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Blood Ties 11: Evolution (10/?)
"You mind telling me why the FBI is so interested in this file?" Sheriff Paxton kept one hand atop the folder, a decidedly suspicious glint in his eyes.
"It's an open kidnapping case, isn't it?" Mulder's answer was mild, his face guileless.
"Depends on your definition of open. That case hasn't seen any action in almost five months." Paxton's words might be directed toward Mulder, but his eyes were busy conducting a geological survey of Scully's figure.
Mulder clamped his teeth together until his jaw ached. "Did you find the kidnapper?"
That captured the sheriff's attention and cooled his tone another ten degrees. "You know we didn't."
"Then it's an open case." With great effort Mulder refrained from uttering any one of at least five follow-up digs that popped into his head. Barely.
Scully shot him a quelling look before smiling politely at Paxton. "I'm sure you're very busy, but before you leave us, Sheriff, is there anything not in this file that, in your expert opinion, you feel we should know about this case?"
Mulder shoved his hands into his pockets and tucked chin to chest, chewing on his lower lip to stifle a grin. No one could schmooze the locals better than Scully--in one sentence she'd managed to ask Paxton to leave while still stroking his ego. He watched from beneath his lashes as Paxton smoothed silver hair, chest puffed with self-importance.
"I run a thorough, by-the-book department here, ma'am. If it's important to the case, it'll be in that file. Whoever took that little girl--if someone did indeed take her--was very careful not to leave a speck of trace evidence. Sad to say, there just wasn't much to investigate."
Mulder looked up, eyebrows raised. "If someone took her?"
Paxton shrugged, his gaze crawling over Scully's body as he spoke. "Like I said, we found no evidence of a kidnapper. This is a close- knit community, Agent Mulder. Little girls don't get snatched from their yards without somebody noticing."
"What are you saying?" Scully folded her arms across her chest-- whether in irritation or self-defense, Mulder couldn't have said.
"If you ask me, I think the child wandered off. Maybe she was angry with Mom and Dad for making her eat green beans, I dunno. It's easy enough to get lost out here, turned around until you don't know what direction you're headed. Maybe a simple sulk turned into more than she bargained for."
Mulder didn't attempt to hide his scorn. "You think she just headed into the forest with no food, no water? Do you really believe a nine-year-old girl could survive for three days under those circumstances?"
Paxton's eyes narrowed. "Well, she didn't exactly survive, now, did she?"
Mulder bristled. "That's..."
"...an interesting theory, Sheriff." Scully laid a restraining hand on Mulder's arm as she reached for the folder. "Thank you for sharing your thoughts with us. We'll let you know if we need anything else."
Paxton glared at Mulder for a moment longer before relinquishing the file. He tipped his chin at Scully-- "Ma'am" -- and swaggered out of the room.
Mulder yanked a chair away from the table and sat, muttering something that sounded suspiciously like "redneck" under his breath. Scully eased into her own seat with a bit more finesse, lips twitching.
"Mulder, let it go."
"'Angry with Mom and Dad for making her eat green beans'? What kind of a lame theory is that?"
"I'm forced to point out that he'd consider your own theory to be equally without merit. We both know he's fallen off the track, so..."
"Fallen off the track? You're kidding, right?" Mulder leaned in closer, jerking his thumb toward the door. "He'd need a map to locate the track. Maybe if he kept his mind on business he'd have some answers for what happened to that little girl."
"Kept his mind on business? Mulder, are you jealous?" She poked her tongue into her cheek, but the grin still tugged at the corners of her mouth. "The man must be at least sixty years old."
"Yeah, well there's nothing wrong with his eyesight, given the way he kept taking inventory."
She rolled her eyes. "Can we look at the file now?"
Despite its eerie similarity to Claire's case, the investigation into Jessica Chapman's disappearance and reappearance offered little insight into what really had happened. As they read through the documentation, Scully found herself drawn again and again to a black-and-white crime scene photo of weeds crushed and flattened in the shape of a little girl's body.
"It says here that there were no outward signs of physical trauma," Mulder said. "No bruises or contusions. She was clean and dressed in the same clothing as when she disappeared. Yet she was completely unresponsive, even to painful stimulus."
"There could be many explanations for that, Mulder. Trauma to the brain can occur from something as simple as a sudden, violent motion of the head, the so-called 'shaken baby syndrome.' Not to mention the number of chemical compounds that would be undetectable on a routine toxicology screen." Scully flipped through several pages of witness statements before locating the autopsy report.
"Her older sister Theresa, age...14, found her." Mulder arranged his features in a neutral expression. "She was coming home from a friend's house, cutting across the backyard. After several unsuccessful attempts to wake Jessica, she ran and got her mother, who called police and EMTs."
"Oh my God." Scully's soft gasp pulled his attention from the paperwork. Her gaze flickered rapidly across the autopsy report.
"What is it?"
"The coma... I'd guessed it was due to internal damage. But this..." She swallowed; shook her head. "A CT scan at the hospital showed, and the autopsy confirms, that a small section of Jessica's cerebral cortex near the parietal lobe was excised."
"Excised? You mean someone cut out a piece of her brain?"
"Yes--" Scully licked her lips, "--and no. Though a section of brain tissue was clearly missing, she displayed none of the corresponding effects of major brain surgery--her head had not been shaved, there was no incision, and the skull remained intact. Mulder..." She shook her head as if trying to break out of a daze. "It's as if the tissue was neatly extracted without cutting her open."
Mulder stared at her, vindication and dread churning his stomach. "And how could that be accomplished, Dr. Scully?"
"It couldn't. Not by any medical technology currently available."
"On this planet, anyway."
She ignored his jibe. "I've never seen anything like this. According to the report, Jessica's EEG showed massive amounts of electroconductivity."
"What does that mean?"
"It's analogous to an electrical storm across the brain's surface. A comprehensive, rapid misfiring of neurons that essentially paralyzed brain function."
"As in brain death?"
"Clinically, it's the antithesis of brain death, but with the same impact on the body's systems--an irreversible vegetative state." Scully flipped the report closed and looked up at him, face grim. "A condition similar, in some respects, to what you experienced after exposure to the artifact. In Jessica's case, her body's systems began to shut down. Her parents eventually made the decision to terminate life support."
Mulder ran a hand along his jaw. Weariness settled across his shoulders like a heavy blanket, and he could read exhaustion in Scully's eyes. "We need to talk to Jessica's family. Tonight."
"I have the home number right here. I'll call and find out if they're willing to see us." Scully pulled out her cell phone, but made no move to dial the number.
She sighed. "It's been six months. I hate to reopen wounds just beginning to heal."
"We have no choice, Scully, and neither do they. They're witnesses in an ongoing investigation into the kidnapping and murder of not only their own child, but others as well. Claire's life may depend on what we can learn from Jessica."
"I know that, Mulder. I also know how it feels to lose a child. So I'd appreciate a bit less logic and a little more compassion, if you don't mind." She stood up, phone in hand, pointedly ignoring Mulder's stunned expression. "Why don't you see if you can make a copy of that file? I'll meet you by the front door."
She'd marched halfway across the room when he found his voice. "I was there too, Scully."
She jerked to a stop, but it was a moment before she slowly turned to face him. The anguish in her eyes made his throat ache. "I know you were, Mulder, but you'll never understand… She wasn't your child. And I realize we have to talk to the Chapmans. I'm just tired. Tired of seeing little girls treated like lab rats. And tired of being powerless to stop it. Samantha, Emily, Jessica, and now Claire... When is it going to stop, Mulder? When are we ever going to do more than pick up the pieces?"
He stood and walked over, enveloping her trembling body in his arms. "I'm tired too. But every time we pick up the pieces, we put a little more of the puzzle together. And one day we will stop them, Scully. I promise you that."
She buried her face against his chest, her reply muffled by the soft material of his shirt. "I want to believe, Mulder. I really do."
808 Larkspur Lane
Sometimes she forgot how good he was at this.
From the moment Sharon Chapman had opened the front door, Mulder had taken charge, shepherding the still grieving couple through a barrage of difficult and often painful questions with tact and sensitivity. Scully winced at the thought of her earlier outburst, fueled by stress and fatigue. Though Mulder's pursuit of the truth could be relentless, it was tempered by deep compassion and empathy. Time and time again she'd seen victims sense this and respond--Duane Barry, Lucy Householder, Marty Glenn...
The Chapmans, initially wary and reserved, had proved to be no exception.
"The doctors ran every test they could think of, but came up empty." Kevin Chapman, shook his head, hands clasped tightly between his knees. Though Mulder's age, he looked nearly a decade older. "How can you fix something if you don't understand what's broken?"
"No one could tell us why Jess was...the way she was. She looked just like she had when she ran out to play that night, there wasn't a mark on her, not a scrape or a bruise. When I picked her up out of those weeds, I thought, 'Thank God! My baby's home, she's come back to me.' And then I realized she wasn't responding..." Mrs. Chapman's eyes welled up, but she blinked back the tears. "When the doctors compared her condition to brain death, I was sure there must be some mistake. I still believed she'd wake up any minute and prove them all fools."
Her husband reached over to clasp her trembling hand between his own. "They told us there was no hope. That Jessica's systems were shutting down. We could either prolong the inevitable--" the ragged words caught in his throat, which he cleared with an unsteady breath, "--or let her go. I wonder every day if we made the right choice." He directed the last at Scully, wounded eyes begging for any absolution she might grant.
As she was hunting for a response, Mulder spoke. "You made a judgement call based on your love for your daughter. There was no wrong decision."
And that, Scully reflected wryly, was why she put up with the man's crap. Beneath the occasionally insensitive bastard was a soul who felt others' pain as keenly as his own.
"We'd like your permission to look at Jessica's medical records and speak with her doctors," she said aloud, offering Mulder the barest curve of her lips.
"You still haven't told us why you're here." Kevin, who owned and managed a small grocery store in town, had proved to be astute and perceptive--far from the "small town hick" stereotype. "Why have two agents come all the way from Washington DC to look into Jess's kidnapping--especially after all this time?"
Mulder's eyes flicked to Scully's before meeting Chapman's. "There's been an incident near Raleigh. A little girl has gone missing under circumstances similar to Jessica's. Our hope is that something we learn from this case may help us to help her."
"Dear God." His wife searched their faces. "You think the same person who hurt Jessica kidnapped that child? Like a serial murderer?"
Scully gave her partner a warning look. "We really can't be certain of anything at this point."
Mulder picked up a framed photograph from an end table--Jessica and an older girl with arms slung around each other's necks, both dressed in hiking boots and backpacks. "Do you do much hiking?"
Mr. Chapman's wistful smile erased a few of the lines around his dark eyes. "Our favorite family activity. I started taking the girls out as soon as they could walk. By the time she was five Jessica could hike several miles without asking to be carried."
"So young? Weren't you afraid she'd wander off, become lost?"
"I kept a close eye on her, of course. Taught her all the basics about safety and woodcraft, what to do if you ever become separated from your group." He huffed. "Compared to some of the city folks we see camping around here, both my girls were pros."
Mulder's eyes grazed Scully's as he replaced the photo. She heard his message loud and clear. So much for Sheriff Paxton's theory that Jessica had simply wandered off and lost her way.
He leaned forward, forearms propped on his knees. "Mr. and Mrs. Chapman, would you mind if we spoke to Theresa?"
The couple stiffened, defenses raised. Some sort of nonverbal communication passed between them before Sharon spoke. "I don't really see what possible help she could be."
"According to the police report, she was the one who found Jessica."
"That's right. But she didn't see anything." Mr. Chapman glanced at the staircase; lowered his voice. "Agent Mulder, Theresa and Jessica were very close. Finding her little sister that way...well...Theresa had nightmares for weeks after Jess's death." His expression hardened. "Being grilled by the police didn't help. I know you're just trying to do your job, but you can't imagine what it's like from this end, especially for a child..."
"My younger sister was abducted from our home when I was twelve. I was the only one there at the time, the only witness to the crime." Scully glanced sharply at her partner, surprised by his admission. Mulder's gaze never wavered from the Chapmans' faces. "Believe me, sir, I understand. I won't say or do anything to upset Theresa."
Another silent consultation and Mr. Chapman slowly nodded his head. "All right. As long as she agrees."
Mr. Chapman paused by the staircase. "Did you ever find out what happened to your sister, Agent Mulder?"
A loaded question. Scully watched her partner fumble for a response.
"She was raised by another family, but died when she was fourteen."
Mulder met Scully's eyes; smiled. "It was a long time ago."
An awkward silence descended as they waited for Mr. Chapman to return with Theresa. Mrs. Chapman stood and walked over to the bay window, gazing into the darkness.
"This other little girl--how long has she been missing?"
"Nearly three days," Scully answered.
For a moment the woman's only response was the slump of her shoulders. When she did speak, the words were nearly inaudible. "Whoever her mother is, I hope to God she doesn't have to endure what I have."
Footsteps on the stairs, and Mr. Chapman returned with the older girl from the photo. Theresa's face was longer and thinner than her sister's, her hair a darker shade of blonde. Still, the sibling relationship was obvious. She perched on the edge of a chair, eyeing Mulder and Scully with some trepidation.
Scully's warm smile and gentle tone were calculated to put her at ease. "Theresa, I'm Agent Scully, and this is my partner, Agent Mulder. We just want to ask you a few questions about the night you found your sister. Would that be all right?"
A long pause as Theresa's gaze moved from mother to father, evidently reassured by what she saw. "Okay."
"You were on your way home from a friend's house--is that correct?"
Theresa nodded. "Stacey lives right behind us."
"You were alone?" Scully couldn't help voicing some surprise.
"Of course not, " Mr. Chapman interrupted, plainly defensive. "For all we knew Jessica's kidnapper was still in the area. Stacey's father walked Theresa home."
Scully frowned. "I don't understand. The police report only lists Theresa as finding her sister."
Theresa ducked her head, flushing. "That's not when I found her. I...um...went back outside. Mom and Dad didn't know." She darted a sheepish glance at her parents. "I'd dropped a pack of gel pens somewhere along the way and I was pretty sure I knew where. So I took a flashlight and went out to find them."
"And found more than you bargained for." Scully's voice was gentle.
Theresa swallowed, eyes glistening. "Yeah."
"And you didn't see anyone else? In one of the adjacent yards or walking along the street?"
Scully nodded. "Thank you, Theresa. We appreciate you talking to us."
"I have one more question." Mulder smiled encouragingly when Theresa appeared startled by his abrupt interjection. "It's an easy one. Theresa, when you were walking home with Mr. Cooper, did anything unusual or interesting happen?"
Her forehead crinkled as she tried to process his question. "No." She caught herself; smirking a bit. "Unless you call Jimmy Joyce still setting off fireworks a month after Fourth of July interesting."
Mulder leaned in closer, his face bland. "Fireworks?"
She nodded, disdain transforming her from fourteen to thirty-two. "I don't know what it was, but it made a real big flash. Lit up our whole backyard, and Stacey's, too. Mr. Cooper said he was gonna call the cops, but he always says that when Jimmy's causing trouble, and he never does."
Mulder's answering grin didn't touch his eyes. "Thank you, Theresa. I know it wasn't easy for you to talk about this. You've been very helpful."
She shrugged, offering a shy smile. "You're welcome."
They all stood and began the niceties for Mulder and Scully to make their exit. Mulder had one hand on the doorknob and Scully was already standing on the front porch, when Theresa peered around her father.
"Agent Mulder, the little girl who's missing--does she have a sister to find her?"
Only Scully was able to see the hairline fracture in Mulder's professional facade. He blinked, then looked somberly at the little girl. "No, Theresa. But she has me."
Scully placed a firm hand on his arm, her voice pitched for his ears alone. "She has us both."