Category: case file, sequel to Tabula Rasa Keywords: xfile, msr, amnesia fic, MT, ST Archive: Just let me know so I can visit Author's Notes: at the end
Disclaimer: The characters you recognize belong to Chris Carter, 1013, and Fox. The rest are mine. No copyright infringement is intended.
Dreamcatcher by dtg
Cold moonlight turned the snow to diamonds and the shadows to midnight blue velvet. It squeaked under the tires, and then beneath two pairs of feet; the first pair stumbling before the second, driven by the threat of what would happen when they stopped. Across a frozen lake, into the woods beyond, wrists bound behind her back, no longer pleading for a life that was already lost.
One mind paralyzed with terror, but clinging to faces and voices that were fading too soon; the other, filled with images of what was to come: of things planned and hoped for and sometimes obtained, but always at a terrible price.
Justice, exacted without mercy or hesitation. Pain drawn out for the pleasure of it. Tears that would never be enough.
A few more steps.
November 3rd, 3:30 pm
Their tiny 50-seat jet had lifted off from Dulles into a china blue sky, and landed in the middle of a Pittsburgh ice storm that closed the airport for three hours. The final leg of the flight was an even tinier turboprop that lurched through thirty minutes of rough air to Bradford Regional Airport where it deposited its passengers, sans jetway, into a mini blizzard.
Inside the compact terminal building, there were four boarding gates, a snack bar and a single car rental counter tended by a woman in a bright yellow uniform.
Scully tried with limited success to revive her frozen fingers as she watched Mulder charm the rental agent out of a car they hadn't reserved and a map with door-to-door directions that she drew for him,heedless of the line forming behind him. It was a talent that Scully had always suspected came with the long-lashed hazel eyes, as natural as breathing. The woman was still smiling when he walked away.
Mulder reached for Scully's bag. "I'll go get the car and warm it up." He looked pointedly at her bluish fingertips.
She was too damn cold to take offense. "I'll find some coffee."
She had her hands wrapped around a pair of steaming plastic mugs when he reappeared, dusted with snow, ruddy cheeked as a child. He took one from her, and she felt half of her fingers chill immediately.
"They let me park right out front," he informed her with a touch of wonder.
When they stepped outside, the wind stung her eyes and whipped icy flakes against her cheeks. By the time she settled inside the warm car, her nose was running and the heated air blowing in her face felt like fire. She turned it down a bit and unfolded the annotated map. "Turn left onto the highway."
Mulder started the car moving cautiously, testing the brakes on the snowy surface before heading out onto the main road. He nodded at the map in her hands. "She was very obliging."
Scully gave him an arch look over the map. "I kept expecting her glasses to steam up. You might want to dial it back a few notches if you don't want them following you home."
He looked pleased. "You think?"
This was the way it had been between them since the meeting this morning, determinedly casual and focused on the moment. Mulder had already been in Skinner's office when she'd arrived, just in time to catch the last few words of a conversation that had immediately changed gears. Mulder's smile had said he welcomed her company on this case. He wanted her to feel at ease.
She was doing her best. It would be easier if she weren't so acutely aware of all that was missing.
The rear tires slipped a bit on a patch of ice, and Scully's left foot reached reflexively for an imaginary brake pedal on her side of the car. Mulder noticed, and dropped his speed another five miles an hour.
"It's not as slippery as it looks." He gave her knee a reassuring pat.
She reached over and flipped on the radio, a little irked at being patronized, however kindly. Fiddling with the tuner, she slid through the stations in search of something soothing. When she paused too long on a country western tune, Mulder made a face.
"No Patsy Cline, please."
Something evil made her ask, "What makes you think you aren't a huge Patsy Cline fan?"
"Call it a feeling."
He waggled his eyebrows at her, and she bit back a gasp. It happened all the time now, these flashes of the past that he evoked with a gesture or a phrase. She was getting quite good at hiding her reactions.
She moved the dial again and stopped on a weather report. More snow was predicted for the next twenty-four hours. "How do you feel about getting snowed in?" A neutral topic, if ever there was one.
"We should have rented a Jeep." He leaned forward to peer up at the steel gray sky. "Or a dog sled."
There was so much about him that was achingly familiar, and so much that still surprised her. He was Mulder, but not. The razor sharp mind was there, and the lethal wit, but he seemed to wield both with a different hand. She felt off balance. Unsettled. Unreal. He used to tell her that she was his link to reality. His human credential, in his more philosophic moments.
Somehow, she had never considered that he might be hers.
When they reached the outskirts of Warren a short time later, it was like driving into a Norman Rockwell painting. The main road into town was lined with huge Victorian homes on spacious lots. Soft, fat snowflakes drifted down onto gingerbread roofs and dusted manicured shrubs. Everything was pristine white and postcard pretty.
"What are we looking for?" Mulder prompted, eyes on the passing street signs.
She read the rental agent's note. "The corner of Market and Main."
"There's Market Street." Mulder waved at the sign as they sailed right past. He glanced quickly over his shoulder to check the sparse traffic and swung the Taurus into a 180 degree turn. "You don't suppose there's a law against U-turns in this--Shit."
Scully glanced at the side mirror in time to see the police car pull in behind them. Mulder pulled to the curb and stopped, eyes on the rearview mirror. Scully turned in her seat to watch the officer get out of his car and stroll toward them.
"Afternoon, folks." He leaned down to peer into the car. "May I see your license and
registration, please?" He touched two fingers to the brim of his trooper hat and smiled at them.
Scully opened the glove box and fished out the rental agreement while Mulder dug for his wallet. The officer glanced at the documents and handed them back. "You folks lost?"
"We missed a turn," Mulder laid his wallet on the seat between them and pulled out his badge. "We have an appointment with Sheriff Kessler." He showed the badge, and Scully followed suit.
The officer nodded, still smiling. "Thought so. You can follow me. I'll show you the way." He tapped his brim again and headed back to his patrol car at the same leisurely pace.
Mulder tucked his badge and wallet in their respective pockets, waiting for the patrol car to pull out. "I think we could have found it from here." He pointed to the left, just past the corner, and Scully saw the sign. Warren County Sheriff.
Aside from the commercial-type glass double doors, the building's exterior blended
perfectly with its residential neighbors. The gold-lettered white sign out front was all that set it apart. Even the parking lot out back was tastefully situated behind a six-foot hedge.
Mulder followed her gaze as they walked onto the wide front porch. "Sorta like walking into a Christmas card."
"Except for the bodies they keep stumbling across." It was Mulder's brand of humor, but instead of chuckling, he looked mildly shocked. Scully ducked past him and nearly bumped into a uniformed man standing just inside the door.
"I'm Sheriff Kessler. You must be Agents Mulder and Scully." The sheriff was as tall as Mulder but probably outweighed him by fifty pounds. His demeanor, unlike the cheery deputy, was all business.
Mulder introduced himself and Scully, and they shook hands all around. She was pleased to note that the sheriff didn't seem to gentle his grip for her smaller hand.
"I've got everything set up in the conference room, if you'll come with me." Mulder answered with a 'lead the way' gesture, and the sheriff headed off down the hall. "I'm afraid there's no spare office for you to use, so I had a phone set up in here." He stopped in front of a door and pushed it open, then stepped back to wait for them.
The room was empty but for couple of long oak tables pushed together and a 4x6 foot freestanding whiteboard covered with notes and
photographs. An old-style black desk phone and a stack of legal pads sat side-by-side in the middle of the makeshift conference table.
Scully crossed to the whiteboard and began looking over the collected documents. "Is this everything?"
"I have some files on my desk. Be right back." He left.
Mulder shrugged out of his coat and dropped it on the table. "Anything there that wasn't in the case file?" He walked over to join her at the board.
"I don't remember this one." She tapped a glossy eight by ten image and Mulder leaned in to study it.
"That's Marcy Brackston." The sheriff was back with an armful of files. "Ranger found her body this morning, less than a mile from where the last two were found."
He dropped the stack on the table and pulled up a chair. "Have a seat," he waved at the two remaining chairs, heavy library-style and functional. "I'll run through what we've got so far." He started dividing the stack into three piles.
It took him a moment to realize no one was joining him at the table. "Or, would you rather do this alone." He stopped dealing out folders.
Mulder's expression morphed into a professional smile. He sat down in the chair opposite the sheriff. "Not at all. Please," he gestured for the man to continue.
Kessler dealt out the rest of the files. "It's only been a week since the previous murder, so we're thinking that this guy is escalating." He shot a glance in Mulder's direction and received an approving nod. "Marcy was
number seven. Same M.O."
"She was from the same graduating class as the others?" Scully asked, leafing through the file on Jameson, Sara L. Victim number four. The case file she'd read on the plane had mentioned the high school link.
"Yes, but we're wondering if that's not a red herring. We've only got the one high school, so pretty much everyone who grew up here attended it. There's a Catholic school in Bradford. None of these women went there. They have other factors in common that could also be just a matter of geography. They lived in the same part of town, all had children and husbands, and none of them worked outside the home. And they all knew each other. Saw each other pretty regularly. At church. Shopping. Socially. And they knew their killer."
Scully looked up. "What makes you say that?" She had seen nothing in the file to indicate a personal connection. The women were taken from different locations: three from home, one from a shopping mall, and the others most likely pulled over in their cars on the way to somewhere. "It could have been someone with a weapon."
"Strangers stick out in this town. People remember them." He nodded at the two of them. "You folks haven't been here more than a few minutes, but I'm betting there are at least a dozen people who already know about it."
Scully could think of several arguments against that line of reasoning, but let it pass for the moment. "Then any strangers in the area have been interviewed?"
"We've got the National Forest, brings in a lot of tourists in the summer. And the hunting's a big draw in the fall. This time of year, it's pretty much just permanent residents. So yeah, it didn't take long to check out all the transients."
"And you have a prison nearby," Mulder
"Maximum security, over in Bradford. No escapees in twenty years."
"What about group homes in the area? For parolees?" Scully asked.
The sheriff gave her a patient look. "Maximum security as in, anyone who makes it to the end of their sentence is too old for this
particular kind of crime."
"Which part, Sheriff? The rape or the murder?" She leveled her gaze and her voice.
The sheriff appeared to receive the message loud and clear. He flushed slightly and squared his shoulders. "Both."
Mulder cleared his throat and they both turned to look at him. "Did you write the profile?"
"We've got a psychologist on the payroll part time, but mostly for evaluating employees. Up 'til recently, our homicide rate was less than two a year, and those were bar fights and domestic situations."
"Michael Hobart," Mulder took a stab at deciphering the signature on the profile. "I'd like to speak with him."
"Right. I'll have Linda put in a call." He stood up and headed for the door. "You folks want some coffee? Heat's been on in here all morning. It's not gonna get any warmer." He glanced at Scully who was blowing on her fingers.
She dropped her hands, and Mulder smiled. "That would be great. Thanks."
Scully noticed that Mulder had at some point shed his coat and suit jacket, and rolled his sleeves up to his elbows. She was still freezing in her coat. "You think the profile has merit?"
He shrugged. "There's a local flavor to it, now that I've talked to the sheriff. I wondered." He shrugged again. "It's worth a closer look, but I need to hear from the profiler." He started a new stack with the file in his hands and picked up the next. "I don't see the autopsy reports."
"You're sure they've been done?" She didn't realize until the words were out that the sheriff was standing in the door.
"He's part time, too, but we do have a
pathologist," Kessler commented dryly as he came into the room. "We kept them separate because of the video recordings. You'll have to watch them in the media room upstairs. It's even colder up there."
Scully stood up, removed her coat and folded it neatly over the back of her chair. "I'd like to see them now, if that's all right."
Mulder ducked his head, but not before Scully caught the beginning of a smile. The sheriff's expression was impassive. "Of course. I'll set it up, if you'll come with me?" He turned and left.
Scully glanced back at the top of Mulder's head, and followed.
Some minutes later, Mulder was reading the high school transcript of victim number five when footsteps in the doorway made him glance up. A woman of about thirty, medium height, slender build, short brown hair, came toward him with a steaming coffee mug. Mulder reached for it gratefully.
"Thanks. Agent Scully's gone to the media room, and I know she would be very happy to see you, if you don't mind making the trip."
The woman stopped in her tracks, eyebrows rising until they disappeared under her thick bangs. "Well, that's nice to hear, but I'm not giving you my coffee."
He dropped his hand and stood up so quickly that the chair tipped over. The noise it made brought the sheriff back into the room with his hand on his holster. "Everything okay in here?"
Mulder could feel the heat in his face. The woman was chuckling merrily. "It's okay, Will. Agent Mulder here was just introducing
himself." She put down the coffee mug and extended her hand to Mulder. "I'm Michael Hobart. You asked to see me?"
Mulder shook the woman's hand. "It's a
pleasure, Ms. Hobart. You wrote the profile."
"Just Michael is fine. And I'm anxious to hear what you think. Your reputation precedes you."
Sheriff Kessler chuckled. "The name fools everyone. Sorry, I should have said something." He turned back to the door. "I'll just leave you two to get acquainted." He gave Mulder a vaguely disturbing wink and left.
Mulder reached down and picked up his chair. It gave him something to do with his hands, but bending over renewed the flush in his cheeks.
Michael Hobart pulled out Scully's chair and sat down. "I'm used to it, Agent Mulder. Please don't be embarrassed."
He sat down and looked at her. "And you enjoy it just a bit, don't you?"
She smiled, and they sized each other up for a moment. Mulder picked up the profile. "You've made some interesting assumptions about this man. I'd like to hear your reasoning." Back to comfortable ground.
Michael Hobart's wide brown eyes regarded him levelly. "Defend it, you mean."
"No, I mean I'd like to hear your reasoning." He settled back in his chair and folded his hands on his stomach.
She gave him a long look. "Where would you like me to start?"
"Start with why you think the victims knew their killer."
"Because no one who grew up in this town would let a stranger get close enough to do what this guy did. After the first murder, it would have been even more unlikely that an unfamiliar face could go unnoticed in any public place."
"People make mistakes. Maybe this is a very charming stranger."
Michael shook her head. "I might accept that with the first victim, but not the rest. Not after word got out."
Mulder nodded. "The sheriff agrees with you."
"Will is a very perceptive man." There was a genuine fondness in her tone. "He's half the reason I got into this profiling business. Gave me my first consulting job, too."
"He must have been pleased with the outcome."
She looked surprised. "I caught the killer. Why wouldn't he be?"
The woman had gone from earnest to arrogant in the space of a heartbeat. Mulder was familiar with both attitudes, but not in such quick succession. "Overconfidence can be a handicap, or so I've been told."
She laughed out loud. "Not if you can back it up."
Upstairs, Scully had heard a noise that sounded like furniture getting knocked over, and she'd gotten halfway to the stairs before she heard the laughter. Whatever Mulder was doing down there, he had a friendly audience. She returned to her seat and hit the rewind button for a few seconds.
The sheriff was right. It was so cold in here that her fingers were going numb, and she was only halfway through the first autopsy video. It was an amazingly good quality tape. Coupled with the extensive typewritten notes, it was as good as attending in person. Well, almost. She had always been a tactile person, and getting her hands into things got her mind in gear.
At the moment, however, the thought of sinking her hands into a cold corpse made her shiver. When this tape was finished, she would ask the sheriff if she could take the rest to the hotel.
A little less than ten minutes later, she set out to find the sheriff. He was in his office, on the telephone. She caught his eye, then waited in the hall for him to complete his call. It sounded personal, so she took a few steps away. Laughter drifted down the hall from the conference room. Mulder and a woman. Eyebrows rising, she took a few steps in toward the sound.
"Agent Scully? You wanted to see me?" The sheriff poked his head out of his office, eyebrows raised in question.
She told him what she needed, and he was very accommodating, even to having one of his deputies take the box of tapes and a video player out to the rental car. Scully thanked him and went to find Mulder.
She obviously walked in on the end of a very amusing story. A young woman was sitting with her back to the door. Mulder was looking at her wearing a very appreciative grin. It took him a few seconds to notice that Scully had come into the room. When he saw her, he stood up and his chair fell backward with a familiar clatter.
"Hey, Scully. This is Michael Hobart. She wrote the profile."
The woman stood and turned to face Scully. "It's a pleasure, Agent Scully."
"We've been discussing her conclusions, and I think we've got a lead. She grew up with the victims." He was giving the woman a look that said she'd impressed him, which impressed Scully even more.
She shook the woman's hand and gave her a speculative look. Attractive, in an outdoorsy way. Short thick hair. No make-up, or very little. Intelligent brown eyes that seemed to gravitate to Mulder.
She smiled at Scully. "I just told Agent Mulder that I'd like to take you both to dinner. We don't have a lot of choices in town, but there's a great place about an hour from here that will give you a little local flavor."
Mulder quickly added, "It's on the other side of the Allegheny Forest, and we could take a side trip to the crime scene."
Scully turned her speculative look on him. "It's a little dark to see much."
"I thought it would be helpful to see it the way the killer did. The bodies were dumped at night," Michael Hobart offered.
Scully's hot bath receded into the distance. "That could be worth the trip," she agreed.
"Great!" The woman clapped her hands together. "I'll go call for reservations."
Mulder rolled down his sleeves and grabbed his jacket. "You must be starved, too. I called to make sure our rooms are being held." He pulled on his coat. "You don't mind going to dinner, do you?"
It was a little late to ask that question. "I did want to review the rest of the tapes tonight, but it can wait."
He looked relieved. "Good, good. Well, let's get going." And he was out the door.
He was holding the door for Michael Hobart when Scully walked into the lobby. He let it close behind him without a backward glance.
Scully paused for just a beat, then gave it a brisk shove and followed them out into the gathering dusk.
Chapman State Park
Marcy Brackston's last moments on earth had not been spent where her body was found. The huge quantity of blood that must have resulted from her wounds was shed elsewhere. Someone who didn't want his vehicle sullied with gore had wrapped her in a black plastic tarp and driven past scores of anonymous dump sites to leave her here, just inside the park's main entrance.
Shivering in the icy wind, Mulder and Michael Hobart continued the debate that had begun over dinner. Scully made a quick, but thorough, tour of the site and retreated to the warmth of Ms. Hobart's Jeep Cherokee to wait them out. The most recent victim's autopsy had yet to be performed, and Scully intended to handle it herself. Until then, there was little she could contribute to the discussion, especially when they seemed intent on holding it in the teeth of a thirty-knot gale.
She had actually considered joining them, if only to prove she wasn't sulking, but it made no sense to risk frostbite proving a point to someone who had no idea he'd done anything wrong.
Closing the door in her face at the sheriff's office had not been deliberate. He wasn't even aware she was behind him, just as he had no clue that Michael Hobart found more than his profile intriguing. Mulder's intensity could be blinding, and Scully almost felt sorry for the woman , knowing that she would soon discover its focus was the case rather than her.
The not-so-subtle difference this time was that his single-mindedness seemed to have rendered Scully invisible as well, and that had never happened before.
She watched them through the windshield, the woman talking with her hands even more than Mulder. After a particularly animated exchange, he turned and walked back to the Jeep. The woman stood there for a moment, hands now stilled and planted on her hips, before she followed him.
Mulder hopped into the backseat and rolled his eyes. "And they call me obsessive."
Scully pressed her lips together around a smile. "You are. Having a difference of opinion with your consultant?"
"You could say that."
The driver's door opened, letting in a blast of cold air. Michael smiled apologetically. "I didn't mean to keep you two out so late. I lose all track of time when I'm involved in a case like this." She glanced at Mulder in the rear view mirror, adding a conspiratorial wink. "We'll be back at the office in twenty minutes. I know a short cut." She began to back out, then paused. "Or I could just drive you to the hotel. It would save some time, and I could pick you up in the morning."
"I have some tapes in the trunk that I need to look over tonight," Scully answered, "but thanks."
The woman glanced again in the mirror, perhaps expecting a different answer from the backseat. When none was forthcoming, she shrugged. "Sure. No problem."
Scully didn't know how 'short' it was, but the route they took back to the sheriff's office was certainly off the beaten path. Instead of leaving by the front entrance, the way they'd come, she took them deeper into the park, and out the other side.
"One of the few advantages of growing up out here. Plenty of experience with back roads." That prompted another exchange in the rear view mirror, but Michael seemed disappointed by the response. She spent the rest of the drive with her eyes exclusively on the road.
Their rental was icy cold, and the ten-minute drive to the hotel wasn't nearly enough to warm it up. It seemed that the environment was bent on keeping Scully on the brink of hypothermia with a permanently dripping nose. She didn't even bat an eye when Mulder volunteered to haul in their bags, the carton of videotapes and the VCR.
The first order of business was to turn up the heat in her room. The second was to call room service for a pot of coffee, timed to arrive at the door when she was finished with a long, hot shower.
Scully stood under the steaming but too-gentle spray until the shivers stopped and the mirror was dripping condensation, then dried off with a rough towel and climbed into flannel pajamas. When she came out of the bathroom, she found that Mulder had set up the VCR for her and cued up the first tape. He'd also let in the room service person and arranged her coffee and mug on the nightstand next to the VCR remote. She smiled at the connecting door and sat down on the bed.
It felt like the first time she'd been warm since they left D.C., and the sheer sleepy pleasure made the thought of viewing autopsy tapes a lot less appealing than curling up with a good book. A cup of coffee would help. She poured one, spiked it with sugar and took it out onto the small balcony overlooking the atrium pool. The scent of heated, overchlorinated water drifted up to her second
floor perch, strong enough to sting her nose, and she quickly retreated inside.
Mulder was standing in the connecting doorway, looking apologetic. "Scully, I just got a call from the sheriff. They found another body."
She set her coffee down on the dresser. "Where we just were?"
"In the park, yes, but four miles into the woods. Near the southern perimeter. It looks like this victim may have been the first, just better hidden than the rest." He eyed her comfy attire. "There's no point in both of us going to the scene. You've got tapes to review for tomorrow. And I'm still dressed."
She was nodding before he finished the thought. "Make sure the sheriff knows that I'll be doing both autopsies in the morning. And find out where they'll be." She picked up her coffee and settled in on the bed, timing her parting shot to arrive when the door was nearly shut. "And tell Ms. Hobart I said hello."
Forestry service road #29
Michael Hobart had been waiting for him in front of the sheriff's department. "Will asked me to chauffer you up to the crime scene. It's a little remote."
Remote turned out to be an understatement. What little sense of direction Mulder possessed gave up after the third winding turn on the dirt trail that Michael referred to as Forestry Road #29.
"Who found the body, and what were they doing out here?"
Michael swerved to avoid a pothole that would have cost the Taurus an axle. "This road divides the park from private property. Mark Laskey owns it, and he was out looking for his best hunting dog. She's in heat and I guess she wandered off in search of romance."
"And he was afraid she might find it out here?"
Michael chuckled. "Wolves, Agent Mulder. Lots of them. She's a very expensive dog."
They rounded a curve and found emergency vehicles lining both sides of the road. Michael parked behind a fire department rescue squad rig with its rear door standing open.
"I'd say that's the crime scene." She indicated a cluster of flashlights off to the right, some twenty yards inside the woods. They got out and started walking. "This isn't the park side. It's Mark Laskey's property."
Mulder looked back at the dirt road, which had identical stands of trees on either side. "I don't see how the killer could have known he wasn't still in the park." He stopped and looked at Michael. "How do you?"
Michael tossed him a patient look but kept moving. "Before I switched to psychology, I was a forestry major. I worked out here. Now come on, before they remove the body. I'll tell you my life story over a drink when we're done."
Sheriff Kessler was crouching next to a covered form on the ground. He got to his feet as they approached, dusting his hands on his thighs.
"Not much left to look at." He bent down and picked up a corner of the black plastic sheet. "The local wildlife found her long before we did."
Mulder squatted next to the body and pushed the sheet back to the victim's waist, shining his flashlight on the denuded bone of the right arm and shoulder. "Gnaw marks?"
Michael crouched on the other side. "Looks like wolves." She touched the marks with gloved fingers, probing gingerly at the bits of flesh and muscle clinging to the joint. "It's been cold enough to slow decomposition, but I'd put the time of death at least a month ago."
Mulder shone his light on the victim's face. "I take it this isn't a local resident. There was no mention of a missing person."
The face had somehow avoided predation, but it definitely bore the characteristic slash at each corner of the mouth. The features would still be recognizable by anyone who knew her.
Michael shook her head. "She's not from around here. Will?"
The sheriff crouched next to Michael. "Nope. And her outfit's definitely not local. I'd say Jamestown, maybe even Pittsburgh. Looks like she was dressed up to go clubbing someplace a lot fancier than she'd find around here." He got wearily to his feet once more. "We were waiting for you, but I'd really like to get her taken care of. She's been out here long enough."
"I'll just need a few minutes," Mulder told him as he pulled the rest of the sheet away. Whatever had been feasting on the body seemed to have favored the long bones of the legs. As his stomach did a slow roll, he wished fervently that he hadn't talked Scully into staying at the hotel.
Two men with a gurney stood a few feet away looking wearily patient. Mulder gave them a thumbs-up and got to his feet. "All yours." He stepped back, directly into someone who grunted in disgust before Mulder could apologize.
"You people done with me, too? I'd like to get home sometime before the sun comes up."
Mulder turned to find himself eye to eye with a man holding the leash of a sleek spaniel dog. "You must be Mark Laskey." Mulder held out his hand, and the man shook it briefly and without the faintest hint of warmth.
"Yeah, and you must be the guy from the FBI."
"Lighten up, Mark. You called us out here, remember?" Michael Hobart stepped between the two men and crouched down to ruffle the dog's ears. The dog obviously loved it.
"I called the sheriff to let him know about the body. I didn't invite a full scale invasion." He waved at the assemblage of vehicles and personnel tromping this section of his land to a muddy mess.
"We'll be out of here shortly, Mr. Laskey, but I'm afraid you'll have visitors in and out for a few more days, gathering evidence. If you have a few minutes, you can at least get my questions out of the way." Mulder offered.
"My dog found the body. I found the dog. I don't know the woman and I haven't been out to this part of my land since last spring. Anything else?"
Mulder eyed the man for a moment. He was roughly Mulder's height, weight and age, interestingly enough. With at attitude that could be righteous indignation, guilt-inspired bluster, or plain bad manners. "For a man whose land abuts the dumping site of a serial killer, you don't seem very concerned with seeing him caught." He was probing for a reaction, and he got one, but not from Laskey.
Michael Hobart chuckled and stood up, giving the dog a final scratch on the muzzle. "Agent Mulder, Mark Laskey is an officer of the court. He's our local prosecuting attorney."
The two men were toe to toe. "I can assure you, Agent Mulder, I'm extremely interested in seeing this man caught. My job depends on it, actually, so I wish you'd direct your focus where it belongs." He turned to Michael. "You know where to find me." He turned and walked straight into the woods with his dog at his heel.
Mulder gave Michael a narrow look. "You might have shared that bit of information a little earlier."
She was still chuckling. "You didn't warn me that you were going to accuse the county prosecutor of serial murder on his own land."
Mulder waved toward the woods where Laskey had disappeared. "Where is he going?"
"His house is about half a mile from here, on the other side of that stand of trees. I'd say he's going home."
Will Kessler came back from following the body to the van, and Mulder remembered the question Scully wanted him to ask. "Agent Scully would like to perform the autopsies on the two most recent victims. Where will they be?"
"Warren County Hospital, just across the river from downtown. You can't miss it. There's a helicopter landing pad right out front." Kessler yawned widely. "We're gonna clear out now. You two can hang here as long as you like, but the lights are going with us." He headed back to the road.
Mulder looked around and realized that most of the crowd had dissipated. And he was slowly freezing where he stood. "I'm ready any time you are," he said to Michael Hobart.
She hooked her elbow around his. "You look like a man who could use a drink, and I know just the place."
"I could use a drink, but the only place I'm going is back to the hotel." He didn't pull his arm away, though the urge to do so nearly overcame good manners.
"No problem. I understand they have a bar, too."
Scully hit the button on the final tape and finished her notes as it rewound. Overall, the medical examiner's work was impeccable, and she intended to ask him to assist with the autopsies she would be performing in the morning. He could provide valuable insight, but Scully had experience on her side, particularly with the type of mutilation the victims all exhibited.
The Mostow case had been on her mind from the first time she'd seen the facial cuts, and it was a memory she was glad Mulder didn't share. His approach to profiling was much less personal now, and it was better for her sanity as well as his.
The tapes had provided one surprise, and that was in a particular type of marking each victim had somewhere on her body. The cuts that made them were more like scratches. A spider web design, finely drawn with the tip of a thin bladed knife, or possibly a scalpel, and not deep enough to bleed for more than a moment or two. The medical examiner had mentioned them and had taken close up videos of each one, but only in passing. Scully devoted an entire page of notes to what they might signify, but she needed more information. The pattern was familiar somehow, but she couldn't place it.
The tape stopped humming and the machine shut off automatically, ejecting the tape. Scully closed her laptop and got up from the bed, feeling the fatigue in her bones. She extracted the tape and added it to the box along with the case notes, glancing at the clock as she did.
Mulder should have been back by now. She was sure she would have heard him come in, but walked over to knock on the connecting door, just in case. There was no response, and she picked up her cell phone before good sense made her put it down. Instead, she picked up the coffee carafe and jiggled it. There was enough left for a nightcap. She unscrewed the cap and poured it into her cup, then took it out onto the balcony and settled into the plastic chair.
With the lights out in the atrium, and the chlorine smell somewhat dissipated, it was actually quite restful . Water circulating in the pool pumps had an oddly familiar,
comforting sound that it took her a few moments to place.
Mulder's aquarium. That's what it reminded her of. The watery green glow from the underwater light of the atrium pool added to the pleasing illusion, and it made her smile.
Tootsie's Bar & Grill
12:14 am Tuesday
Tootsie's was situated just off the lobby of the Holiday Inn, behind a grandiose padded red vinyl door decorated with brass studs. Mulder decided that the door must be left over from a previous decor since the interior was pure country and western, right down to the longhorn steer head on the wall above the bar. There was a pool table at one end, wooden booths along three walls, and a small dance floor in front of the jukebox.
The bar was empty except for an older couple sitting in a corner booth. Mulder and Michael Hobart sat at the bar, sipping cinnamon brandy the bartender was pushing. It would chase the chill, he promised. It did.
At first, they talked about the case. Michael was eager to resume the debate they'd started at the first crime scene. Mulder said that the latest body found outside the park proved that they needed to look at a larger pool of potential suspects, including residents of larger towns nearby or anyone passing through on a regular basis, like truck drivers or traveling salesmen.
Michael was just as certain that they would be wasting valuable time if they didn't focus on local people. Much as it pained her, she said, all evidence pointed to someone these women trusted implicitly. That in itself presented some frightening possibilities, not the least of which was that it might be someone in law enforcement, or the clergy.
"I'm not disagreeing with you," Mulder told her. "I'm just saying that you can't safely omit strangers from the pool of potential suspects." He was frankly tired of the subject and way past ready to move on.
Michael must have heard the irritation in his voice. She offered a rueful smile. "Will tells me I've got all the subtlety of a chain saw. You have to tell me when I start to get on your nerves."
"The sheriff seems to think quite a lot of you." Mulder took another long sip of the cinnamon-y brandy and felt the warmth spread to his fingertips. He had agreed to one drink. This was number three, and he was feeling generous and sleepy.
Michael's eyes turned soft at the mention of Will Kessler. "He was my father's best friend for thirty years. I guess I'm sort of the daughter he never had." She sipped her own drink. Number four, if Mulder's count was accurate. "The feeling is mutual."
Mulder noted the past tense. "Your father has passed away?"
She nodded. "He had a stroke last spring. I moved back here to take care of him. He died June 12th, and I stayed on to handle his estate. That's when Will offered me the consulting position with the department. He also recommended me to the Jamestown Police. I'm part time there, too. The pay isn't great, but I don't really need the money."
"Was your father with the sheriff's department?"
"Thirty-two years. He was the sheriff himself for ten of them." She smiled at the memory. "I was the typical sheriff's kid in school, always the first to get in trouble, trying to prove I was like everyone else. It was usually Will who bailed me out, sometimes literally. Probably to keep my dad from skinning me alive."
Mulder could feel the buzz from his drinks. "And despite your best efforts, you wound up working for the good guys."
Michael chuckled and drained her glass. "So it would seem." She squinted at her watch. "We have an early start tomorrow. I should let you get to bed."
"One more question."
Michael turned her stool to look at him. "Fire away."
"If this last body was really the first victim, it means the other victims' connection to one another is really a matter of coincidence."
She considered that for a moment. "Or it could mean that the first victim was practice. Or she has a connection we don't know about."
Mulder gave her an appraising look, and an appreciative smile. "You sound like my partner."
Michael gave his shoulder a squeeze. "I'll take that as a compliment." She stood up and pulled on her coat. "Do you need a hand getting back to your room? I get the impression that you don't normally drink."
Mulder got to his feet and swayed a bit before he found his balance. "No on both counts, but thanks for the offer. Will you be attending the autopsies tomorrow?"
She shuddered visibly. "Poking at the bodies is one thing. Watching them dismantled is quite another. No, I'll get my information from the notes." She hooked their arms together for the second time. "Come on, I'll walk you to the elevator."
Scully finished her coffee, feeling relaxed and sleepy and ready for bed. She stood up and had her hand on the sliding door handle when she heard Mulder's voice. It took her a moment to place the source.
She approached the railing and looked down.
Mulder was walking toward the bank of elevators with Michael Hobart's arm hooked through his. Scully recognized the slightly loopy smile on his face and knew immediately that he'd been drinking, though he certainly didn't appear to require Ms. Hobart's steadying hand.
She watched them walk to the elevator and saw Mulder push the button, too stunned to think that they might look up and see her standing there. After a moment, the elevator dinged its arrival, and Michael Hobart resumed her walk to the exit. Mulder held the door for a moment, watching her go. Then he walked into the car and let the door close behind him.
Scully watched until the woman opened the exit and left the building before she went back into her room.
Warren County Sheriff
Tuesday, Nov. 4th
Will Kessler came through the side entrance stomping snow from his shoes onto the polished hardwood floor. "Where the hell's the mat?"
Linda Mercer planted both hands on her hips and frowned darkly. "Jack has them in the basement drying in front of the furnace. He did, however, leave one outside the door you just came in."
"Yeah, I walked over it on my way in." She rolled her eyes as he took off his coat and hung it on one of the brass hooks next to the door. There were already four other jackets there, and two black trench coats. He tapped the nearer one, raising a questioning eyebrow.
"Agents Mulder and Scully have been here for an hour. They asked to see you as soon as you got in... whenever that might be." She nodded toward the conference room.
"Do I have time for a cup of coffee?"
Linda held out his mug, filled and ready. "I'm way ahead of you."
"You always are." Will accepted the mug and winked at her, angling for a smile.
He got another eye roll instead, and a small snort. "By the way, Jessie won't be in. He said he's on his way to the doctor, and he'll call you in awhile."
Jessie Kendall was the most relentlessly cheerful man Will had ever known, and he was never sick. "Did he say what was wrong?"
Linda shrugged. "He just said he needed to see the doctor. I didn't ask for details."
Will nodded and headed for the conference room.
"Oh, and Michael wants you to call her. She left a message on voice mail."
"She'll just have to wait 'til I find out what the FBI wants," he told her without slowing down.
He found them faced off, arms crossed, in front of the photograph array. "Morning, agents. Linda said you wanted to see me."
They looked mildly startled, especially Agent Scully. Will had the distinct impression that he'd interrupted something. "Should I come back later?"
"Not at all," she responded quickly. She sat down at the table and gestured for the sheriff to join her.
Will took the chair across from her, and Agent Mulder sat at her side.
"Sheriff, I found something in the autopsy tapes and wondered if the coroner had mentioned it to you. There's only one photograph," she slid a 5x7 across the desk, "but the same pattern appears on all of the victims."
Will turned the photo around, glancing up at Scully. "This is a close up?" He could see nothing but skin around the mark. It was impossible to tell what part of the body he was looking at.
"Yes, of the third victim's lower back."
"Third victim found," Mulder clarified. "We won't be certain until Scully does the autopsy, but we believe the woman you found last night was the first victim. Michael thought the time of death looked to be about a month ago."
That earned him a sideways glance from his partner. Will watched the by-play, wondering if the 'discussion' he'd interrupted had been entirely congenial.
"Of course, Scully will verify that," Mulder added.
Will turned to Scully. "I sort of expected you to hop on that first thing this morning."
She returned his gaze levelly. "The coroner won't be ready for me until 9am. I thought the time would be better spent here. Do you recognize the marking?"
He looked back down at the photograph. "Like you said, it looks like a spider web. Mac did mention it-- that's Ellis McKenzie, the coroner-- but he didn't know what it was, either." He stood up. "If that's all, I've got some phone messages to return."
Agent Scully checked at her watch and stood also. "Thank you for your time, Sheriff. If you happen to remember anything about the marking, I'd appreciate a call."
"Sure thing. Will you stop back here after you're finished with the autopsies?"
Scully nodded. "It won't be until midafternoon."
Will looked at Mulder. "Find anything
interesting at the crime scene last night, Agent Mulder?"
"You mean, aside from the fact that the body was found by the prosecutor in his own front yard?"
That drew a look from Scully that told Will she was hearing this for the first time. "Yeah, Mark told me you two met. I gather you found him as annoying as we all do."
Mulder smiled slightly. "I imagine he's been run through the usual elimination process, despite his position?"
Will tamped down a flash of irritation. "He's been eliminated as a suspect."
"You've verified his whereabouts even for this last body? We don't yet know the date of her death," Mulder pointed out.
While Will was formulating a less hostile reply than the one that had jumped to mind, Agent Scully cut in. "I didn't see him mentioned in the case notes. Perhaps if you could let us see the transcript of his interview, it would help."
Will gripped the back of his chair with both hands and did a mental ten-count. "It wasn't a formal interview, Agents. I've known the man since he was in grade school, and he was only questioned about what he might have seen. You can't tell me that you seriously consider him a suspect."
The agents exchanged a glance. Mulder answered, "You said it yourself, Sheriff. The man is not likely to be a stranger and may well be someone in a position of trust. Everyone is a suspect at this point, including Mark Laskey."
It took effort, but Will Kessler nodded. "I'll have him stop by this afternoon."
The tension in the room eased, and Mulder started to gather up the files they'd spread over the table. "We'll stop back after the autopsies." He met Will's direct gaze. "I know this is difficult for you, Sheriff. We appreciate your cooperation."
"Since I'm probably on your interview list, too, you might as well call me 'Will'." He turned and headed for the door. "Just let me know when you want to talk with my deputies. I've got one out sick today, but the rest can be here whenever you want," he called over his shoulder, and received an acknowledging nod from Agent Mulder.
Linda held up a pink message slip when he passed her desk on his way to his office. He snagged it without comment.
"It's from Michael. She's very anxious to talk to you, from the sound of it," she volunteered.
"I'll call her after I talk to Mark Laskey. Get him on the phone for me, please." He had a pretty damn good idea what Michael wanted, and he didn't have time to indulge her right now. Besides, she wasn't going to like the answer.
Will sank into his chair and closed his eyes.
Warren Community Hospital
Autopsy Room #2
Seeing his partner with Jane Doe's body gave a whole new meaning to the words 'up to your elbows in work'. It was, quite literally, where Scully was at the moment, creating squishy wet sounds that drove his attention back to the case notes in self-defense.
This latest victim brought the toll to seven over a period of five weeks and had earned Warren top billing on the network news this morning. It was a hell of a way to get the town on the map. Along with the spotlight would come a whole lot of heat to get this guy before he killed again. It was anybody's guess just how much time he was going to give them to do it.
The graduating class of 1990 had consisted of 118 students, a little more than half of them female. Mulder's growing list of intended interviews included every woman from that class who still lived in the area. It was the most obvious link among the victims, and following it would consume time they couldn't spare.
"Did you doze off over there?" Scully's raised voice snapped his head up from the file. She was peering at him over the top of her mask.
Mulder put down the folder. "Sorry, I was thinking."
"So I gathered. I asked if you knew how Michael Hobart managed to guess the time of death so accurately."
He stood up and came over to the table. "She was right?" The surprise in his voice was genuine. He'd mentioned the woman's comment to Scully, but never considered it seriously. It was too great a reach for the perfunctory exam they'd been able to do in the field in the dark.
"Close enough to be impressive. Before the ambient temperature dropped low enough to kill them, there were insects developing in the body. About two weeks worth of activity, as a matter of fact." She pulled the body cavity flaps back and pointed with gloved fingers. "I checked on the weather when I was working through the autopsy tapes, and it's been subfreezing here for twelve days."
Mulder looked long enough to see what she was talking about, one hand over his mouth and nose, then stepped back. "Lucky guess?"
An eyebrow rose into the surgical cap above it. "A lucky guess that made no sense given the known facts at the time?"
He shrugged. "I thought she was just showing off."
"For your benefit." Quiet disapproval, clearly expressed.
"For my benefit."
Pause. "Then, I think you need to find out how she did it."
It took him a moment to pick up on her implication. "You're not suggesting that she had some inside information."
Scully regarded him levelly. "I think you need to ask her."
He was half-listening, half replaying the rest of last night's conversation in his head. Michael had said something else--
"Earth to Mulder."
"Wolves. She said that before she switched to psych, she'd majored in forestry. She worked in the park. She could have based her guess on the amount of damage done by the wolves, not the insects." He felt oddly relieved by this conclusion.
Scully, apparently, was not. "There are too many variables, Mulder, an unknown number of predators being the most obvious. You need to ask her now, before we include her in any more case discussions."
He suppressed a weary sigh. "I'll get her phone number from the sheriff." He dug his cell from his pocket as he headed for the door.
"You don't have it?"
The emphatically casual tone turned him around to find Scully focused intently on the body before her. When he didn't respond, she looked up, and he met her gaze solidly. "No. I don't."
She studied his face a moment longer, then nodded. "I'll be another few hours finishing up here. Go work."
A heaviness he hadn't realized was there seemed to lift as she turned back to her task.
"On my way." He gave her a little salute on his way out the door and saw her eyes crinkle in a smile.
Ellis McKenzie took a bite of bacon and chewed thoughtfully for a moment. "For the profiler, sure. Not being familiar with our little inbred circle might put him at a disadvantage. But the pathologist? I don't see it."
Michael put down her coffee. "Would she have been able to correlate the level of predation on the body to an elapsed time the way I did? I doubt you'd find an applicable study in any text or journal. You have to know the area for that."
"True, but an FBI pathologist is going to know a lot more than I do about everything else. And for the local wildlife, I've got you. That's why I asked you to join us this morning." He waved at their surroundings. "But instead, we're having breakfast in the next town."
Michael leaned forward, resting her arms alongside her untouched plate. "I had dinner with them last night, Mac. My impression is that she doesn't like me. I doubt she'd be very happy to see me in your autopsy bay."
He quirked an eyebrow at that. "Since when has anyone's opinion stopped you from doing what you wanted?"
She leaned back and picked up her fork, probing gingerly at a mound of scrambled eggs. "I have a confession."
"I'm all ears."
She looked up at him. "There's a personal side that I don't quite know how to handle. Agent Mulder and I went for drinks after we left the crime scene."
Both eyebrows went up. "I don't think I have to tell you how ill-advised this sounds."
"I know, Mac. I know. But he's a nice guy and he needed someone to talk to. I just don't want it to affect the case, and I think that means I need to avoid his partner."
He raised both hands in mock horror. "Please! No details. The last thing I need when I meet them for the first time is this soap opera running through my head." He looked at his watch. "In fact, I need to get moving if I want to attend the second autopsy." He stood and pulled on his jacket. "You're still welcome to come with me, but it's your call."
Michael smiled and shook her head. "Let me know how it goes, Mac."
She watched him go to the register and pay the bill. He said something to the cashier that made her laugh. Michael looked at her watch and sat back in the booth to finish her breakfast.
Warren County Sheriff
Mulder's call to the sheriff went unanswered.
"I haven't seen him since you left," Linda Marshall told him. "He's been in his office on the phone the whole time."
"Just tell him I'm on my way to see him."
Kessler was still on the phone when Mulder got there. From the booming tone of his voice, someone named Kendall was getting his or her ass chewed royally.
The door was jerked open a moment after the yelling stopped, and Kessler poked his head out. He nodded curtly to Mulder, then turned to Linda. "Send somebody over to talk to Jessie in person. He won't tell me what the hell's up, and I want to know. See if Lenny has time." Back to Mulder. "We're having a strange morning here, Agent. What brings you back so soon?" He stepped into his office, motioning for Mulder to follow.
Mulder took a seat in front of Kessler's desk without removing his coat. "I need to get in touch with Michael Hobart."
The sheriff stopped halfway into his chair and gave Mulder a decidedly odd look. "Well, that's an interesting coincidence. She's on her way here to see me." He settled into his chair and folded his hands on his belly. "What's on your mind?"
"Several things. I want to start interviewing this morning, and I'd like to start with the surviving members of the victims' graduating class who live in the area. Can you help me arrange that?"
"Sure. The list is already compiled. I can have Linda start calling them right away. Do you want them to come in or...?"
"I'd prefer to see them in their homes, if possible."
He picked up the phone and relayed Mulder's request to his assistant. "What else?"
"While the interviews are being set up, I'd like to see your deputies." Knowing this was a sensitive subject, Mulder kept his voice even and as non-threatening as possible.
Kessler nodded. "Already got them alerted. They'll come back whenever you say the word."
Mulder smiled his appreciation. "Now, if you don't mind. I'll need about fifteen minutes with each one."
"I can arrange that. You want to use my office?" The sheriff's expression remained cordial, but there might have been just a hint of sarcasm at the end.
"The conference room will be fine."
Kessler picked up the phone and paused with the receiver to his ear. Mulder took the cue and stood up. "I'll be in the conference room."
Kessler nodded and punched in a number. "Please close the door behind you."
Linda gave Mulder a sympathetic smile when he walked out of the sheriff's office. "He's had a lot of inquiries from the national media this morning, among other things. Will doesn't like the spotlight."
Mulder returned her smile. "That makes two of us."
"Do you want me to just start sending the guys in to see you? It shouldn't take long to round them up."
"That would be great, thanks."
Forty minutes later, Mulder looked up from the notes of his fourth interview to find a familiar face in the doorway.
"Thought you might need a caffeine break."
"You mean that cup's really for me this time?"
Michael Hobart smiled. "I'm not interrupting?"
"Not at all. A break sounds good." He waved her in and accepted the cup she offered.
She took the seat next to him. "Will said you wanted to talk to me?"
Mulder sipped carefully from the steaming mug. "I wasn't ready for you quite yet, but sure. I'll make the time if you can do it now."
Michael watched him over the rim of her cup, her eyes twinkling with some unshared joke. "No place I'd rather be."
Warren Community Hospital
Autopsy Room #2
Scully sutured the incision and sent Jane Doe's body back to the morgue minus the usual tissue and fluid samples, stomach contents and fingernail scrapings. She had no expectation that any new information would be forthcoming. Serial killers usually maintained a specific pattern, but this one was obsessed with perfection, right down to the length of the facial lacerations. It told her he did not work in the dark, and that he took great pains to avoid revealing anything more about himself than that.
The only real difference among the victims had been the semen traces. Jane Doe was only the second victim to test positive. The rulings of sexual assault in the other victims had been based on physical trauma and the clothing that had been removed. This new sample would be compared to the first, but Scully expected no surprises.
No additional surprises, she corrected herself. Michael Hobart's amazing guess at the victim's time of death certainly qualified as one. If Mulder had quoted the woman correctly, she had accurately assessed-- by way of a cursory examination in the dark-- that Jane Doe was the first victim, and that her death had taken place
approximately five weeks ago. That fact alone made Scully want to know more. A lot more.
She was expecting the attendant with Marcy Brackston's body, but she turned to find a middle-aged man in street clothes leaning in the door. "Yes, can I help you?"
He grinned and came toward her, hand
outstretched. "I'm Ellis McKenzie. Glad to see you started without me.
She shook his hand. "It's a pleasure to meet you. I spent most of last night reading your notes. Excellent work, doctor." She meant it.
"Not what you expected from a simple country doctor, eh?" he teased. "Thanks. That's high praise, coming from the FBI."
The squeak of rubber wheels outside the door was followed by a discreet knock.
McKenzie turned back to the door and pulled it open. "Come on in, Jerry. We're ready for you."
So that was his name. He'd come and gone so quickly earlier that she hadn't had a chance to ask.
He met McKenzie's eyes with a wide smile. "I saw you come in, Doc. Did Michael ever get hold of you? She left messages all over the place." He wheeled the gurney into the room and over to the table.
McKenzie stepped to the opposite side and helped him lift the body onto the stainless steel surface. "Had breakfast with her."
"She's not coming down to assist?" Jerry's glance met Scully's finally, and the chill in his eyes surprised her.
The coroner shook his head. "Thanks, we'll take it from here."
Scully had the impression that he wanted to change the subject. Jerry evidently took the same hint.
"Sure thing. Just holler when you're done." He favored Scully with another icy glare on his way out. So, she mused, the coroner had breakfast with Hobart, and the morgue attendant thought she should be here instead of this FBI intruder. It answered some questions, and posed a few more.
"I assume you finished the Jane Doe? Anything noteworthy?" McKenzie pushed the gurney against the far wall, then crossed to the cabinet where the gowns and gloves were kept.
"She tested positive for semen. Other than that, there was nothing remarkable. Even the facial lacs are the same length."
He snapped on a pair of gloves and donned a gown. "And the predation marks?"
"Massive tissue loss. Gnaw marks on the long bones consistent with a large predator. Probably a wolf or panther. Agent Mulder told me what Michael said about wolves in the area, so I would have to agree that wolves are the likely predator. I also agree with her estimate that death occurred approximately five weeks ago." She watched for his reaction. "Given the conditions under which she did her exam, I'm impressed that she could be so precise."
He removed the sheet from the body, exposing Marcy Brackston's ghastly smile. "She's an impressive woman. One of the finest minds I've had the pleasure to encounter. Insatiably curious about everything, too." He smiled to himself. "That's a pretty potent combination. I tell her all the time she should go on that TV game show, Jeopardy. They'd be hard pressed to come up with a category she didn't know enough about to blow everyone else away."
"You've known her for a long time, then." She kept her tone casual, but Ellis McKenzie paused to give her a long look.
"She worked for me one semester as an intern."
Scully's eyebrows rose in unison. "Doing post mortems?"
He chuckled, and his guarded expression relaxed. "Assisting, yes. We don't allow college students to do autopsies, not even out here in the sticks." He selected a scalpel from the instrument tray. "Want to sit this one out? These have become pretty routine."
If he was patronizing her, she couldn't detect it. "If you're sure, I could use the time to get some interviews scheduled."
He waved expansively. "Go. Interview. I'll have the tape copied and sent to you this
There was no hint of an agenda in his voice or his expression, she decided, and gave him a smile. "Thanks, Ellis."
He waved absently, already immersed in his work. She closed the door quietly behind her and pulled out her cell phone.
Warren County Sheriff
"I've heard of it," Mulder agreed. "Students from a university forensics program studied pig carcasses left outdoors to document various stages of development. The evidence has been validated in a number of court cases. You've done something similar with predation marks?"
Michael smiled. "In a way, but I included more than marks. Gnaw marks can be used to identify the type and number of predators involved. Once that's established, you can extrapolate the length of time the food source was utilized."
Mulder grimaced. "'Food source' meaning the body."
"And you established your benchmarks the way the students did in the insect study? Putting pig carcasses in the woods and seeing how much was eaten over a period of time?" Mulder was reasonably certain his pork-eating days were over.
"Pigs, yes. And deer. Whenever one was killed in a highway accident, the rangers always gave me first dibs."
Mulder suppressed a shudder and added venison to the list along with pork. "You should publish your findings."
Michael's smile faded. "I tried, actually. No one was buying."
Mulder saw the anger in her eyes; heard the futility in her voice. "A prophet goes unrecognized in his own land."
"Or hers? That almost sounds like the voice of experience"
He shrugged. "Yes, and no. It's a little hard to explain." A masterpiece of understatement that he was suddenly sorry he'd brought up. " I've been reading lately about someone with similar issues."
"So, we have even more in common than I thought." Her eyes warmed as they locked with his. Or tried to. She reached across the table and gently took his hand.
Though she'd been touching him all along, there was something different about this one. Dangerously different, if his instincts were finally reading the situation correctly. He cleared his throat and disengaged their hands. "Michael, I think we need to talk."
One eyebrow quirked up. "That certainly sounded dire." Her tone was teasing, her expression open and guileless.
Mulder felt slightly sick. "My, uh, personal life is a little complicated right now. What I'm trying to say is that it's not a good time to complicate it any further."
"I'm not sure I follow."
Spit it out, Mulder He took a breath. "I'm getting the sense that I may have given you the impression that I'm looking for a personal relationship." He leveled his gaze. "I don't want you to think that's the case."
For a moment, she just looked at him. Then she pressed her lips together in a thin line and looked down at her hands.
When her shoulders began to shake, he felt like an asshole. He was wracking his brain for something to say when she looked up at him again, and he realized with a jolt that it wasn't sobs she was suppressing. It was laughter.
She pressed one hand to her lips to muffle a peal of chuckles, but her eyes were alight with mirth. "Oh, I'm sorry, Mulder. Don't look so stricken. I promise you, I'm not having hysterics." After a moment, she pulled an exaggeratedly serious expression. "Or, maybe you would prefer Agent Mulder?"
Stunned silence for a moment. "Well, don't I just look like an egotistical jerk." He felt the heat in his cheeks.
"Please don't." She stopped chuckling, but the smile remained. "I lived in New York for five years where it's rude to even meet a stranger's eyes, yet I'm still riddled with small town schmooze." She stood up. "You have a couple of nervous deputies waiting to be interviewed, and I'm holding you up." Indulgent smile. "Forget the past few minutes ever happened. I already have." She breezed out the door before he could react.
His cell phone rang a moment later and he fished it out of his jacket pocket. "Mulder."
"Hey, Mulder. It's me."
Her voice made him smile. "Hey, Scully." He looked at his watch. "Finished already?"
"Yes. Would you like some help with the interviews?"
"Always. I'll come pick you up."
"No, I can walk. It's only a couple of blocks. See you in a few minutes." She hung up.
"Are you ready for me, sir?" A young deputy stood at the door, hat respectfully in hand.
Feeling inexplicably lighter, Mulder waved him in. "Have a seat, deputy. This won't take long."
Michael kept the smile firmly in place all the way to the front door. Linda Mercer's eyes followed her. She could feel them boring into her back.
"Michael, Will wanted to see you before you left."
Hold it together She pushed the door open but paused long enough to call over her shoulder, "Tell him I'll call him later. I'm late for an appointment." She let the door close on the woman's response and bolted for the car.
Strong sunlight bouncing off acres of snow cover blinded her for a moment. Scully paused in the shade of the ER entrance's canopy until her eyes adjusted, noting gratefully that the wind seemed finally to have quieted down.
The sidewalks in front of the hospital were clean and dry with a sprinkling of ice melt that crunched beneath her shoes. Boots would have been a nice, but she'd been too rushed to consult the weather channel for packing tips.
When she reached the bridge, things got a bit trickier, and she had to step carefully to keep her balance.
Rather an apt metaphor for her life these days, actually. Treacherous ground with a thin coat of safety that crumbled noisily with every step.
She wanted to go home. The autopsies were just something to keep her occupied. Whatever key the killer had left behind that would help them catch him wasn't in the bodies he'd savaged. Her real job here was to watch Mulder, and that was the last thing she wanted to be doing. It just hurt too damned much.
It wasn't that she seriously thought he was interested in Michael Hobart, though that certainly would have hurt. It was that she felt superfluous. Worse than that, conspicuously unnecessary.
Outside the Bureau, Mulder was in no danger of encountering someone he should know but didn't recognize. There was nothing wrong with his short-term memory. It was only the past that posed a threat. She'd been unable to convince Skinner of this, which was why she was here.
And now, it looked as if there would be nothing in the autopsies that any competent lab assistant couldn't handle.
He didn't even need her help with the profile, not with Michael persistently at his beck and call. Relentlessly at his beck and call.
Scully turned the corner and sighed. Speak of the devil...
Michael Hobart was coming briskly down the front steps of the Sheriff's office, head down and arms pumping. A woman in a hurry. Scully had to sidestep quickly to avoid a collision.
Michael's head came up with a surprised gasp. "Oh, I'm sorry! I didn't see you." She skidded to a stop inches from Scully. "I, uh, I'm late for an appointment. I can't stay."
Scully caught a whiff of expensive perfume and felt her jaw tighten. "Something to do with the case?"
The woman shook her head, eyes downcast. "No, not really. I...I'll see you later." She fled to her car and pulled away from the curb fast enough to squeal the tires.
Scully went inside, shaking her head.
She found Mulder was in the conference room talking with a uniformed man whose back was to the door. His eyes warmed when he saw her, and the man he was interviewing turned in his seat to follow his gaze.
"Deputy Kendall, this is my partner, Agent Scully." Both men stood. The deputy held out his hand.
"I'm Jessie Kendall, Ma'am. It's nice to meet you." He smiled, shook her hand, and sneezed. "Sorry," he sniffled.
"That's okay." She retrieved her and tried not to inhale.
"We'll be in touch if we have any more questions. Thank you for coming in," Mulder told him, resuming his seat.
"No problem." Deputy Kendall nodded to Scully. "Ma'am."
Scully waited until he closed the door, then took the seat he'd just vacated. "Isn't he the one who pulled us over yesterday?"
Mulder was making notes on the legal pad in front of him. He nodded absently. "Yeah. He was the last deputy on my list. I still have to talk with the sheriff." He put down the pen and looked at her. "So, how were the autopsies?"
"Autopsy. Singular. I bailed after the first one."
That raised his eyebrows. "Seriously? What happened?"
"The coroner finally showed up, and he offered to take over. There's nothing remarkable about any of the bodies, Mulder, except for the fact that they're not remarkable."
He tipped his head to the side and crossed his arms. "Meaning...?"
"Meaning that the wounds and markings are so similar that they could have been done on an assembly line."
"Yeah, Michael's profile said the same thing. I meant to ask her about it." He bent over his notepad and jotted something down.
"Did she explain how she came up with her timeof -death estimate?"
"The wolf-tooth equivalent of tool marks gave her the number of predators. She estimated how much that number of predators would consume in a given period while the flesh was still edible." He frowned. "But it occurs to me that counting tooth marks in the dark seems a little implausible."
"I was just going to say the same thing."
He made another note. "I'll ask her, if she comes back."
"If she comes back?"
He leaned back and scrubbed at his face with both hands. "Yeah, I, uh, made an ass of myself. She took it well, but I got the impression that working with the great FBI profiler has lost some of its charm."
She quirked a questioning eyebrow. Mulder sighed.
"I thought she was coming on to me, and I told her I wasn't interested. Nicely. She laughed in my face."
That hardly fit the impression she'd gotten just a few minutes earlier. "She laughed?"
He gave her a narrow look. "Sure, rub it in."
Scully shook her head. "I'm didn't mean it that way. I saw her on my way in, Mulder, and she was not amused. Actually, she looked like she was about to cry. I was going to ask you what happened."
He looked at her blankly for a moment. Then, recognition seemed to dawn. He leaned forward and buried his face in his hands, elbows propped on the table. "So, have I always been this dense?"
She smiled at the top of his head. "I assume that's a rhetorical question."
He peered at her over the tips of his fingers. "She faked me out, and I bought it."
"It happens to the best of us." She patted his arm, ridiculously relieved. "She'll get over it, Mulder. Just act vaguely uncomfortable when she's around. Her dignity will be safe, and so will you."
"That should be easy. I'm uncomfortable now just thinking about working with her."
"And you'll get over it, too. Do we have some interviews set up this afternoon?"
Mulder flipped back the page he'd been writing on and handed her the legal pad. A list of names and times was printed in a feminine hand. He shook his head at the question in her eyes. "Linda wrote it."
A quick rap on the door made them both turn. Sheriff Kessler strode into the room holding a sheet of paper in the air. "We got a hit on Jane Doe." He handed the paper to Scully who angled it so Mulder could see the faxed photograph. "Jacqueline Acres, age 34. A psychologist from Scarsdale, New York."
The photograph did resemble the woman Scully had worked on this morning. "Did they send you dental charts?"
Kessler smiled. "Fingerprints. She worked for the State. I sent them over to Ellis McKenzie. He'll have an answer for us within the hour."
Mulder looked up. "Your medical examiner is also a fingerprint expert?"
"We wear a lot of hats around here. It's a small town." He headed for the door. "Now, I gotta make flight reservations and go talk to her next of kin."
The multi-talented Michael Hobart was from New York, Scully recalled, and Scarsdale was a suburb of New York. She smiled. "Sheriff, I'll take care of that for you."
Mulder objected immediately. "I need you here."
The sheriff hesitated in the doorway. "I'd sure appreciate it, Agents, but not if it's going to hamper the investigation here."
Mulder opened his mouth to respond, but Scully cut him off. "Michael can help, right?" she asked brightly, noting Mulder's gloom from the corner of her eye. "And you're needed here, as is Agent Mulder. That leaves me."
Her logic was irrefutable. Mulder nodded, and the sheriff smiled broadly.
"And I may be able to shed some light on matters when I get back." That those 'matters' included Michael Hobart, she would keep to herself.
Mulder had insisted on driving her back to the hotel to pack. Since Bradford Regional's only flight to New York would be leaving in fortyfive minutes, she didn't have time to argue.
"How long will you be gone?" He was leaning against the connecting doorframe, arms crossed over his chest.
Scully breezed past him carrying her cosmetics bag and hair dryer. "It depends on how many leads develop out of the first interview. You know that." She tossed the items into her duffle, then opened the top dresser drawer and grabbed a handful of lingerie. "Two days. Three, at the most." She tucked the lingerie into a corner of the bag and headed for the closet. Living out of her suitcase was a way of life, but some nesting urge had made her unpack it all last night. It would have saved a lot of time if she'd stuck to tradition.
"There's another flight tomorrow. You could go with me on some of these interviews.
She stopped pawing through the closet and looked at him. He was focused on the carpet at his feet. "I'm sure Michael would be happy to go with you."
He looked up then. "Not funny."
"It wasn't meant to be. She knows these people. They might be more open if she were with you."
He shrugged, and she went back to her packing. When the suitcase was filled and zipped, she set it on the floor and picked up her coat. "I can still take the shuttle. You could get started on your interviews an hour sooner."
"I want to drive you." He came over and took her suitcase, then headed for the door in a familiar round-shouldered sulk. He really didn't want her to go.
"Mulder, what's wrong?"
"You're gonna miss your plane." And he was out the door.
She let an exasperated sigh escape, and followed him to the car.
They didn't exchange more than a dozen words on the ride to the airport. When he pulled up in front of the terminal building and left the engine running, she realized he wasn't going to come in with her. It appeared, in fact, that he wasn't even going to look at her. Scully checked her watch. She really didn't have time to indulge his mood, but he was starting to worry her.
"Mulder, I'll call you from the hotel."
He nodded, and reached for the trunk release. "I'll be out doing interviews. You can leave me a message." Eyes on the windshield.
Oh, for heaven's sake. "Don't tell me this is all about Michael."
"It's about your eagerness to ditch me at the first opportunity."
What? "Mulder, it's my job. One of us has to follow up on this, and I'm the obvious choice."
She touched his arm, and he finally met her eyes. Their gazes held for a moment. Finally, he smiled. Faintly. "I'm just feeling a little inadequate in the intuition department. Ignore me."
So, it was about Michael. "My impression is that she's a very talented actress who's used to getting what she wants. Don't beat yourself up too much."
His eyes warmed. "She didn't get past you, I notice."
Watching other women salivate over her partner was nothing new. Karen Berquist. Detective White. Phoebe Green. Diana Fowley. Marita Covarrubias. Mulder's record for misreading women was legendary, and unbroken. "It's easier to spot the subterfuge if you're not its target."
"Just hurry back." He hit the trunk release button and opened his door. "I'll get your bag."
And for once, she didn't grumble a bit.
Marcy Brackston's home
The kitchen was exactly as she had left it two days ago, spotlessly clean and lemon-scented. Her favorite coffee mug sat next to a stack of unopened mail on the counter. A laminated card with her prized recipe for New England pot roast waited on the wrought iron stand next to the stove. Dinner would have been ready at 6:30, just like always.
Instead, the three-pound rump roast in the refrigerator had passed its prime and was headed for the trash whenever Ken Brackston got up the energy to move it there. He had gotten home from his Elks meeting Sunday night to find the house dark and the expected scent of beef and potatoes noticeably absent. Mild annoyance had rapidly become panic when he'd called his in-laws and found that his wife had failed to come pick up their two sons without calling to explain why. Frantic calls to her cell phone and various friends had yielded nothing. Eight hours later, the sheriff was at his door with the bad news.
Mulder kept his questioning as brief as possible. His instincts regarding predatory women might be lacking, but he was having no problem reading Mr. Brackston. The man was near collapse over the loss of his wife. Ruling him out as a suspect-- a necessity no matter what the apparent circumstances-- was a no-brainer.
"Just one more question, Mr. Brackston. Do you know of anyone who might want to do your wife harm?"
Hollow, red-rimmed eyes regarded him sadly. "I can't imagine anyone who knew her wanting to hurt her. Everybody loved Marcy." His voice hitched on her name as it had every time he'd said it.
The kitchen door opened, and two little boys came in on a puff of icy air, stomping snow onto pristine blue and white vinyl tile. They noticed Mulder sitting at the kitchen table and stopped in their tracks. "Daddy?"
Brackston's smile was immediate. "It's okay, guys. Agent... Mr. Mulder was just leaving." He stood up, and so did Mulder. "Go on and get changed. I'll be up in a few minutes."
The two boys gave Mulder a wary glance as they scooted past him and out into the hall. A moment later, he heard the thunder of feet running up the stairs.
"I told them we'll be going to see Mom tonight," the man said faintly. "The funeral home," he explained.
An unexpected rush of empathy for this man and his motherless son's tightened Mulder's throat. "I won't take up any more of your time, Mr. Brackston. You've been very helpful. I know how hard this had to be for you." He offered his hand, and Brackston shook it absently.
"Whatever you can do to get this animal off the streets... " Barely-controlled tears choked his voice down to a whisper.
"We're doing everything possible, I can promise you that." He took his coat from the back of the chair. "I'll just see myself out." He got a faint nod in response.
Mulder closed the front door behind himself with a guilty sigh of relief. He'd been prepared for the grieving husband, but not for the man's young sons. The bewildered loss in those wide, innocent eyes would be with him for a very long time.
Jacqueline Acres' next of kin was her brother, Jeremy Grissom. Scully had arranged to meet him at his sister's apartment, so she was extremely surprised to find him waiting when she got off the plane. He'd described himself to her over the phone, but it was the "Agt. Scully" sign he was holding that clinched it. They made eye contact, and she walked over to him.
He tucked the sign under his arm and held out his right hand. "And you must be Agent Scully." His handshake was firm and brief. "I started thinking about the directions I gave you and decided this would save us both a lot of aggravation."
"I was going to take a cab, but thanks." He was reaching for her bag, and she let him take it. "Do you have a car?"
His smile was charmingly crooked. "Uh, I left it at the train station in Scarsdale. We'll take a cab to the train."
He was younger than she'd imagined from his mellow voice over the phone. Early forties, at most. Dark hair going gray at the temples. Blue eyes that crinkled ingratiatingly when he smiled. An honest face. About Mulder's height, maybe an inch or two taller. Stunningly white, even teeth. Altogether a pleasant surprise.
He was also quite a conversationalist, as it turned out. By the time they got off the train in Scarsdale, she knew more about this stranger than she did about many people she'd known for years. He made his living selling real estate, which didn't surprise her, and he was first violin with the community symphony part time, which did. His sister Jacqueline had been his only living relative, and the two of them had dinner together several times a week. It was when she failed to meet him for one of their regular dinners that he had reported her missing.
The sadness in his eyes when he talked about his sister was so much like Mulder that it startled her.
"My car's right over here." He picked up her bag once again and headed off across the parking lot toward a shiny black Lexus sedan.
They drove for twenty minutes through gently rolling blocks of luxurious homes and condos set back from the road. He turned right into a wide driveway flanked by iron gates with fancy scrollwork. At the end of the drive was an impressive Georgian brick mansion.
Scully gave him an eyebrow, and he smiled. "I found this for Jackie five years ago. The rent is a lot more reasonable than you'd think."
"Rent?" It certainly didn't look like any apartment building Scully had ever seen.
Grissom parked at the front door and popped the trunk. "Six two-bedroom apartments, two fourbeds and a penthouse." He grinned. "If the
third floor can be called a penthouse."
Inside, it still looked more like a private residence than a multi-family dwelling. There was a discreet bank of brass mailboxes along the right-hand wall, and brass-plate numbers on two doors along the left. Wide carpeted stairs rose along the right wall and curved into a balcony that ran the width of the entryway at the second floor level. It was tasteful and quite lovely.
"Jackie's apartment is this way." Grissom led her up the stairs and through a door at the left side of the balcony. He fished a key ring from his pocket and unlocked the door, then stepped back to let her go first. "Let me make some coffee, and I'll take you to her study."
Grissom put down her bag just inside the door and headed off toward the back of the
apartment. Scully looked around, trying not to stare.
The main room was huge, but nothing like the rest of the house. In fact, it reminded her so strongly of Mulder's apartment-- on a much larger scale-- that she couldn't stop staring.
Dark walls, mismatched furniture, eclectic prints on the walls and venetian blinds on the windows. Hardwood floors with throw rugs. The faintly dusty ambiance of a room that served only to hold belongings. A stopping off place, not a home.
"Not quite what you expected?" Jeremy Grissom stood in the archway to the hall, watching her with obvious amusement.
Scully realized her mouth was hanging open. "It doesn't quite fit with the rest of the house," she admitted.
"Neither did Jackie, but that was part of her charm." He turned and gestured for her to follow. "Come on, I'll show you the real Jackie."
She followed him a short distance down the hall and through an open door on the right. This room was much smaller, even darker and seemed filled floor-to-ceiling with boxes. Grissom flipped on a lamp and she could see that the boxes didn't quite take up the entire floor space. There was room for a computer desk and chair.
Grissom pulled the chair out for Scully and switched on the computer. "Whatever you want to know about my sister, you'll find either on this computer or somewhere in the contents of this room. Everyone she ever met will have an entry somewhere." He indicated the area behind Scully. "Or a picture."
Scully turned around and actually gasped. The entire wall was covered with news clippings, photographs, scribbled notes, pages out of magazines. No "I want to believe" poster, she was relieved to note. Otherwise, it was Mulder's office, to a 't'. Scully cleared her throat. "Your sister was interested in the paranormal?"
"Research, she called it. As long as I can remember, she's been collecting this stuff. About six months ago, she started corresponding with a man who claimed to be an expert. Someone in law enforcement, I think. She said he put her onto a lot of covert information. Some of it's actually valuable, but most of it is nothing but junk." His jaw tightened. "But it was her junk, and I can't imagine throwing it out now."
Scully had a sudden flash of a little girl's room on the Vineyard, preserved intact for twenty years, and of the look in Mulder's eyes when he had showed it to her.
Grissom's mood lightened quickly. "Have a seat, Agent Scully. I'll give you a quick tour, then you can wander to your heart's content. If there's anything to find, it will be here in this room."
Scully looked back at the array of boxes and files. "I have no doubt. I'm just not sure how long it's going to take to find it."
"You can take all night, if you want. I have no problem letting you stay here. I could even stay and help, if you like."
That was certainly unexpected. "It's very generous of you, Mr. Grissom, but I have a hotel reservation."
"I'll charge you the going rate, if it will make you feel better. You're right about how long it would take to go through all of this. And frankly, I'd appreciate having someone else do it." He took a slow breath. "I've known she was dead for five weeks now. I could feel it. Having it confirmed was just a formality. I've been trying to work my way up to going through her stuff for a while now. You would be helping me, too."
There was a wistfulness in his voice that was oddly touching. "Maybe just start with showing me the layout." She sat down at the computer, and he leaned over her shoulder to work the mouse.
"I was here this morning, looking for her address book, when I ran across it. I would never have given it a second glance if not for the phone call I got at the precise moment I was scrolling past the name."
That would have been the call asking him to come down and identify the photograph from Warren, Pennsylvania, Scully knew. "What did you find?"
He nodded at the monitor display, and the file that was highlighted.
"Warren PA," Scully read aloud, both eyebrows rising.
"Told you it was interesting."
"I thought you said she didn't know anyone in Warren?"
"As far as I know, she didn't. And this doesn't seem to have anything to do with the town itself anyway. I looked at some of the text files. It's all correspondence from her contact."
She looked at him over her shoulder. "His name is there?"
"He calls himself 'M'. Nothing more. And she didn't save his email address anywhere I could find."
Scully took command of the mouse and clicked the folder open. A man whose name begins with "M" who may be in law enforcement and claims to be an expert in the paranormal. It wasn't possible... A long list of files appeared, many of them jpeg images. A few were Word documents. Scully scanned the names, but most were number and letter combinations that revealed nothing of their contents.
That was, until she reached the "M's". Her gasp was audible, and Jeremy leaned almost into her lap in response.
"What? What do you see?"
"Mostow," she read aloud. "John Mostow." At his blank look, she added, "It was a case my partner and I were involved in a long time ago. The murders in Warren... the killer uses the same... technique."
Grissom's jaw dropped. "Then, you know who killed my sister?"
Both Bill Patterson and John Mostow were still in prison, and would be until they died. What else it could mean, she wasn't ready to consider. She shook her head. "It can't be the same man."
"How can you be sure?"
"It can't be the same man," she repeated. She clicked the image and held her breath while it opened. It wasn't until later that she realized how traumatic it would be for Grissom to witness.
There, in full color, was an image from a living nightmare six years in the past. The night she'd come upon Mulder holding his gun on Agent Patterson in John Mostow's studio.
Agent Nemhauser, partially encased in gray clay, his mouth split into a hideous, gaping smile.
Warren County Sheriff Dept.
Tuesday, Nov. 5th
"We were hiking all afternoon. When we got back to the car, there she was lying alongside the path at the trail head." Rob Lambert had the weary air of a man who'd told this story too many times.
"And you're certain she wasn't there when you passed the first time?"
Lambert gave him a patient look. "A naked woman lying two feet away? I would have noticed." He crossed his arms, glancing at his wristwatch in the process.
Mulder jotted a few notes on his legal pad, then put his pen down and mimicked the man's posture. "And your hiking companions...?"
"...were three ten-year-old boys who luckily saw nothing. I took them home as soon as I saw the body, then called the sheriff on my way back. There wasn't another soul around that day because of the weather. My boy and his friends were doing a hike for their Boy Scout badges, or we wouldn't have been there, either." This time, he made a point of looking at his watch, then back at Mulder with a questioning eyebrow.
"That will be all, for now. If you think of anything that might be helpful, please give me a call. My cell number's on the card." Mulder handed one to him, and they both stood up.
Lambert tucked it into his shirt pocket. "I told you everything I know. Believe me, if I could find the guy myself, I'd do it. And I can tell you, there wouldn't be enough of him left to prosecute."
"I can appreciate your frustration."
The man snorted. "I don't think you have a clue, Agent Mulder. My wife knew all of the women who've been killed. She's afraid to go to the damn bathroom by herself." He closed his jacket and zipped it shut. "Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm sure she's chewing her nails to the quick waiting for me to get home." He gave Mulder a curt nod and walked out, closing the door firmly behind him.
Mulder sat down and let his head hang forward, rubbing gingerly at the knots in his shoulders. The man was right. He didn't have a clue. What was worse, he had no idea what to do about it. He was asking obvious questions and getting equally obvious answers. There was no technique involved; no experience to draw from. It was, for all practical purposes, his first field investigation. And it showed.
Come back, Scully. I'm in way over my head.
It was too bad he didn't have the balls to tell her that. Too bad for him. Too bad for the case. Too bad for the whole damned town.
His cell phone lay on the table to his right, obstinately silent, no matter how many vibes he sent toward New York.
After a long moment, he packed up, pulled on his coat, and headed back to the hotel.
"What in God's name is that?" Jeremy Grissom took a few stumbling steps backward the moment the image became visible on the monitor.
Scully hit the off button and the screen went blank, but not soon enough. "I'm sorry, Mr. Grissom. I didn't think." She stood up and walked over to where he leaned woozily against the wall, his eyes wide with shock. "Are you all right?" When she touched his arm, he jerked it away and turned his horrified gaze on her.
"Is...is that what he did to my sister?"
The photograph Sheriff Kessler sent out had been retouched to remove the mutilating slashes on the victim's face. "Mr. Grissom, I'm not sure it's in your best interest to hear the answer to that question."
"I have to know."
He seemed to be making a concerted effort to steel himself for her answer. Unfortunately, her rash actions had erased any hope of breaking it gently. "Please, sit down."
"Just tell me the truth." His voice shook, but his gaze was rock steady.
Scully let out a slow breath that puffed her cheeks. "Yes. The killer did the same thing to your sister."
His knees abruptly unlocked and sent him sliding down the wall, but Scully was ready for it. She took him by both biceps and steered him out into the hall. There was a bench to her right, and she lowered him onto it. "Where's the kitchen?"
He waved down the hall. "Back of the apartment. That way." He was swallowing hard.
She hurried down the hall and into the spacious kitchen, snatched a glass from the drain rack and filled it with tap water. When she got back to him a moment later, he was leaning back against the wall with his eyes closed. "Here. Drink this." She put the glass in his right hand and waited until he looked at her. "Drink it, and we'll talk."
He drained it, then handed her the glass. "When was someone going to tell me about this?"
"The details of your sister's injuries will be in the autopsy report, but it's not usually given to the next of kin, for obvious reasons." She studied his face for a moment, relieved to see some color returning. "I can't tell you how sorry I am that you had to find out the way you did."
Grissom's horror was rapidly changing to outrage. "This animal is on the loose, and you're worrying about my feelings? Jackie would laugh her ass off, and then she'd kick yours."
Scully felt her throat tighten. He was trying so hard to hide how much her thoughtlessness had hurt him. "We're doing everything we can to find him, Jeremy." Her use of his first name was deliberate, and it seemed to take the edge off his anger.
He took a deep breath and released it slowly. "So, what happens now? When do we leave for Warren?"
"I'm going to Warren with you. When are you heading back?"
He stood up, towering over her in a very familiar way. She looked up into stormy blue eyes and decided against trying to reason with him right now.
"For the moment, I'm not going anywhere. If your offer to let me stay here still stands, I'd like to spend a few hours looking through the rest of your sister's files."
"Of course it still stands. You're doing me a favor, remember?" His smile was a bit shaky, but the glassy shock had left his eyes. "I'm not sure my stomach's up to it, but I could even make you something to eat, if you like." "That's really not necessary." Not to mention that having him cook for her was a bit too familiar for comfort.
"I don't mind. It'll give me something to do besides hover over your shoulder." He gave her a lopsided grin. "and you won't have to tiptoe around the files to avoid shocking my tender sensibilities."
He had a point. "Okay, then. But please don't go to any trouble. I'm really not hungry." She had gotten a good whiff of the coffee, though, on her brief trip to the kitchen. "I would like some of that coffee you made." She offered a smile that was part apology, part olive branch. They agreed that he would make dinner while she worked, and she would share with him as much information as she could without compromising the investigation. He agreed only grudgingly to the latter, and only after she insisted.
Finally alone with the computer, Scully turned the monitor on and studied the image more closely. It was Nemhauser, of that she had no doubt, but how had Jackie Acres gotten hold of it?
The most obvious answer was Mulder. But if he had been her contact, why the secrecy? It certainly wouldn't be the first time he had consulted over the Internet, and he had never-- to her knowledge-- made any effort to hide his identity. What would be the point?
And what were the odds that a woman Mulder met over the Internet would turn up as the first victim in a serial murder case he was assigned to investigate?
Grissom had said that anything she wanted to know about his sister was in this room. Scully decided to begin her search with the mysterious Mr. M.
She closed the image of Agent Nemhauser and clicked on the email icon, then waited while the program labored to populate a list of over two hundred unread messages. The oldest was dated September 29th, the day Jackie Acres had left for the conference in Pittsburgh. Scully scrolled back past the unread items until she reached the oldest saved message, dated June 6th. Nothing jumped out at her. She sorted the list by email address, looking for any of Mulder's usual aliases. Still nothing.
Finally, she searched the text of all messages for the word "Warren" and for the file name of Nemhauser's image, but got no hits.
Having spent as much time as she had watching the Gunmen work their magic, Scully had picked up a trick or two. It didn't take long to satisfy herself that there were no deleted files of interest, nor any hidden folders.
She moved back to the "Warren" folder and clicked on the date column, putting the oldest files at the top of the list. It seemed the best approach, since the file names themselves were too cryptic to be useful.
The first file was a jpeg image from May of last year. Scully scrolled down until she reached a group of images from early September with similar file names. She highlighted the group and right-clicked the thumbnail function to display previews of the images.
When they came up, she wanted to slap her forehead. It was always so obvious after you knew the answer.
Dreamcatchers. The fine, intricately patterned cuts that had seemed familiar when she found them on the victims looked exactly like the webbing on the Navajo dreamcatcher images now arrayed before her. That Jackie Acres had placed the images in this folder, and a short time later had become a victim bearing those very marks--it was beyond eerie.
Navajo dreamcatchers, a small town in northwest Pennsylvania, and Mostow-like facial mutilation produced absolutely no meaningful connection. Yet, the first victim had put them together.
The question was: how and why?
She pulled out her phone and dialed Mulder's cell.
Tues, Nov. 4th
Mulder was coming out of the bathroom when he heard someone in the hall outside his door and turned back to open it. He was expecting the pizza he'd ordered for dinner. Instead, he found Michael Hobart bent over a package on the floor. She stood up quickly and gave him an apologetic smile.
"Agent Mulder! I didn't know you were home."
So, we're back to Agent Mulder. "I just got here." He jerked his chin at the package that was still on the floor. "Is that for me?"
She bent quickly and picked it up. "I made some changes to the profile after we talked."
He accepted an envelope that looked large enough to contain a manila folder. "Thanks, I'll take a look at it." He did not want to invite her in, but she showed no sign of being ready to leave.
Michael cleared her throat. "Look, I know this is awkward for you, but we still have to work together. I'd really appreciate a chance to clear the air."
She was doing it again. Putting him on the defensive when there was nothing to defend. He tucked the envelope under his arm and closed the door another inch to signal his intentions. "There's nothing to clear, Michael. I'll see you tomorrow."
She reached out and pressed her palm against the door. "If that's true, then you won't have any problem letting me come in to show you the changes I made to the profile."
It was rapidly getting to the point where standing his ground would make matters worse. He stepped back and opened the door wide. "I've got a pizza coming. We can talk until it gets here."
She stepped past him with a wry grin. "Not what I'd call a warm welcome, but I'll take it."
Mulder followed her to the little table under the windows and they sat down. She took the envelope back and opened it, fanning the typewritten sheets out before them. "I marked the sections with yellow highlighter, so finding them isn't the problem. I really wanted to hear your take on what I've done." She selected one of the pages and handed it to him with a shy smile. "I'm coming around to your side on the question of whether this guy is a stranger or not. I think he might be."
Mulder skimmed the highlighted paragraph, once again impressed with the lucid flow of the thoughts expressed. Oddly out of character, though, now that he knew the author a bit better. "What changed your mind?"
"Well, the first victim being from out of the area, for one. Maybe he followed her here, or brought her here. The area may appeal to him because it's remote and unsophisticated. Less chance that he'll be caught before he decides to move on." She leaned closer, pointing to her comments on the paper as she spoke.
"Warren is certainly less threatening than New York, if he followed her from there," Mulder agreed.
Michael's head came up so abruptly that he had to jerk back to keep their heads from
colliding. Her eyes were wide. "She's been identified?"
"Well, yeah. You haven't talked to the sheriff?"
"No. I've been home since this morning, working on my profile. She's from New York City?"
There was something decidedly odd in her reaction. "Scarsdale. It bears out your theory about her clothing, doesn't it?" She had said 'Pittsburgh,' but the sentiment was the same. A large town rather than one like Warren. "You don't look very pleased about being proven right."
His cell phone started to ring, and Michael's relief was unmistakable. Mulder got up and grabbed the phone out of its charger on the dresser. The display said it was Scully.
"Hey, Scully. How was your flight?" He turned away from Michael and took a few steps across the room.
"Fine. Mulder, I'm not going to the hotel, and I probably won't be coming back until Thursday, at the earliest."
All business. Okay, then. "What changed your plans?"
"I'm staying the night at the victim's apartment in Scarsdale. Her computer is here, and a room full of notes that I have to review."
Pause. Long pause.
"I don't know how much to tell you over the phone." Her voice was tentative.
It occurred to him that she might not be alone. "Is someone there with you?"
"Jacqueline Acres' brother, Jeremy Grissom is here, yes. He's the one who showed me the files."
"Is everything okay?" She sounded odd. Not in danger. Just odd.
"Everything's fine, Mulder. I'll bring you up to date when I call tomorrow afternoon."
Two sharp raps on Mulder's door signaled the arrival of his dinner. Michael jumped up from the table. "I'll get it for you."
"Mulder, who was that?" Her tone said she already knew.
"Michael's here. We're going over some changes she made to the profile."
"In your room?"
He could lie, but decided against it. "Yes."
"I see. I'll talk to you later tomorrow. Have a good night, Mulder." The line went dead.
Mulder clicked off his phone just as Michael came back with the pizza.
"I gave him a buck." She balanced the box on one palm and gathered the papers up with the other.
Mulder took the box from her hand. "I'll take care of that. We can talk more tomorrow."
She stopped picking up papers and looked at him. "You want me to go."
He hefted the box. "I didn't really get enough for company. Sorry." And he wanted to call Scully back and talk to her, preferably without an audience.
"I didn't mean to eavesdrop, but did your partner go home?"
He heard hope in the question. "She went to New York this afternoon to talk with Jacqueline Acres' family."
Her expression flashed something that could have been alarm, but it was gone almost immediately. "Then, she'll be back."
"With some answers, I hope." He put the pizza box down on the cleared table and looked at his watch.
Michael not only took the hint, she seemed eager to leave. "I'll let you get to your dinner." She went to the door and let herself out without a backward glance.
Mulder picked up his cell phone as soon as she was gone and punched in Scully's number. The call went immediately to voice mail. He tried again with the same results. She had shut off her phone.
Scully closed the cell phone and placed it on the desk with exaggerated care. It was her way of suppressing an urge to throw it across the room. A moment later, she picked it up, but just long enough to shut it off completely.
Several deep breaths later, she got up and headed for the kitchen. The absence of any aromas other than stale coffee told her that dinner was either something uncooked or totally nonexistent. The latter would be fine, because her appetite had vanished with the sound of Michael Hobart's voice.
She found Jeremy Grissom seated at the square oak table with his elbows propped and his head in his hands. There were two opened wine bottles in front of him, one empty and one only three-quarters full. "Jeremy?"
He looked up at her, and his bleary, red-rimmed eyes told her where the wine had gone. He tried for a smile and failed miserably. "I thought I was prepared for the truth, but--" He shook his head. "I'm sorry. I should go." He pushed the chair back and stood up, swayed a moment and sat back down just as Scully reached his side.
"You can't prepare for something like this. No one can." The coffee pot held a sludgy residue that looked totally undrinkable. "I'll make us some coffee, if you'll tell me where to find it."
"I should go," he said again.
"You're in no condition to drive. Besides, you shouldn't be alone."
He gave her a loopy grin. "Don't have to drive. I own this building. My apartment's the penthouse." He employed the overly precise enunciation of the thoroughly inebriated.
"Okay, then you're in no condition to walk. And I could use some coffee myself. Where is it?"
He waved at the cabinets to his left. "Right there, next to the pot."
She kept an eye on him while she started a fresh pot, realizing too late that she should have moved the wine out of reach first. He was halfway through another glass of it before she rejoined him at the table. "That isn't going to help, you know."
He lowered the glass and studied her face for a moment. "You look like you could use this even more than me. I. Whatever." He nudged the bottle her way. "Glasses are over there." He waved at a wrought iron wine rack that held a dozen or so bottles and a collection of glasses suspended upside down.
Suddenly, the thought of a gentle buzz was very appealing. She got up and fetched herself a glass. When she came back to the table, he picked up the bottle and filled her glass.
He raised his glass. "To justice."
Scully took a long swallow and let the loose warmth flow from her throat to her fingertips.
Tuesday, Nov 4th
"She had a car reserved at the Pittsburgh airport, but she never picked it up." Jeremy Grissom took a sip from his recently refilled glass, made a face, and set it back down on the table. "This tasted a lot better an hour ago." He eyed Scully's empty glass. "You didn't like it, either," he pronounced sadly.
"It was fine, Jeremy. One is my limit." It was one more than her limit, actually. "Did the police check with the cab companies?"
"No record of anyone picking her up." His eyes widened. "The killer took her from the airport?"
"Or she went with him willingly. It seems unlikely that she could have been forcibly taken from such a public place."
"Then, you think she knew him?"
This was sensitive ground. The list of suspects would naturally include Jeremy himself. "Yes."
He studied her face for a moment. "You'll need to eliminate everyone she knew, then. Including me."
"Yes," she said again. "Can you account for your whereabouts on the day she disappeared?" Scully had to work to find her interrogator's voice. The guilt from having brutalized his emotions with that photograph was still fresh.
"She flew into Pittsburgh on Labor Day weekend. I was here working on a plumbing leak that had everyone's water shut off for two days. My tenants will remember it, I'm certain of that."
Scully smiled. "I'm sure they will. You know I will have to verify that."
"I understand." He was silent for a moment. "I don't want you to waste any time chasing the wrong suspects. Anything I can do to help you find everyone you need to eliminate, just let me know."
The subject matter seemed to have sobered him up considerably. He took a deep breath. "Guess it's time to put away the alcohol and make some coffee." The illusion of sobriety lasted until he stood up-- too quickly, as it turned out.
Scully was on her feet and around the table in time to avert disaster. She held onto him while he found his balance, her right arm around his waist and her left hand gripping his forearm. It wasn't until she looked up into surprised blue eyes that she realized how intimate the contact must have seemed to him. She released him immediately. "I'll make that coffee for you."
While she was measuring and pouring, she could feel his gaze on her back.
"That looked like a reflex, Agent Scully." There was a teasing lilt in his voice, but with something beneath it that felt warm and dangerous. "You've had a lot of practice saving somebody's ass, I'd say. Your partner?"
Scully spent an inordinate amount of time wiping the counter before she turned around. He was watching her with a smile that matched the honey in his voice. Mulder was the last topic on earth she wanted to be discussing with this man. "I have to get back to work. And you need to get some sleep."
Jeremy's sigh was resigned and slightly amused. "I heard that. Loud and clear." He took an experimental step with his hands held out for balance. "I don't suppose you'd like to walk me to my door."
She smiled and shook her head.
"Well, good night, then. Thanks for the sympathetic shoulder. I mean that."
She smiled, nodding her thanks. "I'll have to speak with your tenants in the morning."
He shrugged. "They'll all be home. Retirees, except for Jackie and me." He said her name this time without the tremor in his voice. "If you want copies of anything from her computer, there are plenty of diskettes in the bottom right drawer."
"Thank you, Jeremy. I'll take a cab to the train station when I'm finished. I appreciate your cooperation." She waited for him to renew his insistence that he'd accompany her back to Warren, but it never came. She walked with him to the front door, then went back to the computer room.
Her cell phone's blank display stared up at her from the desk like a silent rebuke. She turned it back on, and felt disappointment edge out relief when the 'message waiting' icon failed to appear. If she called him now and got his voice mail, her imagination would take over, she knew. No, she would just leave the phone on. If he needed her, he would call.
She signed onto the Internet and typed in the Bureau's search engine URL. When the site came up, she entered Michael Hobart's name and waited.
Wednesday, Nov. 5th.
Mulder tripped over his own feet getting to the phone and still caught it on the first ring. But it wasn't Scully's voice on the other end of the line.
"Good morning, sleepyhead." Michael chirped in his ear. "You keep banker's hours, I see."
"I'm setting up interviews for this afternoon. It's quieter here. And warmer." And he wanted privacy when Scully called. "What's up?"
"If I said 'a suspect', would it take the gloom out of your voice?"
Evidently, a smile wasn't the only expression that could be heard in one's voice. "You're saying you have a suspect?"
"I'm saying I might. I'd like you to interview him with me, if you have time."
His first interview wasn't until 2:00. "Here in town?"
"I'm afraid not. He lives in Jamestown, not far from my office. It's about twenty miles, so maybe an hour there and back."
Plus whatever time it took them to find and talk to the suspect, Mulder thought darkly. All of it the company of the wrong woman. "How did you come up with this guy?"
"I'll tell you on the way. I promise, you won't be disappointed."
He was already disappointed. And skeptical. It would be an amazing coincidence if Michael had managed to turn up a viable suspect, mere hours after Mulder had all but thrown her out of his room. It felt too much like a counterstrike for comfort. On the other hand, he couldn't afford to ignore a potential break in the case, given his dismal lack of success.
"Where should I meet you?"
She chuckled. "I'm pulling up next to your car as we speak. And I've got some hot coffee for you, too."
"I'll be right out." He shut down his laptop, ran careless fingers through his hair, and grabbed his coat. He was pulling the door shut when he remembered his cell phone and had to go back for it. Michael was walking toward the building when he came out the back door.
"I thought maybe you changed your mind and decided to duck out the front." She said it teasingly, but her expression was pure relief as she turned and headed back to her car.
When he got in, she was holding a travel mug out to him. "Fresh and hot. Drink up and I'll tell you all about my hunch."
Mulder accepted the mug and took a careful sip. It was definitely hot, but tasted burned. Bitter. "You wouldn't happen to have cream, by any chance?"
She reached across his knees and popped the glove box latch. "Never leave home without it."
Juggling the open mug and the little travel packets of nondairy creamer took all of his concentration. When he looked up again, they were on the main road, heading north. His first sip of the lightened coffee was only slightly better than the original. "Who is your suspect?"
"I don't know why I didn't think to do it before, but last night, I went through my patient files looking for anyone who matched the killer's profile. I found Harold Coster, age 35, referred to me by the Jamestown Sheriff's department last January. I only saw him one time, and I'd forgotten all about him... until I read my case notes. He fits the profile so well, I might as well have written it with him in mind."
"Did you?" He asked because she seemed to be expecting a response. "Subconsciously, I mean."
Michael shrugged. "I guess it's possible. Either way, he fits both your profile and mine in several important areas." She looked over at him and smiled. "And the really interesting part is, he's both the stranger you suggested, and the local that I did."
Cryptic. Deliberately so, if he could count on his faltering intuition at all anymore. He took another distinctly unsatisfying sip of coffee and vowed silently not to rise to the bait. His phone chose that moment to ring, and he dug it out of his breast pocket with a grateful sigh.
Silence for a moment. "Mulder, it's me."
A surprising pang of loneliness spread through his chest. "Hey, Scully. How's it going?"
"Better than I expected. I have a few leads to follow up, but I should make the 4:20 flight back to Pittsburgh. That would put me in Bradford around six o'clock tonight."
Just the thought of having her back made him smile. "I'll pick you up at six, then."
"Wait until I call. If something comes of the leads, I might still stay another night. I just wanted to give you a heads up." Pause. "How did you do with the interviews yesterday. I forgot to ask last night."
Yeah, because you hung up on me before I could say anything. Out loud, he said, "I'll tell you when you get here." Pause. Deep breath. "Hurry back, okay?"
He winced in the few seconds of silence that followed. Then her voice drifted across the miles, all the stiff formality melted away.
"I'll see you soon." There was another second or two of comfortable silence before she clicked off the call.
"So, she must be on her way back?"
Michael's voice disintegrated the mood and left him abruptly, unaccountably irritated. Mulder closed the phone and put it back in his pocket before he looked at her. "Yes, she thinks so."
Michael nodded at the windshield. "Is she having any luck, then?"
He took a long sip from his coffee, then addressed his response to the side window. "I won't know that until she gets back."
The scenery whizzing by outside his window was making him dizzy, so he shifted his gaze to the windshield. "How long until we get there?"
"About twenty minutes." She gave him a sidelong look. "You could catch a few winks, if you're sleepy. You look like you had a long night."
That was an understatement. "Too much
caffeine." He gave the coffee mug a baleful look and closed the lid. "I think I've had enough."
Michael shrugged. "You should drink the stuff during the day, not at night."
Yeah, whatever. He set the mug on the floor and went back to watching the scenery. "If I nod off, just nudge me when we get there."
She gave him a fond look that made his skin crawl. "You know I will."
Upper East Side
Manhattan, New York City
Wednesday, Nov. 5th
Scully had spent most of the morning reviewing files on Jacqueline Acres' computer before finally deciding to take a copy of the whole hard drive back to Warren with her. There was just too much information for the time she had.
Talking with Jeremy Grissom's tenants had told her exactly what she'd expected. He was a nice guy who kept the property in wonderful shape, and he had spent Labor Day weekend working on the plumbing. And of course, his rent was too high.
Jeremy did ask again if he could come back to Warren with her, but he'd seemed to know the answer before she gave it to him. She asked him to go through Jackie's papers over the next few days and contact her if he found anything at all unusual. He agreed, and then drove her to the train station.
She debated the wisdom of her next move all the way to Grand Central Station. Even now, standing in front of Michael Hobart's last known address, she was warring with herself.
Mulder would understand this investigation even less than he had her probe into Diana Fowley's checkered past, and that was saying a lot. And it wasn't as if she even knew what she expected to find. There was just something about the woman that invited suspicion, and not all of it had to do with Mulder.
She would talk to a few neighbors, purely as a background investigator. If nothing turned up, that would be the end of it.
She started with the doorman who had been watching her pace back and forth in front of the building. When she approached him
displaying her badge, he raised an eyebrow.
"I might have pegged you as a stalker, but not a member of law enforcement. Appearances can be deceiving, can't they?" He had the bearing and tone of a snooty maitre d'.
"Do you remember a tenant by the name of Michael Hobart?"
The man's superior expression changed to mild concern. "Of course. Is she in any trouble?"
"That's an odd question, Mister...?"
"Masterson. John Masterson."
"Mr. Masterson, why would you think Michael is in trouble?"
He shrugged, the supercilious eyebrow back in place. "You're with law enforcement. What else could it be?"
"Just a simple background check, Mr. Masterson. Nothing sinister. What can you tell me about Ms. Hobart?"
Masterson shifted his attention to a smartly dressed woman approaching the door. Smiling, he touched two gloved fingers to the brim of his hat and opened the door with a flourish. "Good morning, Mrs. Templeton."
"Good morning, John." She cast a suspicious eye at Scully and entered the lobby.
The man's smile vanished instantly. "Do you have a warrant?"
Scully smiled thinly. "This is not a criminal investigation, Mr. Masterson. I'm just asking if you can tell me anything about a former tenant."
"Then, I'd prefer not to answer."
Knowing the likely response, she asked, "Would you allow me into the building so I can speak with her neighbors?"
He snorted. "Hardly."
The door opened behind them and a tall man exited the lobby. He stopped in front of the doorman. "I just saw Maggie Templeton in the elevator. She says there's a woman out here asking about Michael Hobart." He turned to Scully. "Would that be you, by any chance?"
Scully held up her badge and introduced herself. "And you are...?"
"Did you know Michael Hobart?"
The tall man chuckled. "You could say that. We lived together for four years. How does that concern the F.B.I.?"
"It's just a background check. May I speak with you for a few minutes?"
"I was just on my way out. You can walk with me, if you like." He glanced at the doorman. "I can guarantee that John here won't let you past the door. I'm going to be your only option."
They started walking.
"What has she done to merit this kind of attention?"
"Ms. Hobart is assisting me and my partner on a murder investigation in Warren. Since she's not a Bureau employee, it's a normal procedure to verify some facts." It was a lie, but a small one.
Castle looked impressed. "Well, that ought to have her on cloud nine."
"What do you mean?"
"Her father was the center of her universe, and all she ever wanted to do was make him proud. I gotta believe working with the F.B.I. ranks right up there for a cop's kid."
They stopped at a crosswalk, waiting for the light to change. "Is there anything you can tell me about Michael that would be cause for concern in a murder investigation?"
"Not unless there's a prize for first place. I never knew a more competitive person in my life, and I've worked with the biggest sharks on Wall Street. They're no match for Michael. She could have made a fortune if she'd gone into finance."
Scully shrugged one shoulder. "I wouldn't call that a character flaw, exactly.
The light changed, and they crossed the street. "I didn't say it was, but Michael tends to take things to the extreme. If you've worked with her at all, then you should know what I'm talking about. Once something catches her interest, she's like a pit bull on speed." He stopped. "I'm turning here. Where are you headed?"
"Let me get a cab for you." He stepped to the curb and whistled at an approaching cluster of yellow cabs. One screeched to a stop at his side, and he opened the door for her. "Tell Michael I said hello." He turned on his heel and disappeared into the crowd.
Scully gave the driver her destination and leaned back in the seat. The only way she could tell Michael hello for him would be to admit what she'd been up to, and that wasn't likely to happen anytime soon.
She tried Mulder's cell standing in line at security, then again while she waited for her flight to be called. Both times, she got his voice mail.
Pittsburgh was an hour and a half away. She would try again from there.
Chautauqua County Jail
"Thank you, Mr. Conner. I apologize for the inconvenience. I'll see you tomorrow at 2 o'clock." Mulder clicked off the call and stuffed the phone back in his pocket. Six calls in a row had his ear heated up, right along with his temper.
Michael looked up from her magazine. "I know what a pain it is to reschedule, but I have a really good feeling about this."
Mulder looked at the clock. "You're sure he hasn't been locked up for any of the murders?"
She gave him a patient look. "You don't think I would have verified that before I dragged you out here?"
He huffed noncommittally and folded his arms. "If we can't get clearance soon, I'm leaving. Scully will be coming into the airport in two hours." Five freakin' hours waiting for Coster's attorney was about four and a half hours more than he'd wanted to spend.
"We're closer to Bradford here than we were in Warren." Her expression brightened. "I could pick Scully up and bring her here. That way, if you get to see Coster sooner, we won't have wasted all this time."
He considered it for a moment. "How soon would you have to leave?"
"Well, if her plane is coming in at six, I wouldn't have to leave for another hour or so."
Mulder nodded. "Good. Maybe we'll be through by then."
They weren't. A guard came to get them at twenty minutes past five o'clock, just as Michael was heading for the door. "I should be back with Scully by seven, and we can all go to dinner."
Oh, yeah. Scully's gonna love that. Mulder forced a nod. "That's up to Scully." He turned and followed the guard without waiting for a response.
Bradford Regional Airport
Wednesday, Nov. 5
Scully had tried Mulder's cell phone twice more and gotten his voice mail both times, so she fully expected to be taking a cab back to the hotel. That was until she spotted Michael Hobart smiling and waving the moment she stepped into the terminal building.
"How was your flight?"
"It was fine, thanks." She quickly scanned the small crowd. "Is Mulder here with you?"
Michael's smile was apologetic. "I hope you don't mind, but he asked me to come pick you up. He's going to be tied up for awhile and didn't want you to have to take a cab."
"Where is he?" They walked toward the parking lot, Michael in the lead.
"Jamestown, interviewing a suspect at the county lock up. We're going to pick him up."
Scully stopped, and waited for Michael to turn around. "A suspect? Who?"
"A former patient of mine. I'll tell you about it on the way." She started walking again, and Scully followed.
Michael's Jeep was parked right out front. She unlocked the passenger door and walked around to the driver's side. Scully tossed her bag into the backseat and got in. The seat was pushed back all the way which told her Mulder had probably been the last passenger. It made her smile.
"I need to take a short detour, if you don't mind. There's someone I need to see for just a minute or two," Michael said, her hand resting on the key in the ignition as if waiting for permission to start the car.
Scully suppressed a weary sigh. "I'm sure Mulder won't mind waiting another few minutes."
Michael nodded happily and turned the key. "I hoped you'd feel that way. Thanks."
"No problem." Scully leaned back in the seat and closed her eyes.
Coster was a headcase of the first order, but unless Mulder had completely lost all touch with his profiling ability, the man was no serial killer. It was true that he wasn't able to account for his whereabouts on the critical dates, but even his attorney was unconcerned. Five minutes into the interview, he had taken a phone call and left them alone.
Seven hours, wasted.
And where the hell was Scully?
Mulder tried her cell phone and got voice mail immediately. Again. He'd called the sheriff a half hour ago to get Michael's cell number, tried that, and got the same results.
"Hills block the signal. You might as well save the battery," came a weary voice from the reception desk.
Mulder looked up. "Excuse me?"
The middle-aged woman at the desk gave him a patient smile. "The hills block cell signals. I don't know why anybody bothers to carry those things around here." She waved dismissively at the phone in Mulder's hand, then went back to her paperwork.
He was slipping it back into his pocket when it rang. "Mulder," he announced with a triumphant glance at the receptionist.
It wasn't Scully. "Agent Mulder, it's Will Kessler. I'm afraid I've got some bad news."
A rush of adrenaline sent his heart hammering and drove him to his feet. Scully. "What is it?"
"We found Michael Hobart's Jeep in a ditch off Route 62 a few minutes ago. Michael was barely conscious, but we got that somebody ran them off the road."
Mulder ran his tongue over lips that were suddenly parchment dry. "Is Scully all right?"
"She's not there, Agent Mulder. Michael said that when she came to, your partner was gone."
Wed. Nov. 5th
"It won't be long now. Maybe ten minutes," Carol Allison announced with a quick glance in his direction.
Mulder nodded mutely, his repertoire of polite small talk having run out ten minutes after they left Jamestown. He'd been only too eager to accept the receptionist's offer to drive him here, but that was before he knew she'd expect to hear his life's story on the way.
He needed the time to think. When he reached the crime scene, he'd have to hit the ground running, and that meant sorting through the chaos in his head before he got there.
Scully was gone. Wrapping his head around that fact alone was almost more than he could handle. That her disappearance might well be due to his inept handling of Michael Hobart made him physically ill. That her rescue might depend on him threatened to immobilize him with sheer terror.
No matter how he turned the pieces around, the only combination that fit had him squarely at the center. Michael was infatuated with him, that was obvious. Michael was relentlessly pursuing him every chance she got, no matter how clearly he signaled that he wasn't interested. Michael arranged an interview with a bullshit suspect, then volunteered to pick up Scully. And Michael was allegedly the last person to see Scully before she disappeared.
All he could say was Michael better have some goddamned good answers to some direct fucking questions or there was gonna be blood on the walls. And that was a promise.
"That must be it." Carol Allison slowed as they came around a curve to find the road ahead crowded with emergency vehicles. Flashing lights turned the snow blood red and bright blue by turns.
He had his hand on the door handle, poised to jump out as soon as the car stopped. Carol maneuvered around an ambulance with its rear doors standing open. An empty gurney, mired in the snow just behind it, taunted him.
Carol touched his shoulder gently. "I hope she's all right."
"Thanks. I hope so, too." His voice was tight. Every muscle in his body was tensed for whatever he was about to learn. Things could have changed while he'd been in transit from Jamestown-- driving through the 'no service' hell Carol had told him about back at the jail. Scully could be on her way to a hospital, for all he knew. He refused to consider the darker possibilities.
They navigated the maze of police cars and rescue vehicles and stopped next to Michael Hobart's Jeep tilted nose-down in a shallow ditch. A dozen men with flashlights prowled the snowy field beyond.
Mulder opened the door. Paused. "Thank you," he said again.
Her eyes were soft and kind. "Good luck, Agent Mulder. I'll be praying for you."
He nodded again and got out, stepping into snow that came up to his ankles and spilled into his shoes. He closed the door and waited while she turned the car around, heading back to Jamestown and her waiting family.
"Over here, Agent Mulder." Will Kessler motioned to him from across the road. He looked like a man with more bad news to deliver.
Mulder looked at Carol Allison's taillights receding into the distance, then crossed the road to join the sheriff. "Did you find her?"
The sheriff shook his head. "We're thinking she might have been disoriented and wandered off. There could have been tracks, but the rescue team trampled all over them before we got here." He waved his flashlight at the men searching the field. "The brush is too dense to show much once you get a few yards away."
Mulder walked around to the passenger side of the Jeep, digging his own flashlight from his pocket. The door was open, and he moved his light around the interior. Scully's duffle was on the backseat. The sheriff leaned in through the driver's door and added his light to Mulder's. There was no blood. No sign of a struggle.
"I've got a search team coming out with dogs, but it's gonna be another half hour or so before they get here."
Mulder looked across the seat at Kessler. "Can someone give me a ride to the hospital? I want to talk to Michael Hobart."
The sheriff frowned and stood up. "Michael's in no shape to help you, Agent Mulder."
Mulder came back around the car and joined the sheriff, totally filling his shoes with snow in the process. "What's her condition?"
Kessler shrugged. "Don't know the specifics yet, but the EMT's said she was barely conscious. I doubt they'll let you see her until tomorrow."
Mulder leveled his gaze. "She's the only witness to the apparent abduction of a Federal Agent. I'm going to talk to her."
The standoff was brief. Kessler sighed and stuck his flashlight in his back pocket. "Give me a minute." He strode off toward the search team, waving one of the men over to him. They spoke for a moment, then Kessler came back to Mulder holding out a bundle of keys. "Take that car. Just follow this road south and you'll go straight into town," he explained, but Mulder had taken the keys and was already moving.
He called back over his shoulder. "Call me the second you find anything."
Warren Community Hospital
"The doctor is with her now, Agent Mulder, but you can go in for a few minutes. She's been asking for you," the young nurse told him.
He followed her down the hall to a door marked "Trauma 1". Inside, Michael Hobart lay propped on a gurney surrounded by beeping equipment. The doctor he'd spoken with a few minutes earlier looked up as they entered, clearly displeased at having her orders overruled by her own patient.
"Michael, I'm going to ask Dr. Wallace to review your x-rays, then we'll come back to talk with you." She patted Michael's hand and walked over to Mulder. "Five minutes." She stepped around him and left the room.
The nurse gave him a sympathetic smile and followed the doctor out.
Michael held out her hand to him. "Mulder, I'm so sorry. I don't know what to say."
He came over to the bed and took her hand. "Are you all right?"
She shrugged, and then winced at the effort. "I have a headache, but I guess that's normal."
Mulder put her hand back on the bed. "What happened?"
"I never saw him coming until it was too late." She took a shaky breath. "I was knocked unconscious. When I woke up, Scully was gone."
"Who is 'he', Michael?"
She looked surprised. "Why, the killer. Who else would it have been?"
He studied her for a moment. "Did you see what kind of car it was?"
"All I saw were headlights bearing down on us. It's all a blur. They say I told someone we were run off the road, but I don't remember saying that."
"You don't remember saying that." He repeated her words slowly.
"No, but Dr. Adams said that was normal. I might never remember those last few moments."
Mulder shifted his gaze to the wall behind her, hands on his hips. "Why would the killer come after you and Scully? And why would he only take one of you?" He waited a beat before he looked at her. "It doesn't make any sense."
"You're right," she agreed quickly. "It doesn't fit his pattern, unless this time was different because Scully wasn't alone. The other women were alone when he took them."
"Exactly. Why would he risk taking on two adult women at the same time? Particularly when one of them is armed."
"Maybe he didn't know." Michael's voice took on a dreamy quality, as if she'd forgotten Mulder was in the room. "Maybe he means for her to be his final victim. Ending the way he began..." She trailed off, pressing both hands firmly to her temples.
The door opened behind him, and Mulder turned around. Dr. Adams came in with a middle-aged man he assumed to be Dr. Wallace. They moved to opposite sides of Michael's bed, and Dr. Adams gave Mulder a pointed look. "You'll have to leave now."
Michael didn't move or look up. Mulder nodded to the doctors and walked out of the room.
Sheriff Kessler was waiting for him in the hall. He anticipated Mulder's question, then asked one of his own. "We haven't found anything. I'm here to take you to the office to file a missing person report."
"First, I want you to post a guard on Michael's room."
Kessler's mouth dropped open. "What the hell for?"
Mulder took the man's arm and tugged him away from Michael's door to a less traveled section of the hall.
"What the hell for?" Kessler asked again, with a bit less volume.
"Have you talked to her at all yet?" Mulder jerked his head toward Michael's room.
"No, I've been busy at the accident scene. Why?"
Mulder looked down at the floor, choosing his words. This needed careful handling. When he met the sheriff's gaze, he found curiosity leavened with caution. "Michael has no visible injuries, yet she claims to have been knocked unconscious and to have no memory of the event. She's even recanting her story about being run off the road."
"Her story? What the hell is that supposed to mean?"
Mulder kept his voice level. "It means I'm not convinced she's telling the truth."
Kessler's color rose to beet red, but he was making an obvious effort to restrain himself. "Look, Agent, I'm trying to cut you some slack here because of the circumstances, but you are way out of line. Why the hell would she lie?"
"That's what I'd like to know."
The sheriff's mouth opened, then closed. After a moment, he said, "I don't know what you think happened out there, but I can tell you this much: that girl in there has no reason to lie about it."
He'd suspected it was a losing battle going in. And there was still the possibility that the sheriff was right. "Michael thinks the killer took Scully."
That earned him an incredulous look. "And you don't?"
"I didn't say that. But I think Michael knows a lot more about what happened than she's willing to say."
"Did you see any sign of damage to her Jeep? Did you see any skid marks on the road? Any evidence whatever to substantiate her story?"
Kessler folded his arms. "I saw no evidence to contradict it. You think she's protecting someone? That she knows who the killer is and just doesn't want to say?"
"Something like that, yeah."
He snorted dismissively. "That's about the craziest thing I've ever heard, and I don't have time to listen to any more of it." He turned to walk away.
"Sheriff Kessler." He waited until the man turned around. "I'm willing to consider the possibility that you're right. All I'm asking is that you do me the same courtesy."
Kessler dropped his chin to his chest with a heavy sigh. He walked back and put both hands on Mulder's shoulders. "Son, I couldn't be any more certain that you're wrong if you told me I took your partner."
It was a lost cause. Mulder nodded. "I'd like to go back to the hotel."
The sheriff gave Mulder a fatherly pat on the back. "I'll take you."
The doctors were coming out of Michael's room as Mulder and the sheriff approached. Kessler stopped to talk with them, and Mulder stood silently by, absorbing every word. They weren't able to find any sign of a head injury other than the reported period of unconsciousness, but they would keep her overnight for
observation. She was very lucky, they said.
It wasn't as good as having a guard posted, but Mulder would take what he could get. For the moment, at least, she was out of circulation.
Kessler dropped him off at the Holiday Inn's front door ten minutes later, then waited until he walked into the lobby before he pulled away. Mulder walked straight through the building and out the back door to his car.
Wed. Nov. 5th
Walter Skinner was sitting down to his usual microwave dinner when his cell phone went off-- never a good omen at this time of night. He put down his fork and walked out to the desk. The caller ID told him it was Mulder.
"Scully is missing."
Just like that. No preamble. "What happened?"
Skinner listened with increasing alarm to Mulder's report. The flat delivery worried him almost as much as the content. Experience told him what it said about Mulder's stress level.
"Agent Mulder, I'll contact the Pittsburgh field office and get you some assistance. They'll have someone out there by tomorrow morning. Until they arrive, I'm ordering you to stand down."
"I can't do that, Sir," came the expected response.
Five minutes of arguing produced a grudging commitment from Mulder that he would restrict his activities to the sheriff's department offices or his hotel room. "If I hear you've done more than that, it'll be a cold day in hell before you get out in the field again."
It wasn't much of a threat, given that Scully's life could be at stake, but it was the best he could do on short notice.
As soon as Mulder hung up, Skinner dialed the Bureau operator and asked to be connected to the field office in Pittsburgh. While he waited, he signed onto the Internet travel site to see how much time he had before the next flight to Warren.
'Standing down' in his hotel room lasted for all of twenty minutes. Even at that, Mulder suspected it was twice as long as Skinner had really expected.
He relocated to a dark corner of the hospital parking lot that afforded a clear view of the front door, and he waited, debating with himself the wisdom of talking with Michael again so soon. He already regretted sharing his suspicions with Sheriff Kessler. The last thing he wanted to do was tip his hand and give her a chance to cover her tracks... whatever that might mean.
The truth was, he had no clear idea what it was he suspected her of doing. Or of knowing. All he could say for certain was that her story was total crap.
What he didn't know was why.
Whatever her involvement in Scully's
disappearance, there was no way in hell she was getting out of his sight until he figured it out.
Warren Community Hospital
Trauma Room 1
Dr. Adams sighed and looked at her watch. She should have been on her way home fifty-five minutes ago instead of standing here trying to talk sense into Michael Hobart. It was time to throw in the towel.
"I think you're making a mistake, but it's your choice. I'll have a nurse bring the AMA release for you to sign, and then you can leave."
Michael smiled. "I'm sorry to be such a pain in the butt, but there are some things more important than a little bump on the head. I feel responsible for what happened to Agent Scully. I can't just lounge here while she's still in danger. I hope you understand."
"That may be, but the unconsciousness you experienced could mean serious damage, no matter what the x-rays turned up. I just want to make certain that you understand the risk you're taking."
"I promise that I do."
There was no point in pursuing it further. "The nurse will be right back. You can get dressed."
Michael waited until the door closed behind Dr. Adams before she threw off the blanket. "Jesus, talk about persistent!" She stretched her legs, wiggling her toes to get some feeling back into them after so long on her back.
Her clothes were in a plastic bag under the gurney. Michael shed the worn blue hospital gown and dressed quickly.
There was a pay phone out in the lobby, but she needed privacy. There was a chance the calls made from inside hospital lines were tracked, but she would have to risk it.
She picked up the trauma room extension, dialed nine for an outside line, and punched in Jesse Kendall's cell phone number.
Scully woke lying flat on her back in total darkness with the worst headache she could ever remember. The blackness was so complete that for a brief, horrifying moment, she thought she was buried alive.
Straining to see something-- anything-- made the headache worse, but she was finally able to make out the faint outline of windows. Shaky with relief, she redirected her energy to figuring out where the hell she was.
Her face was freezing cold. The rest of her body seemed to be encased in something that felt soft and faintly damp. The air was frigid and smelled of old wood smoke, pine needles, and mildew. The mildew, she realized, was coming from whatever was wrapped around her. The cloth tickled her nose and made her want to sneeze. It also reminded her of something.
Sleeping bags. Her brothers had been Boy Scouts years ago, and they kept their sleeping bags in the basement. No matter how often her mother took them out to the clothesline to air them out, the smell they picked up from the basement remained. It smelled just like the material that now surrounded her from chin to toes.
An experimental wiggle of her hands and feet revealed that she was bound with something that felt like duct tape beneath the sleeping bag.
She found she could raise her head from the mattress, but that was all. Her legs were held fast and her hands rested on her chest inside the bag.
That answered a few questions, but not the important ones, like how the hell she got here. Wherever 'here' was.
Start with the last thing you remember, she ordered her racing mind to focus.
Michael Hobart picked her up at the airport, that much was clear in her mind. Why Michael? Where was Mulder?
Michael was there because Mulder was with a suspect. A patient of Michael's. What else? Michael wanted to stop somewhere on the way to wherever Mulder was.
Stop. They had pulled off the road. Something about the car. A flat tire?
The pain in her head was making her sick. Deep breaths cleared her head but dried out her throat and made her cough. Coughing multiplied the pounding in her head.
They pulled off the road and... The rest was a blank. They pulled off the road, and she woke up here.
Here, wrapped in a sleeping bag, bound hand and foot, and slowly freezing to death.
Waiting for whoever left her here to come back.
Thursday, Nov. 6th
Jesse Kendall was a block from home when his cell phone rang. He let it go to voice mail and kept driving. It rang again as he was pulling into his driveway. He sighed, dug it out of his pocket, and squinted blearily at the caller ID.
Warren Comm Hosp
Feeling reasonably confident that he wasn't about to be called back to work, he pressed the talk button and brought the phone to his ear. If it did turn out to be Will, he was in for an unpleasant surprise.
"Jess, it's me."
The sound of Michael's voice had its usual effect. Jesse felt the warmth start somewhere in the pit of his stomach and spread steadily outward until his toes-- among other things-- were tingling. He smiled at the windshield. "I was beginning to think you lost my number."
There was a shaky sigh on the other end of the line. Even with six beers under his belt, Jesse could tell a passionate sigh from one that shouted trouble. His grin vanished and he sat forward, gripping the wheel tightly. "What's wrong?"
"Will hasn't called you?"
Warren Community Hospital His heart thudded against his ribs. "I've been at Lacey's since I got off work." He always shut his phone off when he was at his favorite bar. She knew that. "Michael, what's wrong?"
He heard her take a shaky breath. "Something terrible happened tonight. I'm okay, but the woman from the FBI was kidnapped out of my car. We think it was the killer. They're releasing me from the hospital, and I'm... afraid to go home."
He knew what it cost her to admit that. "Jesus, baby. I'll be there in ten minutes. Just hang in there."
A Jeep Wrangler drove into the parking lot too fast, its rear tires slipping on the icy pavement so that the driver had to wrestle for control. Mulder watched it pull up to the front entrance with no more than passing interest, until the driver got out and looked in his direction.
It was Jesse Kendall. Mulder hunkered down in his seat, purely out of reflex, before he realized it was too dark for Kendall to see him anyway.
"What's he doing here?" It was unlikely that Sheriff Kessler had decided to send a guard after all, particularly since Kendall was out of uniform. No, this was something else. Something personal? Michael certainly wasn't the only patient in the building, but it would be an amazing coincidence if Jesse were here to see anyone else.
A moment later the question was answered-- and many more were generated-- when Jesse walked out of the hospital with his arm around Michael Hobart. They got into the Jeep and pulled away.
Mulder waited until they reached the main road, then followed, keeping as much distance as possible between the two vehicles and leaving his lights off.
Following them through the picturesque streets was one thing, but they soon headed out of town, past Warren's only shopping mall, and then west into the heart of the national forest.
The winding, two lane road complicated the task of trying to keep the Wrangler in sight without being seen. At any moment, he expected to come around a curve and either find the Jeep directly in front of him or vanished up one of the narrow trails leading into the woods.
Twenty minutes after it began, the trek ended in a small cluster of single-story homes set into a hillside. The Wrangler pulled into the driveway of a white clapboard house in the center of the group. There were no streetlamps, but all of the houses had bright mercury vapor lights mounted on utility poles that left few shadows to hide in. Mulder hung well back, but close enough to see Jesse and Michael go into the house together through the side door.
Mulder turned off the car and stared at the house as lights came on inside. Kendall came out the front door a moment later and walked to the mailbox out by the street. He extracted a handful of envelopes and flyers and went back into the house. Nothing in his posture or his actions suggested anything other than a man home from work, going about his normal routine.
Did he actually believe Scully was in there? Was it possible that the sheriff's department profiler and one of its deputies had conspired to kidnap a Federal agent? Because the profiler had a crush on the Federal agent's partner?
Mulder let the scenario play in his head and imagined himself explaining the theory to Sheriff Kessler. Or to a judge, asking for a warrant. Or to A.D. Skinner.
You're losing it, Mulder.
I'm not sure I ever had it to begin with.
The lights at the front of the house went out, and another toward the rear came on. A few minutes later, the house went completely dark.
Jesse strained and sweated above her, fumbling at her body with rough and clumsy hands. His breath on her face reeked of beer and cigarette smoke. Michael turned her face into the pillow and closed her eyes.
This is the last. Just hold on.
It always took a long time when he'd been drinking, but she could be certain when it was over that he would sleep like the dead for hours. She needed him to do just that, and almost any price was worth paying if it bought her the time she needed.
When he finally stiffened, then collapsed upon her, she slid out from beneath him and wiped his stickiness from her thighs with a corner of the musty sheet.
"Don't go, baby." He was already on his way to sleep, but one paw reached for her in the dark.
"I'm going to the bathroom, Jess. I'll be right back." She forced herself to stroke his cheek until he relaxed. When the snoring began, she slipped out of bed.
She grabbed her purse and her clothes from the floor, slipped into the bathroom and turned on the light. She dug the plastic bottle from her purse and held it against her body as she squatted over the toilet, catching his fluid as it drained from her. After a moment, she recapped the bottle and put it back in her purse. The shower might wake him, but she could not bear to feel his sweat on her skin another moment. She stood under the steaming flow for as long as she dared, then dried herself and dressed quickly.
When she came out, Jesse was still sprawled across the bed, sound asleep.
His keys lay on the dining room table next to his gun. It was tempting to take the gun, but even a man as dimwitted as Jesse Kendall would catch on if she did. Michael pulled on her coat and went out into the frigid night.
Mulder was midway to the house when the front door opened. If he hadn't happened to be passing the only shrub on Jesse's front lawn, it would have been all over. As it was, he barely managed to duck out of sight before she glanced his way. He held his breath as she paused, seeming to focus right on him. Then, she pulled the door shut and walked to the Jeep.
He waited until she had backed down the drive and out into the street before he moved. His car was a hundred yards away, but if she drove back the way they had come, she would certainly recognize it.
She didn't. Wherever she was going, it was in the opposite direction.
When she disappeared around a curve down the street, Mulder ran to his car.
The road narrowed to barely a lane and a half as he followed her from a quarter mile back. With his lights off, he knew he was all but invisible at this distance, but the darkness made it extremely hard to stay on the paved surface. Every time she vanished around a curve, he held his breath until he caught sight of her taillights again.
There was no question in his mind now that she was lying about what happened to Scully. Either she had taken Scully herself, or she knew who did. The why of it no longer mattered. All he cared about was finding Scully alive, and he could only hope that Michael was going to her now.
The road wound around another curve and Mulder slowed to a crawl. When he came to the other side, the road lay pitch black and empty before him. The Jeep was gone.
He stopped the car and peered into blackness. It was so complete that he literally couldn't see his hands on the wheel. Off to the right, he thought he caught a brief flicker of something through the trees, but it disappeared before he could focus.
He could either sit here until the sun came up, or risk using his lights until he picked up the Jeep's trail. In this total darkness, even a momentary flash of his headlights would be visible for miles-- if anyone was looking his way-- but he didn't see any alternative.
Mulder reached for the switch and pulled it out one stop to the parking light setting. The instrument panel lights came on along with the outside lights, and he blinked at the faint glow, blinding in contrast to the total darkness of a moment before. He found the dimmer switch and turned the panel lights off completely. When his eyes readjusted to the darkness, he found that the parking lights gave him enough vision to see the road.
The Jeep had only been out of his sight for a few seconds. Wherever it had turned off had to be very close. Mulder put the car in gear and crept forward.
He saw the turnoff almost immediately. A path into the woods on the right looked recently traveled, and he followed it. A few yards farther along, the contrast between snow and trees was strong enough that he decided to try it with his lights off. After his eyes adjusted, he found he could see well enough to keep moving.
Up ahead, a brief glimpse of light through the trees told him he was on the right track.
Scully saw the lights outside a moment before the sound of the engine reached her ears. In the reflected glow, she finally caught a glimpse of her surroundings. It was a cabin, and she was lying on a cot right under a window. Before she could register much more than that, the vehicle outside came to a halt and extinguished its lights.
She heard a car door slam, then footsteps squeaking across frigid snow. When the cabin door opened, her heart rate tripled.
A flashlight beam found her face and stayed there. It was impossible to see beyond it.
"I see you're still here."
A woman's voice... chuckling.
"Who are you?" Scully used her command voice, but a tremor spoiled the effect.
"Hang on a minute, and I'll get us some light," came the cheery response, and this time Scully recognized the voice.
"Michael?" It briefly crossed Scully's mind that this might be a rescue. "What are you doing here?"
"Patience, Agent Scully. Patience."
A scratching sound preceded a strong scent of sulfur, and a match burst to flame. It reflected Michael Hobart's face as she lit two oil lamps on a rough mantle over the stone fireplace. When she had the flames adjusted to her liking, she turned to Scully.
"There. Now we can talk." She dragged a wooden chair next to Scully's cot and sat down. "What do you want to talk about?"
"Untie me, Michael." Her voice was steady this time.
"You really don't think much of my IQ, do you?" Michael shook one finger at Scully like a peevish schoolmarm. "I'm disappointed, I have to tell you."
"I think you're an extremely intelligent woman, Michael. I just don't understand what you could hope to accomplish by keeping me here."
"I think you do." All the lightness was gone from her voice and her eyes.
Scully weighed her options and decided she had nothing to lose. "All right, then does this have something to do with Mulder?"
"It does now, but only because you've left me no alternative."
"I left you no alternative? Are you under the impression that I'm the reason Mulder isn't interested in you?"
"If you hadn't been here, I think I could have made him talk to me about the murders. I think he might have understood." She shrugged. "It doesn't matter now."
"I'd like to understand, if you'll tell me."
Michael stood up so quickly that the chair tipped over. "Don't patronize me." She leaned down and hissed the words into Scully's face.
Scully kept her voice level, but her pulse thudded hard in her throat. "If you didn't want me to understand, you would have killed me right away. I think you want to tell me. I think you're proud of the planning that went into this, and I think you want me to know."
Michael sat down on the cot next to Scully and studied her intently for a moment. "I didn't kill you right away because I couldn't. I don't give a damn what you think, but I had hopes for Mulder. Unfortunately, you've made it necessary for him to die, too." She shivered and rubbed her arms. "We need some heat in here, don't we? Can't work in this cold."
She stood and walked to the door. "I'll make us a nice fire, and we can get started," she said pleasantly.
Scully watched open-mouthed as the woman gave her a cheery smile and went outside.
The terrain was proving to be more of a problem than the darkness. More than once, Mulder had driven the Taurus into a dead end and had to back up a dozen yards. Even when he managed to stay on the right track, the deeply rutted snow made steering nearly impossible.
The pressure of time slipping away, and what that might mean for Scully, finally drove him to take chances. The inevitable followed moments later. He lost his bearings in the dark, and lost control of the car because he kept his speed up without being able to see the road. The wheels on the right side of the car dropped off the edge of the paved surface onto the crumbling shoulder and pulled the rest of the car with them. It was a short slide, but that didn't matter. The car couldn't have been more deeply mired if he'd planned it.
"Shit!" Mulder slammed one fist into the steering wheel, panting with frustration. "At least the car's off the road if she comes back this way." He doubted he was even still on the original route.
It didn't matter. Unless he got extremely lucky and spotted lights in the distance, he was going to freeze to death out here before he found her anyway. Sitting in the car or hiking through the snow were about equal in insuring that outcome. But unless he got his ass moving, he had zero chance of finding Scully.
He smelled wood smoke as soon as he opened the door. Whether or not it was coming from where Michael was, it meant someone was out there.
Mulder dug the flashlight from his pocket and followed his nose into the densest part of the woods.
Bare branches reached for him in the dark, snatching at his hair, his thin trench coat, and his face. The deep snow hid a virtual minefield of mossy logs and loose rocks that challenged his balance with every step. And it was all uphill.
Mulder estimated that he'd been hiking for less than fifteen minutes, but he was ready to drop in his tracks. Maintaining his footing took his full concentration, taxing every muscle in his body. It was wearing him out with alarming speed.
The smoke smell was getting stronger. He just wished he had the first fucking idea what he was going to do when he reached its source. If he saw the Jeep, it would be confirmation that he had found Michael, too. And Scully.
Then what? What was he supposed to do?
He didn't think they would be outside in this weather. If she'd left Scully here without any shelter, she'd be dead by now. Michael had needed to get back here badly enough to risk drawing attention to herself by leaving the hospital in the middle of the night. That meant Scully was still a threat to her. That told him she was still alive.
But for how long?
"Damn it!" A heavy branch snagged his coat, ripping a hole in the sleeve. It also gouged the shit out of his shoulder. He pulled away from it and ripped the material again. Cold air rushed into the gap, freezing the blood on his skin.
He stepped to his right, aiming for a slightly clearer path. His foot came down on something slippery and round. Something that rolled under his weight and increased his momentum. Log. It was a log, he realized as he scrambled for balance, arms flailing, snapping branches as his center of gravity shifted too far.
Both feet were slipping now. An instant later, the ground fell away and so did he, sailing out into the dark, arms pin wheeling and finding nothing but air.
Donnie Phaster had failed. Duane Barry had failed. And Jerry Schnauz. And too many others to count. That Michael Hobart would be the one to finally take her life away was almost too much to bear.
It wouldn't be long now. She had come back with an armful of split logs and kindling, but for what purpose, Scully couldn't guess. Certainly not Scully's comfort. Maybe to make it easier to mimic the killer's technique? Cold hands would be shaky and imprecise. Precision was the man's hallmark.
She obviously intended to make Scully's death look like the work of the man they were hunting. She believed Scully had found
something in New York that would implicate her. Something that would connect her to the killer... but what? Why would Michael protect-- or abet-- a serial killer and then pretend to pursue him?
Scully watched her build the fire, poking at the logs and adjusting the kindling until it suited her before she lit the match. Precise. Exacting.
The daughter of a police chief. A psychologist who had tried an odd mix of other professions first. Forestry. Medicine. Law enforcement? Profiling was something she'd gotten into because of Sheriff Kessler, if Scully
remembered that conversation correctly.
What had Mike Castle said in their few minutes' talk about her? Something about her father. How pleased he would have been to see her working with the FBI. That pleasing him meant everything to her.
Mulder would know how to put this all together. He sensed things about people in a way Scully could never do. She read facts, and he read hearts. It was one of the things that made them such an effective investigative team.
Except this woman had slipped under his radar more completely than anyone she'd ever seen. Did he even suspect her? Despite knowing she'd been with Scully when she disappeared?
Or had he even known they were together? She had only Michael's word to tell her that Mulder sent her to pick Scully up.
How would he react to finding her body? The pain would be less because he had so few memories of her now. She should be glad for that, but somehow it made dying even harder. Everything they had been to each other would die with her.
The injustice of that one fact filled her with rage, and the rage cleared her head.
Michael thought she knew something. Use that. Stall for time. Pick the right moment and fight back.
Roll the dice. "Killing me isn't going to save you."
Michael stopped poking at the fledgling fire and stood up, dusting her hands on her jeans. She gave Scully an indulgent smile. "I wondered if you fell asleep." She came over and sat down on the edge of the cot, gently pushing Scully's legs to the side. "You spent all this time coming up with that opening. Where do you think you're going with it?"
"Killing me isn't going to solve your problem. I don't care if you believe that or not, but it's true."
"And what problem is that?"
"You know what I found in New York. And you're afraid I told Mulder. That's why you plan to kill him, too. But it's not going to work."
Michael's smile turned smug. "I found the computer disks in your bag. Why do you think I needed a fire?" She walked back to the hearth and picked up a small stack of floppy diskettes from the mantle, waved them at Scully and tossed them into the flames.
Scully let her smirk for a moment. "I sent myself some emails when I was in New York. It's only a matter of time before Mulder checks my computer." She paused to let that sink in. "He may be doing that right now."
Michael studied her with narrowed eyes. "You surprise me. Not many people do that. I expected you to deny telling him anything and try to talk me out of killing him. Instead, you not only guaranteed that I will, but you've just told me how to prevent anyone else from finding out what you know." Her gaze narrowed to a squint. "Unless you're just stalling for time."
Scully weighed her chances and then plowed ahead. "Of course, I'm stalling for time. But I'm also telling the truth."
Michael's smile was filled with such venom that it sent a chill down Scully's back. "You know that I have to go back for your computer, whether I believe you or not. Very good, Agent Scully. I'm fairly impressed." She grabbed her coat from the chair next to the fire and pulled it on. "Not as impressed as you must have been to discover your serial rapist was a woman."
She was watching Scully's face intently as she said it, and Scully knew why. It took
everything she had to mask her reaction. She kept her voice carefully even. "Impressed is hardly the word."
Michael shrugged. "Call it whatever you want." She opened the front door, then paused to look back at Scully. "In case you were thinking that you might try to escape, let me assure you that you'll freeze to death before you find
civilization. You're twenty miles from the nearest house, and the outside temperature was fifteen degrees and falling the last time I checked." The smile was back. "I'll see you in a few hours. We need to finish up before daylight."
The door closed. Scully didn't even wait for the Jeep to pull away before she started on the tape at her wrists.
The fall was brief, but the landing was a bitch. Mulder hit the ground feet first and off-balance, pitched forward by his own momentum. Instinct made him tuck his shoulder in and try to roll. The result was a hard, twisting motion around the axis of his right leg, the only part of him that had managed to make solid contact with the ground.
Pain exploded in his ankle and knee, shrieked up his leg into his hip and dropped him like a stone. He landed on his face in the snow, both arms beneath him, hands clutching his leg. Some primitive urge to breathe made him turn his head to the side, but moving anything else was utterly out of the question. Movement, his brain screamed at him, equaled pain.
Don't move don't move don't move don't move.
But he had to move. He had to get up and find Scully and kill Michael Hobart with his bare hands.
But first, I gotta let go of the leg.
Hanging on wasn't reducing the pain to any noticeable degree, but he had the nauseating sensation that his grip was all that was keeping it attached.
Scully needs you.
He moved very carefully, first straightening his left leg, then pushing himself over onto his back, keeping the right leg as still as possible. Even so, it generated a fresh burst of pain. He lay on his back gasping in the frigid air, waiting for it to ebb.
The flashlight was gone. He'd been carrying it unlit in his right hand before he lost his footing. If he'd had it turned on, he'd have a chance of finding it. What was infinitely worse: his gun had been in the other hand, and it, too, was gone.
Get your ass upright. Now.
The cold was beginning to sink in. He was coated with snow that was melting from his body heat and would freeze solid long before it dried.
And the path he'd been following was now an unknown distance above and behind him.
Futility and pain filled his eyes with hot tears. He brushed at them angrily, then pushed both hands down in the snow and shoved himself to a sitting position. Teeth clamped together in determination, he half-rolled onto his left knee. He needed something to use as a cane, and he'd have to find it by touch alone.
He reached out his hand and there it was: a thick branch the diameter of his arm less than a yard to his right, buried in the snow. Whoever was looking out for him should have done so a few minutes ago, but he'd take what he could get. He pulled at it and held his breath.
It resisted him for a moment, then came loose in a spray of dirt and snow that flew directly into his face.
Sputtering and blinking, he turned it upright and planted it on the slippery ground, then pulled himself up.
Standing sent a rush of blood to his leg and brought an answering burst of pain that dimmed his vision... or would have if he'd been able to see anything but shadows.
But he was upright. And moving. One step forward with his good leg, followed by an agonizing slide of his right, and he was still standing.
He raised his face and took a deep breath. The scent of smoke was still there, stronger than before.
He headed toward it.
Michael started the Jeep and sat for a moment to calm herself. She'd have to talk her way into Scully's hotel room. It was doubtful that Mulder would be in his own room next door, but she had to be prepared for that possibility. Even if she were only faced with the dimwitted night staff at the hotel, it wouldn't do to act hastily. Not with the issues she already had on her plate.
When Mike had called her earlier today, she'd known what he was going to say before the words were out of his mouth. An FBI agent was there checking up on her. No, he didn't tell her anything. No, he didn't believe she was there to do a simple background check. There had been something in her eyes that made him suspect her motives might lie elsewhere. He had just wanted Michael to watch herself.
*Don't do anything stupid, Michael. I know how your mind works.*
She had almost laughed out loud. No one knew how her mind worked, that was the beauty of it.
No matter what obstacles fate tossed in her path, she overcame them all. And anyone who crossed her paid the price. Sometimes it took years, but she was a patient woman.
Jackie Acres had pretended to be her friend, helping her research the paper she was going to publish. Stealing her research was what she'd been doing, just like that bastard Michael had worked with on her first project,
only she hadn't caught on in time to stop him. In fact, she'd been sending him the final draft of her article when she found out he'd already published an earlier version himself, claiming full credit for the research she had spent two years completing.
She had been ready for Jackie from the moment they met online. Professional newsgroups. Professional backstabbers.
And still, she had almost straightened it all out. But for Agent Scully, there would have been only eight victims. Michael had been prepared to 'figure it out' after the last one. All she'd been waiting for was Jackie Acres' body to be found. Scully was forcing her to add one more. Now two.
In a few hours, Agent Scully would die at the hands of the serial killer who would be caught in the act by Agent Mulder. Agent Mulder would regrettably die in an exchange of gunfire with the killer who would then be identified by his DNA.
Thank you, Jesse.
Mulder had lost track of how many times he had fallen. All he knew was that dragging himself to his feet was getting closer to impossible every time. He could no longer feel the cold, and the part of his brain that still functioned told him how dangerous a sign that was. His sense of direction was gone. If he lost the scent of wood smoke, he might as well lie down and let the pain and exhaustion take him. The knowledge that it would take Scully, too, was all that kept him moving.
But even that wouldn't be able to overcome his physical condition for much longer.
The ground had leveled out, but the constant need to weave his way through the thick trees was taking its toll. His makeshift cane was a foot taller than he was, and it kept catching on branches above his head. It was part of the reason he kept falling down.
Seconds after that thought shuffled through the fog in his head, it happened again. The cane snagged on something overhead and threw him to the left. He bounced against a tree on the way down and grabbed at it with the strength of desperation, halting his slide. He leaned there, gasping for breath. And that's when he saw the light.
Yellow, flickering light that couldn't be anything but a fire. He squinted through the trees, trying to judge the distance. As he did, his eyes identified the outline of a window, and then the dark shape of a cabin. It wasn't more than fifty yards away, he realized with a mixture of joy and apprehension.
What the hell was he going to do when he got there? No weapon other than the stick he was using as a cane. It wasn't likely that Michael would let him get close enough to use it.
The cabin door opened, throwing a rectangle of yellow light onto the snow. He saw the Jeep at the same moment. Nothing happened for what felt like forever, and then Michael appeared in the doorway, looking back over her shoulder. A few seconds passed, during which Mulder didn't dare breathe. Then, Michael closed the door behind her and walked to the Jeep.
The engine started, sending puffs of steam from the exhaust. The lights came on. And nothing happened. She was just sitting there.
For all he knew, Scully could be inside the cabin, bleeding to death. She might not be alone, but he would have to risk it. Michael might leave, or she could just as easily head back to the cabin. He couldn't afford to wait.
There was nothing quiet about his progress through the trees. Gasping for breath,
stumbling and banging into trunks. Twigs snapping like gunshots under his feet. He could only hope that the sound wouldn't reach her inside the Jeep.
Just as he reached the edge of the clearing, the Jeep began to move. He leaned against a tree, hiding behind it, and watched her pull away. When the Jeep disappeared around the first curve, he staggered toward the cabin.
By the time she heard the Jeep's engine fade into the distance, Scully was already sweating inside the sleeping bag. The effort of picking at the layers of tape with her fingernails was already cramping her hands. The hopelessness was as draining as the exertion.
She was considering the logistics of rolling off the cot to give herself more room to try to wriggle out of the sleeping bag that was zipped up to her chin when the door burst open.
Before she could think why Michael would be back so soon, a familiar figure staggered into the cabin and collapsed in a heap just inside the door.
"Mulder! Thank God!" The words leaped out on their own while her mind was still processing his condition. She couldn't see him now, but she heard him gasping for breath. "Mulder, talk to me."
More gasping. "Gimme... a minute."
Not just breathless. Pain. He was hurt.
"Mulder, what's wrong?"
Breathless, slightly hysterical laughter drifted up from the floor. "Now there's... a silly... question."
Slowly, awkwardly, he pulled himself up using a long branch for leverage. Every inch of progress brought another grunt of pain. When he was standing-- more or less-- he came toward her. He was limping badly.
"Jesus, Mulder. What happened to you?"
Against all logic, he smiled. "I'm mounting a rescue. What's it look like?"
He sat-- or, more accurately, crashed-- down on the cot. "You okay?" He let the branch drop to the floor and reached for her face with hands that were raw and bleeding.
"I'm all right. Mulder, where are you hurt?"
He unzipped the sleeping bag all the way to her feet. The room air felt icy compared to the steamy heat from her body, and she shivered. He pulled at the tape, which she could now see was in multiple layers spanning a six-inch length of her wrists and forearm. They would need a knife or scissors to get it off.
Mulder seemed to realize the same thing. He glanced around the room. "There has to be something here to cut this with."
"What happened to you?"
He sighed. "I think I broke my ankle."
"Help me get out of this thing." She sat up and bent her knees to free her legs, then swung them around Mulder and got her feet on the floor. Sitting up for the first time in hours brought a wave of vertigo. It also gave her a good look at her partner.
"Mulder, you're soaking wet. Get over by the fire. You're hypothermic on top of everything else."
"No. We have to get out of here now. My car is down by the main road. She's gonna see it and know I'm here."
"She has my gun, but she knows you're armed. She won't..." The look on his face made her heart sink. "You don't have your weapon."
"I lost it when I fell." He ripped at the tape on her wrists, finally peeling off he top layer by a sheer act of will. "We don't have more than a few minutes."
He left her to work on her wrists while he freed her ankles. The tape around her knees was just for effect. It peeled easily away from her slacks.
She was still wearing her coat, though its effectiveness was greatly lessened by having been on her body beneath the sleeping bag for hours. Mulder, she was chagrined to note, was wearing his light trench coat. The cold would kill them before Michael did.
Mulder peeled the last of the tape from her legs and tossed it away. Then, he tried to get up. Scully was on her feet an instant later and, between the two of them, they got him standing. Barely.
He spoke through gritted teeth. "I can't make it, but you can. Don't follow the road, just head out through the trees. It's dark but--"
"NO! We go together, or we stay together. I'm not leaving you."
There was sweat running down his face; dark exhaustion in his eyes. He nodded. "All right. But let's do it now. I don't know how much time we've got."
Scully made a quick tour of the cabin, hoping against hope that Michael had left a weapon. There was nothing but the poker from the fireplace. Carrying that would just slow them down, and she needed both hands to keep Mulder moving.
It took a few tries to sort out the walking arrangements. Scully took his right side, her left arm around his waist and his right arm over her shoulders. Every step drew a hiss of pain from his clenched teeth. By the time they made it outside, she could feel him trembling on the brink of collapse.
The cabin was surrounded on three sides by dense woods. In front lay an open field. The moonless dark might provide enough cover, and there was no question that it would be easier for Mulder to navigate.
They were a dozen yards into it before she realized they were walking on a frozen lake.
If he fell, there was virtually no chance she could get him to his feet again.
She glanced back at the cabin after what seemed like a long time and found they had covered barely a hundred yards. Mulder teetered next to her, but stayed upright. Scully ground her teeth together and strained to support his weight as they struggled to keep moving.
Michael came around a curve less than a halfmile from the main road to find a sight that stopped her cold.
Agent Mulder's red Taurus hanging half off the road, buried in snow to the axle.
For a moment, she just stared, dumbfounded. Then, hoping that the bastard was lying in there dead, she put the Jeep in neutral, set the brake and got out with Scully's gun in one hand and her flashlight in the other.
He wasn't in the car. She spent several minutes searching the immediate area and found his tracks heading off into the woods. If he kept to that course, he would have been at the cabin well before she had left. So, he either got lost in the dark, or something slowed his progress.
"I hope you're out there with a broken fucking neck," she screamed at the silence, then realized how foolish that was. He could be out there waiting for her.
Or, he had been waiting for her to leave the cabin so he could rescue Scully.
"Shit!" She ran back to the Jeep and turned it around.
Thursday, Nov. 6th
Michael stepped down hard on the accelerator and sent the Jeep's rear end skidding to the left. She fought the wheel to regain control, but never let up on the gas. If that bastard had managed to find the cabin, she was going to have to kill them both right there with no opportunity to stage the scene. It was all going to hell, and she was damn well going to make them pay for it.
What had she overlooked? She couldn't afford another surprise, not now. Jesse should still work as the killer, but what if she'd missed something else?
What if Mulder had read the email Scully sent? What if that's why he was following her out here?
What if he'd told someone?
There were too many possibilities to deal with right now. Focus on the most urgent, and work from there.
She rounded the final curve, shut off the headlights and coasted the rest of the way.
The cabin door was standing open.
She stopped the car and grabbed Scully's gun from the seat. He'd had plenty of time to free her, but not enough time to get very far. Michael opened the car door and got out, flashlight in one hand, gun in the other raised to shoot at whatever moved.
They could have gone in any direction. Tracking them through the woods would be nearly impossible in the dark, but she couldn't afford to wait another two hours for the sun to come up. If she could see better, so could they.
She found the tracks leading from the cabin, but they didn't go into the woods. Michael stared at running footprints in the snow, following the line across the road and off into the distance with growing amazement.
They had gone out onto the lake.
Why would they do that? Why choose the only route without a hint of cover? She studied the tracks more closely, moving the flashlight's beam slowly across the snow.
They weren't running, she realized. They were stumbling, or one of them was. One of them was having a very hard time just walking. One of them was hurt. They chose the flat open ground because they had no choice.
There was a God after all.
Mulder caught the sound of the Jeep's engine over the rasping of his own breath, but he couldn't look back over his shoulder without risking his precarious balance. "Scully. Stop."
"I hear it, Mulder. Keep going." Scully was gasping now, too, pulling the icy air into her lungs in searing gulps.
He felt her grip tighten, but it wasn't enough to overcome his resistance. "You have to leave me. She's gonna catch us both if you don't."
"God dammit, Mulder. MOVE!"
He couldn't see her eyes in the dark, but he heard the tears in her voice. "Scully, I can't. I've got nothing left, and you know it. You can make it. Somebody has to tell them who did this!"
It was too much for his overtaxed lungs. Mulder's good leg gave up the fight, dragging Scully down to the ice with him. His injured leg folded beneath him and the pain wrenched a scream from his raw throat. He clutched at her in the dark, pleading with eyes she couldn't see. "Get away. Please get away."
And suddenly, he could see her face.
Light. And the roar of an engine.
"She's coming," Scully hissed through clenched teeth. "You have to get up. NOW!" She pulled at him with desperate strength.
The ice beneath him vibrated. Mulder looked toward the approaching lights. Michael was out on the ice with the Jeep. Coming straight for them.
He tried. God, he tried. But there was no way. They were both going to die and there was nothing he could do to stop it. "I can't."
Scully's arms closed around him in a fierce embrace.
Mulder looked back toward approaching doom. The cabin was invisible in the dark, but the Jeep's headlights told him that they'd made it farther than he'd thought.
Michael was rapidly closing the distance.
A hundred yards. Fifty. It would be over in seconds now.
And then, she stopped.
The ice shook. Hard.
A sound that was loud and muted at the same time. Soft and sharp. Mulder felt it more than heard it, a vibration in the surface beneath them.
The Jeep's headlights angled sharply upward. The engine revved to a scream.
Another thunderclap of sound.
Scully whispered, "The ice is breaking."
Michael tried to spot them with her flashlight, but their tracks extended beyond the range of its beam. They were a lot farther out than she would have expected.
"But you can't outrun a car, you bastard."
She jumped back in the Jeep and aimed it along their tracks. Revving the engine, she threw the transmission in gear and bounced out onto the frozen surface. A few seconds later, she had them squarely in her headlights.
They had managed to make it almost to the center of the lake. Huddled together, cringing like the backstabbing cowards they were. She should just leave them there to freeze to death. It would serve them--
Wait! That was the answer! No one would find them until it was too late, and she could make up any story she--
The right rear of the Jeep dropped abruptly and her forward momentum halted with a jarring twist to the right. Shock paralyzed her for long seconds.
GETOUTGETOUTGETOUT Her mind screamed at her, but all she could do was stare at the figures clinging to each other just out of her reach. She pressed down on the accelerator, spinning four wheels at once.
"Climb OUT, you BITCH!" She gripped the steering wheel and leaned forward, trying to levitate the mass of metal out of its mire by sheer will.
Then, the whole rear end of the Jeep dropped down through the ice, headlights clawing at the sky.
"She's going down!" Scully's triumphant shout rose above the shrieking engine. Her joy lasted a few seconds before a lifetime's worth of saving lives smothered it with guilt. "She's going to drown." She released Mulder and stood up.
He grabbed at her coat and pulled. "NO! Scully, you can't do anything. If you try, you'll go down with her, and I can't help you."
She hesitated, but then it didn't matter. The Jeep's rear wheels dropped completely through the ice, aiming the headlights upward at a steep angle.
It was too dark to see inside, but they could hear Michael screaming even above the engine noise. Cursing. Cursing them. Cursing God. A voice filled with hatred and fury.
"Let her go," Mulder breathed. "Let her go."
Scully watched as the front wheels cracked through the ice. The Jeep bobbed for a moment, floating amid the chunks of ice and steam as the hot engine hit the frigid water. It sputtered, gasping for air, then died.
In the relative silence that followed, they heard Michael's cries change from anger to terror. She was screaming for help.
She shoved frantically at the door, but something blocked it. Ice pressed against the sides of the Jeep. Water poured in everywhere, drenching her legs and then her hips in needlesharp pain that felt like licks of icy fire. The water rose to her waist. Her chest. Pain so intense that she couldn't breathe.
Panic seized her as the level reached her chin. She thrashed and pushed and clawed at the soft fabric roof. There was a latch somewhere, if she could find it.
"HELP ME! OH, JESUS, HELP ME!"
The water covered her face in the middle of a scream, and she sucked in a huge lungful of it. Too much to cough out. Too much.
Darkness reached for her, icy fingers closed around her throat. Cold. Cold. Breathe. Can't breathe. Can't--
The Jeep floated for a moment, nose in the air, wedged in the icy hole. The headlights were still working, but the engine was dead. Michael's cries intensified.
And then, it shook free of the ice and sank like a stone. Michael's frantic, panicked shrieks went silent with the swiftness of a thrown switch.
After a few seconds, the headlights went out. Eerie silence, broken by his own and Scully's gasping breaths and the burbling sounds of air escaping from the sinking Jeep.
Scully knelt next to him and wrapped both arms around his shoulders. "We can go back to the cabin now, and get warm. We'll be safe."
Mulder tried to smile. "The fire's probably out."
She chuckled softly. "There's a wood pile out front. Didn't you see it? All we need is a match." She tugged at him.
"Maybe it'll rain sleeping bags." He couldn't see her face, but he felt her jerk of surprise. "I was kidding."
She chuckled again, but it had a nervous edge that made him wish he could see her eyes. She stood up, leaning back to counterbalance his weight. "Come on, Mulder. We don't have all night."
The pain in his leg was paralyzing, but he'd be damned if he was going to lie out here and freeze to death. Get up, he ordered his exhausted body. To his surprise, it began to comply.
And then, the surface beneath them shuddered.
A series of cracking, popping sounds seemed to come from everywhere at once. The ice took a sickening lurch that knocked Scully off her feet. She dropped to her knees at his side.
"Oh, my God." Scully breathed. "Mulder, we have to get off this ice." He felt her getting to her feet again, pulling at him.
Another cracking sound, so close that it could have been right under them.
Mulder grabbed for her with a strength born of panic. "NO! Don't move!"
All around them, the ice became like a living thing, shifting and sighing in the dark.
Crystal City, VA
The phone rang as he was stepping out of the shower. Skinner threw a towel around his waist and dripped his way to the bedroom. He snagged the receiver from the nightstand, noting that the caller ID showed the Bureau switchboard number.
"Sir, I have an emergency call for you from a Jeremy Grissom in Scarsdale, New York. He says he has urgent information for Agent Scully. Your instructions said to call with any word about her, so I thought..."
"Give me the number." He repeated it as she spoke, searching through the nightstand drawer for paper and something to write with, finally settling for a stub of pencil and the jacket of a novel he had yet to read. "When did he call?"
"He's called six times in the past hour, sir. He said it was a matter of life and death. The last call came in just a few minutes ago."
What he'd said when he'd the office an hour ago to pack for the trip to Warren was to call him immediately with any messages. Why it had taken six tries and nearly an hour of effort for this call to reach him was a matter he would address later. "Thank you," he managed through clenched teeth, then hung up and punched in the number. It rang once.
"Agent Scully?" A man's voice, out of breath.
"This is Agent Scully's supervisor, Assistant Director Skinner."
"I have to talk to her right way. Can you tell me how to reach her?"
"I can get a message to her."
"Agent Scully was here asking about my sister's murder. She told me to call her if I remembered anything, and I found a name. Jackie must have been meeting this guy the day she was killed. I know it's him!"
Scully had been on her way back from Scarsdale when she disappeared. This man was the last victim's brother? "Slow down. Where did you find the name?"
"I couldn't sleep, so I started going through Jackie's things and I found her boarding pass for the flight she took to Pittsburgh the day she died. There's a name written on it, and a time."
It wasn't likely that even a small town sheriff would have missed anything so obvious. "I'm sure it's already been checked out, Mr. Grissom. Why do you think this has anything to do with her murder?"
"No, it _hasn't_ been checked out. She wrote it in a code only the two of us knew. We made it up when we were kids. To anyone else, it would just look like doodles. Hell, it took me an hour to figure it out. I haven't seen it for more than twenty years. For some reason, she didn't want anyone to know she was meeting him." He took a deep breath. "And then, when I called information and found out he lives right there in Warren..."
Skinner walked out to kitchen and flipped on the overhead light. He pulled a sheet of paper from the notepad next to the wall phone. "What's the name?"
"Michael Hobart. I can give you his phone number, if you like."
Warren County Sheriff's Department
Thursday, Nov. 6th
With network reporters sniffing around, Will had known it would only be a matter of time before the news of a missing FBI agent got out. He'd gone home a few hours ago to catch a shower and grab a few winks, fully expecting to find something like this when he got back. Still, the cluster of satellite trucks and local news vans was a bit daunting.
They were all over him the second he stepped out of his car. He brushed them off with the stock 'No comment at this time', weaving his way through the maze of microphones. When he closed the front door behind him, he found Linda holding out a cup of coffee. She looked much too alert for someone who'd had less sleep than he.
"You want the good news, or the bad news?" she asked brightly.
Will took the mug from her hands and sipped the steaming liquid. "Surprise me."
"I just hung up from talking to an Assistant Director with the FBI." She picked up a pink message slip from the desk behind her and held it out to him. "He said you were to call him the minute you got back."
Will took the piece of paper, glanced at it and stuck it in his shirt pocket. "What's the good news?"
"That was the good news. The bad news is that he's on a Bureau jet right now, on his way here."
"Christ, that's all I need." He headed for his office.
Will sat down hard enough to rock the ancient chair back on its wheels. After another slug of caffeine, he dug the message from his pocket and picked up the phone.
The call was answered on the third ring, the background noise so loud that Will had to strain to hear. "This is Will Kessler. I got a message to call Assistant Director Skinner."
"This is Skinner," a man's voice shouted. "I want you to locate a local resident by the name of Michael Hobart and have him available for questioning on my arrival. I'll be at Bradford Airport in ninety minutes."
Kessler puffed out a weary sigh. "You've been talking to Agent Mulder, I see."
The man was silent for a moment. "What about Agent Mulder?"
Will had no desire to carry on a conversation at this volume. "Michael is a woman," he said patiently, "and she's not a suspect. She's a victim. I'll explain when you get here."
The silence was longer this time. "I haven't been able to reach Agent Mulder. Do you know where he is?"
"Back at his hotel asleep, I would imagine."
"Find him." The call was disconnected.
The silence left his ears ringing. Will put the phone down and scrubbed at his face with both hands. Was the entire FBI crazy? Or just these two?
He punched the intercom button. "Linda, get Agent Mulder on the phone for me. Try his hotel and his cell."
"You know, you could talk to me directly if you'd leave the door open."
"Just get him on the phone?"
Christ, he needed a vacation.
The alarm went off, and Jesse slapped at it without opening his eyes. Two thoughts drifted through the fuzz in his head: he had to pee in the worst way, and the bed next to him was empty.
He hauled his ass out of bed and wandered into the bathroom to take care of the first item on his list. When he came back to the bedroom, he flipped on the light and gazed morosely at the rumpled sheets. Just one goddamned time, you'd think she would stay the night. Hell, just give him the illusion that he was more than a quick scratch for that itch of hers.
Then it dawned on him that she _couldn't_ have left. She didn't have a car.
"Michael?" He went out to the living room, expecting to find her on the couch. She wasn't there.
Walking past the front windows, he glanced out at the driveway. His Jeep was gone.
His whole body sagged with defeat. He stared at the empty driveway for long minutes, wondering just how he was going to explain another sick day.
God dammit, Michael. Why?
Mulder lay in her arms, limp and silent. He wasn't shivering anymore. She wasn't, either. In fact, she felt warmer now, but Mulder's body lying against her felt like a block of ice.
The damage to the ice was even worse than she had feared. The sky had lightened enough so that she could see, and she knew now that they were going to die here.
They were in the center of a frozen lake, ringed in the distance by tall, bare trees. A few dozen yards away was a gaping hole in the ice where Michael had drowned.
All around them, there were fissures and fractures in the ice. Black water lapped at the edges of the nearest one, so close that she could almost reach out and touch it.
Michael was going to win after all.
Mulder had been exposed to the frigid
temperatures much longer than she, and the effects of hypothermia were terrifyingly evident. He had become confused and disoriented not long after the Jeep sank through the ice. He'd kept telling her to leave him, refusing to believe her when she said there was nowhere to go.
And then, he had just drifted away. She could still feel his chest moving, but so faintly now. Soon it would stop altogether.
And she knew she wouldn't be far behind him.
Scully pulled him closer, rested her cheek against his soft hair, and closed her eyes.
Warren County Sheriff
Thursday, Nov. 6th
"When I have something to tell you, I'll hold a press conference. And if you folks would let me do my job instead of talking about it, that might happen a whole lot sooner." Kessler hung up the phone as gently as his temper allowed, but he imagined there was still some wincing going on at the other end of the line.
He'd been on the damned phone with one reporter after another for over an hour now, and he was fed up with playing nice. It was better than having them here in the office, but not much. And he still had the Assistant Director of the FBI to look forward to. A horde of reporters would be easier to take, particularly if the absent Agent Mulder didn't make an appearance damned soon.
Will picked up the phone once more and dialed Linda's desk. He could hear it ringing through the door, but no one was answering.
A moment later, Linda opened the door and gave him a weary sigh. "Yes?"
"Did you find Agent Mulder? His boss is due here any minute."
"Christ, Linda, there's not that many places to look. What the hell have you been doing?"
She crossed her arms. "I know how much you hate the spotlight, but try to remember I'm on your side, okay?"
"Sorry," he offered, then took a deep breath. "Did you try his hotel?"
She acknowledged his apology with a faint nod. "No answer. I even had one of the guys take a drive past there to see if his car was in the parking lot. It isn't. And he's not answering his cell phone, either."
Will shook his head. "That makes no sense." The man's partner was in the hands of a serial killer, most likely already dead. Where the hell would he be?
Linda was pulling the door shut behind her when Will stood up, shoving his chair back with a bang.
"Call the hospital."
She turned around, frowning. "You think he's been in an accident?"
"No, no. He was trying to talk me into putting a guard on Michael last night. It just occurred to me that he might have decided to handle it himself. Call and see if he's hanging around her room, or maybe trying to get in and talk to her."
"He thinks Michael is involved?"
Will snorted. "Apparently, and now so does his boss." He shook his head, hands planted on hips. "I can't wait to hear the story Mulder must have handed him."
"Your wait seems to be over." She was looking past Will at something outside the window. He turned to follow her gaze.
Linda nodded at the imposing figure striding up the walk. "I'd say that looks like an Assistant Director of the FBI, wouldn't you?" She gave Will's shoulder a pat and headed for the door. "I'll hold him off while you assume the position."
She smirked at him over her shoulder, then closed the door behind her.
_A world turned to ice. Crystal blue above an unending field of blinding white._
The earth shudders. Trembles. Falls away.
Her body jerked at the sound of his voice, arms clutching him close before she was even aware she was moving. It was so hard to think, but she knew enough to be stunned that he was awake.
She felt leaden and clumsy. Her body was curled around his, but she couldn't see his face.
"Mulder, can you hear me?" She tried to turn his head as gently as possible. Moving him was dangerous. It was dangerous for both of them. Activity would push the icy blood toward the heart, cooling the core temperature even further.
She tried to straighten up a little. Mulder's body felt so cold. Heavy. "Mulder, can you look at me?" She could see his eyes now. They were open.
_Wind drives a shower of ice dust into his eyes. Look, Scully. You have to see this._
It fills the sky. Silent. Dark. Unreal.
His lips barely moved. She leaned close and managed to catch the words when he tried again.
"Did you see it?"
"What, Mulder? Did I see what?"
_He hears his name, but there's another sound that blots it out. Roaring. Rushing._
She watched his eyes close again. Felt hot tears turn icy on her cheeks. Looked up at the empty sky.
"What do you mean, she's not there?" Surprise made the question come out a lot louder than Linda had intended. She glanced at Will's closed door and held her breath for a beat. "When did she leave?"
"She checked herself out AMA late last night, I don't know what time. Dr. Adams was not happy about it, I can tell you that." The woman's voice dropped to a conspiratorial whisper. "Does this have something to do with that missing FBI agent? Is that why the sheriff is looking for her?"
Linda's thoughts were miles away from this nosey admitting clerk, focused on trying to catch the conversation going on in the room behind her. "No, not at all. Will's just worried about her, that's all. I'll call her at home."
The woman's huff crackled across the lines. "If you say so, but I still think there's something going on."
Linda thanked her and hung up quickly to ward off any further questions. She dialed Michael's home number and listened to ten rings before she gave up. Michael's cell phone went straight to voice mail.
Behind her, the voices rose again. She could pretty much picture what was going on, even without the preview she'd gotten when she had ushered the A.D. into Will's office. Take one high-powered Fed with an attitude and toss him in front of the very territorial Will Kessler, and you got fireworks, for starters. And she was about to make matters a whole lot worse.
She got wearily to her feet and approached the door. Just as she was about to knock, a phone rang on the other side of it. She froze. That had to be Will's private line. It was the only one that didn't come through her switchboard.
Linda pressed her ear to the door and listened to Will's side of a very brief conversation.
"This is not a good time." Pause. "It better be." Long pause. Very long pause. "I don't care how you do it, just get your ass in here. NOW."
The receiver slammed back into its cradle, and Linda opened the door. Will looked angrier than she'd ever seen him. Suddenly, telling him her news seemed like an even worse idea than it had a moment ago. She started to back out of the room.
"What is it?" He was all but shouting. The A.D. turned in his seat to look at her, too.
"Excuse me, Will, I... I called the hospital and they said that... the patient you were asking about has left." She couldn't remember ever stammering in front of Will before, but the circumstances seemed to merit it.
"I know that." He glanced at the A.D.'s back and took a deep breath, then continued in a slightly calmer voice. "Deputy Kendall just called to tell me she stole his Jeep."
Will waved her off. "Send a car out to pick him up. I've got some questions that need to be asked face to face." He ran a shaky hand through his hair. "The whole damn town's gone crazy."
"Yes, sir." Linda backed out and closed the door.
Walter Skinner watched Sheriff Kessler make an obvious effort to get himself back under control. "I think an explanation is in order."
Kessler nodded. "I agree. I wish I had one for you."
Just before the phone call, Kessler had been hotly insisting that there was no way in hell Hobart could be involved, Jeremy Grissom's evidence notwithstanding. Skinner could see that hard line softening, but not fast enough. He needed to get off the damn dime and do something. "How fast can you get a helicopter in the air?"
"I've got the Park Service helicopter searching the area where all the bodies have been found. They're coming up empty."
Skinner stood up. "But they don't know what to look for, and we do."
_I won't let you do this._
Scully raised her head and wrestled her eyes open.
She was lying on her side, curled against his back. "Mulder?"
_You have to get up, Scully. Go back to the cabin and get warm._
"I'm not leaving you." She pushed herself up from the ice. She had to lean over to see his face. "Mulder?"
He wasn't speaking. He wasn't even conscious.
_You can't see a ghost and expect to see her alive. Both things can't be true._
Amber Lynn LaPierre.
Did disembodied voices mean the same thing?
"Mulder, wake up!"
Her hands were so cold she couldn't have found his pulse, even if it were there.
She leaned down and whispered, her lips brushing his ear, "You're not going anywhere without me, so don't even think about it."
Moving him was bad, that much she knew. Victims of hypothermia had to be handled very gently. Tachycardia could result from the slightest bump. Even if she had the strength to do it, even if the ice were stable enough, she couldn't get him to the cabin. Safety was within sight, but hopelessly out of reach.
You can make it, Scully.
She looked down at his still face, stroking his cheek with leaden fingers. "You're not gonna win this argument, Mulder."
Of course, neither was she.
Sunlight streamed down through a break in the clouds. Scully lifted her face to the warmth and closed her eyes.
The terrain was heavily forested, but bare trees predominated. There were few evergreens, so they could see the ground, for the most part. Cabins dotted the edge of a river that threaded its way through rolling hills. A dam and its iced-over reservoir marked the beginning of the National Park. Beyond it, the hills were higher and the forest even more dense.
"We've covered the area twice now," Kessler's voice came through the headphones in stereo.
Skinner glanced over at the man leaning against the bulkhead next to the open doorway. He pulled his mic closer to his lips and shouted back, "Then we need to try another area. A place the killer could have taken Scully and known he wouldn't be found." He paused. "A place Michael Hobart would know about."
He saw the sheriff's jaw tighten, but the expected tirade didn't materialize. Instead, the man nodded and shouted into his own mic. "Captain, take us west. We're gonna check out Iktomi Lake."
The helicopter banked to the left. "We'll be there in two minutes," the pilot shouted back.
Skinner sat next to the open door on the left side of the chopper. Sheriff Kessler moved over next to him and pointed. "That's Iktomi Lake."
From this distance, it wasn't much more than an opening in the trees. There was a snow-covered road directly beneath them. Skinner followed its path into the trees and found what he was looking for. He jabbed his elbow into Kessler's arm and pointed. "Down there. Mulder's car."
"I'll be damned," Kessler breathed. Then, to the pilot, "Head up to the clearing and land on the lake. We'll walk back to the car."
The chopper descended to almost treetop level. It shot out over the edge of the clearing, then hovered as the pilot looked for a safe place to set down.
"Holy shit, there they are!" One of the medics riding up front was pointing off to the right. "Two people on the ice!"
The helicopter rotated, and Skinner saw where the man was pointing. Two figures huddled together in the middle of an ice field. Neither was moving, but he knew it was them. Scully's red hair was like a beacon in all that barren white.
A moment later, they were hovering over the spot, the downdraft from the whirling blades ripping at the clothing of the two still forms.
"I can't set down here. The ice isn't safe."
There was a large hole in the ice a short distance from Scully and Mulder, with fissures running out from it in all directions.
"They were trapped," Kessler observed. "They couldn't get to the cabin."
He was pointing at something, but Skinner's focus was elsewhere. "Put this thing down somewhere NOW!"
The pilot's voice fired back, "We can't get to them across the ice. We'll have to send down the basket."
The two medics were already moving to the back of the chopper. There were four yellow bodysized metal baskets fastened to the starboard bulkhead. The men quickly detached one and hauled it to the open door. "You'll have to move back," one of them shouted, waving Kessler and Skinner out of the way.
There was nothing to do but wait. Skinner stood back and watched them lower the basket over the side with the larger of the two medics right behind it. The medic who stayed behind guided the thick nylon cable as it unreeled, leaning out the door to keep his partner in view. The two men communicated mostly by hand signals, rarely resorting to shouted commands through their mics. Skinner wondered if they were doing it to keep the rest of them from overhearing.
They brought Mulder up first. Skinner got a look at his colorless, still face as he was hauled to the rear, and his heart lurched.
The men snapped the basket into its brackets on the bulkhead with Mulder securely strapped inside. He was covered from neck to toes in blue plastic packs over a thick blanket. An IV bag the medic had been holding was suspended from a hook above Mulder. The two men grabbed another basket and headed back for Scully.
Skinner snagged the smaller man's arm as he dashed past. "Is he all right?"
The medic shook his head and pulled away.
A few minutes later, the basket rose into view once more, this time bearing a conscious and very agitated Dana Scully. Her voice wasn't strong enough to carry over the rotor noise, but Skinner didn't need to hear the words to know what she was saying.
As they carried her toward the back, she spotted Skinner and finally managed to work one hand free. She fumbled at his coat, trying to pull him along.
He followed, standing aside while they fastened Scully's basket to the bulkhead. The medics each took one patient, checking vitals and tending to IV's. Scully kept craning her head back, trying to get a look at Mulder.
"How is he? Why won't somebody tell me?"
"Miss, you've got to lie still!" The medic was struggling to get an IV started. "You can't help him, but you're going to do serious damage to yourself if you don't stop!"
Skinner stepped in, and her wild eyes snapped into focus on his face. He put his hand on her shoulder.
"Scully, he's alive," Skinner said, not sure if he was telling her the truth or not. "You can see him when we get to the hospital." That much, at least, he could promise.
She studied his face for a long moment, then sank back and closed her eyes. Her expression went slack and her limbs relaxed so quickly that Skinner wondered if she'd passed out. But then she reached one shaky hand toward him without opening her eyes.
Skinner took it in both of his and held on tight.
Warren Community Hospital
Thursday, Nov. 6th
Necessity made it a multipurpose waiting room. Such a small hospital couldn't justify devoting space to dedicated visitors' lounges, so the ICU shared the southwest corner of the second floor with surgery and obstetrics. Grim, worried faces intermingled with joyous smiles as new lives entered the world alongside others struggling not to leave it.
The decor tried to accommodate the room's dual functions. Cheery floral chintz draped windows that lined sedately pale-blue walls. Whimsical patterned throw pillows softened the lines of starkly utilitarian furniture. Pastel animal prints decorated one wall; the other, muted watercolor landscapes filled with bare trees.
Skinner had become entirely too familiar with this particular room over the past three hours, waiting for word on his agents' conditions.
That situation was about to change.
One thing he knew that all hospitals seemed to have in common-- regardless of size-- was the semi-controlled chaos of shift change. On more than one occasion, he had taken advantage of that golden half-hour to gain access to a restricted patient right under the preoccupied noses of the staff.
Since it was rapidly becoming apparent that no one was willing to tell him what was going on, he'd damn well find out for himself.
Finding the right room was no problem. Scully's name was printed on a pink index card tucked into a plastic sleeve affixed to the door. He glanced over his shoulder at the nurses' station to make sure no one was watching as he opened it and slipped inside.
"--listening to me. I said, I'm going to see him, whether you--" Scully's focus shifted from the white-coated man in front of her to the man at the door. "Sir, have you seen Mulder? They won't tell me what's going on."
The rush of relief put a totally inappropriate grin on his face. She just sounded so damned normal that he couldn't help himself. "I'm having the same problem, Agent."
"What are you doing in here?" The white coat turned around.
Skinner searched for a name to go with the face. It was the doctor he'd talked to in the ER hours ago. "Dr. Jacobs. Nice to finally see you," Skinner commented dryly, then stepped around the man on his way to Scully's side.
Jacobs was not amused. "I'd like to see you in the hall for a moment, Mr. Skinner." He reached out and snagged the A.D.'s elbow. "Don't make me call security."
Whatever constituted 'security' in a tiny community hospital wasn't going to deter him, at least not until he got some answers. "We can discuss whatever is on your mind right here."
Scully pressed the button and raised the head of her bed. "I'm getting up, with or without your permission. I want to know how Agent Mulder is doing, and I want to see him. Now."
Jacobs studied the united front and sighed. "I was on my way out to talk to you, Mr. Skinner, as soon as I finished with Ms. Scully."
They folded their arms in unison. Skinner spoke first. "We're listening."
The doctor flipped open the chart he'd been holding at his side, referring to it as he spoke. "Ms. Scully's core temperature has returned to normal. Her heart rate is stable and the circulation in her extremities has been restored. There's no permanent damage to the areas that were frostbitten."
"So, there's no reason to keep me in this bed."
Jacobs closed the chart and looked at her. "The treatment protocol requires bed rest for the first twenty-four hours. It's not uncommon for the body temperature to fluctuate initially. We need to keep you quiet until it stabilizes."
"Fine. I'll sit quietly, but I'm going to see my partner." She flipped the sheet back to swing her legs over the side, revealing a lot more skin than Skinner was comfortable with. It must have showed on his face, because Scully tugged the hem of her gown as far south as it would go. "Could I have a robe, please?" She was all but vibrating with the need to move.
Some of the stiffness went out of the doctor's stance. "Very well, but I think you should be prepared for what you're going to see."
His gentle tone sent a chill down Skinner's back.
If Scully's expression was any indication, it had the same effect on her. "What are you saying?"
"Mr. Mulder's core temperature is rising more slowly than yours, and he hasn't regained consciousness. That may be a result of his longer exposure to the cold, or it could be the added stress of his injuries. Whatever the cause, we're somewhat concerned."
Scully's focus turned to the closed door. "He said his ankle felt like it might be
fractured." Back to the doctor. "Is it?"
Jacobs shook his head. "We don't think so. The films we've been able to take so far don't show anything obvious, but there is a lot of swelling around both the knee and ankle. I expect to find soft tissue injuries when we can do a better exam. I don't think the damage is severe, but it's adding stress that he doesn't need."
She took a deep breath. "Is he responsive at all?"
Skinner took advantage of the brief silence that followed. "When can we see him?"
Jacobs folded his arms, the chart against his chest, studying them both. "Since we don't know why he's unconscious, I'm willing to consider that familiar voices might help to bring him around. I'll allow you to sit with him," he spoke directly to Scully, "but only as long as your condition remains stable. Is that understood?"
The doctor nodded, apparently satisfied with her response. Skinner knew better. Getting her away from Mulder-- no matter what-- would take a hell of a lot more force than this man looked capable of applying.
"I'll send a nurse in with something for you to wear. She'll also be bringing a wheelchair, and I expect you to use it." He opened the door and gave Skinner a pointed look. "Mr. Skinner, if I could have a word now?"
Skinner nodded. "Just give us a moment." He turned to Scully as soon as the doctor was gone. "He doesn't know what he's up against," he jerked his head toward the closed door, "but I do." He returned her faint smile, then got down to business. "Sheriff Kessler wanted to speak with you as soon as you were conscious. The doctor is blocking all contact, for now, but you'll have to answer some questions soon. Can you tell me what happened?"
Her posture changed, straightening as much as her position in the bed allowed. "Yes, sir. I'm sure the sheriff is having a hard time believing that Michael was the killer, but there's no doubt of that now. She knocked me out and took me to the cabin where I suspect she killed all of the other victims. Mulder was injured coming to find me. We were trying to get away when Michael came back and chased us out onto the lake. Her Jeep went through the ice. She probably drowned."
She looked up at him, and he gave her a nod of confirmation. "They pulled her body from the lake about an hour ago."
"We'll need to process the cabin and Michael's home for evidence," she seemed to be talking mostly to herself, making mental notes aloud.
The door opened. "Excuse me, but the doctor sent me to get the patient ready."
Skinner gave Scully's shoulder a rare pat. "I'll see you in the hall."
The nurse wheeled the chair inside and held the door for Skinner as he walked past her into the hall. She let it close behind him and came over to Scully's side.
"Do you need help getting into these?" She picked up a set of scrubs from the seat of the wheelchair and held them tentatively in Scully's direction.
Scully reached one bare arm out of the blankets and felt the chill instantly. Leaving her warm bed made her shiver at the mere thought. "Thanks, I can handle it. But I'd really appreciate a robe, if you can find one."
She knew as well as Jacobs did that she wasn't totally out of the woods yet. Her temperature would continue to fluctuate, leaving her alternately shivering and sweating for the next several days. Bed rest really was the protocol she should be following, just as he'd said. But there were larger considerations.
Mulder needed her. Nothing else mattered.
Skinner stepped out into the hall and found the doctor squared off with Will Kessler. From all appearances, Kessler was gaining the upper hand.
"You are interfering with an active homicide investigation."
"No, Sheriff, I'm interfering with someone who's bent on hampering my patient's recovery." He looked nervously over Kessler's shoulder, directing a silent plea at Skinner.
"Gentlemen, I think we should take this discussion down the hall." Skinner tipped his head at the roomful of visitors who had gone silent, watching the two men.
Without another word, Kessler strode off toward the bank of elevators. As soon as he was out of the visitors' line of sight, he stopped and waited for Skinner and Jacobs to catch up, picking up his narrative the moment they joined him, but at a noticeably lower volume. "Agent Scully is a material witness in a multiple homicide investigation. She may be the only one who can tell me whether we've still got a serial killer out there."
"You don't," Skinner cut in. "And I think you know that."
Kessler turned to Skinner, and the doctor apparently saw his opportunity. "If you'll excuse me, I have patients to see."
Kessler barely glanced at him. "Mr. Skinner, I've known Michael Hobart since she was born. I hope you can appreciate that I need to hear the facts from your agents before I accept the conclusion everyone else seems to have leaped to."
Skinner folded his arms. "Considering the fact that Michael Hobart kidnapped one of my agents and tried to kill both of them, I'd say it's not much of a leap."
"Maybe not to you, but--" He broke off, looking past Skinner back toward Scully's room.
Skinner followed his gaze and found Scully coming out of her room in the wheelchair.
Kessler stepped around him and headed straight for her.
The temptation to grab Kessler's arm was strong, but Skinner decided to let Scully handle him herself. With her focus on seeing Mulder, he knew she would make short work of the man.
The exchange was brief. From his vantage point, Skinner heard her confirm that Michael was the serial killer, and that she had tried to kill both Scully and Mulder on the ice. The details, she promised, would come after Mulder was out of danger. And with that, she took command of the wheelchair, leaving both the nurse and Sheriff Kessler to stare after her.
Skinner watched as she covered the short distance to an open door that he guessed must be Mulder's. She disappeared inside. A moment later, the door slipped shut.
Scully stopped just inside the door, taking a moment to release the latch that held it open. There would be no need for anyone else to keep an eye on him now. She was here.
The scene before her was yet another variation on a repeating theme: banks of monitoring equipment clustered around a fragile, damaged body working its way back from the brink. Mulder seemed to be spending more than his fair share of time in the starring role these days.
Scully wheeled right past him to the window where she fumbled through folds of heavy fabric looking for the wand that would open the drapes. "If they want you to wake up, keeping the room dark is the wrong approach."
They should have the television on, she thought. A radio, at least. He needed the white noise to calm his mind, whether he was trying to sleep or wake up.
She found the pull for the drapes and opened them wide. His window faced the rolling hills behind the hospital, a snow-white landscape striped with the shadows of leafless trees, topped by a stark, blue sky. Somewhere beyond those hills was a lake... She rubbed her hands up and down suddenly chilled arms and turned back to Mulder.
He lay on his back, his head turned slightly toward the window so that the sun fell on his closed eyelids. If he opened them right now, it would hurt. "Here, let me help you." She moved close to the bed, then discovered she couldn't reach his face. It took a moment to find the controls and lower the bed.
"There, that's better." She touched him for the first time since they'd been rescued, laying her fingertips gently against his cheek to turn his face back toward the door, away from the glaring sunlight. Chilly as her fingers still were, his skin felt cool beneath them. He didn't react to her touch or the movement.
Sitting here with the sun beating against her back felt wonderful, but she needed to be where he could see her. With more reluctance than she was willing to admit, she wheeled herself around to the other side of the bed to take up her vigil.
She parked the wheelchair against the bed and set the brake. Then, she carefully picked up his limp, right hand and brought it to her cheek, seeking as well as offering comfort.
"You have to wake up, Mulder. I'm supposed to be in bed myself, but I'm not moving from this spot until you tell me to. How's that for laying on the guilt? You see, I'm willing to use any and all means necessary to get your attention." That was a little too close to the truth, she realized. Especially given their recent circumstances.
"But I guess you really don't know that, do you? It's hard for me to keep that in mind, sometimes, that you don't really know anything about me anymore." Again, too much honesty.
The case. Neutral territory. "I wonder how you figured out that Michael was the killer. How you knew to follow her out there. You saved my life, Mulder. Again." She smiled at his still face, hoping against hope for a response. "I guess I should thank you, but I prefer to have your full attention when I do it. That means you have to be awake."
His hand was getting very heavy. She lowered it gently to the bed, wrapping it in both of hers. For long minutes, she just watched him breathe. There was so much strength in him, even like this. He seemed to exude it in great, warm waves that always gave her such a sense of peace and safety... Oh, how he'd love to hear that thought expressed aloud.
But she couldn't afford to tell him, could she? It wasn't the way they operated. Ever.
But... why? What was the point of continuing to hide from someone who was no longer looking?
"We hide from each other because that's who we are," she whispered the words to herself, loud enough for him to hear, if he wanted to. "It's the only way we know."
But that wasn't true, was it? It was the only way she knew. Even after she'd stopped pretending she didn't love him, that part didn't change.
Mulder had never really tried to hide from her. In the beginning, he had been cautious, and with good reason-- but he had never pretended to be something he wasn't. "If anything, you need to practice a bit more discretion. It's not always necessary to say everything that's on your mind, you know."
But that wasn't true, either. He wouldn't be Mulder without that brash honesty. "You might spend less time in hospital beds," she told him with a wry smile, "but the fire that makes you unique is fueled by your flaws as much as your gifts."
He was fire, and she was... ice?
He was open to extreme possibilities, and she followed along behind him, closing doors.
He was passion, and she was...
Stop it. He loves you.
Or, he did.
When things had changed between them-- God, she still had a hard time even thinking the words-- when they had become lovers, it had come about so naturally that there hadn't been time to second guess herself. It was afterward that she had started to ask the question that still tormented her.
She had been afraid for a long time that it was just the thrill of the chase that held the attraction for him. She had been certain that once she gave in to his silent seduction, the only lure she had would be spent.
It was impossible to imagine now how she could ever have thought so little of him.
Mulder had had no problem making the transition from best friend to bedmate. He'd approached their evolving relationship the way he did everything in his life, with the same
unrestrained passion and enthusiasm; the same hell-bent, no-holds-barred tenacity that drove him to seek the truth at any cost.
Being the focus of such energy was intimidating as hell. As much as she loved him, trying to match his intensity was sometimes too much to contemplate.
And then he lost his memory, and some small part of her enjoyed a fleeting instant of relief that was immediately smothered with guilt.
*Nothing like twelve years of Catholic school to hone that mea culpa reflex.*
She could hear those words in Mulder's voice so clearly that she glanced up at his lips, expecting to see them in motion.
"Twelve years of Catholic school is no joking matter," she answered her own thought.
And then, he really did make a sound. A soft hum, deep in his throat, followed by a faint movement. His head turned very slightly toward her. She gave his hand an adrenaline-fueled squeeze that elicited another moan. This time, it was unmistakable.
"Mulder? Can you hear me?" She moved from the chair to the edge of his bed and leaned in close. "Mulder, it's me." She stroked his cool cheek and spoke softly, lips brushing his ear. "Come on, sleepy head. You need to wake up so we can go home."
She remained in that position, her cheek against his, listening to his breaths quicken and grow shallow with returning awareness. The heart monitor's beeps speeded up, and she smiled against his neck. "You can't play possum when you're hooked up to the monitors, Mulder."
He cleared his throat with a soft rasp. "I was really getting into this true confessions moment," he told her in a husky whisper that was warm against her cheek.
Scully straightened up to get a look at him. Deep green eyes peered at her between droopy lids.
"Welcome back, Mulder."
"Cold." He was losing the battle with those heavy lids.
"I know. Me, too. It will get better in a few days."
Mulder shook his head faintly. "Share body heat. Both feel better." He pushed at the blankets, and she knew exactly what he was asking.
"Mulder, your leg is injured. I don't want to hurt you."
His eyes were closed again, but he was smiling. "You won't."
But I have, so many times.
"Scully, stop thinking."
She actually startled. "Mulder, stop reading my mind."
He lifted the blankets on the left side of his bed. She walked around and got in.
"They're going to throw me out of here, you know," she told him as she stretched herself against his left side. He was still a long way from warm.
"Better not," he mumbled, already halfway back to sleep.
"I'll tell them you said so," she whispered against his neck, pulling the blankets up to cover them both. She matched her breathing to his, and followed him into sleep.
Epilogue - Author's notes at the end
Monday, Nov. 10th
"There's Kessler's car. That must be the house." Mulder points with his chin. His hands are busy fiddling with the velcro straps on his brace.
Scully pulls into the circular drive and parks behind the red Cherokee. Everyone in Warren, it seems, drives a Jeep. "Wait, Mulder. I'll come around and help you."
But he already has the door open. "It hurts less if I do it myself." His voice is tight; his full concentration on hoisting his leg onto the driveway. The thigh-to-toe brace is heavy and awkward to maneuver. Even with the seat pushed all the way back, there's barely enough room.
They should have taken Skinner up on his offer. A Bureau jet would give him room to stretch out, even elevate his leg. Mulder didn't want that, for whatever reason.
"Got it," he huffs, turning in his seat to put both legs on terra firma. He reaches into the backseat for his crutches. "Scully, I told you, I'm fine. Don't make a big deal out of it." He jerks the crutches into the front seat, pokes them out the door, and hauls himself upright.
Apparently, not making "a big deal" of it is worth the misery of a commercial flight.
He closes his door hard enough to make her ears pop.
Scully opens her door and gets out, making a point of closing it calmly.
Mulder is already making his way up the broad front steps to the porch. At least part of his mood, she knows, is leftover from their debate this morning, despite the fact that he'd won. It is why they are here.
*Kessler's just asking us to stop by for a few minutes and take a look around. I don't see the problem.*
*And I don't see the point, Mulder. What does he think this is going to accomplish?*
Mulder had given her a wearily patient look that made her want to throttle him. *Michael was like a daughter to him. He's looking for answers, Scully. I guess he's hoping we can provide some.*
And looking at her house is going to do that? How?
Scully catches up with him at the front door just as Sheriff Kessler swings it open. He nods to them and steps back to let them enter.
The house is a rambling Victorian with multiple turrets and dormers stuck here and there as if it had been built in stages over a period of years with no thought to how the pieces would eventually fit together. The end result is a sprawling curiosity surrounded by sedate, Georgian brick dwellings. The front hall where they are now standing is long, dim, and empty. On the right, a steep staircase climbs to the second floor through a high, arched ceiling at least fifteen feet above them. To the left and right are sets of double sliding doors with inset brass pulls. The floor is bare, polished hardwood.
"Thanks for coming," Kessler begins, eyeing Mulder's crutches. "I think we'll skip the second floor."
Mulder straightens a bit. "I'm fine. If there's something up there we should see--"
Kessler waves him off. "Not really." He walks to doors on their right and pushes them apart. "Take a look."
Scully is closest, and she takes a few steps into the room. It's big, high ceilinged like the hall, and empty. The windows are covered with heavy drapes. She turns back to Kessler and Mulder, who haven't moved from the door. "It's empty."
Kessler steps around her. "Not quite."
Mulder follows him to the entry and stops. Kessler walks to the nearest window and parts the drapes. Dusty sunlight streams through the opening, illuminating the far wall. Kessler points, but Mulder and Scully are already moving.
"Dreamcatchers." Mulder leans heavily on one crutch to free up a hand. He fingers the nearest wall hanging. "Dozens of them."
Scully leans in close to inspect one of the more elaborate specimens. "It smells... old." The turpentine scent of pine boughs still clings faintly to the bent wood, but it's mixed with dust and age. The webbing is intricate, interspersed with turquoise stones and ancient, fragile feathers. "These look genuine."
The sheriff nods. "I thought so, too. And they're everywhere."
Mulder turns to look at him. "Everywhere?"
"Every room in the house, except for one. Not a stick of furniture except for Carl's room. Not even the kitchen." He moves to the door and out into the hall.
They follow him through the other set of double doors and find themselves in another large room, as sunny as the other was dim. The far wall is lined with windows that stretch from the polished floor to a coved ceiling, but the drapes here are thrown wide. The walls are papered in a floral print that matches the drapes and the upholstered chairs flanking the fireplace. A neatly made hospital bed and assorted equipment occupy the left half of the room.
Mulder hobbles over to the bed and runs a hand over the sheets. "This was her father's room? He's been dead for six months. If there's no other furniture, she must have been sleeping in his bed."
"I stopped by once a week while Carl was laid up, but yesterday was the first time I'd been back since the funeral. I had no idea..." He makes a sweeping gesture at the room, shaking his head.
Scully moves around the room, touching two fingers to the spotless surfaces. Even the mantle is immaculate. Michael must have cleaned it the day she died. Planning her ninth and tenth murders, and she found time for housework. "Was the house empty before her father died?"
"I don't know." The sheriff's face is lined with regret. "Carl was my best friend, but I could count on one hand the number of times I've been in this house. Before he had the stroke, it had been years." He scans the eerie perfection surrounding them. "This is like a goddamn shrine."
"That's exactly what it is." The words are out before she's aware of thinking them. Both men turn to look at her. And suddenly, she is about to reveal an aspect of her trip to New York that she never intended to share. "I talked to a friend of Michael's in New York. From what he said about her relationship with her father, I don't think this would surprise him at all."
Mulder's expression is unreadable. "You talked to a friend of Michael's in New York." It's a statement, but his tone makes it a question.
She keeps her gaze steady, fixed on his, and lies. "It was a hunch, Mulder. I didn't say anything because I had no proof."
He studies her eyes for a long moment. "I see." More than she would like, she's sure.
"She worshipped her father. Everybody knew that, including Carl." Kessler shakes his head. "But you suspected her of eight murders, and got in the car with her anyway?" His incredulous tone suggests that he doesn't believe she would do any such thing.
"The point is," she is choosing her words, "that her obsession could have been either the source or the result of her psychosis, but his death triggered the violence. The plagiarism was an excuse." Scully had given them her theory about Michael's collaboration with Jackie Acres as part of her statement. "The timing is right."
Kessler huffs out a breath at the floor, hands on hips. When he looks up again, he trades glances with Mulder, and then focuses on Scully. "She wasn't crazy."
Scully's eyebrows rise in unison. "You prefer to believe that she made a lucid decision to kill eight people over an academic paper?"
"I prefer, Agent Scully, to know what really happened. You don't have all of the facts yet." The sheriff is looking at Mulder as he says this.
Mulder is chewing his lower lip in a very familiar way. It is now obvious to Scully how he spent those two hours with the sheriff this morning while she dealing with discharge paperwork. "Mulder, you have something to add?"
He shrugs, not an easy motion with crutches. "I talked to a couple of Michael's close friends this morning. I think you've met them? Ellis McKenzie and Jerry Atchison."
The hospital orderly who had grudgingly helped her with the autopsies. And the medical examiner. "We've met."
Mulder tilts his head at the sheriff. "They agree with Sheriff Kessler that the change in her was dramatic and very abrupt. It's only in retrospect that they were able to pinpoint the time." Mulder gives the sheriff a nod, passing the verbal baton.
Kessler nods, "We didn't really put it together until this morning. She went to New Mexico to do research just before Carl had the stroke. She was living in New York at the time, and we only heard about it after she'd been living here for a while taking care of her dad. We think that's where she got involved with the dreamcatchers."
Mulder is giving her a significant look. New Mexico. She lifts one brow. "And...?"
"Michael was researching serial killers who claimed insanity as a defense." Mulder tips his head at Kessler. "Will helped her set up some interviews at the state prison we drove by when we first got here. Those interviews formed the basis of her paper. It's how she obtained the grant to pursue it."
"I told Agent Mulder about the dreamcatchers I found, and he told me what they might have meant to her. About how they could have affected her."
Scully decides that following this conversation is a lot like watching a tennis match. "And that is...?" She turns to Mulder. This ought to be good.
"More than just a totem," Mulder begins. "The common belief that dreamcatchers trap the user's nightmares has a basis in Native American religion. There is a belief that the dreamcatcher summons an entity who not only traps dreams, but can make them come true-- and not always in a way the dreamer would like."
The two men have moved from their original positions to face, her standing shoulder to shoulder. Scully crosses her arms and studies their eager expressions for a moment before responding. "An entity. So... you're suggesting, what? That she was possessed?"
Two pairs of eyes fix on hers. Two heads nod. "Yes." They even say the word together.
There's something reassuringly familiar in this debate. Scully drops her head to hide a smile. When she looks up at them again, her expression is carefully neutral. "Okay. Say that were true. How would you prove it, and what possible difference would it make if you could?"
Kessler looks both disappointed and surprised. "Would it make a difference to you whether Agent Mulder here was a monster or a victim?"
"The jury's still out on that one," Mulder chuckles, but without a hint of humor.
Scully starts to respond, but the sheriff holds up both hands, warding her off. "I know I'm asking a lot, after what she did to you. You have no reason to want to find an excuse for her, but that's what I'm hoping you can do." He shrugs, looking once more in Mulder's direction. "Either you will, or you won't." He looks at his watch. "I won't keep you any longer. You've got a plane to catch."
And he ushers them out of the house. When he shakes their hands, he lays his left hand on top and adds a brief shoulder touching hug. Scully is oddly moved by the gesture after the mood a moment ago. When she says good-bye, there's a tightness in her throat that should feel wildly out of place, but somehow does not.
Scully is careful not to hover as Mulder gets himself back into the car. She is equally careful not to comment on the theory he has just espoused solely, she assumes, for the benefit of the sheriff with whom he is suddenly on a first name basis.
It's guilt, she decides. Mulder, in his own inimitable way, has concluded that he failed to identify Michael as the killer in time to save her from herself. He feels the sheriff's pain, and this is his way of soothing it. Scully can relate. Her instincts about Michael were right, but for the wrong reasons. Perhaps, if she hadn't been so focused on personal issues, she might have been able to interpret the warning signs in time to do something.
The flight home is even worse than she anticipated. By the time they reach Dulles, Mulder has dropped all pretense of being 'fine'. When she tells him to wait while she gets the car, he just nods. They haven't talked much since they left Michael's house, though she can see the wheels turning every time she looks his way. Fingers drumming on the armrest, chewing seeds nonstop.
She leaves the engine running to keep him warm when she stops on the way home to buy groceries and fill his prescriptions. When she comes out of the store, he is sleeping and doesn't wake until she parks in front of his building.
She settles him down on the couch and puts the groceries away. "I'll make us something to eat," she tells him, and he doesn't object. It's just after six o'clock and they haven't eaten since breakfast. Macaroni and cheese isn't something she would normally choose, but it's one of Mulder's favorites, and she feels the need to indulge him.
They eat from paper plates and watch Jeopardy in silence. She tidies up afterward, finally giving up on the hope that he's going to voice whatever it is she keeps seeing in his eyes. "I'll stop by tomorrow after work and make you some dinner. Call me if you need anything, okay?"
He nods at the television, and Scully smothers a sigh. He holds his fire until she's almost out of range, one hand on the doorknob, fishing for her car keys with the other.
"You're really gonna make me ask, aren't you?"
"What?" She turns around to look at him, but his eyes are still on the television. "Mulder, what did you say?"
He aims the remote and silences Alex Trebek mid-answer. "I said, you're going to make me ask."
"Mulder, what are you talking about?" She crosses the room and plants herself in his line of sight.
It takes him a beat to look up. "I didn't get it until today. This really is just the way we operate."
His voice is calm, matter-of-fact; it's his eyes that give her a hint of what's coming.
"I'm not following you." She's wracking her brain for what could have put him in this mood.
"Excuse me?" She honestly can't believe her ears.
"You heard me." He leans back, fits himself into the far corner of the couch, and waves her to the other end. "Have a seat. Since you're going to make me ask, we may as well get comfortable."
"Mulder, I'm not doing anything until you tell me what's going on."
He chuckles, but his eyes are emerald ice. "You've really got that righteous indignation routine down pat, don't you?" The smile vanishes. "Sit down, Scully."
She approaches the couch as if she expects him to leap at her, not altogether convinced that he won't. Taking her seat, she lifts one hand, palm up. "I'm sitting. Now what the hell has gotten into you?"
Long pause while he studies her face. "The interview with Jacqueline Acres' brother was just an excuse to get you to New York so you could check out Michael Hobart."
"That doesn't sound like a question."
She crosses her arms. "Okay. Then, the answer is 'no'. I went to interview the victim's brother. The side trip to Michael's old apartment was secondary. Have you been stewing about this all day?"
"Let's just say it started me thinking, and suddenly all the pieces fell into place."
He may not remember, but Scully has seen him use this approach on suspects more times than she can count. He thinks he's got her cornered and is amusing himself until it's time to spring the trap.
"Okay, Mulder. Enough. Why don't you just come out and tell me what it is you think you know?"
He relaxes his posture, like a lion pretending not to notice the gazelle strolling nearby. "You know, I couldn't figure out why you wouldn't want me to get my memory back. When you gave me that speech in New Mexico about how this was my chance at a new life, I thought 'so, the old life must be even worse than she's saying'. I mean, we were lovers, right?" He snorts. "Or maybe, I wasn't very good at that, either."
This is part of his technique: change the subject and keep the suspect off balance, scrambling to keep up until she loses track and spills everything. And it's working.
"Mulder, would you mind coming to the point, if you have one?" Counterthrust.
"I'm a blank slate. Tabula rasa. You can write a whole new story. If I don't remember any more than I do right now, you get to start your own life over, too. No more politically incorrect x files. No pesky personal entanglements with your lunatic partner." He waves his hands in the air. Abracadabra.
But Scully has stopped listening. Mulder's apartment fades around her, and she's sitting in a cozy adobe house, two thousand miles west and five months in the past, with a searing New Mexico sun pouring in the windows.
*The aliens can't give him his memory back because they didn't take it in the first place.*
*What man wouldn't be tempted by the possibility of a new life?*
Helen Minton's words had made no sense to her then. They do now.
"Scully?" Mulder sounds worried, and she can imagine how she must look: mouth hanging open, blank stare.
Everything she has done since then has been meant to give him room. To allow him to remember or not, if he chooses. For his own good, not hers. God, not hers. But now she can see how it must have looked to him.
It never occurred to her to just talk to him about what she was doing. They never talk about the things that matter to them. The more personal a topic, the further in the background it gets pushed. Even as lovers, they never discussed what they were doing. Where it might lead. How it might end.
This really is just the way we operate.
"Scully, talk to me." There's a tremor in his voice now, and she feels his hand wrap around both of hers where they are balled into a single fist in her lap.
Not this man, she had told the woman. Not our work.
It was true. But the alternative is almost too terrifying to consider. He would never have willingly, consciously or not, wiped out his own past. No matter what the aliens did to him, Mulder would have hung on.
No, the threat had to be to the only thing that mattered to him more than his life's work.
It was her. Whatever happened that night in the New Mexico desert had been about Scully. Not just a threat to her life. Something much worse. Something beyond imagining.
And Helen Minton had known it. Somehow, she'd known. That was why she had asked Scully about their relationship. God, it was all so obvious. How could she have been so blind?
"Scully!" Panic, raw and pure.
Her focus snaps back to the present, to the wide frightened eyes fixed on her own.
The words tumble over one another as she struggles to tell him what she's learned, watches a kaleidoscope of emotions transform his expression: first relief, then surprise, and finally understanding. He still hasn't let go of her hands, but his grip is gentle now.
The hardest part is telling him what she thinks has taken his memory away. The magnitude of what must have happened to them both that night. She thinks she is prepared for any reaction, but not the smile he gives her at last.
"We have to go back," he says with utter conviction.
Her first reaction is to ask if he has heard a word she said, but she tamps it down. They don't operate that way anymore. "I know. But there are some things I need to tell you first."
He raises his eyebrows. "There's more?"
She smiles and pulls her hands gently from his, giving them an affectionate squeeze in the process. "You've read all of the case files, and your journals, but there's a lot you don't know."
His grin is wide and adorable, if a bit shaky. "No kidding."
"I can remember exactly how I felt the day I knocked on your office door for the first time. And what it was like the first time we made love." He blushes, and she smiles. "I want to tell you about that, Mulder. And everything in between. Not just what happened, but how we felt about it. What it meant to us. I think it's about time."
He reaches for her hand, and she lets him take it. They sit side by side, watching each other, looking away when they have to, laughing, crying, listening. Talking.
When it gets late, they move to the bed. She helps him undress, and he watches while she puts on one of his tee shirts and climbs in next to him.
They prop themselves up against the headboard with half a dozen pillows, and Scully resumes the story of their lives, leaving out nothing. Every so often, she sees his eyes light up with recognition. Not of the event itself, but of the remnants he's relived in dreams that-- until this moment-- had no meaning.
When there is no way they can keep their eyes open a moment longer, Scully turns off the lights and rejoins him in their bed.
Author's Notes - Finally! If you made it this far, I hope that means you've enjoyed this journey as much as I have. We have one more story to go, but I think it we could all use a break. Look for the final installment sometime this fall.
First and foremost, thanks go to my patient, supportive, and immensely talented beta team: Dawn, Sally, and xdks. I truly couldn't have done it without them. Any typos, plot holes, or other miscellany that remains are entirely my own doing.
Thanks also go to Tali for her relentless pokes and prods that kept me moving when the thought of sitting down in front of this blasted computer one more time was about as appealing as a root canal. She truly is Queen of the Stalkers and we owe her big time for all the fic that would never get finished but for her tireless encouragement and support.
And last, but never least, thanks to everyone who took an interest in this story and its predecessor, enough to hang in there with me through the long dry spells. You're the reason we write. Your enthusiastic encouragement means more than you can possibly know.
~deb - May 31, 2004
If you enjoyed this story, please send feedback to dtg
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