin hurling debris from in front of the

big desk even while he coughed and called out. Some bits were

heavier than others. A chunk of what may once have been part of a

floor strut was hot and burned his hand. Everything he touched

was filthy. Sweat dripped filth into his eyes. At least he was

receiving constant encouragement for his labors from the victim

in the form of an irregular and odd-sounding cough. So weak was

it that he could only picture a child or a thin and terribly old

person. Employing every bit of muscle he’d maintained from the

years of pounding the streets and working out in gym and pool,

Mulder levered away a final huge piece of sheet rock thus

clearing the way to the dark cavity under the desk.

The sound of the strangled coughing was instantly clearer. It

came from the kneehole, of course. As good a place to seek

shelter as any if a couple hundred pounds of wall hadn’t come

slamming down. Cautiously, Mulder bent over and reached his hand

into the blackness. “It’s all right,” he coughed in a voice so

rough that he barely recognized it as his own. “Don’t be afraid,

help’s here.” There came a rustling and to Mulder’s utter

surprise something soft and dry and unseen crossed his palm. For

a moment he stood transfixed, puzzled, and then a broad grin

transformed his streaked and blackened face. “You,” he wheezed,

“have just ruined my suit.”

September 13, 11pm

Dirty, sweaty and exhausted, Scully trudged up the steps to the

motel’s second floor. The work had been unpleasant to say the

least. Most of the salvage was dripping and filthy. Cardboard

crumbled under her hands. The other workers interrupted her

constantly asking what this or that object was and if it was

valuable enough to be worth saving. Worse had been the task of

keeping Samson at arms’ length. She’d almost decked him twice.

Good thing Mulder hadn’t been around or there would be one good

‘ol boy who would be looking for an oral surgeon.

Scully looked down at the key in her hand. Mulder never had

phoned but he had registered a room in her name, which was next

to his and connecting, though this place had never heard of a

king-size bed. He’d been correct about the original room

assignments. Samson had originally placed her next to him and

signed Mulder up for one on the far side of forever. Mulder had

taken care of the problem, however, and so could be forgiven for

neglecting to call.

It was not surprising then that Scully was now looking forward to

receiving a little TLC. For starters, a bubble bath and then a

foot massage — at the latter of which she had found her partner

to have extraordinarily skill. The former? Having Mulder in her

bath was fun but not what one would call relaxing, and most of

the water somehow ended up outside of the tub. Mulder also had

had hours to sleep so he had better be willingly to go out for

some decent food. This fifties fleatrap did not have a restaurant

and the only carryout the front desk recommended catered

exclusively to the pizza crowd. And, Scully mused as she fumbled

with her key, if he was actually able to find something green and

crisp and low fat, then she would be very, VERY grateful.

As the door opened, her nostrils were assailed by a renewed scent

of the fire. At the same instant her eyes registered the

wrongness of the room. Automatically, she took a deep breath,

holding it even as she reached for and brought up her weapon.

“FBI!” she announced..

No answer. For the first time she was able to consciously absorb

what she was seeing. What possible trouble could have found them

so quickly? An old enemy always came first to mind. In this case

what came second was a flashback to nightmare charcoal drawings

of gargoyle demons. She could still see them, pinned to the

walls, littering the coffee table, burning in the fireplace.

No, not again.

With relief, closer inspection revealed that this was not the

problem here though there certainly was some kind of a problem.

The room, which must have been dingy enough to start with, looked

like an entire kindergarten of hyperactive, fingerpainting

children had gone at its walls and furnishings but the only color

they had been given was black. Tiny blurred black footprints

textured the utilitarian rust-colored carpet. Equally marred were

the much-rumpled bedspread and walls. The depressing little

room’s one lamp had been knocked over, it’s shade marred with a

large smeary handprint. It appeared as if all of the towels from

the bathroom had been run through a coal bin and then strewn

about the room. Scully called again, louder. Still no answer. A

touch test revealed that it was not paint but something very much

like coal dust. Clearly soot from the fire.

Almost afraid to look but with her weapon still at the ready,

Scully peered into the bathroom. Involuntarily, her eyes widened.

This was worse. In addition to black ‘fingerprints’ on floor and

walls and even some spots on the ceiling, there was an inky ring

around the wet but empty tub. There was also a different smell to

add to the fire smell, something herbal and hauntingly familiar.

That was when she spied the empty bottle that had once been full

of her favorite and very expensive shampoo.

Damn!

Running a finger through tub ring showed that there were chunks

of black hair mixed in with the black and oily muck. The hairs

weren’t terribly long, but too long and too dark to have come

from her partner.

Dazed, Scully walked back into the main room. There was more hair

mixed with the dark stain on the bedspread, which was also very

damp. And there on the nightstand — Sacrilege ! — was her

hairbrush, clogged with the same black hair.

Double damn!

The connecting door to the next room was ajar. On her way she

passed the room’s one chair. A bundle of rags were tossed over

the back and they were clearly the source of the fire stench. No,

wait, those weren’t rags — well, at least they hadn’t been that

morning. It was Mulder’s suit and the lumps of ruin on the floor

were what remained of his best work shoes. Sweet Mary, what had

the man been doing?

She had reached the gap in the open door. Without opening it

further she could see into the bathroom of the next room. It was

nearly as bad as her own, bathrub ring from hell and all. It was

with a mixture of relief and irritation that she identified the

soft sound that drifted on the smoked-tinged air. Snoring. And

she knew whose.

Lowering, but not replacing her weapon Scully entered. Somehow

she was not surprised to find that whoever or whatever had

trashed her room had done an equal job on Mulder’s. The state of

the decoration, however, was less of a concern to her than

finding its occupant, and find him she did.

There was Mulder, every glorious inch of him, spread-eagled

across the sagging mattress wearing nothing but his black silk

boxers — her favorites — and a good deal of the ever-present

black soot. He was totally out as only Mulder can be when he

finally gets to sleep after days of near abstinence. The shocking

part was that he wasn’t alone. Along his side lay a large, black

lump. Scully didn’t even have time to tense before it moved. An

elegant head raised itself from Mulder’s not-so-clean shoulder

and looked calmly in her direction. A dog, a large slender dog,

half Mulder’s length. Mostly black, with brown accents and white

stockings that started below the knees, the animal was beautiful

but of no breed that Scully could immediately name.

Curious, Scully bent over the suspiciously shiny head and took a

deep sniff. She wasn’t surprised to detect the scent of her

frightfully expensive shampoo. With growing understanding, she

noted that the pads of the animal’s feet as well as its drooping

ears were wrapped in inexpertly applied white gauze which

suspiciously matched the bandage on Mulder’s right palm. On the

nightstand, in addition to the remains of first aid salve, rolled

gauze bandage and tape, was a vet’s bill. Scully whistled at the

charge. Maybe she should have gone into veterinarian medicine

after all. Mulder’s fluffy friend meanwhile had rolled lazily

over to a half-sitting position and had begun flopping a feathery

tail up and down on the mattress with remarkable energy. Scully

noted that ‘he’ made no attempt to surrender his position.

“Very well, you can have him for tonight, but, I have to warn

you, Mulder doesn’t swing that way.” With a smile Scully left the

room quietly closing the connecting door behind her. Her

expression turned to renewed exasperation as she beheld the

condition of her room. Wearily, she found an almost clean place

on her bed to sit and phoned housekeeping.

End of Act I

ACT II:

September 14, 8am

It was with hesitation that Scully cautiously opened the

connecting door the next morning. She hadn’t knocked just in case

either Mulder or his new friend was still sleeping. Both were

awake, but so intent were they with each other that neither

noticed the movement of the door. Mulder was polishing his second

best, and much-scuffed, work shoes. When you chased after X-

Files the way they did, you never went anywhere without backup —

a rule even Mulder didn’t universally ignore.

“Now you listen up,” her partner was saying. Clearly, he had

picked up the slang from their time in the South. The enraptured

canine sat before him, ears perked, and enchanted by his every

word. “If you want to hang out with us there are just a few

things you have to get straight. One, not a sound until Scully’s

had her coffee; two, no chewing on her shoes; and, three, no

making messes on the floor.” The animal whined in reply. “Yes, I

know that you were good and patient and waited for me this

morning. I’m just warning you to keep up the good work. Four, if

pizza is what we’ve got, pizza is what you’ll eat, and, five, if

I have company, you sleep on the floor.”

A very dainty ‘yip!’ for such a good-sized animal came in answer.

“Yes, and you have my permission to gnaw on any bad guy you can

find and, I promise, finding them will be like shooting pigs in a

barrel.”

“I think that’s ‘fish in a barrel’,” Scully corrected. “Pep talks

to the troops?” Her partner spun around with a broad grin.

“I take it that you two have met?”

“Last night, not that you noticed.”

“Then you haven’t met formally. Satan, say hello to Scully.”

With a step as light and springy as a dancer’s, the dog trotted

over to where she stood, sat down, and held out one white

foreleg. The gauze on its paw was no longer as pristine as it had

been the night before.

Scully liked dogs and bent down and shook the proffered appendage

with the solemnity with which it was offered. “Nice to meet

you… Satan?”

“I had to call him something.”

“Only you, Mulder. Sleep well by the way?”

“Like a rock. Want breakfast?” And there was indeed breakfast —

bagels and fruit, juice, and coffee. If this was Mulder on a good

night’s sleep, she’d have it more often. “Satan and I went

shopping,” he announced, clearly pleased with himself.

“And how did you meet your new buddy?” Scully inquired, reaching

for a cup of coffee.

He proceeded to give her the whole story and it all made sense in

a Mulder sort of way. Her eyes drifted around the wreckage of the

room. He winced.

“It wasn’t that he didn’t want to take a bath. Once he got his

wind back, some food and water, and a little painkiller for the

burns, he was pretty frisky and just thought it was a great game

to keep slipping away from me.” Playfully, he batted at the

animal who, as playfully, crouched and snarled back. “Quick

aren’t you, boy?”

Scully sighed. “Well, that explains the mess and my missing

shampoo. But my hairbrush, Mulder…”

She had never seen those bedroom eyes look more penitent. “I

wanted him to look nice for you. I was going to go out last night

and get you a new one, I really was, but after the last few days,

and carrying him out of that building, and then the trip to the

vet and the bath, I guess I just…”

“You passed out on the bed.”

He reached into a plastic grocery bag on the floor and handed her

what he found. “But I did get you one when I was at the store

this morning.”

It had a red plastic handle and plastic bristles and probably

cost five ninety-nine, but she reminded herself as she counted to

ten that it was the thought that counted. What caught her

attention was what else he had bought on his trip to the store —

two kinds of dog biscuits and at least half a dozen brands of dog

food. Mulder had the softest heart in the universe and as easily

wounded. An uneasy feeling began to mix unpleasantly with the

coffee in her empty stomach.

“Mulder, how long do you think you’re going to be able to keep…

Satan. A well-trained dog like this must have an owner, a family

that loves him. People who are worried sick about him right now.”

A shadow crossed Mulder’s face. Not a big one, just a little one.

“Of course I know that, but they did let him out to practically

burn to death in the fire.”

“Dogs get out. That can happen to anyone.”

He looked down at his new friend who stared up adoringly into the

agent’s solemn face.

“I wanted a dog for the longest time when I was a kid — Sam, too

— but Dad always said ‘no’. And I mean a real dog not like – ah,

you know – Queequeg. As he began spending more and more time away

from home, however, Mom began to see a point to it and for one of

the few times in my life stood up with us against him. He finally

agreed that when I was thirteen –” Mulder’s voice caught.

Scully knew what had happened when he was twelve.

“Of course, it never came to be. For a long time I was barely

capable of even taking care of myself. Then after Dad and Mom

split, I could have done anything and she wouldn’t have noticed,

but by then it was unthinkable. Sam had wanted one as much as I.

But if we had had one, I would have wanted one just like Satan.”

He looked her way with a sort of wavering smile. “I just wanted

to pretend, I guess. Just for a few hours. Guess you never quite

take the boy out of the man.”

No, you never do, Scully agreed to herself, and if the boy’s life

is full of pain, the man carries that burden with him as well.

With an inaudible sigh, she began struggling with the nearly

indestructible bubble packaging on the new hairbrush. It would do

for the time being.

“Satan’s nice, Mulder, he really is and I’m glad you saved him.

Thanks also for breakfast, but I’ve got to get to work. You can

make yourself useful, by the way. Lots of manual labor to go

around. They probably won’t even mind if Satan hangs around;

they’re a nice group of people. Samson’s the exception.”

“Aye, aye, Captain.” With a grin, he gave her a snappy salute as

she rose from her perch on a clean edge of his bed to head back

to her own room. “And, Scully –” She paused without looking

back. “– I did call. The animal shelter opens at ten. I’ll call

back then and see if anyone’s reported him missing.”

Curtly, she nodded before hastily escaping back into her room. A

little cold water, a little more make up than usual on the eyes,

and maybe he’d never know how close she had come to tearing up

right then.

Dogs and kids… and Mulder, the biggest kid of them all. No,

that was unfair. He was a man — the best she knew.

September 14, 9am

As Samson had said, the fleatrap motel — which had more fleas

than Satan, Scully was willing to bet — was indeed convenient.

It was only a block from the former supermarket, now temporary

district office. For nearly two hours they worked with the rest

of the displaced employees among the acrid smell of smoke and wet

cardboard, unpacking who-knew-what-unimaginable stuff that only

Scully could identify. Samson had still not deigned to make an

appearance when, just after ten, Mulder excused himself without

enthusiasm to call the animal shelter. He thus missed the SAC’s

breezy and sparkling clean appearance. Scully had just given her

report — that there was very little salvageable and that she saw

no reason why they couldn’t leave the next morning — when Mulder

and his sidekick returned. His face was a mixture of emotions.

The way he looked at Satan, however, and the way he looked at

Samson made it pretty clear to Scully that there had been no

report of a lost dog answering Satan’s description — and that he

was not overjoyed to encounter Horace Samson again.

If the ASAC noticed the hard set to Mulder’s jaw, he gave no

sign. He did, however, greet Satan with lavish affection. The dog

wriggled in delight and seemed to enjoy the game of leaping feet

into the air after an imaginary treat. Mulder just frowned, a

little hurt crease deepening between his eyes.

“Satan just likes everyone,” Scully told him in a low voice.

“And here, I thought he had some taste,” Mulder murmured.

“So where’d you meet up with this fellow?” Samson asked after a

few more games.

“Found him trapped in the area of your warehouse where you said

the fire started. It looked like he’d been there from the

beginning.”

“Honest? Then you’ve done the community an invaluable service,

Agent Mulder. Stud’s the goodwill ambassador to this entire

neighborhood.”

“Stud?” Mulder croaked.

“He answers to just about everything but that’s what I call him.

You’re a randy man, aren’t you, Stud. Half the bitches in this

quarter of the city have carried his DNA at one time or

another… and who’s to blame them, fine fellow like this.”

“But who owns him?” Scully asked.

“There’s no report at the animal shelter,” Mulder confirmed.

“Oh, someone does. He’s always clean. Like Tramp, there are

plenty who will feed a friendly stray, but not many who will wash

one.”

Scully’s eyebrows lifted in Mulder’s direction. His response was

to show no reaction.

“I’ll ask around,” Samson said. “Someone will know. Now more

important is a little complication that came up this morning. You

didn’t see anything or ‘smell’ anything unusual when you were

moving around in that part of the building yesterday, did you,

Agent Mulder?”

Scully felt a definite ‘uh oh’ radiate silently from Mulder’s

direction.

“I thought I had a survivor. A child. My mind was on other

things.”

“Absolutely. I just hope that you’re moving around won’t confuse

the arson and homicide teams too much.”

“Homicide?”

“Arson team found a body this morning in that general area. Of

course, old building like that, it could have been a vagrant. His

steno burner may even have started the fire. He could have been

smoking in ‘bed’.”

“Then why investigate it as if it were a homicide?”

“Three burned buildings, three bodies. Forgot to mention the

other two victims yesterday, didn’t I. Two might be a coincidence

but not three, and since my people are all busy chasing their

tails trying to reconstruct their current casework, I’ve asked

your boss and mine to lend me you two. More in your old line as I

understand it, am I right, Agent Mulder? We do have a lease on

the building so one could legitimately say that this last one

occurred on federal land.”

Dreams of home fading into the uncertain future, Mulder checked

out Samson’s version of their new orders and found that the SAC

was correct. He had contacted Kersh who had even paged Skinner at

his conference in Paris for his approval. They were stuck here

and Samson seemed suspiciously cozy in his communications with

Kersh. What if the man currently sitting in Skinner’s chair was

trying to catch them together? It would be something to embarrass

Skinner about not to mention what the Bureau would say about

partners ‘doing it’. He may even have hoped to catch them during

their previous case, but Mulder’s personnel file must not mention

that sleep was a rare commodity when he profiled. Hell, Kersh

might even have convinced Samson to find an excuse to run the

equivalent of a bed check. A fire alarm in the middle of the

night and a convenient camera would do it if their rooms were

separated as originally intended.

The mournful glance that passed between the partners moments

after Samson’s announcement showed that the same thoughts had run

through both their heads and that they had come to the same

conclusion. Their nights were going to be very lonely.

After that Scully went off to wrap up her part of the salvage

operation and Mulder to get a start on their new case. They met

for lunch at a little barbecue place around the corner from the

burned hulk.

As they settled at a small table on the edge of the restaurant’s

tiny outdoor patio, Scully looked around at the sparse crowd.

“Now I know why we were treated like royalty.”

The corners of Mulder’s mouth twitched. “I don’t think that the

red carpet treatment was for us — though my understanding is

that this place’s yearly expenses are practically paid for by the

FBI lunch bunch who are now laying down their VISA cards who-

know’s-where. No, we have our present company to thank for our

warm welcome.”

Satan gave them a doggy grin and a tail wag from just outside the

low row of planters that separated the patio from the public

sidewalk. “The word of his rescue has spread like wildfire. He

really is a kind of folk hero around here… though along the

lines of the Scarlet Pimpernel or Robin Hood.”

“Not Johnny Appleseed?”

“Cute.”

“And don’t sell yourself short,” Scully said, her eyes smiling at

her partner from over the top of her menu. “You’re the hero of

the day.”

Self-consciously, Mulder rubbed the back of his neck. “I guess

so. In every other jurisdiction in this country I would have, at

the very least, received a severe reprimand for disturbing a

crime scene — no matter that I didn’t exactly know that it was a

crime scene at the time.”

Scully grinned at her friend fondly. It was unusual for him to be

actually thanked for something. “Accept the flowers when they

fall, it happens seldom enough. And I am proud of you. I would

also have killed you if you had gotten yourself hurt, but I know

what the others don’t — what it took for you to wade into that

mess. I’ll just have to find a way to reward you.”

Startled by the heat in his partner’s blue eyes, Mulder pretended

to bury his face in his menu. “Scully, it’s too dangerous,” he

murmured.

Under the cover of the open menus her hand crept over the table

to briefly clasp his. “Then get what sleep you can now because

once the heat’s off – watch out,” she cooed.

Hands were back on their own sides of the table by the time their

wait staff appeared. Scully ordered a barbecue beef sandwich.

Mulder found her order interesting. Scully ordered red meat like

other people ate ice cream; it was comfort food. If she was in

need of comfort, he knew where she should be getting it.

“Sorry,” he said, gesturing towards her plate when their food

arrived.

Again, she had followed his train of thought. “It’s not what you

think. Not entirely, anyway. I really was thinking that that if

there are any leftovers your friend would prefer this to

lettuce.”

That got a laugh from both of them. One they needed badly.

Over lunch they talked about the South and the news and the

doings of Scully’s family until after they had eaten. More and

more, they tried not to talk about work all the time. It had felt

odd at first, not any longer. Over coffee they got down to

business.

“I’m going to look at the bodies this afternoon,” Scully

announced.

“Enjoy. I have half a dozen interviews with the cream of the Old

South. The first victim was a sleazy bail bondsman; the second

was a sleazy riverboat gambler — yes, they still have both

riverboats and gamblers; and the third was a sleazy real estate

developer. Seeing a pattern here? Someone’s not just practicing

urban renewal but trying to short cut the judicial system. Even

more, I don’t think anyone’s going to mind if we don’t solve this

one except perhaps the insurance companies. The only connection

between these guys — besides the sleaze factor — is that all

spent a lot of time on the local floating casinos. There are four

tied up right now, less than half a mile from here. Do you think

that a few games of Twenty-One would be considered a business

expense?”

“Depends on how badly you play,” she smiled.

He grinned back. “And here I thought you were going to tell me

that I’d need to declare my winnings.”

“That’ll be the day. You don’t even play the lottery.”

While Mulder paid the check — in anticipation of his winnings —

Scully reached into her pocket and pulled out a slip of paper.

Almost apologetically, she passed it across the table.

“What’s this?” he asked.

“They’ve hired some of the neighborhood crowd — retirees and

college students — to help with the clean up. They heard about

Stud’s — er, Satan’s — rescue and that we were looking for the

owner.” She gestured to the paper. “Three different people have

told me that that’s the block generally considered to be his home

turf. Maybe before you get tied down to a green felt table you

might take a swing by there.”

Crestfallen in a way that only Scully could read, Mulder put the

paper in the top pocket of his second best suit. He had barely

looked at it. “If Satan has a loving family nearby, then why

hasn’t he left me? It’s not like I have him on a leash.” Sensing

he was being talked about, the dog quivered all over with

excitement. Perhaps he thought that Mulder was going to slip him

some more barbecue. He’d already eaten a third of Mulder’s lunch

and half of Scully’s.

“Maybe he’s just being polite. You did save his life. Much longer

in that hot, closed place without water and he would have died.

Have you told him that he can go home?” she asked gently.

The lightness of the morning gone, Mulder stretched his body

upright. “I’ll go. Meanwhile, we both have a lot of work to do.”

September 14, 5pm

Three of Mulder’s interviews with victim family members were no

shows. The other two had little to offer, none of it

complimentary. As a result, Mulder found himself in the late

afternoon with three hours to kill before the serious casino

crowd appeared. With reluctance he pulled the slip of paper from

his breast pocket. ‘River and Appletree’ was all it said. After

asking for general directions he found that it was roughly a mile

from his present location. It was a pleasant day; he would walk.

If he got lost, he could always ask directions again.

It turned out that he didn’t need to. As soon as it was clear

where they were headed, Satan took the lead, galloping over at

least ten times the distance Mulder covered as he chased sticks

and stalked pigeons and said hello to human and canine

acquaintances that they passed. The closer they got to River and

Appletree that was just about everyone, both two-footed and four-

footed. In the first half mile Mulder heard the gregarious animal

called at least a dozen names: Duke, Prince, Blackie, the Man,

Bingo, Happy and just Dog to name a few. As they grew closer,

however, one name began to be heard more and more. Thor. “Is that

your name?” Mulder asked his companion. “Thor?” If an animal

could turn himself inside out, Thor would have.

River and Appletree did not define a very prosperous neighborhood

but it was a friendly enough place as long as the visiting ‘suit’

had Thor as an ambassador. Or was that a bodyguard? As they

passed a crumbling row house bedecked with window boxes of dying

flowers, two large Dobermans came tearing towards the sidewalk

from their hiding place under a sagging willow. They got out just

two barks apiece, and Mulder had begun to reach for the pepper

spray he always carried, when Thor showed the wrathful god-like

side of his nature. The transformation was astonishingly quick

but effective. Within seconds the attacks had dissolved and the

Dobermans had turned tail. Thor’s teeth and growl retreated, his

doggy grin returned, and all was right with the world.

Mulder studied his companion with admiration. “You can accompany

me into D.C. any time.”

They had gone only a few more steps when Thor gave an excited

bark and bounded forward, as if his legs were all springs. A door

had opened on one of the poorer apartment buildings and a thin

old woman emerged with a broom. Skin as wrinkled and brown as old

leather, hair as white as spun sugar, she had begun to sweep the

porch. She barely had to look up at the barking before Thor was

there, his entire body gyrating with happiness. Anyone could see,

however, how careful he was not to leap up on the old woman and

to keep his head high and thus be on a level where she could more

conveniently reach to pat him.

Mulder hesitated a dozen yards from the building. The happy

reunion twisted within him leaving a trail of could-have-been’s.

He should just slip away. It would be easy enough to do though he

would detour a block east to evade the Dobermans. Thor had other

ideas, however. Like a black streak he was off the porch, had

seized Mulder’s coat sleeve, and was tugging him forward. The old

woman waited for them both, the wide smile that had broken her

face into a thousand wrinkles fading slightly.

“You have something to do with bringing this bad boy home?” she

called.

Mulder forced a smiled. “He got himself in a tight place. He let

me know that he needed some assistance.”

“Bet he did.” The old lady looked down at the dog sitting at

Mulder’s side, sitting, but not calmly. Excitement was popping

out all over the muscular body. “Well, what’s keeping you. The

boy’s been frettin’ himself sick. Git on up there, y’hear!” Like

a child with a dollar burning a hole in his pocket and a candy

store at his feet, Thor looked up imploring into Mulder’s face.

Only after receiving a gentle nod did the dog take off again,

this time to leap from trash can to dumpster to the landing of a

fire escape that he climbed running. Finally, five stories up, he

disappeared inside an open window. The old woman and Mulder had

watched the whole performance, Mulder with amazement and the

woman with satisfaction.

She turned back to ‘the suit’ with a grin. “No one better ever

move that trashcan,” she said. “And you should have seen the day

that someone left the top off the dumpster. ‘That’ never happened

twice. You would have thought that World War II had started all

over again. That old boy was right annoyed.” Her expression

sobered as she viewed her companion with curious interest. “Now

I’ve never seen him do that before, ask anyone’s permission for

anything except for the boy, of course. That’s high praise coming

from Thor. You must be somethin’ special.”

Unbelievably, Mulder felt himself reddening, the hurt no longer

as tender. “The feeling is mutual. I’m very happy to have met

Thor. I was glad to be able to bring him home though it was more

like him bringing me. The ‘boy’ you’ve mentioned, is he your

son?”

“Spark? No, Spark doesn’t have a mother that I know of, nor

father. Just those of us in the neighborhood who’ve bonded

together to take care of him.” Her eyes glittered good-naturedly

seeing how this tall, well-dressed, and good-looking white man

kept looking up at the window of the crumbling apartment

building. “Why don’t you go up and see them. Thor would want you

to and Spark will want to say thank-you.”

Mulder hesitated. Being thanked always made him feel

uncomfortable. The Lone Ranger had the right idea…just

disappear into the West before things got mushy.

“You might as well go up, the boy won’t be coming down. He’s

sick.” Her old eyes still shone but with something other than

humor. “I guess he won’t be coming down ever again except for

that one last time.”

There was no choice now but Mulder knew that the experience was

not going to be an easy one. He made it to the landing. “How old

is he this Spark?”

“Who knows? Sometimes I think eight, sometimes eighty. Somewhere

in between.” She resumed her interrupted sweeping. “Top floor,

apartment five-oh-eight.”

Mulder didn’t take the steps with any speed. The foyer with its

yellowed tile and the worn stairway with its thread-bare carpet

reminded him of the old junior high school on Martha’s Vineyard.

All around him the air was alive with noises from behind doors —

TVs, radios, a baby crying, an out of tune guitar, rap music. The

smells of exotic cooking — cumin and curry — went a long way

towards covering the more pungent scents of dry rot and old

urine. He found the door to 508. There wasn’t a traditional knob

on the door, but instead a long four-inch handle. No sound came

from within so he knocked softly. Immediately, there came the

gentle tap, tap, tap of claws on linoleum and scratching on wood

about three feet from the ground. Finally, the handle swung down

and the door opened.

Of course it was Thor. A wet nose and warm breath tickled the

palm of Mulder’s right hand and then the dog was gone. A nimble

leap took the animal back onto the bed where, clearly, he had

left to answer the door.

“You’re Thor’s new friend,” came a whisper-thin voice from the

bed. The mattress had been raised and placed so that its occupant

could easily see through one of the small room’s two windows to

the street below. The window was open and there was no screen.

Clearly, this was Thor’s private entrance. The room had been

painted a brilliant yellow so that it would glow golden in the

sunlight, but other than that it was a barren, depressing place.

There was a small battered TV, though it didn’t look like it was

used much, but no VCR, CD player, CDs, computer, pictures or

books. There were medical supplies, however — IV pole, wheel

chair, and a cart with towels, large diapers, spit up bowl, bed

pan and liters of fluids. A life stripped to its biologic basics.

Unable to avoid the meeting any longer, Mulder looked down at the

figure in the bed. ‘Eight or eighty’ the old woman had said. She

had been right. The body was certainly no larger than a child of

eight, but that was because of its stick-like thinness. It was

long enough to be older. The head looked larger especially as its

scalp was covered with a shapeless woven cap of many colors. And

the face… the face still showed where the boy had once been

beautiful. All the best of every imaginable ethnic group. It was

his eyes, his eyes, the same hue as his golden skin, which were

ancient.

“You can come closer. What I have isn’t catching, not just from

talking.”

“I don’t want to tire you. Should I ask someone’s permission?

Where are your –” No parents, the old woman had said. “– your

people?”

“You mean all my grandfathers and grandmothers? They won’t mind.

I do what I want –” he paused to catch his breath, “– pretty

much of the time.” At Thor’s shifting to snuggle closer, the boy

looked down at his four-footed friend. “T-Thank you for Thor. I

was so a-afraid.” The words may have come from a tight throat but

the sentiment was from the heart. The boy’s hand came to rest on

Thor’s sleek head that lay pillowed on his chest. Mulder didn’t

know why he should be surprised but he was as he realized that

when he woke that morning Thor had been lying with his head in

the very same place only on his own chest. Now, however, the dog

looked with total adoration at this boy. The emotion was clearly

mutual.

When the boy’s attention returned to Mulder he seemed stronger

than before. “How did you happen to be at the fire? You don’t

look like a fireman or a policeman, not dressed like that.”

Mulder shrugged inside his suit. “Police is close enough. I work

for the FBI. They had offices in that building. My partner and I

are here to help with the clean up.”

Half way through Mulder’s explanation, Thor yipped nearly

soundlessly and the boy turned his head for a moment so that they

could share another one of those silent communications. “Then

you’re just passing through, you and your partner?”

“That’s right, we’re here for just a few days.”

“Must be nice to have a partner, kind of like an automatic best

friend, like Thor and me.”

Mulder almost laughed at the thought of what Scully would think

to hear their relationship compared to this interspecies meeting

of minds. On the other hand, the boy wasn’t far wrong. There were

times when life would be so much simpler and happier if all that

was required of him was to lie with his head in her lap. “I guess

that’s true, in a way. When you get along, it is like having a

best friend, the best of best friends.”

“So you and your partner get along? Is he a nice guy?”

“SHE is a very nice guy and very good at her job.” He would not

say that he would trust her with his life, not here with this

young life hanging by a thread.

Though his body barely moved even to breathe, Spark’s eyes

momentarily widened at the revelation of Scully’s sex, then the

boy seemed to turn inward, so quiet and for such a long time,

that Mulder thought he had fallen asleep. The gold of the setting

sun was flooding through the far window now. The picture of a

slip of a boy with his faithful dog stretched out at his side

would be a vision Mulder would not quickly forget. As quietly as

he could, the agent moved with soft steps towards the door.

“So you’ll be in town a few days yet?” came a whisper from across

the room. Mulder turned back. The boy’s voice had seemed as

insubstantial as a shadow as if he were half-sleep. His hand

still rested on the dog’s head.

“That’s right, a couple of days, maybe three.”

Spark coughed but without any real force. “Could Thor come visit?

He won’t be in the way. I don’t like to keep him cooped up here

with me. Besides he sees things and does things and then comes

back and tells me.”

A bitter-sweetness flooded the space between Mulder’s ribs. It

was a sad but lovely game that the dying boy shared with his best

friend. “Sure, he can come visit. I’d like that. Do you want me

to come get him?”

“You don’t need to do that. Thor will do the finding. He’s good

at locating people he’s been close to.” The boy looked down his

nose at the animal now. “Is that all you’re gonna do? Lie there?”

The dog’s head came up like a shot, all attention. “Well, go and

say ‘goodbye’ to the man.” With one bound the animal was off the

bed and half way across the room, leaping forward to plant his

forefeet just below Mulder’s shoulders. A large wet tongue licked

his face. At that instant Mulder felt a little dizzy. Everything

seemed to gray out for a moment as it sometimes does when you

stand up too suddenly. Must be related to the emotion that

tightened his chest. The moment passed as swiftly as it had come.

Gently, he took the dog’s forelegs and lowered the animal to the

ground. “You take care of yourself,” he said to the Thor and his

boy simultaneously. After that he couldn’t take himself into the

cooling evening air and away from death’s door fast enough.

End of Act II

ACT III:

September 15, 11am

Scully washed her hands for a long time at the old lab sink. She

had been more tired and she had attended to more odious bodies,

but she had seldom had to work under worse conditions. The FBI

had been given space in the basement of the oldest wing of the

local hospital to use as a temporary morgue, rooms that hadn’t

been occupied in decades. They’d displaced a lot of roach

families and every stirring of air from the laboring fan had made

her imagine worse things scurrying along the floor. Dropping her

‘greens’ inside a thirty-gallon plastic trash can labeled for

laundry, she fled the place, hoping that by moving quickly the

fleas couldn’t attach to her ankles. Her body wanted coffee

though she wasn’t looking forward to the swill from the hot pot

someone had set up on a rickety table by the stairs. A smile

brightened her face as she saw that a pleasingly familiar figure

was lounging against the exit’s double doors. She noted that her

partner had not come in, though there had been nothing to prevent

him from doing so. Mulder didn’t care for dead bodies at the best

of times, and the charred, blackened victims of fire were his

least favorite.

Her smile of greeting widened to a grin when he extended a

familiar cup in her direction. “A tall, mocha latte?” she

guessed, inhaling the fumes with pleasure. “Ambrosia, I could

kiss you!”

“Promises, promises,” Mulder drawled. “I thought we should touch

base. Is this a good time?”

“As good as any. Let’s go outside. Even if it weren’t a beautiful

day, let’s get out of here. I keep having images of rats feasting

on my toes.” As they emerged from the dim lighting into the full

brightness of day, Scully noted that her partner looked a little

gray. He appeared to need the sun even more than she.

They didn’t speak right away but sat on a bench and lifted their

faces to the warm rays. After the clammy dampness of the

basement, Scully appreciated the quiet moment. The hot, silky

liquid melted her insides as thoroughly as the sun warmed her

skin.

“You certainly came back very late last night,” she said. “I

heard you come in — when was it? — after three?” She eyed him

speculatively. “Still have your shirt?”

He returned a wan smile. “I only dropped about a hundred. I

stopped when it began to look obvious that I didn’t know what the

hell I was doing. After that I just tried to appear bored and

carried my chips and my ginger ale from table to table. That’s

when the really interesting stuff began. It turns out that

gambling is not the only game on the Lucky Lee and the Southern

Star.”

By the mournful tone in her partner’s voice, Scully steadied

herself for bad news. “What happened?”

“Nothing much except that I was asked twice if I wanted a little

action and they didn’t mean the card playing kind.”

“I see. Male or female?”

Sighing, Mulder crossed his long legs. “Both actually.”

Something in his face warned Scully that this was no time for

jokes. “And?”

“A rather odious personage offered to pay me. He thought I worked

there.”

It was a struggle not to choke. “How much are you worth?”

“Don’t be crude.” Mulder was not laughing; he should have been,

considering the normal bent to his humor. She just waited. He

would tell her in his own time.

“I went up on deck to get some air — I needed it — and this boy

of maybe twelve bumped into me.” Mulder took a breath to steady

his voice. “He then proceeded to rub himself against my —

Anyway, he had these little white cards — an address — if I was

interested.” Mulder hunched down as if he felt a sudden chill. “I

took a card, but I didn’t go, not last night, not without the

vice squad at my back.”

“I’m sorry,” Scully breathed. They sat in silence for the moment,

trying to capture in their souls the gentle sounds of water from

a fountain and the song of birds. Scully noticed that in addition

to the loss of her friend’s peace of mind, something else was

wrong. In what she thought was a change of subject she asked, “I

don’t see your shadow. I assume that Satan found his way home?”

“Who? Oh, Thor. Yes. Dog and his boy are very happy. He’s where

he should be.” And Mulder obviously meant that, but then why did

he still look so glum. Worse than glum, he was shaking and a

trembling hand came up to shield his eyes from her. Anxious,

Scully slid over until they faintly touched. The hell with it if

someone saw them!

“What’s wrong, Mulder?”

“Thor’s owner — just a boy — he’s dying. Spark is what he calls

himself. AIDS. Won’t be too long.”

The cooling coffee nearly spilled from Scully’s hand. “I’m so

sorry. Are you sure that’s what it is?”

Anger flooded up through his lean frame, but not at her. “By now

I should damn well know Kaposa’s sarcoma lesions when I see them!

Worse, I suspect that six months ago, maybe a year, Spark was

like one of the boys on the ship. He’s a beautiful child even now

and has no parents, but someone must pay the rent on the little

room he lives in and for the medical supplies I saw.”

What could she say. Scully reached between them for his hand and

squeezed it. It was chill and damp. “Are you sick?”

“At heart.”

She squeezed it again and felt a desperate returning pressure.

More silence then for a little while to let the horror dim a

little. “So where does this all lead us?” she asked. “Were the

warehouses trysting places? Were these men involved? Is someone

taking out the devils?”

“Yes, and yes, and yes in my highly educated opinion.” He pulled

a little white card out of his pocket. “This is a warehouse, too.

If I lived close by, I’d get in a supply of hot dogs and

marshmallows.” Like an animal he shook as if to dispel an image

from his mind. “What have the crispy critters revealed?”

“What you would expect. Only a couple of odd things.”

“Such as?”

She hesitated. “I’d like to wait till I look at the most recent

victim. If I find the same anomalies, then I’ll let you know.”

Mulder nodded. He didn’t push her. He was the same way. He didn’t

want to reveal his theories until he was sure either — certain

in his own mind anyway. Evidence was a secondary issue.

With a sign he stood, stretching. “Got to get back on the trail.

All this makes it hard to want to go after the ones with the

match, however.”

“Prove what the dead were doing,” she told him. “No one’s going

to push you much beyond that. The fires have to stop, though,

before some innocent person is hurt.”

“Some innocent person already has been, just not by fire.”

“Want me to stop by and see this Spark,” she asked. For the first

time in their conversation he dropped the shield completely; his

eyes were bleak as winter as he looked down at her. “I was hoping

you’d ask, but there’s no rush. He’s well taken care of.”

“Before we leave I will.”

A nod and he wandered away, shoulders stooped. She watched him go

and then returned to her own unpleasant task.

It was late afternoon before an even more subdued Agent Scully

entered the supermarket, now temporary FBI field office. Mulder

was not answering his cellphone. As usual when this happened she

had to work to unclench her jaw before the tension brought on a

headache. In deference to their changed realtionship, Mulder had

begun to at least carry the thing and keep it charged. Afraid of

running down the battery, however, he would often turn it off

when he was within reach of a phone and then forget to turn it

back on when he wasn’t.

Even though she always worried when unable to reach her wayward

partner, Scully’s anxiety was tempered this time because of the

autopsy findings she would have to report when she did catch up

with him. That part of their reunion, she would be happy to

postpone indefinitely.

Nonsense, she told herself. A simple test could as quickly prove

innocence as guilt.

A gray-haired retiree wearing old jeans and a ragged T-shirt

covered with the ever-present sooty smudges directed Scully to

the back of the store. The combined homicide and arson teams had

taken over what had once been the dairy manager’s office. The

tiny cube was the one place that had not already been claimed.

Scully’s nose twitched as she entered. The room had that old ice

cream carton smell. Not an unpleasant smell, but distracting.

At the moment, only one frightfully young agent occupied the

room. “Special Agent…Mulder? He had a visitor. Black hair, long

legs, a real looker.” The smooth face that still wore traces of

acne scars grinned.

“Thor,” Scully surmised.

“If you say so. They went out over three hours ago and I haven’t

seen either since.”

“I’ll find them.” She gazed down at the impressive pile of data.

“How’s the investigation going?”

The amusement left the young face and was replaced with an

expression of awed respect. “Agent Mulder told us what to look

for and, it’s hard to believe, but it’s all here exactly where he

said it would be.” The young man pointed proudly to the stacks

while clearly indicating that he was reluctant to defile his

hands by actually touching them. “These guys were dirty, and I

mean dirty. If they weren’t already dead, I’d take them out

myself.”

“I hope you don’t mean that,” she replied sagely. “If you just

fire your weapon, the paperwork is unbelievable.”

At that she left, more than a little pleased to see that her

partner was for once getting the respect he deserved. It was nice

to visit a place that didn’t listen to the stories.

Unfortunately, the visit hadn’t helped her find Mulder, though if

he and Thor were still together it would simplify her task

greatly when she did find him. Standing outside the empty-

windowed market, she looked up and down the street wondering

where to start. A drop of sweat trickled down her temple. The day

was no longer pleasant. Humidity had rolled in from the South and

now lay over the city like a heavy, wet blanket. Fretfully, her

damp hand took another wrap on the handle of the plastic bag she

carried. In it was a large block of paraffin that she’d purchased

at a craft store immediately after viewing the last victim.

In the end she found her partner easily enough. When the street

was quiet she heard in the distance a familiar sound. It didn’t

take much investigative insight to head in that direction. As she

drew closer, the repeated thuds of the bouncing ball were joined

by the distinctive grunts that always seemed to accompany the

exercise of male egos. After a couple of false starts — once

into an alley with no egress and once thwarted by a fenced

parking lot — she found what she was looking for. Behind a WWII

vintage apartment building that was sandwiched between two old

mills, a rainbow group of teenage boys were playing a vigorous

game of basketball — a group of boys and one tall man. He still

wore his suit but had shed coat and tie. Scully stood to watch.

She had often seen Mulder play. He was good, quick and yet

graceful.

Unfortunately, he wasn’t bare-chested as he often played, so she

was denied the sight of the strong swimmer’s muscles moving

across his chest and back. His pale blue shirt was unbuttoned

halfway down, however, giving him a romantic, roguish appearance

that would have to do.

With men of his own age and height, Mulder played all out with an

aggression she had seen burst out as anger time and time again.

With boys and teens, he dialed back the intensity, always

sensitive to their level, but never backed off enough so that it

was easy for them. If you played with Mulder, he made you work

for every point but you felt good about it at the end. All in

all, it was a relief to see him relieving the tension; he had

been way too tight when she’d seen him that morning.

As she watched, however, a crease appeared between her eyes, her

brows slowly came together, and then she frowned. There was

something odd about the play. Mulder was not laying back. When he

wasn’t making baskets or high-fiving his listless team members

for doing so, he was using his greater height, reach, and

experience to steal the ball from the other team. The boys were

sweaty, hot, discouraged and even angry. This was true even of

the ones who seemed to be on Mulder’s team, mostly because he

never seemed to pass the ball. She even saw him make deliberate

fouls more than once but none of the boys said anything, their

faces only darkened the more, not that the triumphantly capering

adult in the midst seemed to notice.

And on the sidelines, watching Mulder’s every move with doggie

glee, was Thor. But the dog was no longer Scully’s primary

concern.

All at once while putting the ball back in play from the

sidelines, a tall boy made a bad pass. Mulder went after it, his

smile a wolfish grin. One of the smaller boys unfortunately got

in the way of the charging man’s left elbow. The boy went down.

Mulder got to the ball, made the basket and congratulated himself

but made not a move to offer a hand to the boy on the ground.

Scully stepped forward but stopped as the youth got stiffly to

his feet. Her frown had deepened from disapproval to alarm.

Someone had to stop this.

As it turned out, she didn’t have to. The grumbling boys seemed

to have already broken up the game on their own.

So furious was she that she didn’t trust herself to go to him but

instead waited for him to notice her. He took his time. A couple

more lay-ups, a little fancy dribbling. Finally, he deigned to

head in her direction, a lazy smile on his sweat-drenched face.

“Right now I don’t have time to talk about that ‘exhibition’,”

she said coldly. “I need your help with another matter.”

He barely looked at her. More than half of his attention was

directed at trying to spin the ball on the tip of a finger. “What

kind of help?” he asked in a flat voice.

Scully took a deep breath. “Remember at lunch that I said that I

found some anomalies with the bodies of the first two victims. I

found the same marks on the third, even more pronounced.”

Half bent in his dribbling, he actually had to look up at her

through his damp lashes. “Like what kind of marks?”

“I think they’re bite marks, from a large animal.” She waited for

that to sink in. Not only did he not react, but his dribbling

became more rapid. “Will you stop that!”

He did and stood, his hair wet, his clothes disheveled and sweat-

stained, and the basketball under his arm. “So?”

“Do I have to say it? Thor was found in the same general area as

the third victim.” She opened the plastic bag she carried and

pulled out the block of paraffin. It was six inches square and an

inch thick. “We need to measure his bite and get an impression.

It will be crude, we won’t be able to make a positive ID but we

can rule out any obvious inconsistencies. I assume that’s

something that you want to do. You two get along so well that I’m

sure that if you worked with him –”

But Mulder only shrugged, one eyebrow lifting to his left. “Too

late.”

Scully whirled. Thor had vanished or at least she thought he had.

Then she caught a glimpse of something low and black loping down

an alley.

“Shit! Well, aren’t you going to run after him?”

Her partner’s only response was to stretch and reach towards his

back. “Can’t. I think I pulled a muscle.”

Scully stood stupefied for a long moment and then growled low in

her throat, “We’ll talk about this later,” and took off at a run

after the animal. At least she was wearing her most comfortable

shoes.

At the entrance to the alley she did pause to look back.

Unperturbed, Mulder was practicing hook shots again. Swearing,

she ran on.

Thor led her a merry chase — no, anything but a merry chase — a

sweaty, infuriating one. She now understood how the animal had

remained free without leash or presence of an owner for so long,

which certainly must be as illegal here as anywhere. Thor was

friendly as a teddy bear, unless he didn’t want to be caught and

then he couldn’t be. He must have God’s own wisdom to tell friend

from foe with such accuracy. Unerringly, Thor knew every passage

and hole in the city where he could venture but his human

trackers could not. He knew every fence that was just a little

too high, every narrow pathway choked with garbage that less

fastidious city creatures had pulled from trashcans, every blind

alley that was not quite blind — at least not for a creature

with his size and flexibility. His least endearing trait was his

habit of turning around and laughing at his tracker with his

doggie grin while his tail wagged merrily.

So Thor was the one having the merry chase. Only the hope that he

would give up at any moment and lie down, paws in the air in

order to have his stomach rubbed, kept Scully in the race long

after she should have given up.

Footsore and filthy, Scully wearily trudged back to the

neighborhood court where she’d last seen her partner. He was

gone. Two of the boys had returned, however. One was making long

and ineffective attempts at the basket, the other was the smaller

boy who had been roughly pushed to the ground during the game. He

was still holding his arm.

Scully approached, cautiously. “You may have seem me watching the

game. My friend was the man you were playing with. I’m also a

medical doctor. You seem to have hurt your arm. Can I take a

look? It may save you a long wait at the emergency room.”

The boy shrugged very much as Mulder had. He was about fourteen

but small for his age. The other boy joined them as Scully began

prodding the arm, checking for range of motion. “Tell me when it

hurts and where.”

He didn’t speak but he did wince, which is all you could expect

from a boy his age. “I think it’s only a strain. Put some ice on

it now, some heat tonight and take some Ibuprofen. Do you know

what that is?”

“Our Mom will know,” the second boy said. “She’s a nurse’s aide.”

“Then tell her what I said and do see a doctor if it’s not better

by morning. I am really sorry that this happened. I’ve never

known my friend to play so rough.”

Both boys shrugged. “No big deal. We should ‘a known.”

“Known what?”

“He was with Thor,” the older boy replied as if that explained

everything. He then spoke curtly to his brother. “Come on, Luke,

we gotta get home or Mom’ll throw it out.” The interview was

clearly over.

Thus they moved off leaving Scully with a head full of questions.

Hoping to find Mulder there, and in need of a shower, Scully

returned to the motel. An extra tip which would have to be worked

into their expense account ensured that their rooms had returned

to what must have been their original shabby cleanliness, but

Mulder wasn’t in his. He had been, however. Suit jacket, shirt,

trousers and shoes made a trail from the door. The shower in his

room had been used and his luggage rifled. Tennis shoes, jeans,

and his favorite cutoff sweatshirt were gone. She knew the

sweatshirt well for its threadbare softness made it also one of

her favorites. By the time she’d showered and dressed, Mulder had

still not returned and still did not answer his cell phone, so

Scully decided to go shopping. Having had to use the inadequate

bottle of cheap shampoo the motel supplied and the five dollar

hair brush reminded her that she had items to replace.

It was dark and beginning to rain when Scully returned and her

heart lifted, first in relief and then in renewed irritation when

she saw that the lights in Mulder’s room were on.

She found him sitting with Thor in the middle of his bed eating

an ice cream cone. They both were eating ice cream cones, her

partner holding one out to Thor who licked daintily. An empty

pint carton and a box of cones had joined Mulder’s running shoes

and the other obstacles on the floor.

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Scully leaned against the doorframe between their rooms, crossed

her arms and gave him her very best ‘look’. The partner she had

worked with for nearly nine years should have known instantly

that he was in trouble. This one reached the cone out to her with

a friendly, “Want a lick?”

“No, I don’t. Mulder, what’s going on?”

She cringed as he gave that shug again. “I don’t know what you

mean.”

“Yes, you do. Your behavior this afternoon.” With alarm she noted

the color of the ice cream. “Is that strawberry?”

He grinned, charmingly. “Yes. Change your mind?”

“Aren’t you allergic to strawberries.”

“No, I’m not; it’s my favorite.”

“No, Rocky Road is your favorite, you say that it’s just like

your life. We have to talk, but not now; I’m not in the mood. Is

he –” meaning Thor “– spending the night? Are the two of you at

least going to stay in?”

Her partner looked down at his canine companion. “Are you

spending the night?” Thor gave a soft yip in reply. “He’s

staying. So am I. It’s raining and they have cable.”

Scully swore, slammed the connecting door, and took another

shower.

The dip in the bed came around midnight. she didn’t even need to

look at the cheap bedside clock. She could estimate the time

because she could hear Letterman’s voice dimly from the TV in the

next room. The connecting door was open letting in just enough

light to see the shape of the figure that had come to sit beside

her on her bed. He was looking at her badge of all things,

tilting it this way and that way to catch the light as if he was

trying to actually read it.

“Mulder, what’s wrong?”

He reacted to her voice first, snapping closed the wallet and

guiltily dropping it back onto the nightstand as if it burned

him. At last he reacted to the question. When the answer came

his voice was strained. “I guess I don’t feel very well.”

With a sigh, Scully leaned over and switched on the light. She

only needed to blink a couple of times to get the full affect of

his swollen, blotchy face and arms. She lifted up the sweatshirt

and she was sure. “You have hives. A really good case. I warned

you.”

He looked almost — scared was the only word that could describe

it. It was hard to believe what with the things Mulder had seen,

but then he didn’t like the sight of runny eggs either.

“Was it the strawberry ice cream?”

“Like I said — told you so.”

“It itches.”

“I’ll bet it does. Now stop that! Don’t scratch. Let’s see if I

have any Benadryl.”

With an inarticulate grumble rumbling deep in her throat, Scully

crawled out of bed and opened the smaller of the two bags she

carried. This one went with her everywhere, her traveling ER. She

found the antihistamine and gave him the full dose. He made a

face. “Oh, come on, don’t be a baby.”

After more rifling she found some topical poison ivy cream that

had calamine lotion as the primary ingredient. Then she begins to

dab the pink lotion on the hives with a cotton ball.

“I hate pink,” he sulked. “Does it have to be pink?”

“Live with it, Mulder. Now take your shirt off,” she ordered

wearily.

He complied, but with hesitation, hiding his face. She’d seen

enough though. Was Mulder actually blushing? He had reddened. Had

to be the rash. Mulder was as vain as a peacock around her and

always had been.

She’d treat his back and then he could do the rest himself. As

she moved across the broad shoulders, however, working the creams

into each rosy splotch, she noticed that he had begun to shiver.

This didn’t make sense as the room wasn’t cold. Lower down she

revised her earlier assumption. No, not shivering, no gooseflesh

had appeared, but a tense trembling. Then she knew what it was

because her own body, attuned to his harmonics, had begun to

respond in kind.

Yes, that kind of trembling. The kind that led to other things.

Sweet, deep, glorious things.

‘No!’ she told himself, rising from the edge of the bed where she

sat. This was not the time. It wouldn’t be even if she weren’t

still furious at him for his odd behavior of the afternoon.

Whirling, she thrust the tube of cream at him.

“Here, you can do the rest yourself. The antihistamine will also

kick in in a few minutes and help you sleep.”

But he just sat there, gazing at her with eyes as huge and bright

and mysterious as the moons of Mars. He had looked at her in

lots of ways before, with love, with lust, with joy, with sorrow,

hurt, in pain, daring her, and even hating her but never this

way. She couldn’t put a word to it, but it was as if he were

looking upon something totally new and simply wondrous. Slowly,

he reached out a hand and, almost as if afraid, touched her left

nipple where it had begun to stand out from her thin camisole.

Scully felt herself sway with the sudden desire to touch him in

the same way, as if this were something new and precious

flowering up within her.

Not taking his eyes from hers, he stood. That broke the spell for

he didn’t move with his usual grace. His foot caught in a

trailing sheet. Afraid he would fall, she automatically reached

for him and felt the warm skin of his muscular arms. The heat in

her belly retreated somewhat, at least enough so that she could

reason again.

Not tonight, Fox Mulder. Not tonight.

“Go to bed, Mulder,” she said, though her voice didn’t come out

with any of the cool detachment she had intended, for his hand

had come around to cup her breast. They were standing so close

now that she had to tilt her head far back to see his face,

hoping to read there what he was thinking. But he wasn’t thinking

at all, that was certain. What a turn on it was for her. Those

dreamy, half-closed eyes turned her knees to jelly. She had never

seen such total abandon on that beautiful face.

“Mulder…” came out a squawk this time.

All at once he swept down on her. She had never felt so aware of

the difference in their sizes as his mouth came down to cover

hers. It was hard, hot and demanding. His body smelled of sweat.

His arms clasped her to him with rib crunching force. Something

hard, like hot iron, rubbed up against her belly. But beyond all

of this was the growing fact that she could not breathe and not

just from the alarming embrace. It was the way his mouth had

enveloped hers as if he was determined to possess her completely.

She began to struggle. At first she moved only a little, just so

he would know that he was hurting her. She expected at any moment

that he would ease off, but he didn’t. If anything, his hold

tightened. He had wrapped himself around her so strongly that one

hand was free to roam, and it did. When that hand came around to

squeeze her buttocks, his eyes closed completely. One would think

from his soft, blissful moan that he was the one in pain.

If there had ever been any pleasure for Scully in this ardent

attention, the joy had disappeared totally. Her chest ached from

lack of air as well as from the vice-like grip of his arms. With

the situation rapidly turning critical, she struggled harder and

for the first time felt the beginnings of real panic. She could

not budge him. Like a wild thing she was forced to fight in the

only way she could. She bit down — hard — heard a baritone-

pitched yelp and tasted blood. Extreme, maybe, but at least sweet

air was flowing into her lungs again. She was still locked in a

crazed man’s arms, however.

This was no love-making that she had ever known. His hands hurt,

his body was hard and demanding like that of a mindless, wild

creature and with every feminist bone in her body she knew that

she didn’t have to take it. She may be small but in their current

configuration she also knew that she was not defenseless as well

he should know.

With one last “Mulder… Stop…!” such as she’d been gasping

since getting something like her breath back, she let the anger

flow. She didn’t understand why he was acting like this, she did

not want to hurt him again, but enough was enough!

Levering herself against his strong shoulders, she brought her

knee up with all her strength, automatically following his first

staggering gasp of pain with a rapid kick in the same general

area. It was the first lesson in self-defense for women; don’t

just startle and hurt, they’ll only come back angrier than ever.

Incapacitate.

It was easier that she thought it would be. He reeled back, bent

over, gasping, tears of agony already flowing from his eyes. The

bewildered, blotched and sweating face looked nothing like that

of the man she knew.

With surprisingly fierce strength she threw back the connecting

door and pushed him out into his own room, throwing the poison

ivy cream after him. “When I say ‘stop’ I mean ‘stop!'” she

gasped. “And you can take care of your own damn hives!” Shaking

with confusion, hurt and anger she slammed closed the door and

turned the dead bolt.

She sagged back against the door she had just closed. ‘What had

just happened?’ She couldn’t think, didn’t want to think, needed

a bath. She usually found herself in the tub after Mulder had one

of his attacks of sheer, irrational bull-headedness. Over the

years that amounted to a lot of bubble baths. Seldom had she

wanted one more than now, though she doubted that anything could

wash the imprint of those iron fingers from her body and the feel

of that hard, unloving mouth from hers. She could still taste his

blood.

With furious, fumbling fingers she began undressing only to see

that there was a rip in her delicate camisole and two of the tiny

buttons were gone. When had he done that? She couldn’t even

remember.

The remains of the silk had barely slipped from her shoulders

when a shiver ran up her spine. It felt as if she were being

watched. Having learned to trust such instincts, she turned

swiftly. From a dark corner, two inhuman eyes glowed. By habit

she was about to call to Mulder but then the memory of the last

incomprehensible minutes came back and she recalled her state of

undress. Instead, clutching the ripped garment across her front,

she edged to the nightstand for her weapon and challenged the

eyes in the corner.

It was Thor. She hadn’t even realized that he had followed Mulder

into her room and she had thrown her partner out too quickly for

the animal to leave with him.

Too distraught to be concerned about the bite impression she

needed to collect from her ‘suspect’, she threw open the room’s

front door. A blast of sultry night air flowed over her bruised

skin. “You, out!” she commanded. “Go home or you’ll get the

same.”

Tail between his legs, belly to the floor, looking utterly

miserable as if he already shared his substitute master’s pain,

Thor crept from the room. He was barely clear before the door

slammed behind him.

Trembling with delayed shock, Scully’s crept to the bathroom to

tend her aches and bruises. The salt of her tears turned sour the

delicate perfume of her bath.

ACT IV

September 16, 7am

It was full light before Scully woke. She had been so cold when

she had finally gone to bed that she had heaped on every blanket

she could find. Now she was wringing with sweat. Another shower

followed. She was grateful for the steam that fogged the mirror.

The bruises were less visible that way. Wrapped tightly in her

bathrobe, her body aching, she collapsed wearily down on the edge

of the mattress. The night before she hadn’t wanted to think, but

now she did. She must. What had happened made no sense. Mulder

was no monster. He was a gentle, considerate lover. Sure, they

wrestled sometimes, mock battles over pillows and bedclothes, but

he had always held his far greater strength in check, allowing at

least the illusion of a fair fight…

… in exactly the way she had expected him to hold back during

the pickup game behind the tenement. He hadn’t, however, and the

results had been disastrous. Then there was the ice cream, and

his reticence, his refusal, to help with Thor.

She wasn’t angry any more; she felt only a deep weariness.

“What’s happened this time, my love?” The trembling began again

when she considered what she had done. How badly had she injured

him? She should have thought of a less extreme way to break his

hold, but that wasn’t how she had been taught and the Mulder she

knew would have known that.

At least Mulder in his right mind would have.

Just then Scully heard the faintest of knocks on her connecting

door. She didn’t get up at first, allowing herself just to savor

the relief she felt. He was up and moving at least. Then muffled,

halting words came through the too thin sheet of plywood and

paint. “Scully…?” After a pause again she heard, “Scully…

please… just let me know that you’re all right.”

With cold fingers she undid the lock.

September 16, 8am

The dreams were not the worst he’d ever had, they were too

shadowy for that, but they went on and on. He felt young and

omnipotent, immortal the way only the young can feel. At the end

he remembered becoming aroused in that horrible, wonderful way

that, again, only teenage boys can feel. But this wet dream

hadn’t ended the way it should. It had ended with terrible

confusion and the most horrible pain.

He woke to the most horrible pain.

Tears of anguish running down his cheeks, he curled around his

center on the sagging bed, his mind nothing more than a fuzzy red

blur. His lip hurt as well. It had ballooned to twice its size or

at least felt that way, and this skin itched! Bloody hell, what

had be been doing? It came to him more slowly than it should

have; if he’d been in a fight and kicked in the balls, then what

had his unknown assailant done to Scully that he should find

himself alone?

That thought got him out of the bed when nothing else would have.

What he saw in the bathroom mirror confirmed what he suspected

about his lower lip. His skin was both painful and blotchy. He

recognized the hives but more by the pink calamine stuff on his

arms then by the rosy patches themselves. There was more pink

goop on his back. So how come there was none on his stomach that

itched worst of all? Again, he shut his eyes and tried to think.

Nothing came except for an itching in his mind that matched that

of his skin. Scratching idly at a blotch on his hand he recalled

a dim memory of the first time he remembered having them. Unable

to understand what was happening to him, he’d taken his fears to

his mother’s room, relieved that his father was out of town on

business again. Mom would make everything all right. Again he

heard her soothing voice, felt her small hands, oh, so tender as

she smoothed the medication on his back. A wave of arousal threw

him from the memory.

Now THAT hadn’t happened, not with his mother!

Oh, shit!

Mulder barely made it back to the bed before his knees gave way.

That was Scully’s touch he remembered. Her touch and his body.

His body reacting to that touch. Never, never had he felt that

way before. The wanting… the needing… the taking…

Suddenly sick to his stomach Mulder wrapped his arms across his

chest as he began to shake. No, he didn’t. He couldn’t have. Not

to Scully. Just a dream. Only there was the evidence of the cut

lip and the pain, the terrible pain down below. Oh, shit…Oh,

shit…

Somehow he hobbled to the door that connected their rooms.

It was locked.

In eight years he could count on one hand the number of times

Scully had locked her door like this. Tears sprang to his eyes.

No, no, no, don’t let this be real. Anything but that. Had he

hurt her? He took some solace in that fact that at least she’d

been able to lock the door, that was something, but she had felt

the need to lock the door and that was everything. He saw his

world, his life, his hope for a future, begin to crumble. He

wanted to disappear. How could he look at her again? He had to at

least know how she was, to see with his own eyes what he had

done.

Then? Then he would see.

At first he only scratched at the door, wanting to get her

attention but only if she was awake. When no answer came,

however, he knew that he couldn’t wait. What if she needed

doctor? He knocked a little louder. He would break down the door

if he had to but not yet. He didn’t want to frighten her any more

than she was already. It was after the third time that he heard

the faint noises on the other side. In time the door opened,

though only a crack.

A face as pale as his own looked up at him, red hair sticking out

in all directions as if she’d gone to sleep when it was still

wet. Neither spoke. Wary eyes swept him from head to toe. His

muscles locked, he even held his breath, afraid that any move

would be misunderstood. Finally, she opened the door a little

farther and for the first time the light from his room fell fully

on her face. He staggered back at the sight of the bruises around

her mouth. His own tender tissues reacted with a deep twisting

pain of their own.

She stood and watched it all. His grimace and honest reaction of

shock and horror drew a tiny, grim smile from those swollen lips.

“I think you’d better come in,” she said swinging the door fully

open. “I think that you’re hurt worse than I am.”

He managed to make it across the floor somehow to sink gingerly

onto the edge of her unmade bed.

“What did I do?”

“Don’t you remember?”

He stared down at the fading hive blotches on his arms and then

back up at her face, misery written all over his. “Just shadows.

I dreamed.”

“Maybe they weren’t dreams. Did you dream about playing

basketball?” she asked.

His only response was to look more confused.

“Eating strawberry ice cream?”

“Scully,” he replied in a small voice into which fear was

creeping, “I’m allergic to strawberries.”

“I know. I tired to warn you. You and Thor shared a whole pint.”

His head came up with a sharp snap. “Thor?” A possibility, like a

shot of electricity surged through him.

Sensing his mood shift and knowing all too well the way his mind

worked, she sat suddenly straighter in the chair facing him. “Oh,

no,” she whispered almost inaudibly, but the message had already

flashed between them. “Not here, not now.”

Mulder knew what the ‘Oh, no’ meant – Oh, no, not an X-File —

and yet it would explain everything that so badly needed an

explanation.

“When was the last time you saw Thor?” he demanded to know..

“Don’t you mean when was the last time you did? Because you were

with him all afternoon and he was here just a few hours ago. I

threw him out right after our little altercation.”

So he had been there all along when all the strange and terrible

things that he couldn’t completely remember had been happening.

Mulder just sat there, hands between his knees staring off into

space, his brow creased in concentration. “After I left you in

the park, I was walking back to join the task force to see what

they’d found. All at once he came bounding up. He knocked me

down. I thought he was just happy to see me. We wrestled for a

bit and…” Mulder’s hand went to his cheek “…then he started

licking my face. He wouldn’t stop. I…” his voice faded. “It all

gets fuzzy after that.” His entire body seemed to crumple as he

buried his face in his hands. “Shit, oh, shit.” It had been in

him. What had been in him?

Gently but firmly, he felt her pull his hands away. “Mulder, I

know what you’re thinking. Don’t. There was nothing bestial about

what happened. Canine possession? Mulder, I know that you can do

better than that.”

His weak, sheepish grin told her that he thought that he could,

too. “Unfortunately, it’s not going to turn out to be anything as

simple as that. After all, I didn’t howl at the moon, did I?

Besides, dogs don’t play basketball. Now if I’d been playing

tennis or frisbee…”

Her brows drew together, all serious again. “Speaking of

basketball, I ran into two of the boys you played with later.

They didn’t seem surprised that you played so rough. In fact,

they blamed themselves for agreeing to play with you.” To the

question in his eyes, she answered, “Because you were with Thor.”

Wheels began to turned in Mulder’s head. Now that was

interesting.

“There’s another thing that I mentioned last night but you

forgot,” she added almost reluctantly. “All three of the arson

victims show wounds on their extremities that look very much like

bite marks from a very large dog.”

The wheels stopped turning. They didn’t need to. “I think I’d

better see a boy about a dog and I think you’d better come with

me.”

“Couldn’t leave me behind if you tried.”

He started to rise then and then thought better of it. Oh so

carefully, he sat down again. “First things first, about last

night… and us. Just how awful was I?”

She came to sit close beside him, hesitating before she began to

roll up the sleeves of her robe. He read the seriousness in her

and stilled, barely breathing.

“I’m not showing you this to hurt you or blame you, but because

you’re bound to see it all eventually.”

He thought he was going to faint as he gazed open-mouthed on the

vivid red marks on her upper arms that were already darkening to

purple.

“Oh, Scully…”

“You were a bit over-enthusiastic.”

“That’s not what I would call it.” He was sick to his stomach

again. “If you hadn’t –” he gestured down at his crouch “–

would I have –?”

Her distress must be mirroring his. “Oh, Mulder, no. At the time,

I thought, maybe. With no inhibitions you’re stronger than you

know, but having given it some thought I don’t think that it

would have come to that. You see I had a similar experience once

a long time ago. There was this teenage boy. I found out later

that the other girls called him Octopus Man. Given an inch of

encouragement, he’d be all over you.”

One corner of one lip made a feeble attempt to curl upwards. “The

bus is barreling downhill and no one is at the controls?”

Scully was well aware of the power of the emotion they were

discussing. “That would explain it. But that boy never got past a

certain point. Of course, at the age we were then, he was not so

much larger than I.” Her mouth suddenly took on a musing pout.

“You know, the male’s sexual awakening happens when he is not yet

fully grown, but females his own age are. I never thought of

that particular arrangement as a species survival trait.”

Mulder glowered, finding no humor in the situation. “So how was

it? Did I – did he – act as if he even knew what was going on?”

“Oh, you – he – knew, but the train wasn’t stopping, not for

anything. That is not you by the way.” She tired to smile but her

mouth didn’t curve entirely right. “You like to take your time.”

How hard she was trying to lighten this. Caught up in his guilt

and terrible visions of what could have been, the tentative touch

of her hand on his thigh came as a surprise, but it was a welcome

surprise, her hand so soft, the expression in her eyes so warm.

“How are… things… with you?”

‘Things’ began to stir.

Ouch…

Reluctantly, he slid his leg out from under her hand. “I don’t

think that you’d better do that for awhile.”

“Sorry. Have you tried ice?”

“Are you out of your mind, woman?”

“Want me to take a look? In my professional capacity, of course.”

“Not just now, thank you. Just pass me a handful of the strongest

pain killers you have.”

After that he went quiet except for the new storms rising within,

while she dried her hair. Her eyes seldom left his face.

“Mulder, get over it. It wasn’t you. We just have to find out

what it was and make certain that it never happens again.”

“Oh, it will never happen again, of that I’m certain.” The storm

broke, drenching him with cold anger. “Let’s go make that house

call.”

September 16 10am

After attending to their wounds, the agents dressed and

breakfasted on doctored bad coffee from the motel lobby. Neither

was hungry. The drive took no time at all and the only problems

Mulder had getting there were with one-way streets, which had

been no impediment to a man and dog traveling on foot. When two

Dobermans leaped out of hiding from behind a bush in a tiny yard

as the car approached, he knew they were close. There was the

building, a block ahead on the right. This time no old woman was

stationed on the steps with her broom to welcome them. Together

they climbed the narrow stairs through litter and trash and air

filled with the same multi-cultural scents of peanut oil and

curry that had pervaded the air before. Outside Spark’s room,

Mulder called the boy’s name, at the same time knocking once,

before letting himself in. He could imagine Thor vanishing

through his window to escape the incriminating evidence of

Scully’s block of paraffin, but the elegant black head only

raised itself listlessly from the boy’s bed where dog lay next to

the emaciated form of his god.

Even to Mulder’s eyes it was clear that the boy’s condition had

declined over the few days since they had first met. The child’s

skin had taken on a yellow, waxy cast and there was barely a

flicker in the eyes that opened at their abrupt entry. Mulder

felt his anger drain away.

Scully had gone to the boy’s bedside immediately. “I’m Agent

Scully, Agent Mulder’s partner, but I have a feeling that you

know that. I’m also a doctor. May I…?”

The thin shoulder’s moved ever so slightly in a shrug, the weary

acquiesce of someone who had seen more than their share of

doctors. “Won’t do any good,” came the low voice, “but knock

yourself out.”

As Scully began her examination, Mulder moved to the bedside

drawing up the room’s only chair. The child was so ill, keeping

his interrogator’s mask intact was going to take some work.

“What you did, Spark, that wasn’t very nice. I thought we were

friends.”

The boy’s hand crept out from underneath the worn sheet to caress

Thor’s sleek head.

“I wanted to know. I didn’t think you’d mind.”

“Wanted to know what?”

The voice was weak but not apologetic. “What it would be like to

be grown up the way you are. I’ve never met anyone like you

before.”

“That’s for sure,” Mulder heard Scully murmur under her breath.

He caught her eye and realized that she had expected something

like this. That she was ready to accept this after rejecting so

many of his other theories warmed his heart. But there was

another emotion in her face, one he saw only in the morgue when

he gazed down upon some young and beautiful child, its life cut

short. When she spoke, her voice as kind as he had ever heard it.

“Spark, you’re very sick.”

The child’s face with its faded but unearthly beauty looked up

into hers and said without hesitation, “AIDS.”

“Yes. There’s nothing I can do here,” she said. “You should be in

a hospital.”

“But it won’t help.”

Scully’s eyes touched her partner’s again. “It would give you a

little more time.”

“But they won’t let me bring Thor.”

“True, they won’t.”

“Then, no thank you.”

She sighed. “You should at least have hospice care.”

“I do. Andy came early this morning. He just left. I wanted him

to stay, but he couldn’t.” For the first time the boy’s peaceful

demeanor wavered. “He said that he’d try to come back, but there

are so many…” His chocolate brown eyes turned to the window, to

the street and the activity below. It was Saturday. Children were

playing, children who didn’t have one hand on death’s door.

Mulder’s hands clasped and unclasped between his knees. “Spark,

you know that Scully and I work for the FBI. If you are not too

tired, I’d like to ask you some questions now. There are things

we need to know. I think you know what I’m talking about.”

“I’m not too tired. I’m glad you’re here.”

“Tell me about the fires. How they got started. Tell me about the

men who died, why they died and how.”

The boy’s big eyes stared into the man’s hazel ones. “You know

already or you wouldn’t be asking me.”

“You have to tell us in your own words so no innocent person is

blamed.”

The boy reached out his smaller hand of frail bone towards the

man’s large one. Mulder wanted to take it but glanced at Scully

for her agreement first and both of them knew that it wasn’t AIDS

he was worried about. At first there was hesitation in her face

but finally she nodded.

At the boy’s touch Mulder felt, not a jolt of electricity, but a

warmth that spread soothingly throughout his whole body. At the

same time the sick room faded until it seemed very far away. He

stood on a plain of shifting shadows, a vaguely familiar

landscape, but before he could peer any further into the gloom,

he became aware that his arm hurt, not the one hot from Spark’s

touch but the other one. The ground also seemed very near. He was

a child again, being dragged through dark, wet streets by a man.

Uncle, came to his mind. There was no stopping until they reached

a small door in the wall of a huge, black building. A series of

knocks and the door opened and he was thrust inside. It was even

darker inside than out and just as quiet. It smelled of the river

and old dust.

A tall figure took him by the shoulder and spun him around.

Before he could move they had unzipped his jacket and unbuttoned

his shirt and a small light played over his body. There was more

than one man – three at least by the reek of cigars – but he

couldn’t see their faces though they could see his. He shivered

in the cold, empty room and wrapped his thin arms around his bare

chest.

They didn’t talk to him. Their cold business-like voices mingled

with that of his uncle. Now they took away his clothes entirely

and made him turn around and around like a roast on a spit. More

hands, far too many hands. Terrified, he was dragged up narrow

stairs, an ungentle slap warning him that he’d better start

walking and stop crying. They entered a tiny room where a single

red bulb glowed. There were new smells of sweat and old cologne

and something sick. He cried his hated uncle’s name again and

again but the old man had taken his blood money and fled, leaving

only the hands of the strange men and the red-lit room.

They hurt him, they hurt him very badly. They hurt him in ways

that he didn’t want to think about. He limped home that day and

every day thereafter, but not until the bleeding colors of dawn

touched the skin. He walked fast with his small fist wrapped

around the blood money his family so desperately needed. Tip-

toeing past his uncle asleep before his new wide screen TV, he

meet his younger brothers and sisters just rising from their one

bed to get ready for school. But no more school for him. He was

too tired. Besides he no longer belonged. How could he sit in a

classroom at a desk with other children knowing the un-childlike

things he did? He was changed. As the sun left the sky, he rose

to walk the dark streets to one black and looming building or

another. Each had its hidden, red rooms; each the too-friendly

whispered voices; and the fat, hot bodies rubbing against his,

lips against his and on his and on him, forcing his mouth —

“Stop it! Stop it!” shouted a voice but far, far away.

Mulder exploded out of the horror like a drowning man rising from

the grip of an icy, black sea. His body was shaking

uncontrollably. His only anchor to the present was the warm,

living body that rocked him, that held him close. The scent in

his nostrils this time was the scent of heaven, the blessed,

familiar perfume she wore.

“I just wanted to show him,” said a small voice far away. The

nightmare was fading but not fast enough.

“He asked you about the fires. Don’t try to tell me that ‘that’

was about the fires.”

“It was why.”

Mulder could not stop the tremors, but for once he didn’t mind.

He’d shiver for a solid week if he thought they could actually

shake off the memory of those large, rough hands.

“How were you able to keep going back?” he was finally able to

stammer. He only asked ‘How’ because he knew ‘Why’. For those

four small brothers and sisters who kissed him each morning and

each evening, who seemed to know without word or understanding

the enormity of the burden that he bore for them.

“How?” The sweetest smile came to the boy’s lips. “Because

something happened a few weeks later. It started out bad, but

turned out to be the best day of my life. It was cold that night

and raining. I remember it dripping down my neck. I so didn’t

want to go to ‘work’. I was sick with it. Instead, I hid outside,

in an alley in the dark. I thought seriously about dying, because

my uncle would kill me if I didn’t show, but then I couldn’t go

home either. And then I heard the tiniest sound.” The boy’s hand

reached out to touch one of Thor’s drooping ears. In response the

flag of a tail beat faster. “He was just the lit’lest thing, only

a little larger than my hand and so weak. He’d been thrown out in

a bag into the trash but had crawled out. I thought then how

alike we were; trash, that is. I had a muffin and one of those

juice boxes. I gave him some of that and wrapped him warm in my

sweater and put him in a box and hid him in a dark place. I told

him not to move or make a sound till I got back. He’d been making

these little grunting puppy sounds before but after I told him to

be quiet, not a peep. And he was still there when I did get back.

Weak as he was, he even licked my finger. I was never so happy in

my life. I just loved him SO much, I just wanted him to live so

badly, that I guess I poured all my love into him, all my soul.

“It doesn’t make sense but when I climbed the stairs to the red

room after that, I barely felt it. It was like I was wood, like

it was happenin’ to someone else though I would never wish that

on anyone. And that’s the way it was till I got sick; Thor and me

together except while my body was upstairs, he waited outside, or

more truly we waited outside, he and I together.” The huge brown

eyes looked up at Mulder. “I don’t ‘spect you to believe that.”

“You’d be surprised what I believe. So what you told me at our

first meeting was true. After you got sick you really did send

Thor out to see things and bring you back stories, only that

wasn’t quite true, was it? He never really had to ‘tell’ you

anything because a part of you traveled with him.”

A resolute expression put color into the boy’s pale cheeks.

“So what happened yesterday? The basketball game? You did more

than send Thor to spy on me.”

Excitement animated the little body. “I’d never tried that before

and it was so easy. You wanted to help me so bad that you let me

in, you ‘wanted’ me in.” The enormous chocolate eyes glittered

with something like worship. “There’s never been anyone like

you.”

“As I said, got that in one,” Scully breathed.

“As for the game, I was always the smallest. I wanted to know

just once what it was like to be bigger, taller. I wanted to know

what it felt like to win.”

“Hmmm, we’ll talk about fair play later. And the ice cream?”

“I like strawberry.”

“You could have killed Agent Mulder,” Scully admonished in her no

nonsense voice.

“I didn’t mean to.”

“And last night… that was you, too,” she said. Mulder noted

with relief that the statement was not phrased as a question.

“How’d you guess?” Spark asked in all sincerity.

Amused, Mulder cocked an eyebrow in her direction. “Yes, Agent

Scully, how did you know?”

Coolly, she answered the boy. “It’s come to my attention that

Agent Mulder has some skill in that area, skill which was

decidedly lacking last night.”

Spark didn’t have time to ask how Agent Scully had come to be

acquainted with Agent Mulder’s skill in these matters, for at

that moment Thor issued a low, warning growl. His head jerked,

first towards the window, then towards the hallway. Before either

of the partners could react, the apartment’s cheap door burst

open and a masked, fatigue-dressed figure spun into the room, a

lethal automatic revolver raised. Nothing could have been more

unexpected. Neither agent was in any position to reach their

weapons quickly, certainly not in time to beat a bullet that

would come from a gun already aimed at Mulder’s chest.

His hand was only half-way to his shoulder holster when the room

echoed with the distinctive ‘Splat!’ but at the same time a black

blur passed before Mulder’s eyes. Another shot and another.

Scully was rolling low. Thor had the invader’s gun hand in his

jaws deflecting the aim so that the next shots went safely wild.

It was when Mulder felt a new one whistle by his ear from the

direction of the open window that they were far from being out of

trouble.

From the balls of his feet he launched his body towards the knees

of their attacker. A whine screamed by like an incensed bee. Thor

yelped and Spark screamed just as Mulder brought the gunman down.

Two seconds, keeping below the level of the window, and the man

was cuffed. Scully, first crawled over to check on Spark and

seeing no blood on the terrified boy bent low and streaked out

the door, reaching for her cell phone with her left hand even as

she raised her service weapon. Mulder heard her call for backup

as her heels hit the stairs with a shower of staccato clicks. He

kept his own heel on the back of their attacker’s neck, which

went a long way towards muffling the obscenities that steamed out

of the man’s mouth. At the same time he worked himself around as

best as he could to try to see from where the other gunman had

been firing. The roof of an adjacent building lined up almost

perfectly. With the sounds of sirens already blaring from only

blocks away, Mulder caught a fleeting glimpse of the second man

disappearing through a rooftop door. Staring from the side of the

window down to the street below, he noted that Scully had all the

help that she would need. What looked like two nightshift police

officers and as many security guards had poured out of their

apartments in nearby buildings, a little groggy from their

interrupted sleep, but armed to the teeth. They scattered

following Scully’s directions.

With a jerk on the cuffs, Mulder pulled his trash-talking captive

to his feet and pushed the man towards the door. He paused at the

last moment to look back at the bloodless face of the boy whose

eyes were fixed on the floor now streaked with footprints in

blood. There Thor moved weakly, whimpering. “Stay still!” Mulder

ordered both animal and boy. “We’ll be back in just a few

minutes. Promise.”

Both partners were back in less than five after handing off the

two perpetrators to the local police with promises to be in to

give statements as soon as possible. Breathing hard from having

taken the five flights, two or more steps at a time, Mulder found

the boy of little more than skin and bone sprawled on the floor

with the head of a panting Thor in his lap. Within moments Scully

slid down beside them, her hands moving swiftly through the black

fur.

“I don’t think it’s very bad, Spark,” she assured the boy after

her initial examination. “Grazed his hip. You were a brave, good

boy, Thor. Thank you.”

Lovingly, she ruffled the dog’s silky head, very much the same

way she ruffled his own hair from time to time, Mulder thought

wryly.

“We should really take him to a vet to be sure though,” she told

the teary-eyed boy.

Spark’s response was an emphatic, “No! They’ll want to keep him.

We’ve never been apart.” Belatedly remembering the days Thor had

been lost in the fire and later stayed with Mulder, the boy

amended with, “Well, almost never. Please, if he’s really not so

bad could you fix him up here?” His pleading eyes were fixed in

Scully’s direction.

“That’s what I thought you’d ask,” she said with a nod towards a

small suitcase she’d brought back with her. “I think I might have

something in here for our brave hero.” She opened her well-

stocked first aid kit. “From time to time, it’s been sufficient

to handle the heroics of a certain other male of my acquaintance.

Meanwhile, Mulder will be looking for bullet fragments; we’ll

need them as evidence. The one that hit Thor just kept going.”

A short time later while Scully completed her treatment with only

a vague murmur about whether this was a step up or a step down

from autopsying pregnant elephants, Mulder sat down next to the

boy. He held up a set of plastic evidence bags containing the

remains of five slugs. “These men meant business, but they

clearly weren’t after you.”

The brown eyes lowered displaying lush lashes. “No, you. You went

sniffing about on the boats, didn’t you? Someone got scared and

hired those goons to take you out. Pretty dumb going after two

‘suits’.”

“Right, pretty dumb but then that’s more often than not how the

bad guys get caught. They might even have succeeded if it weren’t

for Thor, to which I offer my thanks as well.” Hearing his name

mentioned the canine’s tail wagged so energetically that it got

in the way of Scully’s bandaging.

“The good news is, the bosses didn’t pick their hit men very

well. These two are going to talk like a couple of magpies. There

will be no trouble tracing them back to their paymasters.

Attempted murder on two FBI agents? Your local police will be

able to close them down. That is what you were trying to do with

the fires and the deaths, yes?” The boy hung his head. Mulder

went on. “That’s what I was doing on the boats, you know. I had

to find out who started the fires and killed those men. That’s

what put my life in danger — mine and Scully’s and Thor’s. You

joined with Thor, didn’t you? You did it all.”

There was no remorse in the child’s voice, only anger. “They were

evil. I wasn’t the only one they used. It had to stop.” The boy’s

mouth curved up bitterly. “Don’t you see, the gentleman of the

night are always on the lookout for more, the more exotic the

better. What about the boys — and girls — to come?”

“Just promise that you won’t do anything like this again. We have

them now. We’ll shut them down lawfully.” This group at least.

“So Thor and I aren’t in any trouble?”

“I didn’t say that. And while we’re at it, let’s talk again about

what else you’ve seen through Thor’s eyes.” By the look of

defiance on the boy’s peaked features obviously quite a lot.

From the floor where she was just finishing attending to Thor’s

injury, Scully spoke in a voice that was soothing yet absolutely

firm. “Intruding into other people’s lives, invading their

privacy? That’s wrong.”

“And what they did to me wasn’t wrong?”

“I seem to remember an old adage about two wrongs,” Mulder

commented as he rose to help his partner repack her supplies.

Mid-action he felt the unpleasant pull of still-tender tissues.

That discomfort had been momentarily forgotten in the earlier

scuffle.

“Then there’s your traveling through Thor to me,” he said, doing

his best to sound paternally displeased, “don’t you ever do that

again either. Not to me, not to anyone.”

Guiltily, the boy’s head drooped. Then seeing Thor standing,

albeit shakily, he reached out his thin arms for comfort. Thor

made it up onto the bed and into those arms though with less than

his usual bounce. Hugging his friend to him, the boy sank back

against the pillows looking far too small and old for his age.

From the bed the chocolate eyes followed Mulder as he started to

leave with Scully.

“Please don’t go. Could you… could you stay and talk to me

today, at least until I fall asleep?”

Seeing her partner’s hesitation, Scully gestured him closer to

whisper, “I know you want to stay, so stay. I’ll go deal with our

two would-be assassins. We promised a statement. I’ll also get

things rolling in terms of closing down this sordid little ring.

Take all the time you need.”

It was a generous and kind gesture and all at once he wanted more

than anything to kiss this loving woman, only there was Spark and

his sad, hungry eyes.

The hell with it.

Bending, he kissed her softly on the forehead which they still

did though more often than not their kisses moved from there to

more intimate territory. Her eyes closed in pleasure and with a

returning squeeze of her hand, she was gone.

“See,” came a small and yet triumphant voice from the bed, “I

knew that she’d like it.”

Mulder whirled. “Not the way you did it!”

The smile vanished from the boy’s sharp features and his hand

clenched more fiercely into Thor’s thick fur. “I said I was

sorry. I just wanted to know what it was like between a man and a

woman who actually cared for each other.” In the bitterest of

ironies, the boy who knew more of the dark side of sex then

Mulder hoped that he would ever know, didn’t know about the best

parts.

“If not that, then talk to me about other things. Everything.

Like how was it to grow four inches in one summer?”

“Painful, and it was six.”

“Cool! Tell about the first time.” The fixed brown eyes glittered

with pleasure but behind them was a great hunger.

Heaven help us, Mulder mused.

After a moment, he took off his suit coat, loosened his tie,

rolled up his shirtsleeves, took his place again in the chair

beside the bed, and sighed. “I’m glad Scully’s gone.”

The boy grinned expectantly with his perfect white teeth.

“There’s painful parts to this and it’s not something I’m

especially proud of, on the other hand…” A flood of bittersweet

memories warmed him. “I warn you, it’s a long story if you really

want to understand it all.”

“I’m not going anywhere,” the boy responded eagerly.

Another sigh. “Very well.”

“How old were you?”

“Fifteen. It had been a terrible summer and some of my so-called

friends asked me to go with them to the State Fair and there was

this gypsy fortune teller…”

“How old was she?”

“An older woman. In her twenties, if you must know, but am I

telling this story or are you?”

Spark closed his mouth and made a zippering motion across his

lips.

“All right then. Let me start from the beginning…”

~~~~~~~~~~~

Scully found herself dozing in the cab even though the ride was

less that two miles. She had done a good night’s work, but then

she and Mulder were such heroes with the locals that it hadn’t

been hard. They booked the two would-be assassins on attempted

murder and better yet got the ringleaders of the pedophile group-

those who still lived- on murder-for-hire charges. She had not

expected to see Mulder and hadn’t. The man didn’t just have a

soft spot for children in distress, he had a whole bloody swamp.

The girls reminded him of his sister, ripped from her life, her

family; the boys reminded him of himself, equally traumatized,

lonely and abused, psychologically if not physically. The man-to-

man talk would do them both good.

The smell of wet street rose up to her as she crawled tiredly

from the cab in front of the boy’s building. The last of the

street lights glittered in the puddles. As the sound of the

taxi’s engine faded away, there remained only that odd, almost

unnatural quiet of a city just before dawn.

At that moment the front door of the building opened and Mulder

himself sidled out. He was awkwardly burdened with a large

shapeless bundle, which was wrapped in a blanket that Scully

recognized as being from the sick room. She met him at the bottom

of the short flight of stairs within steps of where their rental

car was parked. He hadn’t glanced up as he had come slowly down

the steps, but with his face nearly hidden he had looked about as

weary as she had ever seen him. Preoccupied with maneuvering the

steps with his burden, he was unaware of her presence until she

was beside him.

Red-rimmed eyes gazed on her gratefully from his gray and haggard

face.

“Mulder, what is it? What’s happened?” Fingers on his chin she

turned his face to the east and the soft colors of coming dawn.

There were tracks of tears on his stubbled cheeks. His eyes

lowered towards the bundle he carried. The blanket-wrapped shape

was large enough for the boy’s emaciated body.

“What is this? Spark? Is he worse? Are you taking him to the

hospital?”

The dark-haired head jerked in a negative sign. “Thor…” The

word caught in his throat. Hurriedly, Scully folded back an edge

of the blanket. Her probing fingers found cool, stiff skin under

the thick, soft coat. That bubbling life force was still.

“Oh, Mulder…I don’t understand. His injury wasn’t that bad.”

He clutched the bundle to him, his tired eyes closing. He opened

his mouth to speak but couldn’t get the words out. Giving up, he

inclined his head towards the trunk. After she had unlocked it,

he laid the motionless bundle tenderly in the back. With aching

slowness, he straightened up and reached blindly for her hand.

“Spark’s dead, too.”

“No…” but she had half suspected that already.

“I was just telling him stories.” Pent up before, the words

tumbled out. “We’d been at it for hours. He was just lying there,

eyes half open, this little smile on his face. I don’t know how

long he had been like that but too long.” His grip tightened,

grinding bone; his low, ragged voice staggered on. “He just

slipped away. And…Thor…was lying beside him and when I bent

to touch him I found he was gone, too…” The eyes closed, tears

on their lashes. “They went together. That bond they shared…”

Shaking himself as if from a dream, he pushed back from the car.

“I’ve called for an ambulance. They’ll be here for Spark soon,

but Thor, I couldn’t just leave him there. Just to be dispos–”

His voice broke. For an instant his fury at the world surfaced so

that he almost slammed the trunk closed. At the last second,

however, he caught himself and shut it gently, applying only

enough pressure so that the lock clicked. His eyes lifted then to

a window on the top floor.

“At least you were there,” she said, placing a small hand on his

shoulder. “No one should have to die alone.” Tenderly she turned

over his hand and kissed the palm.

And you’re not alone either, my love, and never will be.

“Come on,” she said. “I’ll come with you. We’ll find out who his

friends were in the building, try to contact his family, find

something for the funeral.”

Wordlessly, he nodded. They started forward. Suddenly, he took

her into his trembling arms and buried his face in her hair.

After a long moment, hand in hand, they climbed the steps

together.

~~~~~~~~

Epilogue

September 19

That night in the midst of death, they celebrated life. There was

no talk of risk. That no longer mattered. Over the next two days

they cleaned up everything they had to with the field office and

the local police. Everyone cooperated in quiet efficiency, not as

if Mulder would have noticed. Even Samson was surprisingly

subdued. No cracks, not a one. He certainly went up several

notches in Scully’s book, but then the man would have needed to

be made of stone not to see the grief that her partner wore about

himself like a shroud.

There was no funeral. Only Agents Mulder, Scully and a half dozen

‘family’ members attended the graveside service. The words were

few and impersonal. The eulogy was performed by a minister who

clearly knew little or nothing about the boy.

It was at dusk that the real service began. Called by word-of-

mouth they came by the hundreds; gray forms wrapped in mist. So

silent were they that the tracks made in the wet grass were the

only signs that the figures were not themselves the ghosts of the

Civil War dead out for a stroll. The partners were only two of

the number. In solemn procession at the head of the throng,

Mulder, stiff with control, carried Thor in his arms. At the edge

of the still-open grave they waited as from all directions the

mourners came. Children, parents, shopkeepers and young

professionals from blocks around – all came who had heard the

inseparable sounds of athletic shoes and the ‘click, click’ of

clawed paws on their streets and sidewalks.

As the last assembled, six silent men pulled the vault from the

earth. A stony-faced octogenarian opened it as well as the small,

lonely coffin within. By then there must have been two hundred

souls all woven about in the fog that had flowed in from the

river.

Two hundred and two, Mulder corrected to himself.

In the end the blanket covered both. It was a tight fit but the

overwhelming consensus was that the two involved would rest

easier now. When the partners and their fellow shades passed back

into the land of the living, they left behind them in the

twilight a new-covered mound bedecked with flowers and candy and,

here and there, a dog biscuit. Oh, yes, and one peanut butter and

jelly sandwich.

“That was irregular as hell, Mulder,” Scully whispered as they

neared their car, “if not down right illegal.”

“As illegal as it is to die so young? Or if it isn’t, it should

be.”

“How did they get the cemetery and mortuary staff to agree to

this? I doubt that the family was even asked.”

“The family was no family.” Then Mulder remembered his ‘dream’,

“Well, maybe the brothers and sisters, if they had not been so

afraid of the uncle. That individual, by the way, will be

receiving a visit from Social Services as soon as our report

reaches a certain director’s desk. As far as the community goes–

and the cemetery and mortuary staff are part of the community —

the official version of the story will be that a favorite

keepsake was forgotten when the coffin was closed. Re-opening has

been done before, only the humane thing to do for one so young.

Internment was not even complete. Certainly He who ultimately

bestows all forgiveness – or ‘She’ depending upon your level of

PC — won’t mind.”

“And the unofficial version?”

“Better this than having their children for the next hundred

years sit before their cereal bowls and ask whether the child who

was up all night walking the streets had found the dog he was

calling for.”

With understanding she took his hand and led him towards their

car. Her small one was warm, where his was still cold. Home soon.

Trusting her to steer him clear of the forest of gravestones,

Mulder briefly closed his eyes. Somewhere, he thought he heard

the joyous bark of a dog, Lassie finding Timmy after one of their

harrowing adventures, their Last harrowing adventure.

But then it might have just been his imagination.

THE END

~~~~~~~~~~~~

Author’s Notes: The story Mulder tells Spark about his ‘first’

time is actually an older story of mine (and shorter than this

one) entitled, Carnival Dark, Carnival Light. If you are

interested you can find it on my very inadequate web site at

http://members.aol.com/windsinger and on Gossamer under Author,

Esty and, probably a lot of other fan fic sites as well.

Tranquility Lost

cover

Title: Tranquility Lost

Author: Debra Longley

E-mail: d_a_longley@hotmail.com

Completed: December, 2001

Category: MT, M/S angst, MSR, X-File

Rating: R

Spoilers: assumes knowledge up to Season 7, not

including Requiem; minor for CindyET’s The Bennington

Triangle, for VS9

Summary: Posing as a bickering married couple, the

agents investigate Tranquility, a spa where all-body

treatments and stress reduction activities go hand in

hand with mind enrichment. Is Mulder taking his role

way too seriously or is something more sinister

involved?

Archive: IMTP for the first two weeks; any others

just let me know. 🙂

Disclaimer: Mulder, Scully, Skinner and any

recognizable characters belong to Chris Carter, Ten

Thirteen Productions, and Twentieth Century Fox

Television. They are used here without permission. No

copyright infringement is intended. Unrecognizable

characters belong to me.

Author’s Notes: This was written for I Made This!

Productions as one of the episodes of Virtual Season

9. IMTP may be found at http://imadethis2.tripod.com/

Locations are real, although I’ve taken some

liberties with them. Tranquility is imaginary,

although it’s based on several existing spas. No

disrespect is intended.

Thanks: Special thanks to betas Suzanne, Susan, and

Sally for their suggestions and encouragement, and to

artists Heather and Theresa for making this little

fic come alive with their talents.

Feedback: Did you or didn’t you? I’d like to know.

“Farewell the tranquil mind! farewell content!”

– Shakespeare

Othello, Act III, Sc. iii

~~~~~

Teaser

~~~~~

SENATOR RYAN’S RESIDENCE

CONCORD, MA

Eighteen miles northwest of Boston, a colonial-style

mansion was the home of Senator Gordon Ryan and his

wife Evelina. In their bedroom, they were lying in a

four poster bed. She felt him move beside her and

turned, pressing her body against his. He was soft

and warm, his breath stirring her hair. When he

tensed, she knew he was awake. He rolled over to the

edge of the bed and sat with his back to her. She lay

motionless in silence.

The sense of loss he felt caused intense pain in his

chest. Had she ever really been his? “Are you awake?”

he asked in a voice that held no warmth.

She clutched the duvet to her breast and stared at

him. His rigid spine spoke volumes. “Yes,” she

responded dully. All of a sudden she flung it off,

padding across the carpet. “I don’t know who you are

anymore, Gord!”

She was looking at him as if he was some kind of

alien she had never seen before. There was a long

silence then her husband sighed, getting to his feet.

“You’re being dramatic.”

“Dramatic?” she parroted. “You can’t even make love

with me anymore.”

“Hell, Lee!” He grasped her by the upper arms and

shook her lightly.

The woman was close to tears. He released her, and

she whirled away from him. “I can’t answer you.

You’ve been different ever since we went to that

place.”

The Senator caught her wrist, pulling her back to

him. Facing her, he saw that she was flushed, and, in

her red nightgown, she was one color from head-to-

toe. Still, she reached up and pulled down his head,

resting his lightly lined forehead against hers. He

moved away abruptly as if her touch had burned him.

A dull ache appeared behind his eyelids and he rubbed

his thumb and index finger over them. He glanced at

the digital clock radio on the night table. “I don’t

have time for this,” he insisted.

He never had time anymore. She hated that clock. She

wished clocks had never been invented. As she

thought it, 5:11 a.m. turned into 5:12 a.m. She

stared at it, as if doing so would stop the passage

of time and make everything all right again. 5:13

a.m. appeared nonetheless — just like clockwork, she

thought hysterically, triggering a giggle.

She was acting like a crazy person. Her brown hair

was mussed, the gray strands around her face unruly,

accentuating her behavior. To Ryan, it didn’t make

any sense. Hadn’t he given her everything she had

ever wanted? “I don’t understand — ”

“How could you,” his wife interrupted, “when I don’t

understand it myself?” Strength drained from her

legs, like a rapid rush of water swirling down a

basin, and she sank heavily on the bed.

Her arms ached from the knowledge she might never

hold him again. She wished she had known that the

last time really *was* the last time.

With another obvious look at the timepiece, Ryan

said, “For God’s sake, Lee, I have to get dressed and

catch a plane. I have a meeting on the Hill today.”

“I could go with you,” she offered, her voice

subdued.

“Not this time. I’ll call you tonight from the

hotel.”

His response stung. She folded into herself, as if

she could no longer support her shoulders.

He took her silence as submission and didn’t look at

her again. Instead, he stepped away from her and went

into the dressing room.

~~~~~

Act I

~~~~~

MULDER’S OFFICE

FBI HEADQUARTERS

WASHINGTON, DC

The basement corridor was quiet, the hum of voices

and keyboards usually present on the upper floors

conspicuously absent. The office door was shut

tightly, trapping its three occupants in a seasonably

warm room that smelled faintly of dust and Mulder’s

cologne. The office seemed no bigger than the storage

room it had been in the past. Its surfaces were

covered with sprawling file folders crammed with

paper, and piles of newspaper clippings and

magazines. Also visible were 3-ring binders

containing computer printouts, and nonfiction books,

their worn and well-thumbed pages folded over to mark

their places.

Mulder was settled behind his desk, his knees crossed

and his hands folded on the desktop blotter, prepared

to listen. Its surface held a yellow legal pad and

pen, and three used coffee cups. Presiding over the

room, Mulder sat opposite a woman seated in the

visitor’s chair, and Scully, who sat beside her.

The woman wore a tasteful ivory linen suit and a

single strand of pearls. Her brown hair was fastened

in a bun at her neck; some runaway gray strands

framed her round face. Its plumpness made her look

younger than she was. There were smears of mascara

under her brown eyes and she clutched a shredded

tissue in her right hand.

Mulder rose to his feet, the chair creaking as he

changed position. He came out from behind his desk,

hands in his pockets, waiting for her to speak. He

could feel a trickle of sweat between his shoulder

blades. Clearing his throat and interrupting the

silence, he asked gently, “How might we help, Mrs.

Ryan?”

The woman was caught off balance by his voice and her

mouth quivered. She dabbed the tissue at her nose

then balled it into her fist. Looking up at him, she

saw merely nonjudgmental interest on his face.

Satisfied, she took a steadying breath, readying

herself.

“Evelina, please, Agent Mulder.”

He lowered himself, propping his hip on the corner of

the desk and leaning forward. Scully noticed that the

right knee of his pants was wearing thin and found it

oddly endearing.

“Why don’t you start at the beginning, Evelina?” he

suggested.

His attentiveness was encouraging. “My husband is

Gordon Ryan,” she began. “He’s a senator for the

Commonwealth of Massachusetts and a member of the

Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.”

Mulder nodded in recognition.

“Gordon works too hard; he was looking tired and had

lost weight. A colleague recommended a place: an

exclusive spa with the best of treatment, indulging

both body and soul. Even its name was ideal —

Tranquility. We decided to book a four-night weekend

package; it was high-priced, but it was a second

honeymoon of sorts. May I have a glass of water?”

“Of course. You’re doing fine,” Mulder assured her.

“I’ll get it,” Scully offered. “Mulder?”

He shook his head no. No one spoke until she returned

with the cup. The senator’s wife took it from Scully

and sipped a little bit, setting it on the desk. She

started again. “There were people of all ages and

shapes there. The staff responded to our every need;

it was good to be pampered. But before long, the

serenity I was feeling was lost.”

“Why?” Mulder asked.

She lifted her hand to her throat, fingering the

pearls around her neck. “It sounds absurd, but Gordon

had changed, almost before my eyes. He was a

stranger, with a whole other side. He was keeping

things from me, distancing himself….” Her cheeks

flamed. “Unaffectionate.” Briefly, she was back in

their house in Concord, when it was it was all brand-

new and good. “Every time I try to find out what’s

wrong, he pushes me away. These past weeks I have

looked deep into my soul; I still love him, support

him. I can’t accept losing him. Will you help?” she

asked the agents, a little embarrassed by her

outpouring. She used to feel private lives should be

kept private.

Mulder’s open expression let Scully know his interest

was aroused. The next words he spoke confirmed it.

“We can’t take on a case without authorization,”

Mulder answered, “but I do think we should find out a

bit more.”

Sunlight streamed through the narrow window, and she

placed her hope on it, the way it seemed to carry the

drifting particles of dust. For a moment, she

believed things would be the way they had always

been, before Tranquility had come between them.

Evelina got to her feet, reaching for Mulder’s hand.

She wondered if he would feel her trembling. Mulder

slid his hand into hers, his grip firm and warm. The

look on his face was sympathetic, not condescending.

He reached out and put his left hand on her shoulder

before releasing her hand. She was grateful for the

gesture and decided she liked him.

Walking her to the door and closing it behind her,

Mulder went to make a fresh pot of coffee. He fished

out the used packet of grounds, intending to empty

the carafe, but Scully laid her hand on his sleeve.

“Wait,” she told him, suggesting instead, “Why don’t

we go to the Pavilion, buy some sandwiches, and have

lunch at The Mall? I know a bench with our names on

it.”

Mulder set down the pot. “Are you coming on to me,

Scully?”

Reading his thoughts, she raised an eyebrow and

smiled. “Yes, now that you mention it,” she countered

playfully.

“Good.”

THE NATIONAL MALL

WASHINGTON, DC

After the stillness of the office, the stroll to the

expanse of lawn extending between the Washington

Monument and the Capitol was chaotic with traffic and

pedestrians swinging their briefcases and handbags.

Mulder found an empty place for them to sit. He

discarded his suit jacket, folding it on the bench

beside him, pulled down his tie, and unbuttoned the

top button of his blue shirt, loosening the collar.

He helped himself to a Black Forest ham and Swiss

cheese sandwich on homemade white bread, unrolling it

and taking a bite. He shoved an errant bean sprout

into his mouth with his thumb.

“Do you know what I think?” Scully asked, reaching

into a second paper bag and handing Mulder his can of

iced tea.

“You’re about to tell me there’s a perfectly rational

explanation.” He popped the cap, tossed down a

mouthful then took another bite and waited.

She pulled out her bottle of peach flavored sparkling

water. “Her husband is going through a mid-life

crisis and she can’t handle it.”

“She didn’t say one word about him lusting after

younger women.”

“He may be having a psychological reaction to the

loss of youth, which would explain his erratic

behavior.”

“That explains why I shaved in the dark this

morning,” he grinned. “I found a gray hair.”

Scully looked intently at him, saw the offending

strand suspended over his brow, and impulsively

plucked. “Although controversial, scientific evidence

also indicates that physiological changes — reduced

activity of testosterone — can have a huge effect,

popularly known as male menopause.”

She unwrapped her turkey and Gouda cheese on a

croissant and began eating. “It’s not an X-File.”

“What if Ryan went to Tranquility and someone else

came back?” Mulder put to her. “The technology to

replace him with a duplicate exists, Scully. We’ve

seen it.”

Clones. Alien/human hybrids. Dolly, the sheep. The

Samanthas, the Gregors, and the Kurts. Emily. The

Litchfield Experiment, a U.S. government top secret

program in which a group of genetically controlled

children were raised and monitored, the boys named

Adam and the girls Eve.

She wiped her mouth with a napkin. There were other

case files back at the office in various stages of

investigation, but his instincts were always good.

“Well, it wouldn’t hurt to have a quick look at the

spa files,” Scully conceded at last. “Could the Lone

Gunmen hack into them?”

“Piece of cake,” he grinned, washing down his

sandwich with the rest of his iced tea.

They deposited the remnants of their lunch in a

nearby trash bin and continued at a leisurely pace on

the grass, watching the children laugh and play.

Mulder dangled his suit jacket on his finger,

swinging it and letting it fall carelessly over his

shoulder. The agents crossed Constitution Avenue and

walked up 12th Street, heading back to Pennsylvania

Avenue. The walk back to the Hoover Building was not

as companionable as the visit to The Mall. Mulder was

quiet, and Scully, taking a look at his

uncommunicative profile, saw he was somewhere else

entirely and left him alone.

ASSISTANT DIRECTOR SKINNER’S OFFICE

FBI HEADQUARTERS

WASHINGTON, DC

The blinds in the windows of the spacious office had

been closed to keep out the sunlight’s warmth; air

conditioning, its hum barely audible, controlled the

room’s temperature and kept it comfortable.

“You’d be spending a lot of money on a hunch, Agent

Mulder,” the balding man stated grimly from behind

the polished oak desk. He sank into his chair,

swiveling around to face the agent, drumming a pen

absently on the request. Christ, how would he explain

this one to the Finance Division?

“I can handle Finance,” Mulder echoed uncannily.

“It’s more than a hunch, sir.”

Before he requested the 302, he had booted up his

office computer and turned to the keyboard. As his

fingers flew over the keys, Scully positioned herself

at his shoulder to get a better view. He accessed an

Internet search engine and typed in the keywords for

his search, the object being the Intelligence

Committee and its jurisdiction and members. He

discovered that its purpose was to oversee and make

continuing studies of the intelligence activities and

programs of the government, to submit proposals for

legislation, and to report to the Senate concerning

such intelligence activities and programs.

The agent told Skinner, “Initial inquiries revealed

all of its members were guests of Tranquility at one

time or another. All six, including Senator Gordon

Ryan, changed their minds on several important pieces

of legislation. All six of them voted with the

committee’s chairman on an anti-terrorism bill that

would give the government the power to invade the

privacy of ordinary citizens.”

“You think they wouldn’t play ball and were

replaced.”

“You’ve read it.” Mulder waved his hand in the

direction of the file folder on Skinner’s desk.

“What went on in that committee merits a look.”

The assistant director was quiet for a long moment.

“Do what you like,” he allowed, throwing up his

hands.

Four nights with Scully, without an alarm clock or

the office. Gourmet food, even if it was analyzed for

calories and fat, and a wealth of indoor and outdoor

activities. “It should be — almost — painless,

sir.”

I-91

After arriving at Hartford’s Bradley International

Airport, Mulder had disappeared inside a national car

rental chain to rent a car for the trip to the

Berkshires. Waiting for him at the curb, Scully

started when a yellow Ford Mustang convertible sped

past her, its male driver swerving abruptly to the

right and screeching to a stop just in front of her.

Her stomach rolled like a ship pitching suddenly to

one side when she saw who was at the wheel. Have

your fun, she thought sharply. What was the saying —

that a man was nothing more than a tall boy?

The driver’s door swung open and Mulder emerged.

Another victim of the male mid-life crisis, she

supposed, shaking her head. First a face-to-face look

at mortality in the mirror, now a convertible instead

of a nondescript Ford Taurus. Her eyes flicked to the

vehicle. “I hate surprises.”

She didn’t sound offended even if her hands were on

her hips. He beamed, “Well, we’ve got to look the

part, Scully.” Indicating the fragrant leather

interior, he continued happily, “And it has a stick

shift!”

He smiled his most winning smile, the one that showed

all of his teeth and stopped her breath. “Samantha,”

she corrected, forcing herself to breathe. Samantha

and Darrin Stevens. Why, oh why, had she relented and

let *him* pick their names? Could it be he used

*that* smile? “Sam,” he righted easily, throwing

their bags in the trunk. “We have a bit of money. I’m

a successful entrepreneur; we have a gorgeous

condo… ” He perched his sunglasses on his nose and

pivoted for Scully’s benefit. “Shirt by Hugo Boss,

pants by Armani.”

“Didn’t I ever tell you that I was never attracted to

your wallet, Darrin?” She leaned against him,

smiling. “In fact, my eyes never made it past your

belt.”

“Scully!”

Feeling good, she laughed a real laugh and let his

slip-up go. They climbed into the front seats and

closed their doors; Scully eased into the back of the

seat, settling the map on her lap, and Mulder put a

compact disc she had given him into the Mustang’s CD

player. He turned the key in the ignition, and, as

Don McLean mourned for the day the music died,

shifted the gear into place and shot away from the

curb determined to make good time.

Accentuating his mood, the sun stayed out as they

flew north on the Interstate, with the top down and

their hair be damned. The air was against his face,

warm and fresh, and Mulder felt a sense of freedom

and anticipation that investigating a new case always

brought him. He turned to Scully, yelling, “Isn’t

this great?”

She pulled strands of her hair out of her eyes and

felt a wave of irritation, as if it was his fault.

When he reached for her hand, placing it on the black

knob and downshifting, she was distracted. It was

impossible not to feel the vibration — or the shape

of his fingers. “It’s exhilarating,” she yelled back

truthfully, and he squeezed her hand.

They took Exit 14 for the Massachusetts Turnpike,

following it west to the exit at Lee. They drove past

the well maintained white farmhouses, weathered

barns, and fields of crops and colorful wildflowers,

all giving an impression of prosperous serenity.

Scully pointed out, a little wistfully, that there

was no shortage of antique dealers either. Mulder

felt her breath against his cheek and turned just in

time to spot a swinging sign, underneath a jumbled

row of brightly painted birdhouses. The delicate

floral scent coming from his partner made him want to

get even closer. He sighed and turned his attention

back to the road.

TRANQUILITY SPA

THE BERKSHIRES

LENOX, MA

The hamlet of Lenox, with its stately homes and

fabulous mansions, was tucked in a corner of the

Southern Berkshire hills. Scully was content enjoying

the scenery along tree-lined streets. Reluctantly,

she turned her attention to the map and traced a line

with her manicured fingertip.

“We’re almost there. Take the next left.”

A teal green sign with white lettering edged in gold,

Tranquility Spa was adjacent to an open gate.

Towering hedges surrounded the grounds. Slowing the

Mustang, Mulder peered through the driver’s side

window and signaled left. He turned it through the

opening; the winding drive would take them to the

vintage mansion, which now served as the inn.

As he steered the car leisurely up the drive, Mulder

was greeted by a civil but firm security guard. He

braked and, with a wink at Scully, turned back to the

man, informing him that they were Mr. and Mrs.

Stevens and were expected.

The guard studied his list and confirmed their

registration. He waved his arm and gestured them

forward, allowing them to pass.

“I guess there’s no popping in for a look around,”

Mulder commented. As they continued ahead, through

elaborate gardens with flowing fountains, the two-

story inn came into view.

Involuntarily Scully gasped. She loved it at once.

“We’re from the too-rich set, Sam,” Mulder reminded

her. We don’t mind combining dietary deprivation and

masochistic physicality with turn-of-the-century

opulence.”

He pulled into a parking space near the entrance,

separated from the lot by beds of roses. Scully

glanced quickly into the rearview mirror to make sure

she was presentable, smoothing her hair with her

fingers. Mulder got out of the Mustang and went

around it. He retrieved their bags, sliding the

straps over his shoulder. His hand pressed lightly

into the small of Scully’s back and they walked to

the front door, breathing in the perfume of the

prickly shrubs. As Mulder guided her inside the

building and across the lobby, the heels of her

sandals clicked softly on the ceramic floor.

The grand lobby soared up two stories and was paneled

with aged wood that gleamed with polish and proper

care. An elegant mahogany staircase curved up to the

balcony fronting the rooms, large tubs of cut roses

sitting at either side of its base. Scully stopped to

admire an expansive display case of antique glassware

while Mulder proceeded with long strides to the

information desk. When she joined him, he was already

deep in conversation with the clerk.

Mulder shrugged off his feelings of pleasurable

anticipation and arranged his face into a scowl.

“This is not my idea of a good time, Sam,” he

complained to Scully.

Scully hesitated, trying to follow his thinking. She

answered softly, “Well, I thought it might be a good

idea.” Then she looked hard at Mulder. “I’m a little

upset you don’t understand my feelings.”

“And I don’t know how to empathize with you, is that

it? It’s called being human. Unlike you, I don’t

expect everyone to be perfect.” Rather reluctantly,

he pulled out his credit card and smacked it on the

desktop. His lip curled. “She thinks we have to do

this spa thing. Always expects me to give in.”

“Only when I’m right,” Scully muttered.

The woman ignored them tactfully. She checked their

names against her register and told them they had

appointments with the registered nurse in an hour, to

review their lifestyles and general health. She

processed his credit card and gave him two key cards

and spa information packets, containing

questionnaires to take to their room and fill out.

Mulder mumbled a thank you, palming the cards and

handing the plastic envelopes to Scully. He took a

closer look at the people in the lobby; one woman

appeared to be checking him out. He guessed she was

about forty. She was nearly as tall as he, wearing

navy shorts and a white T-shirt. She had a narrow

face, and her fine blond hair was parted in the

middle, hanging down to her jaw and curling under at

the bottom. The roots were black.

Her eyes traveled up his long legs, past his lean

hips and the powder blue golf shirt, reaching

eventually his boyish face. His nose was noticeably

above average in size, but over those full lips…

Drop-dead gorgeous. He looked fit — a runner, she

supposed. Wasn’t he looking her way a little longer

than she would expect, as if only she and he existed?

She wished he would take off the dark lenses perched

on that nose, so she could see his eyes. She stopped

ogling him long enough to notice his companion,

dressed in a lime green silk blouse and loose linen

slacks, with her smooth flawless skin and her red

hair carefully groomed into a casual, wind-blown

look. She dismissed her in a matter of seconds.

“Let me handle this,” Scully whispered. “What are you

doing, Darrin?” she accused loudly, folding her arms

across her chest.

At the sound of her scolding voice, his head swiveled

and he looked down at her with a look of confusion.

“What? Did you say something?”

She answered him by stepping hard on his foot.

“I’m only sightseeing,” he explained.

With a glance at the woman, Scully said irately, “I

can see that. You’re a man, aren’t you?”

Mulder moved away from the desk, sidestepping

instinctively another man. His eyes cut to the man’s

face. His brow was creased. He felt the need to

defend himself again. “You really want to know what I

was thinking of?”

“Yes.”

He opened his mouth to tell her, but the withering

look she threw him belied her words. He closed it

without saying a word. He climbed the stairs to their

room after her, watching her swinging hips. He was

blissfully unaware of the eyes on his back, shooting

poisoned daggers.

“If that son of a bitch so much as touches Angela….

” the man murmured. His voice was rough, heightened

by the dryness in his mouth.

MULDER AND SCULLY’S GUEST ROOM

TRANQUILITY SPA INN

With the Bureau’s Finance agents in mind, Mulder had

reserved a deluxe room rather than a luxury suite. He

chose a double, mindful of conduct while maintaining

the married couple facade. It was lush and well

appointed. The spreads on the queen-sized beds

matched the curtains and the shades on the old-

fashioned lamps, as well as the cushions placed just

so, set on the comfortable chairs. A reproduction of

Monet’s Pink Water Lilies hung between the beds. A

table held a welcoming bowl of fresh fruit and two

glasses of chilled lemonade. The room smelled of rose

water.

As she closed the door behind them, Scully headed for

the bathroom and started pulling off her clothes. She

turned on the taps, raising her voice so Mulder could

hear her over the running water. “She was looking at

you like you were a hot fudge sundae after a week of

abstinence.”

“Very funny.” Mulder grabbed a shiny red apple and

bit off a chunk. He wedged the fruit between his

teeth and opened his bag. He took out a pair of

boxers and unrolled them, uncovering his Sig Sauer.

Assured by the weapon, he wrapped it back into the

underwear, burying it inside his bag with his other

boxers and socks, swimming trunks, toiletries and

running shoes before placing it inside the wardrobe.

Mulder ate up the apple then changed into the

supplied navy shorts and white T-shirt. He also

slipped on a lightweight waffle weave robe, leaving

it open, and sandals. To tell the truth, he felt a

little ridiculous.

Scully had finished freshening up and was similarly

attired, but her feet were still bare. Her robe’s

sleeves hung down to her fingertips, and she had

pulled the belt tight around her waist.

Their eyes met. As she came toward him, Mulder said,

his voice low, “There’s enough room in your robe for

both of us. Imagine the possibilities.” With his

thumb, Mulder touched Scully’s cheek, her chin and

her lips. Her rapid, shallow breathing was his

response. He lowered his head, substituting his

mouth.

When his lips touched hers, Scully hesitated, pulling

away. The kiss was disappointingly short. “We might

not make our appointments, Mulder,” she told him,

looking to him for support.

“My thoughts exactly,” Mulder agreed, his eyes dark.

“Who needs to set up a fitness regimen? Bed rest is

more therapeutic.”

“What makes you think we’ll be resting?” she

insinuated, eyes twinkling.

“I think you’d better stop talking like that, Scully,

or we won’t be leaving this room.”

“Who started this conversation anyway?”

Since her question was rhetorical, Mulder didn’t

answer. They glanced briefly at the spa information

packets, containing tips on how to beat jet lag, and

brochures for services and their locations. They put

them aside, turned to the questionnaires and began to

fill them in.

REGISTERED NURSE’S OFFICE

TRANQUILITY SPA HEALTH CENTER

Fay Beck, R.N. was inscribed on the brass plaque on

the door. The nurse introduced herself and shook

their hands. The fifty year-old woman was small with

unremarkable features; she had colored her medium

brown hair with red highlights. A pair of glasses

with red plastic frames hung from a gold chain around

her neck. She turned on her heel and said over her

shoulder, “Come on, Mrs. Stevens,” leading Scully

back into her sun-drenched office and closing the

door.

On his own in the reception area, Mulder worked his

way around the room, pretending an interest in the

posters on the walls. He didn’t know exactly what he

was looking for, only that he would know when he saw

it. There were two other doors; he tried their knobs,

but they were both locked. It didn’t take him long to

figure out he wasn’t going to find out anything here.

He was aware suddenly of movement in the doorway.

Scully was already crossing the room when the nurse

gestured Mulder inside. She offered him a seat on the

comfortable blue colored sofa, in almost the same

shade as his shirt. She considered him carefully from

behind her desk.

Mulder looked back at her.

“How did you come to choose us?” she asked at last.

“Someone at work told me about you,” Mulder answered

vaguely. “Personnel ordered me to take some of my

vacation — my wife was all for coming here. I told

her it wasn’t likely I would rejuvenate myself on top

of all that sweat.”

“You can be as active or relaxed as you want, Mr.

Stevens. It’s really a low-maintenance vacation; you

don’t have to worry about a thing. If you regard it

that way, you’ll find many advantages.”

The nurse lifted her glasses to her nose and scanned

Mulder’s responses to the questionnaire.

“You’re an entrepreneur. Are you successful?”

“You could say that, yes.”

“Did you work hard to get where you are?”

“It wasn’t easy.”

“Stress,” she said to herself, making a notation next

to his handwriting. “Do you get much exercise?”

“I like to swim and run,” Mulder replied honestly. “I

shoot a few baskets to stay in shape.”

“Are you on any medication?”

Glastenbury Mountain, Vermont. Meddie’s Museum. The

plunge he had taken down the basement stairwell. He

played it down. “I took a tumble on the court,” he

lied, exasperation flashing across his face. “I’m not

twenty-five anymore. My wife thinks she’s my doctor;

she tucked some painkillers into her bag. I’m only

supposed to take them if I have pain — and I feel

fine.”

Nurse Beck questioned him further about his health,

confirming he hadn’t smoked for some years and wasn’t

much of a drinker then moved on to his eating habits.

“I’ll acquaint you and your wife with Doctor Payne,”

she concluded finally. “He’ll want to meet you.”

“Pain?” Mulder blurted.

She laughed. “He’ll do you good,” she assured him.

She took them to meet Doctor Norman Payne, telling

him their names. The man was at least ten years older

than Nurse Beck, short and stocky with a slight

paunch. His hair was the color of beach sand and

thinning on top. Payne viewed it as a poor joke. As

he lost it from the top of his head, it seemed to

accumulate in the tangled mess that were his

eyebrows.

His eyes were intelligent and viewed them carefully.

Payne offered his hand, making an effort to be

friendly, but Mulder noticed that his brows were

drawn together. “Enjoy your stay,” he said simply.

There seemed to be nothing more to be said. Mulder

turned to Scully. “What’s the torture for this

afternoon, Hon?” he asked in an ill-tempered tone.

“I’m going for the New Look hair styling,” she

answered, suggesting he could amuse himself.

“Good luck,” Mulder muttered.

As the couple left the Health Center, Payne retreated

to his office. He shut the door behind him and

clicked it firmly shut. The doctor paced for a moment

then moved to the window, lowering himself into the

black leather sofa and pushing a hand through his

hair. He saw the Stevens making their way along the

winding stone walkway. Mr. Stevens was chatting

animatedly, using his hands to accentuate his words.

Payne stared at him before rising slowly to his feet

and shifting to his desk.

His hands folded beneath his chin, Payne eyed the

telephone thoughtfully. He puffed out his cheeks.

What to do with this problem? “Damn,” he muttered,

making a dour face, then an idea zeroed in and he

changed his mind. This was where he would become

indispensable to those in charge of the Project. He

reached for the telephone and dialed the District of

Columbia area code and a seven-digit number.

On the third ring, it was picked up on the other end.

Payne was about to speak, when it sounded like a

match was being struck. There was an inhale followed

by an exhale of air. “Afternoon, sir,” he greeted. He

gave a summary of what had just taken place. “Even

so, there’s nothing to worry about. We can continue

without discovery from the Bureau. All it takes is

the correct treatment.” He listened, his mouth

puckered. “I appreciate that,” he began to object,

“but under our direction, Mulder… ” His hand

tightened around the receiver. “I can’t touch him.”

He closed his eyes and took a deep breath. “Yes, I’m

listening.”

Payne waited for the call to end then slammed down

the phone. He had been told to leave the FBI agent

alone. It was indirect and subtle, but he understood

it meant cover his ass and start again somewhere

else.

Well, he wouldn’t run.

~~~~~

Act II

~~~~~

INDOOR POOL

TRANQUILITY SPA SPORTS CENTER

The pool was surrounded by filtered plate glass,

inset on each end with prism-shaped stained glass.

Sunlight passed through it, reflecting the colors of

the prisms across the water. The effect was stunning.

Mulder walked into the damp warmth. He stepped out of

his sandals and removed his robe, T-shirt, and

shorts, dropping them where he stood, revealing a

sensible pair of black swimming trunks. The

chilliness of the dark green marble floor was in

contrast to the warm moistness, penetrating his feet,

and he flexed his toes.

From her lounge at poolside, sipping on a glass of

orange juice, Angela watched him as he let himself

into the shallow end, swimming back and forth across

the pool until he was warmed up. She saw he was a

good, strong swimmer. He climbed out at the steps and

padded to the deep end, his wet feet slapping on the

floor. The fabric clung to him, leaving almost

nothing to her imagination. He made a perfect dive,

his entry into the water barely making a sound. He

didn’t surface right away, staying under as long as

possible then came up to blink water out of his eyes.

He finished his swim with a rapid crawl, doing

several laps.

Like Mulder, the woman wore a simple suit, but, in a

brilliant lemon yellow, the one-piece drew the eye

and emphasized her shape. As Mulder sat on the edge,

breathing heavily, she moved and stood next to him.

“You make it look easy,” she said. “I’m Angela.

Angela Darling.”

She was still there staring, her interest obvious.

His breathing returned to normal. He had been on his

high school’s swim team, and swimming had always

remained one of his favored means of exercise, but he

replied simply, “Practice,” then added, “Stevens.

Darrin.”

He had a nice voice. It fit his looks. She joined

him, dangling her legs in the warm water. Her calves

stirred the water with quick strokes, and it lapped

gently around them. He thought about Scully’s calves,

how warm they were and how soft.

“Your first time?” he questioned.

She knew what he meant, but her cheeks flushed a

slight pink. “This is my second visit to the spa.”

He deftly shifted the topic slightly. “It’s world-

renowned, isn’t it? Powerful people have been sighted

here?”

He was focused on how she would answer. She liked

that about him. “I saw James Caan once.”

She hadn’t told him anything really, but he nodded.

“Interesting.”

His hazel eyes were like chameleons, changing from

light brown to green, knocking her off-balance. She’d

never seen such amazing eyes before. Her gaze lowered

to his upper body and she saw there was a scar on his

left shoulder. “What’s that from?” she asked with

interest.

Mulder looked at her blankly. “What?”

She placed her index finger against the imperfect

skin and pressed. Drenched with water, his skin was

both damp and warm. The nerves in her fingertip

jumped like they were charged with electricity.

She was too close for comfort. Mulder shifted his

torso uneasily, trying not to be too obvious about

it. The adjustment caused her to withdraw her hand.

He had almost forgotten the old injury; he had been

about to kill Alex Krycek, after the murder of his

father. Scully had shot him in order to preserve his

freedom, lest the authorities suspect Mulder of both

deaths. “I was Robin Hood, my sister was Prince John.

Her bow and arrow worked a little too well.”

Angela found the account comical and laughed. Mulder

grinned slowly in spite of himself. It was good to be

able to laugh with him. It seemed intimate and

something only the two of them had shared.

He looked for a way out. The hairs on the back of his

neck stood up, a warning that someone was watching,

and he was pretty sure he knew who that someone was.

“I have to go,” Mulder told her, getting to his feet.

He toweled himself off, pulling the T-shirt down over

his head and gathering the rest of his things.

As they passed each other, he met her husband’s eyes.

A few quiet seconds went by as they eyed one another.

“Afternoon,” Mulder greeted politely. He wanted to

add the last name, but couldn’t quite bring himself

to say it.

Darling nodded, still coldly silent, although his

palms were sweating. He was tanned and well built,

suggesting he spent a lot of time outdoors, but he

was slightly overweight. His blond hair was cut into

a brush cut. Mulder stepped out, the door closing

behind him.

Darling wasn’t sure what he had interrupted — a

harmless chat or an intimate talk. “What were you two

finding to talk about?” he interrogated.

His steel blue eyes were a marked contrast to warm,

hazel ones. “I was simply being friendly, Lon,”

Angela answered.

“Try being friendly with his wife.” Taking up with

Patti had been a costly mistake. Was Angela teaching

him a lesson for what he had done to her, or was her

attraction to Stevens real? Uncertainty grabbed him

by the heart and tugged.

MULDER AND SCULLY’S GUEST ROOM

TRANQUILITY SPA INN

As she heard Mulder’s key card in the lock, Scully

felt like she was on her first date, running

downstairs and waiting for the young man to come up

the front walk.

“Your hair,” Mulder exclaimed, his eyes focused on

her carefully. Her hair had been fastened to her head

in waves, some of them deliberately let loose around

her face and neck. He reached out and touched a curl,

tugging it gently and pressing it to his nose.

She smelled like peppermint. Involuntarily, his

tongue wet his lower lip. Releasing the strand, he

told her, “Perfect.” He reached into the wardrobe,

pulling out two slips of paper and flashing them

between his fingers. “All dressed up and somewhere to

go.”

“What have you got there?” Scully asked.

“Tickets for this evening’s performance of the Boston

Symphony Orchestra here in Lenox,” he answered.

“Previn, Mozart, Strauss, and Chopin.”

“I love it when you talk dirty to me,” Scully said.

He grinned, but then his smile faded and he was all

seriousness. “We’ve work to do here, Scully, but this

is for us.”

KOUSSEVITZKY MUSIC SHED

TANGLEWOOD

LENOX, MA

The estate of Tanglewood, the summer home of the

symphony, with its acres of magnificent lawns,

gardens and ancient trees, overlooked a sparkling

lake. Their tickets were for the shed, an open-ended

auditorium surrounded by a lush green lawn where an

outdoor audience lounged on lawn chairs and blankets.

How he had managed to get tickets for the sellout

performance, conducted by Andre Previn, was a

mystery, but Mulder wasn’t talking. Scully suspected

it had something to do with The Lone Gunmen and their

expert programming skills.

Mulder relaxed into his seat, attuned to the

conversations going on around him. The couple beside

him was bickering about the latest family crisis. Two

women to his and Scully’s right were discussing

flower arrangements for a wedding. The businessmen

below him were talking about next week’s business

trip itinerary.

Mulder thought about the case that had brought them

to Massachusetts. What had happened between the

Senator and his wife? Did she really understand him

and his motives for doing anything? He looked over at

Scully and was rewarded with the information he

wanted. She truly understood *him*. Wouldn’t it be

reasonable to assume Evelina wasn’t a novice as far

as her husband’s behavior was concerned?

Mulder was almost too focused on the Ryans to hear

the start of the concert, but Scully’s hand slid into

his and gave it a light squeeze. He squared his

shoulders and turned enthusiastically toward the

sound of the music.

“It’s marvelous,” Scully whispered, as the audience

grew hushed. Her words reflected his own happiness as

he listened to Strauss’s The Blue Danube, the harmony

of sound frolicking with his eardrums.

MULDER AND SCULLY’S GUEST ROOM

TRANQUILITY SPA INN

Scully awakened to find Mulder’s arm wrapped

protectively around her chest, as if he had sought

and found her in his sleep. One of his legs was

thrown across her right leg and under her left,

interweaving them together. She was reluctant to

disturb him, but she needed to take care of an

insistent bladder. She tried to wriggle out from

under him.

He woke and pinned her with his leg. “Morning,” he

said softly, rubbing it against hers.

“Good morning.” He continued to trace a path along

her leg, and it felt so good. “Mulder.”

“Mmm?” He lowered his lips to hers, seeking the

warmth of the inside of her mouth. He thought of how

it would feel and his insides boiled over.

She opened her mouth to welcome him, but her bladder

repeated its need for immediate attention. Scully