DREAMER: An X-Files novel where Scully and Mulder must stop the murderous rampage of a psychic killer.

 

 

The X-Files

DREAMER

A novel by

Wayne M. Schmidt

REWRITTEN 6 MAY, 2015!!!

 

1

 

Needleton, Nebraska
Tuesday, 8:46 P.M.

 

He might not hit her if she kept her back turned. Henrietta Kamp knew her husband liked seeing her cower before he struck. If he couldn't enjoy seeing the fear in her eyes he lost interest. Sometimes it worked.

Henrietta hunched over trying to be as inconspicuous as possible on the side of the bed furthest from the door. She brushed a lock of gray hair out of her eyes and opened the leather-bound journal resting on her lap.

A stairway tread creaked.

Henrietta shuddered and concentrated on the cream-colored pages, trying to ignore the nausea churning in her stomach. She picked up a pen and began writing.

The bedroom door sighed open.

Her hand flinched. She fought to focus all her attention on the jittery scrawl coming from her pen, but couldn't block out the sound of her husband's slippers dragging across the carpet. He came around the end of the bed and stopped next to her; his brown leather slippers just visible out of the corners of her eyes. Henrietta forced her attention back to the journal. Don't look into his eyes.

"Henrietta?" Grady Kamp's gravelly voice crowded out the silence in the room.

She cringed and bent closer to her writing. Don't look up.

"Henrietta. I'm talking to you."

"Yes, Grady. I hear you." Don't look.

"So, what are you? Stupid or something? You're supposed to look at a person when they talk to you."

"I'm sorry. I... I was busy with my log." Don't look.

Her hand scribbled gibberish. Henrietta couldn't tear her eyes away from his slippers. She held her breath. The slippers hesitated, pivoted, and started to step away. She glanced up and blanched; Grady's cold black eyes caught her full in the face. A malignant hunger burned out of them. Faster than she could dodge, his left hand flashed out to grab the hair on the back of her head. His right hand stretched back, ground itself into a bony fist and flew forward, smashing into her face.

She felt her head jerked side to side as he inspected the welt she could feel swelling under her cheekbone and on the side of her nose. With a grunt of satisfaction, he threw her down onto the bed and walked away.

Henrietta fought the trembling that might draw his attention back to her. Moments later she felt the mattress sag as he sat down, heard him scratch a few lines in his log and shuffle under the covers.

Henrietta rose quietly and changed for sleep, careful to keep her back toward Grady. She turned and froze when she saw he'd rolled over toward her side of the bed. The scar along the edge of his jaw shone livid white against the dark shadow of two-day-old whiskers. Her eyes darted around the room looking for a place to hide. There was none. Her shoulders sagged and she slipped between the sheets.

She cringed as his tobacco-ladened breath flowed over her.

"You're due tonight, aren't you?" he said.

A spasm shook her. "I... I think it's time, yes."

"I don't like it. Never did. You and me and a baby? What kind of a way is that to live? Especially at our age." He snorted. "You were an idiot to want one."

Hysteria scratched at the edges of her words. "The baby won't be any trouble. I'll take care of it. You won't even know it's around. I'll keep it with me and after all, it'll only be with us at night."

"Oh, I'll help take care of the thing. You can bet on that. Someone's got to teach it discipline." His eyes grew distant and his lips twisted in a cold smile. "Yeah... someone's got to teach it who's the boss."

"Grady, no!"

Henrietta felt him rise up on one elbow and lean over her, his mouth close to her face. The odor of sour beer prickled her nose.

"What did you say to me?"

Rising panic quivered in her voice. "Please, Grady, I'm sorry. I didn't mean it. I'll take care of everything. Really. It won't be any trouble."

"We'll see."

"I... I just wish you had let Doctor Laum be here. It would be safer."

He jerked upright. "I've had it with that damn Doctor Laum. You shut up about him."

She turned away, cowering on the edge of the bed. "Yes, Grady."

Henrietta strained to lay quietly, hoping he couldn't feel her tremble. She sensed his murderous stare, then exhaled a deep sigh when he turned away and dug deeper under the covers. Henrietta felt tension drain out of her arms and legs.

She closed her eyes and began mouthing her nighttime litany. "I will remember my dreams. I will-"

"Henrietta, I think I'll go along with you for the delivery."

Her heart seized. "You can't! I mean, you don't have to. I'll be all right by myself."

"I'm your husband. I have the right to be there."

"But-"

"Besides, you're not in the position to argue. Are you?"

She sagged. "No."

He pulled the covers close. "So be shut up and go to sleep."

Henrietta fought her shaking and wished he'd struck her a second time. It might have satisfied him enough so he'd leave her alone. Now he'd be there with her... and their helpless child. Her eyes searched from side to side, looking for salvation in the dark room. There was none. She sobbed silently, struggling against sleep and the nightmare closing in on her.

 

+++

 

Sheriff Angus Cade checked his watch: 2 A.M. He turned left onto Barnstrom Boulevard and cruised past the shops of Needleton's main street. The gnarly grip of the spotlight's handle bit into his hand as he slewed the beam toward the store windows. The brilliant yellow shaft drilled through storefronts creating mutated shadows that drifted backward as the car rolled along.

The radio squawked at him. "Sheriff Cade? It's Hank again."

The sheriff unclipped the microphone from its holder and held down its yellowed button. "Cade here. What's up?"

"That Doctor Laum called again. He said the Kamps still aren't answering their phone and insists someone check them out."

Cade's face screwed itself into a frown. "What is this, the third time he's called?"

"Fourth."

"You explained that we can't go pounding on people's doors simply because they don't want to answer their phones?"

"Yes, sir. But he's certain something's wrong and threatened to keep calling until we make sure the Kamps are all right."

The sheriff sighed. "All right. Trevor's only two blocks away. I'll take a look. Cade out."

He hurried through the approaching intersection, turned right at the next street and watched address numbers climb as he cruised deeper into Needleton's dark interior. He nosed the black and white into the curb in front of a blocky two-story house. A faded curb address marked it as 337. Cade stepped out of the car and walked up to the Kamp's front door and rang the bell. A distant chime rang but no lights came on. He rapped on the door hard enough to make his calloused knuckles sting, still no response. The sheriff rattled the knob, locked. He pulled a flashlight from his belt and shined it through a narrow window on the side of the door. The dark, long-faded colors of the walls and furniture gave the living room a velvety-blackness that soaked up the beam. The furniture was upright and formed an undisturbed arc facing a television.

The sheriff walked the house's perimeter checking for open or broken windows. They were all intact and shut tight against the outside world. He walked around to the rear door. It was also locked. Peering inside at the kitchen; he could make out deep cracks in the floor's dried-out linoleum. They reminded him of knife wounds.

Cade walked back to the front yard and stared at the house. Its dark windows set in a dusky exterior reminded him of skull with empty eye sockets. He shrugged and turned toward the police car.

The strident ring of the Kamp's phone shattered the early morning silence. Cade spun around and counted as it rang ten times before falling into silence. A chill shivered his spine.

He marched up and pressed his thumb deep into the door bell. It rang four times before Cade gave up and beat on the door with the butt of his flashlight. The house remained silent. He strode to the middle of the front yard and flashed the light into the upstairs rooms. No lights came on. Cade chewed a lip, then about-faced and marched back to the car. He jerked the microphone of its hook. "Cade to station. You still there, Hank?"

"Right here."

"I'm going to break into the Kamp's house. Start the justification paperwork. Use non-responsiveness to phone, doorbell, and knocking for the reasons. What was that doctor's name?"

"Laum."

"Right. Use his demands to investigate as additional justification. Don't wake Judge Pione. I don't need a warrant, just a form 414 in case Grady tries to sue us for breaking his door." Gagala's jaw worked as he recalled Grady Kamp's police record. "And you better send Carlos over here for backup."

"Anything suspicious?"

"Not yet but the book says use a backup, so let's do it. I'll wait." Cade dropped the microphone into its holder and began pacing up and down the sidewalk; the gritty sound of his footfalls on the cement strangely loud in the evening quite. Cade stopped and glanced at the gray house. Its shrouded windows stared back at him darkly. Cade returned to his pacing.

A black-and-white squad car pulled up to the curb. Sergeant Carlos Benido climbed out and walked up to the sheriff. The deputy's short, straight body and pointed head made him look like an artillery shell. Benido handed him a stiff sheet of paper. "Here's a copy of the 414. Hank thought it might placate Kamp if he tries to push you around."

Cade stuffed the paper into his shirt pocket. "Thanks. We'll hit the rear door. It'll cost less to fix."

They walked to the back of the house. Cade held back while Carlos set himself three feet in front of the door. As one, they brought their hands up sharply along the sides of their holsters. Their thumbs caught and popped loose the snaps that locked their revolvers into their holsters.

At Cade's nod, Carlos jacked his right boot up and slammed it into the door, close to the frame, just above the knob. Wood exploded inward as the door flew open. They held back, listening, but the house remained silent. Cade stepped into the kitchen, his shoes crunching on wood splinters, then signaled Benido to follow. The men checked the downstairs rooms. Empty beer cans and crumpled papers were scattered about the otherwise spotless house. It gave Cade in impression that two opposing forces, sloth and cleanliness, were locked in a battle for dominance. Cade shook his head and started up the stairway. "Mr. Kamp?" he yelled ahead. "It's Sheriff Cade. Are you all right?"

No one answered.

He climbed the stairs one thoughtful tread at a time, feeling his heart beat faster with each step. Cade patted the justification paperwork to make sure it was still in his pocket and realized that it offered little protection if Kamp came at him with a shotgun. Cold perspiration dotted Cade's forehead. He wished he'd put on the bulletproof vest laying safely in his car's trunk.

The sheriff's flashlight sliced a dusty beam up into the landing at the top of the stairs: empty. He stepped onto the small open area and cast around for a light switch. He slapped a wall switch to his left. The light's sudden brilliance made him blink. Three doors opened onto the landing. He walked to the one on his left: a bathroom. He pushed the middle door open with his flashlight; its metal housing scraped over the door's cracked paint. He looked inside and stared. "Good God."

"Sir?" Benido asked.

"Nothing. It's Nothing."

Cade pulled the door closed and pivoted right toward the last door. "This must be their bedroom." His mouth had gone dry so he nodded from Benido to the door.

The deputy called out. "Mr. Kamp? Mrs. Kamp? It's the police. Are you all right?"

Silence.

Cade's lips tightened as he pushed on the door. It drifted inward with a dry hiss. No light or sound came out. He squeezed around the corner of the door, his flashlight held far from his body to misdirect any attacker. The beam illuminated the edge of a bed with a rumpled bedspread. He eased through the doorway, ready to jerk back. The flashlight's beam drifted upward and came to rest on the head end of the bed. Cade's shoulders sagged. "Carlos?"

"Right here."

"Call the coroner. We've got two dead."

 

 

"What can you tell me, Doc?" Cade asked the short, reedy man bent over Henrietta Kamp's body.

Dr. Emril Brubaker straightened up. "Can't say. I should know more after the postmortem but..."

"But?"

He turned bleary eyes on the sheriff. "There's no sign of serious external trauma, nothing indicating a stroke or heart attack, no discoloration suggesting carbon-monoxide poisoning, no blotting indicative of food poisoning." Brubaker scratched the nap of his neck. "They should still be alive."

Cade watched a paramedic zip up Mrs. Kamp's black body bag. The sheriff grimaced at the expression of mixed of joy and terror frozen on her face. "What could have happened to make her look like that?"

The coroner looked at the closed bag over the tops of his glasses. "Nothing I can imagine. It certainly doesn't look like a rictus of pain."

Cade shook his head. "Pathetic little thing."

"Yes, and as sweet as they come."

The sheriff turned to look at Grady Kamp. The dead man's face seemed to gloat with murderous victory. Cade shivered and turned away. "We got a number of calls from a Doctor Laum insisting we come over and find out why they weren't answering their phone. Do you know him?"

"Laum? No, I don't believe so."

"Was there-" the distant wail of a woman's scream pierced the room. Cade spun around, "Carlos! Check that out."

"I'm on it, sir. Sounded like it came from the direction of Collins Drive."

"Get going. I'll follow in a few minutes." He ran a shaky hand through his hair and turned back to the coroner. "What a night. Anything unusual about the couple?"

"Mrs. Kamp had a facial bruise. I'd say it was put there several hours before she died."

"You think Kamp did it?"

"It wouldn't have been the first time."

"Or the tenth, from what I've heard. Did they have any children we need to notify?"

Brubaker shook his head. "No. Henrietta Kamp couldn't have children."

 

 

2

 

Medical Seminar Room B
FBI Training Facility, Quantico, Virginia
Monday, three weeks later, 8:17 A.M.

 

FBI Agent Fox Mulder gently pushed the door open and side-stepped into the rear of the classroom. The chairs were empty. Thirty students in subdued suits and dresses huddled two-deep in the front of the room. Between the students, Mulder caught vertical slices of a lumpy shape on a stainless steel table. Behind that he saw flashes his partner's red hair as she moved back and forth. Her arm movements and silvery glints off something in her hand suggested the seminar's subject. He heard her measured, clear voice work it's way over the audience's heads.

"The standard incision for exposing the internal organs of the thorax takes the shape of a Y with the short arms starting at the shoulders. I prefer to use a double-ended Y with a second pair of arms branching out at the juncture of the legs and trunk because it enables a more complete exposure of the lower body."

Mulder winced as Dr. Dana Scully lifted her heels off the ground for a better angle and plunged a scalpel into the body. She slashed down from both shoulders to a point below the neck. From there she dove to the navel where she cut left and right to form the lower set of arms. The scalpel clanged as she dropped it on a stainless steel tray. She grabbed the trapezoidal flaps of skin in her small, latex-gloved hands and jerked them in opposite directions to expose the faded gray interior of her subject. "As you can see, most of the adipose tissue comes away with the dermal layer. Additional cleaning reveals the surface musculature." She picked up the scalpel again. "Incisions here and here are needed to release the covering of muscles."

Mulder waved to catch her attention. She stood on her toes to identify the hand's owner. Thirty pairs of eyes turned on him. "Yes, Agent Mulder?" Scully called out.

"When you get a chance?"

"We're almost done. Have a seat and I'll be with you in a minute."

He sniffed at the heavy smell of formaldehyde and offered her a weak smile. "I'll wait in the hallway." He eased out from under the scrutiny of her students.

Her lecture trailed out into the hallway after him. "The next step is to use bone shears to open the pulmonary cavity...."

Mulder moved further down the hall.

 

+++

 

"...which reveals the lungs, heart, pancreas and-"

"Agent Scully?"

She raised her eyes toward the voice. "Yes, Mr. Chambers?"

"Was that Spooky Muld-"

"That was Special Agent Mulder. Why do you ask?"

"Of the X-Files?"

"Yes." She felt the muscles around her lips tighten. Here it comes.

A cynical smile spread across the man's features. "And you work with him?"

"That's correct. I teach classes in forensics as time permits."

"So most of the time you investigate UFO cases?"

A twitter passed through the students.

Scully tossed the scalpel onto the metal tray; it hit with an impatient rattle. She raked the students with hardened eyes. "Agent Mulder and I have investigated cases where UFO phenomenon has been one of the theories used to explain certain events. However, these amount to less than twenty percent of our work. The X-Files Office deals with any case that does not respond to conventional investigative methodologies."

"Like the Robinson case?" a woman's voice to her right asked. "I heard Mulder solved it in one day."

Scully shook her head. "You heard wrong. It took him five days to discover Robinson dismembered his victims in an attempt to construct a perfect human being. Agent Mulder spent four sleepless nights buried in what little information the bureau had on the case, information three other teams had failed to understand. On the fifth day the solution presented itself to him. Canvassing video stores near the murders disclosed that all of them had lost Frankenstein tapes to Robinson. He was trying to succeed where Doctor Frankenstein had failed."

The students struggled to subdue their smiles.

Scully's frown deepened. "Eight people died in that case. If Agent Mulder had not solved it many more would have been lost. Try to remember that next time someone mentions the X-Files and you feel the urge to laugh."

The student's smiles faded and she retrieved the scalpel. "Now, if I may continue? Other than obvious surface trauma and skin discoloration, the condition of the internal organs is the first observation...."

 

 

Half an hour later Scully emerged from the classroom free of her latex gloves and white smock. She wore a medium blue suite that set off the color of her hair and auburn eyes. She looked up and down the hallway then walked to her left where she saw Mulder's tall, lanky form slouched on a bench. "You should have stayed, Mulder. Your legend has worked its way down to the trainee level. They wanted to hear how you solved the Robinson case in five days."

He clamored to his feet and ran a hand through his dark brown hair. "Five? I sweated that case for two weeks."

Her small, full mouth formed a faint smile. "I know, but I didn't want to shatter the Mulder mystique. By the way. you should have stayed for the autopsy demonstration. Our subject displayed several interesting anomalous conditions. We were lucky to get him."

"I doubt he appreciated his contribution as much as your students. Any fainters?"

She swept a few strands of red hair back into place. "Not one."

Mulder flashed a half-smile. "It's television. This generation grew up watching monsters bite off people's legs and beat them to death with the stumps. After that, a nice clean autopsy is a walk in the park."

Her smile broadened. "You may have a point. So, what brought you across the river from DC?"

"This." Mulder waved a computer disk at her. "Let me show you something odd."

He nodded his head to the left and rushed off down the hall. Scully followed with slow measured steps, a wry smile playing on her lips. "Why aren't I surprised to hear you say that?"

Four doors down they entered a large square room filled with computer cubicles. Mulder sat down in front of an empty work station and fed the computer his disk. Scully dragged a chair over from the adjacent cubical and sat next to him.

Mulder tapped a short cadence on the keyboard. A white-line silhouette of the United States covered with countless red dots appeared. Solid red blotches marked major urban areas.

"What is it?" she asked.

Mulder turned to her. "An accidental death profile for the entire country. The Department of National Statistics wants the FBI to investigate something they found; something your scientist's mind won't like. Watch." His fingers flew over the keyboard in a series of short bursts. Each pass reduced the number of dots on the screen. "I'm removing layers of historical accident profiles so any unusual patterns show up. And sure enough..." Mulder's finger stabbed at the heart of Nebraska. Most of the red dots had vanished. A thin, uniform scattering covered the country, except where Mulder's finger touched the screen. There, a short solid red line stretched a quarter inch from his fingernail toward the northeast corner of the state.

Scully grabbed the mouse and traced a green box around the red line. She moved the cursor to the zoom icon and clicked. The white outline of Nebraska filled the screen. The red line remained arrow-straight. Scully's brow wrinkled. "What's the time index on this study?"

He checked the information printed on the floppy disk's case. "It covers the last six months. But, the man who contacted me said the fourteen deaths you're looking at occurred over a two-week period ending last week." Mulder nodded at the computer screen. "Try moving in closer."

She clicked the zoom icon a second time. White lines and text appeared showing various boundaries and cities. The line expanded into fourteen closely spaced red dots cutting through Greeley and Wheeler counties. It started in the town of Needleton. "Serial killer?" she asked.

Mulder shook his head. "Doesn't look like it. I called the local police stations. They said all these accidents were just that, accidents."

"Odd."

"That's why the case got sent to us."

"Us?"

Mulder grinned and pulled two airline tickets out of his coat pocket. "We leave tomorrow."

 

 

3

 

Washington DC International Airport
Tuesday, 8:07 A.M.

 

Scully tapped the toe of her black patent leather pump against the white linoleum in front of the security kiosk, making sure that her foot-strikes were loud enough for the guard to hear. "I don't understand what the problem is. I called an hour ago and informed airport security that Agent Mulder and myself would be carrying our weapons onto the airplane. You should have a record of the call-" she glared at the guard's name badge, "-Sergeant Kracker."

The guard's face turned bright red under Scully's hard stare. "Well, yes. I'm sure we do... somewhere. But you see, we just had a shift change and-"

Scully crossed her arms. "The information should have been passed on to the new shift. I suggest you check your records."

The guard began shuffling through the confusion of papers covering his counter. "It's got to be here somewhere. If you'll just give me a minute..."

Scully glanced at the clock mounted on the partition behind him. "Our flight leaves in ten minutes."

"Yes. I'm sure it'll only take another-"

A granite-chinned security officer in a blue uniform stepped up the station. "Kracker? What's going on here?"

The sergeant almost threw himself at the new arrival. "Captain Tournea, thank God. These two FBI agents want to take their guns aboard-"

Impatience flashed across Tournea's face. "Weapons, man. We don't call them guns in the service."

"Yes, sir. Sorry. Anyway, they want-"

"They should have called for clearance ahead of time."

"We did," Scully said flatly.

"Then there should be a record of it."

She pursed her lips. "You'd think so."

"Sergeant, where's the clipboard with the 705s?"

Kracker's eyes began jumping back and forth along the length of the counter. "It should be here someplace."

Tournea set his jaw. "Never mind." He turned to Mulder. "May I see your weapon?"

Mulder stepped forward and opened the left side of his dark gray coat to show Tournea his standard issue automatic snugged in its shoulder holster. "Okay?"

Tournea nodded. "I'll walk you through the metal detector. If you'll follow me-"

Scully stepped between the two men and unbuttoned the blazer to her black suit. The deadly looking chromed body of a nine-millimeter automatic was clipped to the waistband of her skirt. "I'm armed too."

Tournea's eyes rounded. He coughed and nodded again. "Uh, yes. Thank you." He scuttled off toward a row of metal-detector archways manned by uniformed guards. "This way, please."

A short security guard with a bulbous head that seemed to grow out of his shoulders without the benefit of a neck passed them through the detector station after Tournea spoke a few words in his ear.

"Next time ship your weapons in your bags," Tournea said as they passed him.

Mulder smiled and shrugged a blue flight bag and small gray garment bag into view. "We only have carry-on."

Tournea humphed. "Your flight's about to leave."

Scully stepped around them, "Come on, Mulder." Tournea's reaction to her carrying a weapon caused a knot of exasperation in her stomach. Mulder fell in line behind her as she lead the way down the ramp to their airplane. "I wish they wouldn't react like that," Scully said as they jostled down the narrow aisle between beige and orange-striped seats.

"Value their surprise," Mulder said. "It's the same thing that'll cause a killer to hesitate a second before shooting. That second could save your life."

"I try not to get into situations where I'll need it." She placed her black leather purse on a seat on her left. "Here's my spot."

"I'm thirty-three D," Mulder said.

"This is twenty-four B. You're eight rows further on."

Mulder ducked his head and pushed toward the rear of the plane.

Scully used her foot to slide her flight bag under the seat in front of her, then wedged her garment bag into an overhead compartment crowded with luggage and maroon airline blankets. She grimaced at the thought of the wrinkles that would be pressed into her clothes by the end of the flight.

Scully eased herself down into the economy-class seat and felt thankful, for a change, that her small size gave her room to be comfortable, unlike the man sitting in the window seat.

She estimated him to be five years older than her and he wore the dark blue suit and subdued tie typical of a businessman. A frosting of gray had begun spreading back from his temples. He fidgeted; trying to get his lineman-sized body comfortable in the too-small seat.

"Would you prefer the window seat?" the man asked, smiling at her with an open expression. "We could switch."

Scully felt her gun press against the side of her chair and cut into her left hip. She shifted, trying to move it out of the way. "No, thank you," she said in the middle of her maneuvering. "I prefer the aisle."

He nodded. "Are you traveling for business or pleasure?"

Scully squirmed. The clip holding the gun to her waistband slipped so she was sitting on a sharp corner. "What?" she said. "Oh, business." She wriggled again. The gun dug its way further under her.

He furrowed his wide forehead at her movements. "Are you all right?"

Scully reached around and slid the automatic to the front of her skirt. The brown holster and unforgiving hard lines of her weapon's handle peeked out from under her blazer. "I'm fine, thank you."

The man stared at the weapon.

Scully squared her shoulders and pulled the blazer closed. "How about you?" she asked lightly.

"Uh, me?" His wide eyes hadn't moved.

"Business?"

"Yes," he said vaguely. "Business."

His face snapped up to her green eyes. "Will you excuse me?" He shuffled to his feet. "I need to... well-"

She smiled. "Of course."

Scully angled her slender legs toward the aisle. The man plastered himself against the back of the seat in front of her to avoid brushing her knees as he passed. He never returned.

The plane taxied onto the runway and engines screamed as they thrust the plane forward. Scully relaxed, enjoying the sensation of acceleration pushing her deep into the seat cushions. The plane leveled off and she reached for a copy of Airways Magazine in the pocket in front of her.

"That seat taken?" Mulder asked as he straddled over her legs and fell into the window seat.

Scully glanced up and down the aisle. "As a matter of fact, it is. Or at least it was. There was a gentleman-"

"Martin Gorfield." Mulder smiled and shook his head. "He won't be coming back."

She frowned. "How did you find out his name?"

Mulder pressed his face close to the plane's small window to ogle the landscape passing beneath them. "Funny thing. A guy plops down into an empty seat next to me right before take-off. He's all white and shaking. He introduces himself and explains a cute little redhead with a gun the size of a howitzer took the seat next to him."

Mulder turned away from the window and smiled at her. "I think Mr. Gorfield suspects you're a mob enforcer."

"I hope you straightened him out."

Mulder's smile grew into a grin. "I showed him my ID and explained that the FBI was aware of your presence on the plane."

"You left it hanging like that? Letting him think that I'm some kind of a hit-man?"

"Hit-woman, actually. Or maybe you'd prefer the more politically correct hit-person?"

"Neither, thank you." She crossed her arms and bounced her right knee half a dozen times. "He said I was cute?"

"Between jitters, yes."

A smile slowly spread across her face.

"What's that for?"

"A girl can never get too much encouragement, even if it's from a disinterested source."

"I wouldn't know." Mulder took a magazine from the pocket on the back of the seat in front of him and began flipping through it.

Scully leaned to peer past his chin and out through the window. Thirty thousand feet below, the city had already fallen behind; toy houses centered in large green lots crept by with excruciating slowness. The computer image of the fourteen red points, fourteen deaths she reminded herself, flashed through Scully's mind and blotted out the scene below. She shivered.

 

The Eppley Airfield Security Police had managed to get Scully's message about their weapons to the gatekeepers and she and Mulder were flagged through to their shuttle connection without delay. An hour later their single-prop six-seater landed at the Central Nebraska Regional Airport outside the city of Grand Island.

Mulder signed out a white, Corolla rental while Scully searched the small airport's gift shop for a local map. She found one and discovered Needleton was a black dot an hour north on Highway 281. After a greasy lunch in the airport's cafeteria that even Mulder couldn't enjoy, they pulled out of the airport by one in the afternoon with Mulder behind the wheel.

They drove through fields of corn and wheat that stretched to the horizon. No structures broke the flat expanse. "So much for the small family farm," he said with a nod toward the fields.

Scully glanced at him quizzically. "What?"

"Big farm corporations move into an area like this and buy out the small farmers. No one lives on the land anymore. It's all done from remote sites."

Scully looked out her passenger window and traced the unbroken horizon with her eyes. "It's more efficient that way."

"Yes. But it's a machine's efficiency; cold and inhuman."

Scully gazed at the fields and empty road. "And isolated."

They topped a low rise in the road and were suddenly in Needleton. The town grew out in an ellipse from either side of the highway, which was named Barnstrom Boulevard within city limits. A four-block-long veneer of storefronts lined both sides of the street while residential neighborhoods extended outward behind the shops. Scully studied the people on the streets. They walked energetically, wore new clothes, and drove late model cars. She assumed that times must be prosperous in Needleton, despite Mulder's comments about big business taking over the countryside.

The police station occupied the center lot on the right side of the boulevard. Mulder pulled into a visitor parking space outlined in bright yellow.

Scully eased out of the car, wincing a joints stiffened by the long drive. Mulder came around to her side of the car and they strode across the cement sidewalk to the glass front door of the Police Department.

The station's door opened into a wide, shallow room. Directly ahead of them, a police sergeant in short-sleeved khakis sat behind a dark mahogany desk on a low platform. Dark wood doors opened on the wall behind and on either side of the him.

The man looked up as the rattle of the front door announced Scully and Mulder's arrival. His face was plump and wide and flushed pink. "May I help you?"

Mulder handed the officer his ID card. "I'm Special Agent Mulder and this is Special Agent Dana Scully. I talked to you yesterday about the recent series of deaths in Needleton. We're here to investigate."

The sergeant nodded. "I remember. Chief Cade's out right now but promised to be back in an hour. Checked into a hotel yet?"

"No," Scully said. "Do you have a recommendation?"

"Martha's Inn. Two blocks north on the left. Best place in town. I'll call ahead and tell them you're on the way."

"Thanks," Mulder said. "We'll be back later."

 

The hotel was a lemon yellow, three-story, colonial-style mansion converted to a bed-and-breakfast. They climbed a wide plank stairway up to a porch that girdled the building's perimeter and stepped into the hotel's cool interior.

"Afternoon, folks," a twenty-year-old girl with honey-blonde hair said. She'd perched herself on a stool behind a newly refinished saloon bar modified to be a registration desk. "Are you the two FBI agents Barney just called about?"

Scully stepped forward. "If Barney is the desk sergeant at the police station, yes. We need two rooms, not necessarily adjoining."

The girl ate Mulder up and down with her eyes. "Two rooms, you said?"

Mulder returned the girl's smile. "Yes, two rooms."

"That's good." The girl wet her lips with the tip of her tongue. "I think I can take care of you."

Scully's expression soured. I bet you'd like to try.

The girl slid two keys attached to orange fobs toward them. "Numbers eleven and seventeen are open." Mulder reached for his. At the last minute the girl snatched it back and giggled. "Fooled you!"

Mulder's smile took on a strained edge.

"My name's Angela," she said holding out the key for him.

"I'm Agent Mulder," he said teasing the key out of her grasp.

"Agent Mulder," she repeated slowly. "Sounds impressive. Is there a first name that goes with that?"

Mulder's mouth opened, hesitated, then closed. "Yes, there is." He turned away toward the stairs leading to the second floor.

Scully picked up her key and followed him up.

Mulder stepped through his door at the head of the stairs. "Half an hour?" he asked.

"Make it forty-five minutes. I need to freshen up."

Mulder nodded and closed his door.

Scully counted the polished brass door numbers as she walked down the hall to number seventeen. She unlocked the yellow door and stepped into the room. It had a high ceiling only found in houses built early in the last century. An old-fashioned bed with legs that placed the top of the mattress and inch above her waist dominated an entire wall. She walked around the room, inspecting the furnishings. A sheet of marbleized parchment paper next to the phone explained in a florid typeset that Martha Saunders opened the hotel in 1903. She'd died twenty years ago but her daughter, Sara, still ran the establishment as a family concern. Scully replaced the notice, squared it precisely with the desk's corner and turned to unpack.

 

An hour later they walked back into the police station. Cade met them at the door and ushered them into his office. "It's a pleasure to see you," the sheriff said as he folded himself into the oak swivel chair behind his desk. "Please, sit down."

Scully pulled a wooden chair over in front of the desk. Cade was trim and looked to be in his early forties but already sported a head of silver-white hair. It flowed up from his high forehead and bounded over his head in chromed waves. His face was tan and strong; his voice deep and resonate. She thought he'd make a good television evangelist.

Cade stared at them over the tops of his tented fingers. "You said on the phone you were interested in our rash of accidental deaths."

"Right," Mulder said.

"Then I'm afraid you've made the trip for nothing. The deaths stopped two weeks ago. I tried calling you back after I got your message but never managed to connect."

A deep crease formed in Mulder's forehead. "Stopped?"

"Well... moved on. Towns are so isolated in these parts that anything that doesn't affect the locals ceases to exist. I got a call from Sheriff Dreed in Feldsburg ten days ago. He says whatever hit us moved into his territory. We lost five people, he lost six. The city of Yardley was next. As of twelve noon they'd lost ten."

That's a total of twenty-one," Scully said. "This is an ongoing phenomenon."

Cade's frown deepened. "Very."

"What can you tell us about the people who died in Needleton?" Mulder asked.

"As much as you want to know." The sheriff handed Mulder five folders, one on each accident. "Three died in car crashes, one stepped in front of a tractor, and one walked into a stone wall, fell down and crushed her head on the sidewalk."

"Her?" Scully asked.

"Joan Montgomery. Eighty-three but sharp as a whip." He shrugged. "Or at least she was."

Mulder buried his attention in the folders.

Scully cleared her throat. "Do you have any reason to believe these accidents might be homicides made to look like accidents?"

"No," Cade said. "They all occurred in broad daylight with plenty of witnesses. No one reported anything unusual."

Mulder spoke up without taking his eyes off the folders. "Except that there was one death per day, everyday, for five days in a row."

Cade spread his hands. "Well, yes. That is a little strange. Even for a farm town."

Scully brought her eyebrows together. "Even for a farm town?"

"People don't realize that farming is one of the most hazardous occupations. All the equipment is large and powerful. Everyone's as careful as possible but accidents are common."

"Any possibility of suicides?" Scully asked.

Sheriff Cade shifted uncomfortably in his chair. "That's always a possibility. I don't think it's the case here."

"Why not?" she asked.

"I knew these people. None of them had problems serious enough to drive them to suicide. Besides, there were no suicide notes."

"Still...."

"You're right. We all have secrets. But five in one week?"

Scully crossed her legs. "Psycho-social patterns of sequential suicides have been documented."

The sheriff's face went blank. "Huh?"

Scully leaned forward. "There have been cases were suicide spreads like a disease. Even happy, well adjusted people can be infected."

"And you think that's what happened here?" Cade asked.

"It's a possibility."

"No," Mulder said.

Scully looked at him. "Why not?"

"Look at the way these people died. Infectious suicides usually result in people killing themselves in the same manner. Each of these was different."

"Let me see the files." She took them and started flipping through the pages.

Mulder snapped a finger up every time he counted off a case. "Three died in their cars but each in a different way. One ran into a telephone pole, one hit a brick wall, another spun out of control and rolled into a ditch. The fourth walked into a tractor and sounds like suicide but there's nothing to link it to the others. Joan Montgomery certainly didn't commit suicide by beating her head against a wall. Also, nothing connects these people to act as an agent of transmission."

"Accept that they were all women," Scully said and returned the files to Cade's desk.

Mulder's eyes rounded.

Cade nodded his head. "That's right, Agent Mulder. All the victims were women. Same as in Feldsburg and Yardley."

"Twenty-one women dead," Mulder said. "No men? You're sure?"

"None."

Scully turned toward Mulder. The nails of his right hand drummed the wooden arm of his chair. His eyes were focused on something beyond her ability to see. "Mulder?"

He startled. "Huh? What?"

"All of the victims were women. That supports my infectious suicide hypothesis. Their gender provides the commonality needed for transmission."

Mulder grabbed the files and tore through them again. "Not necessarily. The ages and socio-economic status of these women were far enough apart so they'd have little in common. Sheriff Cade, you said you knew these people. Did they know each other?"

"In a small town like this everybody knows something about everyone. But no, I don't believe any of them were close friends."

"What are you thinking, Mulder?" Scully asked.

"I need a detailed map of Needleton."

The sheriff stood and walked to a bookshelf. He rummaged through jumbled pamphlets until he located the one he wanted. Cade handed Mulder a folded map.

Mulder spread it out on Cade's desk. Armed with a red felt pen, Mulder flipped through the case folders. He drew an X on the map at the location of each accident. They formed a jagged line cutting northeast through Needleton.

Scully stood to look at the map. "The straightness of the line you saw on the computer monitor back at Quantico was an artifact of scale. What did you expect to find when you used this size of a map? A perfectly straight line?"

Mulder's eyes narrowed. "As a matter of fact, yes."

 

4

 

Needleton Police Department
Tuesday, 3:12 P.M.

 

"But, Mulder," Scully said. "What could induce such a phenomenon?"

He shrugged. "Nothing I can imagine, but my intuition tells me that it should have been a straight line, even at this scale."

"And now that you see it isn't?"

Mulder shook his head. "I'm still convinced it's supposed to be straight."

"But-"

"We just aren't looking at this right. When I can figure out what it is...."

Cade cleared his throat. "Excuse me, but I'm still not sure what you two are doing here." The sheriff spread his hands. "I don't see that there's anything to investigate."

"You've had five fatalities," Mulder said.

"So? None of them were murders and even if they were there'd be a question of jurisdiction."

Mulder settled into a slouch, his eyes distant.

Scully shifted forward to take over and give Mulder time to think. "Sheriff Cade, Agent Mulder and I are assigned to a section within the FBI referred to as the X-Files. This section-"

Cade frowned. "X-Files?"

She nodded. "Our charter directs us to investigate unusual phenomenon. We employ unconventional techniques to resolve crimes or," she shot a side-glance at Mulder, "events such as what may have occurred in your town that suggest something out of the ordinary."

Mulder straightened in his chair. "When the Department of National Statistics brought the straight line of deaths to the FBI's attention I sensed it had the potential to be an X case."

"So you came here to do what?" the sheriff asked. "Figure out a way to stop accidents before they happen?"

"That's just the point, Sheriff," Mulder said. "I don't think they were accidents."

"No? Then what were they?"

Mulder shrugged. "I haven't figured that out, yet."

Cade scratched the hair on the side of his head into a confusion of silvery tufts. "Well, you're welcome to look around all you want so long as you don't bother anyone. Do you need anything from me?"

Mulder pointed at the accident case files on the sheriff's desk. "May we borrow those?"

Cade nudged them toward Mulder. "They're not related to any crime, so help yourself. All I ask is that you don't get people stirred up."

Scully stood up. "Of course not, Sheriff. Thank you for your time. Mulder?"

He leaned forward to take the reports as he got up. "We'll keep in touch, Sheriff. I want to spend the rest of the day visiting the accident scenes."

Cade picked up Mulder's red-X marked map and handed it to him. "Good luck."

Mulder took it. "My instincts tell me we're not the ones who are going to need the luck, Sheriff. It's the people next in line that will want it."

 

 

5

 

Quan Residence
Yardley, Nebraska
Wednesday, 8:23 A.M.

 

The bone china plate shattered as it struck the kitchen floor, sending white shards skittering across the green and blue linoleum. Mrs. Rebecca Quan looked from her empty hand down to the smashed plate and back again. It was the second thing she'd broken that morning.

Exhausted from a short night's sleep, she couldn't muster the energy to get mad at herself. She sighed, got a broom and started sweeping. Her teenage son slammed to a stop before stepping into the kitchen. "Wow! What happened?"

She forced a smile. "Nothing. I just dropped a plate. Give me a minute and I'll clean it up."

"Can't. I'm late. Got my lunch yet?"

"It's in the fridge."

He grabbed the door frame with his left hand, stretched five feet into the kitchen and opened the refrigerator with his right.

"John, please get your brother and sister's lunches too. I don't feel up to taking them this morning and I hoped you would do it for me."

"Aw, Mom. You know I hate playing taxi driver."

"Please?"

"Yeah, sure. Thanks a lot, Mom." He snatched the other two lunch bags and accordioned back out of the room.

A minute later she jumped at the sound of front door slamming. Rebecca took a calming breath then finished sweeping the broken glass into a neat pile. She leaned on the broom as a wave of dizziness swept over her. Her hands spasmed, jerking the broom and scattering the pile of glass across the floor. Rebecca stared at the hands that had betrayed her. She rubbed a forearm across her brow and started sweeping again.

A young boy and girl bounded into the kitchen. "Mom broke a plate!" her daughter squealed.

"Ya," her son said. "She must be getting old. Old people drop lots of stuff."

Rebecca felt frustration shoot up her spine. "Don't use 'ya'," she began to yell, then forced calm into her voice. "Please, say 'yes'."

"Ya, right," the boy said. Where's my lunch?"

Her knuckles turned white on the broomstick. "Your brother has both your lunches. He's taking you to school today. I'm not well."

The girl stamped her foot. "You know he hates to take us. Can't you do it?"

Rebecca's body shook, fighting for self-control. "Not this morning, I'm afraid."

"Great," the children said in unison and stormed out. She flinched when the front door slammed twice.

She heard her oldest son yell at them to get in the car. The distance and walls muffled his voice, but not enough to mask his anger. Her younger children yelled, "Aw, shut-up," back at him. She heard her husband's tread as he came down the stairs.

"Morning, honey. How do you feel-" He stopped short, concern flashing across his face. "You look terrible. What's the matter?"

She scooped the shards of the broken plate and threw them into the trash. The broken pieces fell with a light tinkling. "I feel awful. I couldn't sleep after that dream."

"The one where a cloud chased you?"

She nodded wearily.

"But that was at twelve-thirty. And you were up late helping John with his homework."

She shrugged.

"Well, don't worry. It's probably nothing," he said and sat down at the kitchen's dinette.

She poured him a mug of steaming coffee, added sugar and handed it to him. Rebecca felt his eyes following her every move.

"Tell you what," he said. "This morning's schedule's light so I can take it easy for a change. Why don't I stick around and keep you company?"

She smiled, "Thanks, but I'll be okay."

He looked around the kitchen. "Where's the paper?"

"It's late today."

He sipped coffee and read snatches from yesterday's newspaper between glances in her direction. An article caught his attention.

"What did you find?" she asked.

"Oh, it's this accidental-death thing that started down in Needleton three weeks ago. This reporter says it's worked its way up here. Claims twenty-one people have died from it already."

"It? What's he talking about?" she said with a brittle edge to her voice.

"No idea," Barton Quan said looking up from the paper. "Don't worry about it, honey. This has nothing to do with us."

"Cloe says it's only affecting women and that it's moving toward our area."

"Rebecca, calm down. You're getting yourself wound up for nothing."

Her shoulders sagged. "I know. It's just that...."

"You're sure you don't want me to stay around?"

Rebecca shook her head. "Go on, Barton. I'll be fine. I'll take a nap once the house is quiet."

"You're sure?"

Rebecca struggled to brighten her smile. "Get to work and earn some money so you can take me out to dinner tonight. I'm thinking Italian."

He dropped the paper and walked over to her. "See that you take that nap."

"I will. Now go." She spun him about and shoved him playfully toward the door.

Barton laughed. "Okay! Okay! I'm going."

He left the room and Rebecca tensed for the door slam. It didn't come. Instead she heard her husband call back to her. "Italian, you said? Mario's or DeFina's?"

"DeFina's. Mario's fettuccini was like rubber last time."

"It's a date. I'll ring you at lunch."

 

 

Rebecca finished the morning dishes without incident and began the day's chores with the dusting. Half way through the living room her left leg froze in mid-step. She fell forward, breaking the fall by throwing her hands out and catching herself on an antique bookcase. The can of spray wax in her left hand dug a deep gouge into the top shelf. Her eyes searched the floor for something that could have tripped her; there was nothing.

She got a carpenter's crayon to fill in the gouge. She'd only filled half of it when her hand jerked out of control, breaking the crayon. She dropped it like it had turned into a snake.

Rebecca took three measured breaths and dragged the vacuum out of the closet. She clicked it on and began vacuuming when another spasm made her drive the vacuum's head into the coffee table's leg, cracking it. She turned the vacuum off and blinked tears out of her eyes as she collapsed on the sofa. What's happening to me?

She rubbed the wetness off her face and let fatigue close her eyes.

 

 

Rebecca Quan stood at the ninth hole's tee-off of the Yardley Public Golf Course. She tightened her grip on the new driver her husband had given her for a birthday present. She raised it in a graceful arc high over her head and swung at the red golf ball. The club's head struck the ball with a satisfying clap. The ball left a trail of blue smoke as it shot three hundred yards down the green.

She smiled. Not bad.

She took three steps and stood over the ball again. A cleft formed between her brows as she looked back the three hundred yards to the tee-off. The driver turned into a putter. She stroked the yellow ball into the cup. Her brow furrowed again at the ball's change in color. Rebecca gazed around for other players. There were none. A light breeze flapped the leaves on the trees but no rustle came to her. She looked into the wind and spotted a tiny pastel cloud drifting in her direction. A hot red flush washed over her.  Please, dear God. Not again.

She put her hands up to stop it. The cloud didn't slow. It grew fast, blotting out her view of the green, the trees, everything. The cloud engulfed her. Pastel reds, blues and yellows whirling in complex eddies soaked into her skin. It was warm, moist, and comforting.

A tremor ran through the cloud. She felt it flow away from her. Out of the corner of her eye she caught sight of a dark blot on the horizon, rushing closer. Her heart began hammering. She had to run away. Something was coming, something worse than the pastel cloud, something deadly. It reached out a smoky tendril to toward her.

"No!" she screamed and jerked up from the sofa, blinking herself awake. The vacuum lay on the floor where she'd dropped it. The dust cloth and broken crayon where still sitting on the bookcase. Rebecca stood shakily and smoothed her dress with trembling fingers. It was damp with perspiration.

"Don't be silly," she said aloud for the comfort of a voice in the silent house. "It was just a dream."

Outside, the slap of a heavy bundle of paper hitting cement caught her attention. "The newspaper," she said. "I'll make some fresh coffee and read the paper. Reading about other people's problems will make mine seem trivial." She shivered. The sound of her isolated voice made the house seem emptier than if she'd said nothing.

Rebecca went into the kitchen, filled the percolator with water, spooned coffee into the filter, and plugged the unit into a wall socket. The pot gurgled reassuringly.

She walked out to get the paper, stopping to open the drapes. Warm yellow sunlight flooded in, brightening the living room. She stepped outside and blinked into the glare of the early-morning sun. Cloe Dunkin waved at her from two doors up the block then returned to pruning her roses. Rebecca waved back.

She spotted the paper next to the curb and walked outed to pick it up. A flood of pastel light washed in front of her eyes as she bent. She lost her balance, felt herself falling and heard a flesh-dulled crack as her hip slammed into the edge of the curve.

"Rebecca! Rebecca!" she heard Cloe's voice through the pastel swirl. The voice drew near. "What happened? Are you all right?" Gentle hands touched her. In spite of pain burning its way outward from her hip, she smiled as the cool darkness of unconsciousness blotted out the pastel swirls.

 

 

6

 

Highway 281 north
Wednesday, 9:36 A.M.

 

Scully swept the barren horizon with a skeptical eye. "Why did you expect a straight line between the accident sites?"

"That's what the pattern suggests," Mulder answered.

"The five Needleton sites don't indicate that and our examination of them didn't disclose any relevant information in that direction."

"The victim's ages and lifestyles diverge too much for the type of psycho-illness you suggested to propagate so fast. The only cases where it works is within small groups of close friends."

"So, what is your theory?"

Mulder smiled and shrugged. "I don't have one, yet. But I'm not ready to accept yours. I feel I've missed some critical detail."

Scully looked out her window and murmured to herself, "I can hardly wait to hear what you come up with this time."

"What was that?"

She turned to him and smiled innocently. "Oh, nothing."

Mulder looked over to say something but caught a road sign out of the corner of his eye. "That's Highway 91 east. I think it's our turn."

Scully unfolded the map she bought in Grand Island. "The 91? Right. We stay on it about thirty miles, then north on the 14 for twenty."

"We'll be in Feldsburg by lunch."

"You and food. Any normal person who ate like you would be obese."

"It's a matter of attitude, Scully. Don't worry about it and you won't get fat. Count calories like you do and you're bound to put on-"

She glared at him. "Watch it, Mulder."

The exit ramp opened up on their right. Mulder accelerated into it and followed the ramp's smooth curve to the right onto the 91. Once the car was headed east, he pulled out a small sack and popped a sunflower seed into his mouth.

Scully watched the discarded shell fall to the floor and sighed.  There goes the cleaning deposit.

 

An hour later they drove through a scattering of houses that marked Feldsburg's outskirts. Scully estimated the town at eight thousand. As they cruised into town, she spotted a police car parked by a take-out restaurant with the name "Beatrice's Burgers" hand-painted in black on a roadside placard. Mulder pulled in and got out to order lunch. She walked over to the squad car for directions to the police station.

Scully met Mulder at the drive-in's window just as a moon-faced woman Mulder's age pushed two bags through the service window at him. The woman's thick forearms filled the window.

"Thanks," Mulder said.

She managed to bend her thick middle enough to look out through the window. Her face, puffy and red from the heat of the kitchen, studied him a minute, then smiled. "You staying in Feldsburg the night?"

Confusion clouded Mulder's expression. "Well... yes. We're here one night."

"Well, ain't that nice. I'm Beatrice. I own this place."

Mulder took a step backward. "Glad to hear it. Now, if you'll excuse-"

"Tell you what. I close at nine. Come on back and I'll give you a good deal on a triple cheeseburger." Beatrice winked a small pig-like eye at him.

Scully nudged him with her foot. "Talk about tempting a child with candy."

Beatrice rocked her head in Scully's direction and scowled. "But lose the kid, okay?"

Mulder began shuffling backward. "Thanks, but we may have to leave early. Thanks again. Bye." He turned and dashed towards the car.

Scully held back, smiled mischievously at Mulder then turned back to Beatrice. "We have reservations at the-"

"Scully!"

She opened her hands. "Sorry. Have to run."

Scully strolled to the car and bent at the waist to look in at Mulder, comic puzzlement curled the corners of her mouth. "Why the hurry? You don't get offers like that every day."

His voice dropped to a growl. "Get in the car."

Scully climbed in and Mulder stomped on the accelerator sending up a shower of gravel as he sped fled the drive in. "Cute, Scully. Real cute. I hope you enjoyed yourself."

She dipped the end of a French fry into a small paper cup of ketchup and munched it. "Very much, thank you." She held the bag of fries out to him. "Want one?"

Mulder scowled and pressed his foot down harder on the accelerator.

 

The drive across town took long enough for Scully to finish her lunch. Mulder had managed two bites before he put his burger down.

"Remind you of Beatrice?"

His expression soured. "Something like that."

She laughed and grabbed his package of fries.

 

Five minutes later they found the police department, a one-story structure looking like a pile of red bricks. Scully stepped out of the car. The sun's brilliance beat down, cooking heat into the top of her head.

Sheriff Spencer Dreed walked out the station's door as they parked. "Agent Mulder?"

Mulder nodded.

"You made good time. Is this Agent Scully?"

Scully reached down to shake his hand. Dreed was the shortest, non-dwarf human she'd ever seen. The top of his bald head was barely level with her eyes. His frame was thin and delicate-looking, but his bony handshake had strength behind it.

"It's a pleasure to meet you," she said.

Dreed smiled. "Likewise. Come on in." He had to reach up for the doorknob.

The door opened into an open room filled with scarred desks. Dreed led them on a path worn deep into yellowing linoleum to a door in what had been a windowed partition wall. The nubbled glass panels and wall had been painted olive-green. A scattering of black-and-white wanted posters taped to the opaqued windows provided the room with its only decorations. Scully noticed that the four officers sitting behind the desks were all young and like Dreed, wore immaculate uniforms that looked out of place in the dilapidated building.

Dreed saw her raised eyebrows. "Quite a contrast, isn't it? Feldsburg had a big shake-up two months ago. Two-thirds of the station's personnel got fired in an anti-corruption sting carried out by the FBI. The previous sheriff and many of his deputies had been siphoning tax money ear-marked for station repairs into their own bank accounts."

Scully stiffened, ready for an accusation against the Bureau for what it had done.

Dread caught her change in stance and put up his hands in a placating gesture. "Don't worry. No hard feelings. The people that got fired deserved it and the rest of us are thankful you people got things cleaned up." He led the way into his office. Dreed wriggled up into a regular-sized swivel chair; its back had been cut down so it wouldn't dwarf him.

Scully started to ease herself into one of two wood chairs facing the sheriff. She caught her breath when she seemed to sit on nothing and kept falling. She hit the seat bottom with a thump a fraction of a second later and glanced down. The chair's legs had been shortened to help Dreed look his guests in the eyes.

She glanced at Mulder. His chin almost rested on his knees.

Mulder shrugged at her and turned toward Dreed. "The chain of accidental deaths swept through Feldsburg ten days ago. Any new accidents since?"

"No. The news from Needleton got here before the accidents. After the first death the town panicked. Some of the people left to visit relatives. Most stayed home and locked their doors hoping they'd be safe."

"Yet six people died?" Scully asked.

The sheriff's expression turned hard. "That's right. Four were killed in car accidents, one fell off a roof, and the last walked in front of a train." He handed her a stack of folders identical to the ones they'd examined in Needleton. Scully flipped through them quickly. As she expected, they were all women. She handed the folders to Mulder.

Mulder laid them on his lap. "Sheriff, do you have a detailed street map of Feldsburg we can have? One with a one-inch to the mile scale would be perfect."

"Bound to have one here somewhere." Dreed bent over to dig through a desk drawer. He found a suitable map and handed it over.

Mulder unfolded it and started marking X's.

Dreed's forehead pinched.

Scully leaned forward. "Agent Mulder believes the arrangement of the accident sites may be important."

"I see," Dreed said.

She doubted he did. 

Mulder grunted at the crooked line of red Xs on the Feldsburg map. He placed it on the floor, unfolded the Needleton map and aligned it's northern boundary to match Feldsburg's southern border. The red lines aligned perfectly. "Sheriff, I'd like to visit the accident locations."

"Sure. We'll take a squad car."

They followed Dreed outside. Scully and Mulder paused beside a black and white police car parked in front of the station but the sheriff walked past it and into the street. Dreed stopped and turned when he noticed they weren't with him. "Sorry. I forgot to tell you the first victim fell off the building across the street from the station. Her name was Barbara Lantimir."

"Nice of her to be so considerate," Mulder said.

The sign over the store they entered read Daltree's Country Wear. Inside, a solid line of gleaming cattle horns pointed at them from the perimeter of the large open room's ceiling.

Dreed waved at a middle-aged, short woman in Levis. She was busy stacking rainbow-colored tee shirts on a counter. "We're going to take a look at the roof. Okay, Clara?"

"Suit yourself, Sheriff. You know the way."

Wood stairs in the store's rear took them to the roof. They stepped out into the blinding sun. Mulder kicked at some loose pieces of gravel-covered tarpaper while Scully examined the two-foot high ridge that skirted the roof's perimeter.

"Where'd it happen?" Mulder asked.

"Over here in front," Dreed said. " Barbara tumbled over the edge and landed head first."

"What was she doing up here?" Scully asked.

"Barbara is... was... a roofing contractor. She was working up an estimate to fix some leaks."

"A lady roofer?" Mulder asked.

"It's the nineties, Mulder," Scully said.

He ignored her. "Did she have a history of dizziness or vertigo?"

"Dizziness? In a roofing contractor? Not likely. Barb's been on half the roofs in town and never fell once."

"Until now," Scully said. "Did she wear glasses?"

"No. Why?"

"A new prescription could have caused eye strain, which leads to dizziness in some cases."

Mulder stood where Barbara Lantimer had been before her fall. The low wall touched his leg halfway up his thigh. "Was Ms. Lantimir tall?"

"Five foot six in boots."

"It would be hard for someone of that height to trip over this wall."

"She didn't trip."

Scully and Mulder stared at the sheriff.

Dreed stepped close to them. "The owner of the store and Clara were up here when it happened. They said Barb was standing still when she just toppled forward like a board, didn't try to catch herself or anything."

"Suicide?" Scully asked.

"Doubt it. Barb closed a contract for thirty new houses that morning. She was all excited about the money it promised to bring in, not that she needed it. She had no family problems or no skeletons in the closet. Besides, like I said she didn't jump. She just fell over."

"No scream?" Mulder asked.

"Not when she went over the edge. Clara said she heard her yell 'no', just before she hit."

"I'd like to talk to Clara."

They walked downstairs to the counter. Clara plumped her gray hair as the sheriff introduced the FBI agents.

Mulder smiled at her. "You told Sheriff Dreed that Ms. Lantimir didn't say anything when she fell of the roof."

"Not right away, no."

"On her way down?"

"Right. I was standing ten feet away from her pointing out one of the leaks. She stiffened and toppled over the edge. I was close enough to see her fall all the way to the pavement. Halfway down her body suddenly jerked and she screamed, 'No'!"

"Like she was surprised to find herself falling?"

The woman nodded. "Right."

"And you're sure she didn't windmill her arms or anything to attempt to prevent her fall?"

"No."

"Thank you." Mulder collected Scully and Dreed with a look. "Could we move on the next site?"

"This way," Dreed said and stepped towards the front door. He led the way back to the police car. Dreed got behind the wheel. Scully reclined in the passenger seat while Mulder slouched in the rear.

Scully shifted around to look at Mulder. "What did you make of that?"

"Barbara Lantimir didn't realize she was falling until it was too late. She was concentrating on something else."

"What could hold her attention so raptly she wouldn't notice he was about to die?"

A darkness filled Mulder's features. "I don't know."

 

 

Dreed drove Scully and Mulder to the sites of the first three of the four automobile accidents. Phillipa Cozartran had rolled her husband's red Jeep six times down Bentler Avenue. The thick layer of tire-rubber left by her accident was still visible.

Mulder walked parallel to the pair of dark streaks. They began in the far left-hand lane of oncoming traffic; curved sharply right and abruptly disappeared after crossing the yellow median line. Fifteen feet down the road, the asphalt was torn by the collision of the Jeep's roof.

Scully watched as Mulder repeatedly traced the path of the tire marks. She walked over to him and looked down at the sharp terminus of the tread marks. Mulder had crouched low, inspecting them. The sun had heated the road enough to cook resinous fumes out of the asphalt. "Mulder?"

He stood up. "She flipped the car on purpose." His finger traced the evolution of the woman's death. "She pulled as far to the left as she could then turned sharply right. Here," he tapped the end the black skid mark with the toe of his shoe. "She slammed on the brakes, which forced the car to tumble." He looked down the road. "That impact mark is where she hit."

Scully followed the curve of the tire marks back to their beginning and nodded. "I agree with your assessment. The fact that it looks like a self-inflicted accident supports my hypothesis of infectious suicide."

Mulder strode back to Dreed who was leaning against the black and white squad car. The sheriff pulled his broad-rimmed hat off and wiped his brow as they came up to the car. "The next stop's an bridge over a culvert on Nash Road. Sara Johnson ran into it doing eighty miles an hour."

Mulder nodded silently and they left.

 

The bridge was twenty-foot long concrete slab with foot-thick side-walls two feet high. Chipped concrete and imbedded flecks of blue paint on the right wall marked the point of impact. Scully shaded her eyes against the sun and glanced back up the road: the direction Sara Johnson had come. "No tire marks from swerving. It's safe to assume she didn't dodge a car or animal."

Mulder bent at the waist and rested his hands on his knees. He studied the pavement five feet in front of the side-rail. "Look at this."

"What?" Scully asked.

He pointed at a pair of foot-long skid marks. "It looks like she hit the brakes just before impact."

Scully squinted at the few feet between the marks and the end-rail. "What would be the point? She must have realized it was too late to prevent the crash."

"Maybe she was surprised to find herself about to die."

"But if she was trying to kill herself-"

Mulder straightened. "Remembering Barbara Lantimir's surprise at discovering she was falling to her death? What if Sara was just as surprised? It would be a normal reaction to slam on the brakes no matter how hopeless it was."

"It could just as easily mean she had changed her mind about committing suicide at the last minute."

Mulder nodded distantly. "Maybe."

She opened her mouth, closed it and turned to Dreed. "Where is the next accident site?"

"Half a mile up this road. The culvert curves around and runs parallel to the road starting at the Simmons farm. The culvert was full of water back then from a storm. Jan Martinson drove her old Buick into it and drowned."

"Let's go," Mulder said.

Dreed shrugged. "No point. There's nothing's left to see. There were no skid marks and the culvert's dried up since then."

Mulder swiped a finger under his shirt collar. "Then where do we go from here?"

"Ephesia Trumble's accident."

 

 

Dreed pulled up at an intersection manned by a wizened old man wearing an orange crossing-guard vest.

"Hi, Sheriff!" the man yelled when Dreed stepped out of his car. "Who're your friends?"

"Afternoon, Mell. These are Agents Scully and Mulder from the FBI. They want to talk to you about Effy."

The man's smile fell away. "Oh."

"Could you tell us what you saw?" Scully asked.

The man ran a hand across the back of his sun-baked neck. "It was about noontime. Effy came charging up the street in her old gray Dodge doing fifty. The school had let out for lunch and kids needed to cross. I waved my stop sign but she sailed right by. A hundred feet up the block she plowed into that big oak tree." He pointed a gnarled finger at a tree whose twisting branches shaded half the block. Scully wished they could move the conversation into its shade.

Mell shrugged his thin shoulders. "She died before I could get to her."

"Do you remember anything unusual?" Mulder asked. "Did she scream or anything?"

"That's the odd thing about it, she didn't. Speed terrified Effy. She hardly ever drove over thirty, even on the highway."

Sheriff Dreed smiled ruefully and nodded. "I can testify to that. We used to get half a dozen complaints a week about it."

Mulder turned back to the old man. "So she didn't say anything. Didn't wave her arms?"

"She looked like she was carved out of stone, until the very end."

Mulder's eyes drew taut. "And then?"

"Well, I'll tell ya, it was hard to tell watching her through the rear window, but it seemed to me she kind of jerked, or spasmed, about ten feet before she hit the tree. I think I heard the squeal of brakes but I'm not sure."

"Anything else?"

He shook his grizzled head.

"Thanks, Mell," Dreed said clapping the man on the shoulder. "You've been a big help."

A girl and boy, second-graders Scully estimated, stepped up to the intersection and squinted at Mell through the heavy sunlight.

"Looks like you have a couple of customers," Dreed said.

Mell snapped his red stop sign to attention. "Later, Sheriff. Duty calls." He loped off towards the children.

Scully, Mulder and Dreed returned to the police car. Scully's breath caught in her throat as she opened the door and the heated air blasted out at her. She worked her way across the vinyl seat made tacky by the sun. Dreed punched the air conditioner button. Blessed coolness flowed over her.

They drove off for the train yard where thirteen-year-old Heather Lockridge had jumped in front of five diesels pulling sixty oil cars. Mulder questioned several of the yard employees but none of them had been close enough the incident to provide useful details. Dreed drove them back to the station.

The sheriff stood with his left hand on the station's partially open door.

"Thanks for the time," Mulder said and shook the sheriff's other hand.

"Any time. Let me know-"

"Sheriff Dreed?" an officer inside the station yelled out to him.

Dreed spun toward the voice. "What?"

"Chief Harshaw's on the line. Says it's urgent."

"Come on," Dreed said to Scully and Mulder. "This may involve you."

They hurried into the sheriff's office. Dreed grabbed the phone. "Wilber? This is Spence. What's up?"

Scully heard the rapid grumble of a man's excited voice pour out of the receiver.

"Uh-huh," Dreed said. "Yeah, okay. I'm sorry it happened. If you need any men-"

The receiver growled a few more words.

"Okay. Keep in touch." Sheriff Dreed rang off. "There've been two more fatal accidents in Yardley, one yesterday and the other ten minutes ago. Wilbur, sorry... Sheriff Harshaw, says the town's in an uproar."

"That puts the death count at twenty-three," Scully said.

Mulder's lips pressed to a thin line. "By the time we get there it'll be twenty-four."

 

 

7

 

 

Highway 14 north
Thursday, 8:37 A.M.

 

Mulder signaled for a lane change and blew past a green Ford Farlane creeping along at forty miles an hour. The maneuver threw Scully against the passenger door. She straightened herself and looked over at him. "Pushing the speed limit a little, aren't you?" She felt the car surge ahead as he pressed his foot down harder on the gas pedal.

His stare was fixed on something more distant than the horizon. "If the pattern holds, someone in Yardley's going to die in the next twenty-four hours. We owe it to that person to get there in time to stop this."

Her look became suspicious. "This what?"

"I think the accident victims are being murdered."

Scully heaved a deep sigh. "Mulder-"

He cut her off with a chopping motion of his right hand. "Just hear me out. Something-"

She raised an eyebrow. "Thing?"

"For want of a better word, yes. Something induces a compulsion in the victims that drives them to kill themselves."

Scully offered him a wry smile. "What is it this time? Ghosts? Invisible aliens? Radioactive fluoride in the water?"

Mulder's grip on the wheel tighten until his knuckles blanched.

Scully backed off. "I'm sorry, Mulder. But you must admit the evidence for an external influence on these people is thin. All you have to support such a theory is a crooked line that roughly connects the accidents."

"Roughly? It traces a line of twenty-three deaths across eighty miles of countryside. All of them occurred within four miles of a straight line drawn up the middle of that zone and-"

"Zone is right. All these unfortunate accidents occurred within an area. I grant the number and sequential order are unusual but that doesn't mean a metaphysical force is at work. Infectious suicide explains everything that's happened."

He glanced at her. "Want to bet?"

Scully crossed her arms and looked out of her side window. "It's the best explanation."

"We've been over that ground. The victims were too distantly associated for transmission."

She shook her head. "You're wrong. Once the pattern is established, anyone who's susceptible can be infected. I think the linearity and daily occurrence of the first few accidents was an anomaly but once a trend was perceived, people in what appeared to be the path of some mysterious force experienced greater stress than people outside. The increased stress predisposed the group in your zone to greater susceptibility."

Mulder's grip relaxed. "It became a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy?"

"Yes. Each new victim in the direction of propagation strengthened the fear in the next group of people in line."

Mulder shifted in his seat. "What about the absence of familiarity between the people?"

"Socio-psycho diseases don't require familiarity, only a common link. In this instance, the fear of being in the direction of propagation and female provides the link."

Mulder drove in silence.

Scully watched him wring the steering wheel. She knew Mulder instinctively sought out unusual explanations for his cases but trusted his ability to let go of a weak theory when a stronger one presented itself, even when the better theory wasn't as interesting. She felt pity for him well up inside her. Mulder's turmoil over trying to reconcile his leanings toward the paranormal with contradictory evidence tore at him in ways she could only imagine.

"How do we stop it?" Mulder asked after five minutes of silence.

She sighed, then said: "We need to warn people in the direction of the propagation. In cases like this, knowledge of what is happening is a strong a deterrent."

"Like the Mirrors case? It didn't work there."

Scully checked her nail polish. "That was different."

"Think so?"

She fired a hard stare at him.

He shifted uncomfortably under her gaze. "Okay, we'll try it your way. For the moment I have to admit your theory has more going for it than mine."

Scully studied her partner. His knuckles still glistened from the strength of his grip on the wheel. "But?"

"I just wish I could shake the feeling I've missed something."

 

 

Half an hour later they followed the long curving ramp from Highway 14 north onto the 275 headed southeast. Mulder slowed as they drove through Neligh and accelerated again once the highway opened up. Yardley and the latest set of accidents waited for them ten miles ahead.

 

 

Three tractor-repair shops heralded their entrance into Yardley's outskirts. Five dusty blocks later the industrial side of town gave way to boxy little houses set in quarter-acre lots of twisted yellow grass. Dogs ran free along streets with no sidewalks. Too many children roamed around aimlessly at a time of day when they should have been in school. No adults were visible. Empty garages gave way to noisy bars as they rolled deeper into Yardley.

"Nice," Mulder said. "Think I should check out a real estate office while we're here?"

Scully couldn't read the name of Yardley's main thoroughfare. The sign had rusted off years ago. A pedestrian with a four-day-old set of whiskers pointed the direction to the police department. Mulder aimed the car in line with the man's extended arm and drove on. A block later they spied an isolated squad car parked outside a one story clapboarded office building. Scully thought its dry wood boardwalk would have looked ludicrous anywhere else. In Yardley, it gave the police department an air of opulence. The boards sagged when she stepped on them.

Mulder opened the station's door. She stepped inside, her feet grating on dirt tracked in by previous customers. Straight ahead she saw a policeman wearing a grease-stained uniform. He sat behind a desk protected from the entryway by a low wooden rail, which extended down both sides of the room to isolate visitors from the station's working areas. To her left, an open door showed the inside of a small, empty courtroom. On the right, the station's only office had a thick mahogany door with Wilbur Harshaw, Sheriff stenciled in black spray paint. The edges of the letters were fuzzy from sloppy workmanship.

"May I help you?" the officer at the desk asked without getting up.

Scully took a step forward holding out her ID card. "We are Agents-" She stopped short and looked down as her right foot crunched on a discarded candy wrapper. She looked up and saw a half eaten Snickers bar on the officer's desk.

The man looked at her blankly.

"We are from the FBI. This is Special Agent Mulder. I'm Agent Scully. I believe Sheriff Harshaw is expecting us."

"Right. He mentioned some feds were due in today."

He made no move.

"May we see him please?" Scully asked.

"Well... he told me not to disturb him."

Mulder stepped forward. "Deputy... ?"

"Barkley."

"Thank you. We're here investigating the deaths of twenty-three women, twelve of which happened within this police department's jurisdiction. Agent Scully has a theory that explains those deaths and how to stop them. I think Chief Harshaw will want to talk to her as soon as possible. So why don't you get off your chair and tell us were he is."

The deputy blinked at Mulder, then pushed himself up. He blinked twice more and looked toward the mahogany door.

"Don't trouble yourself," Mulder said. "We'll handle the introductions."

Mulder pushed through a gate in the railing and made for the door.

"Wait," the deputy called out weakly but didn't move to stop them. "It's not what it seems."

"It never is," Scully said and pivoted on her heel to follow Mulder.

Mulder knocked on the sheriff's door. "Sheriff Harshaw?"

Scully heard a rustle and the thunk of something heavy and meaty hitting the floor.

"Barkley!" a raspy man's voice yelled from inside the office, "I told you not to wake me for an hour."

Mulder opened the door. Sheriff Harshaw sat on the floor next to a sofa set against the far wall. The man ran his hands through his sandy hair as he scrambled up off the floor. Harshaw stood even with Mulder, was ten years older and thirty pounds heavier; mostly muscle piled high on his shoulders. He wore a sweat-stained tee shirt and trousers without a belt. His left sock had a hole in the toe.

Harshaw's hands tightened into fists. "Who the hell are you?"

Mulder shifted left so the sheriff could see Scully. "We're the feds," Mulder said.

"Nice to meet you," Scully added.

Understanding dawned in Harshaw's eyes.

Mulder extended his ID. "I'm Special Agent Mulder. This is Special Agent Dana Scully."

Harshaw took a step towards them but stopped when his naked toe touched the cold floor. The sheriff stiffened. Scully felt a wall of embarrassed formality raise between them and the sheriff.

The sheriff ran a hand through his hair again to straighten it. "As you can see, you've managed to catch me at an inopportune moment. Would you be so kind as to give me a few minutes to clean up? Don't misunderstand, I'm glad you're here. It's just that you caught me by surprise. Please, wait outside and I'll explain everything soon."

Scully softened her expression. "Of course."

"Thank you."

They returned to the lobby. The officer had settled back into his seat but was busy arranging the piles of paper on his desk into neat stacks, or trying to. Scully noticed a tremor in the man's hands. What's going on here?

Mulder used a handkerchief to dust the seat of a bench and sat down. She joined him. "Mulder, this is all wrong."

He nodded. "These people are exhausted. It must be the accidents. The workload is too much for the staff. A small town like this typically has four officers and a police chief. Twelve deaths in the same number of days would swamp them even if the deaths were suicides."

Scully looked at Mulder. "You accept that?"

He shrugged.

"Mulder, do you think-"

Sheriff Harshaw opened his door and strode over to them. He'd put on a sharply ironed uniform and run a shaver over his beard. Scully caught a hint of cologne as he shook her hand. "I'm afraid I've given the FBI a poor first impression. Please let me try to explain." They followed him back into the office. He paused as they passed the desk sergeant. "I'll man the station, Barkley. Cell three is empty. Get some sleep."

"Yes, sir. Thank you." Barkley dragged himself out of the chair and worked his way down a hallway between the sheriff's office and the reception room's desk.

Scully noticed that in addition to cleaning himself up, the sheriff had managed to straighten the office. She took a seat in the left of the two chairs that faced his desk. Mulder fell into the other. Harshaw rounded the end of the desk and eased into his chair. Scully could see dark rings under his eyes.

"Thank you for your patience," Harshaw said. "As you may have guessed, the department's been overworked with the recent deaths."

"Forgive us for bursting into your office earlier," Mulder said. "We thought-"

Harshaw stopped him with a raised hand. "Forget it, Agent Mulder. These are our business hours."

"Is your whole force as exhausted as you and Officer Barkley?" Scully asked.

The sheriff laughed. "Officer Barkley and I are the whole force."

"Only two officers?"

The sheriff nodded. "For three thousand people."

"Yardley doesn't look to have more than a thousand citizens," Scully said.

"It doesn't. But my jurisdiction covers two hundred square miles. Unlike further south, we're still mostly small farms up here so the population's spread out."

Mulder shook his head. "Only two officers for three thousand people. How much sleep did you get last night?"

"Last night? Almost three hours. People around here don't like police and don't have much money to pay for them. Two's all they can afford. Three days ago was rougher. That's when the deaths cut through the center of town. I don't want to live through anything like that again."

"And today?"

"Today? I'm not sure...."

"If the pattern holds you should have had another accident today."

Harshaw spread his hands. "Nothing's come in this morning."

Mulder looked at Scully. "Number twenty-four's making us wait."

The sheriff leaned closer to them. "What can you tell me about why so many of my people are killing themselves?"

Mulder looked across at Scully and nodded.

She pursed her lips and turned to Harshaw. "The best theory we have right now is that a form of infectious suicide is propagating through Yardley. It appears to only affect women. If we can inform everyone likely to be infected about what's happening, we should be able to put an end to the deaths."

Harshaw nodded. "Sounds reasonable. And you think just telling people about what's happening will shortstop this thing."

"Hopefully, yes."

"You better be right. Five days ago people here went wild with panic. Almost tore the town apart. If the deaths continue they'll hit Salt Creek in a week and over one hundred thousand people live there."

Mulder leaned forward. "The sooner we get started the better the chances are that we'll end this thing before anyone else dies."

Harshaw gave them a tight-lipped nod. He snatched up his phone and started calling radio stations and newspapers ahead of the path of the accidents. Then he pulled out a thin telephone book and began calling individual people. At the end of each call he asked them to pass the information on to everyone they could. While the sheriff worked the phone, Scully and Mulder busied themselves plotting the path of the Yardley deaths on a map the sheriff gave them between calls. The jagged red line continued to eat its way through Nebraska. Mulder had just finished taping it to the Needleton and Feldsburg maps when Sheriff Harshaw hung up for the last time.

"Done," Harshaw announced. "Three radio and two television stations will go on the air with your explanation in half an hour. They'll repeat the message every half hour for the rest of the day. All the county's newspapers will run headline articles on it in the morning. I've started a local word-of-mouth campaign that will probably beat both of those mediums to the punch. If you're right, this should be over in twenty-four hours." He nodded at the map. "What's that?"

Mulder held up his handiwork. "A plot of all of the accident locations."

Harshaw eyed the chart. Scully watched him trace the line back toward Needleton, counting Mulder's X's.

Harshaw's face pinched in confusion. "Why didn't you mark all the accident sites?"

The pieced-together map flapped in the air as Mulder turned it around to stare at it. "I did. Twenty-three X's for twenty-three deaths."

"Twenty-three deaths, yes," Harshaw said.  He looked from Mulder to Scully. "You don't know about the others?"

Scully felt her stomach twist into a knot. "Other what?"

"The other accidents. The ones that happened before each death."

 

 

8

 

Ernestine Bundy's Residence
Yardley, Nebraska
Thursday, 12:15 P.M.

 

Ernestine Bundy frowned into the mirror and prodded a few wild strands of gray hair back into place. Satisfied, she pinned the stiffened crescent of white cloth that served as a uniform at Benchley's Diner on her head. A searing muscle spasm in the back of her neck twisted her frown into a grimace. The pain cut deep into the base of her skull, sharp, like a glass splinter. It was the third time the pain had hit her since last night's nightmare.

Ernestine shook her head to drive the memory away. It didn't work. Whether her eyes were open or closed she couldn't shake the image of the dark mass closing in on her, enveloping her. Its cling was clammy and hot, like the rotting heaviness of jungle air. The formless mass had ripped at her, trying to... she'd woken up screaming at that point. Sudden pain in her mouth and a warm saltiness drove the memory away. She parted her thin lips and delicately stuck out her tongue. A row of crimson teeth marks cut into its left side. Her eyes widened with fear.

The alarm clock on the scarred TV tray clanged once; its alarm mechanism had broken long ago and could no longer sustain a steady ring. She gasped at the time and after swishing cool water in her mouth to wash away the taste of blood, hurried out the front door. The screen slapped the frame of the sun-bleached shack she called home. Ernestine tugged wrinkles out of the pink-striped apron she'd tied around a white work-dress. Shielding her eyes from the blazing sun with a hand, she started the two-mile walk to work.

Ernestine had made it half a mile along the side of Jone's Road before the noonday sun forced her to pull off the apron. She heard an engine's roar coming from behind.

Sergi Benchley's oldest son Clint trundled up the road toward her in the family's new blue pickup. Ernestine smiled and waved, hoping for a ride. Clint smiled a toothy grin back at her and gunned the truck, hurtling by Ernestine at fifty miles per hour. She managed to turn in time to catch the pebbles kicked up by the truck's passing on her back. She felt sharp stings like insect bites as twigs and pebbles impaled themselves in her dress. Ernestine's shoulder's sagged as she watched the truck shrink into the distance. The way old Mr. Benchley doted on his son, she wouldn't even be able to complain. She fought the swelling of tears in her eyes as she forced her legs to shuffle on.

On the right, the water tower for the northeastern section of Yardley stabbed up into the parched sky. Ernestine stopped and blinked at the meager shade it cast. Heat rippled the edges of the tower's shadow as if the darkness was straining to spread outward into the light. A wave of darker gray passed in front of her eyes making the shadow undulate like a living thing. She took a step toward the tower, stopped, and looked down at her foot. The translucent skin on her forehead crinkled as she tried remembering when she'd decided to walk toward the shadow. Her other foot followed as if under someone else's will. Step by faltering step, Ernestine's feet carried her into the dark shadow of the tower.

The cool shade rose up over her perspiration-soaked dress but she didn't notice. Terror churned in her stomach as her feet continued to move on their own. They brought her to the base of the tower's ladder. Panic surged as her hands joined her feet's rebellion against her will and began pulling her up the ladder. Rusted treads creaked under the strain of her weight as her limbs relentlessly forced her higher.

Ernestine reached the top of the ladder, sixty feet above the ground, twisted around, and without hesitation flung herself far out into the air. With her arms held back like a sparrow in a dive, she plummeted toward the ground. Half a second before her head struck the rock-hard earth, the gray veil that had pulled her toward the water tower fled. Her eyes popped wide open as they focused on the ground hurtling toward her. Ernestine smashed into the dirt, jamming her scream in her throat before anyone could hear it.

 

9

 

Yardley Police Station
Thursday, 12:17 P.M.

 

Scully felt the muscles in the back of her neck tighten as they always did when a flaw turned up in one of her theories. She looked briefly at Mulder then back at Harshaw. "Sheriff, what are these other accidents to which you're referring?"

The sheriff's face went blank with mild surprise. "A string of non-fatal accidents also hit the town the same time as the fatal ones. I assumed you knew."

Scully and Mulder glanced at each other with raised eyebrows. "This is the first we've heard about it," Mulder said. "What makes you think they're connected?"

"This," Harshaw said pulling up a black binder from a drawer of his desk and handing it to Mulder. "Some high school students are involved in a safety program sponsored by the state. They've been recording all the accidents that are called into the station. The goal is to reduce the number of injuries to people by educating them on the most common hazards. Three kids from the high school worked with Barkley to document any accidents reported to us, the fire department, or that they discovered on their own by going door-to-door. The kids were here earlier this morning working on the report so it's up to date."

"These non-fatal accidents," Scully said. "Did they occur once per day like the fatalities."

"Almost. We had sixteen serious accidents over the last thirteen days."

Scully felt her neck muscles begin to relax. "Since the numbers don't match we can assume it's a coincidence."

"No," Harshaw stated flatly. "Look back over the reports. Before the deaths started we averaged only two accidents a week. Thirteen days ago that rate more than tripled. And check the dates. You'll see the higher accident rate started one day before the first death."

Mulder's expression became vague as his focus turned inward.

Scully slipped the reports out of his hands. She shuffled through them, stopped halfway down the stack, read three entries, and began flipping backward one page at a time. Out of the side of her vision she saw Mulder shake himself and pull his pieced-together map closer to his face. She closed the binder. "He's right, Mulder."

His eyes remained glued to the map in his hands. The corners of the paper trembled.

"Mulder?" she asked.

"I'm listening, Scully." His voice sounded distant.

"I think this is another manifestation of the infectious suicide syndrome. These accidents represent individuals who either failed in their suicide attempts or partially resisted the impulse to carry it out."

He held out a hand. "Let me have those reports."

She handed them over. Mulder dropped to the floor, spread the map out smooth and began marking the non-fatal accident locations with blue Xs. With four exceptions, all the accidents lay inside the red boundaries of the death zone. He connected the new Xs with a solid blue line, ignoring the four outside the jagged red zone that cut the sheet in half. The red and blue lines braided together like entwined snakes.

"The four outsiders are most likely unrelated accidents," Scully said.

Mulder nodded. "Right. But do you see what I see?"

Scully curtsied down as far as her skirt allowed. The new Xs confined themselves to a narrow corridor within the death zone. Mulder placed his right index finger on the second new X from the top. He tracked down to the fifth new X, to the eighth, the tenth, and the thirteenth. They formed a perfectly straight line.

"A coincidence, Mulder. That's all."

Mulder jerked up almost knocking her backward. "Sheriff," he said. "I need to interview some of these people as soon as possible."

"Okay. But why the hurry? Agent Scully said the public announcements should take care of everything."

"I no longer believe they will." He looked down at the map again. "Not since I've seen this."

Scully put her hand on Mulder's forearm. He looked at the hand and followed the arm up to her face.

"Don't get started again," she said. "There's no mystery here."

Mulder held up the map on which he'd circled the five X's that lined up.

"There is now."

 

 

Harshaw chauffeured them around the accident sites. The first four disclosed nothing of interest. The fifth was unusual because it was the first place that was both an accident site and the home of the victim: Mrs. Rebecca Quan.

Sheriff Harshaw tapped on the doorjamb until a boy in his late teens answered the door. He peered past Harshaw's left shoulder at the two FBI agents. Scully smiled to herself as his bright blue eyes locked on her and slowly tracked down her figure.

"Afternoon, John," Harshaw said. "How's your mom? And why aren't you in school?"

The boy winced when the sheriff mentioned school. He shot a quick glance in Scully's direction, then looked away. She saw a red flush creeping up from under the collar of his faded green tee-shirt.

"She's fine. Thanks for coming over to see her, Sheriff. I stayed home to help."

"Good boy."

The red darkened.

Harshaw inclined his head in their direction. "These are Agents Scully and Mulder from the FBI." John's smile vanished. "They'd like to ask your mother some questions if she's up to it."

"Uh... I guess it'll be okay. Come on in."

The men made room for Scully who stepped through the door into the Quan living room. Mrs. Quan lay on the sofa. Scully recognized the shape of a hip brace under the light-blue blanket laid over the small woman.

"John?" Mrs. Quan asked as the group came into her sight.

"It's the sheriff, Mom. He's brought some FBI people to talk to you."

She struggled up on one elbow. "FBI? Me? Why?"

Mulder stepped around Harshaw. "Mrs. Quan, it's about your accident. I'd like to ask you a couple of questions about how it happened."

"Why would you want to know about that?"

"There've been too many accidents like yours in this part of the state. Agent Scully and I are trying to find out what's causing them."

Rebecca Quan grimaced as she shifted her position on the sofa.

"Mrs. Quan," Scully said, "how bad is your hip?"

She managed a wan smile. "The doctor said I was lucky. Only a hairline crack. He thinks I'll be up and around in a week."

"How did it happen?"

"I bent over to pick up the paper yesterday morning and lost my footing."

"Yesterday?" Scully said canting her head to the side. "And you're home already?"

Rebecca Quan shrugged. "That's HMOs for you."

Scully frowned and shook her head.

"Anything unusual happen to cause the fall?" Mulder asked.

"No, not really."

"Not really?"

"Well, my vision sort of blurred just before I fell."

Mulder took a step closer. "Anything else?"

"I'd had a bad morning. Dropping things, bumping into furniture, like that. It's all so silly now that I look back on it."

Scully saw the fingers of Mulder's right hand begin to drum on his leg.

"When did this start?" he asked.

"Oh, almost as soon as I got up that morning."

"But not the day before?"

"No, only the day I fell."

Mulder's eyes burned.

Rebecca Quan pulled her head back slightly as she stared at him. Scully understood how his intensity could make the woman uneasy. She placed a hand on his shoulder. "Mulder, take it easy."

He turned toward her, his eyes brilliant. "It's here, Scully, the piece I've been missing. We're close to it."

"Sheriff," Mrs. Quan said. "What's he talking about? What's here."

Mulder pivoted back to face her before the sheriff could answer. "A clue to what caused you to fall, Mrs. Quan. Something that'll explain why so many people like yourself have been getting hurt. Can you tell me about any unusual occurrences you experienced in the last two weeks?"

"Unusual? Like what?"

"Anything out of the ordinary: premonitions, feelings of dread, strange lights or sounds."

The back of Scully's neck gave her another warning twitch.

Mrs. Quan shook her head. "No, nothing like that."

"What about your dream, Mom?" John said.

Mulder jerked around to stare at the boy. "Dream?"

"Yeah. Mom had a real bad one the morning of her accident. She woke us all up with her screaming."

Mulder turned back to her. "Mrs. Quan?"

"Oh that," she said waving her hand once in the air. "It was nothing. I had a dream that scared me. It happens to everyone."

"When did you last have a dream like that, Mrs. Quan?"

"Well, I can't really remember. I usually sleep very soundly."

"But this one woke you up?"

"Yes."

"Tell me about it."

She settled deeper into the cushions. "I was dreaming about something like a mist or a cloud appearing out of nowhere and blotting everything out. The mist was all soft colors. It whirled around me. As I think back about it now, it was kind of pretty."

"But?"

Rebecca Quan shivered. "It terrified me. It felt like something horrible was about to happen. I had to run away before it got me."

Mulder's voice grew tense. "Before what got you?"

A mixture of worry and fear darkened her expression. "I don't know. Something that wanted to hurt me."

"A person?"

"I don't think so. At least no specific person I know."

"And you'd never had this dream before?"

"No." Her eyes suddenly wrinkled at the corners.

"What is it, Mrs. Quan?"

"I just remembered something. My vision didn't blur right before the accident. It was more like something passed in front of my sight." Her eyes grew round. "It was like a cloud, the same cloud I saw in my dream."

Mulder leaned back on his heels, a satisfied smile playing at the corners of his mouth.

Scully stepped forward. "Can you think of anything else unusual that's happened to you?"

Mrs. Quan craned her neck toward her son who shrugged back at her. She returned her attention to Mulder. "I'm afraid not. Did I help?"

Mulder took her hand, his voice softened. "I think you may have solved the case." He straightened. "Scully. Sheriff. We've bothered this lady long enough." He started for the door. Scully and Harshaw exchanged blank looks and followed him outside after thanking the Quans for their time. She caught up to Mulder as he threw himself into the police car. "What did you find out?"

"Where's the map? I need my map."

She opened her shoulder bag and withdrew the map. "Here." Mulder snatched it and unfolded the map onto his lap. He picked up the stack of high school accident forms. His right index finger jumped from one red X to another as his left hand flipped back and forth through the forms.

As Harshaw came up to them Mulder said: "Sheriff, we need to go to 714 Rueter Street."

"714 Rueter... that's the Ibanez house."

"Right. I need to talk to Teresa Ibanez. She's another accident case who had her accident at home."

Scully shrugged at Harshaw's raised eyebrow, then slid into the police car's passenger's seat. Harshaw drove off.

"I know that look, Mulder," Scully said. "What are you on to?"

His face glowed with revelation. "The solution to this mystery."

 

 

Sheriff Harshaw pulled into a long, curved, gravel driveway and followed it to the front of a white, two-story stuccoed house capped with red tiles. He climbed out of the car and led Scully and Mulder down a brick path overhung with purple wisteria in full bloom. The long sprays of pendulous blossoms filled the hot air with a heavy sweet fragrance. It reminded Scully of the jasmine bush that grew outside her sister and her's bedroom window. Her coat caught on the grip of the automatic clipped to her waistband and the light tug washed away the memory, replacing it with the reality that in all likelihood the jasmine bush had long since been cut down and the recollection that her sister was dead, killed by an assassin who had been hunting Scully. She valued her work for the FBI but there were times when the costs associated with her career made her wonder if this was how she wanted to spend the rest of her life.

Harshaw stepped up to a rough-hewn door with wrought iron fittings and pushed a button set into the stucco. A light, dancing sequence of chimes rang inside the house, bringing Scully back to the present. The door swung in. A short, round, fifty-year-old maid in black and white livery smiled at them. Her eyes reflected the innocence of a life-long spinster but her mouth was held tight in a suspicious pucker. "Yes?" she said.

"Afternoon Helen," Harshaw said. "Is Mrs. Ibanez available?"

"If you'll wait inside, I'll check, sir." She showed them into a sitting room. The walls were covered with diplomas and letters of recognition awarded to Dr. Teresa Ibanez for agricultural science. They browsed around the room. The maid returned before they'd finished reading all of the awards. "Doctor Ibanez will see you now. Please come this way."

They followed her down a tiled hallway to the rear of the house. She opened a pair of French doors and a cloud of warm, humid air rolled out over them. They stepped into a greenhouse. Fifty feet down a central aisle flanked by three tiers of plants, Mrs. Ibanez was spritzing water on an orchid. She wore work-faded blue jeans and a beige short-sleeved shirt. An aluminum crutch leaned against a rack of plants behind her. She balanced on her right leg to take pressure off her left. The left pant leg had been slit up the side to make room for a plaster cast; its whiteness stood out in stark contrast to the Levis. She turned toward them. "Hello, sheriff. Who'd you bring me to meet?"

"Afternoon, Doc. Two FBI people want to ask you a few questions about your accident."

Her brows knitted and she looked down at her cast. "The FBI wants to question me about how I broke my leg?" She smiled. "And they say our government doesn't care. Let's go into the living room. I'll have Helen bring us some coffee."

Dr. Ibanez led the way back into the house, paused at an intercom to call for drinks, then led them into a living room filled with heavy, Spanish-style furniture of dark wood and red velour. She fell into a chair and elevated her foot on a cushioned footrest. With a wave of a long, graceful hand, she invited her guests to join her.

"Doctor Ibanez," Mulder began. "Have you had any unusual dreams lately?"

Her eyes narrowed. "I thought you wanted to ask me about my accident. Why the interest in dreams?"

"I think they're connected."

She looked at Harshaw. He smiled indulgently.

She turned back to Mulder. "As it happens, I did have an unusual dream recently. A nightmare, in fact. I woke up screaming like a banshee and scared poor Helen half to death."

"When was this?"

"Oh, at least a couple of weeks ago. I don't remember precisely."

Mulder leaned forward. "Was is the night before you broke your leg?"

"No. I don't think... wait." Mrs. Ibanez touched slender fingers to her temple. "Yes, I think it was." Helen entered with a tray filled with china cups and a coffee server. She looked at the maid. "Helen, remember when I had that nightmare about two weeks back?"

"Yes, ma'am."

"Was that the night before I broke my leg?"

"The morning before, ma'am. About three-thirty."

Mrs. Ibanez turned back to Mulder. "You were right. Now what?"

"What do you remember about that dream?"

She shook her head. "I don't recall any details. Just a feeling of terror."

Mulder leaned forward. "Why were you afraid?"

"I... I felt something chasing me. I wanted to run away."

"And then?"

"Helen burst into my room with a flashlight in one hand and a baseball bat in the other." She smiled at the woman who had drifted silently to a corner of the room. "She sleeps with both in case of male intruders." Red suffused over Helen's round face.

"Do you remember any swirling colors or clouds?" Mulder asked.

Mrs. Ibanez lowered her foot and leaned toward Mulder. "I'm sorry, no."

"Tell me about the accident."

"I'd gone out back into one of my test gardens to check on a pest problem: white flies on spinach." She shuddered. "Terrible."

"And?"

"I caught my foot on an irrigation pipe and fell. Nothing very dramatic, I'm afraid."

"Irrigation pipes are usually quite large and easy to spot," Mulder said. "How did you miss this one?"

"Stupidity. I'd been out too long without a hat. The sun got to me and I had a fainting spell."

"What type of fainting spell?" he asked.

"A moment before I tripped, a wave of pastel colors washed out my vision."

 

 

10

 

Ibanez Residence
Thursday, 2:09 P.M.

 

Mulder stood up. "Thank you, Mrs. Ibanez. You've helped more than you can know." He turned to face Harshaw. "Sheriff, we need to get back to the station as soon as possible." Mulder bolted from the living room without waiting for the sheriff's response. Scully and Harshaw thanked Teresa Ibanez and hurried after him. When they got outside he was already in the car's rear seat, studying the map.

"All right, Mulder," Scully said as she slid into the front passenger's seat. "You've had your chance to be mysterious. Now tell me what you think you've discovered."

"The thing that's murdered twenty-three people invades its victims through their dreams and lives in their subconscious until it attacks."

Harshaw jarred to a halt halfway down into climbing behind the wheel. Scully watched his eyes narrow before he finished getting in. He threw the car in gear and squealed the tires as he sped around the second half of the U-shaped driveway and out onto the street.

Scully swiveled around toward Mulder. "Thing? Murdered? What are you talking about?"

Mulder hunkered forward, his eyes bright. "An unknown force with the ability to transport itself from one person's mind to another. While it inhabits somebody's mind, it interferes with their ability to see or hear the world around them, hence the accidents. Some are fatal."

"You're basing this theory on the testimony of one woman taking pain killers for a broken hip and another who states her blurred vision resulted from getting too much sun?" Scully's eyebrows started their skeptical climb up her forehead.

Mulder's expression remained confident. "I base it on two women with the same nightmare the night before they each had an accident, the same perception of being blinded by a flush of color and an unprecedented sequence of deaths."

"A sample-space of two out of forty-six accidents is weak, Mulder, even for you. What is this thing you claim is causing the accidents?"

Mulder laced his fingers behind his head and slouched back. The corners of his mouth curled upward giving him the look of a mischievous imp. "I haven't the foggiest. But I think I can show you something that'll bring those doubting eyebrows of yours down."

Scully quickly relaxed her forehead to let her eyebrows drop back into place. "And what would that be?"

"Wait until we get back to the station."

Scully pursed her lips and turned to face forward.

 

 

Harshaw parked the police car next to Scully and Mulder's rented Corolla. Mulder stormed out of the car and inside the police station. Scully opened her door and gasped as the heat struck her in the face. She marched into the station as fast as her sense of comportment allowed and sighed as she passed through the portal into the cool, semi-dark interior. Mulder had stopped to whisper something to Barkley.

Scully let Harshaw lead the way to his office. She sat in the same hard wood chair she'd occupied before and stared out the window at Yardley's main street. Few people were out. Most had been driven off the streets by the punishing heat. She turned when the rustle of the map announced Mulder's entrance. "Well?" she asked.

"I need a few minutes."

Scully crossed her arms and watched Mulder spread the map out on the floor to add more Xs to it. This time he used a black felt pen. He snatched the pile of reports off Harshaw's desk and got to work.

Ten minutes later, report folders and accident forms covered the floor around Mulder. Scully got up and took a step toward him but stopped short when Barkley entered the office. He held out two sheets of paper to Mulder who took them without comment and attacked the map again. She shrugged at Harshaw who didn't react. His eyes were fixed on the top of Mulder's head, his mouth bent down in a deep frown. Scully shifted her attention back to Mulder, but his shoulders blocked her view so she couldn't see what he was scribbling on the map. She put her hands on her hips. "Okay, Mulder, give. What is it you think you've discovered?"

"I was right," Mulder said as he stood, pulling the map up with him.

"Right about what?"

"Right about the proof I knew I'd find."

She opened her mouth but he plunged ahead, cutting her off. "Will you agree that the only physical evidence linking the deaths and non-fatal accidents is that they occur sequentially in a narrow zone extending to the northeast, apparently starting from somewhere in Needleton?"

"Yes," she said cautiously.

"And that the jagged shape of the line supports your hypothesis of infectious suicide?"

"I believe the irregularities in its progression reflect a randomness that is at least non-supportive of your theory of a mind-jumping evil spirit."

Mulder smiled. "I haven't said anything about an evil spirit, yet. But you may have a point." His expression sobered. "Suppose the deaths were in a perfectly straight line, would that make the situation more sinister?"

"Stop fencing, Mulder. What did you find?"

"A perfectly straight line." He held up the map. A column of black Xs marched up the middle of the zone defined by the red and blue lines. The thick black line he'd drawn connecting the black Xs didn't waver from being arrow-straight by as much as a pencil-width.

Scully took the map and sighted down the length of the line to amplify any divergence. There wasn't any. "What is it?"

Excitement shone in his eyes. "Where do people dream, Scully? Where do they sleep? In their bedrooms, in their homes. The black Xs mark the addresses of each victim. That's what was on those sheets Barkley handed me, victim addresses he got from the Feldsburg and Needleton police departments. Something's on the march towards northeastern Nebraska. It jumps from one person's mind to another's when they're asleep. Some people get lucky, the rest die."

Scully's eyes followed the black Xs down to their origin in Needleton. The black line Mulder drew through the Xs extended through Needleton's southwest corner, two inches past the first X. "Why does the line reach further than the Xs?"

"This started in Needleton. That's where the first deaths occurred and when we return there I'm positive we'll find the non-fatal accidents started there as well."

She handed the map back to Mulder. "I have to admit the linearity of the addresses is curious, but I can't accept it as proof of a supernatural entity."

"Agent Scully?" Sheriff Harshaw said.

She pivoted around to face him. "Yes, sir."

"Just supposing Agent Mulder's right, then someone's going to die today in spite of the news announcements, aren't they?"

"There's no proof-"

"I'm not talking about proof, Agent Scully. I'm talking about someone's life. And the life of the next victim the day after tomorrow, and the next after that. This thing, whether you call it infectious suicide or some kind of evil spirit, has killed twenty-three women and must be stopped. If you're right we may have already ended the threat. If Agent Mulder's right... then the sooner you get working on his idea the sooner it will all be over."

"But-"

"But nothing. Either he's right or he isn't. Either way, Needleton's where this started and that's where you should be headed."

Scully crossed her arms.

"The sheriff's got a point," Mulder said. "Even if it turns out that you're right, the answer of how it started lies in Needleton. We need to go back there."

She uncrossed her arms but held them stiff at her sides. "I agree that there's nothing more we can do in Yardley. If you want to go back to Needleton it's fine with me. I'll even drive. But nothing you've shown me provides support for any theory that involves the paranormal."

A strident clanging of the sheriff's phone cut through the tension in the room. Harshaw picked it up. "Yes?"

His eyes jerked up to Scully. "When? Where? Okay, I'll be right over."

Harshaw dropped the phone back into its cradle. "We just got our twenty-fourth death."

 

 

11

 

Yardley Water Tower #5
Thursday, 4:14 P.M.

 

Scully nudged the toe of her shoe into the hard red dirt. The effort barely broke the surface. She looked at the six-inch deep depression in front of her and shook her head at the force of the impact required to make it. A thick pancake of blood, baked a scabby brown by the unrelenting sun, had clotted in the center of the shallow crater. She twisted around and squinted at the top of the water tower that stretched upward into the sky. Mulder was small shadow, working its way down the tower's ladder.

"Her name was Ernestine Bundy," Sheriff Harshaw said. "Evidently she was walking from her house about half a mile back to work a shift at Benchley's Diner. Benchley's son says he saw her walking and stopped to offer her a lift but the kid claims she waved him on. Old man Benchley sent him back to get her. When he got here, she'd already jumped."

Scully's eyes focused on the top of the ladder. "I'd estimate the tower's height at fifty feet."

Mulder leaped down from the ladder's fourth rung to the ground and began slapping at red dust clinging to his slacks. "More like sixty," he said joining them. "Quite a climb."

"Especially for a fifty-six year old woman," Harshaw said.

"Find anything up there?" Scully asked.

"No suicide note and no signs indicating a struggle. The marks in the dust on the ladder rungs indicate she'd been the first one in a long time to go up and as far as I could tell, she went alone."

Scully turned to the sheriff. "Did the paramedics who called you say whether they'd found a suicide note on her?"

"That was the first thing they looked for. No, they didn't."

Mulder dropped to his knees and spread his map out over the ground. He ran a finger diagonally up the black line while his right hand traced the course of Jone's Road. His fingers came together one inch to the northwest of the last black X. Mulder twisted his neck around to look up at Harshaw. "Is this where she lived?"

The sheriff peered over Mulder's shoulder. "Looks like it. Yes," he said pointing to a small blue dot just below Mulder's fingers. "That's the water tower. Ernestine's house, shack's more like it, would be located right where your finger is." Harshaw pushed his lips out. "I guess hers is the last death on your line."

Mulder stood up and looked to the northeast. "Until tomorrow."

 

 

12

 

Yardley Police Station
Thursday, 6:22 P.M.

 

Scully shook Harshaw's hand over the top of the rental car's door. "We will keep you up to date on what we find."

He gave her a hopeful smile. "Thanks, Agent Scully, and good luck."

She nodded, tight-lipped, and dropped into her seat. Mulder U-turned in the middle of Yardley's main street and sped towards Highway 275.

Scully watched heat waves ripple the flat, beige line of the horizon. She still had hopes for her theory, if only she could come up with a plausible explanation for Mulder's perfectly straight line of black Xs. Something twisted her middle. Straight lines don't happen in nature. Straightness implied design. Design meant intelligence. Scully shook the thought away. Mulder's line might imply a conscious entity but didn't prove it. Between implication and proof was a chasm too broad for her to leap without more evidence.

Mulder headed the car onto the access ramp for the 275. Scully stared down the arrow-straight road stretching into the distance. She glanced to her left. Mulder drove with his eyes glazed in thought. She opened her mouth to ask what he was working on but stopped short, knowing he'd tell her when he had all the pieces sorted out.

His eyes pulled back into focus and he smiled at her. "What?"

She gave her head a faint shake. "Nothing."

He nodded and pressed his foot down on the accelerator. The car sped on toward the wellspring of something that had killed twenty-four people.

 

An hour and a half of speeding through cornfields brought them to the curb outside Needleton's police station. Twilight was giving way to the night. Scully hesitated before undoing her seat belt. "Mulder, do we have to go through this right now? It's after eight."

"Yes, Scully, Now." He jumped out of the car and straight-armed his way through the station's front door. Scully followed slowly, weighed down by the heat that persisted long after sunset.

Inside the station, Mulder was already talking to a rail-thin desk sergeant with a head like a plucked turkey. "Is Chief Cade in? We're the FBI agents assisting him in an investigation of a series of deaths that occurred here three weeks ago."

The sergeant nodded. "I remember. The chief's gone home for the night. Be back around eight tomorrow morning."

Mulder placed both hands on the sergeant's desk and leaned forward. "We think those deaths may be connected with a series of non-fatal accidents. Do you have any records on a rash of accidents that happened at the same time as the deaths?"

The officer shrugged. "Just the telephone log. All our calls are listed there. But most people call the hospital or the fire department before they call us. You'll have to check with both of them to work up a complete list."

"We'll do that tomorrow. May I see the log for the same time period as the deaths?"

The sergeant bent sideways and opened a drawer. Scully heard him thump through four binders before he pulled out a black leather ledger and held it out to Mulder. "Here you go."

Mulder took it. "Thanks. Mind if we use Cade's office?"

"Help yourself."

Scully led the way. As they entered the room she turned to Mulder. "I hope you don't plan searching through that log tonight. The period we need to canvas must be fifty pages long."

Mulder shook his head. "A call-by-call search isn't necessary. All we have to do is skim the log for accidents involving people whose addresses lie on the line."

She jammed her arms across her chest. "But, Mulder. That type of selective sampling compromises what little validity the straight line gives your theory."

"I'm not interested in proving the theory. I just want to find the origin of what's murdered so many people."

"That goes against every-"

"-guideline approved by the bureau and scientific inquiry. I know. But, in-" Mulder looked at his watch. "-fifteen hours someone's going to die because of this thing. It's time to skip a few steps if we're going to end this before it gets to Salt Creek."

Scully's expression softened. She held out her hand toward the log. "You call out the streets and I'll search for matches."

Mulder handed her the book. She walked around to sit at Cade's desk while he kneeled on the floor, spread out the map and studied it. "The last street the line crosses in Needleton is Tanza."

Scully opened the log book from the rear and flipped forward. "Nothing."

"Scalia Drive?"

"No."

"Jamison?"

She flipped, stopped, flipped some more. "No."

"Madison?"

More flipping. "Yes. 851 Madison. A Ms. Mary Charter fell and broke her arm. That was on the eleventh of the month."

"The date checks." Mulder added a black X. "Paterson?"

"Nothing."

 

Forty minutes later they'd found only one more accident where the victim's home address lay on the line. Scully checked her watch. "We better stop before we start making mistakes."

Mulder scrubbed his face with the palms of his hands. "You're right."

She followed him out into the lobby and handed the log back to the desk sergeant. "Thank you. Please tell Sheriff Cade we will be back tomorrow morning."

"Sure thing. Good night."

Mulder had the car running by the time Scully got outside. She collapsed in the passenger seat.

"Martha's Inn, here we come," Mulder said

 

 

Scully didn't bother to unpack. She simply collapsed on the bed and fell asleep. After what seemed like five minutes, a tapping at the door woke her. She pushed herself up. "Yes?"

"Rise and shine, Scully. Another day to serve the bureau. You decent?"

She rubbed at the sleep scratching her eyes. "Yes." Scully opened her eyes and looked down at her wrinkled green suit. "No! I need a few minutes. I'll meet you in the diner."

"Okay. See you in ten."

Scully splashed icy water on her face to shock herself to full consciousness. She opened bleary eyes at the mirror and wished she hadn't. Her makeup had caked to plaster. She turned the bathtub's hot tap on full and after undressing, submerged herself in the prickly-hot water a full fifteen minutes before moving. She opened her eyes and deciding she felt human again, scrubbed herself to pristine cleanliness. The shock of her feet, pink with the heat of the bath, touching the cool tile of the bathroom floor drove away the last vestige of sleep. Scully padded into the bedroom and selected a beige skirt and blazer with a white silk blouse from her suitcase. She grimaced at the wrinkles, then finished dressing, applied fresh make-up, brushed her hair, checked her weapon and left to meet Mulder.

 

 

Scully found Mulder in the hotel's small diner. An assortment of empty plates littered the red-and-white checked tablecloth in front of him. "Sorry I'm late." she said.

He waved a hand over the plates. "No problem. I already ate."

"So I see." A waitress came over and placed coffee and a plate with white toast in front of her.

"I ordered for you," Mulder said. "Cream, no sugar."

"Thanks." Scully cradled the cup and sipped. Its hot, bitter warmth trickled comfortingly down to her middle. She nodded at the remains of an omelet. "I see you're still challenging you coronary system's endurance."

He stared pointedly at the cup in her hand. "Coffee has caffeine, an unnecessary stimulant."

She looked at another plate covered with syrup. "That much sucrose will unbalance your blood-sugar level for hours."

"White toast lacks fiber."

Scully took his knife and used it to spread butter on her toast. She bit the corner off and crunched it noisily. "Let's call it a draw this morning."

He smiled. "It's a deal."

"What do we do first?"

His expression turned serious. "The hospital. I telephoned before breakfast and asked them get the records we need. After that, the fire department."

Scully gulped her coffee. "Let's go."

Mulder glanced at the tab, dropped a ten and a five on top of it, and lead the way out.

The Needleton Hospital staff was good to their word. When Scully and Mulder arrived the files were waiting. Over the time of the fatal accidents, five non-fatals had been reported to the hospital. None of the victims lived on Mulder's line. They drove across town to the fire department and discovered it had responded to eight calls during the same period. Two lay on the black line. Mary Charter was still the last accident of the four they'd found. They hurried to their car and took off towards her house.

The house at 851 Madison was a split-level ranch with an immaculate front yard crowded with blue tricycles. Scully and Mulder marched across the grass to the front door. She rang the bell. A redheaded girl in her early teens answered. She wore a cast on her left arm.

"Yes?"

"I am Agent Scully and this is Agent Mulder." They flashed their ID's. "We are investigating a series of accidents in Needleton and would like to talk to Mary Charter. Is she in?"

"I'm Mary."

Scully opened her mouth but Mulder cut her off.

"Did you see a flash of pastel colors just before you fell and broke your arm?"

The girl's forehead clouded in confusion. "Yes. How did you know that?"

"Thank you." Mulder turned and hurried back to the car.

Scully nodded her appreciation to the girl and hurried after him. She tumbled into the passenger seat. "Why didn't you ask her about her dream?"

Mulder fired the engine to life. "Waste of time. She experienced the flush of colors so I assumed she fit the profile."

"Where now?"

"The Simpsons on Boulder. It's two blocks away." He punched the accelerator, squealed away from the curb, turned right at the end of Madison, left after two blocks, and then right onto Boulder. They pulled up in front of a weather-beaten mound of a house. Long tatters of faded paint hung from its clapboarded sides. Mulder hammered the cracked door frame with a fist.

A man in his fifties with three-day-old whiskers answered the door. He eyed their suits. "Whatever church you're from, I'm not interested." He started to close the door.

"Sir," Mulder said. "We're from the FBI. We need-"

"You need? May I remind you that my taxes pay your salaries. You might be interested to know that what I need is peace and quite, both of which you're interrupting. Go away."

Scully stepped closer. "Sir, we apologize for the disturbance but we are on an investigation-"

"Investigation? Of what? Me? Do you have a warrant?"

"No, sir. We hoped for your cooperation."

"Well, I'm not giving it. Like I said before, go away."

The door slammed in their faces.

Scully looked at Mulder with a raised eyebrow. "I knew we should have taken that seminar in public relations last week."

Mulder answered her with a distracted smile and headed back to the car. No one answered at the third address. The last house on the list was 156 Collins. Mulder found the two-story New England-style house that belonged to the Olsen family two blocks from the Simpson residence.

A plump woman in her forties answered Scully's ring. "Good Morning?"

"Mrs. Phyllis Olsen?" Scully asked.

"That's correct."

Scully showed her ID. "We're with the FBI. This is my partner, Special Agent Mulder. May we ask you a few questions?"

Mrs. Olsen's hand jumped to her mouth. "I'm not in any trouble, am I?"

Mulder broke out his boyish smile. Scully knew it never failed to relax someone he wanted to question, when that someone was a woman.

"Mrs. Olsen," he said. "We're here to ask you questions about how you had your accident. There have been too many of them in Needleton, Feldsburg, and Yardley over the last three weeks. Agent Scully and I-"

"Wait a minute. Your name's Mulder? Fox Mulder?!"

Scully sensed him stiffen at the use of his first name.

"Yes, ma'am. How-?"

"Why, I read about you in the Scientific Inquisitor last month. It was something about UFOs." Her finger scratched hair the texture of steel wool. "Or was it big foot?"

Scully leaned close to him and whispered, "Probably both."

Mulder glared at her.

"Anyway, come on in," she said flapping her small, soft hands. "Wait till the girls hear who I met."

She opened the door and led the way into the living room.

"It appears your infamy precedes you," Scully said.

"The word's fame," Mulder whispered back.

 
Mrs. Olsen fluttered her hands in the direction of the sofa. "Now you two sit yourselves down. I'll go get us some coffee."

"That won't be necessary," he called after her but she had already scurried through the swinging door to the kitchen.

Mulder dropped onto the sofa next to Scully.

"Relax, Mulder. An autograph, a couple of UFO anecdotes, and you'll have her eating out of your hand."

He stared at the palm of his right hand and grimaced.

Mrs. Olsen bustled back into the room with a tray piled high with cups and oatmeal cookies. She poured coffee for Mulder, placed several cookies on its saucer and sat down next to him. "Fox, it's all right if I call you Fox, isn't it? Of course it is. Now, Fox, you must give me your autograph and tell me all about your UFO experiences."

Mulder glowered into his coffee.

"He'd love to Mrs. Olsen," Scully said, "but we are under pressure to complete our current case. I'm sure you can understand that."

Phyllis Olsen nodded, her eyes pinched in conspiratorial sageness. "Oh, yes. I can guess what it must be like with all government cover-ups you have to deal with." She nudged closer to Mulder. "What do you want to know?"

"You had an accident three weeks ago," Mulder said. "Tell me about it."

The woman nodded enthusiastically. "On the ninth. When I cut my hand."

"How did it happen?"

"I was chopping apart spare ribs with a cleaver, we were having a barbecue that night, and I missed."

"Why?"

She shrugged. "We all like ribs."

Mulder rubbed fingers into his temple. "No. I mean why did you miss and cut your hand?"

"Oh. The sun came through the window and blinded me just as I swung."

His forehead wrinkled. "You're sure it was the sun."

"What else? I remember thinking how pretty the colors were. You know, like a soft rainbow. Sunrays do that sometimes when they go through glass."

"Refraction," Scully said.

She gave Scully a vague look. "Excuse me?"

Scully smiled. "Nothing."

"Mrs. Olsen," Mulder said. "Do you remember having an unusual dream the night before the accident?"

"I should say so! And half my neighbors would agreed."

Mulder fidgeted an inch away from Mrs. Olsen. "Why is that?"

"Why, because my screams woke them up. It must have been around two in the morning."

"How are you able to recall the date and time so accurately?"

Phyllis Olsen wiggled forward, shrinking the inch Mulder had managed to put between them. "Well, because of all the other excitement. I'd barely stopped screaming when Sheriff Cade started banging on the door. That and the Kamps dying made it a night I won't soon forget."

Mulder's eyes widened. "What?"

"Mr. and Mrs. Kamp died in their sleep. Heart attacks the sheriff said. They lived half a block from here."

"Oh." Mulder relaxed and pulled away another inch. "And your dream?"

"Edgar, that's my husband, and I were on a beach watching a sunset. A cloud appeared above it and turned colorful like you see in postcards, all soft colors."

"Pastels?"

"Yes. But the colors got brighter after the sun set. I noticed it had come closer, overtaken us. I couldn't see Edgar anymore. Colors swirled around me. I felt lost, scared, and... and... " She waggled plump fingers in the air.

"Frightened?" Mulder suggested.

"Right. But not of the cloud, of something chasing... no, hunting me. I had to run." She shrugged. "Then Edgar shook me awake. That's all."

Mulder turned and raised his eyebrows at Scully. She nodded and inclined her head questioningly toward the door.

He stood up. "Thank you, Mrs. Olsen. I think that's all for now."

She jumped up, her hands clasped together tightly under her chin. The pleading look on her face made her look like a sad cocker spaniel. "You're not going?"

"Well, yes."

"But you can't. Not yet."

Mulder took a step backward. Scully smiled and stepped behind him, blocking his retreat.

"I'm afraid I don't understand," Mulder said.

"The girls aren't here yet."

Mulder froze. "Girls?"

"My friends. I called them when I got the coffee. They're on their way over to meet you. We've formed a club to follow your adventures."

Scully pressed a hand to her mouth to strangle a laugh.

"We really have to run," Mulder said as he dodged around Scully and plunged out of the living room.

Scully smiled sympathetically as disappointment brought a lumpy pout to the woman's face. "Sorry, Mrs. Olsen. Agent Mulder is shy around people."

Phyllis Olsen nodded thoughtfully. "He's probably more comfortable with aliens."

Scully grinned. "I wouldn't be surprised."

 

When Scully stepped outside, she heard Mulder slamming the driver's door closed. Two plump middle-aged women half-a-block up the street were scurrying toward him, waving their arms over their heads. A third came waddling up from the the opposite direction.

Scully meandered out to the car. She opened the door but instead of getting in, looked up at the sky. "Lovely weather, don't you think, Mulder?" Out of the corner of her eye she could see the women closing in. "A little hot maybe, but-"

"Come on, Scully," he yelled across the seat at her.

She lowered her head to look at him. "Why the hurry?"

"Please," he pleaded.

Scully obliged with a smile and eased into the passenger seat. Mulder gunned the car away from the curb. Out the rear window she saw the three rapidly-shrinking women; their arms stretched eagerly towards the car as he sped away.

 

They made it back to the police station in record time. Bursting into Cade's office, Mulder unrolled the map with a flourish on the desk in front of the sheriff. Scully and Cade leaned over it. Mulder stabbed at the location of the Olsen's house with a pencil. "From the pattern of accidents and deaths, Mrs. Olsen seems to be the first occurrence of a non-fatal accident." He ran the pencil down the black line to the southwest. There were no more X's. "Somewhere along this line is where it all started. Sheriff, are you sure no deaths that follow the profile happened before Mrs. Olsen's accident?"

Cade shook his head. "I'm afraid not. The only other deaths were the Kamps."

"Mrs. Olsen told us about them. Heart attacks."

"That's correct."

"Heart attacks," Mulder repeated and massaged the back of his neck. "Two? At the same time?"

Cade nodded. "The coroner told me it happens sometimes with married couples."

"It's not common," Scully said, "but it happens."

"Any others before them?"

"Not for two months."

"What was the Kamps' address?" Mulder asked.

Cade scratched the back of his head. "It's on Trevor. Number 337."

Mulder squinted at the map, found Trevor and put a finger on it near the bottom of the map. He slid his finger along Trevor while he traced up the black line with the pencil. Finger and pencil met in the southwest corner of Needleton. Mulder squinted. "I get Pillsbury as the nearest cross street. Is that anywhere near the Kamps' address?"

"About a hundred feet west of it."

Mulder's lips tightened. "Right where the black line intersects Trevor."

 

 

13

 

337 Trevor
Friday, 9:09 A.M.

 

Scully and Mulder's footsteps echoed through the silence of the Kamp's house. Scully noticed that thin shafts of sunlight filtering between heavy drapes fell cleanly to the floor without sparkling off dust in the air. The corners of her mouth turned down. No one to stir it up.

They stood in the middle of the living room, facing a stairway that split the far wall. A wide arch to the left of the stairs opened onto a dining room with two chairs at opposite ends of the heavy, oak table. A closed door to the right of the stairs balanced the room.

A car door slammed outside. Footfalls on the Kamp's walkway ended with the opening groan of the front door. Scully turned as Sheriff Cade step into the room. He removed his hat and ran a long-sleeved forearm across his brow.

"Warm?" she asked.

Cade grimaced. "You've expect it this time of the year. Looked around yet?"

"Not much," Scully said. "What can you tell us about the Kamps?"

Sheriff Cade ran the rim of his hat through his fingers. "Henrietta Kamp was the sweetest, gentlest soul in the world."

"And Mr. Kamp?"

Cade jammed his hat on his head. "Meanest damn bastard I ever met."

Mulder smiled. "A real odd-couple. Maybe opposites do attract."

"It wasn't a pleasant situation, Agent Mulder, and I'd appreciate your not making a joke about it."

"I didn't mean-"

"Henrietta Kamp had to be taken to the hospital three times last year. Grady Kamp said she was clumsy. Stupid was his exact word. Complained she kept falling down the stairs and forcing him to bring her to the hospital just so he'd miss his favorite TV programs. I never knew stairs to leave knuckle marks. And those three times were just when her injuries were bad enough for her to need a doctor. God knows how many times she got beaten but didn't say anything."

"I'm sorry, Sheriff," Mulder said. "She never pressed charges?"

Cade shook his head. "Not once. She backed up his story every time."

"How long had they been married?" Scully asked.

"Couldn't say. They were married when they arrived in town twenty years ago."

"Was there anything unusual about their deaths other than having simultaneous heart attacks?"

"Just one thing. Mrs. Kamp's pillow had a spot of blood on it. She also had a facial bruise. The coroner decided the blood came from a bloody nose that resulted from Grady's punching her before they went to sleep."

Mulder looked around the living room. "Who inherits?"

"The state. Mrs. Kamp couldn't have children. No other relations have come forward and the Kamps left no will. After six months the property reverts to Nebraska."

"Did the coroner take away anything?"

"A few things from the bedroom. Everything's been returned to their original-"

A blast of static from outside spun the sheriff's head around. "That's my radio. Back in a minute." He rushed out the door.

Mulder wandered into the dining area while Scully drifted around the living room. She opened small dusty boxes on end tables, looked in drawers and peered through the beveled glass of a breakfront filled with cheap dishes displayed like china. She heard Mulder open and close drawers that rattled with silverware. He returned by way of the door to the right of the staircase.

"Anything?" she asked.

"Zip. Let's try upstairs-"

Cade burst through the front door. "Your news announcements didn't work! That call was a relay-message from Sheriff Harshaw in Yardley. He said number twenty-five died thirty minutes ago."

Scully's stomach twisted.

She felt Mulder's hand touch her shoulder. "You okay?"

"Yes, of course."

"Let's see what's upstairs."

She nodded silently.

"Folks," Cade said. "I have to get back to the station. Seems there's some disagreement over the ownership of a car that was reported stolen yesterday."

"We'll let you know if we turn up anything," Mulder said.

"I'd appreciate it."

Scully and Mulder started up the stairs, which ended at a landing with a partially open door leading to a bathroom on the left and two closed doors straight ahead and to the right. Scully pushed around Mulder and stepped into the bathroom. It was a small, utilitarian room with chipped, olive-green tiling and chrome fixtures. She opened the mirrored door to the cabinet over the sink. Her fingers shuffled through a collection of brown plastic medicine containers, two half-flattened toothpaste tubes, and shaving paraphernalia. She closed the cabinet and returned to the landing.

"Anything interesting?" Mulder asked.

"No. All the medications were for transient conditions like colds or flu."

Mulder inclined his head at the door straight ahead. "Shall we?"

Scully nodded.

Mulder pushed the door open, switched the light on and froze. "Good God."

She stretched up on her toes to see into the room but Mulder's back cut off her view. "What is it?"

"Didn't the sheriff just tell us that Mrs. Kamp couldn't have children?"

"Yes. So?"

He moved aside. "So, maybe you can tell me what this means."

Scully stepped through into the room. In sharp contrast to the dull-colored furnishings in the rest of the house, brilliant whites and sunny yellows blazed at her from every corner. The room had been decorated as a nursery complete with a rocking chair, crib, and bassinet.

"A little cutesy for my taste," Mulder said. "How about you?"

Scully ran her fingertips gently over the white frill on the crib's top rail. "These unisex design's are popular but I'd wait until I knew what I was going to have then use the appropriate color scheme." Her hand lingered on the crib. She wondered if she'd ever have the chance to use one.

Mulder smiled at her. "Dreaming, Scully?"

She jerked her hand away from the crib, forcing her thoughts back to the case. She ignored his question. "I can't explain why they'd decorate a room as a nursery if they couldn't have children."

"An old wish?"

She ran her eyes quickly over the furnishings. "Everything looks new. I would say they'd purchased this within the last few months." Scully stepped around Mulder and left the room. "Maybe we'll find the answer in their bedroom." She strode toward the landing's third room.

When she entered the Kamp's bedroom she automatically scanned it for details: worn bedspread, matted carpeting and scarred furniture, still... everything looked neat and clean. Scully walked around to the far side of the bed, which she guessed to be Mrs. Kamp's from the small bottle of hand lotion on the night stand. She pulled back the bedspread. The white sheets were printed with faded-red rosebuds. She spotted a break in the pattern just under the curve of the pillow. It was a small brown stain six inches from the edge of the head of the bed. She touched it. The spot was dry, rough, and crusty. She pursed her lips. Blood.

Scully lifted the pillow to see if anything lay underneath it. Her thumb brushed against something crusty on the underside of the pillow. She turned it over. It had a brown stain similar to the one on the mattress. Scully's eyes switched back and forth between the two spots. She crouched and laid the pillow down so the two spots overlapped. The pillow rested half off the edge of the bed. Scully sighted down the side of the bed. The sheet showed heavy wear along the very edge. "Mulder, come look at this. I think Mrs. Kamp slept on the edge of her bed with the pillow over her head for protection."

Mulder rounded the foot end of the bed and hunkered down close to the bedding.  "You're right. Grady must've been a real honey." He stood and began flipping through a thin black book.

"What did you find?" Scully asked.

"I'm not sure. It seems to be some kind of diary. Each page is dated but the entries don't make any sense."

"Is there a heading in the front?"

Mulder thumbed forward through the stiff pages.

"Yes. But it's just as cryptic."

"What does it say?"

"LD Log."

Scully thrust her hand out. "Let me see that."

Mulder handed it over, eyes wide at her insistence.

Scully checked the heading page and then skipped through half a dozen entries. She about-faced and went to Henrietta Kamp's bedside table. Inside its top drawer, Scully found a pink, padded book and opened it to the first page. The top line also read LD Log. Diary-like, each page was dated and filled in. Except for a finer print and longer entries, the book was identical to the one Mulder had found.

"You know what they are, don't you," Mulder said.

Scully turned part-way around and glanced briefly at him, then turned away again. "These are dream logs. Henrietta and Grady Kamp were lucid dreamers."

Mulder stared down at her. "What?"

Scully gave him a second quick look and walked out from under his scrutiny. She wandered around the room with her eyes on Henrietta Kamp's log. "Lucid dreaming is the term coined by Dr. Andre Hunter of Arizona's Western University of Psychology. He developed several techniques that enable suitably trained individuals to become aware, during a dream, that he or she is dreaming. This-"

"You mean they wake up?"

"No. They remain in the dream-state."

A cynical smile brushed across Mulder's lips. "They're awake, while they're dreaming? That doesn't make sense." He fell into a chair next to Henrietta's dressing table. "And what's with all this pacing. What are you holding back?"

Scully closed the book with a sharp crack and sat on the edge of the bed in front of Mulder. She measured her words with precision. "A lucid dream is a dream where the dreamer is aware that he is dreaming. Electroencephalographic measurements unequivocally establish the subject is asleep. Yet he can signal to outside observers through the use of eye movements, which are not inhibited during sleep, that he's aware he is dreaming." She saw the corners of Mulder's mouth angle further upward, but ignored it. "Lucid dreaming is not confined to sleep laboratories. In the five years since Dr. Hunter's initial paper, hundreds of people have learned how to induce lucid dreams on their own."

His faint smile spread to a grin. "You sound like you believe in it. Awake and asleep at the same time? That's hard even for me to swallow."

Scully felt a vein in her temple begin to throb. "I'm finding it just as hard for me to believe you haven't heard of it. There have been several articles-"

"In what? Psychology Weekly? I'm afraid my reading material runs in different directions. Anyway, how is it that you know so much about it?"

She tapped her right toe several times, then sighed. "I'm a lucid dreamer."

His smile faded.

She raised her eyes to him. "Lucid dreaming is a valuable psychological tool used to assist people to overcome emotional problems. I've been using it to help me accept the deaths of my father and sister."

"You can dream and be aware you're dreaming?"

"Yes."

"Oh."

"Well? Let me have it."

Mulder pulled back a little. "Have what?"

"One of your little comments you always dish out at times like this."

"Actually, I was wondering what it is you do in your dreams. Make things disappear? Walk through walls? Leap tall buildings in a single bound?"

"If I want to, yes."

I smiled indulgently. "Scully... "

"This isn't one of your fantasies, Mulder. Lucid dreaming is a scientifically verifiable and reproducible phenomenon anyone can learn. Many people use it for entertainment. It helps others deal with pain." Scully felt her lips tighten.

Mulder held his hands out in front of him. "Okay, okay. I believe you. How's it done?"

She forced reason into her voice, but her muscles remained tense. "Everyone drifts in and out of REM sleep all night long with the longest periods in the morning. Lucid dreamers repeat a mnemonic that carries over into the next REM state. Sometimes this reminds the dreamer that he is dreaming. If that happens, he's free to observe the dream as it unfolds or take an active role."

"In other words, become superman if he wants."

She straightened her back. "Or superwoman."

"If it's as great as you've made it sound, why hasn't lucid dreaming swept the country?"

"It's not like a computer game. You can't just plug it in and go. It takes time and discipline to learn. Beginners can spend months before their first success. And once achieved, they may not be able to repeat the experience. Even the most experienced lucid dreamers are only able to induce lucid dreams ten percent of the time."

"Is it worth it?"

Scully raised her chin half an inch. "I have found it to be so."

Mulder nodded and turned toward the closet. Scully checked under the bed and started to go through the drawers of an ancient bureau. She heard Mulder's voice muffled by the clothes in the closet.

"Sorry I laughed," he called out.

She slammed a drawer closed. "Forget it."

"Now you know how I feel most of the time."

She paused her searching. "It's lonely."

"Tell me about it. Find anything?"

"No."

He came back into the room. "Me neither. Let's get out of here."

"Right." Scully led the way out of the house, the two dream logs gripped tightly in her hand. Mulder got behind the wheel of their Corolla. She climbed in next to him and caught his pointed stare at the Kamps' dream diaries. "The logs may turn up something," she said and began reading.

 

 

Five minutes later Mulder pulled to a stop in front of the station. She didn't move to get out.

"What did you find?" he asked.

"It's not related to our case, but it's odd. The books cover a year's dreams. In the beginning, Henrietta and Grady's dreams were unrelated. Eleven months ago that changed. They started inducing the same dreams on the same night."

"Maybe they were trying to meet each other on the dream plane."

Scully's frown deepened. "There is nothing paranormal about lucid dreaming. It's completely internalized. You don't leave your body in some kind of metaphysical-"

"I get the point."

Scully continued in a level voice. "Three weeks before their deaths, they stopped invoking similar dreams. Grady Kamp went back to dreams which focus on violence. His entries make him sound homicidal and frustrated. Henrietta began a series of dreams about having a baby."

"Cade said she couldn't have children. Maybe this was her way to deal with the disappointment."

Scully nodded. "That is one of the useful aspects of lucid dreaming and it might explain the nursery. Henrietta Kamp could have set it up to help her visualize living with a baby."

"Anything else?"

"This." She handed Mulder a business card.

"Dr. Randell Laum," he read out loud. "Dressler Research Institute, Dixon, Nebraska. The address isn't local so he can't be their physician."

Scully opened her door and walked toward the station. "Only one way to find out."

 

 

Cade scratched the top of his head. "Dr. Laum? That name's familiar, but... Hey! Carl!" he yelled out to the desk sergeant. You ever hear of a Dr. Randell Laum?"

"Sure, Chief," a raspy voice called back. "He had something to do with the Kamps. Remember? He was the guy who kept bugging us to check up on them the night they died."

"Got it! Thanks!" He turned back to Scully. "Okay. I remember now. Carl buzzed me about two that night to say Laum had called half a dozen times. Laum couldn't get the Kamps to answer their phone and wanted us to investigate. Who is he?"

"We're about to find out." Scully said. "Mind if we use your phone?"

He pushed it toward her. "Help yourself."

She lifted the receiver and dialed Laum's number. The phone rang once before a recorded message began. "You have reached the office of Dr. Randell Laum. Please leave a message at the tone."

Scully waited for the bleep then said: "Dr. Laum? This is Agent Dana Scully with the FBI. I am calling you in regards to Henrietta and Grady Kamp. I believe they were patients of yours-"

"Agent Scully," a man's voice cut in. "This is Randell Laum."

Scully stabbed the speaker button on the sheriff's phone.

Laum's voice reverberated in the room. "Why is the FBI interested in the Kamps' deaths?" Laum asked.

"They were your patients?"

"Not exactly. We... consulted in partnership on a research project up until their deaths."

"A project related to lucid dreaming?"

There was a hesitation in his voice. "That's correct."

"Doctor Laum, could you-"

"Doctor Laum," Mulder cut her off. "This is Special Agent Mulder. I'm working with Agent Scully. Could you please tell me what you have your doctorate in?"

"I have Ph.Ds in psychology and..."

"And?"

Scully heard a reluctant sigh issue from the speaker.

"Parapsychology."

Mulder's eyes shot up to Scully's.

"Doctor Laum." Mulder's voice was strained. "Why were you involved with the Kamps?"

Scully heard a second sigh, then Laum's voice burst out of the speaker, startling her with its strength and resonance. "Because they were the two greatest psychics the world has ever known."

 

 

14

 

Air Nebraska Flight 919
Friday, 11:49 A.M.

 

Scully squirmed on the insufficient padding of the twin-prop's seat and scowled. She'd told Mulder the trip was a waste of time but her protests hadn't dissuaded him. Once Mulder caught sight of anything supporting his hunger for the paranormal he was irresistibly drawn to it.

The plane hit a pocket of turbulence. The sudden up-down-up motion jerked Scully out of her thoughts. She looked out of the postage-stamp sized window next to her seat and watched Nebraska's sun-drenched flatness dragging by twelve thousand feet below. The black asphalt of a highway cut a razor-thin slash through the beige landscape. By pushing her head against the humming cabin wall and following the highway as far forward as possible, Scully could just make out a gray smudge on the horizon that had to be Lincoln. The flight plan called for them to skirt the southern edge of the city and then change heading toward the northeast for Omaha.

Scully leaned away from the window. Three seats ahead she saw the back of Mulder's head, bent low as he studied the tattered map he'd pieced together. Her forehead furrowed; perhaps this was a case where Mulder's intuition would prove superior to her scientific knowledge.

The plane banked left and ten minutes later began a bumpy descent into Eppley Airfield. Mulder's impatient rushing cleared them out of the airport in record time. Scully drove the blue Escort they'd rented while Mulder navigated using a map supplied by the rental agency. They managed to find Highway 680 north and fifteen minutes later a sign directed them to the Dixon off-ramp.

Scully had guessed the institute would be a run-down building in one of Dixon's industrial areas. She'd guessed wrong.

The Dressler Institute's sprawling grounds consisted of twenty manicured acres of rolling green on the border of the Angel Heights district, where a modest house could be secured for half of a million dollars... as down payment. Within the research complex itself, meandering concrete walkways connected the institute's ultra-modern steel and glass buildings. White-smocked scientists and dark-suited executives in electric carts hurried from building to building.

As Scully and Mulder walked into the reception building's lobby, a tall, slender, sandy-haired man rose and came toward them. His eyes shone with a scientist's passion but the curve of his smile suggested shrewdness.

"Dr. Laum?" Mulder asked.

The man nodded. "You're Agents Scully and Mulder?"

"I'm Mulder. This is Special Agent Scully."

Scully returned his shake and stepped back out of the way; they were on Mulder's ground.

"Is there somewhere we can talk?" Mulder asked.

"My office. It's a bit of a walk but we have an excellent gardening staff so it shouldn't be too unpleasant.

The two men took off with Scully in tow. As they passed through a glass door to the outside, the heat slapped her in the face. Scully caught her breath and plowed into the thick air. She listened to Mulder throw questions about metaphysics at Laum. Mulder's excitement was reflected in his pace. Scully stretched her stride as far as dignity, and her skirt, allowed in an attempt to keep up but she soon trailed the them by fifty feet. The men stopped at the door to a one-story building with the words Psychic Research Laboratory stenciled over the threshold. Laum opened the door for Mulder then looked around for her.

"Agent Scully," Laum said as she joined them. "Forgive us for running away like that. Agent Mulder got me started on states of consciousness. I quite forgot myself."

"I'm used to it, doctor." She angled her chin at Mulder, a signal for him to remember they were a team.

He offered her an apologetic smile. "Sorry, Scully."

They let her pass into the end of a long hallway. The maroon carpet was deep, the hallway wastefully wide and the air conditioning over-done. Scully wondered where the money came from.

"It's all a con, Agent Scully," Laum said turning to her. "You were wondering about how the institute is funded, weren't you?"

"Applying some of your expertise in psychic ability, doctor?" she asked.

He smiled. "More like my ability as a statistician. Most people ask the money question after seeing our facilities."

"Why do you say it's a con?" Mulder asked.

"Because it is."

They'd progressed fifty feet down a hall when Laum opened a door on the right. "My office. We'll be comfortable in here."

The room boasted a large executive's desk, a huge black-leather easy chair, a sofa, a mahogany conference table with eight padded sky-blue chairs and a work console boasting two computers. Scully noted it was a far cry from the cubbyholes most researchers endured.

"All this," Laum said. "The grounds, buildings, and offices, are designed to convince the superstitious-rich to contribute to our research." He plopped himself down in his chair and swiveled to face them.

Scully didn't think it was possible for a human to smile as broadly as Laum without having his head spilt in half.

Mulder's brow creased. "You mean it's all a fraud? You don't do psychic research?"

"Please, sit down," he said waving at the sofa. "To answer your question, I'm proud to say the Dressler Research Institute is preeminent in that field. Our annual expenditures exceed that of all other organizations world-wide. Last year we spent more than twelve million dollars on research."

"Then how-"

Laum raised a finger. "We took in forty-eight million in donations over the same period. The research gives us a credibility no one else enjoys. Credibility equals confidence which equals-"

"Money," Mulder finished for him.

"Just so. Our organization keeps a low profile, publishes professionally researched papers in the best technical journals and gets donations from seventeen countries that yields an income that's four times our costs."

"Where do the profits go?"

"There aren't any. We're a nonprofit organization."

"But-"

"Salaries for the executive officers are a million a year, each. Perks double that. Even lowly researchers like myself do pretty well."

"Doesn't that make you feel like you sold out to the devil?" Scully asked.

Laum nodded. "It did at first. But the research is important and this is the best laboratory in the world. The institute may take a lot of people's money, but we don't twist their arms for donations and we give them something scientifically verifiable in return. That's more than Madame Bovary's Palm Reading Service downtown offers. It's really not such a bad deal."

"Why are you telling us this?" Scully asked.

Laum forgot his grin and leaned towards them. "It's an offering of unvarnished candor so you'd believe what I have to tell you about the Kamps."

Mulder inched forward on the sofa. Scully saw the heat in his eyes.

"What can you tell us about them?" Mulder asked.

"First, tell me why you're interested."

Scully watched Mulder unfold the taped-together map of Needleton, Feldsburg, and Yardley. The red, blue and black X's with the straight black line looked impressive, but the wrinkles and yellowing tape compromised the effect. The Needleton sheet hung crooked because the tape on one side had dried out, relinquishing its support. She studied Laum's reactions as Mulder hammered on the importance of the linearity and sequentiality of the deaths. The doctor's expression was reserved and got more so the longer Mulder talked.

"That's what we have so far," Mulder said. "It all started the day after the Kamps' deaths, which is too much of a coincidence to ignore. I think their deaths released some kind of psychic entity which propagates from person to person, murdering as it goes."

The black leather of Laum's chair creaked as he leaned back into it. His left hand came up to massage his jaw while his eyes shifted from the map, to Mulder, then her. Heard all at once, Mulder's theory sounded more preposterous than it had in the car ride to the airport. Scully looked at Mulder and thought that at least in Dr. Laum he'd found someone who might believe him.

"Well?" Mulder asked.

"You've got to be joking," Laum said throwing up a hand. "That's the most ridiculous theory I've ever heard."

"But you're a psychic researcher," Mulder pleaded. "I thought you'd be the first to believe it."

Laum's voice grew hard. "I believe in facts. You've given me fantasy. I'm appalled to discover the government's using tax money to pay you to investigate something as infantile as this. If you'll excuse me, I have work to do. Please show yourselves out." Laum started to swivel away.

Mulder's voice reflected shock. "Doctor, I can't believe you don't see the possibility of a psychic phenomenon at work in this case."

"Please do, Agent Mulder. What you've said reflects a complete ignorance of the true nature of psychic phenomena."

"I wasn't aware," Scully said raising her voice for the first time, "that there was a true nature to psychic phenomena. There is no objective evidence substantiating it."

"That statement indicates your ignorance is as profound as your partner's. At least you're skeptical. That's preferable to someone who believes in fairy tales."

Scully watched Laum's scowl deepen. "You mean like the people who support you?" she said.

He shook his narrow head. "They come to us like Agent Mulder, thinking there's something mystical about psychic research. We give them the truth in return for their money. Since you brought our contributors up, let me give you the tour reserved for the institute's supporters. I'll sleep better knowing I straightened you out so you can look for a realistic solution to your case." Laum stormed out of the office.

"Come on, Mulder. He may show us something useful."

She spotted Laum twenty feet down the hall unlocking a double door.

"Down here, if you please?" he said.

Laum led them into a room with open-frame metal roof trusses twenty-feet overhead. The room stretched forty feet on a side. Partitions covered in blue-gray carpeting divided the room into six bays. Electronic equipment, chairs and tables crowded each bay.

"The staff's away at a conference. Normally there'd be a subject and technician at each station. This laboratory develops techniques to quantify psychic ability and examines twenty people a week using three tests: card guessing; a one-dimensional, bipolar flasher; and a hemispherically resolved radiation counter. We use these to search for individuals able to demonstrate psychic abilities. Each test provides measurable, reproducible data." Laum stared splinters at Mulder. "No mind reading. No prophecy. No out-of-body experiences."

Laum stepped into the walkway running up the middle of the bays and stretched his arms out to rest a hand on the partitions to the first two cubicles. "Card testing takes place in these first two cubicles. A deck of one hundred cards is shuffled and presented one at a time face down to the subject. He, or she, guesses which of five designs is on the card."

"That sounds like mind-reading experiments I've seen elsewhere," Mulder said.

"It isn't. The person presenting the cards doesn't look at the cards until after the subject records his guess. The average person gets seven correct out of one hundred. Test-to-test deviations for a subject are plus-or-minus four. The subject-to-subject variation is also plus-or-minus four. One out of every hundred people will get as many as ten cards correct.

"That's a departure from the average by an amount barely greater than the intrinsic uncertainty of the test," Scully said.

"Exactly. Psychic abilities are tenuous at best. They don't have the strength to bend spoons, levitate coffee cups, or force people to kill themselves."

Laum stepped backward to the second set of stations, each consisting of a secretary's chair surrounded by a ring of twelve black boxes. Two horizontally aligned flashlight bulbs protruded from the front of each box. Cables hung to the floor and snaked over to a small computer. Laum turned on the computer and entered three lines of keystrokes; lights in all the boxes started flashing side to side in random patterns.

"This is the one-dimensional, bipolar-flash test. A random generator blinks the lights on each box. The subject sits in the chair and attempts to coerce the light on one side of the box in front of them to blink more often than the other."

"They focus on the light they want to blink the most?" Mulder asked.

"Some do. Others concentrate on the one they don't want to blink. Some attempt to control the computer."

"Why so many boxes?"

"Each has it's own generator. This allows spatial resolution of the subject's ability to influence the flashes. Half of the successful subjects skew the count of the light they watch. The other half influence one of the other boxes even though they're not focusing on it. We don't know why."

Laum crossed his arms. "The random generators are configured so that a one-thousand-flash test illuminates each bulb five hundred times if nothing external influences them. We total the number of flashes on each side of each box and look for any skews. Ninety percent of the time nothing interesting happens."

Scully regarded the ring of flashing lights. "And the remaining ten percent?"

"Some subjects succeed in making one side flash eight percent more often than the other."

"That is ten times the number of people that showed up in the first test," Scully said.

"This test's ten times more sensitive." He strode to the last pair of stations, which consisted of a padded bench facing a stand with a metal ball divided vertically by a black line.

"This is the hemispherically resolved radiation profile test. Inside the metal ball is a piece of radioactive yttrium which emits very low energy beta particles in a spherically uniform pattern. Each half of the sphere is a radiation counter. Both sides receive the same number of particles per second to better than ninety-nine point nine-nine-nine percent accuracy. Fully half the people we run through these tests show some ability to shift the count to favor one side or the other."

Laum's eyes had begun to shine with pride. He threw a switch and two digital counters with red numbers below the hemisphere came to life. They read zero.

"Each counter monitors the total number of beta particles its side of the hemisphere receives minus what the other side receives. Here, try it." Laum pushed Mulder onto the bench. "There's no pattern to what technique works the best. Some people get results by concentrating on the sphere, others by looking at the counter. One of the highest scores was from a man who turned sideways and looked out the window. When we asked what he was thinking about he said he was wishing he was outside in the garden instead of stuck in the laboratory."

Mulder closed both eyes. His eyebrows pinched together in thought. Scully watched the counters: no change. He opened his eyes and stared at the right counter: still nothing. He flapped his arms like a bird. The counter on the left clicked up one count, then dropped back to zero.

Mulder shrugged. "Here's another test I failed."

Laum laid an arm on her shoulder. "Now it's your turn."

She held back.

"Come on, Scully," Mulder said. "It's all in the name of science."

Mulder stood and she reluctantly allowed Laum to guide her to the bench. "You should know that I don't believe in psychic ability."

"Good," Laum said. "Skeptics average a nineteen percent higher success rate than people who believe in the paranormal."

She focused on the left counter. It hiccuped one count up then dropped back to zero. She looked at the left hemisphere and imagined it was a magnet, attracting particles to it. Nothing happened.

Scully shook her head, mentally chiding herself. She recalled from basic physics that a straight magnetic field wouldn't pull a charged particle in, it would curve the trajectory ninety degrees to the right. She forgot about the test and wondered how to shape a field to drive beta particles to the left. Her undergraduate physics memories trickled back to her. She saw Professor Soliar's bony fingers twisting around themselves as he attempted to illustrate the right-hand-rule for electromagnetic vectors. She studied his fingers, imagined them replaced with magnetic field lines wrapping themselves around a tube extending left-to-right around the two hemispheres.

Scully's lips moved silently as she worked her way through the problem. She saw magnetic field lines above the sphere pointing toward her. In her mind's eye, beta particles flying radially outward curved left toward-

Mulder's hand touched her shoulder, startling her out of the revere. She looked up at him and felt her face warm with a blush. "Oh, sorry," she said. "I forgot about the test. I got carried away trying to figure out-"

"Scully," Mulder said. "Look at the counter."

She brought her eyes down to the test instrument. The glowing red numbers of the left counter read one hundred and ninety-seven.

 

 

15

 

Dressler Institute
Friday, 2:31 P.M.

 

Scully stared at the counter like it was a cobra ready to strike. A feeling of self-betrayal grew within her as she fought with her scientific training, which demanded she accept verifiable data, and the same training that had led her to believe that psychic forces did not exist.

Mulder's smirk didn't help. "I knew you had it in you, Scully."

"Don't read too much into those numbers," Laum said. "Half our subjects score close to one hundred. Yours isn't far enough out of line to be significant. To ascertain if you have any real potential the technicians would need to run you through the complete test sequence and baseline your ability." He nodded at the counter. "But, that is a good score. Perhaps when you're done with this case you'd care to come back?"

Scully bolted off the bench. "Thank you, no."

"That's a pity. You may have potential." Laum collected himself. "Well, that's the tour. These devices enable us to quantify an individual's psychic abilities. The blink and radiation tests were developed because the energy they require to cause an effect is small enough for psychic forces, as minute as they are, to affect them."

"Why use the card-guessing test at all?" Scully asked. "Compared to the others it's crude."

"It enables us to correlate results from the other two tests to the enormous body of work based on decades of card-guessing tests conducted by laboratories throughout the world." Laum's chin lifted in pride. "We've run over three thousand people through our test sequence and found that fully of them half exhibit some psychic ability."

The chin dropped back into place. "Unfortunately ninety-nine percent of those lose it with repeated testing. The few that retain their talent are erratic and demonstrate little or no control over it."

"What about the Kamps?" Mulder asked.

"The Kamps. Yes, well... they were exceptional."

"How exceptional?"

"Incredibly so. Both scored forty-seven correct guesses on the card-guessing test. When Henrietta saw the cards first, Grady's score increased to eighty-five percent."

Mulder grinned. "I thought you said you didn't go in for mind-reading experiments."

Laum scowled. "It was a bootleg test performed by a technician who's no longer with us."

"How about the flashing-light test?"

"Henrietta regularly skewed the count by one hundred and fifty. Grady slightly less."

Scully stepped closer. "And the beta particle counter?"

"They both ran it up over a thousand. More important than the test scores was the fact that their abilities improved with practice. There's no telling what they would have accomplished if they'd decided to undertake the development program I designed for them."

"I find it hard to believe they weren't interested." Mulder said.

Laum nodded towards the laboratory's exit. "Let's go back to my office." He led them back to his office where they clustered at one end of the conference table.

Laum studied his laced fingers. "All this happened last year. Henrietta Kamp contacted me after Life Magazine ran an article about my research on lucid dreaming, another area exploited by the institute. Are you familiar with the concept?"

They nodded.

"It's not psychic research but there was so much hype on it in the papers at the time that management accepted my proposal to look into the subject. Everything worked out well. The project cost the institute minimal investment and got us considerable publicity after the spin-doctors in marketing worked on it. That resulted in the Life article, which Henrietta read. When she called me for a consultation, I explained I had since returned to psychic research and that I didn't teach classes or give private instruction in lucid dreaming. Normally I would've rung off but there was such desperation, bordering on terror, in her voice that it kept me on the line. After ten minutes of talking to her I knew something wrong. She repeatedly demonstrated speech patterns consistent with suicidal tendencies. I pretended to agree to her request so I could see her in person to convince her to get help. She showed up three days later. Grady was with her."

Laum stood and began pacing. "Mr. Kamp was mad, in both meanings of the word. He publicly berated Henrietta for coming to see me, called her stupid and idiot, and other, more abusive things. He kept telling her to shut up. His abuse wasn't just verbal. She wore heavy make-up trying to hide two bruises on her face. It didn't work. Kamp carried on about the trip being a waste of time and money. Henrietta cowered and refused to say a word. The situation was hopeless."

"If Grady was so obstinate," Scully asked, "how did you get him to take your tests?"

"Blind luck. He'd cornered me with one of his tirades when a technician entered with printouts of the latest test results. Grady insisted on knowing what was important enough to warrant interrupting a meeting he'd come so far to attend. I explained and he turned his attitude completely around. All of a sudden I was the greatest guy in the world and he begged me to let him see the lab. I saw my opportunity and asked the technician to give him the tour. With Grady gone, Henrietta blossomed."

Scully moved forward to the edge of her chair. "Blossomed?"

"Precisely. Away from Grady she became a relaxed, confident woman. A real pleasure to be with. While she talked about her interest in lucid dreaming, I listened between the lines. She'd always wanted a baby but it was physically impossible for her. She thought lucid dreaming might be a way for her experience some of the joys of having a child of her own."

"What else did you learn about her?" Scully asked.

"She was a twenty-year victim of the cruelest physical and mental abuse imaginable. Grady beat her constantly. He even had a system where he'd only injure one part of her body at a time so it would heal by the time he worked his way back to it. As if that wasn't enough, he verbally degraded her every second of the day."

"Why did she put up with it?" Mulder asked.

Laum shook his head. "I have no idea. What's even stranger is why she would marry him in the first place when she knew what he was like from the beginning."

"What?" Scully asked.

"Grady roughed her up on their first date. Not lightly either. I checked up on him after the meeting. Kamp had a lifetime history of violence. He'd been arrested a dozen times and implicated in three murders. Somehow he always managed to avoid prosecution." Laum shrugged. "I never found out why she married or stayed with him. They were married within two weeks of their first meeting."

"How did they meet?" Mulder asked.

Laum's shoulders sagged. His eyes flitted back and forth between the two agents. "I'm almost afraid to tell you. Henrietta Patinski, her maiden name, was a mentalist in a circus. Grady was a roustabout who wandered into camp one day looking for work."

"A mentalist." Scully repeated flatly.

Laum sighed. "That's right, something I just tried convincing you doesn't exist. She told me he caught her act one day while he was dodging a work detail. In spite of his violent behavior she found him irresistible. Henrietta said she could feel a strong psychic force within him. Gibberish, of course, but she believed it. Her plan was to train him, help Grady realize his potential. I'd have laughed if the technician hadn't burst into the office just then. He said Grady insisted on challenging our tests and was blowing the needles off the dials."

"That's when you tested Mrs. Kamp?" Mulder asked.

"Right. Her scores were even higher than Grady's, four standard deviations above average. Then it happened."

"Grady reverted." Scully said.

Laum nodded gravely. "With a vengeance. I'd struck a deal with Henrietta; she'd get her lucid dream instruction in return for submitting to additional psychic tests. I had just put my hand on her shoulder by way of saying thank you and Grady went berserk. He exploded, screaming, threatening and even going so far as taking a swing at me. He grabbed Henrietta by the arm and dragged her out. I never saw them again."

"Yet she received guidance from you." Scully said.

"Over the phone. I didn't have the heart to refuse her. Besides, I thought her lucid dreaming might help her deal with the terror of living with Kamp."

"Dr. Laum," Scully said. "When we went through the Kamp's house we found they both kept LD logs. How did Grady Kamp get involved."

"Grady found out somehow, probably by overhearing one of our calls. He couldn't stand her doing something he couldn't control. She told me he made her recite all my directions to him. At first things went okay. The Kamps made outstanding, even phenomenal progress. Their lucid dreaming rate topped eighty-percent by the end of the first month. Then I realized what I'd failed to see."

Mulder spoke up. "Grady wanted to learn lucid dreaming so he could abuse Henrietta in their dreams as well as when they were awake."

Scully and Laum gapped.

Mulder spread his hands. "It's obvious. Grady was a strong psychic and could probably read her mind."

Laum raised up.

Mulder cut him off before he could object. "I know. That's impossible and your research proves it. But remember what the Kamps did to your tests."

Laum slumped.

Mulder's lips tightened. "Grady recognized the potential of lucid dreaming. He'd be able to create a world where he could hurt as many people as he wanted and not worry about punishment. He wouldn't have to hold himself back when he felt like beating Henrietta."

Laum's voice took on a weary note. "You're right. The prospect terrified Henrietta and not just for herself."

"Who else was there?" Scully asked.

"Her baby. Two months into the program they'd succeeded in establishing the first continuous lucid dream where they were able to maintain continuity from one REM cycle to another and from one night to the next. They were building two dream worlds, one for Henrietta to escape into, and another for Grady to rule. That's when she started talking about having a baby. I think she was desperate to have something to love and not hurt her. I argued against it."

"Why?" Mulder asked.

"The Kamps weren't kids. Lucid dreaming takes energy and I feared it would be too much for her. I guess I was right."

"Did she go through with the delivery?" Scully asked.

"I never found out. They died the night she said she was going to attempt it."

"You tried to call them?" Mulder asked.

"All night. I wanted to dissuade her from making the attempt. They never answered. I made a pain of myself to the local police until they finally sent someone over. It was too late."

"So," Scully said. "You believe the mental strain of attempting to have a baby was too much for her."

Dr. Laum pursed his lips.

"Doctor?"

"No. I don't think that's what killed her."

"Killed? As opposed to died?" Mulder asked.

Laum sighed. "Yes. Killed, not died."

"Are you saying that Grady Kamp killed his wife?" Scully asked. "There's no forensic evidence to support such a hypotheses."

Laum picked at a fingernail.

"What I think he means, Scully, is that Grady Kamp murdered Henrietta while they were psychically linked in the dream state."

Laum looked up. "Not quite. Henrietta said Grady continually tried to invade her dreams. She told me she could feel his presence closing in. It filled her with such terror she said she had an uncontrollable urge to run. I think he tried again that night and the strain of fighting him off, maintaining the lucid dream, and her failing in the birth attempt was too great for her."

"Why do you assume the attempt to give birth failed?" Mulder asked.

"Dreams are based on memories. Henrietta couldn't have children so she didn't have an experience-base in childbirth to create the birth-scene in her mind. Without enough detail, the structure of the dream would be unstable. It would fold like the proverbial house of cards."

"The value of lucid dreaming is that it empowers you to face your fears without the risk of injury," Scully said. "Why didn't she face up to Grady in her dreams?"

"Twenty years of abuse conditioned her to fear Grady so much she couldn't resist him, even in a dream. Given enough time, and isolation from Grady, dream therapy might have helped her but as things were.... "

"I see," Scully said. "As it was, once Grady discovered how to invade her dreams she was in a worse situation than before."

"Exactly."

"Doctor, if Henrietta was afraid of Grady entering into her dreams, why did she want to have the baby? Wouldn't that expose it to Grady's abuse?" Scully asked.

"She had wanted a child for so many years she couldn't give the idea up, even in the face of that threat."

Scully leaned back in her chair. She shifted her gaze from Laum to Mulder. "All of this is interesting but how does it help our case?"

Mulder stood up. "It solves it."

He shook Laum's hand. "Thank you for your help. We'll let you get back to your work. Scully?" He gestured with his left hand toward the door.

Scully pushed herself out of the chair. "Thank you, Dr. Laum."

He smiled at her. "The pleasure was mine. Come back anytime if you change your mind about taking our tests. We're always in need of positive subjects."

Scully walked out of the office without comment.

 

She caught up with Mulder as he was pushing his way through the hallway door to the outside. Her hand hooked his arm and brought him around. "You said Laum solved the case for us. Care to share that solution with your partner?"

Mulder's eyes shone with an inner heat. "Grady succeeded in entering Henrietta's dream."

"You believe Grady attacked and killed her by force of psychic will."

He shook his head slowly. "No. I don't think Grady killed his wife. I'll go even further: it was never his plan to kill her."

"He continually abused her."

"Yes, but carefully. Remember that she survived twenty years with him. If he hadn't been careful, a fatal accident would have happened long ago. Grady valued his wife. She was the vehicle for his sadistic pleasure. I'm certain he tried to invade her dreams, but his purpose was to inflict pain, not death."

She gave him a studious look and then asked slowly: "if you don't think Grady killed her, then are you accepting Dr. Laum's theory that she died from the strain of failing to give birth?"

He stepped close. "No."

"Then what?"

"The strain of success."

 

 

16

 

Annati Residence
Yardley, Nebraska
Friday, 3:47 P.M.

 

"Granny? Granny!"

The old woman opened her eyes. "What? Oh, it's you Gemma."

An eight-year-old girl with long, raven-black hair was tugging at the woman's sleeve. "You were asleep, Granny. Did I surprise you?"

Alonsa Annati leaned forward in her rocker and scooped her granddaughter up into her arms. She pressed her wrinkled lips against the child's cheek with a loud smack. "You sure did. I thought I'd take a little nap. Old people don't sleep so well at night and afternoon naps help."

"I didn't sleep good last night either. Does that mean I'm getting old?"

The woman smiled. "Well, you're making progress but it takes a lot of time to make it as far as I have." She let the little girl slide down her leg to the floor and pushed herself out of the chair. "How about a snack?"

"Great!"

"Let's go in the kitchen and see what I can find."

Gemma tore off toward the swinging door to the kitchen. She flung herself into it with two small hands stretched out in front of her. The door exploded inward and smashed into the kitchen wall.

"Gemma!"

The little girl hung her head and worked up the best pout she could muster. Alonsa Annati recognized her granddaughter's attempt to act contrite for what it was. "Gemma, you know you're not supposed to slam doors."

"Sorry, Granny." She sniffed for effect.

"Well, that's all right. Don't cry. Just try a little harder to remember next time."

Gemma beamed up at her grandmother. "Yes, Granny. I will. I promise."

Alonsa Annati was wise to her granddaughter's manipulations, and approved. She knew from long experience women needed many weapons to survive in the world. The sooner Gemma learned to extract sympathy, forgiveness, or whatever was required to get what she needed, the better off she'd be when she grew up.

Gemma strutted into the kitchen ahead of her grandmother. Mrs. Annati saw her jerk like her toe caught on something and tumble forward into the edge of the sink.

"Dios mio!" Mrs. Annati screamed and rushed forward help Gemma up.

The girl was already back on her feet by the time her grandmother reached her. She rubbed a small bump on her forehead with the palm of her hand.

Mrs. Annati knelt down to enfold the child in her arms. "Oh, Gemma. Are you all right?"

"Sure, Granny. I just-"

The light of opportunity dawned in the little girl's eyes. "I mean, no. I hurt my head! See?"

Mrs. Annati looked into the girl's eyes for signs of real distress. There were none. She smiled faintly. "Oh, that doesn't look too bad. Will a cookie help?"

"Maybe two?"

"Two it is. Go sit down."

While Gemma climbed up onto one of the kitchen dinette's chairs, the old woman took two cookies from a jar on the counter and placed them on a large plate. She transferred the tray to her right hand and grabbed half a dozen more cookies with her left and hid them in her apron pocket. She walked over to where Gemma sat and placed the plate in front of her.

Gemma looked down at the cookies. "Only two? I thought it was two extra."

Mrs. Annati saw real tears well up in the corners of Gemma's brown eyes. The old woman's smile broadened. For all Gemma's manipulations, she was a good girl at heart. Her grandmother kissed her on the forehead and said, "That's right, maybe I did say two extra. Here's the rest," and opened her left hand over the plate. Cookies rained down to the little girl's delight.

Gemma clapped her hands to her cheeks. "All for me?"

"All for you. Milk?"

"Yes, please."

Mrs. Annati poured a glass of milk and handed it to the girl. She got herself a cup of coffee. On her way back to the table she ran the toe of her shoe over the area where Gemma tripped. It didn't catch on anything.

"Gemma?"

"Yeah?"

Mrs. Annati gave her granddaughter a cold hard stare. Manipulation was one thing, poor grammar was not tolerated.

Gemma knew this. "Sorry. Yes, ma'am?"

Alonsa's look softened. "That's better. What did you trip on?"

"Don't know. I can't remember if I tripped or slipped. Why?"

"I just wondered."

"It happened at school, too."

Her grandmother eased into the chair across the table. "Oh?"

"Well, sort of. I was running around during recess and ran into a tether-ball pole. All the kids laughed."

"Did you hurt yourself?" Mrs. Annati got up and walked toward the cookie jar.

"No. Not really."

She took out another cookie. "Well then, here's a reward for your bravery."

The girl took the cookie in both hands. "Thanks. The kids said I was clumsy." The girl looked up at her grandmother with questioning eyes. "What's clumsy?"

"Clumsy means you run into things and fall a lot. Do you do that?"

"No. Maybe a little. Just today. Is spilling paint clumsy?"

"It can be. Did you?"

"Yea- I mean, yes."

"Don't worry about it. We all have bad days."

Gemma nodded and applied herself to the cookies.

 

 

The front door slammed. "Gemma? Mom?" a man's voice called out.

"In the kitchen, Son."

The kitchen door swung in as Antonio Annati pushed it open with a soiled hand.

"Daddy!" Gemma launched herself into her father's arms.

He kissed both her checks and forced a smile for her. "How's my sunshine today?"

"Clumsy."

He wrinkled a brow at his mother.

"She ran into something at school and the kids called her that, so I explained what it means. Now I think she's going to make it her word for the day. You look tired, son."

His weak smile collapsed into a frown. "Old man Dell's steers got into our fields again. Didn't eat much but stomped a quarter of an acre flat."

"Mr. Dell's always paid for the damage in the past."

"That's not the problem. It's the hassle of herding them back and shoring up the fence to keep them out. I wish he'd put in a good fence. God, I hate those animals."

"Let me get you some coffee." She started to lever herself up.

"Thanks." Antonio Annati sank into a chair.

"I'll get it for you, Daddy!"

He smiled at his daughter. It wasn't forced this time. "Well thank you, ma'am." He watched her get a cup and saucer and carefully fill the cup to the brim. "You're getting to be quite the little lady, aren't you? Careful. It's hot."

"I can do it, Daddy."

After getting a cup and saucer and filling it with steaming coffee, Gemma placed a small pink hand on either side of the saucer and lifted it off the counter. With eyes glued on the dark liquid, she turned toward her father. "I won't spill a drop, Daddy. Watch me. Not a drop."

"I know you won't, honey."

Her feet tapped forward an inch at a time. Her left hand jerked; a steaming rivulet rattle-snaked down the outside of the cup. She looked up in disappointment.

"Doesn't count," he said. "Happens to everyone. That's why we use saucers."

She nodded. A second, larger rivulet flowed down the other side. She took another step.

"You're doing great, Gemma," Mrs. Annati said. "Only two more steps."

Gemma's left hand jerked again. Coffee splashed over the edge of the cup but was caught by the saucer. She tilted it so the hot liquid wouldn't touch her fingers, went too far, more coffee went over the side of the cup and sloshed over the fingers of her right hand. She screamed and dropped the cup. It shattered, showering the girl with boiling coffee and shards of glass.

The little girl wailed in pain.

Antonio and Alonsa jumped toward her.

"Gemma!" her father cried taking her in his arms. "Oh, Gemma!"

 

 

"How is she?" Antonio asked.

"Asleep." Alonsa Annati said. Antonio's mother tried to support herself on jittery arms as she slumped into her rocker. They gave out halfway down and she fell heavily into the chair.

"You okay, Mom?"

"Just a little shaky with worry, I guess. Little girls shouldn't get hurt. It's not right."

"She's had a rough day."

"You don't know the half of it, Son."

"Oh?"

"Gemma's been tripping and dropping things all day long. If I didn't know any better I'd swear-" Alonsa Annati's eyes snapped open wide, staring. "Antonio!"

Her son's eyes rounded, then relaxed slightly but worry still haunted them. "No, Mom. She's to young to be affected by whatever's going on in town."

The old woman's hands shook. "But what if-"

"Forget it. Besides, all the deaths occurred in town. We're safe out here."

"You don't know that."

"Gemma will be fine, trust me." He looked towards his daughter's door. "Still, maybe we should keep an eye on her until tomorrow."

Mrs. Annati sagged deeper into her chair and covered her eyes with an age-spotted hand.

"Did you take that nap you promised me this morning?"

"A little."

He walked over and touched his fingers to her shoulder. "Mom, you know you need-"

"Don't fuss at me, Antonio. I'm okay."

"I shouldn't have let her get the coffee."

"Yes, you should have. She has to learn how to be careful. Today was as good a time as any. She'll be fine and next time she'll remember not to fill the cup so full. Now, go wash up. I'll get dinner."

"You're beat, Mom."

She pried herself out of the rocker and smiled at him. "I've been tired since the day you were born. Now do as your mother says."

Antonio grinned. "Yes, Ma'am," and walked into the rear of the house.

Alonsa dragged herself into the kitchen and sighed, wishing once again her daughter-in-law hadn't run off a week after Gemma had been born. Alonsa never liked her much, but could have used the help in the kitchen. She opened a cupboard and a package of spaghetti stared out at her. She'd cooked pasta for her father, her husband and now her son, for sixty years. She sneered at the pasta. Italian customs be hanged, I'm sick of you.

Her hand closed on a can of beef stew. "That's more like it... and some dumplings, I think." Her eyes caught a movement out the window. A bull the size of a dump truck stood in the middle of her vegetable garden. She threw the window sash up and yelled at it. "Git! Go away!"

The beast snorted and bent its head down to the ground. When it straightened she saw it chewing on one of her prize cabbages.

"Antonio! Anto-" She gave up. The sounds of his running water blocked her voice.

She turned to get her son and froze, blinking to clear a black veil that swept up and clouded her vision. With the can of stew still gripped in her hand, she walked out the rear door and stepped onto the back porch. The bull halted it's chewing to stare at her. She stepped off the porch. The animal lowered its massive head, the afternoon sun glistening wetly off its horns. Mrs. Annati threw the can at the beast, hitting it on the right shoulder. He dug a hoof into the ground and snorted through damp nostrils. Alonsa Annati leaped off the porch and hurled herself at the bull.

 

 

17

 

Dixon, Nebraska
Friday, 4:08 P.M.

 

Mulder threw the keys to Scully over the top of the car. "Your turn to drive. I need to think."

Scully slipped behind the wheel as Mulder piled into the passenger's seat. She started the engine and drove out of the institute's parking lot. Once in traffic, she glanced over at Mulder. His stare indicated he was somewhere else. "What did you mean when you said Henrietta Kamp died from the strain of success?"

His distant gaze didn't change. "I believe she had her baby."

"And that strain killed her the same way some women die from real childbirth?"

"Not quite. I believe what she gave birth to killed her."

Scully felt her fingers involuntarily tighten their grip on the wheel. "What she gave birth to? Mulder, it was a dream. She didn't have a baby. She didn't have any physical stress from a delivery. Nothing really happened!"

"But what if-"

"Even if she did, how could a baby hurt anyone?"

Mulder's eyes pulled back to reality as he flashed her a mischievous smile. "You're going to have to cut me a little more slack than usual on this one."

She forced her grip on the steering wheel to relax. "Let me have it."

His smile faded. "I think Henrietta Kamp experienced a real delivery and that a real, live baby was born. A baby, or at least an entity, that's purely psychic in nature, a creation of her psychic abilities."

Scully kept her eyes locked on the road. "And?"

"This entity wasn't merely an extension of her own consciousness, it wasn't part of her dream. It had it's own consciousness. It existed independent of her."

"How did it kill her?"

"Like most babies its first instinct was to feed. It's reasonable that a psychic being would hunger for psychic energy."

Scully raised an eyebrow.

Mulder ignored the gesture. "It nursed on Henrietta's life force until there was nothing left. Then it turned on Grady. When she died this psychic child attacked him with the same deadly result. It explains how they both died at the same time."

"You're saying a newborn psychic infant cannibalized both of its parents before embarking on a murder spree that has crossed half the state of Nebraska?"

His smile returned. "I suppose it sounds a little bizarre when you sum it up in one breath, but yes."

Scully drove onto the shoulder and braked, pebbles showered up into the fenders as. She took three slow, measured breaths. Her first instinct was to attack his theory but the image of the perfectly straight black line on the map haunted her. No logical reasoning could make it go away. It was a fact and she respected facts, regardless of their consequences. She turned to face him. "Is this one of those cases where we have to follow your gut feeling?"

Mulder nodded, his eyes tense in anticipation of her reaction.

She puffed out a sharp breath. "I'm willing to go along with you for the moment but you know that Skinner will burn us if that gut of yours is wrong."

Mulder flashed her a boyish smile. "Life on the edge, Scully. If you didn't want it you shouldn't have joined the bureau."

She shook her head. "Now he tells me."

Scully put the car in gear and drove off. "Where to now?"

"Back to-" Mulder's cell phone buzzed for attention. He flipped the microphone cover down and put it to his ear. "Yes? How long ago? What was the address? Okay, thanks. We'll be there as soon as possible." He folded the phone and slipped it back into his coat pocket. "That was Harshaw."

Scully's expression grew hard. "Number twenty-six?"

"A woman named Alonsa Annati convinced a bull to gore her; she died fifteen minutes ago in the hospital. Mrs. Annati left behind a divorced son and his daughter. Mulder shook out the map and studied the uppermost extent of the black line. "Her home location fits the pattern."

"Back to Yardley?"

He nodded. "That's where the action is."

 

 

They returned the rental car. The next shuttle bus to the airport left in ten minutes. They waited outside, hiding under the bus parking stall from the swelter of the sun. Scully dabbed a handkerchief at the perspiration dripping down a temple. "If this entity killed the Kamps by sucking their life force out of them why haven't all the other victims also died in their sleep?"

Mulder shrugged. "It must have learned that doing so endangered it's own life. If the host died, the entity might die with its victim. The description of the nonfatal accidents indicates they were caused when the entity interfered with the victim's senses. As if it tried to take over but couldn't make it. Instead, the host's sight, balance, whatever, got confused, which caused the accident."

"How do you explain the fatal accidents? If this thing learned it was dangerous to be inside someone when they died, why would it endanger its host?"

"Well-"

"And where does this thing go between hosts? Does it float around in some kind of psychic ether waiting for a chance to inhabit someone else?"

"It could be that-"

"Another thing-"

Mulder raised his hands in a helpless gesture. "You win, Scully. I admit I don't have all the answers but this theory is still the best explanation we have. Thanks to Dr. Laum, we have scientific support for my theory, at least as far as the existence of psychic power is concerned. That's more then we usually have."

She pursed her lips and wished she could quit thinking about that straight line.

A white shuttle bus splattered with road grit drove into the stall. Scully winced against the dust cloud it sent billowing toward her. "You still haven't explained why half of the victims kill themselves and the other half just have accidents."

Mulder hefted up his bags and sidled close to the bus's door. It folded open and as he stepped onto the vehicle's landing, he glanced back at her; darkness clouded his expression. "I can't, Scully. And that's got me worried."

 

 

18

 

Eppley Airfield
Friday, 5:17 P.M.

 

The line into the airplane bumped three feet forward and jarred to a halt. Scully leaned over to see the front of the line. An obese man with too many carry-ons had jammed the aircraft's hatch. Two flight attendants were tugging at his bags but he refused to let go of them. She straightened and came eye to eye with a ten-year old boy grinning at her like she was a midget in a circus. Scully sighed and twisted around to try and spot Mulder, but he was hidden somewhere in the crowd behind her.

The stuck passenger finally managed to pop through the hatch with the help of a burly flight attendant. The line sighed with relief and inched forward in jerky spurts.

 

The attendant looked at Scully's ticket without glancing up. "34A? Far aisle, all the way back."

"Thank you," Scully said without enthusiasm and shuffled down the aisle. Her nose prickled at the odor of too many bodies in too small a space. A gridlock of people blocked her way. She waited while the crowd made bustling noises as they looked for seats, stored luggage and stretched one last time before the long confinement of the flight. One by one they dropped down into their places. The aisle finally opened up enough for her to squeeze through. When she reached her seat, a man built like a telephone booth had already claimed it. Even sitting, his head was even with hers. She didn't feel like a fight.

Scully hefted her suitcase into the overhead and turned her back to the man in her seat. She removed her navy-blue blazer and stood for a minute looking around for someplace to put it, being careful to take enough time to insure he got a good look at the chrome-plated 9-millimeter clipped to her waistband. She decided there was no place to hang the blazer and put it back on. She turned around to face him. "I'll sorry," she said. "I believe that's my seat."

His face blanched. "Oh, yes. I'm sure it is. Here," he lumbered up and squinted at his ticket. "Ah, you're right. My mistake. I'm in 34F. The other end of the plane. Excuse me." He vanished.

Scully fell into the still-warm seat, closed her eyes, and waited for the world to go away.

Something jostled her leg. She opened her eyes to see the woman who'd been in the window seat trying to edge by without notice. The lady froze like someone caught steaming open a letter.

The woman's lips trembled. "Sorry, restroom."

Scully angled her knees so the woman could squeak by. She never returned. Scully closed her eyes again.

The loudspeaker jerked her back to uncomfortable reality. "Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. This is Captain Jason MacIntyer. I'm your pilot for Air Nebraska flight 1673, service from Omaha to Norfolk and continuing on to Denver. Air Nebraska thanks you for choosing us as your carrier. Unfortunately I have to report there'll be a slight delay before we can depart. One of our competitors blew a tire on the runway and it'll be ten minutes before they can be moved. As soon as they do, we'll take off. Again, thank you for flying Air Nebraska."

Scully shifted to the window seat. The injured airplane wasn't visible. She closed her eyes.

The seat next to her flexed. "How's it going?"

She opened one eye, saw Mulder, and closed it again. "Great, just great."

"You look terrible."

She surrendered to the cruelty of fate and opened her eyes. "Thanks."

He offered her a placating smile. "I didn't mean-"

"Drop it. By the way, did we really have to fly into Norfolk instead of Grand Island? The shuttle flight we had coming out of there was better than this."

"Flying into Norfolk cuts the drive to Yardley in half."

"Right now that doesn't seem like a good enough reason to me. Now go away. I'm going to try and get some sleep."

Mulder plucked the air phone from its cradle in the chair in front of her. "I wonder why they have these things yet tell us we can't use our cell phones?"

"Mulder-"

He grinned. "Why am I getting the impression you want to be left alone."

She closed her eyes. "Please?"

"I'll check back later."

"Much later."

"No, that's okay. Don't get up. I can find my own way." Mulder snapped the phone back into place and sauntered away up the aisle.

Scully glanced around the cabin. A third of the seats were empty, making her wonder why the ticket agent said two seats together weren't available. She leaned back and closed her eyes. It was better this way. Mulder's exuberance for airplanes sometimes wore her raw. Something bumped the plane. It started a slow roll forward.

The overhead speaker came alive.  "This is your captain again. We're cleared for takeoff. We anticipate a six-thirty landing at Norfolk. Thank you for your patience."

The engines rumbled, pushing the 737 along the tarmac. The plane turned sharp right at the same time the engines crescendoed. Acceleration pushed her deep into the cushions and the cabin tilted as the plane surged into the air. She closed her eyes. The engine's whine lulled her to semi-consciousness. Tension drained from her limbs as the flight air-conditioning came to life sending cool drafts over her.

A siren screamed inches from her face.

Scully's grabbed her armrests with white-knuckled intensity. Images of autopsies she'd performed on burn victims flashed past her eyes. The alarm went off again with startling closeness. Her forehead wrinkled; the siren didn't sound right. Scully looked around the cabin. Everyone was staring at her.

The alarm sounded a third time, directly in front of her. She pulled her focus in and saw the air phone. It rang a forth time. Scully forced her right hand to release its death grip on the armrest and unlock the phone from its cradle. "Hello?"

"Is that you, Scully?" Mulder's voice said. "This is great! I've always wondered if it's possible to call phone to phone on the same plane. I got your number earlier."

"Mulder-"

"Would you believe it? The operator had to patch us through a relay station back in Omaha. I wonder-"

Scully slammed the phone back into its cradle. She leaned over to look out the window, afraid to close her eyes again out of fear of what it might bring. Omaha slipped passed her view. The city gave way to suburbs and in a few minutes, they surrendered to farms. Her thoughts calmed and began drifting idly as she watched the changing landscape.

An ant-sized car turned off a narrow road onto the driveway of a farmhouse. The altitude was too great to see the man climb out of the car and walk into the house but Scully could imagine him entering the back door. His wife would be in the kitchen. She'd give him a hug, a kiss and send him away to wash for dinner. Children would be playing in the back yard. Scully knew the same thing happened every night in millions homes across the country. She wondered if it would ever happen to-

"Scully?" Mulder's voice cut off her thoughts.

She shook herself. "Oh, Mulder."

He slid by her knees and fell into the window seat. "What's wrong."

"Nothing." She shrugged. "I'm just tired."

He searched her eyes. "No, I don't think that's it. I've seen you tired and this isn't the same. Something's bothering you."

Scully looked out the window, spotted another house, then looked away.

"Is it the case?" Mulder asked. "We've handled worse."

"It's not the case. At least, not directly"

"So, what is it, indirectly."

She looked away. "You wouldn't understand."

He placed a hand on her forearm, bringing her back. "Try me."

Scully faced forward. "It's Mrs. Kamp."

Mulder's eyebrows came together. "Her life was tragic but-"

"That's not it."

"Well?"

Scully threw Mulder a quick glance. "In spite of Henrietta's fear of Grady and the danger Dr. Laum warned her about, she still wanted a baby. She risked everything just for the illusion of a child of her own."

"Feeling maternal?"

She glared at him.

Mulder's eyes didn't falter under her stare.

Scully's expression eased and she nodded faintly. "I am a healthy, well adjusted, thirty-six year old woman who's never given birth. Of course I feel maternal. I'd need counseling if I didn't." She gazed out the window again. "But it's more than that."

Mulder nodded. "A baby is a symbol for a life style you're beginning to realize you may never have."

She looked back at him. "You surprise me."

He pulled back, mock surprise on his face. "Why? You think I'm incapable of tender emotions?"

"You seldom talk about them."

"Our profession isn't conducive to it. I think about having a family from time to time, too."

"Two surprises in as many minutes. I'm impressed. And?"

"And nothing. I think about it. That's all. My life's so full there's no time for more than what I already have."

"The FBI is enough for you?"

His expression became serious. "The X-Files are."

Scully shook her head. "The bureau's not enough for me. The FBI keeps me busy, but it's not fulfilling. Besides, time is slipping away."

Mulder broke out a smile. "That's right, your clock runs faster than mine."

She felt a smile tickle the corners of her mouth. "I'll thank you to keep your sexist remarks to yourself."

He smiled back. "Simple fact of nature. A woman's biological clock runs on a shorter spring than a man's."

"Your attempts to comfort me aren't working."

His smile faded. "You want a child of your own?"

Something clouded her eyes. "Yes. No. I don't know. I want something, something more than what I have. I think I want a real life; a house with rose bushes, a mortgage, husband, children. I'm not getting any closer to it sitting in this plane with a gun clipped to my waist."

Mulder's attempt at a flippant smile had a fragile edge to it. "Does this mean you'll be handing in your letter of resignation tomorrow?"

Scully stared at him without flinching. "No... not tomorrow."

 

 

19

 

 

Jamison Residence
Yardley, Nebraska
Friday, 7:02 P.M.

 

"Is that them, Bobby?" Pamela Jamison yelled from her bedroom.

"No," her young brother screamed as his eight-year-old legs pumped madly, driving him up the stairs. "It's only old Mr. Williams pulling into his driveway." He peeked around the edge of his sister's bedroom door and stared at her in her slip. "Can I watch?"

She whirled around. "Get out of here you little creep."

Robert grinned and scuttled backwards as she kicked the door closed. He crawled over to the stairs on his hands and knees.

"When did Mom and Dad say they'd be back?" she called through the door. "They should have finished by now."

"All they said was sometime after Dad got off work. If you're so interested come down and keep watch yourself."

"Can't. I've got to get ready."

He traced the carpeting's pattern with a finger. "I don't know why you're so excited. You know Dad. He'll get something practical. He always does."

"Mom told me three sensible cars in a row was enough. She wanted something fun for a change. If Dad wants practical, he can drive the station."

His head came up defiantly. "I like our car."

"You would."

"Why are you getting all fixed up, Pammy? Do you really think they're going to let you take the car out the first night it's home?"

"Mom said I could."

Robert slid three steps down the stairs and stopped, his elbows braced on the landing. "What did Dad say?"

The mysterious bottle-clinkings from her room stopped. "Well... he didn't say no."

Robert smirked.

"Go down and keep watch for me, Bobby. Please."

"You know I don't like to be called Bobby. That's a kid's name."

"So? You're a kid."

"I'm eight. In Los Angeles people my age are dealing drugs and shooting people."

"And to think that just last week you wanted to join the circus. Thinking of a career change?"

"Very funny."

"All right then, Robert. Please keep watch for me."

He huffed and crossed his arms. "Robert's worse. Aunt Mildred calls me Robert and she's got a wart on her nose."

"What do I have to call you to get you to go down stairs?"

Robert considered the tension building in her voice. He figured he could push it another minute. "I like Bob."

"Bob? That sounds like a car mechanic."

He laced his fingers behind his head and rested his neck against the top step.

"Are you still there, Bobby?"

"Who?"

"All right, Bob. Now will you keep watch?"

He got up and strutted down the stairs. "I'll think about it."

The boy parked himself on the living room's sofa a gazed out at the street. A mischievous grin lit his face. He started counting. When he reached one hundred he let out a whoop. "They're here! They're here! Pammy, come-on, come-on! It's beautiful!"

"They can't be," she cried. "I'm not ready."

Robert's smile widened at the muffled sounds of her scrambling around in her room. Half a minute later her door flew open and Pamela Jamison careened down the stairs with her face half covered in a white mohair sweater; a long tress of her strawberry-blonde hair dangled out of the collar, which had hung up on a hairpin. The sweater and hair had gotten twisted into a tangle by her attempts to straighten them.

She dashed to the window, her right eye ogling around trying to see past the edge of the sweater. "Where? I don't see them. Did they pull into the garage?"

Robert kept his face turned away. "Oh, uh... that was a mistake. Someone just used our driveway to turn around. Sorry."

"Sorry!" Pamela's muffled voice struggled through the thick folds of sweater covering her mouth. "You did that on purpose. If I ever get my hands on-"

"You won't have anyone to keep watch for you." He smiled innocently.

She halted her murderous advance. "Oh, just keep an eye for them and no more games."

"Pammy?"

"What!"

He pointed a finger at her waist. "You forgot your dress."

She craned her head forward to see over the edge of the bunched up sweater. The shimmering whiteness of her slip winked back at her.

"Oh... damn!" Pamela stomped back up the stairs.

Robert's smile stretched to his ears as he turned back toward the window.

 

Half an hour later a car slowed in front of the Jamison house. Robert's eyes widened. The car eased into the drive. "It can't be," he whispered and dashed toward the front door.

The driver raced the engine briefly before shutting it down. Helen and Bressler Jamison climbed out of a fire-engine-red Mustang, its white convertible top folded down.

Robert burst from the front door. "Mom! Dad! You did it! It's great. What's it called? Can I ride in it? How fast will it go? Where did you get it?"

Mr. Jamison dropped a calming hand on his son's shoulder. "To answer your questions; it's a Mustang, not now but soon, very fast, and we got it from the Ford dealership in the south end of town."

"Where's Pam?" his mother asked.

"Upstairs. Changing. Going to let her take it out tonight?"

Mr. Jamison glanced at his wife. "That's what your mother promised."

They strode inside. The older Jamisons wandered into the kitchen while Robert bounded up the stairs. "Pammy. They're really here. Come down and see what they got." He ran back down the stairs without waiting for her answer.

 

+++

 

Pamela Jamison stared at the mirror. She'd gotten the tangles out of her hair but worry darkened her expression.  Please, anything but a station wagon.

She straightened her back and walked stiff-legged out the door and down the stairs, her eyes cast low. She crossed the living room toward the window without looking up. Pamela raised her eyes, and felt her mouth gape at the car parked in the drive.

She wandered outside to stand by the Mustang; its brilliant red finish glistened wetly in the light from the setting sun. Her trembling fingers traced its mirror-smooth curves. She turned and ran inside toward the voices in the kitchen. Pamela fell into her mother's arms. "It's beautiful, Mom. Just beautiful."

"I'm glad you like it," her father said.

She broke away from her mother and hugged him. "I was afraid-"

"That your mom would insist on another station wagon? Well, this time I decided we needed something with a little more fun in it."

The women winked at each other.

"Bress?" Mrs. Jamison said.

"What? Oh, yes." His right hand rummaged in his pants pocket, jingling change and keys. "I suppose you'd like to borrow the key so you can try it out."

Pamela's hands came up close to her chin. "Yes, please. If I may."

The rattling stopped.

"Well I'm sorry, but you can't borrow our keys."

Pamela shot a stricken glance at her mother, who smiled back at her.

"You can't borrow our keys but... " he jerked his hand out of the pocket. A glittering something arced through the air towards her. She caught it instinctively. "You can use your own."

Pamela opened her hand. It held a golden key attached to an ebony fob embossed with a script letter P. She threw herself into his arms. "Oh, Dad. Thank you."

"Go on," her father urged. "Before the engine cools off. Get a jacket. Convertibles are windy and it's cooling fast."

Pamela Jamison hurried toward her room. She closed the door and gazed at the key, her face glowing. Her hands clinched into fists and drove upward over her head. "Yes!"

She jerked a white windbreaker on and glanced at the mirror to check her make-up. Her image fogged, like a black shroud suddenly shaded her eyes. She leaned closer. The image darkened.

"Pammy," her brother called from the doorway. "Can I ride along?"

She heard him distantly. Her lips mouthed words whispered in a harsh voice. "Red. Why red? They knew my favorite color was blue. And why a convertible? Are they stupid or something? Didn't they think about what it would do to my hair?"

Bobby studied her quizzically. "Pammy? Are you all right? Did you hear me?"

She turned on her little brother. "Of course I heard you, idiot. What do you want now?"

He looked into her eyes and stepped back. "I... I want to go with you."

"Go with me? You've got to be crazy to think I'd want a runt kid tagging along."

"But, Pammy-"

"And that's another thing. I've had it with you calling me Pammy. Now shut up and get out of here."

The boy backed away.

Pamela Jamison zipped the jacket closed with a violent tug, and blinked. The veil was gone. Her bright smile returned. She pushed at her hair one last time and laughed with the realization that after five minutes in the car it would be a mess no matter what she did with it.

Pamela bounced down the stairs. Robert slumped in an over-stuffed, brown recliner with his back to her. She tapped him on the top of his head. "Hey, squirt. Want to go for a ride? I'll buy us a snack someplace."

He jerked away. "No."

"No? Are you okay? Come on. Your big sister wants to treat you."

"I said no!" Robert ran into the kitchen.

Pamela took a step after him, then stopped, shaking her head. "Kids these days," she said toward the kitchen's still-swinging door. "You never know how they'll react." She raised her voice. "By everyone," she called out. "Thanks for the key. Back in a little while." Pamela strutted out the front door toward the new car, hoping the neighbors could see her.

Three feet from the car the veil rose up again. She blinked to clear her vision, caught her right toe on something, and pitched forward. Her hands pushed out automatically to break her fall. The palms struck the side of the car and slid down six inches. The gold key in her left hand gouged a deep scratch in the door's gleaming red paint. The veil lifted. Horror widened her eyes at the sudden appearance of the scratch. Then her brows came together. "I wonder if Mom and Dad knew that was there when they bought the car?"

Pamela shrugged and snuggled into the soft black leather of the driver's seat, warmed by the evening sun. The seat formed around her like the cupped palm of a giant's hand. She slipped the key into the ignition and twisted it. The engine purred to life.

She shifted into reverse, twisted around and lightly tapped the gas pedal. The car surged out of the drive. A quick pull on the wheel and it spun around to face down the street. She shifted to drive and squealed away down the street. Pamela headed east on Townsend, turned right onto Clamore and drove towards her school's football field. The varsity team was out for a late practice. She skidded to a stop on the street behind the field and wriggled up on her knees to wave at the boys.

Jim Edwards, enormous in his padding, waved back. Then he saw the car and his jaw hung. She let him jog to within ten feet of her before she plopped back down in the seat and raced off. Her sparkling laughter trailed after her. Daniel Culver was next.

"He drives that '56 Chevy around like he owns the world," she said to the wind whipping her hair about her head. "Wait until he sees this."

She reached Yardley's outskirts on her way to the Culver's farm. Houses in this area were all ranch-style affairs on acre-sized lots without curbs or sidewalks. The car sped on.

Pamela brushed futilely at her hair blown forward by air rushing around the windshield. A strand whipped into her left eye. The wheel jerked as her attention shifted to clear her vision. Tires bit into the pavement and she headed toward the side of the road. Pamela snapped the wheel back in line and the car straightened. She released the breath that had lodged in her throat. Telephone poles flashed by on the right as she leaned on the gas pedal. Pamela grinned with the abandon of impervious youth.

The countryside turned gray and she squinted in the sudden semi-darkness. Her foot continued pressing the pedal towards the floor. Her hands spasmed, twisting the wheel left. The side of the road rushed at her. She caught her breath and forced the car back in line. Blood pounded in her ears. The wheel jerked right. Wheels screeched as she over-corrected, then managed to guide the car back down the lane. Pamela looked at her hands as if they'd betrayed her.

She focused all her attention on the wheel, wondering if the steering was defective. Speed vibrations shook it in her hands, but the car ran true. She raced on another hundred yards. Her hands jerked right and locked. She saw it this time. It wasn't the car; she was doing it. The black veil clouding her vision made it hard to think but she knew something had forced her to turn the wheel. She gritted her teeth, pulled left. The car righted itself, then kept turning.

The Mustang headed toward the road's soft shoulder. Pamela strained to turn the wheel to the right. Her hands wouldn't move. She willed her foot off the accelerator. It wouldn't lift. A field of corn stalks suddenly rose up in front of her. Fear fed strength to her shoulders. She leaned her body to the right, dragging her arms after her. The wheel yielded. The car fishtailed back onto the road. She managed to steady it but couldn't halt its continued acceleration. Her hands snapped hard right. A deep culvert rushed at her. She wrestled the wheel left. Hot tires screeched on black asphalt.

A woman scratching at the dirt in a front-yard vegetable garden looked up. Pamela turned her head and screamed. "Help me! Something's... "

Before she could finish the car swerved again, back toward the corn field. The wheel wouldn't turn. She tugged in panic but her hands refused to move. She collided with the six-foot-high wall of green stalks. The car jolted over rough furrows as it carved a path through the corn. Stalks slapped the sides of the car. Leaves whipped inward, slashing her cheek. A furrow threw the car violently to the right. Her hands, still locked on the wheel, jerked it around. She headed back toward the road.

The Mustang erupted from the field in an explosion of green. The car headed down the road, gaining speed with every foot. The black veil closed in around her. Pamela relaxed in the darkness, suddenly unaware of her surroundings. The gas pedal slammed into the floor and held. She no longer fought the wheel.

The car topped ninety and gently curved to the right. Pamela's unfocused eyes stared unseeing at the telephone pole a block ahead. The car charged the pole with murderous intent. The girl jostled limply back and forth as it thundered onto the dirt shoulder. Two seconds away from the pole, the veil of darkness fell away from her. Pamela blinked, felt her eyes focus on a brown vertical object hurtling at her, and tensed as she realized what it was. The car disintegrated into the pole before she could scream.

 

 

20

 

 

Yardley Police Department
Saturday, 8:33 A.M.

 

Scully rapped on Sheriff Harshaw's door. She heard a muffled, "Come in," and pushed into the office with Mulder in tow.

Harshaw stood in front of his desk with his back turned to them.

"Good morning, Sheriff," Scully said.

Harshaw straightened and faced them. Resignation stared out of bloodshot eyes. "Your plan didn't work. My people are still dying."

She stepped forward. "How many?"

"One death and two accidents, one almost fatal."

Harshaw held out a trio of reports to her. The pages shook in his grip. She took the files and skimmed through them.

"Just one death?" Mulder asked.

Harshaw swung toward Mulder.

"What do you mean by just?"

Mulder backpedaled. "Nothing dismissive, sir. It's just that we've been gone two days. There should have been two fatalities."

"There almost was," Scully said. "A teenage girl named Pamela Jamison drove into a telephone pole at over one hundred miles per hour. If it hadn't been for the car's airbag she wouldn't have survived."

"Do you know this Pamela Jamison?" Mulder asked. "Is she the reckless type? Any history of accidents?"

"Pam's one of the nicest girls in Yardley. She was, is, part of the accident study team. No record. No difficulties. Good family. She's the last one I'd expect to drive carelessly or-"

"Attempt suicide?" Scully asked.

"Suicide? Certainly not. She'd have no reason. Pam's popular, gets good grades, no problems."

"Then why did she drive into the pole?" Scully asked.

Harshaw's arms hung limp at his sides. "I've no idea."

"I do," Mulder said.

Scully watched Mulder gingerly shake out his three-city map. The edges were starting to fray. "What are the home addresses of the victims, Scully?"

She read off the addresses, glancing up after each one to see where the Xs fell on the map. The addresses of the one death and one of the non-fatal accident victims lay on the deadly line that cut the state in half. The remaining address was far off to the side of the map. Mulder's right index finger stabbed at the topmost X on the line. "This is Pamela Jamison's home address. The order of nonfatal and fatal accidents indicates she should be dead. I think the entity made it's first mistake." He turned to the sheriff. "Is Pamela Jamison in condition to be interviewed?"

He nodded. "Just barely. But you'll have to get permission from her parents first. I'll call ahead to let them know you're coming."

"Thanks. We need to talk to them anyway." Mulder turned to Scully. "Shall we go?"

They headed out to their car. Scully got in behind the wheel.  "I saw that the Jamisons lived on the east side of town but didn't get the address."

Mulder fumbled with the map. "Turn left two blocks up."

At the indicated intersection she made a left turn. Mulder checked his notes and pointed to the third house on the right. Scully eased the car into the curb. They walked up the stairs to the porch and knocked on the front door.

The door opened. Scully and Mulder blinked at emptiness.

"Yeah?" a boy's voice at their feet asked.

They angled their heads down. A small boy with his head tilted back and cocked to one side looked up at them. Scully watched him scan their clothes and come to a conclusion. "We're happy with the church we already go to so-"

"You got it wrong," Mulder said as he flashed the boy his FBI card. "I'm Special Agent Mulder. We're here to ask your parents about Pamela's accident. Are they here?"

"Oh, yeah. The sheriff just called about you guys." He shrugged his small shoulders. "Sorry, Mom 'n Dad are at the hospital. They should-"

A faded green station wagon pulled into the driveway. A man and woman in their late thirties got out, pausing as they took in the scene at the front door. The man slammed the driver's door and stormed up to the porch. "Robert! I told you never to open the door to strangers. " Worry and tension had etched his features. "Who the hell are you?"

"It's okay, Dad," the boy said hopefully. "They're from the police."

Mulder displayed his ID again. "Agents Mulder and Scully from the FBI, sir. We're investigating a series of accidents that have been occurring-"

The man's expression softened. "Everyone in Yardley's heard about the accidents. You think Pam's involved with that?"

"Perhaps." Scully said. "May we talk to you about it?"

Mrs. Jamison joined them. "We've just come from seeing her."

"How is she?" Scully asked.

"Better. Much better. Thank you," Mrs. Jamison said. "The doctors say she can come home in three or four days. Please, come inside."

The boy backed up, pushing the door open. Scully and Mulder separated to let the Jamisons pass then followed inside. Scully heard the door close behind her. She looked back and saw the boy leaning against it, staring at them.

"Have a seat," Mrs. Jamison said. "I'll get us coffee."

"Please," Mr. Jamison said indicating the sofa. He dropped into the recliner facing them. "My name's Bressler. Everyone calls me Bress." His smile was genuine, but strained. "Why is the FBI interested in these accidents? They're tragic but not criminal." He leaned forward. "Or are they?"

"No, sir," Scully said. "At the moment we're not sure what's causing them. Agent Mulder and I belong to a branch of the FBI charged with investigating phenomena of this nature. We are looking for the driving force in this case so we can stop it. Any information you, or possibly your daughter, can give us would be helpful."

Mrs. Jamison reentered the room with a tray, which she set on a low table between the sofa and chairs. She poured coffee out for each of them.

Scully noticed Mrs. Jamison's hand shook as she took the cup from her. "Thank you."

Mrs. Jamison smiled but worry kept the smile from reaching her eyes.

"Yes, thanks, Hon," Bressler said. He patted her hand as she eased into a maple rocking chair next to him.

"Mr. Jamison," Scully said. "Can you tell us about your daughter's actions prior to the accident?"

"I can!" the young boy spouted.

"Robert!" his mother said. "Be quiet."

"But Mom..."

Mr. Jamison eyed the boy who immediately clamped his lips tight and leaned back sullenly. Jamison looked back toward Scully. "I'm afraid there's not much we can tell you. We went out in the afternoon to pick up our new car and got home a little after seven. Pamela took it out for a test-drive almost immediately after that."

Mrs. Jamison's voice quavered. "She was so happy we'd gotten a sports car."

Mr. Jamison took his wife's hand. "An hour later we got a call from the police saying she'd been in an accident and that she was in the hospital."

"How bad were her injuries?" Scully asked.

He shook his head. "Pretty serious. She has broken right arm, three cracked ribs, cuts from broken glass, and a lot of bruising. Still, it could have been worse, a lot worse. Sheriff Harshaw said the airbag saved her life."

Mulder jerked up straight. "Did your daughter know what type of car you were getting?"

"No." Mrs. Jamison answered. "It was a surprise. I think she was afraid we'd bought another station wagon." The Jamisons smiled weakly at each other.

"So she couldn't have known about the airbag. Did you tell her about it before she left?"

The Jamisons traded confused glances. "No."

Mulder nodded, eyes distant.

"What do you know about the accident itself?" Scully asked.

"Only that it couldn't have happened the way the police said. "Mr. Jamison said through tightened lips.

Mrs. Jamison leaned toward them. "Pammy's a very safe driver. She'd never race around recklessly, off and on the road, speeding, like they claim she did."

"But, Mom," the boy cried out. "Pammy wasn't herself-"

"Robert," Mr. Jamison said, "You've been warned about interrupting."

"Yes, sir." The boy edged sideways into a corner.

Mulder shifted around to stare at him.

"My wife's right. Pamela just wouldn't have behaved like that."

"You've seen the accident site?" Scully asked.

"Well... yes."

"And?"

"I can't explain it. Something must have made her do it."

Mulder turned back toward the adults. "Something?"

"Yes. Someone chasing her. Trying to force her off the road. Something like that."

"Oh." Mulder took a sip of coffee.

"Mrs. Jamison," Scully said. "Was your daughter feeling well before the accident? Any upsets? Disappointments? Was Pamela taking medication?"

"No. Nothing like that. She was happy and healthy."

Mulder craned his head back around toward Robert who was fidgeting noisily in the corner.

Scully looked at her partner. "Anything else?"

Mulder stared at Robert. "No. I guess not." He stood up. "Thank you for your time, and the coffee. It was delicious."

Mrs. Jamison smiled. "My pleasure."

Scully got up. "Would it be all right if we talk to your daughter. This case isn't resolved yet. Something she may say could save lives."

"Certainly," Bressler said. "If her doctor says it's okay." He led the way out the front door.

Robert disappeared into the rear of the house.

The Jamisons walked Scully and Mulder to the curb. Mr. Jamison opened the passenger door for Scully. She thanked him but continued walking around the car and climbed in behind the wheel.

"Thank you," Mulder said to the man's blank look and stepped through the door to sit in the passenger's seat.

"Er... of course. My pleasure."

The Jamisons headed back toward the house. Scully started the engine but Mulder placed a restraining hand on the wheel.

"What?" she asked.

"Wait a minute." Mulder rolled down his window. His eyes swung from one side of the house to the other. He stopped and signaled with a finger.

Robert Jamison scurried across the lawn toward the car. His hands slammed against Mulder's door to stop his rush.

"Whatch-ya-got for me?" Mulder asked.

"Pammy wasn't herself the morning of the accident."

"How so?"

"Kept changing back and forth from nice to mean. It was real weird. Even for a woman." Robert winked at Mulder.

Mulder returned the wink. "Anything else?"

The boy shook his head. "No." His eyes lit up. "Wait! Yes! She didn't sleep good the night before. I heard her crying. I figure she had a nightmare."

"Thanks. I'll be in touch."

Robert Jamison returned Mulder's nod and pushed off from the car. Scully pulled away from the curb. "You have the most interesting sources, Mulder."

"I take 'em where I find 'em."

"Hospital?"

"Yes, by way of the accident site. I want to check out Mr. Jamison's idea that Pamela was forced off the road."

 

 

Scully braked to a stop on the dirt shoulder just past the telephone pole Pamela Jamison ran into. They walked back to examine to it. Eighteen inches up from the dirt, one side of the pole was a mangled face of brown splinters. She nudged a piece of shattered glass near the pole's base. It lay on dirt soaked with black and green motor fluids. The hot air smelled thickly of gasoline.

Mulder wandered back along Pamela's direction of travel. "Scully, look at this." He pointed at two tread marks in the dirt.

She had to squint to make them out. "They're shallow. If she had braked the dirt would have been dug up. Also, there would be rubber marks. These tracks are clean."

"And straight," Mulder agreed. "She wanted to hit that pole."  Mulder followed the tire tracks away from the accident. Scully joined him, eyes down, searching.

One hundred yards from the pole she pointed at two black, curved marks on the pavement. "She swerved here. Hard."

Mulder looked at the marks and walked on. "Here too." His eyes rose as he visually traced the route the car had taken. The trail repeatedly crisscrossed the pavement. On the far side of the road, a six-foot wide swath had been cut through the bordering corn field. "Corn's green," he said.

Scully followed his gaze. "So?"

"The stalks are flexible when they're green. Yet instead of being knocked over they've been sheared off. She must have been really moving to do that."

They walked further along the pavement. Scully spotted two more fresh rubber marks. Mulder kneeled to look at the last one. "There's no parallel tread marks or debris from a second car side-swiping her. I don't think she was forced into the accident. At least, not by another car."

A screen door slammed and they turned toward the sound. A middle-aged woman stood on her porch staring at them.

"Let's ask her if she saw anything," Mulder said and took off. He opened the gate in the fenced border to the yard for Scully as they made their way onto the woman's property. "Morning, ma'am," Mulder said. "We're investigating an accident that happened-"

The woman nodded her sun-spotted brow. "Pamela Jamison. I saw it. What do you want to know?"

"What did you see?"

She shrugged. "Not much to tell. I was out weeding my garden when I heard tires screeching. I looked up and saw Pamela in a red convertible charging along at a million miles an hour. She was all over the road. Even took off into Winston Paller's corn field. He won't be happy about that, I can tell you. Anyway, when she came out of the field she headed the car straight at the pole and crashed into it." The woman shrugged. "That's all."

Scully stepped forward. "Could you see her expression?"

The woman nodded. "It kept changing. At first," she pointed down the road in the direction Pamela had come, "she was crying for help. Then, when she was even with my house she's calmed down and had a blank look on her face." The woman looked toward the scarred telephone pole. "Just before she hit the pole a stricken look took over her face, like she was terrified.

Scully and Mulder traded nods, thanked the woman and left for the hospital.

 

 

The combined effect of their FBI badges and Scully's being a doctor got them into Pamela's room in spite of visiting hours being long past. Miss Jamison's bed pointed her at a wall-mounted television. It was tuned to a talk show about teenage drug use. Pamela Jamison stared out the window, oblivious to the program. She turned her bandaged face toward Mulder as he stepped to her bedside.

"Pamela Jamison?" he asked.

"Yes?"

Scully watched the young girl's eyes quickly track up and down Mulder's lean form. Half a smile peeked out from one side of a taped jaw.

Mulder held out his ID card. "I'm Agent Mulder with the FBI. This is my partner, Special Agent Dana Scully. May we come in?"

"Please. I'd bored to tears." She used a remote to switch off the television.

Mulder pulled a chair close to her bed and sat down. Scully picked up a medical chart from the foot end of the bed.

"Excuse me," Pamela said. "That's personal."

"It's all right," he said. "Agent Scully's a medical doctor. I'm sorry about your accident."

"Yeah, the Needleton Curse."

Scully looked up. "What?"

The girl shrugged, then winced at the movement. "Everyone knows about it. Something weird happened down in Needleton a month ago. Since then people have been dying or having accidents. It hit Yardley a week back and most people have been in a panic ever since. At school we made jokes about it. I never thought... anyway, I was one of the lucky ones."

"How do you figure?"

"Well, I'm not dead am I."

Mulder leaned close. "That's why we're here. You should be."

Pamela's bandage-hidden smile faded. "What do you mean?"

"The accidents and deaths follow a definite pattern. This pattern suggests your accident was intended to be fatal."

Her eyes darted to Scully. "Is he serious?"

"Yes," Scully said dropping the clipboard back onto its hook. "I'm sorry if this is upsetting but the observed pattern is definite: you should have died in your accident."

"Are you trying to tell me my life's still in danger?"

"No," Mulder said quickly. "I'm sure it's moved on-"

"It's! What's with this it's? You're starting to scare me."

"Mulder?" Scully said.

He looked over his shoulder at her. She nodded her head to one side and he left the chair so Scully could take his place. "Pamela," she said. "Whatever is going on has yet to repeat itself with the same person. I'm confident that you don't have anything to worry about."

The girl relaxed.

Scully placed a reassuring hand on her arm. "Can you tell us anything about what happened?"

Pamela nodded. "It felt like something had taken over my hands. They kept turning the wheel no matter what I did. It got worse the faster I went. And the thoughts I had..."

"What thoughts?" Mulder asked taking a step closer to her.

"As I lost more and more control, I started to black out. It was like drifting off into a dream, a nightmare would be more accurate. Dark thoughts of anger and hate boiled up inside me. I hated everything. Everyone. I wanted to kill. Then everything went black. Until-"

"Just before the crash?" Mulder cut in.

She nodded. "Right. All of the sudden I felt normal. Scared, but all that hate was gone. Then I saw the telephone pole. They said I was going almost a hundred when I hit it."

"The air bag saved your life," Scully said.

"That's what Mom and Dad told me."

Mulder took another step closer. "Did you know about the air bag when you left?"

"No."

Mulder pursed his lips. "I didn't think so. One last question. Did you have a nightmare the night before the accident?"

The girl's eyes went round. "Boy, did I." Her forehead wrinkled. "How'd you know about that?"

He smiled. "Robert."

Pamela grinned. "That little snitch will tell anyone anything." The smile fell away from her face. "It was a horrible nightmare. One of those were you're being chased by something."

"What was it?"

Her brow crinkled. "I'm not sure. It was just a black formless shape but I knew it wanted to hurt me."

"A formless shape? Like a cloud?"

"Yes. A black cloud."

He frowned. "A black cloud? You're sure it wasn't pastel colored?"

"No, just black. It was terrible, like boiling smoke."

Mulder touched two fingers to his lips in thought, then smiled down at the girl. "Thank you for your time, Miss Jamison. I hope you're better soon."

He turned and left. Scully patted Pamela's arm and followed Mulder out. He'd stopped in the middle of the hall. His eyes were turned down and he was pinching the end of his chin.

"Mulder? What now?"

"There's only one way we can beat this thing. We've got to get ahead of it and..."

"And?"

He looked up with a new light in his eyes. "Set a trap."

 

 

21

 

Memorial Hospital
Saturday, 9:48 A.M.

 

"A trap," Scully repeated.

Mulder nodded. "Exactly. The entity's consistent movements make it possible to predict where we can intercept it. All we have to do is position ourselves-"

"A ghost trap. You want to rig up something to catch a ghost?"

"-in the appropriate location and we have a good chance of pulling it off."

Scully watched Mulder's head snap around as her sarcasm finally worked its way past his own thoughts. "What did you say?" he asked.

"I was saying that you can't be serious."

"Why not?"

"First," Scully jabbed her index finger upward. "You haven't explained how you're going to contain this entity. Second," Her middle finger joined the first. "You haven't said what you're planning to use... for... bait. Mulder!"

He fled down the corridor. "Let's get to the car. We need to get things set up."

Scully stood firm. "Mulder? Mulder! Tell me what you're going to use for bait."

Scully marched after him, her arms swinging stiffly at her sides. "Mulder! I'm talking to you."

 

 

She caught up to him at the car. He'd unlocked the driver's door and was about to climb in. Scully glared at him over the car's roof. "It's me, isn't it. You plan to stake me out in the path of this thing in the hope it'll infect me."

He gave her an innocent smile. "I wasn't thinking of a literal stake, but if you think-"

"Forget it." Scully jerked open the passenger door and threw herself into the seat.

Mulder started the engine, then turned it off. His eyes hardened and he stared straight ahead. "If I could think of another way to end this, I'd do it." His eyes sought hers. "But I can't. Your lucid dreaming ability makes you the only one who can carry this off. People are dying every day. We've got to try something."

Scully felt sick in the stomach, but knew he was right. She sighed. "Why is my lucid dreaming ability important?"

"This thing was created out of a lucid dream. It makes sense that given a choice between someone having a normal dream and someone else having a lucid dream, the entity would prefer the lucid dreamer."

"Everyone wants to go home."

"That's the idea."

She set her jaw. "There's a problem. Lucid dreaming isn't something that can be turned on and off at will. Even the best lucid dreamers are lucky to average one lucid dream a night. Most only experience two or three a month. Add to that the fact that lucid dreams only last five minutes and the likelihood I'll be lucid when your entity comes looking for a new victim is effectively nil."

"But not zero," Mulder said as he started the engine. "That's good enough for me."

They headed out of the hospital's parking lot. Scully rode with her arms tightly crossed. "Let's assume your idea works, once this thing infects me, what am I supposed to do about it?"

"No one who's been infected knew what was going on. You do."

She gave him a wry look. "I'm not so sure about that."

His expression remained serious. "I'm hoping that you'll be lucid when the entity invades your mind. If so, your knowledge of its nature and unique strength of will allow you to confront and destroy it."

"How?"

"How what?"

"How am I suppose to destroy it?"

His smile widened. "Don't ask me, you're the dreamer. Use your superpowers, death vision, whatever."

Scully's expression turned serious. "Whatever we're dealing with has already killed twenty-four people. If the pattern holds there should be a twenty-fifth fatality today. Since you're setting me up to be the twenty-sixth, I would appreciate it if you'd shelve the jokes."

"Sorry. You know I'll back you any way I can until you destroy the entity." The smile returned. "Or the shrinks back at the bureau put you back together."

Scully stared at the store-fronts drifting past her window. "Dr. Laum believes the Kamps were the greatest psychics the world has ever seen. If they weren't strong enough to overcome this thing, how do you figure I will be?"

"The Kamps were surprised by what they had created. They were unprepared for a fight. You won't be."

Mulder bumped the curb in front of the police station as he parked. The jostle knocked a lock of Scully's red hair into her face.

"Thanks."

"Any time. I need to ask the sheriff-"

Harshaw burst out of the front door.

Mulder shouted out of his window at the running man. "What's up?"

Harshaw jerked to a stop, recognized them and continued his dash to a squad car. "Suicide in progress!" he yelled back as he leapt behind the police car's wheel. "Sounds like one of yours!"

Harshaw slammed the door and the car jumped backward. Mulder threw his car in pursuit. Four blocks of Yardley's main street blurred by Scully's window. The sheriff's turn lights flashed as the police car swerved and skittered to a halt in Yardley's fire station. Scully and Mulder raced after him through the building's cavernous garage, their footfalls ringing out sharply on the polished cement.

As they burst from the rear of the building, Scully saw six men circled around a twelve-foot metal hoop with thick canvas stretched across it. They were jerking the hoop back and forth at the base of the tall rack used to dry fire hoses. Their eyes strained upward. Scully followed their gaze. Thirty feet up, a tiny old woman in a fluttering purple dress stared down at them. Six rungs below her, a fireman was yelling at her to hang on. She didn't seem to notice him.

Harshaw stormed up to a heavy-set man with silver on the shoulders of his uniform. "Is that Matty?"

"Right," the man answered. "She brought over our lunch order as usual. No one noticed when she disappeared until Higgins spotted her half way up the rack. That's him up there with her. She's trying to kill herself for sure. Every time she moves to let go the boys manage to get the jump-net under her, so she pulls back."

Scully watched with morbid fascination. The woman kept leaning to one side, then the next. The men with the net moved back and forth attempting to follow her, but they were two seconds out of step. Scully studied Matty's face. It was blank, intent on the men far beneath her. She swayed left, right, left, and then right again. Scully's middle knotted as she noticed the woman's movements had become too evenly spaced.

"No!" Scully yelled.

Her warning came too late. The men with the net moved where the woman's rhythmic leanings had led them to believe she would be. Instead, she'd feigned and jumped in the opposite direction. Matty pushed off to the right as they leaned left. The inertia of the hoop prevented them from recovering in time.

Scully followed the woman's fall with hopeless terror. Her face, turned toward Scully, was visible at impact. A fraction of a second before she struck the pavement, Matty's eyes popped wide open as if she suddenly realized her fate. Her small mouth opened to scream, but was crushed shut as her frail body smashed into the concrete.

Scully didn't rush forward with the others; it was obvious that Matty was dead. She turned and walked back to the car.

 

Ten minutes later Mulder wandered out to join her. "She's dead."

Scully nodded absently. "I knew she had to be."

He leaned against the car. Scully cast her eyes back toward the death scene. Through the gap between the red fire truck she could see a knot of firemen huddled around a shapeless purple mound on the concrete. "Did you see the look on her face just before she hit?"

Mulder nodded.

Her eyes swung up and locked on his. "I'll do it. You find the most likely place to intercept this monster and I'll go after it. Tonight."

"It may take us longer than this afternoon to arrange-"

Her lips drew tight. "Tonight, Mulder."

He studied her expression, then looked away. "Okay. I told Harshaw we needed the detailed city map hanging in his office. He said for us to help ourselves. He'll be back in half an hour."

"Good," Scully said as she straightened. "Let's get going."

 

 

Sheriff Harshaw's map of Yardley and the surrounding areas covered half of one wall in his office. Scully watched Mulder stick black-headed push-pins into the addresses she read off of their list of victims. Magnified a factor of five by the scale of the larger map, the line of pins still tracked dead straight. They grouped closer together in town and spread apart over the surrounding farmland.

Matty turned out to be Matilda Barkness. She lived three miles outside of town. Hers was the last pin Mulder pushed into the wall. "Do you see it?" he asked.

Scully squinted at the map. "The distances between the victim's homes aren't constant. It doesn't mind jumping extra distance to maintain its direction of travel."

Mulder pointed at two closely spaced pins southwest of town. "Here it found two houses close together and utilized the opportunity. I'm guessing our friend doesn't like to travel any further for it's next victim than necessary."

Scully studied the area around Matty's house. "All large farms. The next house on the line's projection is ten miles away. " She squinted at some small printing in the open area. "The fields between Matty's house and the next belong to Hillcrest Farms."

Sheriff Harshaw strode through the open door to his office.

Mulder turned to him. "Do you know who runs Hillcrest Farms?"

Harshaw nodded. "It's is owned by Sam Tailor. Know him well. He'll go along with anything you have in mind."

Mulder nodded at Scully. "Agent Scully's agreed to act as bait to try and trap whatever it is that's killing your people. What I want to do is station us directly in the entity's path, right here." Mulder jabbed a red-headed pin into the map five miles northeast of Matty's home. "We'll rent a camper and stay the night. For this to work you'll need to block off all the roads in that area. Scully has to be the only person available for infection."

She crossed her arms to block a shiver.

"You're sure about this, Agent Scully?" Harshaw asked.

"No. But after watching Matty die I have to do something."

"Barkley!" Harshaw yelled out toward the station's reception area as he studied the map. "Head out to Hillcrest's field number six. Block off all four roads surrounding it."

"Right, Chief," the deputy called back.

"Better block off Harkness to the southwest and Phillips to the northeast as well. Set up a stakeout on Sutter's Ridge. Keep your eyes open all night and make sure no one gets past those blockades."

"No problem," the disembodied voice said. "That field's laying fallow this year so there shouldn't be any activity around there."

"Make sure it stays that way and whatever else you do, don't fall asleep."

"Yes, sir."

Harshaw went to his desk and scribbled a note. He handed it to Mulder. "Yardley doesn't have an RV rental center but Jon Steeples owns a motor home he'll rent you if you give him my note. That's the only option I can offer except my son's pup tent."

"The motor home will be fine," Mulder said accepting the note. "Thanks."

The sheriff smiled. "Don't thank me. Jon will charge you an arm and two legs for it. I hope you folks are on an expense account."

 

 

Jon Steeples lived on the southern end of Yardley. While Mulder tried to talk the price down, Scully stood on the Steeples' back porch and studied Mrs. Steeples. She was a brunette her own age and sat on a park-style bench in the shade of a spreading oak. A nine-year old girl with braided pigtails hung upside down by her knees from a low branch. "Be careful not to fall!" Mrs. Steeples called out.

Scully's smiled at the scene, then frowned. The desperate feeling of time running out for her churned in her as she wondered if she would ever get to sit and watch own her daughter play. If this assignment didn't kill her, the next might. If not that, the bureau would keep her so busy she'd never have time. Obstacles rose up around her, blocking every path to having anything close to a normal life. Most of the men in the bureau had families, maybe she could figure out how to make it work. Maybe. Scully felt desperation well up in her eyes and turned away from the scene of the mother and daughter.

 

It was late afternoon by the time they'd gotten checked-out on the vehicle, picked up their travel kits and found their way on to Hillcrest Farms property. "This is the spot," Mulder said as he stepped up to where Scully stood outside of the motor home. "One-hundred and fifty feet north of the intersection of Harkness and Damson."

"All we need are some wood stakes and rope," Scully muttered.

"What?"

"Nothing. How about dinner?"

"Sounds good." Mulder slapped dust off his slacks as she climbed into the RV.

"Steeples may have charged us enough to pay off the national debt but at least we got first class accommodations," Scully said as she stepped up into the living area.

He looked down the thirty-foot interior of the living room-dining room and nodded. "Kitchen, bath with shower, dining table, television hooked to a satellite dish, not bad if you don't mind roughing it. That air conditioning feels good too."

"I turned it on high. The heat has been getting to me."

Mulder wiped off beads of perspiration dotting his forehead. "Tell me about it."

"Go wash. I'll start dinner."

Mulder headed for the bath. "You're acting positively domestic, Scully. Has anyone else seen this side of you?"

"Yes. And mind your own business."

Mulder emerged fifteen minutes later to the sounds of steaks sizzling in an iron fry pan and New England clam chowder bubbling over a low flame. Thick meaty aromas crowded the motor home. He stood over her in the kitchen. "What's in the covered pan?"

"Hot cinnamon peaches."

"Not a vegetable in sight. What's come over you Scully? Has the entity already infected you and you're committing suicide by eating unhealthy food?" Mulder smiled at her.

She didn't return the smile. "No. That comes tomorrow, remember?"

Mulder sobered. "Sorry. I'll set the table."

"Thanks."

They ate in silence.

 

 

"A heavy meal usually induces more dreams," Scully said while they were washing the dishes.

"Oh."

Scully placed the last dish in the rack. Mulder was only halfway through drying. "It's late," she said. "I need to get ready."

The motor home boasted two double beds; one folded out of the dining area in the front cabin, the other in the rear. An accordion wall could be stretched from the left to the right side of the living area dividing the space into two rooms. Scully made up the bed in the rear, got ready for sleep and after a brief glance in Mulder's direction, pulled a soft-sided blue satchel from her suitcase. She extracted a notebook, a pen with a transparent front half, what looked like a sleeping mask, a black box the size of an audio cassette tape and laid them out with geometric precision on the bed.

Scully twisted the butt-end of the pen. The clear front section lit dimly. She unscrewed the pen at the middle, replaced the AAA battery that slipped out with a new one, screwed the halves together and twisted the end again. The light was brighter. Scully nodded her satisfaction.

She lifted the sleeping mask in her right hand, searched the bed, and frowned. Her left hand lifted the small box. She transferred the mask to her left hand and rummaged with her right in the case, finally dragging a three-foot long wire from it. She connected the mask to the small box with the wire and set them down. Scully opened the notebook and wrote two sentences, crossed them out and wrote two more. Three tries later she'd reduced the passage to ten words: When you see lights flash, you will recognize you are dreaming.

"Coffee?" Mulder held out a steaming mug to her.

"I better not."

"It's decaf."

"Oh." She took the mug. "Thanks."

Mulder sat on the floor next to the bed. "What's all the paraphernalia? Doesn't look like standard FBI issue."

She held up the items in quick succession. "Dream log, light pen, induction mask, induction recorder."

"And they are... "

"I use the dream log to record my dreams and work up the mnemonic for the night. That's a phrase you repeat as you go to sleep to program your subconscious to recognize that you are dreaming." She handed Mulder the book. He read the ten words she'd settled on, nodded, and started to turn to an earlier entry. Scully's hand snapped the book out of his hands.

"Private?" he asked.

"Very."

"How about the mask?"

She held it out to him. "It houses an infrared sensor. When the I enter rapid-eye-movement sleep, where dreaming occurs, this sensor triggers the mask to flash red lights which cues me to recognize that I'm dreaming. Put it on."

Mulder slipped the mask over his eyes and Scully pushed a button on the front of the mask. Flashing red light leaked out in a double ring around his eyes from the margins of the mask. Mulder jerked his head back. "It's bright."

"It needs to be to get through eyelids and still reach an unconsciousness mind. It's adjusted so the light is bright enough to be noticed but not so bright that it wakes me up."

Mulder handed back the mask. "What about the box?"

She held it so he could see a matrix of perforations on one side. "It's a solid state recorder and speaker. The mask triggers it to repeat a message. This helps remind the dreamer what they wanted to dream."

Mulder's eyed the equipment. "If it was anyone but you I'd swear this was some kind of practical joke."

"I'm surprised someone who believes in UFOs and ghosts is so suspicious."

"Thank our FBI training for that. I didn't use to require the extensive proof I now demand before accepting a novel theory." He grinned at her. "So, what do most lucid dreamers dream about?"

She straightened the devices again. "In the beginning they fall into two groups: those that just enjoy knowing that they are dreaming and those that try to take control of the dream and make things happen by their force of will. The preference is more telling about their personalities than whether they see a half-filled glass of water half full or half empty."

"And later?"

"Eventually most lucid dreamers prefer to go along passively with the dream, enjoying the increased sense of reality lucidity brings. A variation on this is to walk or fly around the dream landscape like you were exploring a new world."

"What about-"

"It's late, Mulder. Time I got started."

"Of course. Is there anything-"

"Just keep an eye on me tomorrow if this works."

A hard, determined look took over his face. "I will. Good night, Scully."

She handed the empty mug to him and drew the folding wall across the cabin to close off her sleeping area. Scully followed her regimen of donning the mask, relaxation exercises, deep breathing, repeating her mnemonic, and imagining herself recognizing she was becoming lucid in various dream scenarios. She slipped into sleep so smoothly she didn't notice when it took place.

 

 

Scully woke two hours later, turned on her light pen, and made a brief note about a dream involving a fishing trip with her father. She turned off the pen and lay back. As she drifted off she heard the click of a coffee cup against its saucer. Mulder was on guard.

At twelve she saw a sunrise flash off and on brilliantly. It woke her up. She reduced the brightness of the mask's lights from level four to three and returned to sleep.

It happened at two.

 

 

Scully was walking along a dirt road, gravel crunching under her heels. She saw a stop sign flashing in front of her, its color more intense than any red she could remember. The more she watched, the brighter it got. She could hear her voice repeating the evening's mnemonic. With a blinding rush of clarity, she recognized she was dreaming. The surroundings began to shimmer and dissolve. She was loosing lucidity.

Scully stared at the ground and reminded herself that she was dreaming. The scenery stabilized. She looked around and realized she was back at Pamela Jamison's accident site. There was no air movement, yet she felt a breeze tickle the fine hairs on her forearms. No clouds hung in the intensely blue sky, except for a dark billowing mound on the distant horizon.

She turned around and saw the telephone pole into which Pamela had crashed. As she bent to examine its torn surface, the windless air ruffled the hair on the back of her neck. She stood and turned around. The black cloud covered a half of the sky.

Black. It meant something. She blinked, trying to remember. The cloud spread to her left, right, and overhead, enclosing her. Scully stepped back. It came on relentlessly, its surface roiled with malignancy. Scully took three quick steps backward. Her heart started to pound. The cloud was after her. Wanted her. Panic choked in her throat.

Out of the corner of her eye the stop light flashed again. What did it mean? Scully heard her recorded voice struggling to be heard. The mnemonic repeated itself. The flash of realization to she was dreaming came back to her.

The cloud pulled back but didn't stop its angry boiling.

Scully realized she'd momentarily lost her lucidity. She rubbed her hands together. The sensation of one palm sliding over the other anchored her consciousness. She turned around and saw the cloud had blanketed the sky. The meaning of the darkness flashed to her. The cloud was Mulder's entity.

She felt panic burn its way up her throat. The cloud surged in. Scully felt the touch of her hands against each other. The cloud hesitated.

"Treat it like any nightmare," she said out loud to herself to help anchor her awareness. "Don't fight it; embrace the threat."

Scully took a step forward. She forced her heart to radiate feelings of warmth. The billowing darkness hesitated, twisted in upon itself. Scully thought of her most loved people and things, distilled this emotion and projected it outward. The cloud retreated further.

"That's wrong," she said to herself. She couldn't defeat the thing by pushing it away. It would just go elsewhere. She had to get closer to the entity. Scully cleared her mind of all thoughts except one. Come to me.

Evil crashed in on her.

 

 

22

 

Hillcrest Farms Field Number Six
Sunday, 2:33 A.M.

 

The black cloud thundered in at her from every direction. Twisting vortices snatched her into the air, tumbling her. Her screams froze in the thick darkness inches from her mouth. Her skin burned as if acid was eating its way toward her soul. She felt fear rip through her, turn to anger, then hate. She hated herself for failing, hated Mulder for doing this to her, hated Pamela Jamison and her stupid little brother, hated Sheriff Harshaw, Assistant Director Skinner, the FBI, the government, the world and everyone in it.

 

+++

 

"Scully! Wake up!" Mulder shook her again. "Come on. Snap out of it!"

Her arms shot up and out, knocking his hands off her shoulders. "What the hell do you think you're doing, Mulder?"

"You were screaming. I thought-"

"Don't be stupid. I was the one in danger. All you had to do was sit up and drink coffee."

"Scully?"

"Any idiot knows you never shake someone out of a dream."

"Hey, I'm sorry-"

"Just do me a favor and shut up."

Mulder jerked back as she pushed him away and slammed the room divider closed. He poured himself the evening's eleventh mug of coffee, sat down facing Scully's cubical and tried to think through the haze of too much caffeine.

 

 

Yellow light burned through Mulder's eyelids. He opened them without moving his head and saw a fly drinking from a pool of spilled coffee two inches from his nose. His eyes traced the outline of the spilled coffee. It started at the lip of his overturned mug and disappeared under his cheek. Mulder pushed himself off the motor home's small dining table with a groan, stale coffee dripping from his chin. Mulder wiped his face with a used paper napkin.

Slack-faced, he blinked his eyes into focus as he tried to remember what he was supposed to be doing. Mulder's eyes snapped wide open. He thrust himself out of the dinette toward the partition to Scully's bedroom. His right hand raked the divider out of the way. The rear door gaped open. She was gone.

Mulder jumped over her unmade bed and leaned far out of the door with a hand on either side of the frame. Scully wasn't in sight. He stepped down and around the side of the motor home and looked up the road. She stood fifty feet in front of the motor home, madly signaling with her arms to a speeding squad car to hurry its approach.

Jagged rocks cut deep into his bare feet as he charged towards her. He ground his teeth against the pain and hurled himself forward.

When the police car closed to one hundred feet, she began signaling for it to continue past her. She stepped to the side of the road to let it pass. Mulder closed to within twenty feet of her, running down the center of the lane straight at the on-rushing car.

The driver's full attention was on Scully. Without taking his eyes off her he nodded that he'd caught her meaning, pulled toward the middle of the road, and accelerated straight at Mulder.

Scully crouched for a jump.

Mulder was close enough to see the blank, business-like look on her face, the same look Matty wore when she had hurled herself off the fire station's rack. Scully flexed down and half a second before the police car reached her, vaulted herself toward the middle of the road,. At the same instant, Mulder threw himself at her. They collided in mid air.

Mulder's greater weight slammed Scully to a stop and carried them both backward, out of the way of the car. They landed and rolled. Mulder felt the sharp sting of gravel tearing into his arms.

He heard tires scream as the police car's brakes slammed full on. Mulder lay on his back, gulping for air. Booted footfalls rushed toward him. A uniformed officer came into view. "Are you all right? What's with Agent Scully jumping at my car like that? She could have killed herself!"

Mulder extended a hand. "Help me up."

The officer pulled Mulder to his feet. They walked over to where Scully lay with her eyes closed. She was on her back wearing only a silk nightshirt. Droplets of blood oozed from dozens of scratches on her arms and legs. Mulder ran his hands lightly over her limbs. He couldn't detect any obvious fractures. "Scully?" he called.

She whimpered and slowly shook her head.

"Scully. It's Mulder. Open your eyes."

They fluttered open, then winced in pain. "What-"

"You had an accident. Can you move?"

In slow, ginger movements, Scully flexed and twisted each limb in turn. She eased herself into a sitting position. "Nothing serious." She surveyed her arms. "But I need to get cleaned up before these scratches get infected." She focused on Mulder. "You need attention too. What happened?"

"I'll tell you later. Let's get back to the motor home."

Scully crossed her arms as tightly as her scratches permitted to control shock-induced shivers. Mulder and the officer helped her up. Mulder watched as she tested her legs then took an experimental step. She attempted a second but crumpled as her foot touched the road.

Mulder caught her. She lifted her foot and knocked off a sharp rock imbedded in her heel. She stared at the gravel and raised her eyes, tracing the fifty feet back to the RV. "How could I have come this far in bare feet?"

"You were busy thinking of something else," Mulder explained. Before she could ask another question he reached down and picked her up. The pressure of his arms on her scratches forced tears to her eyes. He carried her back to the motor home and deposited her on its rear transom. She crawled inside and wrestled a doctor's bag and clean clothes out of her suitcase. Mulder turned to the policeman. "Hang around awhile, Okay?"

"No problem. Why'd she do it, Agent Mulder?"

He managed a wan smile. "I'm almost afraid to ask. I'll let you know."

Mulder climbed into the motor home and heard splashing sounds coming from the bathroom. Nauseous with coffee, he started a pot of tea.

Scully emerged ten minutes later wearing soft gray slacks and a short sleeved white cotton blouse. Her arms were crisscrossed with white bandages. She walked stiff legged over to Mulder. "Your turn." She handed him a half-empty tube of ointment. "Wash, then rub some of this into each cut. We were lucky. Everything looks superficial but let me know if any of those scratches haven't stopped bleeding. Coffee?"

"Tea."

"Thank God. Take your time."

Mulder grabbed clothes and stepped into the bath. His old clothes peeled off reluctantly, sticky with sweat and half-dried blood. He managed to wash out the wounds with just a few sharp intakes of breath but when Scully's salve touched the first scratch he couldn't squelch a cry.

Scully's muffled voice called out, "Sorry, Mulder. I forgot to mention it stings."

"Stings. Right. I can handle it," Mulder called back. He gritted his teeth against the fire that burned deep into each cut as he rubbed on the ointment.

He managed to pull on a clean pair of black slacks and a tee-shirt. Mulder emerged and joined her at the dinette.

"Now, tell me what happened," she asked.

"Tell me about your nightmare first."

"What nightmare?"

"The one I woke you from."

She looked at him askance. "You never woke me. The first time I saw you was out on the road."

"You didn't have a nightmare? You don't remember my waking you up, your cursing at me?

Her brow knitted. "None of it. It's possible I had a nightmare and don't remember it. People only recall ten percent of their dreams. I cursed you? How?"

"Asked me what the hell I was doing. Called me stupid, an idiot, told me to shut up."

She began to shake.

"Scully?"

She buried her face in trembling hands. "No," she whispered.

Mulder jumped up and took her by the shoulders. "Dana! What is it?"

She balled her hands into fists, stopped shaking, and pulled her hands away from her face. "It came back to me, the dream."

"The cloud?"

She nodded. "It chased me, swallowed me. It was like being tumbled by an oily, choking wave. I was lost, completely out of control." She wiped tears out of the corners of her eyes. "I'm okay now."

Doubt troubled his expression. "You're sure?"

Scully blinked then stood up. "Yes. We better eat something. Cereal's all I can handle. You?"

"Fine." Mulder grabbed bowls and utensils while she got milk and a box of corn flakes. They ate in silence.

"How did I get cut up?"

"You tried jumping in front of the squad car. I tackled you."

Mulder noticed the spoon in her hand begin to shake.

She stopped eating. "It was inside of me, wasn't it?"

"When you jumped you had the same look Matty had."

"But I don't remember waking up just before... like she did."

"I came straight at you. It's possible the entity became aware you weren't going to die and decided to stay."

"Maybe this was supposed to be a non-fatal accident."

"Not from the look on your face."

"If it didn't leave..."

"Then it's still inside of you."

"Mulder..."

He took her hand. "I'll keep an eye on you."

She nodded and forced herself to eat the rest of the cereal.  They cleaned up the dishes and poured out the still full mugs of hot tea. Mulder grabbed his cell phone off the counter and punched a number. "Sheriff Harshaw? It's Agent Mulder"

"I'm glad you called. Barkley radioed me fifteen minutes ago to tell me what happened. How is she?"

"Scratched but okay."

"And the entity?"

Mulder eyes turned to Scully. "Still in her."

"What are you going to do?"

"We don't know but I'll come up with something before tonight. My intuition tells me if we can't lick it by then we'll be out of luck. At least you won't have to worry about any more accidents."

"I'm afraid you're wrong about that."

Mulder jerked himself straight up. "What happened?"

"We had a non-fatal accident early this morning. The home address lays on your line."

Mulder motioned to Scully for pen and paper. She threw a napkin at him and scrounged up a pencil. Mulder jotted down an address. "Got it. We'll get back to you." Mulder clicked off.

"I know that look," Scully said. "You get it every time something goes wrong."

Mulder sat down. "Harshaw said the accidents haven't stopped."

Her eyes expanded.

"Nine-year-old Emily Tailor ran her bicycle into a lamp post this morning. Non-fatal." Mulder picked up his tattered map. He checked the address on the napkin and plotted it on the map.

"Wasn't the owner of Hillcrest Farms named Tailor?" Scully asked.

"Emily must be Tailor's daughter." Mulder marked an X, connected it to the X indicating Matty's home address, and threw the pencil down at the table. It clattered impotently. The new X lay five miles further northeast of Tailor's home address, two miles ahead of their current position.

Scully hands tightened into fists. "But if the entity is inside me, how could it cause someone else to have an accident? And why did it try to kill me and only hurt Emily Tailor?"

Mulder thrust himself up and paced as far as the motor home's interior allowed. He laced his fingers behind the back of his head and stretched, closing his eyes.

"Mulder?"

"Give me a minute." He let the pieces of evidence dance in his mind. Everything pointed to the theory he'd come to accept. He scrambled the pieces and let them fall where they wanted. The same pattern occurred. A spark flared in a corner of his mind. He forced himself to relax. The spark flashed to life again, grew, took shape. Mulder threw the pieces of evidence back into the air. They settle once again in their familiar pattern, almost. Mulder spun around and snapped his fingers. "Got it!"

"Got what?"

"What color was the cloud in your dream?"

She stared at him. "Black."

"You're certain it wasn't pastel colors?"

"Positive. What are you thinking, Mulder?"

He smiled. "You're not going to like it."

She grimaced. "Do I ever? What is it?"

His eyes burned. "Twins."

 

 

23

 

 

Hillcrest Farms Field Number Six
Sunday, 9:12 A.M.

 

"What?" Scully cried.

Mulder resumed his pacing. "In any normal birth the offspring is a combination of the characteristics of both parents. The same should have been true for the entity. But something went wrong. I think Mrs. Kamp's will was too weak to fuse her personality with Grady's. Either that or Grady interfered with the birth and caused a schism. That explains why the victims remember two different dreams. The ones associated with the pastel cloud result in non-fatal accidents while dreams with the black cloud lead to death."

"Twins," Scully said. "One good, or at least not homicidal, and the other evil." Her eyes lost their focus. "The murderous one chasing the good one." Scully's gaze drifted away from Mulder. "It hates the good entity because it represents Mrs. Kamp and is therefore compelled to destroy it." Her voice faded. "The murderous entity jumps from one body to the next trying to catch the good entity before it escapes-"

Mulder stared at her. "Scully?"

She jerked around. "What?"

"Where were you?"

Confusion clouded her face. "I was thinking about your idea and these thoughts, feelings really, welled up within me."

Mulder nodded. "You're picking up the emotions of the entity. I think it's trying to take over. You've got to fight it or we'll be in for a repeat of this morning's episode."

She shivered. Mulder ran a hand back through his hair. "I have an idea."

Scully lowered her voice. "You want to go after the other entity tonight, don't you?"

"If you can capture it you may be able to force the two of them together."

"And hope good and evil will cancel each other out."

He nodded. "It's the only solution I can think of."

Scully laced her fingers together to stop them from shaking. Her tone took on a sharp note. "Then let's get to it. This plan sounds stupid but anything is better than sitting here waiting for this thing to take another shot at me. Give me your map."

Mulder's eyes narrowed, but he got the map. Together they located Emily Tailor's address. Mulder took a red pen and eyed-balled a straight line northeast of her house. "Looks like mostly open country," Mulder said. "All the road markings are dashed." He checked the map's legend. "Dirt roads."

"They're not even named," Scully said. "Just numbered and lettered. I wonder what idiot thought up that brilliant system."

"Scully?"

She fired an impatient glance at him. "What?" She turned back to the map. "Avenue J intersects 240th on the line about," she inched off the distance from the Tailor house, "three miles up."

"Sounds good. Give Harshaw a call to block that area off. I'll be back in a second." He dashed for the bathroom.

Three minutes later Mulder heard the motor home's engine roar to life. The clutch popped and tortured gears caught hold. The acceleration knocked Mulder against the bathroom door. It burst open, tumbling him out. His right hip collided with the edge of the dining table spinning him to the floor. The motor home surged forward. Mulder grabbed the back of the dining table with his right hand and the kitchen counter in his left and heaved himself up. He dove for the driver's cabin. Scully leaned forward, both hands on the wheel, her foot smashed down on the gas pedal.

Mulder's fingers bit deep into Scully's upper arms as he jerked her out of the driver's seat and threw her into the passenger's side. The motor home careened to the left. Mulder grabbed the spinning wheel and slid behind it.

"Mulder!" Scully cried.

He'd just started to turn toward her when her fist crashed into his chin knocking his head to the left. A blast of hot air blew against the back of his neck. He jerked his head back around. Scully had kicked the door open and was leaning back with her arms on the entryway's handrails getting ready to hurl herself out. Mulder reached over with his right hand and locked it in the red hair on the back of her head. With all of his strength, he smashed the side of her head into the dashboard. She collapsed in a heap on the floor.

Mulder slowly braked the motor home to a stop. He looked down at Scully's crumpled form. "Sorry about that. At least now we're even for the time you shot me."

As carefully as the tight quarters allowed, Mulder hefted her into the rear of the motor home. He laid her on her bed and examined her scalp. "No fracture, no cut. But one hell of a bruise. You'll live." He a placed a bottle of aspirins on the table by her bed and went to call Harshaw.

 

 

"Thanks, Sheriff," Mulder said. "I'll let you know tomorrow morning how it went. Either way you can relax. According to my map the next jump will take the entity out of your jurisdiction." As Mulder switched his cell phone off, a rustle from the rear of the RV brought him around.

Scully struggled to a sitting position on the edge of the bed. She winced as her left hand explored the side of her head. She placed both hands flat on the bed and slowly pushed herself up but as she straightened, something jerked at her right arm, refusing to let her rise. She sat down hard and blinked at her wrist. Handcuffs locked it to the bed frame.

Mulder smiled. "Too kinky?" He held out a bottle of aspirins to her.

Scully accepted bottle with a shaking hand. "Another attack?"

Mulder poured her a glass of orange juice. "You drove off while I was in the bathroom. Very inconsiderate timing."

She chased two of the pills with the juice. Her bloodshot eyes stared at him. "You have a bruise on your chin."

"You slugged me."

She massaged the back of her neck with her free hand. A wan smile touched the corners of her mouth. "A lady never slugs. She strikes."

"I apologize, you struck me. A right cross and a good one, plenty of shoulder behind it."

"You can thank our FBI training for that." She touched the growing lump on the side of her head. "How did this happen?"

Mulder took the juice glass from her and walked away. "You must have hit your head by accident trying to jump out the door."

"Where were you?"

He came back and shrugged. "Stopping us. You'd gotten the motor home up to sixty."

"How long was I out?"

"Five minutes."

"Examine my pupils," she said.

Mulder kneeled so his eyes were level with hers.

"Are they constricted?"

"They look normal to me."

"How about the size? Are both pupils the same diameter?"

He nodded.

She relaxed. "No concussion then." Scully rattled the handcuffs and heaved a sigh. "Do you think these are really necessary?"

The muscles around Mulder's eyes tightened. "You've had two attacks in four hours, both of them potentially fatal. It's impossible for me to keep an eye on you every second."

"Did I exhibit any symptoms that an attack was eminent?"

"Testiness. Verbal abuse. I think as Grady's influence gets stronger you manifest characteristics of his personality."

"What now?"

Mulder straightened and walked toward the front of the motor home. "I called Harshaw. He's clearing the area around tonight's location. We'll drive there now."

Scully rattled the handcuffs again. "I'll be here if you need me."

 

 

Mulder fought the vehicle over the deeply gullied dirt road. The motor home's diesel engine complained but got them to J and 240th. He pulled off into the scrub in the northeast corner of the intersection then walked back to Scully. "Now we wait. What's your preference, cards or TV?"

"Sleep. The duration of REM sleep cycles increases the longer you sleep and continues to increase in the morning after you wake. The longest periods of REM sleep have been recorded to occur during early morning naps after a couple hours of wakefulness. I want to go for the second entity now."

"It's been a lot more than a couple of hours."

"I still want to try."

"What do you need?"

"My flight bag."

When Mulder returned with a tan case half the size of a flight bag, he found Scully had managed to close all the blinds in her cubical in spite of the cuffs.

"It's not dark enough, Mulder. See if you can find something to block more light. Let me have the bag."

He didn't move. "What do you want from it?"

"I'm too wound up to go to sleep. I have some pills that will relax me."

"Yeah. Right."

"This isn't Grady talking, Mulder. All I need is one tablet. You can watch."

"I intend to." He handed her the bag.

Scully unzipped it and rummaged with her free left hand. She withdrew a small brown glass bottle and extracted a single pill. She replaced the bottle in the bag.

Mulder took the bag. "Water?"

"Hot cocoa would be better. It's more relaxing."

He nodded and went to the kitchenette, making sure the bag was well out of her reach. He returned in four minutes with the chocolate. Scully took the pill with a swallow of the warm drink. She frowned up at him with exaggerated disappointment. "No marshmallows?"

He wagged a finger at her. "Not when you're on duty. I'll get on those windows." He left her sipping the cocoa.

 

Twenty minutes later Mulder reentered the motor home with an empty cardboard tube in his hand. Scully's bedroom was pitch black except for thin slits of light leaking around the corners of the accordion divider. She had lain down with her eyes closed. He held up the tube. "I used a whole roll of aluminum foil to cover the windows. Steeples will probably charge us extra for that."

She didn't open her eyes.

"Scully?"

"I'm here," she mumbled. "Should have taken just half a pill. Help me on with the mask."

He stretched the elastic band over the top of her head and positioned the mask to cover her eyes.

"How do I turn it on?" he asked.

"What? Oh. There's a ten-position dial on the upper edge of the mask. Turn it to setting number one."

Mulder gently lifted her head so he could see the upper edge of the mask. Set in the top was a tiny dial with a tab sticking up. He took the tab between his thumb and forefinger and turned it until the number 1 showed through a window on the dial. He lowered her head. "All set."

"Good. I need you to repeat my mnemonic to me. The one from last night."

"How long?"

Sleep slurred her voice. "What?"

"Scully, don't go on me yet. How long do I repeat it?"

"Oh. Keep it up at least until you see the lights flash the first time. It shouldn't be... too.... "

"Scully?"

Mulder reached out to shake her but stopped short. He settled himself on the floor, opened her dream log and began reading the litany out of it. After the fifteenth time he caught himself nodding. Five minutes later his head sagged again. The motion woke him. He snapped his head back up so fast the muscles in his neck cramped. Mulder slouched enough to lean his head against the edge of her bedside table. He managed three more repetitions before his eyes closed. Two more after that and his head tilted sideways. He was dead asleep when the mask began flashing.

 

 

24

 

Northeastern Corner of Yardley County
Sunday, 10:13 A.M.

 

Moist heat fanned Scully's closed eyelids. She cringed as a spatter of hot something struck her forehead. Low, undulating sound bored into her ears. She opened her eyes and screamed.

Suspended face down in steamy air, she hovered over a boiling sea of blackness. Thick-walled sluggish blisters bulged up from the turbulent surface and burst. Their walls broke into mutated fingers that clawed toward her face. She flinched sideways. The boiling liquid stretched to the horizon.

She gazed back down in horror. Rising bubbles glowed with a ruddy light that washed the scene blood red as they burst. The pulses of crimson reminded her of something she needed to remember. She turned her focus inward, the distracting turbulence pulled away, her panic calmed. Scully strained to remember.

A huge bubble heaved the center of the broiling liquid upward. A jagged hole opened in its center and exhaled its dank breath at her. A heavy stickiness clung to her arms, legs and face. Memory fled.

Scully convulsed as the fetid odor assailed her nostrils. The dark surface drew nearer. She stared at the tumbling liquid pulsing with scarlet light.

Her forehead wrinkled. The light meant something.

Another enormous bubble broke the surface. As it ripped itself apart she rolled sideways. The exhale of foul gas missed her face by inches. Liquid fingers of black slime clutched at the air where she'd been.

Scully fought to control her thoughts. What had she been thinking about? What did she need to do?

The black sea's tortured surface filled the air with poisonous vapors as the boiling accelerated. The pulsing light teased her. From far off, Scully heard a whisper. She focused on it, tried to pull it in. As the voice grew in volume the liquid retreated.

Someone was saying something just beyond understanding. Red light flashed around her with the rhythm of a beating heart. What did it mean?

Sudden certainty struck her. The voice and the light were trying to tell her something so important her life depended on it. Scully concentrated her attention on the voice and the light. She caught a fragment of the whisper; something about seeing light flash...

The universe shuddered. She looked down to see the surface of the black liquid stretched tight. It took on a curved shape that bulged away from her. She followed the curve to the left. It shrank toward a dark infinity. Her eyes rolled right. The black liquid curved up and over like a wave. Scully followed it around until she lay on her back. Oily darkness blocked half the sky as it arched high overhead. As cold terror gripped her heart, the wave crashed down on her.

The wave struck like a fist, smashing her deep into the blackness beneath. Vortices of liquid hate tore at her flesh. She opened her mouth to scream but oily liquid choked the helpless wail before it cleared her throat. The voice and light were driven away by the crashing torrent around her. Panic rose to her throat in waves of burning nausea.

The light and the voice struggled to fight their way through to her. She clutched at them and the panic eased; the acidic bite of the liquid dulled. The light and voice were her salvation and she clung to them with desperate strength. The more she thought of them, the more the smoky liquid retreated. She concentrated on the fragment of the whisper she'd heard, on seeing the light flash.

Scully repeated the words over and over. She imagined the red light by itself, pulsing. More words fought through the roar of the black sea. "When you see lights flash," it whispered.

The sea thundered waves of blinding fury at her. She struggled to keep her attention focused on the whispers. There was something familiar about the voice.

"When you see lights flash you will-"

A rushing current threw her upward out of the raging ocean. A pinpoint of pale light high above caught her eye.

"When you see lights flash you will recognize-"

It was her voice!

"-you are dreaming!"

Blinding realization burst upon her. She spun herself around to look down. The black turbulence fell away. The pulsing light was the cue from her mask; the voice was hers, repeating from habit what she'd asked Mulder to say.

Scully spun so she faced upward to look toward the pinpoint of light. It raced toward her; its soft pastel colors a painfully beautiful contrast to the surrounding blackness. She held up her arms to the cloud, beckoning it closer. Darkness peeled away from the edges of her vision as the bright cloud descended. It touched her fingertips with the sweetness of a child's kiss.

Something vile struck her in the back. Scully turned to see the blackness surging up on all sides, engulfing both her and the pastel cloud. Deformed projections of oily blackness ripped into the gentle light of the pastel cloud's being, tearing jagged gaps. The pastel cloud struggled back. Warm compassion flowed outward from it, blunting the stab of a malignant, black protrusion from the dark cloud. Scully followed the pastel cloud's lead. She focused on thoughts of love. Ripples of revulsion contorted the black wall surrounding them.

Scully concentrated all her energy on one spot. A gap opened. She drifted toward it making spreading motions with her hands. The hole widened. She flowed through the opening and summoned the pastel cloud. Together they poured out of the opening and into a gray vastness.

Scully turned to see the outside of the black sea that had engulfed them. A churning cloud of ebony hate radiated evil with blinding intensity.

She turned again to see the pastel cloud retreating. Scully's salvation rested on forcing the clouds to unite. Stretching her arms out impossibly long, she encircled both of them. Scully squeezed her arms together while thinking thoughts of joining, union, and balance. Blackness pummeled the pastel cloud. Pastel color flowed over the blackness in comforting warmth. Scully brought her arms closer together. Colors mixed, blended. Black softened to gray. Shades of color mingled. A seed of pure white began to glow in the heart of the combining entities. Scully closed her eyes and squeezed with all her will. The clouds collapsed into each other. Scully's arms came together. Her fingertips touched, her right hand slid along the outside of her left arm, drawing the circle tight. The insides of her arms closed around a small, warm shape. Scully opened her eyes to see what her arms held... and smiled.

 

 

25

 

Intersection of Avenue J and 240th Street
Yardley, Nebraska
Sunday, 11:47 A.M.

 

Mulder opened his eyes and thought he'd gone blind, everything was pitch black. With a jolt he remembered the aluminum foil, and Scully. His hand shot out over to the bed. It was empty.

Mulder felt along the bed frame. The handcuffs dangled unlocked. He slapped his right pants pocket where he'd put the key. It was empty. "Damn!"

He bolted up and slammed the partition open. The rich aromas of fried eggs and sausages struck him like a physical blow. Scully stood in the kitchen shaking a pan over a burner.  She waved at the dining table. "I thought breakfast would wake you. Sit down. It's ready."

Mulder slumped into the dinette's bench. His bleary eyes stared at her as she used a spatula to lift something heavy out of a fry pan and onto a plate.

She dropped the plate on the table in front of him. An omelet hung over its edges. "Sausage with four eggs. Okay?"

"Fine. Thanks," he said blankly. Mulder applied a fork to the omelet. "Good," he managed around a mouthful.

She joined him with a bowl of oatmeal. Mulder ate ravenously but keep his eyes on her.

Scully smiled. "You are looking at me like you expect me to explode at any second."

Mulder carefully placed his fork on the table. "In light of yesterday, you might."

"Relax. It's all over." She ate a spoonful of cereal, chewing thoughtfully.

"That's it? That's all you're going to say? What happened? Come on, Scully. Give."

She swallowed. "There's nothing to tell. I had a dream with both clouds. I recognized them for what they were and forced them together. They canceled each other pretty much the way you predicted they would. That's all. End of case."

He leaned forward. "There's got to be more to it than that."

"Who can remember all the details of a dream?" Scully looked out of the window at the Nebraska scruff.

"You can, for one. You're-"

"By the way. You need a refresher course in prisoner security. Never fall asleep with the key to your prisoner's handcuffs where she can find them."

"Scully-"

The toaster popped browned bread into the air. "Toast?" she asked.

"Please. Now, about what happened."

Scully got up and stepped into the kitchen. She returned with the bread, a jar of strawberry preserves and a tub of margarine. "Here. Clog an artery."

"Thanks," Mulder said slathering the toast and biting off a corner. "I'll do that. He chewed and swallowed. "Now, are you going to tell me what happened, or not?"

"I all ready have."

"You're hiding something."

She looked away. "Eat your toast, Mulder."

He glared at her.

Scully kept her attention fixed on the field outside. "Finish your breakfast. We have a long trip home." She smiled, a light breeze fanning auburn strands of hair back away from the smooth skin of her cheeks.

"What's the smile for?" Mulder asked.

"Can't you feel it? The heat's finally broken. The wind's turned cool."

Mulder sighed and started to butter the second piece of toast.

 

 

Assistant Director Skinner turned the pages of their report with his left hand as his right tapped the end of his pen on the desktop. Scully and Mulder sat across the massive desk from him. Mulder counted the beats of the pen. No tapping indicated Skinner was in a good mood and liked the report. One beat per second suggested impatience. Faster meant trouble. An irregular rhythm portended disaster. Skinner's tapping was both fast and irregular.

Skinner flopped the report closed. His right hand dropped the pencil and came up to massage the back of his neck. He kept his eyes turned down, the tendons in the hand's wrist stretched tight. Skinner finally raised his eyes. His big hands knotted into firsts. "Your explanation for the deaths is difficult to accept."

Mulder opened his mouth. Skinner stopped him with the flat of a raised hand. "Only my faith in Agent Scully's report of her personal observations permits me to accept it." His gaze shifted from Mulder to Scully. "Why did the entities travel in a straight line?"

"That's difficult to say, sir," Scully said. "The entities I experienced weren't conscious beings, just embodiments of emotions. There wasn't anybody there to interrogate. My impression was that they had no concept of the physical world. The entity born out of Henrietta Kamp's personality felt the threat of Grady Kamp's entity and fled in a random direction. Grady followed, instinctively driven to destroy her and anyone else he could. I think the line of propagation was straight because the concept of turning was beyond their cognitive powers."

Skinner massaged his chiseled jaw. "I can understand the Grady entity's inclination to kill based on Agent Mulder's psychological profile of the living Grady, but Mrs. Kamp seemed innocuous. Why did the entity originating from her personality cause accidents, even though they were non-fatal?"

"She... it, didn't know what it was doing," Scully said. "I don't believe it knew its original host had died: that it was itself, in a sense, dead. After inhabiting someone it must have automatically tried to take over. The resulting disorientation resulted in the accidents. Without the murderous intent embodied in the Grady entity, there was small likelihood that a momentary loss of balance or vision would be fatal."

"Why were only women infected?"

Mulder leaned forward. "The entities were born in the mind of a woman. I believe that created a natural affinity for the female psyche."

Skinner flipped back the top two pages of the report and re-read a line in the middle of the third page. Without looking up he asked, "Where were these entities when they weren't inhabiting someone?"

"I have no idea," Scully said. "I'm looking into that-"

Skinner and Mulder stared at her. Scully pursed her lips and turned her eyes away from their scrutiny. Skinner let the pages of the report drop closed again. "Agent Scully, have you experienced any negative side effects from your experience with these entities?"

"No, sir. No negative effects."

Skinner waited but she didn't elaborate. He flipped to the last page. "Twenty-five people died."

"It could have been more," Mulder countered.

Skinner grunted and scribbled his signature at the bottom of the final page. "Very well. That's all. I'll inform you of your next assignment."

Scully and Mulder stood and turned toward the door. "However," Skinner's voice halted them. "I'm disallowing half of the rental cost of the motor home. Next time find something cheaper."

Mulder opened his mouth.

"You may go, Agent Mulder."

Mulder swallowed his complaint. "Yes, sir," and walked out the door.

 

 

"I'll pay it," Scully said as the door to Skinner's office snicked closed.

Surprise played across Mulder's face. "Thanks, but why?"

"Let's just say I didn't come away empty-handed, you did. This will even things out."

"You're being mysterious again."

"A woman's prerogative." She turned and walked away.

Mulder's brow knitted as he stared after her.

 

 

26

 

 

Agent Dana Scully's Apartment
Tuesday, 12:50 A.M.

 

Scully was walking along the side of the road when a billboard's flashing light caught her attention. She smiled, realizing the flashing was the cue from her mask. She repeated her mnemonic and the landscape blossomed with the brilliant clarity only possible in a lucid dream. "Clear." she ordered.

Everything dissolved into a featureless gray plane. Scully stopped walking. Listened. Waited. "Dana!" a little girl's voice screamed joyfully.

Scully turned toward the sound and bent down. A nine-year-old girl with auburn pigtails ran up and threw herself into Scully's outstretched arms. "I did what you said! I stayed away." The girl's voice bubbled with joy and pride.

"You did fine," Scully said returning the girl's hug. "It's important not to interfere when I'm awake."

"I know. I'll be good."

The girl ran a quick circle around Scully. "What are we going to do?"

Scully took her by the hand. "What would you like to do?"

"A tree! I want to climb in a tree!"

"I think that can be arranged."

Scully focused her attention ten yards to their left. A broad oak sprang out of nothingness. "Yippee!" the girl screeched and dashed toward it. "You coming?"

"I'll just watch. You have fun."

A park bench materialized in front of the tree. Scully settled herself on it and watched as the laughing girl hurled herself onto a low branch and hung upside down by her knees. Scully smiled. "Be careful not to fall!"

 

THE END

 

 

Disclaimer: X-Files is the property of Fox Television and Chris Carter. Only the story elements particular to Dreamer are the property of the author and may not be used without his permission.

 

The inspiration for this story came from my own experiences with Lucid Dreaming, a real, scientifically verified phenomena which has absolutely nothing to do with the paranormal. The psychic element that was introduced for the sake of the story is completely fictitious. For more information about real lucid dreaming, please click here: LUCID DREAMING.

 

 

 
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