[XFVCU] 1x02 Exposition

by Maidenjedi

X Files VCU is a new virtual series situated eighteen months after The Truth. If you missed the pilot episode or want to know what it's all about, you might like to check out the virtual series site at http://xfvcu.deslea.com. Watch for next week's episode, Salve Mea by Humbuggie, where Mulder and Scully find themselves drawn into a case where nothing is as it seems - not even their own team.

NEW: Exposition
X Files: VCU 1x02
by Maidenjedi

DISCLAIMER: Not mine
ARCHIVE: Yes
RATING: R
SPOILERS/TIMEFRAME: Set eighteen months after The Truth.
CATEGORY/KEYWORDS: Post-series, casefile, XFVCU. SUMMARY: A serial killer presents the team with challenges new and old.
VIRTUAL SERIES SITE: http://xfvcu.deslea.com AUTHOR SITE: http://users.pdsys.org/~maidenjedi FEEDBACK: texgoddess@yahoo.com
(texgoddessatyahoo.com)

He walked out of the bar, his throat still raw from that last Wild Turkey, the bartender's eighty-six ringing in his ears.

Twisted lurch in his stomach, left foot over right, and down he went. Face on the pavement, slick oil and water and the smell of warm whiskey.

He closed his eyes, glad that the world had stopped spinning for a moment.

He wasn't used to being drunk. The giddy sensation that ran through his sinuses when he opened his eyes was too much. The heavy sleepiness that overcame him then was itself hard to handle. He couldn't make a decision.

His formerly crisp white shirt stuck to his skin, and his tie, loosened these many hours, bunched up under his Adam's apple.

And if he wasn't entirely mistaken, he had to be in the office in about four hours.

The sound of footsteps roused him from his drunken haze enough to wonder what was happening. Dirty work boots stood an inch from his nose, and the sharp sound of metal scraping metal pricked at his memory. That's a familiar sound, a universal sound - he knew it not from life but countless bad movies, crime shows on television.

His tumbling thoughts came together briefly to inform his body of what that sound was - a switchblade opening.

Body reacted, hands twitch to find purchase on the pavement and push up, feet go flat and knees bent, head lifted and just as he finally sits up, the blade connects with his collar and his tie is gone.

No blood, not yet, and the switchblade was gone for the moment.

The figure standing in muddy, old work boots made no sound as it reached down and grabbed the man by his shirt. It pulled the man to his feet and mumbled something, some instruction that was garbled as though the tongue was too thick.

The man kicked, weakly because the whiskey still coursed through him.

The figure laughed, a twittering laugh that didn't fit the masculine frame. How the man registered this, when he didn't even know for sure if he was standing, was a mystery.

He knew the car when they reached it, it was his car, clean and sleek and expensive. It smelled like the cologne he wore to work everyday, it smelled like success. Like money.

The figure already had his keys and was starting the car.

He wondered why it was singing.

Later, the cutting would begin and he would scream to ears that would not hear him.

And when they found him, in his Armani suit and his freshly pressed shirt, they would wonder.

Instead of a tie, his bloodstained throat would bear a length of lace.

~x~

Alex rolled over and hit the snooze button on the alarm, muttering a curse in Russian. It had been nearly a decade since he'd had to use an alarm clock. In the interim, he'd never needed one, always going by instinct and running on adrenaline.

The yawning, stretching figure at his side was the primary difference in this new life.

Alex smiled into his pillow as Marita curled up to his back.

"Ignore it," she said, voice still heavy with sleep.

He wanted to. He wanted to stay here and play hooky, kiss Marita in at least two dozen new places.

The alarm went off again, and Alex groaned.

"Sorry, darlin', duty calls."

The six o'clock wake-up call was self-enforced. Alex was determined to make the most of this assignment, even if he had to face demons and worse to do it. There was little point in playing the bad boy now, playing to their suspicions and their prejudices.

He brushed his teeth and took a hot shower, performed this strange domestic ritual with an enthusiasm only a newly freed prisoner might. When Marita took her turn, now moaning a little from the trials of early pregnancy, he couldn't help but grin. He made his way into the kitchen, dressed and ready to grab a quick bite to eat, nearly humming from the sheer pleasure of such a normal existence.

Even his ringing cell phone did nothing to dampen his mood.

"Krycek."

"My, don't you sound chipper this morning!" The female voice on the other end purred with a similar excitement.

"I always knew I was really a morning person," he replied. "What's up? I'll be in the office in half an hour, what couldn't wait?"

"I just missed your voice, is all."

His wife came up behind him bearing a mug of coffee. "Tell Diana to stop flirting and get to the point."

Alex laughed. "Diana, you're making my wife jealous."

Marita pecked his cheek. "Remind her about lunch."

"Marita wants you to remember lunch," Alex said into the phone before taking a sip of his coffee.

"Tell her we'll have to reschedule," Diana replied, now all business. "We've got a case, Alex."

"Already?"

"You knew it wouldn't take long."

"Yes, but I assumed they'd relegate us to the basement for awhile, let the others take the field work."

"John and Monica already have a local case they've been working, and A.D. Skinner wants us on this one. He seems to think it's more up our alley."

"What're the specs?"

"I'll tell you more when you get here, but pack a bag. We have a flight out in four hours, up to New York. I waited because Scully's finishing an autopsy for us on this one."

"Damn, so soon?" Alex felt a slight headache creeping up on him.

"This was already a Bureau case, but it's got the locals baffled. Five murders, ritualistic taint, but no leads at all. Forensics is having a field day."

"Gonna tell me more, or use this cliffhanger as incentive to get me to break the speed limits?"

"When you get here. I've got some paperwork to push, so I'll let you say goodbye to your wife and get your ass moving."

"Aye-aye, cap'n." Alex hung up the phone and felt an odd, giddy sensation run through his stomach.

Marita came over to him and took the coffee cup from his hand, setting it down on the table, and the cell phone out from between his shoulder and ear. She took his face in her hands and smiled up at him, almost making him call Diana back right then and telling her to do this one solo.

His wife's eyes shined at him, reminding him with a protective surge of energy just why he was going to the Hoover Building when he could spend the day with her. It may be just another nutcase in New York, but it was just another nutcase that had made them both run for their lives. They'd fought too long to forget that.

He kissed her soundly. Alex wasn't going to forget.

~x~

Diana Fowley was in her element, and it showed.

She sat at her desk in the basement office, looking as comfortable as one who had sat there for the majority of nine years. She scribbled furiously on a legal pad, taking notes from the file spread out before her. She munched quietly on a poppy-seed bagel, taking occasional sips from a coffee mug bearing a smiling alien and the words "Aliens Do It in Space!"

"I hate that coffee mug, Diana. Where on earth did you get it?" said a feminine voice from the doorway.

Monica Reyes smiled at Diana as she crossed the room to her own desk, which was more cluttered than Diana's but somehow less obviously a part of the room, despite Monica's lengthier stay here.

"It was Fox's once, I think. I found it in a box when we were cleaning out the back part of the office. I cleaned it and kept it. Too garish?"

"No, just not something I'd expect to see in your hand. But it does fit down here, doesn't it?" Monica sat down and booted her computer, turning away from Diana so she could work on her own case.

"It does."

The basement had been home to the X-Files division since the very beginning, when Diana and her thenpartner Fox Mulder had lobbied to open the files for formal investigation. In those days, it had been just the two of them, and it'd really been Fox's baby. The bulletin board behind his desk had borne clippings from tabloids, pictures of Bigfoot, a map of the Bermuda Triangle, all the usual nonsense that people expected to see.

It was in the files themselves that the real purpose of the office had been secreted away. All the pictures of Bigfoot couldn't really balance out the horror and wonder of the truly paranormal. Fox had just liked to feed the rumor mill. No doubt this mug was part of that.

She'd missed that, the defiance of public opinion. She still missed it, whilst playing mediator and diplomat, never really pushing the boundaries. Diana intended to fix that in a way. Maybe this first field case would prove an avenue to show off the talents that had gotten her as criticized, if not as ostracized, as Fox Mulder.

"Whatcha got, Agent Fowley?" John Doggett entered the room, bearing two cups of coffee and a bag of donuts. He set one cup and the bag on Monica's desk and moved to his own.

"Good morning, John. Serial killer, I think. New York City."

"Victims?"

"This is an odd one. All healthy, young urban professionals in their early thirties. I've got five so far, and the fifth victim is on Scully's table as we speak. But other than that, I'm waiting..."

"For me?" Alex Krycek came into the room, and a shift in the air gave Diana the distinct impression of window shades being shut. Monica turned nearly imperceptibly to face her computer with more concentration, and John walked around behind his desk, not sitting but standing defensively, his arms crossed.

Alex's expression shifted, too. The carefree, gosh-what-a-great-day light in his eyes faded, his mouth hardened into a line.

Diana felt her instincts kick in, her own muscles tightening defensively and her mind already assessing each position. So much for the relaxed atmosphere she had been enjoying.

"Alex, I'm glad you're here. We've got a lot to go over before we leave."

He focused his attention, Diana noticed, strictly on her. Alex did not acknowledge the others, though John was watching him and no doubt calculating a cutting remark, should one be needed. Diana intended to prevent that.

"My bag's in the car. Did you want to carpool to the airport?"

"That'll work. Meanwhile, we've got to meet Scully. I want her to give us an idea of the forensics in this case, so we know what we're dealing with when we get there."

"The N.Y. office didn't do a sufficient job?"

"It's not that," she said. She packed the file and her notes into her briefcase, along with some extra pens from her desk. Bag and coffee in hand, she led Alex out of the office and to the elevator, feeling the tension lift almost immediately. Alex pressed the button and offered to take her briefcase, and she let him.

"This case landed in our office because forensics up there hasn't been able to make heads or tails of it. No profile has been worked up yet, because there's so little to go on."

"So how do they know this is a serial killer?"

"Because of the details. Each of the victims was a young male in his early thirties, all professionals of some kind but unrelated as far as the investigation has revealed. Each was killed in an unremarkable but uncharacteristic location. This last one, for instance, was found in a parking lot outside a seedy bar on the wrong side of town."

They left the building, and Diana moved her bag into Alex's car.

"Where's Scully?"

"At the D.C. lab. I didn't want to bother with Quantico, and it was so early. The body arrived around midnight and she was working on it at five."

Alex shook his head. "Okay, so what else?"

"The victims were killed in the exact same fashion. Faces cut open, at least two stab wounds to the chest. They were found in the same positions, face up and hands at their sides. Literally - their hands were cut off."

"Damn." Alex flinched, and it took her a moment to register the similarities with his own maiming, but by then he was all business again.

"Yeah," she said. "But the kicker is the marker. Each victim was dressed in his suit from work that day, carefully buttoned up and hair groomed, all of it. Except their ties. None of them were wearing ties. Just a length of white lace."

"So no fingerprints, nothing? No witnesses? I find it hard to believe that guys fitting that description are out on the town without escorts or something."

"Nope. Coroner pegged the first murder at around 2 a.m."

"Last call."

"Right. And in places these guys wouldn't ordinarily touch with a ten-foot pole."

"Certainly sounds intriguing. So how is this an Xfile ? Where's the ghostie, the alien bounty hunter?" Alex was serious.

"Alex, come on! The cutting, the lace, it all speaks to ritual."

"Well, maybe it does, but that's not our department. Doesn't Behavioral Sciences get dibs on a case like this?"

"Maybe in the past. But with the crime rate increasing and those crimes all slanted toward the decidedly unnatural, if not downright
preternatural, we get dibs."

Alex sighed, more from acquiescence than annoyance. "Alright. Is there anything else?"

Diana grinned. She was already loving this, being involved again, doing real work for a legitimate cause. "Two of the victims' killers have already been caught, or so I've been told."

"But I thought you said this was a serial killer," Alex said, confused.

"It has to be. So far we have nothing to suggest otherwise. But one of these guys confessed, and the other was caught sleeping in the doorway of the victim's house. That one's been let go due to lack of evidence, but the field office has been tailing him just in case. The third victim was the one that got the feds' attention in the first place. The first two were N.Y.P.D."

"So are we walking into a pissing contest, Diana?"

They pulled up to the lab building, and neither could help but notice a familiar navy blue sedan parked next to them. Fox's car.

Diana didn't answer him.

~x~

"There's not much to be found here that wasn't already covered in the first examination."

"I figured as much. Anything that sticks out, though?"

If the basement had been a cold place, Diana was certain that this medical bay was hell.

Scully stood on one side of the gurney, clipboard in hand, and Diana couldn't help but note how close Scully was standing to a tool tray and a scalpel. Alex had refused to come further than the front room, and Fox was standing off to one side, positioned equidistant from the women. His hands were in his pockets and he was chewing sunflower seeds.

"Not much. The attention to detail does. The body was found in a parking lot, according to the coroner's report, and that makes no sense from what I've got here."

"Yes, but early forensics said the body had been moved. It had to have been, there was no blood spilt at the scene."

"The killer was meticulous. No prints, no hair, no anything. But the cut pattern is precise, practiced. And he used latex gloves, there were traces of it in some of the wounds."

Fox spoke up for the first time. "How do you know it was a he?"

Scully pursed her lips and cocked her head to the side. Diana knew the look, and knew she was partly why Scully was making it now.

Not that she could argue with it.

"Mulder, there is no reason to believe a woman did this, I told you. The guy weighed 220. And he lifted weights, you can tell by the size of his chest and arms. A woman couldn't take this guy."

Fox didn't blink. "Scully, the cut pattern suggests a feminine eye for detail. You said so yourself," she glared at him still harder for this, "and besides, the lace, Scully. Look at the lace."

"Mulder, I seem to recall at least one case where we," and she emphasized the 'we', "dealt with lace. The killer was a man."

"Yes, but he didn't use lace as his calling card. That was just a lucky clue, Scully. What kind of man would use lace as his actual calling card? Something isn't right here, Scully, and you know it. Look at how well the victims were dressed, post-mortem! Are we talking queer eye for the dead straight guy?"

Diana took one step back as Fox and Scully faced off. She was amused by it, but at the same time annoyed. She wanted to get out of here and get on with things. Fox was aggravating the situation, but Scully was letting him. Diana hated watching it, and didn't want to be part of it.

But she was on a tight schedule, so she did stop it.

"All of which is very helpful, Fox, thank you. Agent Scully, my partner and I have a flight to catch. Is there anything else I should know?"

Scully turned her attention back to Diana, not quite meeting her eyes. Diana held in a sigh. "That's about it. Your suspect is definitely experienced, or has at least done his research. The victim's blood alcohol level seems to be significant, too. I'd say that his lifestyle didn't usually permit him to be so inebriated."

"Would it have contributed to the killer overcoming him?"

Scully hesitated, seeming to sense Diana's curiousity over Fox's theory. "Of course, and that's the interesting part. There was no real evidence of struggle, at least in this case, which suggests that the alcohol was a factor. He wasn't drugged, so I'd almost theorize the killer showing up after the binge."

Scully shut down after that, focusing on cleaning her equipment. She handed the clipboard and her notes to Fox and turned her back after squeezing his hand.

Fox nodded at Diana and pointed the way to the door, indicating that he was going to follow her. She knew him well enough to know he wanted to plant his theory a little deeper, satisfy her curiosity.

She wasn't disappointed.

"It could be a woman, you know." He handed her the notes and kept the clipboard.

Diana nodded. "It could. The lace is certainly feminine. But Fox, think about this. The F.B.I. has no profile for a female serial killer for a reason."

"There's never been one. I know that. I sat through Crawford's lectures at Quantico in the front row, next to you. I know the drill. Diana, just because there isn't precedent..."

"Doesn't mean it can't happen. I know. I just don't think this case warrants such a leap."

"Leap?" His eyes twinkled with familiar mischief. "I don't leap, Diana. I extrapolate detail, then I make a conscious conclusion."

She bit back a laugh. "Okay, okay. Assume the killer's a woman. How do you account for two male perps already accused?"

Fox shrugged and bit into another sunflower seed. "Misdirection? Who knows? Point is, you should be open to extreme possibilities."

"Why?"

Diana started at the sound of Alex's voice.

"Why? What's so special about this case? And what do you care anyway, Mulder? Isn't this out of your jurisdiction now?"

"Alex..." Diana didn't like the look on either face. She'd known it was better to keep them apart, and to get this over with as quickly as possible. Judging from Alex's stance, and the cold, pinched look in Fox's eyes, this was going to be more difficult than she anticipated.

"Technically, yes. But I'm the profiler, remember? And your partner was looking for a different take."

"I'm sure she could come to me with that."

Fox took a breath to reply, and Diana took the opportunity to lead Alex away.

"Thanks, Fox, and tell Scully thanks as well."

"Anytime, Diana. That's what friends are for."

She smiled and turned to walk by Alex's side, careful to let him stay a step ahead of her. He hated Fox Mulder, and Diana didn't pretend not to notice. She simply worked around it.

"What time's the flight?" Alex asked, his voice rough with barely contained anger. Diana was taken aback. What was it with these two? The slightest thing set them both off, and cooling them down took a lot of careful effort.

"Eleven. We oughta head out to Reagan, security and all."

"Right." Alex got in the car and stuck the key in the ignition before Diana had her door opened. As she slid into her seat, Alex asked, "Mind if I call my wife?"

Just the one word relaxed him, it seemed.

"Go ahead. In fact, I'll drive, you talk to her." Diana sat still for a moment, and let Alex nod in agreement and get out of the car before making her own move.

~x~

Alex led the way into the New York field office, feeling a lot less cheerful and confident than he had that morning. The place was buzzing with the sounds of phones ringing and keyboards clacking. In New York, the F.B.I. had to deal with a microcosm of the United States, and this place was a miniature version of the Hoover building in D.C.

"I'm Special Agent Krycek, and this is Special Agent Fowley. We're here to meet S.A.C. Brockhurst." Alex opened his badge for the wornlooking assistant seated at the head of the second floor bullpen. She looked at it, squinting, and a flash of recognition passed over her face as she looked up at him.

Alex felt the muscles in his face tense, and he was about to say something about how rude it was to stare when Diana touched his arm.

"Is S.A.C. Brockhurst in? He's expecting us." Diana's voice was firm, steady, and gave a warning to both Alex and the assistant. Don't make a scene.

"He is, but he's on the phone. Take a seat over there." The flustered woman waved to Alex's left, where a set of aged plastic chairs sat unoccupied. "I'll let him know you've arrived."

Alex turned and sat down, his pulse just a little quicker than ordinary. He still wasn't used to the reaction all his personal publicity had caused. In the wake of the Hybrid Protection Act, there was renewed media interest in the F.B.I.'s so-called "Killer Agent"; just the night before, Marita had had to turn off the television altogether as the tabloid programs began to speculate once again about Alex's competency as an agent.

Diana, as usual, picked up on the shift in Alex's mood and started talking about the case. Alex was grateful she was his partner. He knew he couldn't have come back if he'd had to deal with Jeff's lingering idealism or Doggett's grating patriotism and naivete.

"Agent Krycek? Agent Fowley? I'm Ted Brockhurst." A large man, standing 6'3" and probably tipping the scales at 270 or 280 on a good day, approached the agents with his hand stuck out. He looked as though he hadn't had any sleep for days, though his suit was clean and pressed, and he'd obviously shaved that morning. His blonde hair was coiffed just so. Alex bit the inside of his cheek, reminding himself to tell Marita about the gogetters' reactions to D.C. brass. Dress up and put out.

"Agent Brockhurst, hello. I'm Diana Fowley, and this is Alex Krycek." The man looked at Alex, carefully surveying him as though he were a freshly caught predator. "We've been assigned to work..."

"On the uptown five. Yeah, I got the message from your A.D. about a half hour ago. I assume you already had a look at the body I sent to D.C.?"

"Yes, we had our unit's consultant forensic scientist do a work-up."

"In the lab?"

"Not yet, that's the next step. We wanted a preliminary exam done, to determine if there was anything obvious that might have been overlooked in the original autopsy."

"Yeah, there wasn't much I could do about that. I wanted D.C. to handle it right away, but the local precinct gets a little touchy about jurisdiction. We're working in conjunction with them on this, more of a consultant role than purely investigative since there's no discernible motive."

"So the police have handled all the bodies, then? What about forensics?"

"That's Bureau. It's insane, and there isn't any organization to it, but like I said, we're mainly just serving in a consultant capacity. There's no proof that the same guy did this, and it only came across my desk as an avenue to you guys."

Alex smirked, and spoke for the first time. "Word gets around."

Brockhurst nodded. "It does. In fact, I'm surprised to see you here, Agent Krycek. I didn't think they'd have you doing field work."

Alex silently agreed. "We're still a small division, Agent Brockhurst. I'm a Bureau man, and I trained with this kind of thing in mind."

"Right." Brockhurst only looked half-convinced. Alex knew he was going to have to get used to this, being treated like a con when he'd really been on the right side all along. He didn't feel like he owed these people an apology for how he'd done his job.

He flexed his prosthetic left arm. No, Alex owed nothing to anyone.

Diana filled in the silence. "So no new leads, then?"

Brockhurst shook his head. "No. In fact, I'm just as baffled as I was when this started. Both of the original suspects have been let go, because we had no hard biology to keep 'em. The PD is tracking the second guy. He's a parolee anyway. Assault and battery."

Diana nodded along, and Alex could tell she was getting frustrated. He felt like this case was going to be a bust. There was nothing here for their unit to handle - this was standard stuff for the ordinary Violent Crimes folks, not those dealing with preternatural entities as culprits.

"Well, do you two want to see the latest scene? Maybe get an idea of what exactly is happening here?"

Alex looked at Diana, and shrugged.

"Sure." Diana was better at taking charge, Alex thought as they left the building. He was happy to let her handle that part of it.

~x~

The Dirty Rat lived up to its name. Stuck in a dingy part of the city, far from the fluorescent and glow of Times Square, the unfortunately named bar was little more than a hole in the wall. Police tape roped off the nearly empty parking lot and vacant doorway.

"Place got shut down the day after for about a thousand health code violations. Just as well, though we could have used the regulars for witnesses' statements. Not that we could find any to begin with."

Brockhurst ducked under the tape and walked over to a blacktopped parking space that seemed particularly slick with oil and various automobile fluids. Alex realized immediately why the spot stuck out; the spot where the body had lain didn't even need to marked off with chalk, so thick was the oil and so deep was the resulting imprint. Footprints were marked nearby, identified as officers or Bureau personnel. There were no sliding marks that would have indicated the body had been moved around.

Diana took her time scrutinizing the space, but Alex trailed off from his partner and Brockhurst, still looking at the ground.

How there could be no real evidence at the scene baffled Alex. The one car in the parking lot, bearing a boot and therefore rooted to the spot, had belonged to the victim, and no fingerprints were found other than his. The dirty shoeprints inside the vehicle matched the victim's shoes, and the second set only indicated a large man wearing work boots. In this part of New York City, that was far from being uncommon, and no brand was evident anyway.

"The car's being picked up later today by the PD for impound."

Alex turned around. "Any latent prints lifted?"

"Nothin'. We found blood, but only in the obvious places. The car was obviously used to bring the victim back here."

It was Diana's turn. "Back here? You mean, the victim started out here?"

Brockhurst nodded. "We found a matchbook. Besides which, the bartender ID'd the body initially, actually found him. The guy wasn't a regular, but he certainly left his impression the other night. Crying over losing face for something."

Alex squinted. That was a lead. It was something to start with, anyway. "Job-related?"

"The barkeep thought so. The guy arrived at happy hour and was the last one to stumble out."

"Did the bartender see anything?"

"Nope. Last call, he was busy cleaning up."

Diana dug in her pocket and pulled out a latex glove. Alex had to smile at her preparedness before asking the next question. "Has he been cleared as a suspect?"

Brockhurst nearly guffawed. "You should see the guy. Little, skinny, maybe weighs 115 soaking wet. He couldn't have done this."

Alex saw Diana thinking hard and fast, no doubt back to Mulder's half-cocked theory revolving around a woman. Alex bit back his thoughts for the moment, because to him, little in a guy meant effeminate. The lace was certainly that.

"Were any of the other victims found here?" Diana asked.

"No," Brockhurst said, beginning to bristle at the cross-examination. "That's in the field report you got. Each was found at a different location, all within about a twenty-block radius. The other sites are much older than this, though, not preserved. The last victim before the other night was found about two weeks ago, and the others over the course of four months."

"Escalating," Alex murmured, and Diana looked at him and nodded.

"I'd like to talk to the bartender. Got his contact info?" Alex was starting to feel that tingly excitement again. On the hunt, with a lead, even a weak one.

~x~

Diana was feeling it, too. Her finger on the doorbell alone gave her a shiver of anticipation.

She tried remembering all the crap, the hours of paperwork, the muddy and ruined wardrobe, more time in the bullpen fielding calls than out in the field chasing a lead. The useless leads, the cranky local sheriffs, the cockroach motels with their broken beds and cold showers. It was what she had done when she'd left the first time, for murkier, more dangerous pastures undercover. That's how she'd gotten through the first year without Fox, the first six months without a real challenge.

None of it came to mind now, as the door to an ancient brownstone swung open and Bart Sartino stood looking up at her.

"Mr. Sartino?" Diana and Alex had flipped a coin in rookie-like glee over who got to ask the first questions. Diana could always count on heads. "I'm Special Agent Diana Fowley with the FBI, and this is my partner, Special Agent Alex Krycek. We have some questions..."

"Don't bother. The police was already here, and so was the feds. You ain't got nothin' new and you think you gots a lead at this door. It won't fly, babe. I ain't got nothin'." Sartino was little, but his voice was deep and his tone commanding.

Diana didn't flinch. "If you haven't got anything, Mr. Sartino, then maybe you can just clarify something for us." She laced her voice with sugar, a tone that had kept the Consortium's upper echelon from unleashing it's wrath at least once. "We understand you tend bar at the Dirty Rat, is that right?"

"Rat's shut down. You knows that already, cause you already been there. That how you come by my name?"

"Yes. The police told us you'd spoken with them already, but this is our case now and we like to double-check," said Alex.

"I ain't the one they wanted, and I ain't the one you wants. I shut down the bar as normal as ever, and I got there next day same as ever. I found the yuppie, didn't kill 'em. He wasn't in no condition, all emotional."

"Do you recall what about?" Diana had broken out a notepad and was poised to scribble the answer.

Sartino closed his eyes and leaned against the doorjamb. "Now that's a question I ain't been asked proper. S'pose I'm a suspect, not a witness." He scratched his nose, which was red and peeling as if from sunburn. "Bad day at work. Most o' the guys at the Rat is there to pick fights, maybe get laid. None o' em really wanna whine about this woman or that boss. This guy did. He mighta lost his job, but I think it was more than jus' that."

"Why?"

"He kep' goin' on 'bout losin' face. Somethin' got out that weren't s'pose to."

"Did he say anything about who? Someone after him, maybe?"

Sartino scratched his nose again, taking his time before answering. "Don' think so. He wanted whiskey, and he wanted lots of it. I gave it to him, eighty-sixed him after a bit. He was mos'ly jus' quiet, 'cept for mutterin' 'bout his reputation."

Diana finished writing and closed her pad. There wasn't much more that she expected to get from Sartino, and she opened her mouth to thank him.

Alex interrupted her. "Mr. Sartino, did you know that four similar murders have occured in that area?" It was breaking protocol, and Diana was ready to call her partner on it. But she got a good look at his eyes. Alex was focused, intense, all giddiness gone. He was onto something.

And she had no clue what it was.

Sartino's was now completely focused on the agents. He stopped fidgeting and narrowed his eyes at Alex.

"No." He sighed and stuffed his hands in his pockets. "But the guy at the Rat, he weren' the last, you know."

"No, I don't know. Tell me."

Sartino leaned forward, gesturing for Krycek to listen closely.

"You know how he looked, right? All dressed up, like he was goin' somewheres. And the suit was jus' a cover for the mess unnerneath."

"How do you know this? We could take you into custody, you realize."

Sartino shook his head. "Nah, cause you already know. You know. She knows," he added, pointing at Diana. "This ain' right. I hear it sometimes. Whoever 'twas killed them guys, it wasn' right. It wasn' real."

"Not real, Mr. Sartino? The blood was real. The cuts, they were real."

"No, you ain' listenin'," Sartino sighed. "Not real."

Alex stared Sartino down. The smaller man broke the gaze first, and turned away, shutting the door firmly behind him.

Diana touched Alex's sleeve. His face was contorted with confusion, with frustration.

"Not real?" he said, not really asking. Diana twisted his sleeve in her hand.

Somewhere, a bottle broke and laughter rang out.

~x~

Not real.

Outside.

Fake.

They all lived fake lives, lives pretty on the outside and rotten on the inside.

It would fix it. It would show the world who they were.

A breeze blew threw a window, a common window in a common room in a common city. It wasn't common. Not like they always assumed.

Real was pain, real was blood, real was the knife slicing the skin and oh what a pretty design it could make with the knife! It was careful, because imagination could not mix with what was real. It left no trace.

Almost no trace.

It loved the breeze, the muted sunlight fighting its way through clouds and smoke and choking fumes. The sunlight in a new form.

It didn't have to be real. It could escape the muck, the ordinary, and transform through the smog.

It could pretend.

It could control.

Light, heat, weather, cancer, sunlight was the means. It liked the sunlight and the breeze and it liked that it could know what it meant to change things.

Expose things.

Like the sunlight, through torn lace curtains.

A breeze, blowing the lace in its face. Pretty lace.

Lace for him, it thought, looking at the computer screen. Him. On top of a fake world, built on false sentiment and bravado. He had fears.

His pretty eyes hid it all. That smile, that skin, that manicure, that suit, that money. Hiding so much fear. Doubt. Pain.

Lying, scheming, cheating.

It would expose it all.

Sitting down in the chair, the comfortable, worn old chair with one spring in the lower back, the one flaw that made it real.

It closed its eyes and dreamed. Hands, strong hands, large hands, nicked with cuts and bruises. Real hands. Shorn face, stubble. Nose bulbous and raw from sun, from wind, so real.

Heavy shoes. Boots. Jeans. Construction site.

Voices.

"Quittin' time, Ernie!"

The boots move. Ernie. I am Ernie.

Tattoo on the hands. Letters. Broken, prison tattoo. This was the right one.

It walked. It moved. As Ernie. I am Ernie.

Ernie smiled. Ernie took a bus, back to an apartment like so many apartments, with sliced lace curtains blowing in the breeze and sunlight falling on a plain face. There it was, in the chair.

Blonde hair, long, unremarkable.

Pink lips, pink cheeks. Unremarkable.

Brown eyes. Deep, brown eyes. Ernie chuckled. Eyes that revealed all, and so blank.

Ernie found the lace strip right where he had left it, where it had left it. It had become Ernie and they were one.

Ernie grabbed the switchblade from the table.

It sat staring and Ernie winked. "I'll be back, darlin'." Ernie smiled.

The bar was where it should be, a smoke-smelling, liquor-soaked alley. Garcia's was the place, a nondescript place that was real, part of the fabric and dark. He would come here, he had before, the one time after the Dow dropped and he lost a client. A big client. He'd come here and it had watched him, pretty boy drowning in whiskey. Insecurity was a vice. That was real.

Ernie had a vodka tonic. Ernie wouldn't drink it tomorrow, but he liked it tonight.

It didn't take long. There he was, deject, his tie hanging, his costume masking nothing. He'd just lost a bigger client. He didn't have much left in the way of self-esteem.

He covered it up and pretended nothing was real.

That was going to change.

That did change. Ernie left and waited, skulking in a corner, waiting, biding his time. Last call, people were gone, no one wanted life to get quite that real.

Except the poor, drunken fool, stumbling over his Southern Comfort.

Falling on the pavement.

Dry-heaving, not committed to being sick anymore than he was committed to his life. To what was real.

Ernie gripped the lace.

Gripped a switchblade.

Stood him up, cut off his tie, and they were on their way.

Back to the apartment. It was waiting, same vacant stare in those beautiful brown eyes.

It watched. Burned into memory these images.

A pattern, a design, pretty design. Button up, clean up. The suit neat, the shirt clean. Blood somewhere. Smelled it. Cleaned it.

No tie. The lace will do. The lace strip from the curtain.

The body went back to Garcia's. And everything was as it always had been and would be.

Until Ernie was hit.

By a car. This was real.

And this was pain.

~x~

The next morning, Alex was awakened by two sounds at once. His cell phone chirping, Marita's special ring a pleasant and welcome sound.

Also, the motel phone. Shrill and diabolical.

He sighed, letting his wife leave a voicemail and answering the more demanding of the two.

"Krycek."

"Agent? You'll want to grab a bagel and your partner. We got another one. And a suspect."

"At the field office?"

"No, the scene. Place called Garcia's, a block from the last scene."

"You're sure?"

"Yeah. Same M.O., the same lace strip. No fingerprints yet, but we tagged a guy in the hospital this morning. He was hit by a car less than half a block from where the victim lay, and it happened around five."

"We'll be there." Alex hung up the phone just as a knock preceded Diana's entry into his room.

She was already dressed, and tossed him his pants from the chair.

"I heard the phone. I was already up."

"I can tell." She was ready for the day, light make-up and brushed hair.

"Get dressed. I'll meet you downstairs. Coffee?"

She was certainly awake, Alex thought.

"Yeah. Black. Strong."

"You got it."

A half an hour later, they were climbing out of a taxi in front of an even seedier bar than the Dirty Rat. Various police and apparent Bureau personnel were climbing over the scene, repelling curiousity seekers and the odd media personality.

Diana and Alex flashed their badges to a wetbehind -the-ears precinct cop who'd been given the crap detail and denied the dubious honor of aiding the actual investigation. He was, instead of dismissive like an older counterpart might have been, eager and bossy, scrutinizing the badges for discrepencies. His eyes widened at Alex's picture, his name, and finally his jaw dropped slightly.

It was getting old.

Alex pushed past the kid, leaving Diana to reassure him.

Sartino had gotten to Alex. His intonation, his creepy assurance of something happening. Something else.

Alex hadn't worked on the X-files long in the beginning, and hadn't gotten a real taste of what could happen on cases. He was awed by it. He was intrigued by it.

And he was downright frightened by it.

He made his way over to Brockhurst and a younger female agent, both of whom were bent over a body that was in an open body bag.

The face was in the same shape as the other one. Cuts, delicate patterns, and that lace.

That damned lace.

Diana came up behind him and started asking the pertinent questions and making the right demands, issuing directives. The guy in the hospital, did he leave obvious trace evidence, was there something to go on? This guy, get him to the morgue, get forensics on it, see what we can dig up.

Alex was grateful for her. He left her to it, wandered to the edge of the roped-off area where another green cop was warding off citizens.

Bart Sartino stood off to the side of the small crowd, grimacing at the scene before him, then turning his gaze to Alex.

Alex approached him. "Was it real this time?" Alex asked.

Sartino shook his head. "But it was caught. It got caught."

"What got caught? Who?"

"You know, man. The accident."

Alex looked over his shoulder at Brockhurst, zipping up the body bag, and Diana, questioning him.

The accident.

He turned back to Sartino, only to find him gone.

He walked back to Diana, and whispered in her ear.

"To the hospital. We might have our guy."

~x~

It was in the room in the chair.

It was Ernie on gurney, gee it rhymes, and it hurts.

Real. Not real. Caught.

Between.

The lace didn't blow in stagnant morning wind.

And the bleeping heart monitor was all too real.

But it was fine. Ernie could walk.

Ernie did walk. The hospital was busy and no one saw.

No nurse stopped him. No doctor.

No one saw.

But the curtain wasn't blowing and someone was running to Ernie.

~x~

"I'm sorry, did you say he just up and walked out?"

"Yes, it looks that way. Look, he was clean, and the injuries were superficial. Union insurance. He was taken care of. He walked out, and I need this bed, okay? Do you see this madhouse?"

The doctor was impatient, but so was Diana.

"Alright, fine. Can you tell me, really quickly, did he have any wounds not consistent with the accident?"

A quick look at the chart, and the doctor tapped her foot. "No. Cracked rib or two, sprained ankle. Contusions on face, chest, back, arms. It wasn't a hard hit. But he wouldn't get far. Now if you'll excuse me, I have work to do." She turned tail and walked away, shouting orders to a nurse nearby and grabbing an incoming gurney.

Diana turned to Alex.

He was already out the door.

~x~

Alex didn't have to run far.

The man was tall, sturdy, and limping slightly. He wasn't wearing much, just jeans and one boot, a hospital gown. In this part of the city, he would go practically unnoticed.

Alex was tempted to run and catch up to the guy, capture him singlehandedly. He didn't want to use his gun, though, and he knew someone would have to eventually. He just didn't want the reputation any longer.

He decided to follow at a distance. It wasn't hard, the guy moved so slowly despite his size. Almost dazed, listing from side to side like someone who'd had a few too many.

Alex heard panting behind him, then next to him. Diana had run to catch him.

"That him?" she asked quietly, pointing.

Alex nodded.

"What do you want to do?" Her hand was already under her jacket, gripping her service pistol.

"Follow him. Find out where he lives, get him there. Call for back-up. I don't want to use my gun, Diana."

She touched his hand, his right, real hand. "I know. And if I can help it, you won't have to."

Alex squeezed her fingers briefly, then touched his own weapon. "It doesn't mean I won't."

"I know that, too."

The man, whom the doctor had identified as Ernie Galino, kept on walking, seemingly oblivious to his surroundings. Alex wasn't sure, but he thought he saw the man mumbling.

Real, he seemed to say. Real. Real.

That now-familiar surge of adrenaline quickened Alex's step.

The man reached a plain brownstone, so common in this area. It was two storeys, and an open window on the second floor revealed the source of that haunting, puzzling calling card.

Curtains, made from lace, cut to careful shreds.

Alex pointed to it, trying to get Diana's attention. But she was distracted already by a noise coming from that window.

A low, painful moaning, and a surprised grunt. A clanging sound and a shriek. A feminine cry into the morning air.

Diana ran ahead, not waiting for Alex.

"Diana!" Alex yelled, forgetting his plan of stealth and caution.

"FBI!" Diana announced their arrival on the second floor, her gun drawn and cocked. She was prepared. "Federal agents!"

She kicked the already open door wider, and Alex ran up the stairs, five seconds too late.

Diana was in a chokehold. It wasn't Ernie, who lay on the ground moaning and cursing in Spanish. It was a woman.

She was short, with long blonde hair, utterly unremarkable.

Except that she was taking his partner down.

Alex didn't even hesitate. He drew his own gun, aimed it at her.

"Federal agent! Let her go!"

The blonde hissed. "It doesn't want to. This is real."

Real.

The lace.

He didn't think. He pulled the trigger, and the blonde screamed.

Blood spattered the wall, and Diana. The blonde went down, her shoulder bearing the fresh bullet wound. She lay screaming on the floor as Alex cuffed her, and as Diana called for back-up.

As Ernie sat up and shook his head, still muttering in Spanish but more frightened than anything else, the blonde stopped screaming.

She started humming.

~x~

TWO DAYS LATER
J EDGAR HOOVER BUILDING
WASHINGTON, D.C.

"I'm thinking about getting a dartboard to put down here."

"Oh, yes, because more weapons in cramped space is a spectacular idea."

"It could be. Besides, I need something to do with my hands while you're typing out reports."

"Careful Alex, or I'll tell your wife."

Alex grinned. "Alright then. So what's the report going to look like for this case? First ever female serial killer and all?"

"I have no idea," Diana replied. "I'm still not even sure how she did it. Astral projection is such a speculative science..."

"Don't let Doggett here you call it a science. He'd flip out."

"Heh. Who wouldn't?" Diana sighed and rubbed the bridge of her nose. "I want to do something less dramatic next time. You up for a haunted house, Loch Ness monster, maybe an exorcism?"

Alex's cell phone rang, and he patted Diana's shoulder as he walked out of the room.

"You pick. I'm going to go talk to my wife."

THE END.

Author's Notes:

Thanks to Deslea for the patience and for organizing this in the first place. My goodness, what a universe to play in! All my favorite characters in one place at the same time!

This story owes a lot to my mom, my friends Michael, Shaun, and Becky (who all listened to the ideas I had and who all encourage me in different ways) , and to the various writers who write the serial killer stories I just can't stay away from.


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