by Dawn Zemke
art by Theresa Filardo
by Dawn Zemke
KEYWORDS: Casefile, MSR
ARCHIVE: Two weeks exclusively on VS9, then Gossamer and Ephemeral. Others are fine, just let us know.
DISCLAIMER: Mulder, Scully and Skinner belong to Chris Carter, 1013 and Fox. No copyright infringement intended.
SUMMARY: How far will one man go to see justice served?
FEEDBACK: Gratefully accepted.
AUTHORS' NOTES: Many thanks to Michelle, dtg, and Vickie for insightful beta, and to Suzanne for both beta and medical expertise.
Justice, Interrupted -- Part 1
Behavioral Science Unit
"Gee, McNally, this letter from your mom is so sweet. It's got me feeling all warm and fuzzy inside."
Sal DeAngelo ducked his head to hide a grin, watching from the corner of his eye as Kyle McNally flipped Corey Peterson the bird. With no major cases pending, most people had headed home hours earlier and an unnatural quiet had descended on the bullpen. Peterson's smartass remarks were a welcome diversion.
"Damn computer virus." McNally dropped into his chair and began shutting down his computer, stabbing buttons and cursing under his breath. "I'm still not certain who got pieces of what files. It sent my mother a chunk of the profile I was working on. And I won't even go into the photos it sent Father Callahan."
Sal clicked his tongue against his teeth, grinning. "Have you been collecting dirty pictures from that sleazy Web site again? Shame on you, ASAC McNally."
"I seem to recall a few tasteless bookmarks in your collection, Saint DeAngelo."
"I got no idea what you're talking about."
"Don't know what I'm tawking about, huh?" Kyle mimicked his ‘Brooklynese’ with sarcastic accuracy. "Why doesn't that surprise me?" He sighed, running his fingers through thinning blond hair. "What are you still doing here, anyway? Please don't tell me you're obsessing over the Mitchell murder again."
"All right, I won't tell you."
"Saaaal." Kyle stalked over to Sal's desk and plucked the manila folder from the blotter, closing it and tucking it under his arm. "Gary Jansen is a serial murderer. He killed Monica Mitchell and four other women in cold blood. He's been tried, convicted, and sentenced. Justice has been served--let it go."
"Didn't anything about this case bother you? Weren't there any pieces that just didn't fit?"
"Then tell me why the guy broke in through the window when he could've come through the front door? Monica knew him; she'd dated Gary for nearly eight months."
"She also owed him money. Considering the threats he made in a couple of those letters we found, I doubt he'd have gotten a warm reception if he showed up on her doorstep."
"Okay, what about the simple fact that they'd previously been involved in a long-term relationship? He picked all the other victims outta a hat, strangers right off the street."
"Key word--previously. Gary and Monica had been split up for nearly a year. You know as well as I do that it's not unheard of for a guy like that to hit someone he already knows."
"The first time, maybe, or even the second, when he's learning his craft. But Gary had successfully whacked four other women, paisan'. He'd gotten good at it. Why would he risk gettin' caught by playin' in his own backyard?"
"He was pissed at her? Come on, Sal, how many times have we caught an UNSUB because he just plain screwed up? You know half of them subconsciously want to be caught."
"He didn't act like he wanted to be caught when he kept insisting he was innocent." Sal's eyes turned distant, haunted. "Or when he broke down in front of the judge and bawled like a baby."
"What did you expect--he'd just been handed a death sentence. Face the facts, Sal. We pulled several of Gary's fingerprints off the murder weapon. We found a shirt covered with Monica's blood stuffed into the back of his closet. The mode and execution of her death match that of the other women--the signature is nearly identical. And he was unable to produce a credible alibi for any of the nights in question. A jury of his peers found him guilty. Why can't you accept that?"
Sal ran a hand over his face, then propped his chin on his fist. "Because I looked into his eyes when he said he didn't do it. And I believe him."
Kyle stared at him a moment, then turned away, shaking his head. "I give up. I have to take a piss, then I'm out of here. If you're smart, you'll do the same."
"I just have to go through my email. I'm about a week behind." He opened his inbox, smirked. "Hey, McNally! Looks like I may be the lucky recipient of one of your dirty pictures."
Kyle flashed him the same finger he'd given Peterson and ambled down the hall to the bathroom. Still chuckling, Sal opened the email and began to read.
And the smile froze on his lips.
"If you think you can just dump me like yesterday's trash, you'd better think again. I'm not a whore and I don't intend to be treated like one. I wonder how the lovely Mrs. Kyle McNally would feel about her husband if she knew he was screwing around? Maybe she'd like a copy of this?"
And beneath the text, a photo of Monica Mitchell clad in a red teddy, snuggled in Kyle McNally's arms.
"All right, go ahead. Let me have it."
Sal nearly jumped out of his skin. He quickly clicked on a different email and pasted on a smile. "What a let down. It was a piece of the Whitecotten profile."
Kyle returned to his desk and began slipping files into his briefcase. "You always have had rotten luck."
Sal struggled not to squirm under McNally's smile, which suddenly felt sharp and cold. With trembling fingers, he forwarded the email to his home computer and closed his inbox. "Think I'll take your advice and go home. Vickie's had about enough of my late nights."
"Good idea. But you'd better return the Carmichael file to records on your way out. You know how they get."
"Yeah. Good idea." Sal logged off and gathered his own briefcase with unsteady hands. "See you tomorrow."
"I'll be here."
Kyle waited until Sal had disappeared into the elevator before moving to his chair, logging onto his computer, and opening the inbox. Being named ASAC had its advantages--including a master password to all the profilers' computers. He stared at the incriminating email for a long moment, face expressionless.
In three minutes the file had been erased and he was headed for the parking garage.
Thanks to a well-placed puncture, Sal's tire went flat on a dark stretch of road only ten minutes from his home. Intent on replacing it, at first he didn't see Kyle's truck bearing down on him. By the time he did, it was too late.
The growl of an engine, a blinding flash of light...
There were no witnesses.
The emergency room doors imploded, shattering the fragile peace of what had been a slow night in the ER. Two EMTs, faces set in grim concentration, shepherded a gurney bearing a man whose gray-white skin contrasted sharply with the vivid crimson staining his clothing and their own. On their heels, her expression a blank mask of shock, a copper-haired woman trailed the procession, speechless amid the volley of shouted information and instructions.
"Forty-one-year-old male GSW. Sucking chest wound, right quadrant. BP 40 over palp; pulse 130 and thready. Respiration rapid and labored."
"Cyanotic, no breath sounds on the right. He's on O2 at 8 liters by mask, two IVs running D5LR wide open."
Doctors and nurses flooded the trauma room, taking over as the EMTs deposited their charge and got out of the way. Lost in the flurry of activity, the woman hovered just inside the doorway, fingers pressed to her lips.
"Get the lab on the horn, I need type and cross match for at least six units, stat; a full blood work-up. And get a portable chest x-ray in here." The doctor in charge, a woman with streaks of silver in her dark, close-cropped hair, barked orders like a drill sergeant. "He needs a chest tube. Jackson?"
"I'm on it."
"I'm not getting a pulse--we're losing him."
"Code blue! Connie, get her out of here."
She resisted the nurse's iron grip on her elbow, protest falling from her lips without conscious thought. "I'm Special Agent Dana Scully with the FBI, that man is my partner." And as a final trump card, "I'm a medical doctor."
The nurse, a stout black woman with a kind face, hustled her toward the waiting area. "Not here you aren't, honey. You sit right over there--someone will be with you shortly." She was gone before Scully could open her mouth to argue.
Scully stood beside a plastic chair, its backrest cracked and pitted, for several long minutes before her legs folded and she dropped heavily into it. The trembling began in her hands, spreading quickly up her arms and down her legs until she shivered uncontrollably. She felt oddly removed from her surroundings, as though she were viewing them from the end of a long, dark tunnel. Her only tethers to reality were the warm stickiness of Mulder's blood painting her hands and shirt and the terrifying barrier of the trauma room doors.
Skinner's voice jolted her out of her daze and onto her feet. She watched his eyes catalogue her bloodstained clothing, saw the flicker of dismay before they went studiously neutral.
"I came as soon as I heard. How is he?"
"He took a bullet to...to the chest at close range. Massive blood loss...they won't let me...his heart stopped."
"Scully, sit down."
Skinner guided her to the chair and promptly disappeared--or so it seemed. She couldn't drag her eyes from the trauma room doors to look for him. He was back a moment later with a blanket and a cup of coffee.
"Drink some of this."
The blanket, draped across her shoulders, warmed her; the coffee, sweet and milky, eased the shakes. She sipped it slowly, one eye always on the motionless doors shielding Mulder from view.
"Scully, what happened?"
Her tongue felt clumsy, sluggish. "Didn't they tell you?"
"Let's just say I've heard conflicting reports. No one wants to assume the blame for this one."
Fury melted away the fog. "There is no conflict, sir. Agent Glassman failed to properly secure the suspect. He broke loose, grabbed Agent Glassman's weapon, and opened fire. Mulder never saw it coming." Her voice broke but she tipped her chin up, eyes dry.
"Agent Glassman is inexperienced. Some feel his partner should have..."
"Agent Glassman is a fool. Even the greenest rookie should know better than to..."
The trauma room doors burst open, discharging a rapidly moving gurney surrounded by ER personnel and equipment. Scully had thrust the coffee cup into Skinner's hands and was across the hallway before he could blink, squeezing between a doctor and a nurse to reach Mulder's side.
"How is he? Is he stable?"
"We're taking him up to surgery." The doctor, a young Asian man who looked fresh out of residency, held the elevator doors while Mulder was wheeled inside. Scully caught a brief glimpse of his pale, still face before the doors began to close. "Dr. Stanton will answer all your questions."
She stared stupidly at the elevator for a moment, then turned on her heel, nearly colliding with Skinner and the dark-haired doctor who had been spouting orders in the trauma room.
"Agent Scully? I'm Dr. Alice Stanton; I treated your partner."
Scully squared her shoulders and accepted the doctor's outstretched hand. "Dr. Stanton. This is Assistant Director Skinner, our supervisor. What is Agent Mulder's condition?"
Dr. Stanton gestured toward the waiting area. "Let's sit down." When they had each claimed an equally uncomfortable chair, she steepled her fingers and continued. "The bullet passed through the right side of Agent Mulder's chest, causing a dangerous condition known as a hemopneumothorax."
She paused and cocked an eyebrow at Scully. "Did I hear you say you're a medical doctor?"
"My specialty is pathology, but I'm quite familiar with the term."
"I'm not," Skinner inserted dryly. "What exactly is a hemo--?"
"Hemopneumothorax. To put it simply, when the bullet passed through Agent Mulder it allowed air to be drawn into the chest cavity, destroying the negative pressure that allows the lungs to automatically expand and inflate. This trapped air, as well as the internal bleeding, not only caused Agent Mulder's right lung to collapse, but his heart to stop beating."
"But you got him back." Scully's voice trembled.
Skinner cast a sharp, assessing glance at her.
"Yes. However, he was down for nearly three minutes before we did. I won't lie to you, Agent Scully. It was a very close call." Dr. Stanton massaged the back of her neck. "We put in a chest tube and got him stable enough to send him upstairs. They'll repair the tissue damage, debride the wound, suture the chest tube in place..."
"Dr. Stanton, what is Agent Mulder's condition--really?"
"If you're asking whether he's out of danger, I'd have to say no. But he's young and strong--obviously a fighter. If he can make it through the surgery and avoid any serious post-op infections... I think he has an excellent chance."
Scully pressed the back of her hand to her lips, her tightly closed eyes unable to disguise the sparkle on her lashes. She drew a slow, calming breath, then mustered a weak smile.
"You're welcome. If I were you, I'd grab a cup of coffee from the cafeteria before you head upstairs. You're in for a long wait."
Scully nodded, watching the doctor walk toward the nurses' station. She could feel Skinner's eyes on her, evaluating the uncharacteristic display of emotion, and tried to shore up her defenses.
"Thank you for coming down here, sir, but you really don't need to stay. I'll be fine."
Skinner took the hint. He stood, looking down at her briefly before speaking. "I know you will, Scully. And so will he." He started to walk away, hesitated. "If you need anything..."
She held on until he was gone--just. The tears--a mixture of fear, anger, and relief--left her feeling both utterly spent and strangely at peace. She shed her bloody trenchcoat, washed her face, and collected a coffee before heading upstairs.
Mulder was alive. For now, it was enough.
He crouches beside the crippled car, cursing under his breath at the last, stubborn lug nut that refuses to give. The wrench clangs against the asphalt and he pops sore fingers into his mouth in a vain attempt to soothe them. A gust of wind stirs the branches of the large oak tree and a wisp of cloud veils the sliver of moon, turning poor visibility worse.
He eyes the wrench distastefully; pulls out his cell phone instead.
"Vickie? You were right, cara mia, I should've called a tow truck...Okay, okay--no need to rub it in. Just come get me and I'll call someone from the house...You be careful, too. The road is tricky in the dark...Yeah, I'll be the good looking guy by the dead Mazda."
He chuckles quietly as he pockets the phone, warmed by the sound of her voice. She's someone he can count on, now more than ever. He closes his eyes, gut twisting, an image of betrayal burned on his retinas.
How could you? he asks the moon, the sky. Why would you?
He snatches up the wrench, throwing his entire body weight behind the motion of his arms. The nut wiggles, then slowly begins to turn. Elated, it takes him a moment to register the light splashing across his back and spilling onto the ground around him. He glances over his shoulder at the approaching vehicle, frowning when its engine kicks up from a hum to a roar.
Dropping the wrench, he stands, one hand shading his eyes against the glare. The car is moving much faster than the posted limit--not unusual for this deserted stretch of road. He steps back, well onto the road's shoulder.
His mouth literally drops open with shock when he recognizes the approaching vehicle. How many times has he ridden shotgun in that truck, out for a beer after work or to celebrate the successful close of a case? His feet unconsciously drift several steps forward, his hand lifting in an automatic wave.
Until the truck veers sharply to the right, homing in on him like a beacon. Too late, he understands, but his feet won't cooperate, tangling together in his panicked flight from the blinding lights...
"Mulder. Mulder, wake up."
Hands--one cupping the back of his neck, the other stroking up and down his left arm. Mulder blinked, sweat stinging his eyes and trickling between his shoulder blades, his gaze darting around the darkened bedroom. He was unable to suppress a shudder when the bright glow of a streetlight momentarily brought his fading dream back into sharp relief.
"I'm all right."
"Sure you are. That's why your heart is banging like the drums in that band Langly loves."
He deliberately slowed his breathing and mustered a smirk. "An unavoidable side effect of sharing a bed with a beautiful woman."
Her hand slid down his arm and gently pried the sheet from his clenched fist, her fingers twining with his. "Nice try. Want to tell me about it?"
"You asking me to talk dirty to you, Scully?"
He flopped onto his back, drawing her down and tucking her head beneath his chin. "No. I do not want to talk about it."
"Do you realize how long it's been since you slept through the night? Mulder, if you're not comfortable sharing this with me, then maybe someone at the Bureau, in the EAP..."
He made a disgusted sound, something between a groan and a snort. "Thanks, but no thanks. Scully, I'm a chronic insomniac and I've been coping with nightmares since I was a kid. There's no need to make a mountain out of a molehill."
"This is different, and you know it. It's the same dream every night, and it began after the shooting." Scully propped her head on one hand, tracing the puckered red scar beneath his right nipple with her index finger. "Mulder, your heart stopped. You were...dead for nearly three minutes before they managed to get you back. It's not unusual, in the face of that kind of trauma..."
"The only trauma I'm experiencing right now is the fear that I'll die from terminal boredom before they let me come back to work." When she simply stared at him, a small line of disapproval marring her pale forehead, he sighed. "Scully, you worry too much. You know, all things considered, I think I'm the one who got off easy this time. I just lay there and bled--you had to watch."
"That's not funny." But the rebuke was soft, and her voice wavered.
Mulder reached up and threaded his fingers into her hair, his thumb brushing back and forth across her cheek. "I know. I'm only saying... I'm all right, Scully. You think I'm still experiencing aftershocks from that night, but maybe you're the one who needs to let go."
Scully covered the hand cradling her face, eyes over-bright. "There've been so many close calls over the years... I don't want to consider how often I've watched your life hang by a thread. But it's different now. Harder."
"Harder? Because we're...together?"
A barely perceptible nod, teeth worrying her lip. "Not because it hurts more. But because I can't...compartmentalize the pain."
Though his eyes revealed only empathy, one corner of Mulder's mouth twitched. The small line between Scully's brows deepened. "You think that's funny? Mulder, I practically fell to pieces in front of Skinner! If he didn't suspect anything before, he sure as hell should now."
"I don't think it's funny. I think--I know you went through hell that night, Scully. It's just... I personally have never been very good at what you call 'compartmentalizing.' If we follow your logic, Skinner would have been convinced we were doing it like bunnies as far back as your abduction."
It worked. She struggled to hold onto outrage for a moment, lips quivering, until a giggle slipped past her defenses. Ducking her head, face buried in his neck, she snickered helplessly.
"Oh, God. I'm remembering all the times I told him I'd cover your back. Gives the term a whole new meaning, don't you th--"
A giggling Scully was both rare and irresistible. Mulder silenced her laughter with a long kiss, then touched his forehead to hers. He pitched his voice low, husky. "Speaking of doing it like bunnies..."
Scully shivered when his lips grazed her neck. "I have to be at work in five hours, Mulder."
"No problem." His teeth found the spot just behind her left ear, the one that turned her into a puddle of goo. "What I've got in mind won't take nearly that long..."
"You know, SCREW you! We're done!" Words spat out in a fit of anger.
"Okay. Let's meet her." With one arm thrown wide in a gesture of showmanship, the talk show host introduced his next guest.
A loud round of applause, cheering, and whistling as "she" turned out to be a "he."
"Heeey, howya doin', Jairry? Hi, Jairry. Listen. Jairry, I'm here to let you know that Chuck is not gonna be wit' her no more. He's comin' home with ME, child."
"JERRY! JERRY! JERRY!"
Mulder tossed the remote onto the coffee table, lips curling in disgust. If he had to sit through one more minute of daytime television, he would not be held responsible for his actions.
Flopping against the back of the couch, he scrubbed at his face, hands scraping roughly along his unshaven jaw. He lifted his right arm and took a sniff, wincing as he imagined Scully's reaction when she came home from work to find him still sitting there, unwashed and brain-dead.
He leaned forward, both arms resting on his knees, and cast a guilty eye around the living room. Not only did he smell like a pig, he was living like one too. Sighing heavily, Mulder pushed himself to his feet, swaying slightly when the sudden change in position sent the blood rushing straight from his head to his feet.
For five weeks he'd done nothing more strenuous than dress and feed himself--oh, and suffer through those torture sessions disguised as physical therapy--yet he felt as if he'd just run a marathon. The less he did, the less he felt like doing. If he didn't snap out of it soon, no amount of arguing, cajoling or sweet-talking on his part would stop Scully from packing him off to a Bureau counselor quicker than you could say "psychoanalysis."
Guarding the right side of his chest with his left hand, Mulder drew in a deep breath and it out slowly. He shuffled toward the bedroom, collecting his carelessly discarded sweatshirt from the back of the couch, his sneakers from under the coffee table, and the latest issue of "Eye Spy"--courtesy of Langly--from where it had fallen down beside the couch. On his way back, he gathered up several items of crockery and glassware that were currently decorating Scully's apartment like cheap china ornaments.
Depositing the dirty cups and plates into the sink, Mulder padded out of the kitchen and headed for the bathroom.
He studied his face in the mirror, smearing shaving cream over his jaw and cheeks. Still pale, he'd yet to regain the weight lost following surgery and an extended hospital stay. It had been close this time. He knew that. When first released from the hospital, he'd wondered if he'd ever get back to feeling normal again. Weakness had consumed him from head to toe, so crippling he'd had to depend on Scully for even his most basic needs in those first few days of freedom.
Now that he was up and about again, he desperately wanted to work. To forget range-of-motion exercises and sink his teeth into an X-File. All attempts to bypass Scully's Nazi-like supervision, however, had been thwarted by his physical therapist, who had steadfastly refused to sign the forms allowing him to regain field agent status. During his last session, she'd grudgingly agreed that he could resume limited desk duty in a week. Not until he could prove without doubt that he was pain-free and had regained his prior strength and stamina would he be allowed in the field.
Mulder skillfully worked the razor through a mask of shaving cream, leaving a path of baby-smooth skin in its wake. The instinct of performing a task by rote took over. He let his mind wander as he gazed vacantly into the mirror, watching his face shift and shimmer out of focus, colors blending together, his features morphing like reflections in a funhouse mirror. Until, for a second, the man looking back at him ceased to resemble himself.
His hand jerked, the razor slicing skin as it slipped through his fingers. Spinning as if in slow motion, it hit the basin with a loud clatter, splattering little globules of shaving cream on the tiles and floor. Mulder thrust his chin forward, fingers pressed over the now bleeding cut, stopping mere inches from the glass. No sign of the stranger who had momentarily taken his place. Heart thumping in his chest, he reached out a trembling hand and tentatively ran his index finger over the mirror. Cool. Smooth. Normal. No bumps, wrinkles, or cracks. Nothing to account for what he'd just seen.
Huffing quietly to himself, but still eyeing the mirror suspiciously, he figured that maybe Scully was right. Maybe the nightmares were getting to him.
He shook his head, attempting to clear the image stubbornly imprinted on his mind--a dark-haired man with olive skin and intense black eyes staring back at him. He was quite certain the man was no one he knew, yet...disquietingly familiar.
Picking up the razor, Mulder finished his shave with quick, well- practiced strokes. He rinsed the blade, left it on the sink, and ambled over to the shower, peeling off his sweat-stained undershirt as he went.
Once under the spray, Mulder leaned against the tile, one hand held protectively across his chest to cover healing, still-sensitive skin. He focused his mind on how good the hot water felt beating down on tired, tight muscles and effectively shoved the stranger from his thoughts.
After donning jeans and a clean sweatshirt, he pulled on his sneakers and tied the laces. He needed to get out for awhile. Clear his head. Being cooped up in the apartment was making him stir- crazy--no wonder he was seeing things. Maybe he'd go to the grocery store, buy something for dinner. He smiled to himself as images of Scully walking through the door to a home-cooked meal flashed through his mind. Scooping up his car keys with one hand and grabbing his leather jacket from the coat tree with the other, he headed out the door.
Mulder pulled the car into the stream of traffic, mentally ticking off possible dinner menus. The first time he'd made dinner for them both, Scully had been convinced he'd paid someone else to cook it. He had carefully explained to her that just because he chose not to cook didn't mean he was incapable, feigning indignation when she'd demanded to see evidence of his endeavor. And why should he have expected anything less? Scully practically wore the motto "seeing is believing" tattooed on her forehead.
He laughed quietly as he recalled her reaction to the mountain of saucepans and dishes precariously stacked in and around the kitchen sink. Standing by his refrigerator, cheeks pink, her mouth opened and closed as she struggled to form an apology. After that night, she'd never doubted his culinary prowess again.
Mulder stopped at an intersection, left turn signal blinking insistently. He watched the flow of cars, vans, and trucks without really seeing them, fingers lightly tapping the steering wheel to the beat of the Rolling Stones while he waited for the light to change.
When red turned to green, giving him the all clear, Mulder gently depressed the gas pedal and the car eased forward. A brightly- colored blur; the high-pitched screech of tires. Mulder slammed on the brakes, narrowly missing the small yellow convertible that swerved, then plowed on through the intersection. A group of rowdy teenagers waved their hands in the air and whooped in delight as they ran the red light.
Heart hammering in his chest, Mulder ran trembling fingers through his hair. Squealing tires. Bright lights. The roar of an engine. A truck bearing down... Hazel eyes grew wide, then narrowed. Pupils dilated, leaving just a tiny ring of green at the edges.
Mulder stared ahead, unblinking, face bland yet strangely focused. Oblivious to the horns blaring behind him.
With steady, controlled hands, he gripped the steering wheel, flicking the indicator off with one finger. Taking a deep breath, he pressed the gas pedal and the car lurched forward. Instead of making the left turn that would take him to the Qwick Mart, however, he drove straight ahead toward Connecticut Avenue, following the signs to Route 185 just outside the city limits.
4424 Eagle Court
Suburbia yawned out before him, conservative and predictable. Condominiums and townhouses stood tall and uniform along a quiet, tree-lined street. Leaves fluttered gently into the gutter. They rolled and danced along the sidewalk, covering lawns and flowerbeds with a layer of brown and gold.
On any other day, he might have appreciated the subtle beauty, the warm, secure feeling of living in a close-knit neighborhood. Invitations to barbecues and summer picnics; children running barefoot and laughing; kicking soccer balls and shooting hoops.
But not today. Not here.
His stomach twisted, tight and painful, lips pressing into a thin, hard line. How could he have been so blind? Why? The question hounded him, but there was no logical answer. The man had been his friend, his paisano. Was he really such a poor judge of character?
Welcomed into his home, they had shared pasta and beer, laughed together as they retold anecdotes about their fellow agents. Entertained each other with stories of miraculous solve rates and exaggerated acts of heroism where they were always the stars.
He hadn't wanted to believe it. Felt sure there must be another explanation. But now, there was no denying the truth. Reaffirming his resolve to set things right, he pushed the car faster, no longer idly contemplating life in the suburbs and a friendship he now knew to be a lie. Ignoring the buildings around him, he steered the car down a familiar side street, toward a house he had come to know like the back of his hand.
The car coasted to a stop beside the curb.
Across from an unfamiliar building.
In the middle of an unfamiliar neighborhood.
Mulder leaned his head back against the headrest, pushing the heels of both hands into tired, burning eyes. His head pounded as he tried to think through the situation. Where the hell was he? And more to the point, how did he get here?
Swiveling his head to the right, brow creased in confusion, he stared at the two-story duplex outside the window. A strong feeling of deja vu sent tingling fingers of ice running over his body. He shivered. The building seemed familiar somehow, but the feelings it stirred up left a queasy sense of foreboding in his stomach.
Deciding that offense was the best form of defense, Mulder tugged on the handle and shouldered the car door open. He stood on the pavement, hand shielding his eyes from the mid-afternoon sun. A short, cement path bridged the distance between sidewalk and front door. A white rattan chair sat on a small porch to the left of the door, and a pot bearing the remains of a dry, shriveled geranium stood to the right.
He sidestepped a tired-looking "For Sale" sign embedded in the front yard, the tiny thatch of weeds huddled close to its wooden post bearing witness that the house had been on the market for some time.
Wiping a small cobweb from the doorbell, he firmly pressed the button, ears tuned for the sound of approaching footsteps. But, other than the bell's hollow chime, there was silence. Already formulating his next plan of action, Mulder rapped loudly on the wooden door, just to be certain the house was empty.
A few minutes later, puffing slightly from the effort of climbing the side fence, Mulder stood at the kitchen window, hands framing his face as he pressed his nose against the dusty pane of glass. A small gap in the curtains revealed empty shelves and counters, devoid of the usual paraphernalia that would normally accompany a thriving household. By craning his neck slightly to the left, Mulder was able to get a limited view of the living room. Stark and empty. No furniture anywhere to be seen.
He puffed a small sigh of relief. There was time to take a good look around without fear of discovery. A tall, wood fence on the eastern side of the unit sheltered him from nosy neighbors.
As he made his way around back, he found only chain-link fencing between the house and its attached neighbor. Muttering quietly under his breath about lack of privacy, he decided to go for broke. Taking a quick glance over the fence, he strode confidently up to the back door and jiggled the knob.
Locked. Well, what had he expected?
Stepping back he peered up at the second story windows. All shuttered against the world with tightly drawn curtains.
About ready to admit defeat, Mulder hesitated, then dropped to his haunches when a quick flicker of yellow drew his attention. Caught amongst a tangle of overgrown dandelions was a ten-inch length of plastic, flapping uselessly in the gentle breeze. Mulder immediately recognized it for what it was.
A torn strip of yellow and black tape, used for cordoning off crime scenes.
Dread pierced him and bile rose in his throat. He pursed his lips together and swallowed hard, fighting back the inexplicable nausea.
Pulling the errant piece of thin plastic free, Mulder rolled it up and shoved it into his pocket. He wasn't even sure why; just had a feeling it was important.
Mulder shot to his feet and spun around, feeling like a teenager caught soaping windows. A young woman stood at the chain-link fence, brown hair caught into a ponytail and a baby propped on her hip.
"Can I help you--sir?" The last was an afterthought, dripping with suspicion.
Mulder crossed the yard, rubbing his palms against his jeans to remove the grit. He pasted on his most winsome smile and extended his hand.
"Hello. I'm..." For an instant it was as if his brain locked, and he fumbled awkwardly for his own name. "...Fox Mulder."
She studied the hand, then his face with narrowed eyes. "Well, Mr. Mulder, I can't help wondering why you've been prowling around that house like a cat sizing up its next meal."
He chuffed softly, abruptly conscious of his worn blue jeans and leather jacket. "It's not the way it might appear. I'm an FBI agent."
She shifted the squirming baby to the other hip, one eyebrow executing an amazing Scully imitation. "Well, at least you're creative. I have to admit, I've never heard THAT one before."
Mulder opened his mouth to protest; settled for producing his ID instead. She leaned in close, eyes darting between the picture and his face, then nodded.
"I'm sorry about that," she said, in a tone that was anything but. "After all the goings on over the past year, I've learned you can't be too careful--just too trusting."
"Perfectly understandable, Ms..."
"Gilmore. Wendy Gilmore. Do you mind telling my why you're here? I mean, I just assumed once they convicted Monica's killer we wouldn't be seeing the police anymore. The house has been on the market for nearly three months."
"Well...you're correct, actually. I was just...ah...checking that we'd cleared the scene. Good thing I did." Mulder pulled the piece of yellow crime tape from his pocket. "Not exactly the best advertisement for selling a house."
"At this point I'd be willing to try anything." Wendy pried the end of her ponytail from the baby's fist. "It's been kind of eerie seeing the place stand empty. Just another reminder of Monica's death." She frowned. "I don't remember seeing you when the other agents questioned me."
"I came late to the party." Mulder pressed on when her eyes darkened at the flip choice of words. "I really don't know much about the case. You said she was murdered?"
Wendy clutched the baby closer to her breast, brushing her lips across his downy head. "She was stabbed--with her own kitchen knife. How creepy is that?" She swallowed hard. "She didn't deserve to die that way. She had everything going for her--beauty, brains..."
"Sounds like you thought highly of her."
Wendy huffed, amused. "Agent Mulder, I love my family. But lately the highlight of my day is sharing a dinner of Hamburger Helper with my husband. Sometimes I even get to sit down." As if to illustrate her point, the baby emitted a throaty whine and kicked his chubby legs.
"Monica Mitchell had a high-paying job, an exciting social life, and a body that most of us can only dream of. Let's just say I got a vicarious thrill listening to her talk."
Mulder's smile felt forced. A vague, intangible disquiet had taken root somewhere in his chest from the moment Wendy began discussing her neighbor's murder. An extension of the overall "wrongness" he'd felt since inexplicably finding himself at a crime scene instead of the grocery store.
"At least they caught the guy who did it," he said, glancing over his shoulder when a sudden gust of wind rattled a shutter. "It may be too late for your neighbor, but he won't be able to hurt anyone else."
Wendy's gaze turned distant and she slowly shook her head. "I suppose. It's just...I never would have thought him capable of such a thing, you know?"
"Monica's ex. I met the guy, talked to him several times, and he seemed real nice. Not that I'm naïve enough to think he'd have the word "killer" tattooed on his forehead, but I guess I thought I was a better judge of character."
"Her ex-husband was the killer?"
It was more a verbal expression of his surprise than a question, and Mulder momentarily forgot his audience. Wendy's eyes clouded with suspicion and her voice cooled ten degrees.
"Not husband. Boyfriend. And he didn't just kill Monica; there were four other women, too. For someone who's supposedly involved in the case, you sure don't know much. Don't they work with you new guys--bring you up to speed?"
"I'm kind of an independent, 'hands on' learner."
She squinted at him as if gauging his sincerity. "What happened to that other agent--the one who asked me all the questions? You should talk to him." When Mulder hesitated, searching for a response, she continued impatiently. "You know--the Italian guy. Sam...no, Sal. He said his name was Sal something."
She removed her hair from the baby's fist yet again, this time provoking an ear-splitting wail. Struggling to retain her grip on the now wriggling, flailing child, she moved away from the fence.
"I have to go. Jack needs a bottle and my husband should be home any minute. But I guess you'll be leaving now anyway, won't you, Agent Mulder?"
Mulder's lips twitched at the less than subtle message beneath the innocent question. "Yes, I will. Thank you for your time, Ms. Gilmore. You've been very helpful."
She backed toward the house with a shake of her head. "If you don't mind me saying so, Agent Mulder, you really ought to do your homework next time you get a new case. They're never going to trust you with a real investigation if you don't know what's going on."
"I'll keep that in mind."
Mulder watched her until she disappeared into the house, then walked slowly back to his car. He slid behind the wheel and plugged the key into the ignition, yet made no attempt to start the engine. Instead he stared at the vacant house, thinking about Monica Mitchell and wondering why the death of a stranger left him feeling so unsettled and confused. He scrubbed at the throbbing behind his right eye, abruptly exhausted.
Still eyeing the house, he turned the key. With a sigh, he grasped the gear shift, nearly groaning aloud when his gaze caught the LED display on the dash.
Scully would be home by now, wondering where he'd gone, why her apartment looked like a landfill, and what was for dinner.
He was a dead man.
Putting the car into drive and Monica Mitchell out of his mind, he hit the gas and headed home.
Scully nudged the door shut and slipped her keys back into her pocket. Shadows bathed the apartment and the television stood mute. She moved quietly down the hallway to the bedroom, half expecting to find him draped across the mattress, asleep. Despite his incessant moaning and groaning about returning to work, Mulder had yet to regain his stamina. The legendary insomniac was now known to nod off before 9:00, and often napped during the day.
The nightmares weren't helping.
She paused in the doorway to the bedroom, a frown creasing her brow. Empty. He'd obviously gone out--but where? He'd known she would be home early tonight, had made several lewd suggestions regarding an "appetizer" before dinner. She was a bit embarrassed to realize just how eagerly she'd anticipated the possibilities on the drive home.
Sighing, she put away her briefcase and changed into jeans and an oversized sweatshirt. Shoving the sleeves to her elbows, she then made a circuit through the apartment, collecting dirty glasses and sunflower seed husks. Once in the kitchen, she added her findings to those already in the sink, filled it with hot, soapy water and left everything to soak while she raided the cupboards for dinner fare.
After several minutes both her temper and her patience had run out, and she phoned for a pizza. Vegetarian, extra mushrooms. That'd teach him.
She curled up on the couch with a trashy romance novel in a hopeless attempt to soothe herself. Instead, her gaze constantly wandered to the clock and the restless tingle in her stomach intensified.
It was ridiculous to worry about him--absurd. He was a grown man, perfectly able to take care of himself. The surgical scar had faded from angry red to pale pink, injured tissues and muscle successfully knitted together. The pain, once crippling in its intensity, had faded to an occasional twinge, though he'd formed the unconscious habit of guarding the right side of his chest with one hand. And even if he'd yet to recover his optimal weight and muscle tone, he'd come a long way from those first weeks after the shooting, when all his clothes seemed a size too large and his jeans rode low on bony hips.
Mulder was right--she had to let go of her own fears regarding this brush with death. But it was so much easier said than done. She vividly recalled his first day home from the hospital, when simply getting him to the bathroom had been a major ordeal. Forced to accept her support while he relieved himself, he'd wept from the pain and embarrassment, too weak to control his emotions. She'd tucked him into her bed and held him until he slept, murmuring over and over that he was alive and she loved him. That everything else was incidental to those truths.
Realizing she'd read the same paragraph three times, Scully checked the clock. 6:09. If he wasn't home in twenty minutes...
Footsteps, the jingle of keys, and the door swung slowly open. Mulder slipped in, saw her on the couch, and managed a weak smile.
"Hey, Scully. You did get home early. Reading, huh? Is that a good book?"
She bit the inside of her cheek, too irritated to let him see her amusement. Everything about Mulder screamed guilt--from the hunched shoulders and babbled greeting to his complete failure to harass her about her choice of reading material. It was pitiful, really. She ought to be kind and go easy on him.
"Where are they, Mulder?"
His face went blank. "What?"
"Where are the groceries? That's why you're late, isn't it? Because you were out getting groceries for the gourmet meal you're going to cook for me?"
The emotion that darkened his expressive features was strong, brief, and not at all what she'd expected. Guilt, yes, but mixed with confusion and something that looked like...fear.
"I'm sorry, Scully. I know it sounds lame, but I really did intend to make you dinner. I just...I lost track of time."
He moved toward her as he spoke, peeling off the leather jacket and laying it on a chair. When his face hit the light from the reading lamp she saw lines around his eyes and the corners of his mouth--unmistakable signals of pain and fatigue.
It doused the remainder of her anger like a bucket of cold water. She set aside the book and reached her hand toward him. "Mulder, come here and sit down. Are you all right? Are you in pain?"
He came willingly, sinking into the cushions with a soft grunt, one hand pressed to his chest. "I'm okay, it's just a headache. I...I took a drive and wound up going farther than I intended. I'm sorry if I worried you."
No impatience with her concern? No jibe to stop mothering him? Scully frowned but said nothing, tugging him down until his head rested in her lap, long legs stretched the length of the couch. She gently massaged her fingers through his hair, concentrating on the area around his temples. Mulder sighed like a weary child and turned his face into the soft fabric of her sweatshirt, one arm slipping around her waist.
"Sorry, Scully. Was gonna make dinner. Got sidetracked."
Short, mumbled phrases and heavy eyelids. He was drifting off already.
"You have to pace yourself, Mulder. No matter how good you feel, you can't go running around like nothing happened; you'll only set back your recovery."
"Didn't mean to. Went to the store. Don't know how...how I got..." The words trailed off into slow, deep breaths and he grew heavier in her arms.
Scully continued to absent-mindedly thread her fingers through his hair while she attempted to rationalize the tingling disquiet his words provoked. After several minutes, when it appeared Mulder was truly down for the count, she extracted herself from his embrace and returned to the kitchen to wash dishes.
The sink emptied, the pizza man came and went, and Mulder slept on. All hopes for romance relinquished, Scully had plopped two slices of pizza on paper plates and was pouring drinks when the first soft sounds of distress drifted in from the living room.
She braced her palms on the counter, fighting the rising tide of frustration and weariness that threatened to overwhelm her. As distressing as the chronic nightmares were for Mulder, they were fast becoming hazardous to her own mental health. Reserves depleted from five weeks spent nurturing the man back to health-- sometimes kicking and screaming--she found it increasingly difficult to be cast in the roll of therapist as well as doctor, lover, and occasional babysitter.
Another soft moan and the sound of thrashing limbs put her in motion. Mulder was huddled in the corner of the couch, wide eyes staring through her at whatever personal hell his mind had conjured. He was muttering something, but so low and garbled she could barely make it out.
"...my friend...trusted, I...no...NOOO! Vickie! Vickieeeee!"
The name ended in a sharp cry and he doubled over, one hand pressed to his chest as he struggled for breath.
Scully sprinted the last few steps to the couch, heart pounding. Mulder's behavior--the hand clutching his chest, the frantic gasps for air--was eerily reminiscent of the moments after the shooting. She squeezed onto the cushions, facing him, and laid one hand on his leg.
"Mulder. Mulder, are you all right? Talk to me."
He lifted his head just enough for her to make out features contorted in pain. "Hurts...can't...can't breathe...Vickie...help me."
Vickie? Who the hell was Vickie?
Scully grasped his chin but was unable to make his glazed eyes focus on her own. Stunned, for a moment all she could do was watch him pant and shiver.
He was still asleep.
Breaking out of her daze, she cupped his face between both palms and resorted to her rarely-used Skinner voice. "Mulder! Wake up, you're dreaming."
His entire body jerked as if zapped with live current and he blinked, eyes clear but confused. She watched, astonished, as his respiration immediately dropped to normal and he slowly uncurled, hands coming up to tug hers from his cheeks.
"Scully? What's the matter? Where...?"
"You were having a nightmare. Do you remember?"
Comprehension, and for an instant his open, unguarded expression revealed fear. Then his gaze slid away to the window and she could practically hear the bricks sliding into place as the walls came up.
"It's pretty fuzzy."
Something inside her snapped and she abruptly became furious. She yanked her hands from his and stood, eyes like flint.
"Don't you dare hold out on me. In case you haven't noticed, this isn't just a partnership anymore, Mulder--it's a relationship. That bullet tore my life apart as surely as it did yours, and I'll be damned if I'm going to let you treat me as if I've somehow got less invested in your recovery."
"Scully, it's not a big deal. I just..."
She'd turned her back and walked halfway across the room before he called out, voice breaking, "If I don't understand what the hell is happening to me, how can I explain it to you?"
She turned; studied his face. Fear. Anger. Devastating vulnerability.
His complete bewilderment could not have been feigned. "Vickie? I don't know a Vickie."
Scully retraced her steps; sank down beside him on the couch. "You called for her during your nightmare, Mulder. Begged her to help you. You sounded terrified."
"Scully, I don't know anyone named Vickie. You're the only one I'd call for help."
"What was the dream about?"
Shoulder companionably nestled into his side, she clearly felt him stiffen. "Same thing it's always about. My death."
Shocked, she leaned forward to peer into his eyes. "You're dreaming about the shooting? Mulder, why haven't you said anything? You need to talk to someone, to..."
"Not the shooting." His voice was biting.
A long pause. "I'm on a deserted road, changing a tire. It's dark. I...I think..."
She took his hand, wriggling her warm fingers between his cool ones. "Go on."
"There's bright lights...an engine. I think...I think I get hit by a car."
Scully tightened her grip, considering. "It's not as odd as it might seem, Mulder. Gunshot or car, it still points back to extreme trauma. Your mind has just chosen a different image to..."
"There's more to it than that."
He chewed on his lip, shifting uneasily. "I'm... There's this feeling of anger, of betrayal. When the lights come, I..." He turned his face to the window.
Scully waited. When he didn't continue, she touched his cheek, gently redirecting his gaze to her face. "When the lights come...?"
"I think...I think it's someone I know."
"You mean it's deliberate?"
His gaze dropped to their joined hands, but she saw the admission in his eyes.
"Scully, I already know what you're going to say. You're going to tell me that these dreams are an extension of my feelings of helplessness during the shooting. That I need to get some therapy, talk to a shrink."
"You're very perceptive."
"But it's not that simple! I'm a psychologist; I know all about repressed trauma, PTSD, and this isn't it."
"How can you say that?"
"Because in my dream I'm not even me!"
Silence. Mulder flushed, releasing her hand and standing up. "I've got a killer headache. I'm going to get some aspirin."
"Mulder, what did you mean, 'I'm not even me'?"
He ran an unsteady hand down the side of his face, reasserting control. "Nothing. I don't know what I'm saying. Scully, I really don't want to talk about this any more. I'm going to find those aspirin, and then we can have dinner. I smell pizza, don't I?"
But he was gone, and a moment later she heard the bathroom door close. Shutting him off from her as firmly and decisively as his words.
"Can I help you, sir?"
Mulder flipped his ID open and held it up for the guard to see. "Special Agent Mulder. I'm here to collect some casefiles."
"Yes, sir." The man disappeared inside the guardhouse and returned with a clipboard and a visitor's pass. "Sign here."
Mulder scrawled his signature and pinned the pass onto his jacket. The guard checked to see if the signature on his ID matched the one in front of him. Deciding all was in order, he raised the boom gate and waved Mulder through. "Have a nice day."
He drove toward the honey-colored building, its architecture more akin to a five-star hotel than an academy that taught both green recruits and seasoned agents how to catch serial killers, rapists and kidnappers. Mulder ignored the various items of military paraphernalia lining the road, his thoughts centered on his yet-to- be-resolved argument with Scully. Strained silence and small talk had dominated breakfast, a poor cover-up for the real issues being sidestepped. He knew his refusal to discuss his dream both hurt and angered her, yet couldn't bring himself to bare his soul for her analysis. As much as he loved Scully, there were times when her strict rationalization drove him to distraction.
Not that he could blame her for jumping to the wrong conclusion. Outwardly he was displaying all the classic symptoms of a man experiencing the aftermath of extreme trauma. How could he explain to her the details of what was going on inside his head without reinforcing her suspicions? Vivid flashes of memory that bore no relation to his life. Winding up at the scene of a crime with no recollection of driving there. And his nightmares...Real enough to make him believe he was reliving an actual trauma. But whose?
No, this was different. And if Scully needed proof, then he'd find it. Starting with Monica Mitchell's death.
Flapping against the lapel of his jacket with each footfall, the visitor's pass allowed Mulder hassle-free access to the BSU bullpen. Computer keys clacking out an erratic beat, men and women with faces too worn and haggard for the early hour sat huddled together, poring over autopsy reports and crime scene photos, lab data and eyewitness testimony. So engrossed in their investigations, they failed to notice him weaving his way between desks and white boards towards the elevator.
"Hey! Hey, Spookster! Is that you?"
Instinctively Mulder turned, cursing his reflexes when he saw the smiling face of his one-time colleague, Joey Marcos, bearing down on him like a shark scenting blood. The man, a good six inches shorter than Mulder, approached with hand extended in greeting and a bounce in his step that was far too carefree for a man in his line of work.
"Hey, it is you, man. How ya doin', Spooks?" Joey gripped Mulder's hand in both of his and shook it with exaggerated enthusiasm.
"Joey. Long time no see." Mulder discreetly wiped the lingering clamminess from Joey's palm along the leg of his pants.
"You got that right. What brings you to this neck of the woods? Aren't you supposed to be off chasing little green men or something?" He whizzed his index finger through the air making suitable UFO sound effects.
Mulder gave him a well-practiced look of long-suffering that involved rolled eyes and incorporated Scully's eyebrow. The look he kept on standby for just this kind of remark.
Oblivious to his former co-worker's silent rebuke, Joey continued on, "Heard a rumor, Mulder. That you were down for the count. Looking pretty damn good for a dead guy."
"Yeah, well, you know what they say: 'The reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated.'"
"So, watcha doin' back here?"
"Confined to desk duty. I'm stuck with grunt work at the moment. Fetch this, bring that--at least till the doc declares me fit enough to return to field agent status."
"Hey, you might be able to help me, Joey. I'm looking for some information on a recent murder victim. Monica Mitchell. She was killed in her home. Lived in Chevy Chase."
Marcos crossed his right arm over his chest, propped his left elbow on his clasped hand and stroked his chin. "Monica. Mitchell. Help me out, man, you know we're working 40 or 50 cases at any given time. I need more information--we don't all have your mystical powers of recall."
"She was fourth in a string of serial murders, killed by her ex- boyfriend. Stabbed. She..."
"Wait a minute, wait a minute. Yeah, I got who you're talkin' about. The guy...damn, what was his name...what the hell was his name...? Yeah, anyway, he swore he was innocent--find me a perp who isn't, right? The judge gave him the death penalty. 'Course he's appealing, still swears he didn't do it." He gave a soft snort, not really laughing. "Want to hear something funny--strange, I mean? The agent who worked that case went and got himself killed. A hit and run, no witnesses. Still..."
Joey's voice droned on. Drowned out by the sound of an engine. Headlights. Pain. Can't breathe...
"Hey!" A firm hand gripped his shoulder, and Mulder jolted back to the present. He blinked, eyes gradually focusing on Marcos's worried face.
"Spooks? You okay, man?"
"Yeah. Yeah, I'm fine." A sudden sense of urgency arced through him, making his skin tingle and his heart race. Mulder checked his watch. "Hey, listen Joey, I gotta go. AD Skinner's breathing down my neck for those files. Maybe..."
"The case is closed, Mulder. 'Fraid you're gonna have to go diving deep to find 'em. Better you than me, man. I hate crawlin' around in that rathole."
"I know what you mean. Still it beats the alternative."
Joey raised his eyebrows.
"Ooh, you got it. 'Kay, Spooks, catchya later, man. Say hey to your pretty partner for me."
Mulder continued toward the elevator, berating himself for his carelessness. Joey "The Mouth" Marcos. Of all the people to meet. If Scully heard about his latest little jaunt, he'd be traveling on a one way ticket to the hotel with the padded rooms. Wearing one of those nice jackets with the long arms that tied in back.
Two quick shoves at the call button, then Mulder stood back, waiting for the elevator to make its way up from the basement.
Preoccupied with his own thoughts, Mulder didn't notice the agent with thinning blond hair who had set aside his work in favor of tracking Mulder's progress through the bullpen. Or realize that the same man had been unobtrusively listening to his conversation with Joey.
A soft rumble, a ding of arrival, and the doors slid open to an empty car. Mulder stepped inside, pressed the button marked "B," then stood against the back wall.
The elevator descended on well-oiled cables, the smooth, steady ride an antithesis to the turmoil that writhed in Mulder's stomach. The deeper he traveled, the stronger the urgency thrummed through his body.
Mulder stepped into the corridor and headed toward the vault where closed cases were filed. His breath sounded unnaturally loud in his own ears and his footfalls echoed along the empty hall.
When he reached the door he was looking for, he stopped with one hand on the knob, heart hammering in his chest.
What the hell was wrong with him?
By sheer will alone, he pushed the feelings of disquiet aside and entered the room. The air smelled musty and stale. Like the victims in their graves, this was the final resting place for days, months or sometimes years, of hard investigative work.
He wandered along the rows of cabinets, keen eyes scanning the alphabetically labeled drawers until he reached the start of the 'M's. All five rows of them. Within seconds he found the correct drawer. He yanked it open and started flicking through names, stopping when he hit the jackpot: "Mitchell, Monica." With a little patience and cross-referencing, he'd soon collected folders for the four related murders, as well.
Balancing the Mitchell folder on top of the stack, Mulder rifled through the contents, eyes skimming the various documents. Autopsy reports, findings from the Coroner and the ME, statements from potential witnesses--all were clipped together, an envelope marked "crime scene photos" tucked underneath. As he sifted through the papers, he checked names and signatures at the top and bottom of each page.
All seemed routine and in order. What was he supposed to be seeing?
Then, from amongst the thick wad of papers, a name jumped out at him.
The hairs on the back of his neck stood on end and gooseflesh ran in tiny bumps along his arms.
Wendy Gilmore's voice and puzzled expression played through his mind.
What happened to that other agent, the one who asked me all the questions? Said his name was Sal something...>
And Joey, obviously shaken...
The agent working that case went and got himself killed. Hit and run.
Mulder swallowed hard, fear like a physical presence peering over his shoulder as he stared at the name in front of him. The agent of record: Sal DeAngelo.
Weak-kneed, heart racing, Mulder flipped the folder shut. Then, with very little thought for the consequences, he slipped the files under his arm and left the vault. Moving catlike along the corridor, he returned to the elevator and pushed the button. He watched the floor indicator, willing it to move faster, foot tapping a nervous patter on the ground and legs jiggling like a hyperactive toddler.
His uncanny run of luck continued when the elevator arrived, still empty. Climbing aboard, Mulder licked dry lips with an equally parched tongue. Sweat dribbled between his shoulder blades, gluing cotton to skin.
The ride up seemed interminably longer than the one going down, and the unconscious foot tapping resumed. When the doors finally opened onto the BSU bullpen, Mulder tucked the files inside his suitcoat, pasted on his best "butter-wouldn't-melt-in-my-mouth" smile, and strode purposefully towards the exit, making sure his gaze didn't waver from his destination.
He never noticed the blond man make his way casually to the exit. Standing quietly in the shadow of an indoor plant, he watched Mulder walk to his car and drive off.
He moved through his apartment with all the finesse of a runaway freight train. Keys hit the coffee table with a muted clank. Jacket went flying across the living room in the general direction of the couch, settling across the armrest and seat cushions. The soft thud as his ID and wallet slipped from the inside pocket and landed on the floor was completely overlooked in the frenzy of activity.
With a quick jab of his index finger, and a flick of a switch, both computer and monitor whirred into life.
Now what? He stood by the computer desk and looked around the apartment. The air smelled stale, musty. After nearly six weeks since he'd spent a night here, it felt like a stranger's place and not his home. Cold and stark. But perfect for what he needed to do.
Mulder sat on his couch, feet propped on the coffee table and the files resting on his bent knees. Paging quickly through the sheets of paper he found what he was looking for.
The profile written by Sal DeAngelo. He stared at the name on the page, ignoring the throbbing pain building behind his left eye.
Photos. Lab reports. Testimonies. Five violent deaths laid out in excruciating detail. For nearly two hours, Mulder studied the contents of each folder--comparing, contrasting. Looking for something, anything to tell him why an unknown force seemed determined to involve him in the death of a woman he'd never met.
As he moved back and forth between the profile and each case, he found it.
A male, thirty-five to fifty, the profile stated. Highly intelligent, yet lacking interpersonal skills. A loner, an ugly duckling with an extreme hatred for the type of beautiful woman he's certain will never give him a second glance. He's meticulous about the details of each murder--from the type of victim to the execution. It's all about violating them--forced entry into the home, rape, even the removal of valuable personal items as trophies. The depth and proliferation of the stab wounds are indicative of the extreme fury that drives him to kill.
Sal DeAngelo was obviously very good at what he did. His profile fit the perpetrator of first four crimes like a glove, the details of each scene so similar as to be nearly interchangeable. He'd painted a vivid picture of an individual whose deep sense of inadequacy and uncontrollable rage had compelled him to commit a series of heinous crimes.
Monica Mitchell's death, however, was not one of them. And unless Mulder had completely lost his touch, Gary Jansen was no serial murderer.
Far fewer stab wounds, their depth--except for the fatal strike through her heart--shallow. Though a rape kit revealed she'd been penetrated, there was no accompanying bruising or tearing. Perhaps most telling of all, a thorough inventory had turned up no missing valuables. Add to that the fact that she and Gary had a prior, long-term relationship, that he'd been dating another woman for nearly six months at the time of Monica's murder...
"You convicted the wrong man. Gary Jansen is going to die for a crime he never committed." Mulder lifted a crime scene photo, staring at the dark-haired man crouching over Monica Mitchell's body. "Is that what this is all about?"
Moving to his computer, Mulder wiggled the mouse and brought the screen to light. He clicked on bookmarks and went straight to "The Washington Post Online." Following the links he surfed his way to the archives, hesitating for a second before pulling up the obituaries. He typed "Sal DeAngelo" into the search engine, holding his breath as the computer sifted through files.
He sucked in a deep breath, a useless attempt to still the trembling that wracked his body. "Salvatore DeAngelo, 42, died of injuries sustained when he was struck by a car sometime during the early morning hours on August 2, 2002." Mulder read the sentence four times, one hand pressed to his chest.
He'd been shot on August 2nd. While Sal DeAngelo had been busy dying along a deserted road, he'd been lying in a hospital across town, engaged in the same activity.
Skimming further through the listing, Mulder searched for more details. "…an agent with the Federal Bureau of Investigation... survived by his wife, Victoria..."
The dream. Scully's worried voice. Who's Vickie? His confused response. Vickie? I don't know any Vickie.
Mulder buried his head in his hands, fingers massaging the nagging pain in his temple. God, what was happening to him? He needed to know. To find out everything about Sal.
He pushed himself back from the desk, opened a drawer, and pulled out the phone book. He had a name, and a suburb. Within minutes, he had an address.
Scooping his jacket off the couch and the keys from the table, Mulder headed out the door.
He felt strange. Disconnected. As if his body had staged a coup, limbs functioning according to their own, private agenda. Mulder tightened his fingers on the steering wheel, squinting against the headache that pulsed just behind his eyes. He passed a dry cleaning establishment, then a bank, skin tingling with an increasingly powerful sensation of déjà vu. For a split second he could picture himself fumbling to hold onto several clean suits in slippery plastic bags that slithered out of his grasp to puddle on the concrete. Could hear himself bantering with the teller at the drive-up window, a young girl named Rose who teased him about his accent.
Mulder blinked, gave a sharp shake of his head. Where had that come from? He tore his gaze from the buildings and focused on the road, turning right, then left, and right again.
Ten minutes later he'd exchanged the bustling city atmosphere for a quiet, nearly deserted stretch of road lined with mature trees. As he rounded a curve, a particularly large tree caught his attention. His foot slammed down onto the brake with such force the tires squealed in protest. More screeching tires, and the driver directly behind him leaned on his horn. Mulder pulled onto the shoulder, oblivious to the shouted obscenities and upraised middle finger of the irate driver who zoomed past.
He got out of the car, left it idling on the edge of the road as he walked slowly toward the tree--an oak, long dead, its branches twisted and devoid of leaves. His gaze dropped to the ground beneath the tree, the dirt still bearing faint impressions of multiple tire tracks. His heartbeat doubled and gooseflesh broke out on his arms as the world narrowed to a pinprick of light and sound.
Night air, cooling the sweat on the back of his neck as he struggles with the wrench in his hands.
Headlights--brilliant and blinding in the darkness.
Recognition, followed rapidly by disbelief.
Heart pounding, legs tangling, falling...
He clutched his chest, legs crumpling until he was kneeling in the dirt. His lungs burned like fire as he gasped and panted for air.
"Mister, are you all right? Do you need help?"
The voice cut through the haze and he abruptly realized both eyes were clamped tightly shut. He cracked them open, turning his head toward the road. A yellow Volkswagen Beetle hovered on the shoulder about ten feet away. The driver, a young girl who could not have been more than seventeen, was watching him uneasily.
"'S okay. 'M all right. Just...just tripped." He pried one hand away from his chest and waved her onward, forming his lips into what he hoped was a convincing smile.
She hesitated only briefly before nodding. "Okay, then. If you're sure." Her car was moving before she finished speaking, the relief on her face painfully obvious.
The vise across his chest was loosening, his respiration easing. He stood and dusted off his pants, frowning at the dark stains on his knees. Vickie was gonna kill him.
He walked slowly back and climbed behind the wheel, carefully maneuvering the car into the light flow of traffic. By the time he pulled into the driveway his breathing had returned to normal, the terror of his experience on the roadside fading, eclipsed by the need to find his files.
He tried three different keys before conceding that he'd somehow lost the one to the front door. Ringing the bell produced no result-- Vickie must be out shopping. Whistling softly he walked around to the back porch, retrieved the spare key taped under the picnic table, and let himself inside.
Drawn drapes left the living room heavily shadowed and silent except for the hushed ticking of the mantle clock. He slipped off his suitcoat and laid it over the back of a chair, one hand gliding along the banister as he climbed to the second floor. Four steps down the hallway and he paused in the bedroom doorway, forehead creasing at the rumpled bed and scattered clothing. Not like Vickie to leave a mess--she was normally almost anal in her neatness.
Shrugging, he continued to the room kitty-corner from the bedroom. His room. The study.
He dropped into the desk chair and flicked on the computer. Lacing his fingers behind his neck, he swiveled, letting his gaze wander as he waited for the machine to boot up. The bookcase, shelves lined with texts on law, psychology, and forensics. His doctorate in criminal psychology from Georgetown, framed and hanging beside the letter of commendation received after his successful resolution of the Berkshire kidnapping. His "lucky" paperweight, the marble surface polished smooth by the many hours spent in his hand as he worked through a profile.
He sat forward, frown returning as his gaze continued to pan across the room. No empty coffee mugs, no soda cans, and not a single article of shed clothing. Everything in its place, but neat as a pin. Why had Vickie been cleaning in here? She normally referred to the study as "your territory," steadfastly refusing to tidy the area for fear of disturbing vital paperwork.
And speaking of paperwork, what about all his files? He'd been researching a couple of profiles, but the folders no longer rested in their customary spot on the corner of his desk. Where would Vickie have moved them, and why?
Resolving to question her later, he pulled a floppy disk from the drawer and loaded it into the drive, then pulled up his email account. The mechanical voice cheerfully told him what he already knew--he had mail. All animation seeped from his features as he opened his inbox and retrieved the email that had changed everything.
I'm not a whore and I don't intend to be treated like one. I wonder how the lovely Mrs. Kyle McNally would feel about her husband if she knew he was screwing around?
Bright red silk and long pale legs. Snuggled in the arms of a man he'd have sworn he knew as well as himself.
He copied the file and stuffed the disk into his pocket. Reaching for the mouse, he froze, hand stilled by another photo--this one perched on the far edge of the desk. Taken more than a year earlier, at Jack Kaminski's retirement party. The BSU's answer to the rat pack--Corey Peterson, Steve Pendleton, himself...and Kyle McNally. Arms around each other's necks, drinks in hand, mugging for the camera.
Rage tightened his muscles to knots, caused a flush to creep up his neck and across his cheeks. He snatched up the photo, spun, and flung it against the wall. The impact, a spectacular crash and shower of broken glass, did little to diminish his fury.
The voice, small and trembling with fear, quenched it completely.
Contrition immediately followed. "It's just me, sweetheart. I'm sorry, I...accidentally broke something."
"Who are you? What are you doing in my house?" Higher pitched now, wavering between fear and something that sounded like anger.
He chuckled a little at the tough edge--his little wildcat. "It's my house, too--unless there's somethin' you want to tell me. I'm up in my study."
When she didn't answer he heaved a sigh of frustration, got up, and strode down the hallway to the top of the stairs. She stood rigidly at the bottom, one hand clutching the railing in a white-knuckled grip. Her dark eyes looked huge in a face paler and thinner than he remembered. Even so, in a bright red sweater and short black skirt she stole his breath.
"Whatsamatta with you? You look like you've seen a ghost."
She squinted against the shadows, slowly shaking her head. "You can't...it's not possible." She tentatively climbed one step then two, halting halfway up the flight.
"Who ARE you?"
He was starting to worry now. Had something terrible happened while she was out, some kind of trauma? He started down the steps, freezing when she drew back with a hiss.
"Vickie, cara mia, it's me. It's Sal. What's wrong?"
Her hand darted to her mouth, unable to repress a strangled sob. "Stop it! You're not my husband, you can't be Sal!"
The wild, hysterical tone to her voice provoked both sympathy and irritation. He lunged down the steps between them and seized her arm.
"You're not making any sense. Why the hell can't I be Sal?"
"Because Sal is dead, you bastard!" Her fists came up to beat on his chest as she sobbed. "He's dead and I buried him; I watched them put him in the ground. Get out, get out! Why are you doing this to me?"
She shoved him hard and fled down the stairs, her arm slipping easily from his nerveless fingers. He sat down heavily, spinning head cradled in his palms, vaguely registering the sound of weeping and running feet. The headache, forgotten for a time, returned with a vengeance. He dug the heels of his hands into his temples with a soft moan.
After several minutes Mulder lifted his face to stare at his surroundings. Where the hell was he? DeAngelo's house? How had he gotten here? He grasped the banister and hauled himself upright, staggering down the steps. A voice carried from the back of the house, a flood of words between hiccuping sobs. Speaking to someone on the phone, from the sound of it. Alarmed, Mulder let himself out the front door and walked quickly to his car.
He grasped the door handle and tugged, grimacing when the latch refused to budge. Locked. Stealing a peek over his shoulder, he reached into the front pocket of his pants.
He patted himself down without success. Jiggled the door handle and peered through the window, half expecting to see the ring hanging from the ignition. Nothing.
A gust of wind set him shivering, and like a lightbulb snapping on over his head, Mulder realized he was missing his suitcoat. He glared at the house, feet shuffling, then jogged back and cracked open the door. A cursory scan of the living room located his jacket folded over the back of a chair. In a matter of seconds he'd snatched it up, fished the keys from its pocket, and returned to the car.
He heard the distant wail of a siren as he slid behind the wheel. His hands were shaking so badly that when he tried to insert the key into the ignition the whole ring tumbled to the floor. Cursing, he ran his fingers over the mat, snagged the ring, and fumbled the correct key into place.
He'd just shifted into reverse when the police car pulled up, blocking the end of the driveway.
Mulder pressed his forehead to the steering wheel, stomach rolling. He reached into his pocket for his ID, frowning when his fingers encountered smooth plastic. What the...? He stared at the disk until the sound of slamming car doors jolted him to action. He bent and slipped it under the mat beneath his feet.
Then, squaring his shoulders, he opened the door and got out, hands raised.
Scully turned from the filing cabinet, startled to see the Assistant Director standing beside Mulder's desk. She tugged the manila folder from its slot and shut the drawer.
"Sir? Is there something I can do for you?"
"I've had a rather disturbing call from the Silver Springs PD. I was hoping perhaps you could shed some light on the circumstances."
Scully crossed the room and laid the folder on her desk, forehead creased. "Silver Springs? We don't have any cases pending under that jurisdiction."
"Nevertheless, this situation concerns you on a more...personal level."
At Scully's folded arms and raised eyebrow, he continued. "I've been asked to come down to the station. Earlier this afternoon, one of their units responded to a breaking and entering call at a private residence. The suspect was still on the premises when they arrived, and was taken into custody without incident. He claimed to be an FBI agent, but was unable to produce valid ID." He paused, watching her face. "Scully, it's Mulder."
Scully's jaw literally dropped. "Mulder? Sir, that's ridiculous, why on earth would Mulder...?"
"The residence belongs to a Vickie DeAngelo."
She blinked, abruptly lightheaded. "Vickie?"
"DeAngelo. Coincidentally, her husband used to be a profiler for the BSU." His eyes narrowed. "Or maybe not so coincidentally. Scully, if you know something..."
Still reeling, she pasted on her poker face. "Sir, I am just as baffled by this news as you are."
"Then I suggest we go to the source. I'll drive."
She could do little more than nod and follow him out the door.
They drove in silence. Scully kept her eyes fixed on the road, though peripherally she could see the little muscle twitching in her boss's jaw as he ground his teeth together. Her stomach churned and she had to fold her hands in her lap to keep from fidgeting.
What's going on in that head of yours, Mulder? Who is Vickie?
"Sir, you said Mrs. DeAngelo's husband used to be a profiler. Is he no longer with the Bureau?"
"He died a little over a month ago. Hit and run--they never caught the driver." Skinner studied her profile before turning his gaze back to the road. "Scully, I was under the impression that Mulder was recuperating well. He's scheduled to return for light duty next week. Is there something I need to know?"
Don't ask me this.
"Physically he's almost completely recovered. There's some lingering pain and weakness, but..."
"You and I both know the physical effects of being shot can be only half the problem. Level with me, Scully."
She stared at a passing minivan, a harried-looking woman at the wheel, the back crowded with children. "There have been some...symptoms of emotional trauma."
"Nothing so severe. Nightmares, trouble sleeping..." She flushed. Yes, Skinner had helped her settle Mulder into her apartment after his release from the hospital--when he could barely walk across the room without extreme pain and fatigue. Her partner's need for 24- hour nursing, however, had long since expired. "That's what he tells me, anyway."
For just an instant she could have sworn amusement replaced the concern in her boss's eyes. Then he frowned, and she was certain she'd imagined it.
"Has he talked to anyone?"
A pause. "No, sir."
Skinner pulled the car into a parking space and shut off the engine. Rather than open his door, he turned to face her.
"Scully, it's non-negotiable. I don't care if he sees someone from the Bureau or a private psychologist on his own dime. He's not coming back to work until he's been cleared, both physically AND mentally."
"I can tell him, if you'd like."
"No, thank you anyway, sir. I think it might be better coming from me."
Skinner's mouth twitched and he reached for the door handle. "No doubt."
Mulder was seated at the table in a small interrogation room, head cradled in his hands. He looked up, lifting his shackled wrists with a smirk when Scully stepped inside and shut the door.
"Would you be shocked if I confessed this is a common fantasy of mine?"
"I'm glad you find this humorous. Maybe if you'd been the one riding with Skinner on the way over here you'd feel differently." Scully produced a key and unfastened the cuffs, her words clipped and her movements brusque.
Mulder sat back, massaging the red marks encircling his wrists. "They actually called Skinner? I was hoping..."
"Yes, Mulder, they called Skinner. They thought he'd like to know that one of his agents was pulled in on a B&E. They were right."
"Look, Scully, I'm sorry. I..."
"What the hell is going on, Mulder? Who is Vickie DeAngelo, and what were you doing inside her house?"
His lips tightened and his eyes evaded hers, dropping to the tabletop. "I don't know."
"You don't know what? You don't know who Vickie is, or you don't know why you were in her house?"
"Either. Take your pick."
His soft admission defused her anger. "Mulder, I'm worried about you. You need..."
"Listen to me for a minute, Scully. Something's going on; something I'm having a difficult time understanding myself. It's related to the shooting, but it's NOT what you think."
Scully dropped into the chair opposite him with a sigh. "Go on."
"For the past few weeks, I...I've been having some disturbing visions."
"Yes. The same dream, over and over. Bright lights bearing down on me...pain...and most of all, the feeling that I'm not myself. That I'm seeing through someone else's eyes.
"But that's not all. The other day, when I was shaving, I looked in the mirror and for a split second...Scully, I saw the face of a stranger. A man I've never seen before in my life. Black hair. Dark eyes." He hesitated. "Italian."
Scully laid one hand over his fingers as they drummed a staccato beat on the oak tabletop. "Mulder..."
"Just hear me out. The past few days I've been getting impulses, compulsions that I can't explain. I've wound up in unfamiliar situations and places, with no recollection how I got there. But every time it's served to involve me in a specific case--a homicide. One of a string of serial murders investigated by our own BSU. I've seen the files, Scully. The profiler's name was Salvatore DeAngelo."
She stared at him, her chest tight and her heart pounding, as a confusing jumble of words and images clicked into place.
The residence belongs to a Vickie DeAngelo.
There's bright lights...an engine. I think...I think I get hit by a car.
Her husband used to be a profiler for the BSU...He died a little over a month ago--hit and run.
She shook her head, her mouth speaking reason though her brain shrieked that something was terribly wrong, that logic could not explain away the facts that clicked neatly into place. "Mulder, I think I see where you're going with this, and..."
"Sal DeAngelo died sometime in the wee hours of the morning of August 2nd, Scully. Sound familiar?" When she didn't answer, her face pale and set, he plowed on. "I was clinically dead for nearly three minutes. What if Sal DeAngelo died at that same moment? What if our souls somehow became linked, so that when I came back I brought a piece of his along with me?"
"Why, Mulder?" Scully's voice turned sharp, anger a means to conceal her fear. "Setting aside the fact that your hypothesis violates the most basic rules of nature, of life and death, WHY would this Sal latch onto you like some kind of...of...spiritual parasite?"
"Maybe because he died too soon. What if there was a greater purpose to his life--a vital task to perform, an injustice to correct-- but he was interrupted before he could fulfill it?"
"Are you suggesting he picked you to do it for him?"
"Why not? Profiling requires a specific mindset, a way of thinking outside the box. Maybe there was a...a kinship between us, even though we'd never met. Something that convinced him I'd finish what he started."
"Why do I get the sense you're going to tell me exactly what that was?"
"I've gone over the casefile, Scully; I can show it to you. They arrested, tried, and convicted a killer based on evidence gathered from the last crime scene. Yet the crime itself contained some major deviations from the four previous homicides, and the man they arrested didn't fit the accepted profile. If Sal knew they'd convicted the wrong man, if he was killed before he could act on that knowledge..."
Jack Willis. Luther Lee Boggs. Melissa Ephesian. Memories bombarded her, tightening her chest and sending chills up and down her spine. The "craziness" Mulder was spouting wasn't really so crazy, was it? Then an image of him in the ER, pale and lifeless, blotted out all other recollections.
Three minutes without a heartbeat, without oxygen. From the moment she'd heard those words, residual brain damage had been her greatest fear. Physical injury coupled with the post- traumatic stress...
"Stop it, Mulder! Please. Stop."
The strength of her emotion cut off his words and stilled his feet. "Scully?"
"Mulder, I think you've immersed yourself in a fantasy to keep from facing a more plausible reality."
He propped his hands on his hips. "All right, Scully. Enlighten me. What reality is that?"
She walked over and took his face between her palms. "Occam's Razor, Mulder. The simplest theory is usually the correct one. You suffered a terrible trauma, and your brain isn't about to let you proceed as if it never happened. You have to deal with it, Mulder. You have to talk to someone."
He stared at her, dumbfounded, then pulled away. "Scully, did you hear a word I said? This has nothing to do with..."
"It could have everything to do with it! Mulder, I know you aren't going to like this, but the AD and I are in complete agreement--you need to see a counselor. And I...I'm recommending you see a medical doctor, as well. You could easily have suffered residual damage from hypoxia while you were arresting. Your tests at the time showed no adverse impact, but under the circumstances, I think it would be wise..."
"Let me get this straight--you want me to see a shrink AND check for brain damage? Why not just get Skinner and sign the commitment papers now, Scully? You've done it before."
His cruelty stole her breath. "That's not fair."
"The hell it's not! The fact is you'd rather believe that I've lost my marbles than open yourself to the possibilities."
"Am I free to leave? Or am I going to be charged?"
She drew in a deep breath, released it slowly. "You can go. Mrs. DeAngelo decided not to press charges--she was more upset than angry. Skinner had someone get your car. It's parked out front."
"Fine." Mulder yanked open the door.
"Mulder. Mulder, wait!"
He kept his back to her, shoulders rigid. "What now? Are you going to tell me I'm too mentally impaired to safely operate a motor vehicle?"
Scully winced at the sarcasm before her own temper flared. "Of course not. It's just...I rode down here in Skinner's car. I was hoping we could drive home together."
Fingers tightened on the doorjamb, followed by a sharp shake of his head. "If you mean your apartment, I don't think so. I'm going back to my place. I need some space."
Though his words cut her deeply, Scully tipped her chin up. "Fine."
He disappeared into the noisy squadroom without a backward glance. Scully bit down hard on her lip and blinked against the sting of tears, wondering if she'd made the correct decision. Bewildered by how things had so quickly spiraled out of control.
She thought he was crazy.
Mulder paced back and forth across the small room, turning the basketball in his hands. He squeezed his eyes shut, remembering a hospital room and agony so overwhelming that for a time he'd been convinced death would be preferable to life...
The lights blazed too brightly against his eyelids; the slightest sounds a deafening cacophony. His chest felt as if it had been smashed to bits and then reassembled by harsh, uncaring hands. The machine breathed for him--the rhythm all wrong, too slow, too deep--yet he could not muster the energy to protest. He wanted to disappear, to retreat back to the darkness that erased the pain, but gentle fingers moved across his brow, detaining him.
"I know it hurts, Mulder. I know how tempting it must be to let go." The voice wavered, broke, and the fingers vanished. He waited, latching onto the phantom touch with all his strength.
"I'm here. I'm not going anywhere. And I know you can do this. You hear me, Mulder?" Hands slipping something around his neck, her warm, sweet breath against his skin. Lips brushed his cheek. "You have the strength of my beliefs. You came back to me. Please stay."
When had she stopped believing?
Mulder tossed the ball onto his couch and sat down at the computer. He plucked the floppy disk off the blotter, turning it over and over in his hands. He had no recollection of acquiring the disk, no clue what might be on it, and yet...
It was important. The key to what had been happening to him. He felt it in the fluttering at the pit of his stomach, the pricking of his fingertips. Gnawing on his lower lip, he popped the disk into the drive and pulled up the directory. Blank save for a single file.
Mulder grasped the mouse and double-clicked on the icon.
He read the text twice, stared at the picture for several minutes, then read the text again.
I wonder how the lovely Mrs. Kyle McNally would feel about her husband if she knew he was screwing around?
His gaze drifted to the original header.
K. McNally. Kyle McNally? Why did the name sound so familiar?
Mulder moved to the couch and began rummaging through the file folders spread across the coffee table. He found what he was looking for on the official copy of the profile. Submitted by Sal DeAngelo to Kyle McNally, ASAC. He stood, profile in hand, and returned to stare at the picture on the computer screen.
"So Kyle McNally, ASAC was getting a little on the side with you, huh, Monica? Maybe threatening him wasn't such a good idea. Maybe it was the last mistake you ever made."
He dropped back into the chair, scrubbing his palms over his face. Say Kyle McNally had killed Monica Mitchell and made it look like the work of a serial killer. Why would he send Sal a piece of incriminating evidence like this email? Especially when, from all appearances, he'd successfully pinned the murder on another man? Had the guilt finally overwhelmed him? Or was it somehow just a serendipitous mistake?
And what about Sal's death? Was it really a tragic accident? Or one murder calculated to cover another?
The phone rang and he scooped it up, half of his mind still working the problem. "Mulder."
"Is this Special Agent Fox Mulder?"
A man's voice--unidentifiable. Mulder straightened, tucking the receiver between shoulder and ear.
"Who wants to know?"
"My name is Kyle McNally, Agent Mulder. I'm an ASAC in the Behavioral Science Unit at Quantico."
Mind racing, Mulder kept his voice low and even. "I'm familiar with it."
A chuckle. "Yeah, I know. I've studied your cases. You were a helluva profiler."
"I'm sure you didn't call me to reminisce about my glory days in the BSU. What can I do for you, Agent McNally?"
"Sal DeAngelo was a good friend of mine, Agent Mulder. This afternoon I received a very upsetting phone call from his wife, Vickie. I'm sure you know what she had to say, and can understand why I found her story so disturbing."
"I'm a little disturbed myself, Agent McNally. I've been going over Monica Mitchell's casefile."
A short pause. "That's understandable; it was the last in a string of terrible crimes. Though I must say, I'm at a loss as to why you'd be going through our casefiles--especially one that was resolved months ago."
"After reading the file, I've my doubts about that resolution."
"A judge and jury felt otherwise. You left the BSU years ago, Agent Mulder. I think I have a right to know why the head of the X-Files division is suddenly second-guessing our work."
"I guess you could say I was doing a favor."
"A favor? For whom?"
Dead silence. When McNally spoke again his voice had gained an edge.
"I think we need to talk, Agent Mulder. There are some things I can tell you about that case, things you won't get from the files."
Another laugh, this one with far less warmth. "Not over the phone. If I'm going to do this, I need to see your face."
"I'm assuming you have a meeting place in mind?"
"Are you familiar with Rock Creek Park?"
"I know it."
"I'll meet you there, by the main pavilion, at 11:30."
"Tonight? Hold on a minute, I'm not sure..."
"Look, you're the one dredging up old casefiles and terrorizing my good friend's wife. You want to know more about that case? We do it now, tonight."
Mulder hesitated, eyes wandering to the computer screen. "All right. I'll be there."
"Good. And Agent Mulder? You're the only one I'm willing to discuss this with. Bring anyone else, and the deal's off." A dial tone punctuated McNally's warning.
Mulder glanced toward the clock. 10:30. Enough time to call Scully and let her in on what was happening. He punched in the first three numbers before his brain caught up with his fingers, stilling them.
"Mulder, I think you've immersed yourself in a fantasy to keep from facing a more plausible reality."
Scully had made up her mind--it would take a significant investment of time and patience to convince her otherwise. Unfortunately, at the moment he was operating under a deficit of both. This meeting was a chance not only to confront McNally, but also to get a better handle on Sal DeAngelo. He couldn't pass up such a golden opportunity.
With physical pang of regret, Mulder replaced the phone on its cradle.
Rock Creek Park
Mulder moved from the shadow of a large pillar into a pale shaft of moonlight. He'd spent enough time studying the photo of McNally to easily recognize his features, but was unprepared for the icy jolt that shot up his spine upon confronting the man in person.
"I'm Kyle McNally."
McNally extended his hand, flushing when Mulder chose not to reciprocate, hands tucked into his jacket.
"You said you had information for me."
"I just want to save you a lot of time and effort. If you talked to Sal about this case, I think you probably got the wrong impression."
Mulder raised an eyebrow. "Really."
"Look, Agent Mulder..." McNally placed steepled fingers under his chin, then tapped his lips. "I don't know how well you knew Sal, but he was a good friend of mine. He was an excellent agent, and a damn fine profiler. I gotta tell you, though, he wasn't exactly himself those last few days before the accident."
"How so?" The headache was back--not a gradual ache but a sudden, intense throbbing.
"Something about the Mitchell murder just...set him off. He fixated on it, couldn't let it go."
"That's not atypical for a profiler, is it? I seem to recall eating, sleeping, and breathing a few cases myself."
"I understand what you're saying, but this...this was different." McNally shook his head with a pitying expression. "Even after we'd caught, tried, and convicted the killer, he couldn't move on. Kept poring over the file, looking for something we might have missed. I was starting to really worry about him."
Mulder tamped down the fierce anger bubbling up inside him. "As I said, Agent McNally. I read the file, and I can understand Agent DeAngelo's concerns. Your convicted killer never fit the profile. For that matter, the Mitchell crime scene held some significant deviations from the previous murders."
"Hardly significant when you've caught the killer with the victim's blood on his clothing," McNally snorted.
He was too cool, confident. Time to shake things up. "Perhaps Sal knew more than he let on. Maybe he'd found something, some piece of evidence that would prove someone else killed Monica Mitchell."
The amusement froze on McNally's face and he turned hooded eyes to scrutinize Mulder. "That's absurd. Agent Mulder, I've tried to be a good sport, but I think I've reached my limit. You've been sticking your nose in files that don't concern you. And as if that weren't enough, you've badly frightened a good woman with your bizarre behavior. That little stunt you pulled at her house today was cruel and in bad taste. Now if you don't drop this unauthorized investigation immediately, I'll be forced..."
Mulder gritted his teeth, feeling his temper slip between his fingers. "It has been authorized--by the man who saw through the web of lies and deceit. Agent DeAngelo..."
"Sal DeAngelo has no authority! He's dead, and the case is closed. Now I'm warning you..."
Hands knotted in McNally's jacket, he jerked the man forward until their faces were nearly touching. "How could you do it? I trusted you; you were like a brother to me."
Kyle hung limply in his grip, face white. "S...what?"
He shook him, Kyle's hands fluttering in protest. "You screwed us both, didn't you, paisan'? We thought we knew you, but we didn't have a clue. Which was harder--looking Monica in the face while you cut her or running me down on the street like a dog?"
Kyle's eyes nearly popped from his head. In an adrenaline-fueled burst of strength he grasped Mulder's shoulders, bringing a knee up to connect squarely with his midsection. When Mulder doubled over, clutching his stomach, Kyle stepped back and pulled his gun. His voice shook, but his grip was steady.
"Hands up in the air."
Mulder straightened slowly, arms laced across his gut. "It's...it's over, McNally. You turn yourself in, you'll buy yourself some points."
"Turn around. Put your hands on that picnic table and assume the position." When Mulder complied he frisked him, removing both his service weapon and the gun from his ankle holster.
"I don't know what kind of game you're playing, but I've come way too far to turn back now. We're taking a little ride. Move."
Mulder walked toward the parking lot, McNally at his side, the gun pressed to his ribs. "You're never going to pull this off. My partner..."
"Shut up! One more word and I'll end this here and now."
The park, closed since dusk, was deserted. McNally marched Mulder to a shiny new sedan and popped the trunk. He motioned for Mulder to get inside, scowling when he remained motionless, expression blank.
"What is it?"
"You got rid of it."
"Got rid of what?"
Mulder turned slowly toward him, something in his eyes shifting and changing until they looked nearly black in the dim light.
"The truck. Whatsamatta, paisan'? Couldn't get the blood out?"
With a strangled cry, McNally lifted the gun in both hands and brought the butt down on Mulder's head. Mulder crumpled toward the ground with a soft grunt, eyes fluttering shut. He was a dead weight, limp and unresisting when Kyle shoved him into trunk and locked it.
No one saw the sedan that pulled out of the parking lot and sped off in a squeal of tires and spray of gravel.
To be continued...
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