The shrill ring of the phone pulled him from sleep that was dark and perilous as deep waters. Mulder rolled over, grasped the receiver, and punched "talk" while his brain struggled to engage.
"Our boy's back, and he's hopped another state line."
Mulder scooted against the headboard, rubbing his eyes. "Where?"
"Looks like he's decided to come play in our backyard. Arlington." Crittendon's chuckle was dry and without humor. "Maybe there's some truth to that shit about them wanting to be caught, huh?"
Scully sat up and flicked on the bedside lamp. "Mulder? What is it?"
He shushed her with a wave of his hand, fumbling in the nightstand for a pen and paper. "Who found her? Are we sure...?"
"Coupla college kids looking for a place to neck. Talk about your mood killers. And yeah, she's just like all the others, right down to the thumb prints on her neck and the note in her pocket."
Pressing the heel of one hand against his temple did nothing to stem the dull ache. "What's the exact location?"
"Johnson Park, by the river." Crittendon's Bronx accent thickened, a sure sign of his irritation. "The Forensic folks will take a boatload of pictures. There's no reason for you to go down there."
"Tell them not to move the body. I'll be there in 30 minutes."
"Mulder." Crittendon ground the name through clenched teeth.
"Was there something else you needed, sir?"
A long silence followed by a gusty sigh. "No. Just...for the love o' God, try not to piss off the Arlington PD, will ya?"
"Don't worry. I promise I'll show them all the respect they deserve."
"I'll just bet you will." Crittendon muttered an oath under his breath. "That son of a bitch Skinner must be laughing his ass off right about now."
"Never mind. I've got a meeting with the Director first thing this morning. I'll want to see you afterward."
"Looking forward to it, sir." Mulder hung up the phone and tore the sheet bearing his notes from the pad. When he looked up Scully was watching him with an expression somewhere between amusement and disapproval. "What?"
"You realize, don't you, that yanking his chain is ultimately counterproductive?" Her rebuke melted into a yawn as she pushed back the covers and got out of bed.
"Scully, you heard one side of a conversation. How can you automatically assume I was--as you so eloquently put it--'yanking his chain'?" He grabbed his pants off the back of a chair and pulled them on, then crossed to the closet for a fresh shirt.
"Ten years, Mulder. The audience may change but the act remains essentially the same." She frowned at him as he buttoned up his shirt. "You said we'd be there in 30 minutes. Does that mean...?"
"Arlington." Mulder slung a tie around his neck and began fumbling with the knot, dropping his hands when she took over without comment. He tipped up his chin, glad for the excuse to avoid eye contact. "And I said I'd be there. You don't need to come. Get some more sleep; you can meet up with the body back at the Bureau."
Scully pulled the knot tight and rested both palms on his chest. "Don't start." She turned, stripped off her pajama top with one smooth motion, and tossed it onto the bed.
"You know what." Though her tone was even, she jerked open dresser drawers and shut them with a bang.
His own temper flared. "If I did, I wouldn't have asked."
She shot him an incredulous glare as she marched to the closet.
"Look, Crittendon doesn't even like me going to the dump sites. Both of us showing up doubles the aggravation, and you're the one who just said pissing him off is counterproductive."
Scully muttered something indecipherable from the depths of the closet.
She stuck her head out as she pulled a pair of slacks from a hanger. "I said you've never been able to lie worth a damn. And I'm coming."
Something deep in his gut twisted painfully. It must have shown on his face, because some of the anger faded from Scully's gaze. "Mulder, we already decided..."
"You decided. I don't recall having a vote." When Scully opened her mouth to argue, he cut her off. "He's here, Scully."
She studied him for a long moment before answering, and when she did her voice was uncharacteristically gentle. "I know. And it doesn't change a thing."
"It changes everything!"
"Not for those women. Or their families. We have a job to do, Mulder, and it's the same one we had before you took SAC Crittendon's phone call. Now are we going to keep arguing, or are you going to let me uphold my half of this partnership?"
"And people think I'm the pain in the ass." Mulder snatched his suit coat off the chair and stalked out of the bedroom.
In the kitchen he took the carton of milk with shaking hands, chugging nearly a third of it before putting it back. The milk did nothing to quell the burning pain in his stomach, but slamming the refrigerator door was mildly satisfying.
Scully, at his back. Just like always. He could depend on her--even when he didn't want to.
He dropped his chin to his chest. "Grey chewed my ass, you know. Couldn't figure out why I was letting you work this case." He chuckled bitterly. "He didn't get the joke."
Her hand worked its way into his, and she tugged until he faced her. "This is who I am, Mulder. It's not like you didn't know before you signed on the dotted line."
He was too tired to fight a battle he'd never win. "Yeah, well...insanity runs in my family. But then, you knew that. Just..." He touched her cheek--just a quick brush of fingers before he dropped his hand. "Watch your back. This guy's gotten way too close to home."
"I will. And so will you." Scully pulled away and walked to the coat closet. "We'd better not keep Forensics waiting. You aren't exactly high on their list these days."
"Depends what list."
"Don't worry. I'll send them a bundt cake."
Scully rolled her eyes as she retrieved their coats. "Like I said, the act remains the same."
Mulder opened the door and ushered her through. "So let's take it on the road."
Mulder had kept his examination of the dead woman brief and efficient, relying on Scully to glean what she could from both the body and the coroner. He was currently canvassing the area where she'd been found, his long coat flapping in the breeze. Though he gave the appearance of a man distracted and lost in thought, Scully wasn't fooled. She knew he'd be functioning on multiple levels: absorbing the details of the scene, comparing new information with prior conclusions, and peripherally scrutinizing each onlooker.
"You two about finished?"
The man at her elbow looked to be in his early fifties, tall with close-cropped salt-and-pepper hair. Though he was rumpled and unshaven, with lines of weariness etched into his forehead and around his mouth, his dark eyes were sharp and assessing. Earlier, when he'd been talking to the couple who found the body, she'd heard one of the uniformed cops address him as "Detective."
"Jack Spencer." He offered his hand but kept his gaze trained on Mulder. "Homicide."
"Dana Scully." She tipped her head, even though he wasn't looking. "My partner, Fox Mulder."
"I know. He's not someone you forget."
Something in his tone set off her alarm bells. "Really?"
Evidently she was giving off her own vibes. Spencer pulled his attention from Mulder, raising both hands with a wry smile. "I didn't mean that the way it sounded. Agent Mulder profiled a serial rapist on a case I was involved in...must be about fifteen years ago now. He was fresh out of the Academy and green as the grass, but guys with twenty years experience were hanging on every word like they were divinely inspired."
Scully let the tension seep out of her shoulders. "Sounds like Mulder."
Spencer's focus drifted back to her partner, who was kneeling beside the body. "My partner was a veteran who'd been around the block a few times with the Bureau. I'll never forget what he said."
"That Mulder's gift was more like a curse. That the FBI was gonna eat him alive." Spencer smiled. "Guess he was wrong."
"Weeell... Let's just say Mulder doesn't go down easy."
Spencer paused, then gestured at the body. "Word is, this is the fifth dead girl in three states."
"Are you close to catching this dirt bag?"
Scully raised an eyebrow. "Detective Spencer, you of all people should understand that I can't divulge sensitive information regarding this case."
"And you should understand that while that particular line of bullshit might fly with the cops in Pennsylvania and Virginia, this guy's in my backyard now. And that, Agent Scully, is a whole different ballgame."
"We're doing everything we can to catch whoever is responsible for this."
Scully sighed. "But he's not making it easy."
"In my experience they rarely do. But I guess that answers my question."
Over Spencer's shoulder, Scully saw Mulder stand and look for her. "It's been nice talking with you, Detective," she said, feet already in motion. "You should be able to move the body in a few minutes."
Spencer touched two fingers to his forehead. "Don't take this the wrong way, Agent Scully. But I really hope we don't meet again soon."
"Making nice with the local boys, Scully?" Mulder glanced over her shoulder at Spencer, who had moved off to speak with one of the uniforms handling crowd control.
"It's a dirty job, Mulder, but someone has to do it."
He crinkled his eyes at the implication--and we both know it's not you. "You're off the hook. I'm finished." He motioned to the forensics crew and started walking back toward the car.
"Anything?" she asked, trotting to keep up with his long strides.
"Whatever else you can say about this guy, he's consistent."
"Forensics has the note?"
Mulder nodded. "No prints--of course. Preliminary exam suggests paper and ink are consistent with the others."
"And the message?"
"No familiar faces in the crowd." She phrased it as a statement, looking only for confirmation.
"I'm not surprised. This guy isn't the type to stick around and watch. My guess is that once he dumps the body he does his best to forget."
"Until the next time."
Mulder grimaced, unlocking the car door and sliding behind the wheel. "Quantico?"
Scully buckled her seatbelt. "The body will be there soon; there's no sense going home. I'll shower afterward." Though she knew better than to expect innuendo, or even a leer, their absence still pained her. She turned and found him staring out the window, hand on the ignition. "Mulder?"
"What's he doing here, Scully?"
She considered carefully the question, but couldn't come up with a satisfactory answer. "What do you think he's doing here?"
Mulder chewed his lip, his eyes losing focus. "It feels like...he knows me."
"What the hell is that supposed to mean?" She didn't bother disguising the alarm in her voice. "You think this is someone you profiled before?"
"No, no. I just have the feeling...." He gave himself a little shake and grimaced. "Forget it."
She'd learned long ago not to discount Mulder's "feelings." "What?"
"That this has been his destination all along."
Scully gaped at him. "Are you suggesting--?"
"It's just a feeling, Scully, not a theory to be debunked." Mulder started the engine and maneuvered the car through the minefield of police vehicles. His stiff posture and set jaw made it clear the conversation was over.
Scully huddled deeper into her coat and stared out the window, unable to shake the chill from his words. Just a feeling, maybe. But it resonated within her, as well.