PLAYER: Scully and Mulder investigate the disappearance of the X-Files' first agent.

 

 

1

 

Original FBI Headquarters Building
Basement office
1955

 

  Stevenson knew he had to disappear.

  If the phone he'd just hung up had been tapped, he only had minutes to make his escape. He jumped out of his chair and up ended the cardboard box next to his desk, sending an avalanche of paper coffee cups clattering to the floor. Stepping to the office's solitary green file cabinet, he yanked open its top drawer and ripped out every folder marked with a green dot. He threw them into the box and slammed his way down through the drawers, snatching up all similarly marked files until he came to the last drawer; it jammed halfway open. He rattled the handle trying to free it. He froze at a faint ding from the elevator in the hallway. They were coming.

  Stevenson grabbed all the files he could reach out of the half-opened drawer and stuffed them into the box. He kicked the drawer closed as he dashed out of the office. The leather soles of his shoes skidded on the hallway's gritty floor as he scrambled left towards the utility door at the end of the corridor. He glanced at the elevator's indicator as he passed. Its tarnished brass arrow slid silently past the halfway point between the ground floor and basement. They'd be here in seconds.

  He knew the elevators and stairways would be guarded. He hoped they hadn't thought of the basement's maintenance access. If they had, he'd be dead within the hour.

  Stevenson fled down the hall. At its end he pounded the access door's locking cleats open with a fist and pulled on the handle. It wouldn't budge. He braced his right foot against the wall and heaved backward. The door ground open on rusty hinges revealing a lightless corridor. Behind him, the elevator tinged its arrival and the doors began to open.

  Stevenson tightened his grip on the box and stepped into the darkness.

 

 

2

 

Office of Special Agent Dana Scully
New FBI Headquarters Building
Monday, 1:35 P.M.
1995

 

  The phone's ring jarred Dana Scully's hand. Three capital T's in the middle of the word autopsy stared at her from the top of the computer monitor. She ran stiff fingers under her shoulder-length auburn hair to massage the back of her neck. She brushed the hair back into precise position and picked up the receiver. "This is Agent Scully."

  "It's Jill, Dana."

  "How are things in records?"

  "Wouldn't know. I'm filling in for Kimberly at Assistant Director's Skinner's office while she's taking an experience-broadening assignment in cryptography."

  "Oh. Well, if you're calling for that report tell Skinner-"

  "It's not that but AD Skinner does want you and Mulder in his office at three."

  Scully cradled the phone in the crook of her neck to free her right hand. She pulled back the cuff of her navy blue suit to check the time on her watch and double checked the time against the wall clock. "It's one-forty now. That's short notice but I can make it. Have you called Mulder?"

  "Tried. No good."

  Scully's eyebrows came together. "He told me he'd to be in his office all day."

  "Maybe he's hiding."

  The corners of Scully's small, full mouth turned upward. "I wouldn't put it past him. Don't worry about it. I'll go down and inform him in person about the summons. Can you tell me anything about the meeting?"

  "Mr. Skinner didn't say."

  "What sort of mood is he in?"

  "Edgy. He got trapped into an all-morning session with the director that jammed his schedule for the rest of the afternoon."

  Scully massaged a temple. "Okay, Jill. We'll be there. Early if possible." She hung up, read her watch, checked it against the wall clock again, and turned back toward the computer. She backspaced over the three T's and started typing.

 

 

  Scully studied the long, narrow basement office of the X-Files, the nation's focal point for criminal cases involving unexplained phenomena. It was a mess.

  In addition to the usual clutter of photographs, notices, and posters that wallpapered the office, three-foot stacks of case files grew upward from every horizontal surface. Half hidden by the paper stalagmites, Special Agent Fox Mulder sat on the floor with his legs twisted in a lotus position. He was scribbling on a clipboard.

  "I like what you've done to the place," Scully said with a straight expression. She stood outside the door wondering if she really wanted to negotiate the maze of files to enter the office.

  Her mid-thirties age, pageboy haircut and trim blue business suit gave the impression she was of one of the agency's secretaries. It was an impression she cultivated. Three federal prisons held twenty-seven felons who'd underestimated her because of it and paid the price. In addition to being an experienced field agent she was a medical doctor, possessed one of the sharpest minds in the bureau and out-shot Mulder during the last firearms qualification test.

  Mulder looked up with a boyish smile. "I'm making use of the interior design minor I took in agent school."

  She cocked an eyebrow at him. "What grade did you get?"

  He chuckled. "Actually, Harriet in records caught me pencil-whipping the file inventory. She's threatened to report it unless I get a completed one to her by the end of the day."

  "Then you might as well turn yourself in now. Skinner wants us in his office in one hour."

  "I'll make it. Just hand me the last files out of that cabinet by the door. It'll only take a few minutes to log them."

  Scully threaded her way to the indicated cabinet. She eyed it suspiciously. The cabinet's green enameled sides were covered with dozens of dried-out labels, testimony to a long FBI career. "This old fellow should have been retired a long time ago."

  "A little reverence, please. That's cabinet number one, the first X-Files cabinet. I had it brought over from archives."

  "Why bring it here?"

  "Thought it might bring us luck." He smiled. "It's already working. I found five old files in it."

  Scully checked the top four drawers: empty. She bent to open the bottom drawer. It came out reluctantly and rewarded her with three thin files. She scanned the dates; they were forty years old. She nudged the drawer closed with her foot. It snicked shut then popped back out. A firmer push seemed to lock the drawer in place but before she'd taken a step it popped open. She bent to investigate.

  Scully couldn't see anything on the side rails that would block the drawer's closure. She squinted over the back of the drawer toward the cabinet's rear wall. Half hidden in the darkness, she spotted the corner of something behind the drawer. "Looks like a pad of paper is jamming the drawer."

  "What's that, Scully?"

  "Nothing. Just a second."

  Scully wriggled her hand into the cabinet. Her fingertips stretched, touched the edge of something that flexed with easy pressure. She gripped it between two scissored fingers and pulled. A stack of papers plopped into her hand.

  Scully pulled her arm out. A fourth file lay on her palm. Thick dust crusted the top edge. She turned the folder over. A faded label with a large green circle clung precariously to the folder's tab. All she could read on the title label was a name, Stevenson, and a date, 1954.

  Scully shrugged and added it to the other files. When she dropped the files on the floor next to Mulder they coughed dust on his dark blue slacks. Mulder slapped at the dust. "Thanks."

  "Sorry."

  "Forget it. I'll meet you outside Skinner's office."

  She gave him a grave look. "Be sure you're on time. Nothing's happened to make Skinner mad at you in over a month. Don't spoil your winning streak."

 

 

  Scully leaned her chin on the palm of her left hand and stared at the floor of Assistant Director Walter Skinner's office. "I knew it was too good to last," she whispered to herself.

  "What was that, Agent Scully?" Skinner asked, his voiced strained. He didn't looked up from the document he was reading.

  "Nothing, sir," Scully said. She sat up straighter in the hard mahogany chair facing the director's desk. The top of his bald head floated above the edge of the folder in front of him. His broad shoulders reached far beyond the sides of the folder.

  The wall clock chimed a quarter past three.

  "Right," he said slamming the folder on his desk. "Find Mulder and tell him I want both of you in this office first thing tomorrow morning." Skinner scribbled his signature on the document he'd been reading, tossed it onto a stack on the left side of his desk and grabbed a new folder from the pile on the right. She'd been dismissed.

  "Damn!" Scully said once she'd pulled the door closed and marched down the hallway to find Mulder, her eyes flashing with the same determination they had when she hunted a dangerous criminal.

 

 

  The lights burned in Mulder's office as if he planned to return at any moment. Scully's foot-taps filled the long, narrow room as she walked around the stacks of files that still littered the office. The file inventory lay on the floor halfway between where Mulder had sat and the office's door; it looked like he'd dropped it because something more important had captured his attention.

  Scully scooped up the inventory and ruffled through it to the last page. Information on the four files she'd given him filled the form's bottom lines. Scully threw the inventory onto Mulder's desk. With fists on her hips, she turned a slow full circle, surveying of the office. Nothing indicated where he'd gone. A small, blinking red light on his telephone caught her attention. She pressed the play button.

  Harriet's strident voice erupted from the speaker. "Mulder! Your time's up and there's nowhere you can hide that I won't find you!" The crack of Harriet's disconnect rattled the speaker.

  Scully left a note on the door repeating Skinner's order and Harriet's threat. She made the rounds of Mulder's usual haunts: the library, records and computerized data retrieval. Nothing. She stopped on the way to her apartment to check at La Casa San Domiges, his favorite restaurant. No one had seen him. Before driving away she keyed her cellular phone to life. She tried his number. No answer. She dialed his home.

  "You've reached the Mulder residence, please leave a message at the tone." The phone bleeped.

  "Mulder, it's Scully. Pick up the phone." Her voice was calm. She'd worked with him long enough to realize that while his disregard for bureaucratic courtesies caused many awkward moments, he wouldn't abandon her to weather Skinner's wrath without good reason. She trusted him and his judgment without reservation.

  Static hissed out of the receiver.

  Scully sighed. "Skinner wants us in his office first thing tomorrow. Either be there or let me know that you won't. I don't want to face him by myself again." She tossed the phone onto the passenger's seat and headed for the parking lot's exit.

  Fifteen minutes of cross-town maneuvering brought her to the comparative safety of Highway 50 heading towards Annapolis. Taillights trailed red streamers in a dirty drizzle that had blown in off Chesapeake Bay. As the first drops splashed her windshield, Scully backed off an additional twenty feet from the car in front of her. A old Triumph Spitfire charged into the opening. She backed off again. The car behind her flashed its lights. She glared at its headlights in the mirror.

  The car pulled left. The driver's silhouette leaned toward her to leer disapproval as the car flashed passed. It was too dark to see if it was a man or woman.

  Scully tried in vain to look for Mulder's Toyota among the cars flowing alongside her. He had to be out there in the darkness, somewhere. She felt a nervous tingle of concern begin to grow in the back of her mind. Her fingers tightened on the steering wheel. "What was it, Mulder?" Scully whispered into the night. "What pulled you away?"

 

 

 

3

 

Special Agent Dana Scully's Apartment
Annapolis, Maryland
Tuesday, 5:30 A.M.

 

  Scully winced as her bare feet touched her apartment's cold floorboards. She pulled on a white terry cloth robe, slipped into a pair of open-heeled slippers and headed for the bathroom, the slippers gently slapping at the soles of her feet. She splashed frigid water on her face, applied the scant amount of makeup she permitted herself and went to select a dress.

  Three dark blue and two black suits hung exactly three inches apart in the center of the closet. On the right a shamrock-green suit languished in obscurity. Next to it two transparent plastic clothing bags protected her evening dresses. Scully frowned at the dust that had collected on the bag's shoulders, evidence of a limited social life. She willed her attention back to selecting work clothes.

  FBI regulations specified agent's clothes had to be of a uniform, solid, subdued color. Most agents interpreted this as navy blue or black. Smiling with defiance, Scully took down a snow-white silk blouse and the green blazer and skirt. The suit's color would set off her auburn hair. She justified the decision by reasoning that small challenges to FBI authority like this helped maintain her individuality.

  Scully took advantage of the weather to breakfast at a sidewalk cafe half-a-block up the street from her apartment. Although the night's storm had blown away the previous evening, the streets still sparkled wetly and the pedestrians walking along them seemed uncharacteristically happy for the early morning DC crowd.

  Scully sipped black coffee, nibbled a piece of unbuttered, whole-wheat toast, and extended smiles to the men who gazed appreciatively at her as they passed the restaurant. The FBI's tight professionalism seldom placed her in situations where she could receive such attentions. Her smile widened as she wondered what these men would think if they knew she carried a nine millimeter automatic in her purse.

  Scully's logical mind recognized that all this good fortune must be balanced by some catastrophe in the future. This realization didn't stop her from enjoying the morning. If anything it increased her pleasure because she reasoned she might as well enjoy the good moments as long as they lasted. The catastrophe struck in Skinner's office; Mulder failed to show.

  Dark bags under Skinner's eyes gave evidence of a long night. He was primed for a major blowup.

  Scully squirmed on the polished seat of her wood chair. Please, not again, Mulder.

  The hands of Skinner's wall-clock had just ticked off another minute closer to Mulder's doom when the office door burst open. Mulder lurched through, staggered forward and collapsed into the chair next to Scully without waiting for an invitation from Skinner. His rumpled suit and open tie violated Skinner's imperative that agents be presentable at all times. Skinner's eyes drew tight behind his wire-rimmed glasses. "I've just about had it with you Mulder-"

  "Who's John Stevenson?" Mulder cut in, his voice ragged with fatigue.

  Even in the best circumstances it was dangerous to interrupt Skinner. Under the present conditions Scully thought it bordered on suicidal. She winced in anticipation of the explosion. It didn't come.

  Skinner's eyes widened as his angry glare gave way to cold scrutiny. "Where did you hear that name?"

  Mulder wiped a hand across his face. "I came across an old file while inventorying the X-Files case histories. From the amount of dust it must have been there forty years. The date of the last entry is June 5, 1954. The name of the agent in charge was John Stevenson."

  Skinner drummed stiff fingers on his desk top "Why are you interested in such an old file?"

  "It's still open, sir."

  "Most of the cases in the X-Files are open, that's why they're there instead of the archives."

  Scully noticed Skinner focusing his comments on the file. He's trying to pull attention away from Stevenson.

  "Sir," Mulder said. "John Stevenson isn't listed in any other X-File. In fact there is no record of any agent in the FBI at any time by that name. It took me all yesterday and last night to find that out. Not only was he never an agent, but there is no record of anyone with his social security number."

  Skinner leaned back without taking his eyes off Mulder. "Where is this file?"

  Mulder extended his right hand, which held the file Scully found yesterday. She recognized it from the green dot on its tab. Skinner took the folder and put it away in a drawer without looking at it. He studied Mulder. "You're tired Agent Mulder. Go home and get some sleep. See me tomorrow morning." Skinner took a folder from the right hand corner of his desk and opened it.

  Mulder stared at him bleary-eyed. Scully stood and gently pulled Mulder from the room. In the hallway, she led him toward the elevator. She cast furtive glances at him as they walked. His eyes burned with unanswered questions. She'd seen this look often... too often. Every time a case hinted at the unexplainable it was stamped as an X-File and sent to Mulder. With the unique ability to perceive patterns undetectable to others, Mulder had gained a reputation for solving these impossible cases. This landed him the position of caretaker of the X-Files. Considered by many a thankless, dead-end job, it was a perfect match for his talents. When a new X-File turned up Mulder became obsessed with it, refusing to let go until the case was solved. She sighed. The Stevenson mystery had all the hallmarks of being the type of case to set Mulder off.

  They stepped into the elevator. Scully pushed the ground-floor button. Her stomach jumped as the elevator dropped away. Since they began working together, Scully had seen determination burn in Mulder's eyes many times. She knew it was useless to argue against involvement in a pointless search. All she could do was deflect him towards a more reasonable path than he'd normally choose. She looked over at him. "What will you do now?"

  He shrugged. "Go home and sleep."

  Her eyebrows lifted a fraction of an inch. "You usually want to rush into new cases."

  He managed another weak shrug. "This one's over forty years old. It'll hold. Besides," Mulder smiled wanly, "it's not often Skinner gives me a day off to sleep. I don't want to waste the opportunity."

  Scully's face grew troubled. "I've never known him to behave like that. Whoever Stevenson was Skinner knows something about him and doesn't want to talk about it."

  Mulder rubbed the back of his neck. "It's more than that. The file clearly identifies Stevenson as an FBI agent, yet every trace of him has been buried. Someone went to a lot of trouble to erase his existence. The little I discovered indicated that the cover-up occurred long before Skinner was in a position to be involved."

  Scully grimaced. "A forty year conspiracy to eliminate all records of an agent's existence is a little hard to swallow. Wouldn't a more likely explanation be that the name was entered in error?"

  Mulder shook his head. "His name and social security number are recorded on four different places in the file. The same error couldn't have been made that many times. Besides, although I couldn't find anyone with that name and number I did find his social security number had been issued, then deleted. It's never been reissued." Mulder spread his hands. "If he didn't exist the number would have been given to somebody."

  The elevator jarred to a halt and opened its doors with a sigh. Mulder walked away, waving a feeble good-bye over his shoulder as he passed out the building's rear door to the parking lot. Scully watched his feet drag over the blacktop. Twice a toe caught on the uneven surface almost sending him sprawling. He tumbled into his blue Prelude and drove away. Scully about-faced and marched towards the computerized records department. Determination glinted in her eyes.

 

+++

 

  The door snicked shut behind Scully and Mulder.

  Skinner looked up from his reading and stared straight ahead. Twice he reached for the phone but stopped halfway there. His eyes dropped to the left-hand desk drawer holding the Stevenson file. Skinner blew out an angry breath and picked up the phone. He dialed a carefully memorized number without going through his secretary. After a single ring, and the empty ten-second wait he'd gotten used to, a barely audible click announced his party had picked up. Skinner's frown turned sour.

  "Speak," a quiet, low voice commanded.

  Skinner took a slow deep breath to calm the bile churning in his stomach. "We have a problem."

 

 

 

4

 

Special Agent Fox Mulder's Apartment
Alexandria, Virginia
Tuesday, 9:30 A.M.

 

  Mulder fumbled with his keys until the one to his apartment found its way into the lock. He shouldered the door open and kicked it closed as he stepped into the living room. His bleary eyes studied the hallway that led to the bedroom. He shook his head and reeled left, took one step along the narrow path between a sofa and a coffee table, and dove onto the sofa. He was asleep before it stopped shaking from the impact.

 

+++

 

  The computer hummed five seconds after Scully punched in Stevenson's social security number. Satisfied it had chewed through all available data banks the machine filled its monitor with information on Alice Marie Thorndyke, 1524 Lexington Court, Luthor, Wisconsin. It listed her telephone number, job history, and an insidious criminal record consisting of three overdue parking citations. Scully's eyes narrowed.

  The social security number she'd entered was supposed to belong to the nonexistent Stevenson. Mulder said the number had never been assigned to anyone else. She reentered it. Nothing changed. She crossed-checked Miss Thorndyke's parking tickets via the local state records. Everything matched. She tried calling Alice Thorndyke but the attempt got shunted to a recording that stated the number was no longer in service.

  Scully knew Mulder was erratic, impulsive and jumped to outlandish conclusions, most of which she grudgingly admitted turned out to be correct, but he was never sloppy. Dead tired he'd make the same double checks she had.

  The disconnected phone bothered her. She called up the records management program and asked it when the last update to Alice's record had been made. The computer hummed another five seconds before displaying the answer: 0942 hours, fifteen minutes ago.

  Scully froze, then quickly logged off the computer. As she left the records department she thanked the attendant behind the reception desk.

  "Find what you needed?" he asked

  "Yes and no," she threw back over her shoulder as casually as possible. "Agent Mulder couldn't find something last night but he must have made an error while typing. It turns out there was no mystery where he thought there was."

  The attendant laughed. "Spooky looking for ghosts again?"

  She forced a smile. "Something like that. This time the ghost has an address and telephone number." Before the door swung closed Scully glanced back in time to notice the attendant reach for the phone. A chill worked its way up her spine. She hurried away.

 

 

  Scully kept as busy as possible trying to avoid thinking about what Mulder may have gotten them into. She used the rest of the morning to check the autopsy report of a suspected terrorist found dead three days before his act of terrorism was supposed to occur. She found nothing wrong with the resident doctor's analysis and said so in her report.

  She finished the day off in the X-Files office completing the inventory, getting it to Harriet, enduring the lecture meant for Mulder and putting the files back in their cabinets. Scully carefully avoided looking behind any more drawers.

 

+++

 

  Something jabbed sharply into Mulder's side. He tried shooing it away but the pain stayed with him, ground deep, gnawed between his ribs. Half asleep he grumbled a compaint. The pain grew. Mulder jackknifed up to a sitting position, eyes wide. "What?"

  He rubbed sleep from his eyes and blearily looked around the empty living room. His hand patted the sore ribs and found his shoulder holster and automatic had gouged into his side. Mulder peeled off his jacket to unsling the weapon, stretched and headed for the bathroom.

  Shaved and showered, he examined his reflection in the mirror. A reasonably human-like face grinned back at him so he concluded he was back to normal except for a feeling like jet lag.

  His stomach growled for attention so he shuffled into the kitchenette. With his eyes on his right hand as it reached for a bowl, his left felt its way into a cabinet and grabbed the box of breakfast cereal against the left-hand side of the cabinet: sugarcoated corn flakes. Although cavalier about housekeeping, Mulder paid meticulous attention to the order of his cereal boxes. He didn't have to look to know where his favorite should be.

  He added milk to the bowl and upended the box. A deluge of shredded wheat filled the bowl to its brim. "What the...."

  Mulder stared at the box. A label proclaiming its health benefits leered back at him. He dropped the box in disgust. Scully had badgered him into buying it during one of her eat-health lectures. He peered into the cupboard. The frosted flakes were three boxes out of line; between the Jet Puffs and Chocolate Crunch Bears. A sensation like a dead fingers clawing at his soul sent a shiver through him.

  He knew in an instant his apartment had been searched. Mulder didn't know who but was able to guess what they wanted. Mulder smiled to himself. They couldn't have found it.

  He didn't bother to check the rest of the apartment. His causal attitude toward neatness would make it impossible to detect additional evidence of the search. Instead, he grabbed the box of sugar coated flakes and poured a generous helping into an uncontaminated cereal bowl. Eyes distant, he crunched away without noticing he'd forgotten to add milk.

  After the last flake met its fate, Mulder dropped the dishes in the sink and leaned his hands on the counter. He needed to talk to Scully where they couldn't be overheard and needed to warn her that they were being watched.

  A light came into his eyes. Asking her on a date, something he never did, to a noisy location would solve both problems. He bent over to pick up a crumpled newspaper on the floor next to the trash can. His eyes lit up when he spotted a softball game scheduled that night. Mulder smiled. Scully hates softball.

  He picked up the phone and dialed her number.

 

+++

 

  Scully centered a fresh, blank writing tablet on her desk and placed a pencil parallel to it. She adjusted her desk's blotter square to the desk. Satisfied, she examined her office to make certain everything was in order for tomorrow. The phone rang and she picked it up.  "Agent Scully," she said into the receiver.

  "Hi, Scully, it's Mulder."

  "How was the day off?"

  "I don't know. I slept through it."

  She smiled. "Lucky you, some of us have to work for a living."

  He chuckled. "Let me make it up to you. How about you and I catching a softball ball game tonight? I found a community college play-off that looks pretty good."

  Scully wrinkled her forehead. She hated baseball in general and softball in particular. Mulder knew this. Also, while they were close professionally, they had never developed an off-duty relationship. Mulder's asking her for a date was completely out of character. She realized that hidden in his invitation was the message that they needed to talk where they wouldn't be overheard. "Sounds great, as long as you buy me a hamburger."

  Scully loved hamburgers but avoided them for health reasons. Her request signaled she understood the meeting's true purpose. "By the way, I checked FBI records on John Stevenson's social security number. You must have typed it wrong because it belongs to an Alice Thorndyke. There's a complete history on her."

  Static buzzed out of her phone.

  "I must have entered the wrong number," Mulder said at last. "I was beat last night. Thanks for the follow-up. Now I can forget about it. After you stop by your place meet me at Battery Park." He hung up.

  On her way out of the building Scully reviewed everything Mulder had said. The only new item she came up with was his suggestion to stop by her apartment before their date. He wouldn't have mentioned something so obvious without reason. He's warning me about something.

 

 

5

 

Assistant Director Skinner's Office
Tuesday, 3:37 P.M.

 

  "-after you stop by your place meet me at Battery Park," Mulder's voice repeated tinnily out of the tape recorder.

  Skinner looked toward the chair hidden in his office's one dark corner. A sensuous ribbon of smoke undulated up from a cigarette in a hand extending out of the shadows. Skinner waited for the click of Mulder's phone being hung up before switching off the recorder. It was the second time they'd heard the tape. "The fake record seems to have convinced Agent Scully," Skinner said.

  The man in the shadows didn't say anything.

  "Mulder respects her opinion. He'll drop it. Especially after I find a case to keep him busy."

  The cigarette disappeared into the shadow. It's glowing tip brightened as air was pulled through with a hiss. The man blew a stream of smoke out of the shadows. "Possibly." He got up and walked to the private exit of Skinner's office. He was a gray man in a gray suit and seemed to blend into the office's background like a chameleon.

  Skinner found it hard to focus on him.

  The smoking man took another deep drag. "Watch them. Have your people report directly to me."

  Skinner ground his teeth. "I don't like having my agents followed."

  The gray man opened the door and looked back over his shoulder at Skinner. "Do you think that matters?"

  "And if-"

  "There is no if. Just do it"

  Skinner's eyes followed the fall of the ash the smoker knocked off his cigarette to accent his point. It hit the dark carpet and collapsed in a gray lump. When he looked up, the man was gone.

  Skinner's left hand balled into a fist... but his right picked up the phone and dialed. The phone hadn't finished its first ring before he heard it jerked to life. "Murkson?" Skinner said. "I have a job for you."

 

 

 

6

 

 

Dana Scully's Apartment
Tuesday, 5:22 P.M.

 

  Scully sorted through her keys by feel, unlocked the door to her apartment and stepped inside. She slipped her shoes off and wriggled her toes deep into the cool plushness of the hallway's carpeting, then froze. Something was wrong.

  The signs were subtle. A corner cushion on her blue sofa was out of line. The current issue of Intern Magazine on the end-table was no longer squared to the corner. The phone was crooked. Her apartment had been searched.

  It had been an expert job. Although trained to notice small details, the search would have gone unnoticed if Mulder's warning hadn't put her on guard.

  Scully began examining the room for signs of what they had been looking for. She stopped as she began opening the top drawer of the end-table, reasoning that if they wanted something badly enough to search an FBI agent's apartment they had also probably installed listening devices. She went into the den and locked her gun in the desk that supported the printer to her computer. Then she changed into a the sweat suit she'd been issued years ago at the FBI Training Academy in Quantico. Muttering loudly about its being cleaning day, she dragged an upright vacuum out its hiding place in the closet, grabbed a dust cloth and began working her way through the apartment. The vacuum's noise covered the sounds of her hunt.

  She spent most of her time with the cloth. Furniture with evidence of more intense scrutiny by the searchers received an extra thorough dusting. Comparing places that had been searched to those that hadn't gave her an estimate of the size and shape of their target. It was flat, thin, and the dimensions of a sheet of paper. Scully knew what it had to be.

  Satisfied, she finished the cleaning and got ready for her meeting with Mulder. Scully changed into brown plaid slacks and a loose-fitting, solid brown sweater. The sweater would hide the bulge of her automatic. While dressing, Scully alternately shuddered and relished the thought that she'd have to eat the hamburger Mulder was certain to find for her. She picked up her purse and left

 

  Scully felt like she was being carried along in Mulder's wake as he shouldered a path through the crowd jamming the field's entrance. Inside the stadium, they scrambled over bleachers for good seats. Out on the grass, red and blue uniformed players swung bats over their heads and threw balls back and forth. She thought it looked childish.

  Mulder leaned toward her to be heard above the roar of the crowd. "I bet you're glad we didn't miss the warm-up."

  "Next time I get to pick the cover." Her thin smile promised merciless revenge.

  "Next time you can also pay for dinner. Here's the burger you made me get you." He handed her a dinner-plate-sized bundle wrapped in paper made transparent with grease.

  Scully unfolded the package with the same enthusiasm she felt when checking petri dishes for bacterial growths. It was worse than she'd feared. Mulder had managed to find a restaurant that made triple bacon cheeseburgers. The sight of it threw her arteries into spasms. On the verge of throwing it away in disgust, its hot, cheesy aroma halted her in mid-motion. Scully knew if she took one taste she was lost. She took it.

  As her eyes closed on pleasure, she faintly heard Mulder's laugher from a long way off. It stopped and she guessed he'd started in on his own burger. She took another bite and Mulder, the players, and the roaring crowd all seemed to drift off.

  By the time she finished the game was well under way. Mulder regarded her with a sardonic smile as she used a napkin to wipe burger juice off her chin. "Don't say it, Mulder. Just because I had one hamburger doesn't mean I approve of your dietary habits."

  He shook his head. "Scully, It's not hard to imagine that there are people who make love less passionately than you ate that burger."

  She feigned attraction in the game. "I really have no idea what you're talking about."

  He gave her a knowing smile and turned to the game.

  Scully and Mulder let it work into the second inning before they scanned the crowd for signs that they were being observed. They gave up the impossibility of the task and decided to trust that the crowd's energetic clapping, stomping and shouting provided ample noise to confound any listener. Just to be sure, they kept their heads close and voices low.

  "I didn't see anyone following me," Mulder said.

  "Neither did I but that doesn't mean much. My apartment was searched. Yours?"

  Mulder nodded.

  "They were professionals," Scully grudgingly acknowledged. "I wouldn't have noticed anything without your hint. From the way they conducted the search I'd guess they looked for some kind of document. You copied the file I found, didn't you?"

  "Right. I dropped it in the mail. It'll be delivered to me tomorrow. I figured that was the safest way to keep it out of circulation until things cooled off."

  Scully took a sip of the thick vanilla shake he'd brought her and grimaced; she preferred strawberry. "What was in that file that interested you enough to crowd Skinner?"

  "It recorded Stevenson's investigations into five abduction cases that occurred in 1951. What caught my eye was that all of them occurred in Massachusetts within two hundred miles of Chimer. That's where my family lived when-"

  "Someone kidnapped your sister?"

  "Abducted," he corrected. "Although Samantha's disappearance was twelve years later the coincidence caught my attention. Then I noticed something odd about how Stevenson had organized the folder. What you found was just an overflow file for a much larger group of cases. I reviewed all the X-Files to see if there were any other sections of the master file but couldn't find anything. I should thank Harriet. That inventory saved a lot of time."

  Scully grinned. "I wouldn't go near Harriet for awhile. When I left her she was screaming something about there not being a statute of limitations for agents who submit false inventory reports."

  Mulder shrugged it off. "I tried a cross-check through John Stevenson's name and number. Nothing. Then I got the idea of looking for him by things that weren't there."

  Scully nodded. "Like looking for sweep marks to track someone who uses a broom to hide his tracks. You couldn't see the tracks but the broom marks show where he'd gone."

  "Right. That's how I turned up the blank social security number."

  "That number's not blank any more. The time and date of the most recent update was just minutes after we left Skinner's office."

  Mulder pursed his lips and nodded. "Which means Skinner's involved and whatever Stevenson was into still has enough importance to command immediate action. The inventory check turned up something else. The X-Files are filed chronologically with sequential file numbers. There are gaps in the numbers. Lots of them."

  Scully's brow creased. "I thought all that sort of information would have been destroyed in last year's fire?"

  Mulder smiled lopsidedly. "Harriet to the rescue again. She's assembled her own private collection of title pages from every file in the bureau just in case some disaster destroys the originals. I rummaged through it during her lunch break."

  "How many X-Files were missing?"

  "Thirty-three. If they'd been sent to storage it would have been annotated in the master index. It wasn't. It's my guess that these files shared something in common that someone decided was too dangerous to have around."

  A triple play brought the grandstand to its feet. Mulder jumped up to join the cheer.

  Mulder looked down at Scully who had remained seated. "Not enjoying the game?"

  "I'm faint with excitement," Scully stated flatly. Her eyes hardened. "When do we begin the investigation?"

  Mulder took his seat and studied her. "It's usually like pulling teeth to get you interested in an X-File. What's gotten you fired up for this one?"

  Her mouth grew firm. "This isn't an X-File. This case involves a missing agent and records. Besides, someone searched my apartment. That makes it personal. Was there anything in the file that gives us a starting point?"

  "Nothing on the five abductions themselves. In fact the circumstances on three of them suggest the victims may have simply run away."

  "And the other two?"

  Mulder's eyes sparkled. "They may be real abductions."

  Scully carefully placed her drink on the bench. Here we go again.

  Scully felt her subconscious shift into its skeptical mode but held the reflex emotion in check. She'd worked enough UFO related cases with Mulder to know that some extraterrestrial activities had indeed taken place.

  "Thanks," Mulder said.

  She shook herself back to the present. "What for?"

  "If I read your expression right, you just gave me the benefit of the doubt... and yes," he said before she could say anything. "I think the last two cases are instances of alien abductions. Unfortunately, the file only contains the names and addresses of the victims. We'll have to start there."

  "We may not be able to start at all, remember? Skinner wants to see us first thing in the morning,"

  Mulder expression became distant. "Do you think he had our places searched or did he just report to someone else and they took over?"

  Scully shook her head. "My guess is that he reported to someone else. Skinner's tough but he respects his agents. It would be hard for him to sanction a search of their homes."

  "Unless someone ordered him to do it."

  "You mean the smoking man."

  Mulder nodded. "It's the type of case he involves himself."

  Scully frowned. They'd never found out what the smoking man's position was in the FBI but it was obvious he had power and employed it ruthlessly. Bribery, destruction of evidence, even murder were tools he used routinely.

  Half the crowd jumped up as the home team hit a game-winning drive. They dropped with a sigh as the short stop nailed it and tagged the second-base runner out for a double play. The other half of the audience screamed to its feet. The players shook hands and the crowd started to disperse. Scully and Mulder struggled through the mob toward their cars. They stopped just outside the gate. The crowd's babble filled the air around them.

  Scully had to shout to be heard. "Shall we meet in your office before heading to Skinner's?"

  "Sounds good," he yelled back. "Later." Mulder turned right and dissolved into the crowd.

  Scully watched him disappear, then pushed and bumped her way through the crowd toward her car.

 

+++

 

  The man watched Scully and Mulder get into their cars and drive out of the parking lot. He lowered his binoculars. "Pat Murkson here, sir," he said into the headset clipped to his ear. "They just left."

  "Together?" a deep, quiet voice whispered out of the earphone.

  "No. Separate cars in different directions."

  The labored sound of someone sucking air through a cigarette came from the other end of the line. "Hmmm..."

 

 

 

7

 

Assistant Director Skinner's Office
Wednesday, 7:58 A.M.

 

  Skinner frowned at the sheet of paper.

  Properly typed in regulation black ink on polished bond paper it provided the date, sender's office symbol, Skinner's office symbol in the recipient's block and two words for the body of the text.

 

  Negative discovery.

 

  His frown deepened. He'd sent two top agents to search Scully's and Mulder's apartments yet they'd failed to find the copy of the Stevenson file Mulder was certain to have made. Skinner crumpled the paper and hurled it into a trash can.

  He needed Mulder, damn him. Needed him a lot. The X-Files were an annoyance he tolerated to keep Mulder's talent in his directorate. Half a dozen directors would love to get their hands on him.

  His eyes strayed to the private entrance to his office, the one the smoking man used. He needed Mulder too... as long as Mulder didn't get too close to the truth.

  Skinner scowled and stabbed an intercom key. "Jill, are they here?"

  "Yes, sir."

  "Send them in."

 

+++

 

  "Assistant Director Skinner will see you now," Jill said to Scully and Mulder. Scully nodded and stood. Mulder, eyes distant, hadn't heard the summons.

  "Mulder?" Scully tapped his foot with the toe of a dark blue pump.

  His head jerked up. "Huh?"

  "Time to meet our fate."

  "Oh, right." He pushed himself up and they followed Jill through the door to Skinner's office.

  "Here are agents Scully and Mulder as you directed, sir," she said and left.

  Scully sat at Skinner's invitation but before Mulder could join her, Skinner addressed him through tight lips. "Agent Mulder, when you're told to report to this office it is your first and most important priority to be here on time." Mulder opened his mouth to say something but Skinner cut him off. "Furthermore, your responsibilities are only to assigned cases. The salary you get from the FBI isn't a grant to work on anything that catches your interest. If you have free time to waste on unofficial investigations I'd like to know about it because there are seventy-nine overworked agents in this directorship who could use some help. Closing the X-Files office and reassigning you to conventional cases would certainly ease the workload on the rest of my agents. It's been done before, if you recall." Skinner paused to let the last statement sink in.

  Skinner pulled his wire-rims off. "We've had discussions like this before and little has come of them. You act like a third-grader who's told not to do something and promptly forgets about it as soon as he's out on the playground. You are an FBI agent sworn to dedicate your life to protect the people of the United States. In this directorship that means you obey my orders. Since you choose to ignore this and act like a child I've decided to treat you like one."

  Skinner picked up two pieces of paper in his right hand and held them out for Mulder to see. "These are formal reprimands that I am entering into your permanent record: one for involvement in an unauthorized case, the second for coming to work in a condition that would have made it impossible to perform your duties in a professional manner. I've also directed the finance office to subtract two days pay for the time you've wasted. Punishments like this are an insult to your professionalism and an irritation I don't need. If they get you to realize this is a job and not a hobby, so much the better. If not, I promise the severity of future punishments will escalate," Skinner's voice dropped an octave, "even to the point of your dismissal. You're on the edge, Agent Mulder, closer than you can appreciate. I strongly recommend you get with the program. You may sit down."

  Scully had watched Mulder's expression evolve from shock to embarrassment, anger and finally concern. Written reprimands in an agent's file were serious. She knew Mulder had little aspiration for higher management within the FBI but promotions were critical for him to maintain control of the X-Files. Two reprimands represented major obstacles toward this goal. She was equally surprised by Skinner's criticism of Mulder in front of her. Verbal admonitions were supposed to be private. She got the reason for it as Skinner turned his attention on her.

  "Agent Scully," he said in a tone only slightly less antagonistic. "It's no secret that you were assigned to the X-Files as much to keep Agent Mulder in check as for your technical expertise. The incidents of the last two days demonstrate you've failed to restrain Mulder. You are an outstanding agent with unlimited potential in the FBI. Don't compromise that potential by tolerating Mulder's loose-cannon approach to FBI work. I've purposely let each of you hear what I had to say to the other so you'd appreciate the seriousness of the situation."

  Scully and Mulder fidgeted uncomfortably under Skinner's granite stare. He lifted a folder from the active-assignment stack on his desk and handed it to Scully. "This is your next case. You are dismissed."

  Scully and Mulder left without a word and walked silently down the hall toward the elevator. Skinner's verbal reprimand had left Scully with a detached feeling, like everything around her had pulled twenty feet away. She glanced at Mulder and asked herself a question she hadn't considered in a long time. Who's earned my higher allegiance, Mulder or the FBI?

  The elevator door slid open. Agent Art Henderson strode out, recognized Scully and said, "Morning, Dana. Say, I was wondering if you'd like...."

  Scully brushed passed without being aware of him and keyed the elevator for Mulder's floor. She looked around for something to occupy her attention, anything to avoid eye contact with Mulder. She remembered the folder Skinner had given her and opened it. Her eyes stretched wide. "Mulder?" She tilted the folder so he could see.

  It was the Stevenson file.

 

 

8

 

Assistant Director Skinner's Office
Wednesday,8:21 A.M.

 

  The private entrance to Skinner's office opened. Pungent cigarette smoke assailed his nostrils, deepening his frown. The smoking man took one step into the office and stood relaxed, taking an occasional drag from his cigarette and watching Skinner.

  Skinner studied him: average height, nondescript coloring, unremarkable build and indefinable age. Skinner knew five minutes after the smoker left he wouldn't be able to remember enough details to draw a usable sketch of him. He'd tried it before and failed. The smoking man was the embodiment of the perfect agent. Skinner felt the muscles in his neck draw tight. But whose agent?

  The smoking man paused between puffs. "You did what I ordered?"

  Skinner gave him a single curt nod. "I don't think we should have given the file back to Mulder."

  The smoker swept the air dismissively with his cigarette, languid smoke marked its path. "Your men couldn't find the copy Mulder was sure to have made. You know as well as I he couldn't resist a case like this." He exhaled a billowing cloud of blue smoke toward Skinner. "Your little tirade would have hardly slowed him down. This way we can keep an eye on him. He may even find Stevenson." His lips shaped a smile.

  "Are you sure that's what you want?"

  The smoking man's laugh held no humor. "Of course it is. We've been hunting Stevenson forty years." He drew air in through the cigarette hard enough to make it hiss. "Mulder has a talent for this sort of thing. He may succeed where others have failed. If not, he'll get it out of his system. Either way we get what we want at minimal risk."

  "What will you do if he succeeds and Stevenson talks? Mulder could find out more than you'd like."

  The man shrugged. "We know how to handle such situations."

  Skinner's hands tightened into fists. "What will you do with Stevenson if Mulder finds him?"

  The smoking man's smile faded. "What my predecessors should have done forty years ago."

  "And Mulder? If Stevenson tells him what he knows?"

  The smoking man dropped his cigarette onto Skinner's carpet, ground it with a heel and left without a word.

 

 

9

 

Washington DC
Wednesday, 1:32 p.m.

 

  After stopping at Mulder's apartment for his travel kit, Scully and Mulder spent forty minutes on a traffic-jammed US 50 before they got to Scully's apartment to pick up her bag. They'd booked a shuttle flight out of Baltimore-Washington International Airport for tiny Katama Airport in the southeast corner of Martha's Vineyard. They were half an hour ahead of schedule when a jackknifed truck choked traffic to a crawl on Interstate 97. The ten mile trip took an hour.

  They had to run for the gate. Mulder beat Scully by a hundred feet. A short line had already formed behind him. Scully stepped up to the end of the check-in line and used her ticket to fan heat from her face. She saw Mulder smile at her from the head of the line. "Going light on the aerobics these days, Scully?" Mulder called back.

  As if mechanically linked, the heads of three business-suited men between them tracked his words back to Scully. "What I need are longer legs," she called forward.

  The three heads swiveled back toward Mulder. "Try moving yours faster."

  The heads gyrated back. "You're just needling me because I out-scored you again on the firing range last week." The three heads started to twist in Mulder's direction but jerked short and did a double take back to her. She smiled sweetly at them.

  They flushed, back-stepped, and waved her forward. Her smile broadened. "Why, thank you," she said and stepped up behind Mulder. The men fell into line but held back as far as possible.

  "Tickets?" the attendant asked. Scully and Mulder traded their stubs for boarding passes.

  They'd barely strapped on safety belts when the shuttle's propellers bit into the air and tugged the twelve-seater upward. Scully relaxed as the craft's acceleration pressed her deep into the seat's soft padding. The hypnotic drum of the plane's engines muffled their attempts at conversation so they leaned back to enjoy the ninety-minute flight.

 

  In Katama Scully rented a Toyota Corolla while Mulder collected their baggage. After they'd exited the airport she scanned the softly rolling landscape made fuzzy with knee-high, grass. "It's beautiful."

  Mulder nodded. "That's why Mom stays on here." His expression darkened. "That and her memories."

  "I'm surprised you suggested the layover at her house. I know there's tension between you."

  "I try to make contact every once in awhile. Usually, doesn't do either of us any good. Besides, if she found out I'd passed by without stopping it would just make things worse."

  Scully looked out at the scenery flashing by her window. "How long will it take us to get to her house?"

  "Twenty minutes."

  "About as long as it took Skinner the bring the hammer down on us."

  Mulder's smile faded. "I'm still not sure why he chewed us out like that."

  "Don't you think your actions justified it? You know he hates being stood up for appointments."

  "I was-"

  "Busy. I've heard it before."

  Mulder glanced at her. "What's with the lecture? Don't you think Skinner laid it on thick enough?"

  She pursed her lips. "Sorry. I'm just not used to being jumped on."

  Mulder flashed her a lopsided grin. "No? A pretty girl like you? I should think-"

  "Don't say it."

  He changed the subject. "What do you make of Skinner's actions?"

  Scully angled her head slightly to the right. "First he takes away the file giving us every indication he wants to bury it, then he gives you a day off. The next thing we know our apartments are searched and we have to use a baseball game to cover our meeting."

  "Softball. Good game, though."

  "I'll take your word for it."

  "At least you have to admit the burgers were good."

  Scully looked away. "The next day he drops a load of bureaucratic bricks on us. Finally, without blinking he hands us the very case he jumped all over us for investigating."

  She flapped Stevenson's file at him. "Looks like you needn't have bothered to make a copy of the file after all."

  "Maybe that's why we got the case. They felt they'd lost control so assigning us to it was the safest thing to do. This way they can keep an eye on our progress. Either way the copy won't go to waste. I asked a friend to check my mail. There's a note on the envelope to keep it safe until I get back."

  "The Lone Gunmen?" she asked skeptically.

  "Right." He glanced at her. "You're making that face again."

  She frowned at him. "Face?"

  "Every time I mention the Lone Gunmen you look like you bit into a lemon."

  Scully scowled.

  "See," he said. "You did it again." She opened her mouth to protest but Mulder cut her off. "Come off it, Scully. I know what you think of them but you have to admit they've been useful."

  Scully crossed her arms over her chest. "If you say so."

  Mulder returned his attention to the road. "As far as Skinner's actions are concerned it seems to me that he or cancer man initially followed established policy for dealing with anything associated with Stevenson or the missing files. After a more careful considered they decided it would be useless to try and stop my investigation, so they assigned us to the case."

  Scully rolled her window down. Fresh, cool air scented with the aroma of wet grass blew over her face. She rolled the window back up and shook her auburn hair back in place. "If Stevenson accomplished his disappearance with FBI approval and the bureau didn't want it discovered, Skinner would have done everything in his power to stop you. Instead he gives you carte blanche to proceed. That indicates Stevenson's disappearance wasn't supported by the FBI. They want Stevenson, or the files, badly enough to risk our learning something we aren't supposed to know."

  Mulder nodded. "Right. I wonder which they want more, Stevenson or the missing files?"

  "You assume Stevenson took the files?"

  "Yes. If the FBI wanted the files Skinner wouldn't have given us back the one you found."

  "Unless this file doesn't contain anything important. It may only be the other files that are dangerous."

  "Yes. But dangerous to whom?" he asked. Mulder settled down to the drive. Scully watched his eyes glaze as his thoughts drifted.  She recognized the signs that he'd already started juggling the facts of the case to find the thread that connected the pieces.

  Scully opened the file again. It pertained to five missing-person reports submitted between January and June of 1951. The local police in each case thought there was sufficient reason to suspect kidnapping so they requested FBI assistance. Agent John Stevenson out of the D.C. office was assigned as investigating officer. Scully's brow wrinkled.  Why a D.C. agent instead someone from the local bureau office?

  The locations of the disappearances were scattered throughout Massachusetts. There was no pattern to the sites, social-economic status, personal associations, or age of the victims. Other than their close association in time there was no reason to group the cases.  The first three appeared to be dead ends.

  Case number one involved nineteen year old Kathleen Brannigan. Her parents woke one morning to find her gone. All her clothes still hung in the closet. There was no note. Mr. and Mrs. Brannigan were wealthy and expected a ransom demand. It never came. Agent Stevenson followed the time-honored procedure of reviewing the local police report, inspecting the disappearance site, and interviewing everyone with connections to the missing person. The one person not interviewed by Stevenson was Kathy's boyfriend Philip Tyler. He'd disappeared too. Tyler's parents hadn't reported it because, in their own words, "he was a no-good bum and were glad to be rid of him." Philip had a lengthy criminal record he liked to boast about. Agent Stevenson's conclusion was that Kathleen ran away with Philip because her parents wouldn't approve of their marriage. He left the file open with a recommendation not to pursue the investigation.

  The second case concerned twenty-four year old Samuel Mane. His employer reported the disappearance when he failed to show up for work. A search of the shack he lived in outside of town disclosed nothing. His car was gone. When Stevenson interviewed Mane's six-months pregnant girlfriend, she'd said that he'd promised to marry her and she was certain something terrible must have happened to prevent him from keeping this promise. Stevenson found no evidence of foul play and recorded his belief that Mane had left town after getting cold feet about the marriage. For want of evidence to the contrary, the file had been left open.

  The third case involved elderly Joshua Evan who had last been seen on the porch of his house just before dinner. When he failed to come in when Mrs. Evan called, she went to get him. They'd just finished an argument so when she saw he wasn't there, she shrugged and went back inside to eat both portions of their pot roast and cabbage dinner. Three hours later Mrs. Evan called the police. An examination of the woods near his house revealed nothing. Heavy rains the next day hampered search efforts. Mrs. Evan insisted he'd been the victim of foul play and wouldn't let the local authorities rest until they found him or his body, she didn't seem overly concerned which. They got her off their backs by classifying the case as a possible kidnapping and referring it to the FBI. Stevenson's investigation indicated Mr. Evan may have been senile. There was a river nearby and in all likelihood he had wandered off and fallen in. Without a body the case could not be officially closed.

  The last two cases were different.

  Both involved seventeen-year-old boy scouts who had disappeared in wilderness areas. The incidents were separate. Each boy had been on a camping trip with his scout troop when he'd gone missing. Both had taken off alone for a short hike in the same state park but in areas twenty-five miles apart. The disappearances were separated by three days. The first boy's name was Michael Fitch, the second Allan Quintannin. In both cases the scout troops had followed the boy's footprints until they ended without a trace. Interviews with both groups of scouts disclosed nothing unusual about the boys' behavior prior to their disappearance.

  Agent Stevenson only spent two days on each of the first three cases but invested thirty-four on these and didn't quit until recalled by the D.C. office. He admitted complete bafflement. In the back of the case file, Stevenson had made a series of notes indicating he continued to investigate them up to late 1954.

  Scully went back over the file a second time to see what it could tell her about Stevenson, the agent. His entries reflected completeness, brevity, and precision. This was a man who had enjoyed his work and executed it diligently. The excessive amount of time spent on the last two cases indicated a willingness to get personally involved. Scully chewed her lower lip. Just like Mulder.

  They entered a stretch of road bordered by trees. Sun dodged through the boughs of elms overhanging the expressway and splashed the windshield with flashing patches of light and shadow. The flickering light pulled Scully's eyes away from the case toward the scenery. White, clapboarded cottages with grass-green shutters dotted the rolling green hills and vied with a deep blue sky for her attention. She smiled. The sidetrack through Martha's Vineyard had been a good idea even if it did stretch the bureau's definition of reimbursable travel.

  Mulder pulled right into a short driveway and stopped in front of his a cottage like the others Scully had seen but the white clapboards were a creamy hue and the shutters were a dark somber green. It gave the impression of a house in mourning.

  A stout, sandy-haired woman of medium height walked stiffly toward them as they climbed out of the car. "Fox," she acknowledge without smiling as Mulder walked up and stopped three steps away from her. They stood like granite headstones, heavy with reluctance to move.

  "Mom, I've asked you not to-"

  "It's your name, Fox. You shouldn't be ashamed of it."

  Mulder turned away. "You remember my partner, Dana Scully?"

  Scully shook her hand. "Hello again." The older woman forced a smile and nodded curtly then turned toward the house. Scully and Mulder grabbed their bags and followed. As Scully stepped into the living room, the aroma of pork roasting in sweet sauces engulfed her. "Smells wonderful."

  "Dixie pork chops. Fox's favorite." She faced her son. "At least it used to be."

  He started up the stairs. Scully took a step after him, then called back, "I look forward to trying them."

  "It'll be ready in half an hour." Mrs. Mulder hurried through the swinging door to the kitchen.

  Scully headed up the stairs. Mulder met her at the top and pointed to the first room facing the landing. "Yours. I'm down the hall to the left."

  She nodded and pushed the door open. Her room had light pink walls and white curtains that fluttered in a breeze coming in through an open window. She unpacked and lay back on the bed, thankful for the respite from a long day. She let her eyes close. A knocking brought her up sharply to a sitting position.

  "Scully?" Mulder's voice called. "Time for dinner."

  She stood, straightened her clothes and left. Mulder headed down the stairs without saying a word. Mrs. Mulder was standing rigidly behind a dining table that was covered in old heavy lace. Mulder took the seat on the right end of the table. Scully took the middle chair opposite his Mother. Mrs. Mulder lifted the cover off a large shallow ceramic pan. Inside, a dozen thick pork chops simmered in a meaty sauce sweetened with raisins. Aromatic steam billowed up from the bubbling dish. Scully's mouth began to water. She helped herself to side dishes of tossed salad and succotash and filled the rest of her plate with one of the huge pork chops, hesitated, then took a second. Mrs. Mulder managed a smile. "It's good to see a girl with an appetite."

  "Everything smells so good."

  Mulder flashed Scully the first real smile he'd had since they'd arrived. "Mom always was a good cook."

  His mother's smile faded. "I'm glad you think there's something I'm good at."

  "Mom..."

  "Never mind, Fox." 

  They finished the dinner in silence.

 

  After washing the dishes, they retired to the living room. Mulder started a fire then settled into an overstuffed sofa. Subdued anger crouched in shadows cast by the flames. Scully felt the mood darken as the fire burned low. "Fox," Mrs. Mulder said after a long silence. "You told me you thought your father was murdered by someone in the government. Do you still think so?"

  Mulder glanced at her, than turned back to the fire. "The man's name is Alex Krycek. We believe he works for someone we call cancer man. Dad knew too much about the government's experiments with UFO technology. He was going to tell me about them that night but Krycek got to him first." Mulder returned his attention to the flames.

  The fire snapped and popped into the heavy silence. Scully turned to his mother. "We cornered Krycek but he got away. Unfortunately, the organization he works for has the resources to keep him hidden."

  "And there's nothing that can be done?"

  Scully shook her head. "Nothing. We'd have to catch Krycek and keep his own people from killing him before he got to court."

  Mrs. Mulder's eyes rounded.

  Mulder rejoined the conversation. "It's true. They wouldn't hesitate to kill one of their own men if they had to. There'd be too great a chance he'd talk to save himself."

  "Dana? What about your sister? Fox told me how she died."

  Scully's eyes sought the solace of the flames. "Melissa was killed because the same people mistook her for me. I think Krycek was involved in that as well." Scully looked over at Mulder, he sat immobile letting sporadic flames spill orange light across the hardened lines of his normally youthful face.

  They sat in silence while the fire's embers dimmed from yellow to orange. Scully finally excused herself. Mulder and his mother stayed, searching the embers for something long lost.

 

 

 

10

 

 

Martha's Vineyard
Wednesday, 11:59 P.M.

 

  Pat Murkson wiped a gloved hand over condensation on the inside of car's window. All he accomplished was to soak the glove and distort his view of the Mulder residence. Murkson sighed and rolled the window down. He shivered as cold damp air flowed over him.

  He looked at his watch: time to call in. Murkson checked that the tape covering the indicator light to his phone was still in place. Kunder had forgotten to do so in Guatemala last month and the light's glow was enough for a sharpshooter to pick him off. Murkson wondered if Kunder had a family, not that it mattered.

  The tape was in place. Murkson tapped in the number. A dial tone buzzed once followed by a ten second pause. The phone clicked. "Speak."

  "Murkson, sir. Agents Scully and Mulder are down for the night. They're staying at his mother's house."

  "Did they spot you?"

  "They gave no indication of it."

  Murkson heard the drag of air through a cigarette. "Anything else?"

  "No, sir."

  "Continue your surveillance. Report as scheduled unless something important develops."

  "Yes, sir."

  The phone clicked. Murkson turned back to the house.

 

 

 

11

 

Martha's Vineyard
Thursday, 6:23 A.M.

 

  "Morning, Mom," Mulder said stepping into the dining room.

  Mrs. Mulder sat at one end of the table rolling a cup of coffee between her hands. "Fox," she said without looking up.

  Mulder sat down at the opposite end of the table. "What's for breakfast?"

  "Whatever you want...you know where the cereal is."

   "Perfect." He pushed out of his chair. "Seen Scully?"

  "She got up an hour ago. Had some toast and coffee and took off on a walk."

  Mulder elbowed his way through the kitchen's swinging door, grabbed some Wheaties, a bowl, milk, a spoon and headed back to the dining room. His crunching as he ate was the only sound to fill the silence of the room.

 

  "Having a light breakfast?" Scully asked as she stepped through the French doors at the far end of the dining room.

  Mulder stood up. "Just finished. Shall we go?"

  "Already? I though you wanted to-"

  "It's a long drive. The earlier we start the better."

  "Okay. If you really think we should-"

  Mulder turned and walked away, leaving his dirty dishes on the table. Mrs. Mulder didn't look up.

 

  Scully hefted her suitcase onto the rear passenger seat. Mulder was already behind the wheel. Mrs. Mulder had not come outside.

  "Mulder? Don't you want to say good-bye?"

  He gave his head a shake. "Let's just get going. This wasn't a good idea."

  She climbed in and looked at the house. A hand began pulling a window curtain aside, stopped, then let the curtain fall back into place. Mulder drove off.

 

  They drove north through North Tisbury and on toward Vineyard Haven. The West Chop Ferry carried them to the mainland at New Bedford. Heavy morning traffic pushing the speed limit got them halfway up Interstate 495 to Boston by eleven. "We could skip the first three cases," Scully said. "It's the last two that Stevenson spent the most time on."

  Mulder glanced over at her. "Normally I'd agree but I think we need to investigate all of them. After forty years there may not be many people left who remember Stevenson. Each case may only contribute a small piece of the puzzle but taken all together these pieces may provide an indication of what happened to him."

  "If Skinner wants to find Stevenson why didn't he give us more information? Unless it was Stevenson himself who carried out the cover-up and took the files."

  Mulder's forehead furrowed. "Why would he do that?"

  They looked at each other as the same thought struck both of them. Scully said it first. "To protect himself. Which raises an even harder question: protect himself from whom?"

  He nodded half to himself. "If we continue with the assumption that Stevenson took the files then he had to be running from someone in the FBI, or at least someone connected with the government. No one else would have had access to them."

  Scully's left eyebrow rose a cynical fraction of an inch. "Your assumptions pile up pretty fast."

  Mulder shrugged. "What else can we do with no information and a forty-year-old disappearance? We don't even know for sure when Stevenson left. The last dated entry in the file was in nineteen fifty-four but he could have been in the DC office up until the day before you found it."

  Scully jerked up straight. "Damn."

  Mulder twisted his face in mock disapproval. "Such language from a representative of the government."

  "I just realized we should have checked with records to see if blocks of files from any other offices disappeared in the last forty years. If we assume he took them all it might give us a clue where he worked and when he fled."

  "Now look who's making assumptions," Mulder said. He pulled out his cell phone and fingered the keys.

  Harriet's voice sliced the first the ring in half. "Records. FBI Headquarters. State your requirements."

  Mulder opened his mouth but stopped short. He stared at the phone like it had grown fangs. He palmed the phone's pickup. "Maybe you better talk to her."

  Scully grinned and took the phone. "Harriet, this is Agent Dana Scully. Would it be possible to check the records of all the files over the last forty years and see if there are any groups of missing files which haven't been accounted for?"

  "That check will require five hours work. I'll need a job order to log the hours against."

  Scully scanned the outside of the file and noted Skinner had penciled in the case's accounting number under the tab with the green dot. She read it off to Harriet.

  "I will inform you when we have the results. Please do not contact us for updates. That will only delay the report. Do you have any other requirements?"

  "No. Please call me back at this number when you get the list." She handed the phone back to Mulder. "Coward."

  He grinned. "Guilty as charged. Hopefully the search will nail down Stevenson's office assignment. Until then all we can do is start working from this end. Do you agree we should look into all of the cases?"

  "We better."

  Scully checked a map she pulled from the glove compartment. "Go left on route forty-four. It's the next turnoff. Kathleen Brannigan lived in a small town called Madison ten miles west of the interstate. It's just past Taunton."

  Mulder wove through traffic toward the right-hand lane just in time to make the off ramp. They turned left at the top and after crossing I-495, headed west on the 44. Breaks in the trees bordering the highway revealed green pastures dotted with red farm houses faded dusty-brown. Scully watched the bucolic scenery out of the corners of her eyes and smiled, thinking that considering how innocent this area seemed in these evil days, nothing very bad could have happened here all those years ago. They rolled into Madison at twelve and stopped at the sheriff's office to identify themselves.

  Chief of Police Carl Yeats greeted them warmly. He was forty-eight, eager to help, and knew nothing about the Brannigan case. "You must realize I was playing cowboys and Indians when this case was active," Sheriff Yeats said. "But if it's that important we can walk over to the courthouse and check the warehoused records. In a small town like Madison it shouldn't take long to track the files down."

  Scully and Mulder followed the sheriff outside. As they crossed the street to the courthouse, she looked up and down Madison's humming main street and smiled. It was a town of twenty thousand people supported by agriculture and a lawn mower factory. Defying the trend of small towns dying out, Madison prospered. The streets were clean, buildings well cared for and people walked hurriedly as if there wasn't enough time for their business. It would be a nice place to raise children. The thought reminded Scully of her own, single life and the smile faded.

  The courthouse was a Gothic structure that would have looked at home in an Andy Hardy movie. The court receptionist dropped soft, old hands from plumping a silvery-blue mass of hair and turned her attention towards them as they pushed through the building's brass-framed front door. "Hi, Carl."

  The sheriff walked over and patted her hand. "Morning, Gladys. These are Agents Scully and Mulder from the FBI. They need to take a look in the old files."

  Gladys nodded and waddled her plump shortness out from behind her desk. She beckoned them towards a basement stairway along the back of the foyer. They followed her down marble stairs to a room that echoed with the sounds of their footsteps. Closely packed file cabinets crowded the room from wall to wall. Sheriff Yeats led them towards the rear of the room to a cabinet labeled 1951. After Gladys unlocked it, he rummaged until he found the Brannigan file. It contained copies of Agent Stevenson's reports and depositions. Everybody had been certain Kathy ran off with Philip Tyler to raise a family. Everyone had been wrong.

  A June 7, 1956 entry recorded Tyler's confession to Kathy's murder. Her body was buried in a ravine one mile outside town. He'd been arrested in connection with another murder and after being sentenced to die, confessed to several additional crimes, one of which was Kathy's murder, in an attempt to have his sentence commuted to life imprisonment. The attempt failed. He died in the electric chair August 15, 1957.

  Madison police went to the burial site to recover the girl's body. The subsequent autopsy showed Tyler had tried to strangle her and when that failed, stabbed her to death with a pocket knife. She had been three months pregnant at the time. Madison stopped looking attractive to Scully.

  "Poor little thing," Gladys said.

  Scully turned to her. Gladys hadn't been in position to read the file. "Excuse me?" Scully asked.

  "Kathy Brannigan." Gladys said nodding at the file. "She was such a sweet, pretty girl. Nothing like that should have happened to her."

  "You know about this case?"

  "I should say so. Kathy and I were classmates in high school. Everyone told her not to get involved with that Tyler kid but she wouldn't listen."

  Mulder beamed his best smile at Gladys. "Why don't we go back upstairs for an interview."

  She nodded eagerly. As they turned to leave, Gladys called back to the sheriff, "be sure you lock up. And don't forget the lights this time."

  Scully double-checked the file. The third deposition was from a Miss Gladys Chambers, nineteen years old and a close friend of the missing girl. "Is there anyone else left in town who would have been old enough at the time of Kathy's disappearance to remember the case?" Scully asked.

  The sheriff shook his head. "Gladys is Madison's oldest original citizen since Serg Horwath passed away last month. Everyone else either moved away or died."

  Scully flopped the file shut and slipped ii back into the drawer. "I guess that's that."

  Yeats scratched the back of his neck, "I wonder if Wheeler might know something."

  "Wheeler?"

  "Wheeler Brannigan, Kathy's younger brother. He was only nine at the time but he may remember something. He still lives in the family house."

  Scully nodded. "We'll check it out."

  Scully and Mulder met in the courthouse lobby and got directions to the Brannigan house from the sheriff. It was past one so they stopped at Sandy's 24-hour Diner to discuss the case over lunch.

  Mulder smiled broadly at their waitress who was his age and eight inches taller than Scully. "I'll have a steak sandwich with Swiss cheese, fries, and a malt...Madge," he said reading her name tag.

  She returned the smile with interest. "Anything else?"

  Scully grinned and studied the menu. Mulder's smiles had that effect on some women. She shrugged to herself. Okay, most women.

  Scully looked up, "May I please have the Cobb salad, nonfat dressing, and iced tea with lemon, no sugar?"

  "Sure, Hon," the waitress said looking down her nose at Scully. "Watching our weight today?"

  Scully's expression turned cold. "Just the salad please, if you don't mind."

  The waitress smiled sweetly. "Don't mind at all." She winked at Mulder. "Back in a second."

  "Oh, really...." Scully said impatiently.

  Mulder turned around from following the waitress' saunter into the kitchen. "What did you say, Scully?"

  "A personal comment on sexual inequities."

  "Huh?"

  Scully waved a negligent hand in the air. "Nothing. Forget it." She looked down at the case file and began tapping it with a fingernail. "Nine years old is pretty young but Wheeler may have picked up something. It'll be interesting to hear what he has to say."

  Mulder twisted around to glance toward the kitchen.

  "Mulder?"

  "What? Oh, sorry. I'm just hungry."

  "You're certainly acting like it. You need to get out more often."

  He squinted at her. "What are you talking about?"

  Scully shook her head. "Forget it. What did Gladys have to say about Stevenson?"

  "She remembers him clearly. It seems FBI agents back then were like rock stars are today."

  Scully smiled. "I sure miss the good old days."

  "Don't we all. She described him as being in his early twenties, my height, athletic, and handsome. He was clean shaven, hair and eyes were brown. He only interviewed her once but she noticed he was very neat in the notes he took. No detail was too small to receive his full attention.

  Madge returned with their lunches. Scully watched wide-eyed as the waitress bent at the knees to lower Mulder's plate to the table like a harem girl serving her king, then straightened and dropped Scully's salad in front of her. The plate clattered.

  "Thanks, Madge," Mulder said. "Uh...could I have some catsup?"

  She slipped a full bottle out of a pocket in her apron and holding it like a magnum of champagne, turned it so he could read the best-if-used-by date. "I hope you approve of the vintage."

  He unscrewed the top and sniffed it. "Perfect."

  Scully stabbed a piece of lettuce with her fork. Oh, please.

  "I'll check back later to make sure everything's all right," Madge said and started to strut off.

  "Excuse me?" Scully called out after her. "My salad dressing?"

  She marched back. "Sorry. My mistake."

  Madge fished around in another apron pocket, brought her hand up and opened it a foot above the table. Two plastic packets of mayonnaise fell to the right of Scully's salad. "Let me know if you need anything else, hon," and stomped away before Scully could say a word.

  Mulder chuckled.

  "Is there something you want to say?" Scully asked.

  "No." He picked up his sandwich. "Nothing at all. Well...just that you may want to brush up on your people skills."

  Scully's gripped her fork hard enough to turn her knuckles white. "Me? What about-"

  Mulder inclined his head toward her plate. "The heat from your seething is wilting your salad."

  Scully glared at him so Mulder turned his attention to his steak sandwich. Hot cheese mixed with meat juices dripped through his fingers as he took a bite. His eyes closed in pleasure. "Enjoy it while you can," Scully said poking at her lettuce. "It's going to kill you." Mulder smiled broadly. She glared at her salad. It's not fair.

  Mulder tore off another bite of sandwich and started in on the fries. "Now we know what he looked like and that he took careful notes. It's not much but more than we had before." Scully watched in envious disgust as Mulder slurped the dregs of his malt. "Done?" he asked.

  She looked down at her half-eaten salad. "Yes. Let's get out of here before Madge comes back."

 

 

  The Wheeler residence was one of the blocky two story houses favored by the upper middle class in the late forties. Scully would have been surprised if it had less than twenty rooms. Sharply trimmed green hedges stood out against the house's fresh coat of white paint, blinding in the afternoon sun. They went up concrete steps to the porch and knocked on a darkly stained door. A short man in his fifties answered the knock. "Yes?" he said through the screen. "How may I help you?"

  "I'm Special Agent Mulder and this is Special Agent Dana Scully of the FBI. Are you Mr. Brannigan?"

  "Why...yes. Is there some sort of problem?"

  "No, sir. We'd like to talk to you about Agent John Stevenson. He was the agent-of-record in the investigation of your sister's disappearance forty years ago. We hoped you might be able to answer some questions about him."

  "Certainly," Brannigan said and opened the screen door wide. He led them into the living room filled with furniture wearing the dusty look of a longtime bachelor. Brannigan fell into an easy chair indented with the shape of his body. Scully and Mulder remained standing.

  "What can you tell us about your sister's disappearance?" Scully asked.

  "I was too young at the time to know what had happened other than Kathy had gone away," Brannigan began. "One afternoon about two weeks after she left a man came to talk to Mom and Dad about it. They made me wait outside. The man came out after what seemed like hours and introduced himself as John Stevenson. I figured he was some kind of policeman but when he showed me his FBI badge I almost fell off the step. He asked a lot of questions about Kathy and her boyfriend. I didn't know much and was afraid I'd disappointed him. He said that every piece of information was important and I'd been a big help. I remember it all so well because in a small town like this being interviewed by an FBI agent was a boost to a kid's prestige."

  Brannigan squinted up at the ceiling. "Of course, part of it may have been because he came back to see me later."

  Mulder arched his brow. "He came back? Why?"

  Brannigan spread his hands. "Well, you know kids. I got so excited during his first visit I decided right then and there I wanted to become an FBI agent. Told him so, too. Agent Stevenson smiled and said something like he looked forward to working with me."

  Brannigan's brow darkened. "Two months later he returned. He'd changed so much it scared me. His face looked ten years older, haunted. He asked me very seriously if I still wanted to join the FBI. I said sure and after a moment he asked me not to do it. He said there were things about the FBI that weren't so great. I guess he figured I was so impressed I might do it. Who knows, if he hadn't come back I might have tried."

  "Can you tell us anything else?" Scully asked.

  Brannigan looked up in thought. "Just one more odd thing. He asked if I'd seen any strange lights in the sky."

 

 

 

12

 

Brannigan residence
Thursday, 2:25 P.M.

 

  Scully drew a heavy breath. Not again.

  A hungry look spread across Mulder's face. "Mr. Brannigan, what did you tell Agent Stevenson? Had you seen any lights?"

  Brannigan shook his head. "No. Nothing."

  Mulder's smile crashed. "Oh."

  Scully willed compassion into her voice. "I'm sorry, Mulder." Thank God. She took a card from her purse and handed it to Brannigan. "Please call us if you think of anything else."

  Brannigan smiled and saluted them with the card. "I'll do that."

  She led Mulder away. He let his breath out in a snort. "Go ahead and smile, Scully. Your jaw muscles are twitching trying to keep it down."

  She let the smile out. "You should have seen your expression when Brannigan repeated Stevenson's question about lights in the sky." Mulder piled into the passenger seat. Scully slid in behind the wheel. A somber note touched her voice. "But I shouldn't have laughed. You've spent half your life looking for proof of extraterrestrials."

  "I've had it in my hands half a dozen times." Mulder's hands balled into fists. "One of these days I'll win." Scully started the engine and pulled out from the curb. Mulder brooded in the passenger's seat.

 

  Scully shook Sheriff Yeats' hand. "Thank you for all your help."

  "My pleasure. Where are you off to now?"

  "Chester."

  Something dark crept into his expression. "Oh?"

  She brought her eyebrows together. "A problem?"

  Yeats nodded. "Watch your step. Sheriff Chambers doesn't like people crowding his jurisdiction."

  "Thanks for the warning."

  "How are you going?"

  "We're taking Route one-eighteen to the ninety-five."

  Yeats shook his head. "Got a call in this morning from Public Works. They said the eighteen's going to be closed for repairs. You'll be better off backtracking to Taunton and catching Route one-forty north to the one-fifteen. Goes right through Chester."

  "We'll do it. Thanks, Sheriff," Scully said.

 

  Mulder started the car and headed off on the route Yeats had recommended. Scully opened the file to enter their notes. "Well, at least we have a rough physical description for Stevenson. What do you make of his return to Madison to warn little Wheeler Brannigan to stay away from the FBI?"

  "At first I wrote it off to fatigue. By then he'd been on the road two months and had to be exhausted." Mulder scratched at a rib on his left side. "The only problem with that theory is that Madison is too far out of the way for an idle gesture." Mulder's brows wrinkled. "Stevenson specifically wanted to tell Brannigan to give up any ideas about joining the FBI. I think it was symbolic of his own decision to leave the FBI."

  Scully looked at him. "If it wasn't fatigue, then something happened between the time Stevenson left Madison and his return to sour him on the FBI. His demeanor at each investigation site should pinpoint where it happened. Something that struck me as odd was his asking Wheeler Brannigan about lights in the sky. In 1951, UFO abductions weren't the mania that they are today."

  His eyes glazed as his attention drew inward. "You're right, but they weren't unheard of. Although it's generally accepted that Betty and Barney Hills' 1961 case was the first reported abduction, others had been hinted at decades before that. Stevenson could have been aware of those cases as early as 1951."

  "That doesn't explain why an otherwise normal FBI agent would have knowledge of UFOs."

  Mulder gave her a crooked grin. "You baiting me, Scully?"

  She smiled and shook her head. "I only meant that in 1951 it would have been unusual."

  Mulder held his smile. "Explanation and apology accepted. You did make a good point, though. Forty years ago UFO sightings weren't popularized like today. I wonder how Stevenson would have known about them."

  "We still haven't explained his change in attitude. The discovery of an alien abduction wouldn't turn him against the FBI."

  "But the FBI's reaction might. We both know the government's suppressed information of alien visitations for a long time. It goes back to the forties."

  "I know that look in your eye, Mulder. One mention of lights in the sky and you jump on your UFO wagon."

  She started to write in the file again. "To me the most important thing we accomplished in Madison was to narrow down the date in which Stevenson disappeared. Tyler's 1956 confession would have been entered into the record if Stevenson and the file were still available. He disappeared between fifty-four and fifty-six." Mulder nodded to himself and drove on in silence. Scully opened her mouth, saw him deep in thought and closed it.

  They drove through Taunton without stopping. Turning north as Yeats suggested, they cruised up Route 140 past Wheaton College, through Norton, and over the low bridge spanning the southern tip of the mile-long Norton Reservoir. Ripples covering the lake's dark blue surface flashed yellow sparks of sunlight at their car. Four miles beyond the reservoir, the 115 intersected the 140 in the small town of West Foxboro. Scully and Mulder stopped long enough for gas and paper cups of bitter coffee before making the last push to Chester.

 

  Chester's outskirts began flashing past the car's windows by five in the afternoon. Scully's eye caught the glitter of what she took to be the light from the setting sun reflecting off spider's silk trailed over roadside plants. She squinted and discovered the glimmering was from tangled ribbons of audio tape stripped out of their cassettes. Scully and Mulder followed the trail of growing litter into the city.

  Chambers had already left for the evening when they checked into the town's police station. A gum-chewing desk sergeant rubbed his sweaty neck and told them to try in the morning. They ate a greasy meal even Mulder couldn't enjoy and went to bed early.

  They met Police Chief Marty Chambers at eight the next morning. He was a red-faced mound of flesh whose knees bowed inward at the strain of supporting his bulk. Mulder typed him as an old-fashioned boss cop.

  The sheriff wasn't happy to see them. "FBI?" Chambers bellowed. "I didn't ask for any FBI agents. What do you want? We don't need any government help. Just remember one thing, this is my jurisdiction. That means I'm the boss. And another thing-"

  Scully and Mulder traded rueful glances and waited for him to run down. Ten minutes later he was still going strong. "Yes, sir," Mulder cut in during one of Chambers' brief gasps for air. "We appreciate your position-"

  Chambers wagged a plump finger at him. "Don't interrupt me, young man. Forty years I've been a cop. I was chasing criminals when you were wetting-"

  "Chief Chambers," Mulder said hastily. "We have no intention of interfering-"

  "Interfering! I'd like to see you try it. This is my town and the sooner you realize that fact the better off-"

  Scully's lips pressed to a line. She stepped around Mulder and took two steps forward to stand toe to toe with Chambers; the odor of unwashed, sweaty flesh prickled her nostrils. "Sheriff Chambers, I don't know what you're afraid we'll discover about your operation here in Chester but I strongly suggest you cooperate with us. If you don't, we'll be forced to extend our visit. You should realize that the longer we stay the more we'll find out."

  Chambers jumped back at her sudden appearance. All color drained from his face. Scully sidestepped to let Mulder deliver the follow-up punch. He stepped into the opening. "We need to see any records you have on a 1951 case that involved the disappearance of Samuel Mane. If you help us we'll be gone before lunch. Without your help it may take us weeks to investigate every record in City Hall to see what the federal government might find interesting."

  Sheriff Chambers backed up two more steps and slammed into the wall. Strangling noises issued from his slack mouth. Mulder promptly broke out in a warm smile. "I knew you'd want to help once things were explained properly." He placed a supportive arm around the Sheriff's sagging shoulders and gently guided him toward the door. "Why don't you help us find that file and we'll be on our way."

  Chambers' head hung as he led Scully and Mulder to the City Hall's records department. The Mane file was thin and a dead end. Samuel Mane had never returned and his girlfriend left town soon after she delivered a baby daughter. Neither mother nor child was heard of again.

  "Is there anyone available who might remember the FBI agent who investigated this case?" Mulder asked.

  "Just me. Everyone else is dead."

  "What can you tell us about him?" Scully asked.

  Chambers twitched at the sound of her voice. "Oh. Uh...nothing much. I wasn't really on the force back then, just a high school kid forced into participating in a police companion program as punishment for...well." Chambers began sweating again. He opened his arms innocently. "It was nothing. Really."

  Scully and Mulder kept their faces blank and nodded at each other. Chambers swallowed hard. "I, uh...didn't even remember his name until I saw it in the file. He was a average sort of guy. One thing I do recall is that everyone seemed to like him. Couldn't figure it. Didn't think much of him myself. Is that all you needed?" He clutched his hands together close to his chest.

  Mulder shrugged at Scully. "I guess so. Wait, there is one last question. Did Agent Stevenson ever return? Say, about two months later?"

  The Sheriff's eyes glazed in the effort of thinking. "Of course that was a long time ago, but no...I don't think he did."

  They thanked him and got in their car. Mulder leaned out of the window to shake Chambers' hand but stopped short and just nodded instead. "We came up from Madison. The court receptionist's last name is Chambers. Any relation?"

  "My cousin. She lived here a spell twenty years ago but moved back to Madison when I got elected sheriff. Said she didn't like the direction Chester was headed."

  "I wonder why," Mulder said sarcastically.

  "What was that?" Chambers huffed out.

  "Nothing, sheriff. Thanks for everything. We value your help for what it was worth."

  Scully settled herself behind the car's wheel. Just before starting the car she leaned across Mulder toward Chambers. "I feel it's only fair to warn you that the FBI will be keeping an eye on your activities from now on. I'd watch my step if I were you." Scully gunned the car away from the sputtering sheriff.

  Mulder grinned. "I knew you could be tough but that was downright mean." She beamed a wide smile at him.

 

 

13

 

Massachusetts Turnpike
Friday, 10:02 A.M.

 

  Mulder squinted at the map. "Avlon's twenty miles east from where we turned onto the turnpike. Take the Grafton exit north. If you hit Shrewbury you've gone too far."

  Fifteen minutes later Scully made the Grafton turn and five minutes after that they drove into Avlon.

  Two years ago, as part of a diversification program, the Filburg Aircraft parts manufacturer opened a small amusement park called Airdale just outside Avlon. The park caught on due to lack of local competition and outgrew the original three-acre site to the degree that it now threatened to engulf the town. Avlon's original population of eighty thousand had tripled with no end in sight. Scully parked the car in front of Avlon's new, two-story Police Headquarters building.

 

  "We're Agents Scully and Mulder," Mulder said offering Chief of Police Henricks his FBI identification.

  Henricks nodded his acknowledgment. "How may I help you?"

  Scully handed him the Stevenson file opened to the page concerning Joshua Evan's disappearance. "Do you have any information on this case?"

  He took the file. "1951? You're not serious."

  Scully kept her face impassive. "Yes, sir. Any assistance you can offer will be appreciated."

  The sheriff's thin face swung from her, to Mulder, and back again. "You are serious." He shook his head and walked toward the station's inner offices. "Follow me."

  He led them to a room crowded with a table, a computer, and a policewoman in a light-blue uniform. She was reading the contents on the computer's screen into a phone. "His license plate number is NNK 090. Does that check?"

  Scully picked up distant mumbling coming from the phone.

  The policewoman smiled. "Glad to hear it. I'm here anytime you need something, Officer Rodriguez."

  Her face reddened. "Not that-." She looked up at Henricks. "By the way, the sheriff just walked in. Care to repeat your last statement to him?"

  Scully caught the click as Rodriguez cut the connection. Henricks smiled. "Morning, Julia. Sam still flirting with you?"

  "Trying to." Her face turned serious. "What do you have for me?"

  "1951 disappearance of," he checked the file, "Joshua Evans."

  She turned to her console and began tapping the keyboard. "Got it. Evans, Joshua, 132 Minster Street, husband of-"

  "Does it say what happened to him?" Henricks asked.

  She scanned the monitor. "No. The case is still officially open. Mrs. Evans died in 1958. No relatives. Investigating officer was Morgan Fells." She turned to face them. "He died two years ago. As far as our records show there's no one left connected with this case."

  "How about the address," Mulder asked. "Could we-"

  Henricks shook his head. "No use. Minster Street and all adjacent properties got leveled last year for a parking-lot expansion at Airdale. Sorry."

  Scully pursed her lips at Mulder. "What do you think?"

  He shrugged. "Looks like a dead end." Mulder turned to the sheriff. "Thanks anyway."

  "My pleasure." He handed back the case file. "Staying the night?"

  "No," Mulder said. "I think we'll push ahead to our next case."

  Henricks led them to the front door. "Hope you have better luck with that one."

  Mulder opened the door for Scully. "So do I, sheriff."

 

  Mulder beat Scully to the driver's seat.

  She slid into the passenger side and pulled the map out of the glove compartment. "Next stop Carlisle, Michael Fitch's hometown."

  Mulder gunned the car away from the curb. "Which way?"

  "We need to get back on the turnpike going west then head north on Route two ninety-one. Carlisle's half an hour up from the onramp."

 

 

  An hour later they cruised into Carlisle, a town comfortably furnished with stone-faced houses and streets overhung with trees shedding soft cool shade. Scully located the Fitch residence on a map they got from Happy Barney's Gas and Goodies.  "Assuming they still live in the same house, the Fitchs are only one block out of our way across town. Shall we stop there before checking in with the local authorities?"

  Mulder nodded. "Right."

  She studied the passing street signs. "That's it. Cambra Lane, the next right."

  "Got it," Mulder said and eased into the right line for the turn. He spotted the house three lots up and parked in the shade of a craggy sycamore. Three cement steps led up to the porch of the two-story house. The bottom four feet was stone like dozens they had already seen but from there on up faded gray clapboards continued up to a dusty green trim edging the roof. Scully tried peering through the front door's window but lace curtains hid the dark interior. She pressed the doorbell. It donged, muffled and distant. Deep inside, wood floors creaked with the sound of approaching footsteps. Scully pulled back from the door.

  Someone pulled the door part way open. A short, grey man stared out at them. "Good morning?"

  "Are you Mr. Fitch?" Scully asked.

  Suspicion narrowed his eyes. "Yes."

  Mulder showed his ID. "This is Special Agent Dana Scully and I'm Special Agent Mulder. We're investigating the disappearance of Michael Fitch, which took place forty years ago. We were hoping you could help us."

  The old man blinked at them several times. "You'd better come inside," Fitch said at last, pulling the door open wider. He led them into a living room filled with old furniture covered in dim floral patterns. He pointed at two chairs and excused himself.

  He returned with a short woman his own age. They sat close together on a high-backed sofa. "This is my wife, Peggy," Fitch said. "We were Michael's parents. What do you want to know?"

  Scully leaned forward, her hands clasped together. "Several case files including the one on your son's disappearance were lost until just a few days ago. We're trying to close them out. Is there anything you can tell us about Michael's case that occurred after 1955?"

  The Fitchs glanced at each other. "No," Mr. Fitch said.

  Scully flicked her eyes in Mulder's direction. He'd leaned back deep into the blue side-wing chair he'd selected, his eyes intent on the Fitchs' expressions.

  "I see," Scully said returning her attention to the old couple. She pursed her lips. "Can you tell me something about Michael?"

  Mrs. Fitch broke out in a grin that wiped ten years of wrinkles from her face. "Oh, he was just wonderful. Michael was the all-American boy every parent dreams of: handsome, bright, athletic, and happy. He'd just won a scholarship to the University of Massachusetts and planned a career in journalism." She took her husband's hand. "We were very proud of him. Michael had never been in trouble. He was serious about a perfect dear of a girl named Joanna Crystle and I think they were secretly engaged. So cute."

  Mr. Fitch's rumbling voice brought them back to reality. "Then he disappeared."

  "Yes, well..." Mrs. Fitch stammered softly. "Uh...would anyone care for some coffee?"

  "Thank you. That would be nice," Mulder said flashing her his boyish grin.

  Mrs. Fitch rose and walked to the kitchen. Mulder caught Scully's attention and flicked his eyes at Mr. Fitch. Scully nodded. Mulder pushed himself up out of his chair and followed Mrs. Fitch into the kitchen. "Let me help you carry the tray."

  "Oh, that's not really...." Mrs. Fitch's voice trailed off as the kitchen door swung closed on them.

  "Mr. Fitch?" Scully said. "What can you tell me about Agent Stevenson?"

  The tendons in Fitch's neck grew taught and he crossed his arms as if to form a barrier between himself and her. "What do you mean?"

  "Agent Stevenson disappeared four years after your son. We want to find out what happened to him. Anything you can tell us would be helpful. Even something as minor as what he looked like or how he acted could be valuable."

  Fitch's lips tightened. She felt suspicion pour from the man's eyes. "Agent John Stevenson was tall and thin with average features and coloring. He worked very hard to locate our son or at least find out what happened to him." Fitch relaxed as the memories came back to life. "John was here two weeks. During that time he turned Carlisle upside down. If it had been anyone else I think he would have been run out of town but John was so likeable no one minded. He cared about finding our lost son but it was more than that. He seemed driven by a previous passion somehow related to the case. He believed Michael's disappearance was part of a bigger picture. The less information that came in, the more intense he got. He was deeply troubled that he couldn't figure it out. Before he left he promised to keep the case open."

  Scully felt honesty in Fitch's words but the old man's body language hinted at darker truths. "Mr. Fitch, did Agent Stevenson ever return and talk to you again about Michael?"

  A vein on the side of Fitch's forehead began to pulse. "No."

  Mrs. Fitch and Mulder returned with the coffee. Mulder glanced at Scully with a raised eyebrow. After coffee they thanked the couple for their help and left. The Fitchs didn't wave as Scully and Mulder drove off.

  "What did Mr. Fitch say about Stevenson?" Mulder asked.

  "Nothing we didn't already know, except Stevenson was evidently very personable and that he was still in good spirits when he left. Fitch's comments were a little too pat. It sounded like he was reading a script. How about Mrs. Fitch?"

  He nodded. "The same." Mulder repeated his questioning of Mrs. Fitch.

  "Their statements are virtually identical," Scully said.

  Mulder shrugged uncertainly. "It could be they've told the story so often the pattern's set in their minds. The odd thing was that Mrs. Fitch was extremely defensive. Her answers were so purposely thoughtful I couldn't help but think she wanted to hide something. It's odd that they were more uneasy about Stevenson than their son. Perhaps they had problems with him?"

  "I don't think so. Fitch lapsed into calling Stevenson by his first name. That's not something you do when you're mad at someone. One thing's for sure. Fitch lied when he said Stevenson never returned."

  "Maybe the sheriff will be able to throw some light on it."

 

  Sheriff Aaron Baker was thirty-five and had no knowledge of the case. He searched for the town's records but they were missing. The only recommendation he could offer was to talk to Frank Jessup, the retired police chief, who lived in a cabin two miles outside of town.

  The sheriff's directions to Jessup's estate led them to a gravel road that wound its way through a forest dark with pines. Scully expected the retired sheriff's cabin to be a one-room affair of rough-cut logs. Her eyes widened when the road ended in front of a two-story, four thousand square foot ranch-style mansion made of milled timber. As she climbed out of the car, the scent of pine was so heavy she could taste its resinous acidity. Scully looked over at Mulder who smiled while gulping huge lungfulls of air. Mulder, I thought you'd be too much of a city boy to enjoy country air."

  He twisted his expression like he'd smelled something foul. "It's not DC smog, but it'll do in a pinch."

  They started up the steps to a broad porch that stretched the length of the house. As they climbed the last step, the house's front door swung open.

  Frank Jessup's energetic step carried his lean frame to the end of the stairs just as they stepped on the porch. He stood eye to eye with Mulder and shook hands with a firm, steady grip.

  Scully saw intelligence in the deep blue eyes that appraised them. She also noticed his gaze lingered on her longer than Mulder. Mischief sparkled in the old sheriff's eyes.

  Jessup's resonant voice belayed his seventy-plus years. "Baker gave me a call that two FBI agents wanted to talk about the Fitch disappearance. It's not often I meet someone interested in such an old case. What do you want to know?" He radiated friendship toward both of them but Scully noticed he smiled a little wider when he looked at her.

  Jessup led them through the door into a long wide living room filled with western-style furniture. Mulder drifted off toward the stairway on the right to examine a wall covered with autographed photos of Jessup with various law-enforcement officials. Scully read this as Mulder's signal to start the questions while he stayed in the background to observe Jessup's reactions. She wondered if Mulder had noticed the old sheriff's attentions toward her.

  "Sheriff Jessup..." Scully began.

  "Please, call me Frank. And have a seat. We might as well be comfortable."

  Scully ignored the place Jessup patted next to himself on the rail and leather sofa fronting a massive stone fireplace. Instead, she settled herself on a cane-wood chair safely out of reach. "Is there anything you can tell us about Michael's disappearance that isn't covered in the reports?"

  He kept his radiant smile beaming at her. "Probably not but I may be able to highlight a few items that didn't receive the emphasis they deserved. For example, the report says Mike's footsteps ended in the pasture where he disappeared. What the report didn't say was that the tracking conditions at the time were perfect. His footprints were deep and clear. They went straight from the edge of the pasture to its middle and stopped. There wasn't a single mark to suggest how he'd left. The last prints indicated he'd stopped moving. Then nothing. It was like he had been picked up by a helicopter."

  "Were there any other marks, not necessarily footprints?"

  "Just one, there was a small round depression about eighteen inches in front of Michael's left footprint. It looked to me like Mike had gone down on one knee so he could use his arms to shield himself from something coming down from above him."

  "Couldn't he have kneeled to get a closer look at something on the ground?"

  "Unlikely. Try it sometime. Nine times out of ten you'll put your hands on the ground for support. Mike hadn't left any hand prints."

  Scully furrowed her brow. "Why wasn't the knee mark in the report?"

  Jessup chuckled. "Because Chief Taylor was in charge back then and he couldn't track an elephant across wet cement. It was there, even if Taylor couldn't see it."

  "Could Mike have walked backward over his own tracks and left that way?"

  Frank shook his silver-gray head. "I doubt it. Backtracking is harder than it sounds. There are always signs: footprints too wide, multiple heel marks, that sort of thing. Mike's prints were sharp all the way from camp to the meadow. Twenty-four advanced scouts worked that trail; all of them were excellent woodsmen and several were Eagle Scouts who had earned their Order of the Arrow sashes. If there had been any other signs they would have seen them. The bloodhounds confirmed the same thing the next day. They followed the tracks to the meadow then just wandered around yelping because they'd lost the scent."

  Mulder stepped forward. "Sheriff Jessup..."

  Jessup looked up. "Frank. Been retired too many years to deserve a title."

  Mulder smiled. Scully did too. In spite of his attentions, or because of them, she liked Jessup.

  "Frank," Mulder said. "You mentioned it looked like Mike had been picked up by a helicopter. Were there any reports of unidentified lights the night of the disappearance?"

  Scully looked away. Here we go again.

  Jessup's eyebrows shot up. He squinted at Mulder, then Scully. It felt like Jessup stared into her soul.

  Jessup measured his words carefully. "In 1951, if you could find a helicopter, which would be difficult since they were as scarce as hen's teeth, you'd discover it was huge, noisy monster that could barely lift its own weight much less pick up an extra man. What you really want to know is if I think Michael was abducted by a UFO."

  Scully felt her heart skip.

  Mulder didn't flinch. "The FBI examines all possibilities in an effort to be thorough."

  Scully heard the strain in his voice and turned to look at him. The old hunger burned in his eyes again.

  "I'm not so sure about that," Jessup said as he leaned forward, "but I think you do. To answer your question, no. Nobody noticed any lights. However, the scouts were camped under trees, which hid most of the sky. Now I have a question. You think this case is linked to the Quintannin case, don't you?"

  Mulder nodded. "Yes, and to a third disappearance. Around 1954 Agent Stevenson himself vanished and all evidence of his existence disappeared with him." He pointed to the file in Scully's hands. "That file got jammed behind a drawer where it stayed hidden for forty years. It was our only lead so we're covering the same ground Stevenson did in an attempt to find out what happened to him. Do you have any information that would help us find Agent Stevenson?"

  Jessup leaned back into the sofa. Scully watched conflicting emotions play across his face. He looked at his watch. "It's past six and you need to hear a long story. May I suggest you stay for dinner? Then we can talk at length about Agent Stevenson and UFOs. There's a lot you need to know."

 

 

14

 

Frank Jessup's Cabin
Friday, 7:47 P.M.

 

  Scully tugged the kelly-green blazer down snug to her hips and smiled at the effect in the mirror. The contrasting color brightened her hair closer to true red. She turned and walked out of the upstairs guest room Jessup had offered for her to freshen up in, then headed down to dinner.

Jessup intercepted her at the foot of the stairs.  "Perfect timing, Agent Scully," he said. "Angela just rang the dinner bell. Mind if I accompany you to the dinning room?" He stepped toward her. She half expected the jingle of spurs to match the jeans and long-sleeved checked shirt he wore.

  Scully smiled tolerantly. "Thank you, Mr. Jessup." He better not try to take my arm.

  "Frank. Remember?"

  She gave him a forced smile.

  "This way."

  Jessup didn't take her arm but walked so close their elbows rubbed. Scully sidestepped half a foot. Jessup took two steps then casually closed in on her. At the end of the living room opposite the stairway, he stepped ahead to open the door for her.

  Mulder already sat on the far side of a long dinning table laid out with formal place settings. He was talking to a man dressed in a pale yellow cotton shirt. She appraised the darkly tanned wrinkles around the new man's eyes, his crewcut bristly white hair and work-gnarled hands. Scully estimated that he was a few years old than Jessup.

  Mulder looked up. "Hi, Scully. This is Dan Toomey. He keeps the place running for Frank."

  Dan's dark eyes ran down her once, quickly, evaluating. He stood up. "Pleased to meet you, Ma'am." In spite of his age his voice resonated with strength.

  She nodded. "A pleasure, Mr. Toomey."

  He smiled. "Just Dan, if you please, Ma'am."

  Jessup laid a hand on Scully's shoulder. "Dan, isn't she the cutest little FBI Agent-" Scully burned the hand with a glare. Jessup jerked it away like he'd laid it on a hot griddle. "Ah...yes, well," Jessup stammered. "Everyone take a seat. Angela sets the table fancy but we don't hold with formality."

  Jessup and Dan took chairs at the ends of the table. Scully walked around to sit next to Mulder in the seat furthest from Jessup. Angela bumped through the door closest to Jessup's end of the table carrying a tray loaded with covered plates and bowls. Her short, stout body managed the heavy load without strain. She transferred the meal to the center of the table and vanished back into the kitchen with nod of her dark-haired head.

  Jessup uncovered two large bowls: tossed green salad with shredded carrots in one and golden rolls billowing steam in the second. Dan lifted a large oval lid off a wooden serving tray. Grilled rainbow trout sizzled on a thick iron platter. Mulder pulled the top from a medium-sized bowl Angela had placed near him: fresh strawberries.

  "Isn't country life rough?" Jessup said rubbing his palms together. "We pass serving plates clockwise in this house. Shall we eat?" He scooped out a generous helping of salad, placed two rolls on the side of his plate, and stretched to pass the bowls to Dan. Jessup caught Scully's eye, his expression serious. "Sorry about the little-agent crack."

  "Forget it," she said, saw the distress in his eyes, and softened her look. "It's okay."

  Jessup smiled his gratitude.

  Mulder waved a fork around at the room. "If you don't mind my getting personal, how does a retired sheriff afford a setup like this?"

  Jessup turned to him. "Thirty years of sheriffing and a generous pension paid for most of it. Between that and Esther-"

  "Esther?" Mulder asked.

  "My wife. Sorry to say she passed away ten years ago. Esther ran her own real estate office. She got us this land for a song." His eyes drifted off a moment. "I wish she'd been able to enjoy it more than five years before..." He shook it off. "Anyway, that's how we managed it. We've got forty acres, a year-round stream, and a two-acre lake."

  Mulder ducked his head. "Sounds great. So what do you do? Spend all your time fishing?"

  Jessup shot Dan a quick glance then looked away. "Some. I have other interests, of course. Uh-"

  "Mr. Jessup?" Dan asked. "Will you be wanting me to put out the salt licks for the deer tomorrow?"

  "Yes. Please do," Jessup said quickly and focused his attention on his meal.

  Scully and Mulder cast sideways glances at each other in the sudden quiet.

 

 

  After dinner they settled to the living room. Dan lit a fire before excusing himself for the night. The clangs and clatters of Angela's washing provided background noise for their conversation.

  "How did you hear about the disappearance of Allan Quintannin?" Mulder asked.

  "Forty years ago," Jessup said, "the population in this area was pretty sparse. Because everyone had fewer neighbors you tended to know them better. When someone vanished under mysterious conditions word spread fast and everyone turned out to help. When Allan disappeared under the same circumstances as Michael, the sheriff there contacted Taylor and they worked the cases as one."

  "And the lights Stevenson asked young Wheeler Brannigan about?"

  Jessup pursed his lips. "The terrain where Allan's scout troop camped had been cleared of trees. They planned to conduct a survey to see what effect the clear-cut had on wildlife. The scouts were in a small, shallow valley and could see from horizon to horizon. At dusk Allan hiked up to the northern rim of the valley to study the stars for an astronomy merit badge. An hour after it got dark the rest of the scouts noticed a set of three red lights in a tight triangle hovering north of camp. They thought the lights were near Allan's position. Five minutes later the lights blinked out, like someone turned off a switch. When Allan didn't come back the scout master went looking for him. Couldn't find a trace. The next morning the whole troop searched. Tracking conditions weren't as good as we had here but they were good enough to tell he had disappeared in the same manner as Michael."

  Mulder's face lit with expectation. "What did you think of the lights?"

  "Nothing at first. I was too busy looking for Mike. Sheriff Taylor did the paperwork but stayed in town most of the time running for reelection. I was new to the force and this was my first case so I really burned the midnight oil, if you know what I mean." Jessup sighed. "But I couldn't get anywhere. Two weeks after the disappearance Agent Stevenson showed up. From the very first he focused on the lights as being important. He must have spent two solid days calling every airport, private pilot, and military base within a thousand miles to see if anyone flew over either site the night the boys disappeared. They hadn't."

  Jessup's eyes searched the rafters. "The odd thing was that each negative answer made Stevenson more excited. During the investigation, Stevenson and I got pretty close and we agreed the only answer to both disappearances was that the boys had been lifted straight up and flown away. He eventually suggested to me it might have been a case of someone being abducted by people from outer space."

  Scully discreetly glanced at Mulder. His eyes shone in the firelight. Her lips drew into tight line. There'll be no holding him on this one. She turned back to Jessup. "What was your reaction to that?"

  Jessup chuckled. "Not what you'd expect. These days, what with all the science fiction and tabloids, if someone mentions aliens people automatically start laughing. Back then things were different. The universe was a lot more mysterious. Scientific knowledge was growing so rapidly that anything seemed possible so Stevenson's suggestion wasn't as hard to swallow as it might be today. It never got into the official reports because Taylor wouldn't allow it."

  Scully saw Mulder's eyes withdraw deeper. She sighed. "What can you tell us about Agent Stevenson himself?"

  Jessup waved a hand causally. "Average height and coloring, slender and fit."  He stopped talking and studied them. Considering his earlier behavior, Scully was surprised to see him examine Mulder as long as he did her. She squirmed under his cold, hard scrutiny.

  Jessup smiled suddenly, breaking the tension. He stood and walked to a glass-paneled bookcase that framed the right side of the fireplace and pulled out a dusty photo album. After flipping a few pages, he slipped a picture out of its glassine holder. He handed it to Scully. "There's a picture of him."

  The black and white photograph showed two young men. The twenty-year-old with the mischievous twinkle in his eyes had to be Jessup. The other man, who she took to be Stevenson, looked older. He was indistinguishable from most of the middle-grade field agents the FBI employs. Scully smiled as she recognized the same dark business suit agents still wear. She noted Stevenson matched the descriptions they'd gotten so far.

  "May we borrow this picture?" Scully asked.

  "If it'll help, sure."

  "Did Agent Stevenson ever come back after his first visit?"

  "Yes and no. I know he came back to see the Fitch's about three weeks after he left but no one was supposed to know about it. I was on another case by then. It involved an overnight surveillance of one of the Fitchs' neighbors. About four in the morning I saw someone sneak around the back of the Fitchs' house. The rear door opened and by the light in the house I could tell it was Stevenson. Through my binoculars it was easy to see he was upset. They'd gotten close to him during the investigation but that wouldn't explain why he was visiting them at such an ungodly hour."

  Scully cocked her head to one side. "How close?"

  "You'd think they'd adopted him. After his first few days in town they invited him to stay with them. By the time Stevenson left he was family. Anyway, at this early morning meeting I could see well enough to tell the Fitchs were glad to see him but worried about something. Stevenson wasn't smiling. He wasn't just tired, he looked... defeated, beaten."

  "Can you think of anything else that might help us?"

  "No, that's about all. But I have a few questions for you. What have you found out about John's disappearance?"

  Mulder's eyes focused back into the room and he sat up straight. "All we know is that Stevenson and over thirty files disappeared three years after the Fitch case. Every trace of his existence has been eliminated. We don't know why or by whom. We think he took the files. Agent Scully and I have been sent to find out what we can."

  Jessup stared at them. Scully could feel his eyes probe into her heart for the second time. Jessup cleared his throat. "Did you know you're not the first to hunt for him?"

  Mulder looked sideways at Scully, then back at Jessup and shook his head.

  "In November of 1954, two men came looking for Agent Stevenson," Jessup said. "They had IDs which didn't say what branch of the government they belonged to but the way they carried themselves screamed military. They nosed around several days before giving up. Nobody liked them because they acted high-handed. I doubt if they got any information of value. They came back four months later. This time they tried the hard-line approach: threatened people, leaned on the mayor and ordered the sheriff around. They didn't do any better that time than the first. They left and we never heard from them again. These men never said why they wanted Stevenson and showed no interest in Michael's disappearance."

  Scully turned to look out of a window at the growing darkness. "Mulder, it's late. We better get back to town and find a hotel."

  Jessup shook his head. "You won't find anything decent this late, but you're welcome to stay here. There's plenty of room. In the morning we could drive over to the spot where Michael disappeared. Leominster State Forest borders the northern boundary of my property. Fifteen minutes into it will get you to the place."

  Mulder smiled. "Sounds great. Scully?"

  She tried and failed to decipher meaning from the devilish smile that had spread across Jessup's face. "I guess it'll be okay. Thank you, Mr. Jessup."

  Jessup stood and moved to pat her on the shoulder, stopped and hastily jerked his hand back. "You're very welcome but remember, it's Frank, not Mr. Jessup."

  His eyes flitted back and forth between Scully and Mulder. "Would you like two rooms...or one?"

  Before Scully could say anything Mulder spoke up first. "Two, please. If it wouldn't be too much trouble?"

  Jessup's grin stretched an inch wider. "No trouble at all."

  After they got their bags from the car, he led them up the stairs at the far right side of the living room. At the top of the stairs, Mulder traipsed down the long landing toward the door the sheriff pointed out to him. Jessup opened the door to Scully's room and carried her luggage in. The room held a king-sized bed blanketed with a pale blue comforter hand-stitched with snowflakes. The snowflake design repeated itself on the cloth doilies under lamps set on twin bedside tables, a runner covering a mahogany chest of drawers, and a cloth draped over the high back of a cushioned rocker. A side door opened to a private bath. "Like it? he asked hanging on her answer.

  Scully smiled at his apprehension. "It's lovely. Thank you."

  He beamed. "Good. I'm glad you like it. Uh...is there anything else I can get or do-"

  Scully took a quick step back. "No. Nothing. Thank you all the same."

  "Well, let me know if there's anything-"

  "I will. Thanks. Now, if you don't mind..."

  "Yes, of course. See you tomorrow." He stopped just outside her door. "And Agent Scully...Dana, I'm glad you stayed." He closed the door before she could say anything.

  Scully stared after him, shacking her head. What's he up to?

 

+++

 

  Jessup walked down the stairs and collapsed into the leather sofa. Dan came in. "Drink?"

  "No thanks. Help yourself."

  Dan went to the bar and popped the top on a can of beer. He returned to the fire and dropped into a chair. They watched the fire.

  "They seem like nice kids, Frank."

  Jessup smiled ruefully. "Hardly kids."

  Dan returned the smile. "It must be the perspective. At our ages everyone seems young."

  "Ain't it the truth. But you're right. They are nice...and good agents." Jessup's eyes turned hard as he looked over at Dan.

  Dan refused to answer the stare. "The girl's sharp, catches everything."

  Jessup nodded. "Mulder's different. He's just as smart but has something else. He reminds me-"

  Dan looked at him. "Of Stevenson?"

  "Very much. They could be dangerous."

  "Could be," Dan said.

  Burning wood popped as orange flames flicked upward.

  "They could also be useful," Dan added.

  "I thought you'd think that so I gave them the photo."

  Dan's eyes widened. "Oh?"

  "Had to be done some time."

  Dan stared at the fire then nodded slowly. The fire's main log burned through its last solid section. Hot air whooshed out of the fireplace as it collapsed in a pile of red embers. Dan stood up. "See you in the morning." He took three steps then stopped, and turned back. "By the way, what's with all the attention toward Agent Scully? You've got her wondering whether it's safe to be alone with you. You finally go senile?"

  Jessup grinned and settled deeper into the sofa. "No. But you know what? I may be too old to make 'em interested but at least I can still make them wonder."

  Dan laughed and left for his room.

  Frank Jessup stayed, watching the embers burn themselves out one by one. He pushed himself off the sofa and with a final look at the dark fireplace, whispered to himself, "you're right, Dan, they may be useful...and our last chance."

 

 

15

 

Jefferson Road
Friday, 10:49 P.M.

 

  "Yes, sir," Murkson said into his phone. "I have the cabin under surveillance."

  The phone whispered at him.

  "No, sir. I won't be able to get a listening device inside. I tried a high gain directional microphone but the log walls were too thick. Nothing got through."

  Another whisper issued from the phone.

  "Yes, sir. Of course."

  Murkson wiped cold perspiration from his forehead. "Sir, I suggest we move additional agents into this zone." He looked out of the car's front windshield at Jessup's cabin. "We're going to need them."

 

 

16

 

Frank Jessup's Residence
Saturday, 6:52 A.M.

 

  Excited chitterings drew Scully from sleep. She stretched under the warm heaviness of the comforter, reluctant to open her eyes. The scrambling, scraping sounds got louder. She rubbed the last vestige of sleep from her eyes and threw back the covers.

  The frantic noises came from outside. She walked to the window, pulled it open and leaning forward, pushed open a pair of forest green shutters. The glow of an orange sunrise warmed Scully's cheeks as she looked out. A smile brushed her lips as she watched a pair of squirrels scrambling through pine branches ten feet away. They jerked to a stop, stared at her and fled out of sight up the trunk. They resumed their play hidden in the tree's higher boughs.

  The distant sounds of cooking the heavy aroma of sausages worked their way under her door. Sudden hunger gnawed in her middle.

  Scully washed quickly and pulled on a long-sleeved, cream colored blouse followed by a gray pants suit. After combing and make-up, she marched out to breakfast. She collided with Mulder as he rushed down the landing.  Scully steadied herself on the rail. "Why the hurry? Hungrier than usual?"

  Mulder hurried past her. "It's this unhealthy country air. I need extra calories to fight off its negative effects."

  She trailed him down the stairs. The dining room was deserted so they followed the mouthwatering aromas into the kitchen. Jessup sat with his elbows on the kitchen's dinette table, a cup of coffee cradled in both hands. As they walked in, Angela plopped a platter of steaming griddle cakes on the table.

  Jessup jumped up and pulled a chair out for Scully. She eased into it, keeping a wary eye on him. Mulder grinned unsympathetically.

  "Good morning," Jessup said. "I hope you don't mind breakfast in the kitchen. I've always thought it tastes better here. You're closer to the sounds and smells of the food. How did you sleep?"

  "Fine, thank you," Scully said. "In fact, the best since we've been on the road. Mulder..." She looked to Mulder to second her compliments but he was busy dumping syrup over a mountain of pancakes. She turned back to Jessup. "My room was very nice."

  Jessup's smile threatened to tear his face in half. "Good, good. Please, stay as long as you like."

  "Thank you, but I'm certain we'll be able to accomplish everything we need today. Won't we Mulder?"

  "Ummm-mmf," Mulder managed without looking up from his plate.

  Angela dropped two more platters on the table: one stacked high with scrambled eggs, sausages, and bacon, the other with hot biscuits wrapped in cloth. Scully surveyed the heaps of food and felt the itch of temptation.  She willed her hand to lift a single roll from the basket. She nibbled it and sipped at black coffee.

  "If it's all right with you," Jessup said, "I thought we'd go out to the meadow where Michael vanished then make a circuit through town. You'll get more cooperation if I introduce you to anyone you want to talk to. Don't hope for too much. It's been a long time. Almost everyone has died, moved away, or forgotten what little they knew.

  Mulder wiped syrup from the corner of his mouth and leaned back. "There are a couple questions I forgot to ask last night. How is it you remember so many details of such an old case? Also, when I hinted at a possible UFO connection you didn't bat an eyelash. Forty years ago people may not have laughed but they certainly do today. Why not you?"

  Jessup nodded. "Fair questions. I've always had a good memory. Fortunately it hasn't left me, yet. I guess part of it is that this was one of my first cases and I wanted to show everyone what I could do." He put his cup down. "But the biggest reason is personal involvement."

  Jessup heaved a deep breath. "I was the scout leader that took Michael Fitch's troop out on that camping trip. No one blamed me but you can see how I'd feel responsible. As far as UFOs are concerned you can thank Stevenson for my tolerance. After we got to trust each other he mentioned that UFOs were a hobby with him. Sometimes UFO cases came to the FBI and he'd volunteer to investigate. No one else wanted that type of case so he always got them. After a while he built a reputation for that sort of thing and got put in charge of all the oddball cases. I remember he laughed once and said he called them Twilight Cases because they were vague and unclear. You know, half shadow and half light?"

  Mulder's eyebrows arched, but he didn't say anything.

  "We call them the X-Files now," Scully said.

  "Do you really? Who runs them?"

  "I do," Mulder said. "Agent Scully and I collaborate on the investigations. Her medical training helps on many cases."

  Jessup's eyebrows rose. "A doctor you say. As it happens I have this ache..." He began an exaggerated massaging of his back.

  Scully smiled faintly. "Forensic pathologist actually. If you die of that ache I'll be able to find out what killed you. Until then..."

  Frank chuckled. "Thanks. I'll wait. Anyway, Stevenson infected me with his passion. I started to investigate sightings and over the years have assembled quite a few files on them. Ninety-nine percent are false alarms but that remaining one percent keeps my interest alive. Stevenson convinced me that Michael's case must be one of the few real instances of an alien abduction. No other explanation fits."

  Mulder had served himself scrambled eggs and sausage while Jessup talked. He paused halfway to his first bite. "I'd enjoy looking through your files."

  "Sure. Anytime."

  Ten minutes later Scully watched Mulder strain to swallow his last piece of sausage. He pushed himself up from the dinette and reached to give Angela a hug. She blushed three shades of red and turned away. "No. No. Go away," she said and fled into a walk-in closet.

  Jessup nodded at the door. "That closet's her hiding place whenever she gets embarrassed or scared. We had a break-in last year and that was where she ran to hide." He turned to them. "If you folks are planning on going into the forest you better change into something a little more durable. Spine weed's in season and that stuff's murderous."

  "Thanks for the warning," Mulder said. "We'll be outside in a few minutes."

  Jessup nodded, smiled one last time at Scully and left through the kitchen door to the outside.

 

  Scully met Mulder on the front porch after they'd changed into jeans. Scully wore a beige, long sleeved shirt. Mulder had opted for a gray sweatshirt. Scully straightened her collar. "We've collected a lot of information about Michael Fitch's disappearance and Stevenson's agenda but so far we don't have a clue about what happened to him."

  Mulder shook his head. "I think we do. Stevenson discovered something about Quintannin's disappearance that depressed him. I think whatever it was started a chain of events that led to his disappearance. The government sent agents to hunt him down which proves someone in power wanted him, the files he took, or both and they wanted them badly enough to step on a few toes to get them. They failed. That's why they had to come back the second time."

  "There's a lot of guesswork in that hypothesis."

  Mulder shrugged. "You expected something else from me?"

  She smiled.  They stepped off the porch and walked around to the rear of the house. As they rounded the corner the loud thud of something hard landing on sheet metal resounded into the woods. Dan stood beside a rust-scarred pickup parked near a small shed. He reached into the shed and grabbed a foot-square white sandy block, which he dropped into the truck. It landed next to a dozen similar blocks scattered around the truck's bed.

  Dan nodded as they came into view. "Salt blocks. I need to drop some off for the deer so Mr. Jessup asked me to take you to the meadow where the Fitch boy disappeared. That okay with you?"

  "Fine with us," Mulder said. "I'll help you drop them off." He clamored into truck's back. Scully stepped up into the cab. The truck's engine fired up with a roar that belayed its age. Dan disregarded roads and headed straight into the forest. Every couple of miles he'd slow enough for Mulder to heave one of the salt licks over the side of the truck. Scully thought she'd use the trip to question Jessup's handyman. He looked old enough to be familiar with the Fitch case, but conversation was impossible because it was all she could do to hang on to her seat. Fallen branches and gullies crisscrossed the track every twenty feet. Dan ignored them and kept his foot pressed down hard on the gas. Every time he hit a particularly high bump Scully heard the salt blocks jumbling around the truck's bed. She grinned at the thought of Mulder bouncing around with them.

  Dan finally stopped in the shade of a pine tree on the border of a meadow. They got out and he led them one hundred yards into it. He looked around to check his bearings. "Yep. This is where Michael knelt when he disappeared. Of course, there's nothing here now but Mr. Jessup thought you'd like to see it anyway."

  Ankle high yellow cornflowers covered the flat ground. Evergreens formed a dark, vertical wall enclosing the meadow. "This is Leominster State Forest?" Scully asked.

  Dan nodded. "Right. The boundary between Mr. Jessup's land and the state's is a mile back where we dropped the last salt lick."

  Mulder crouched down and poked at the damp earth with his fingers. "Frank said the tracking was good on that night. Would you say it was as good as it is now?"

  "Better then. The ground cover was shorter then so footprints were easier to see. Even now it would be hard to lose a trail." To illustrate his point, Dan walked in a small circle. Sharply defined footprints marked his path.

  The corners of Mulder's mouth pricked up in a faint smile. "Then you were here back then. Can you tell us anything about the disappearance or Agent Stevenson?"

  Dan returned Mulder's slight smile. "No. I don't think so. Frank's already said everything there is to say. Would you like to see where the scouts camped?"

  "Please."

  They backtracked the path Michael took over forty years ago. It ended in a small clearing surrounding a five-foot circle of stones. Dan rested a boot on one of them. "This was the camp site. It's still used by scouts today."

  Scully and Mulder wandered around the site nudging stones and branches with their feet. Scully looked across the clearing at Mulder. "Seen enough?"

  "I think so."

  They walked back to the truck and started home. An hour and several thousand bumps later, Dan braked to a halt outside the cabin's rear door. "Thanks for the tour," Mulder said, rubbing the small of his back.

  Dan ducked his head at them. "No problem. Hope you find your man."

  "Thank you. I'm beginning to think we will."

  Scully squinted up at Mulder as they walked into Jessup's house. "That was cryptic. Are you on to something?"

  "Not really. I don't see a pattern yet but feel one's there if I can discover it. By the way, did you notice how calmly Dan took being tricked into admitting he'd been around when Michael disappeared."

  She shrugged. "I assumed it didn't involve him so he didn't care whether you knew or not. You could have just asked him outright."

  Mulder's grin made his cheeks bulge. "Not as much fun that way."

  She glanced at him without smiling. "I also noticed he watched us as closely as we watched him. I'm not sure who got the most information."

  Mulder turned thoughtful. "Neither am I...and I find that interesting."

 

 

  Scully and Mulder changed into their obligatory dark business suits and went downstairs. They met Jessup in the kitchen. He opened the rear door for Scully and waved her through with. She raised her eyebrows at Mulder as she strode past him.

  They got in Scully and Mulder's car with Mulder behind the wheel. Jessup moved to sit next to Scully on the front bench seat but she managed to close the door before he squeezed through. He climbed into the rear seat. The corners of his mouth hung low. After five minutes of silence he said: "I hope Dan took good care of you this morning."

  "Everything went fine," Scully said. "Although he does tend to be a little heavy-footed."

  Jessup laughed. "You can say that again. When he drives me anywhere I spend half the time tightening the seat belt and the other half looking for an ejection seat. You were lucky he didn't use the roads where he can really build up speed."

  She smiled, then let her expression cool. "How long has he been with you?"

  Jessup half-closed his eyes. "Dan? Lord. Seems like forever. At least that's how long we've known each other. Must be more than thirty years."

  "Was he ever married?"

  "No. Too much a loner. There's nothing funny about Dan if that's what you're worried about. He's had several lady friends over the years." Jessup chuckled. "In fact he has two now that don't know about each other."

  "He seemed familiar with the Fitch case."

  Jessup looked down to examine his fingernails. "Yes, well...I guess he was around back then. By the way, turn left at the next street. It's a short cut to the other side of town. I made some calls this morning and found out the only person still in town connected with the case is Michael's old girlfriend, Joanna Crystle. She married several years after his disappearance and is now Mrs. Darmon."

  Jessup directed them through the tree shaded lanes of Carlisle's outer perimeter. He pointed to a yellow house nestled deep in a corner lot. "That's it."

  Mulder pulled to the curb. Frank got out and knocked on the front door and a woman in her early sixties opened the door. "Hi, Joanna." Jessup said.

  "Hi yourself, Sheriff! Come on in-" she began, but stopped short when Scully and Mulder stepped beside Jessup.

  Frank inclined his head at them. "These are Special Agents Dana Scully and Mulder. They're with the FBI. Believe it or not, there's still interest in Michael's disappearance. I said you'd talk to them."

  "Well...of course. Come on in. If Sheriff Jessup says it's all right, it must be."  She led them into a living room bright with sunshine filtering through white shears. Scully caught the hearty-sweet aroma of oatmeal cookies baking in the kitchen.

  "What can you tell us about Michael's disappearance or Agent Stevenson?" Mulder asked.

  She opened her hands. "Nothing really. Mike and I had gone steady almost a year. We even talked about marriage, although it was silly at our ages; I was only seventeen. He went out with his troop and never came back. We planned to go to the school dance the weekend after he returned." She fidgeted on the edge of the sofa. "It's odd to talk about it after all of these years. I remember being miserable at the time, yet now I even can't remember what Mike looked like."

  "And Agent Stevenson?" Mulder asked.

  Mrs. Darmon shrugged. "I can't be much help there either, I'm afraid. I remember he was kind but that's all. He talked to me only once for a few minutes." She glanced at the clock over the fireplace and caught her breath.

  "Something wrong?" Scully asked.

  Mrs. Darmon smiled nervously. "Oh, no. Not really. It's just that I'm expecting Bob, my husband, any minute with a carload of grandchildren. If they find two FBI agents here you'll be buried by requests to see your guns."

  Mulder stood up. "Thank you for your time, Mrs. Darmon. Scully? Sheriff Jessup? I think we might as well go now."

  Scully smiled at his discomfort. Mulder preferred children one at a time. Large groups intimidated him. She added her good-byes to Mulder's and Jessup's and they drove off just as a minivan full of wriggling arms and legs pulled into the Darmon's driveway.

  Jessup laughed. "That was close. Well...that's that. Do you need me for anything else or would you prefer to go it alone?"

  Mulder gave his head a shake. "I think we're done here. Scully and I will have lunch in town and be out to pick up our luggage this afternoon."

  "Fine," Jessup said. "I've got to pick up some more salt blocks so if you could drop me downtown it would be great. Dan will come in and take me home. By the way, the Western Grill on the south side of town has the best lunch menu for a hundred miles."

  Scully and Mulder dropped Jessup in front of a hardware store and drove off for the restaurant. It was pleasantly crowded in the restaurant. Scully suspiciously scanned the bustling waitresses for anyone who looked like Madge. Mulder ordered a grilled chicken sandwich on sourdough, Scully a green salad. They both had coffee. Scully blew on her drink. "Do you want to question the Fitchs about why they lied about Stevenson's return?"

  "Not until we find out what compelled him to come back and why he was depressed. I think our next move is to look into the Allan Quintannin case." Mulder's smile turned sly.  "Too bad about Frank."

  Scully eyed him suspiciously. "What do you mean?"

  "Your departure will break his heart."

  She stared into her cup as she swirled the dark liquid. "It may not work out that way. Rich, seventy-year-old men don't grow on trees, you know. A girl could do worse."

  Mulder conceded defeat with a broader smile. He paid the tab and they drove to the police station to thank Sheriff Baker for his help, then headed back to Jessup's cabin.

  After they'd loaded their luggage into the car, Mulder walked back to the porch where Jessup stood. He shook the ex-sheriff's hand. "Thanks for everything."

  "I enjoyed it, Agent Mulder. If you're ever back this way I hope you'll stop by."

  "I'll do that."

  Scully leaned against the car with her arms crossed. She watched as Mulder said their good-byes and hoped she'd get away minus any of Jessup's special attentions.

  While Jessup shook Mulder's hand, Dan walked over and leaned close to her. "I didn't want you to think Frank's serious about how he's been acting toward you. He's just having a little joke at your expense."

  Her eyes hardened as she looked up at the man. "Really."

  Scully broke into a wide smile. With mischief gleaming in her eyes, she walked up the steps and kissed Jessup on the cheek. "I'm going to miss you, Frank," she whispered, her lips close to his ear.

  He stood stiff as granite as she walked away and slid behind the car's wheel. Dan turned away to control his laughter. Mulder climbed in on the passenger side, confusion on his face. "What was that all about?" Mulder asked as she drove off.

  "Dan told me Frank was giving me the eye just to make me wonder what was on his mind. I decided to have a little fun of my own so I turned the tables on our dear Mister Jessup. That will teach him to pick on lady FBI agents."

  Mulder chuckled.

  Scully turned left at the end of Jessup's gravel road and headed toward their last case.

 

+++

 

  Jessup stood frozen in shock as Dan's attempts to contain his laughter threatened to strangle him. Jessup finally recovered enough to notice Dan's convulsions. Understanding slowly dawned on him. "Very funny, very funny," Jessup grumbled.

  Dan exploded in laughter. Jessup had to help him into the cabin. Dan wiped his eyes while Jessup poured drinks. "Haven't had a laugh like that in a long time," Dan managed to say at last.

  "Too long. Not much opportunity for it."

  The men's smiles dimmed.

  "So what do you think?" Jessup asked.

  "It's hard to tell for sure, when there's so much at stake. They're good agents though."

  "Why? Because he used the oldest trick in the book to find out you were here during the investigation?"

  "No. Because he saw that I recognized it as the oldest trick...and that I was able to control my reaction. I think he suspects. He's not sure what it is yet but he feels something's not right."

  "When will you know if they're the ones?"

  "If they figure it out, it'll prove they're smart enough. How they react will determine if they can be trusted with the whole story."

  Dan pushed himself up to freshen his drink.

  "Do you think they were followed?" Jessup asked.

  "Certain of it."

  "Then Mulder better catch on fast. He doesn't have much time."

  Dan shook his head. "Neither do we."

 

 

 

17

 

Highway 190, Massachusetts
Saturday, 4:17 P.M.

 

  "Up route one-ninety to the two-oh-two?" Scully asked.

  Mulder brought the map an inch from the tip of his nose. "Right. It looks to be about forty miles. We should be there in time for dinner."

  "Good, the salad I had for lunch isn't holding me very well."

  The drive up the 190 passed quickly but turning west onto highway 202 pointed Scully straight into the late afternoon sun. She lowered the driver's visor but it didn't come down low enough to shade her eyes. She squinted painfully into the glare. "Want to trade?" Mulder asked after ten miles.

  Scully nodded at a sign that announced they were entering Kent. "Thanks, no. We're almost there."

  They pulled into the town as the first shadows of twilight began turning everything gray. The Tropic Paradise Motel at one end of the town's main street flashed an orange neon vacancy sign at them. Scully drove into its palm tree studded parking lot, wondering how the trees managed to survive so far north. "I'm exhausted," she said. "Let's check in with the sheriff tomorrow morning."

  "Sounds good." Mulder inclined his head toward a diner to the left of the motel. "Dinner?"

  "Definitely."

  They ate quickly and walked over to the motel's lobby. He nodded back at the diner. "Meet you there for breakfast at seven?"

  "Right."

  Scully signed in and headed for her room. "Good night."

  Mulder didn't look up from filling out his registration form. "Right," he answered distantly.

 

 

  The sheriff's office was already busy at eight Sunday morning. Scully and Mulder had hoped to catch the chief of police before his work piled up for the day. They failed. "Please, come in," he said from the door of his office. An edge in his voice caught Scully's attention. Paige noticed her studied expression. "It's not you," he said. "My town was busy last night. I worry when she acts up like that. We had two murders, a fight between rival gangs, and three robberies."

  Scully nodded sympathetically.

  Mulder shook the sheriff's hand. "We're conducting a follow-up investigation of the disappearance of seventeen-year-old Allan Quintannin in 1951."

  Sheriff Paige's eyes shifted back and forth between them. "That's a long time to wait for a follow-up."

  Mulder ignored the comment. "We believe the case is linked to the disappearance of one of our agents a few years later. His file on the Quintannin disappearance is all we have to work with so we'd like to talk to anyone who might be familiar with the case. It may help us find out what happened to our agent."

  "Forty years is a long time," Paige said while he pressed a button on his desk's intercom. "Miss Scalia, please send Ryan to my office." He turned back to them. "You're talking about something that happened long before my time. I've sent for the oldest man on the force. If anyone can help you, it'll be him."

  A soft tap at the office door announced Officer Ryan's arrival. Scully's businesslike eyes softened as she watched the old policeman, stooped with years, slip his thin frame through the door as unobtrusively as possible. Ryan's look echoed the hopelessness of people with no purpose in life. Scully glanced at Mulder. He had a sour expression.

  "Yes, sir," Ryan said quietly. "How can I help you?"

  The sheriff nodded toward the two strangers, "These are FBI Agents Scully and Mulder. You're assigned to help them with their investigation. All of your other duties are excused as long as they need you. Agents Scully and Mulder, I'll pass the word that you're to be given access to any records you require. If you need anything else, please contact me. I wish you luck in your search. Now if you'll excuse me..."

  "Certainly," Mulder said. He glanced at the stooped man. "Thank you for your help, sheriff."

  They left the office with Ryan in tow. As soon as the door had closed, they turned around to tell the old man that they wouldn't be needing his help. Their mouths dropped. Ryan stood ramrod straight with eyes that burned with excitement. Before they could say a word he jumped forward to pump Mulder's hand. "Folks, this is great! All I've been doing for the last five years is taking phone messages and emptying parking meters." He cocked his head in the direction of Paige's office. "Duty like that gets you down after awhile so you tend to fall into the bent-old-man routine you saw in there. Gets to be a habit."

  He rubbed his palms together. "If there's anything, and I mean anything, you want just let me know. I've spent my entire life in this town. Nobody knows it better. I joined the force the day after I graduated from high school and have been on active duty the whole time. There's not a crime that's been committed in Kent that I don't know something about."

  Scully grinned at the man's enthusiasm. "Thank you. We appreciate any help you can give us."

  "The appreciation's all mine. Now, if you'll follow me I'll get us an office." Ryan marched over to the dispatcher who smiled tolerantly at him. After a minute's low discussion and a few jerks of Ryan's thumb in Scully and Mulder's direction, the dispatcher began to nod. He took two keys from a pegboard and handed them over. Ryan returned with triumph stamped on his face. "I got us room one-zero-seven. It has the best air conditioning, easy access outside, and looks out at the park. We might as well be comfortable while we work, eh?" He winked at Mulder.

  Halfway down the hallway into the station's interior Ryan stopped at a door labeled Supplies. He gave both ends of the hall a quick glance then said, "Watch my back." He slipped through the door and closed it behind him with a soft shush. Scully pursed her lips and kept an eye on one end of the corridor. Mulder followed her example with the other.

  Ryan reemerged two minutes later loaded down with tablets, typing paper, pens and pencils. With a jerk of his head he rushed them further down the hall to their office and pushed through the door. The newly carpeted room held six large desks with room to spare.

  Ryan handed some of the supplies to Scully and Mulder. The greater portion he reserved for himself, which he placed on the largest desk at the head of the room.

  As they went toward two desks on Ryan's right, Mulder whispered to Scully. "I think we've created a Frankenstein."

  Ryan settled into his chair. "Now, If you'd be so good as to tell me everything you know about this case we can get down to solving it."

  Mulder flopped his supplies on a desk. "Now wait a minute-"

  Scully put a hand on his arm to stop him. "Officer Ryan? I take it this is your first investigation in a while?"

  The old man laughed. "Feels like it's been decades, and probably has."

  Mulder looked at Scully and nodded. "Well...sir-"

  Ryan held up his right hand. "Please, you may call me Zack."

  Mulder blinked several times. Scully fought to restrain her laughter. Mulder controlled himself long enough to explain about the file, Stevenson's disappearance and the cases they'd investigated so far. As he worked through the presentation he placed the relevant files on Ryan's desk. Mulder concluded with his theory that Allan Quintannin had been abducted by aliens.

  Ryan's half-closed eyes appeared dreamy. Scully was beginning to wonder if he'd dozed off when he suddenly snapped up and leaned forward. "I can only comment on the last two cases. Your reports cover most aspects of them. However, there are a few important points missing. Agent Stevenson was as friendly as everyone testified. I was a junior officer then and got assigned to him as his gofer." Ryan smiled at Scully and Mulder. "Sort of like now." The smile fell away. "Stevenson tore Kent upside down like he did in Carlisle and just like there came up empty-handed. When some of the scouts mentioned lights near Allan's disappearance, Stevenson got even more frantic. He checked every conceivable explanation for those lights." Ryan shook his head. "Never found a thing. After ten days on the case he got called back to Washington. As the years slipped by, everyone gave up on ever seeing the Quintannin kid again. Then it happened."

  Ryan leaned closer to them. "Allan reappeared! Three years after Stevenson left, a deputy found Quintannin in a field outside town early one evening. He was naked, in shock and couldn't remember a thing. I was the second one on the scene. Back at the station we called a doctor and the Quintannins. By the time his parents showed up, Allan felt good enough to go home. The doctor said there was no reason why he couldn't so they left. The only thing physically wrong with him was that to all appearances he was still seventeen years old."

  Ryan's eyes hardened. "Then everything went wrong. I rode with the Quintannins when they took Allan home. After they got him something to eat, Mrs. Quintannin excused herself to call Stevenson. I could hear his excitement boil out of the receiver all the way across the room. Stevenson promised to return as soon as possible." Ryan looked down at his hands. "At eight the next morning a call from the office woke me at home; the Quintannin's were in tears at the station. An hour earlier three men with government IDs had showed up at their house demanding to see Allan. These men said they needed to question him about his disappearance; it was an issue of national security. Two of them took Allan into the rear of the house while the third stayed with the Quintannins. Half an hour later, the third man got up and walked out the front door without saying a word. The men had come in two cars but when the Quintannins looked out the front window they only saw one. He got in and drove off. They went to the room where Allan had been taken. It was empty. They immediately drove to the police station to find out what was going on. That's when I got called. The three government men had never declared their presence to the local authorities. All neighboring communities were contacted to be on the lookout for them but no trace was found...until three weeks later."

  Ryan's mouth formed a dry line. "Stevenson showed up about ten the morning the government men took Allan away. He stopped by the station first to check in. He couldn't believe what had happened. I drove him out to the Quintannins' house and by the time we arrived their distress had turned to anger. Stevenson worked for the government so they assumed he was involved. They railed at him like I hope I never see the likes of again. All he could do was stand alone in the middle of the living room and take it. Half an hour later they ran down and collapsed on the sofa. Stevenson slowly explained that he didn't know anything about the agents, why they took Allan, or how they found out so fast that Allan had returned. He got descriptions of the men, their cars and the IDs they used. Stevenson had me take him back to the station. While I called around trying to find out where these agents had gone, he got on the phone to Washington. An hour later I'd found out nothing and went back on regular duty. Stevenson stayed glued to the phone. Every time I checked back he was still there, yelling at one government agency or the other. As the day wore on his shoulders began to sag."

  Ryan shook his head. "From the look on his face I'd say Stevenson was in the process of discovering something that soured him inside. At six that night I saw him hang up for the last time. I've never seen a man so defeated. All he could say was that we might never see Allan again. To make matters worse, Stevenson had been ordered by the FBI director himself to hush everything up. He looked like he'd just found a traitor in the government and there was nothing that could be done about it. He spent two days following the director's orders. During all that time I never saw him smile once. Three weeks later the Quintannins received a telegram from the government that said their son had died from shock sustained during his three-year absence. The government very much regretted their loss. The telegram told them their son's body was in the town's mortuary. The telegram was unsigned and all efforts to trace it failed. When Stevenson attended the funeral, the look on his face made me shiver. He didn't look defeated any longer. He looked mad, killing mad."

  Scully's jaw muscles ached from the strain of clenching her teeth.  In the six years she'd collaborated with Mulder on the X-Files, they'd worked many cases in which they had been confronted by a secret government agency authorized to use unlimited force to keep proof of alien activity from the public. The agents assumed this practice was a recent policy. Finding out it had been in place for over forty years shook her and made her feel that everyone on the planet was vulnerable.

  "You've given us a lot to think about Zackery," Mulder said.

  "That's not all you need to think about. Sheriff Jessup gave you the impression he and Stevenson were just good friends. Close, but nothing special. Right?"

  Mulder nodded.

  "That's a lie," Ryan said.

  His eyes burned deep into them. "Stevenson came up from Carlisle with Jessup to assist our investigation. They believed the two cases were linked so while they were here I assisted them. They weren't just friends, they were more like brothers. Jessup's description of the depth of their friendship confuses me. He's the most truthful man I've ever known." Ryan leaned back in his chair. "You know, I bet he thinks I'm dead by now. I sure thought he was. Oh, one last thing..." He spun the photo of Jessup and Stevenson through the air to Mulder. "That isn't Stevenson."

 

 

18

 

Kent Police Station
Sunday, 9:03 A.M.

 

  Mulder jerked up from his slouch. "If that's not Stevenson then who is it?"

  Ryan shrugged. "No idea. Looks a little like him but it's not."

  Scully watched Mulder's gaze pull inward. He's on to something.

  She understood how critical Ryan's testimony was, if it could be believed. Scully took a deep breath to steel herself. She had to ask some questions that would hurt Ryan and anger Mulder, questions that had to be asked. "Officer Ryan," She said. "Everything you've told us is valuable to this investigation, but there is one issue that must be addressed, even if you're insulted by it. Please understand we must challenge all our sources regardless of how reliable they appear."

  Mulder came out of his reverie and stared at her.

  She ignored his hard look. "The information you've provided is from the memory of a man well into his sixties about something that happened over forty years ago. I'm sure if our positions were reversed you'd question the reliability of the source."

  Ryan searched her eyes, then looked down. "You're right. I am old. Maybe too old to be a policeman anymore." His eyes came back up full of challenge. "But my memory is still good and everything I've told you is accurate. I worked that case like it was my first and last. You don't forget a case when you're that close to it no matter how long ago it happened, or how old you are." He leaned toward her. "Everything I've told you is truthful and accurate."

  Ryan's voice rang with conviction, but his shoulders still sagged. He waited for her verdict like a man in court.

  Scully's heart went out to Ryan but her intellect demanded more. She studied him clinically. His eyes were sharp, clear and bright with intelligence. His hands trembled slightly but she chalked that off to nervousness. His voice was vibrant with no sign of vagueness. Scully made her decision. "Officer Ryan, how do you recommend we proceed?"

  She felt Ryan's eyes digging into her soul, challenging her sincerity. A wall clock ticked loudly in the silence of his scrutiny. Finally, a smile spread across his features. "I understand, Agent Scully. You were just being a good cop."

  She returned his smile but still felt the coldness in Mulder's stare. "That's right, Officer Ryan. Just like you."

  Ryan nodded. "I thought I'd track down anyone who might remember anything about Allan's disappearance. I've lost touch with them what with parking meters and such. You and Agent Mulder could check into the local records to see if Stevenson left anything behind."

  "Sounds good," Scully said. "Shall we meet back here around lunch time?"

  "Right." Ryan pulled a phone book out of his desk and began rustling pages.

  Mulder stalked out the door. Before Scully could follow, Ryan called to her. "Agent Scully? You were right to ask. I'd have done the same thing."

  She smiled her appreciation and quietly closed the door. Mulder's footsteps echoed to her from halfway down the corridor. Scully ran to catch up with him.

  "Did you have to do that?" he asked.

  "Mulder, did it even occur to you to question Ryan's validity as a reliable source?"

  "No."

  "That's why I had to do it. Your job is to search out the obtuse. Mine is to maintain some semblance of logic in our investigations. Part of that job is to follow established policy which includes challenging the reliability and veracity of questionable sources. I've gotten used to you supplementing bureau guidelines with your own techniques but you can't ignore them altogether. People get hurt when that happens." Scully pushed passed Mulder and walked to the dispatcher's desk. "Can you tell me where you archive your police records?"

  The sergeant on duty nodded. "Certainly. Three places. Records for the last year are kept in the room immediately to the left of Sheriff Paige's office. Records between one and seven years old are held in the basement of the courthouse. Everything else will be in City Hall's long-term storage on Winston Boulevard, three blocks north and one east of here."

  She thanked him and turned to Mulder who had stepped up behind her. "We have our orders from Officer Ryan," she said. "Shall we carry them out?"

  Mulder's smile held no rancor. "It would seem to be the procedurally proper thing to do."

  She smiled back. "And they say men can't be trained."

  "I thought that applied to old dogs?"

  "Is there a difference?"

  They walked outside to their car. Scully beat Mulder to the driver's seat. She pulled out and merged with Kent's early morning traffic. Four blocks later they pulled into the guarded driveway of the Municipal Storage Center. Scully flashed her FBI identification at the sentry and drove through. Black-and-white signs with red arrows directed them to records storage.

  The records room was fifty feet wide, twice as long, and jammed to the rafters with cabinets. Air, heavy with the odor of old paper, filled the room like invisible fog. It took Scully and Mulder twenty minutes to find the police-files area, another half hour to locate the 1951 drawer. All the labels for that year had fallen off so they were forced to sort through the folders one at a time. Fifteen minutes of this brought them to the location where the Quintannin case file should be. It was empty.

  Mulder slammed the drawer closed. "Damn."

  Scully looked up at him. "You know, the fact that the file's gone isn't necessarily bad. I doubt it would have any information we didn't already know. In a way, it helps corroborate Ryan's story."

  "I'd like to think that, Scully, but just because it's missing doesn't mean it was illegally removed." His expression brightened. "Unless..." Mulder jerked the drawer open. He took out the first folder in the front of the drawer and skimmed over the individual sheets it held until one entry caught his eye. A smile split his face as he twisted so Scully could see what he'd found. "Remind me to send flowers to Harriet," Mulder said

  Scully looked down the sheet to where his finger pointed. It was a file inventory form. Assuming the officer who had filled out this particular form in 1953 hadn't faked the inventory like Mulder so often did, it recorded the presence of a file on the disappearance of Allan Quintannin. No one had initialed the block reserved for recording removals. The file existed and had been stolen.

  Scully smiled at Mulder. "Harriet's going to gloat over this. I suggest you give her chocolates instead of flowers. It'll be harder for her to say 'I told you so' with her mouth full."

  They headed back to the police station.

  Scully opened the door to their office. "No?" she heard Ryan say into his phone. "Are you sure?" Ryan covered the phone with his hand and mouthed, "Just a minute," at them. Someone's voice mumbled at the other end of the line and Ryan nodded. "Right, Marcus Zantar. Okay, thanks. Wait! How about-"

  Faint laughter mixed with screaming pulled Scully's attention away from the one-sided conversation. She followed the sounds to the window facing the park. She watched wistfully as children played on teeter-totters and swings and longed for a life, a family, of her own. The old ache never really went away. She could only cover over it with activity. Scully sighed and turned her back on the children.

  Zackery hung up the phone. He lifted a long sheet of paper filled with names. "Victory! There are twenty-four Quintannins listed in local area. Seven had Allan's father's first name. He was the fifth I called. Mr. Quintannin lives downtown in a boarding house. His wife died six years ago and it doesn't sound like he's going to last much longer. We can see him this afternoon. Old Doc Boone is still alive too. He was Allan's doctor. Boone's in a retirement home just five blocks from here. He wasn't there when I called but the nurse said he's in good health in spite of his age and would enjoy someone to talk to. He's the oldest one in the home and doesn't get many visitors. Lastly, I located Bob Weem, my deputy in fifty-four. Although Weem wasn't directly involved with the case he may be able to substantiate some of what I told you. After lunch I thought we'd start the interviews with him. Everyone else I tried hunting down is dead or moved on. How'd you folks do?"

  "We proved the file existed," Mulder said. "It's missing and there's no indication who took it."

  "Do you think Stevenson removed it?"

  "It's consistent with what you've told us." Mulder glanced at the office's wall clock. "Correct me if I'm wrong, but didn't you say something about lunch before we left?"

  Ryan seconded Mulder's look at the clock. "It should be here any minute. In fact-" He pointed at the door.

  Rapid footsteps clicked down the hallway's linoleum floor toward their office. There was a rap at the door and a blond-headed boy in his late teens came in with two large flat cardboard boxes, a small cardboard cube and a large paper bag. At Ryan's motion he placed the parcels on one of the empty desks. "That'll be twenty-one forty-six," the boy said. Ryan took the bill, scribbled something on it and handed it back. The youth raised an eyebrow at it. Ryan gave him an authoritative nod. The boy shrugged and left without a backward glance.

  Ryan jumped out of his chair. "That was great! I haven't been able to sign for anything on an expense account in years." He opened one of the flat boxes. The spicy aroma of hot pizza wafted out. Ryan slid the whole box onto Mulder's desk. "I hope that's all right?"

  Mulder looked worshipfully at the king-sized pizza, its cheese bubbled with heat. "This'll do fine." Mulder's smile stretched to accommodate the enormous bite he took out of the first piece. The other flat box held a second pizza with a pile of multicolored toppings that covered the crust so thickly they completely hid the tomato sauce. Ryan put this one on his own desk.

  The large bag disgorged two, super-sized cups of root beer and a small cup of iced tea. Ice sloshed when Ryan placed one of the cups within Mulder's reach. Ryan put the tea and smaller box in front of Scully. Condensed water held a small packet of sugar substitute and a paper-covered straw to the side of the cup. She peeled the lid back on the box. Inside was a neat little salad with a tiny plastic container of nonfat dressing. She picked up the dressing and stared at it. She looked over as Mulder bit into his second piece of pizza. Juice trickled down the corners of his mouth. Ryan was half way through his first piece. Scully's fingers curled into a fist around the fake dressing.

  Warned by the same sense that enabled their prehistoric ancestors to escape mortal danger, Ryan and Mulder's chewing slowly ground to a halt and they looked in her direction. Scully wasn't smiling.

  Mulder looked at Ryan. Ryan looked Mulder, then turned back to Scully who held the dressing in a threatening attitude. Ryan gulped. "While you were out I called Frank Jessup to tell him you got here okay. It was lunch time so I asked what you both liked to eat. He said Mulder would eat anything dead and suggested that because you were a doctor you'd probably prefer health food. So I got health food. Wrong, huh?"

  Without a word Scully strode to Mulder's desk where she took two pieces of pizza. She went to Ryan's desk and did the same. On her way back to her desk she grabbed Mulder's root beer. She sat down and picked up the tub of dressing. "Any complaints?"

  The men shook their heads. Without taking their eyes off her or the tub of dressing, they cautiously began eating again. The meal ended without further incident.

 

 

19

 

Kent Police Department
Sunday, 1:28 P.M.

 

  Ryan led the way out the station's rear door to the parking lot. He walked past five black-and-whites marred with the dents police cars collect, to one parked by itself at the far end of the lot. Its unblemished, newly-waxed surface glistened wetly in the afternoon sun. When they opened the doors, the interior beckoned with the rich, hot-plastic aroma of a new car. They piled in with Ryan behind the wheel. Scully sat up front. Mulder lounged in the back seat with his hands laced over a comfortably full stomach.

  Ryan ran his hands around the leather-covered steering wheel "The department got this beauty two days ago. Other than a short checkout drive she's never been used. Sheriff Paige intended it for himself but I convinced the dispatcher to let me have it. Seems he got the idea the Chief authorized it to impress you FBI people." He gave Scully a wink.

  Scully smiled and winked back.

  "We'll see Weem first," Ryan said. "He's the closest." They pulled out of the parking lot and turned left onto Winston. After cruising four blocks, Ryan turned right onto a narrow side street crowded with old trees whose dirty shadows failed to hide paint hanging in tatters from the sides the houses. Old litter crunched under the tires as they drifted along the street. Half a block down, Ryan pulled over in front of a boarding home. Someone had put a lot of work into house. It hadn't been enough.

  Old rafters sagged under the weight of countless decades. Paint, cracked from too many coats, curled away from dry rotted clapboards. The cement steps were worn concave. Pity welled up in Scully's heart. The house represented the only housing available to the uncomfortably retired. She followed Mulder and Ryan up the steps to the front door.

  Ryan gave his head a sad shake. "Officer Bob Weem had twenty-three years on the force when he got shot in the back, lost most of the movement of his left arm and leg. We never found the person that did it. Bob took an early retirement at 30 percent disability, which was enough at first. Now he barely gets by." He shrugged. "I stopped visiting five years ago when he turned sour."

  Ryan pushed a cracked button next the door. No bell acknowledged his effort. A tight-knuckled rap brought a hairy-armed hulk whose T-shirt failed to cover a cellulite-cratered belly. He looked through the rusty screen at them. His eyes tracked from Ryan's uniform to Mulder's dark blue suit to Scully's soft brown blazer and slacks. "Yeah?"

  Scully's eyebrows nudged upward as Mulder flipped his FBI card in the man's face. "FBI, let us in," he said.

   The push worked. Defiance drained from the man's face and he stumbled backward. Mulder pulled the screen door open and they marched in.

  As they filed into a worn but clean entry hall, a tiny woman in a flowered red dress rushed in from the rear of the house. She stormed at the man like a Pekingese charging a rhinoceros. "Bill! Get into the back yard and finish your work." He mouthed silent curses as he sloughed off down the hallway. She turned to the newcomers. "Sorry about Bill's manners. He's hired help but thinks he's a partner, tries to get high-handed. I'm Mabel Tremain, the owner. How may I help you?"

  Ryan took over. "Hi, Mabel. Remember me? Zackery Ryan? I used to visit Bob."

  Recognition lit her face. "Sure I do. You here to see Mr. Weem?"

  "If he's in."

  "And where else would he be? All he does is sit in his room and watch TV." Her expression softened. "I know he's gotten angry but he's missed you. Even if he won't admit it."

  An embarrassed smile crossed Ryan's lips. "Well, I'm here to see him now and I brought some friends with me. Okay if we go up?"

  She waved toward a flight of stairs. "Certainly. Go ahead. He's in the same room." Mabel smiled shyly at the FBI agents before scuttling back toward the rear of the house.

  A moment later, Scully caught Mabel's voice muffled by the hallway. "Bill! Get to work! That hedge is growing faster than you're trimming." The back door slammed. The woman's voice dwindled to an insistent mumble.

  Ryan led them up the stairs and knocked at the first door on the left. Television noise escaped from around the loosely hung door. Scully heard an uneven shuffle just before the door swung open. Bob Weem was medium tall, bald, thin, and immaculately shaved. His gray slacks and white long sleeved shirt showed wear but were clean and freshly pressed. He blinked several times. "Zack. It's been a long time."

  Ryan shuffled uncomfortably. "Yeah. Well...you know how things get. Uh...believe it or not I've on a case again after all these years. Can we come in and talk about it?"

  Bob Weem opened the door wide for them. Scully stepped in and scanned the room with practiced efficiency. A once gold sofa faded to indifferent yellow dominated the room. Hand towels on the armrests weren't large enough to cover several threadbare spots. Two similarly faded recliners flanked the sofa. There were no end tables. Everything faced a twelve-inch, black-and-white television on a folding TV tray. She examined the room again, noticing this time that while everything showed a lifetime's wear it was spotlessly clean. A gray rug worn shiny smooth had been meticulously vacuumed. The few stains blemishing the sofa's fabric showed the efforts of determined, if unsuccessful, removal. Even the hand towels were bleached and ironed to brilliant crispness.

  Weem dragged his left leg as he went to turn off the television. His left arm sagged limply, its hand securely tucked into his left pants pocket. He fell into a chair and invited them to do likewise. Scully and Mulder sat.

  Ryan stood. "Bob, these are Special Agents Dana Scully and Mulder of the FBI. They're looking into the Quintannin case. I told them what I remember but I thought you might be able to add something."

  Weem eyed Scully and Mulder critically. "Zack, Stevenson told us to forget everything we knew about that case."

  Ryan raised his hands in a helpless gesture. "After forty years what's the harm? Besides, Stevenson himself disappeared and they're trying to find him. Will you help us?"

  Weem turned his determined stare on Zack.

  "Come on," Ryan pleaded. "They're okay."

  Bob Weem examined Scully and Mulder with the cold eyes of a suspicious cop. He leaned forward, the elbow of his good arm rested on his right knee. "I need to know if you're looking for Stevenson for his sake, or the FBI's?"

  Mulder returned Weem's stare. "We're assigned to find Agent Stevenson by the FBI. That's our job and we'll do it." He leaned back, relaxed. "Whether or not we tell the FBI what we discover will depend on why he ran away."

  Scully shot Mulder a quick hard look, but didn't say anything.

  Weem's eyes bored deep into Mulder's. Scully watched the cords in his neck tighten. He's not going to tell us anything. Then she saw him relax. Weem must have seen something in Mulder's eyes that swayed him. Mulder did that to people.

  "Stevenson said one day I might have to trust someone," Weem said. "It looks like now's the time. This will take awhile. Coffee?"

  They all accepted. He shuffled to a kitchenette built into a corner of the room and began pouring coffee into four unmatched mugs. He stood to one side. "I'm afraid you'll have to help yourselves." They collected their drinks and returned to the living area of the room. Ryan remained standing.

  "For Pete's sake, Zack. Sit down," Weem chided. "I'm not mad you stopped coming around. As ornery as I've gotten no one could blame you."

  Ryan worked up a weak smile and relaxed onto the sofa.

  Scully concentrated on Weem as he recounted what he knew about Allan's disappearance and reappearance. His eyes didn't shy away from her's and his voice held steady without any signs of nervousness. As far as she could discern, Weem was being totally open and honest.

  Weem's version substantiated Ryan's account. Though five years younger than Ryan, his memories weren't as sharp. In spite of that handicap, he was still able to add details Ryan hadn't known. "About a year after those three government men kidnapped the Quintannin boy, two different guys with the same look showed up. These men wanted you, Zack, but you'd just started a month's vacation out of town. They settled for me. These agents said Stevenson stole important government records and I had to help them find him. They made me drag them all over town to talk to everyone who knew Stevenson. They failed to find anything and after two days they went away."

  Weem leaned forward. "A week later I came home one night to find Stevenson waiting at my front door. He needed help. We'd hit it off during the case so I agreed as long as it didn't compromise national security. He laughed kind of funny, like whatever he was laughing at wasn't really funny at all. He said it was quite the opposite. Instead of jeopardizing security, he was trying to preserve it."

  Weem took a sip from his mug. "Stevenson said he was on the run. He needed a place to flop and asked if he could spend the night. He admitted there was some risk. I trusted the man so I put him up. We talked most of the night but he never said who was after him or why. He listened carefully while I told him about the government men who'd come looking for him. He told me those men were authorized to do anything, even commit murder, to get him back. I had to be careful never let them know he'd stayed with me. That's why I never mentioned it to you, Zack. He was gone the next morning. I never heard from him again."

  Excitement quavered Mulder's voice. "Did he mention anything about some files he'd taken?" Mulder asked.

  "No."

  Mulder stood up. "Thank you, Mr. Weem. You've been very helpful. One last thing, can you recognize the men in this photo?" He handed Weem Jessup's picture.

  "Let's see now..." Weem squinted at the photo. "My God. That's old Sheriff Jessup. This thing must be forty years old if it's a day. I don't think I recognize the other guy, though."

  "Could it be Agent Stevenson?"

  He scratched the side of his gray head. "I suppose it could, but it's been so many years I can't be sure. Maybe...maybe not."

  Mulder took the photo back and turned toward the others. "Shall we go?"

  They started for the door. Just before they left Weem called out, "Hey, Zack. Don't be such a stranger. I'll promise not to grump too much if you'll stop by once in a while."

  Ryan smiled back at the old man. "I'll be back, Bob. Soon."

  They showed themselves out of the house and walked to the car. With Ryan at the wheel, they drove off to interview Allan's doctor.

 

  Scully tried imagining what the files contained that was important after forty years. She shook her head. The military had declassified its records on atomic weapons developments in less time. Scully looked at Mulder. He stared out his side window, blind to the buildings drifting across his field of vision. He had withdrawn into himself so that facts, guesses and questions flowed around him unhindered by the normal world. She watched his neck muscles tense and relax as pieces of the puzzle started to fit together. Mulder was doing what he did best, letting intuition find the slender thread that tied everything together, a thread untraceable by logic. Gradually his eyes refocused. He relaxed but she could feel the fever pitch of his inner tension.

  "Scully," Mulder said. "Stevenson discovered evidence of something and took it so it wouldn't be destroyed. That's why the government's after him and the records and why they're still important today. He collected proof that would be incontestable if released to the public."

  Scully knew what was coming. "Proof of extraterrestrials?"

  He stared at her, eyes aflame. "No. That wouldn't be important enough. Claims of UFO sightings are too easily explained away. That may be part of it, but not the whole story. Any attempt to silence an FBI agent is dangerous. Failure could lead to investigations and embarrassing disclosures. Yet they tried despite this danger. Whoever made the decisions back then risked the disclosure of extraterrestrial activities to preserve something more important."

  She arched her brows. "What?"

  "Survival. The only thing that justifies the government's actions is that Stevenson not only obtained solid evidence of alien visitations, but also proof of illegal government activities related to those visitations. We've dealt with the Alien Recovery Team before and know how ruthlessly they pursue their objectives. Imagine how they'd act if they were in danger themselves."

  "You're guessing. There isn't enough evidence to-"

  "You know I'm right, Scully."

  She bit her lip. "What do we do now?"

  "Find Stevenson, or his legacy."

  "If we find him or the records, that will make us targets as well. Do you really want that?"

  Mulder gazed into his partner's eyes. "I have to do this, Scully. At some point you'll need to decide how far you're willing to play along."

  She matched his stare. "It's not that simple and you know it. There are lines you're willing to cross over which I can't step."

  "One way or another, Scully, you may have to."

  She kept her voice level. "I'll wait and make that decision when the time comes."

  He looked away. "Don't wait too long. We may not have much time."

 

 

20

 

One block behind Kent Police Car #6
Sunday, 2:31 P.M.

 

  Murkson steered the dark sedan with his left hand so his right could hold the phone.

  "Yes, sir. I have them in sight. They seem to be working their way through everyone in Kent who might know something about Stevenson."

  The phone whispered.

  "Thank you, sir. Four teams should be more than enough. I'll let you know if more is advisable. We can't let this snowball out of control."

  The voice spoke again.

  "No, sir. I wasn't able to plant a wire in their car but I did get some into their motel rooms."

  The phone clicked a disconnect without further comment.

  Murkson carefully laid the phone down so he could pick it up before its first ring was over. His eyes never wavered from the police car ahead of him. He could just make out the occasional flash of Scully's red hair when sunlight reflected off it. He'd found strands of that hair on her pillow when he'd planted the listening devices in their rooms. It was nice hair, soft.

  Murkson's knuckles tightened on the steering wheel. He hoped Scully and Mulder didn't get too close. Hoped the man on the other end of the line didn't think they'd learned too much. If that happened he knew he'd be ordered to intervene.

  Murkson frowned. He disliked killing women.

 

 

21

 

Cordova Retirement Home
Sunday, 3:27 P.M.

 

  Sanitary cleanliness sparkled throughout the retirement home's visitor's center where Scully, Ryan and Mulder had been asked to wait while the receptionist located Doctor Cyril Boone. A thirty foot long picture window framed a view of landscaping that would have done credit to a premier golf course. Small, hut-like units nestling under old oaks were scattered over the gently rolling countryside. Scully thought it looked like a village designed for gnomes.

  The receptionist returned so quietly that Scully heard the starch crinkling in the girl's light pink uniform. "Dr. Boone is in our woodcrafts room. If you'd follow me?"

  They found him bent over a whirring lathe. Boone sat in a wheelchair with a green oxygen tank strapped to its back; its clear plastic supply line and mask dangled unused from one of the chair's handles. Blue age spots checkered Boone's thin pale skin. In spite of his age, Boone's hands held the carving tool steady. A geyser of wood chips erupted from the machine in front of him.

  Ryan yelled to be heard over the machine's high pitched whine. "Hey, Doc! I brought a couple of people to talk to you!"

  The doctor tripped the power toggle off and spun his wheelchair around to look at his visitors. The machine's deafening whir dropped away to silence. Boone broke into a broad smile. "Zack, you young rascal! Haven't seen you in months. What's up? That knee still bothering you?"

  Ryan flexed his right leg. "Knee's fine, Doc. Thanks. These are Special Agents Scully and Mulder from the FBI. They want to talk to you about Allan Quintannin."

  As Boone turned his attention to Scully and Mulder, the smile fell from his face. "Forty years ago government people like you took Allan away from his parents. Three weeks later he was dead. What makes you think I have anything to say to the likes of you." He started to turn away.

  "We're not those agents, Doctor," Scully said. "We deplore what happened to Allan Quintannin as much as you. If you talk to us there's a chance we may be able to find out what happened to him and why. Your help could prevent it from happening again."

  The doctor's mouth remained hard. "That was a nice speech, young lady. But it could be just so many lies. How can I know whether you're up to no good or not?"

  "You can't. All you can do is trust Officer Ryan's endorsement and your intuition."

  Boone wheeled to face Ryan.

  "Doc, I believe what they say. This is more important than just what happened to Allan. Remember John Stevenson? He disappeared too. The same group that took Allan was after him. If John's still alive," Ryan fixed an eye on Scully and Mulder, "it's my hope they'll help him."

  Boone eased back into the cushions of his wheel chair, then nodded. "If you say so, Zack. You're an honest cop and were a damn good sheriff. Best the town ever had." Doc Boone turned to Scully and Mulder. "Besides, when you get to be my age you can't be too particular about who you see or you won't have anyone to talk to. Come on, let's get out of this sawdust."

  Boone knocked Mulder's hand away as he moved to push the wheelchair. The old man's thin arms pumped his chair's wheels with vigor. He led them out of the workshop to a common room where Mulder and Ryan dragged three chairs into a crescent facing Boone.

  "So," the doctor said. "How can an old man help you?"

  "What can you tell us about Allan Quintannin's initial disappearance?" Mulder asked.

  "Nothing. All I ever heard was secondhand."

  "And his reappearance?"

  "Nothing again. I think they found him outside of town." He looked to Ryan who nodded confirmation. "I got a call to come to the police station and check him out. Allan seemed okay. A little chilled maybe, but who wouldn't be after running around buck naked in the cold? Allan was confused because he couldn't remember anything, but that's all."

  "Any visible injuries?" Scully asked.

  "Nothing new. After we got some warm food in him he was as healthy as any seventeen year old kid."

  Scully swallowed, afraid to ask the next question. "You said he was as healthy as any seventeen year old. By the date of his reappearance he should have been twenty. Are you saying he hadn't aged a day during the three years he'd been gone?"

  "Seventy-two hours." Boone stated flatly.

  She felt her eyebrows knit together. "Excuse me?"

  "Over those three years Allan Quintannin only aged seventy-two hours."

  "How can you be so precise?"

  "The day before Allan disappeared he came in to have his arm checked. I'd been treating him for poison ivy."

  "Toxicodenron radicans?" Scully asked.

  "Eh?" Boone ran his eyes up and down her like she'd sprouted horns. "What are you, a botanist or something?"

  "No, sir. I'm a medical doctor."

  "Little slip of a thing like you? Where'd you do your internship?"

  Scully kept her head level. "The FBI recruited me directly out of medical school."

  Boone smiled. "Missed the meat grinder, eh?"

  Scully waited for it, her eyes tight with defiance.

  Boone nodded his understandingly. "Sensitive about that I see. Well, you shouldn't be. Interning's not as useful as it's cracked up to be. The cost in terms of the number of doctors it sours is greater than its experience value."

  His patted her knee with a veined, but warm, hand. "Don't let it worry you."

  Gratitude surged through her. "Thank you."

  "Not at all. To answer your question it was vernix, not radicans."

  "Poison sumac."

  "Right. Out here in the sticks any planted induced rash is called poison ivy."

  "Was he on hydrocortisone acetate treatments?"

  Boone shook his head. "No. Plain old boric acid. Works as well and costs one-tenth as much. When Allan came in for his check up the rash was almost gone. Three more days would have done it. When I saw Allan the night he came back, the last vestiges of that rash had almost healed."

  Mulder nodded. "Instances of similar occurrences have been documented."

  Scully pursed her lips. "Three weeks later Allan's parents got a telegram telling them he had died of shock. Did you examine his body, and if so, did you agree with the telegram?"

  Boone's pencil thin fingers knotted into bony fists. "I did examine the body and no, Allan Quintannin did not die of shock. Allan was tough and strong and afraid of nothing. I can't imagine any emotional stress that could have produced a fatal shock. There wasn't a mark on him so I ruled out physically induced shock. Allan's parents wouldn't allow an autopsy but the superficial examination I gave him didn't turn up anything."

  "Any dermal contusions, head trauma, or puncture marks indicating injections?" Scully asked

  "None that I could see. By the way, the body was fresh. Rigor mortis hadn't set in yet so he could have only been dead more than two hours."

  "They moved fast," Mulder mumbled to himself.

  Scully shot him a quick glance, then turned back to the doctor. "Is there anything else you can tell us?"

  "Nothing about Allan."

  Mulder leaded forward. "What about Stevenson? Can you tell us if he's in this picture?" Mulder handed him the photo.

  Boone squinted over the top of his wire framed glasses at the picture. As he handed it back he shook his head. "Could be but I can't be sure. I only met the man briefly a couple of times and that was forty years ago."

  "How did you meet?" Mulder asked.

  "The first time was shortly after Allan had been taken by those men from the government. He asked a few questions about Allan's health. He seemed particularly interested in the fact Allan hadn't aged. The second time was two days later. He showed up at my practice and asked for Allan's medical records. I handed them over thinking he just wanted to take a look. I was shocked when he placed them in his briefcase. I tried get them back but balked when I saw that look in his eyes, a look like he wasn't going to be stopped no matter what. I saw Stevenson one last time at Allan's funeral. We didn't talk."

  "What can you tell us about Agent Stevenson himself? What was he like?"

  Boone massaged his shriveled chin. "Let's see...the first time we met was in Ryan's office. He seemed like a friendly type. When he found out Allan had been taken by the government everyone could tell he was deeply troubled. When he came to my office the next day he looked like a beaten man. The reason I didn't put up more of an argument about Allan's file is that Stevenson's look told me it was something he'd been forced to do. Finally, at the funeral he'd changed again. This time he looked like a man full of anger and determination to do something about it."

  "Thank you." Scully and Mulder stood to leave.

  "Do me a favor?" Boone asked. "Let me know what happened all those years ago. It's always bothered me. Our government shouldn't act like that."

  "You're right, Dr. Boone," Mulder said. "It shouldn't. If I can do anything to stop it I will. One way or another I'll let you know what happens."

  They left the old man alone in the room.

 

  They walked to their car in silence. Ryan started the engine and drove away from the curb. Scully watched the retirement home shrink with distance while Mulder hunched in the back seat, distant in thought.

  They'd gone half a block when a dark sedan started its engine and trailed after them.

 

 

22

 

Kent, Massachusetts
Sunday, 4:12 P.M.

 

  Ryan headed across town, away from the exclusive neighborhood of Boone's retirement home. "Allan Quintannin's father's first name is Skyler. He lives on the west side of town. The poor side. Our city planners call it a depressed area. Everyone at the station calls it the Oven because the heat's always on there." Ryan hadn't smiled.

  Scully watched roadside trash increase as they penetrated deeper into the town's most desperate section. Spray painted characters in some indecipherable alphabet plastered the lower six feet of crumbling red brick buildings randomly separated by empty lots. Low mounds of garbage carpeted these roughly leveled areas. It looked like a bombed city.

  Ryan watched both sides of the street, counting the number of teenagers idling their lives away. They, in turn, followed the police car's progress into their domain.

  Mulder was oblivious to the surroundings. "There have been several incidents of abductions without aging. Speculation into the phenomena breaks into two camps. One attributes it to time distortion caused by traveling near the speed of light. The other assumes some form of suspended animation."

  "Which do you accept?" Scully said vaguely. She'd noticed the youths too. Many of the older boys made inviting motions at her with their hands and hips. She locked her door.

  Mulder rambled on. "Neither, yet. I haven't witnessed a verifiable case. Actually, there are problems with both theories. But you have to admit that what Boone said gives you something to think about."

  "That testimony revolves around the appearance of two rashes spaced three years apart," Scully heard herself say without taking her eyes off the street. "I'd hardly call it concrete evidence. As for Allan's appearance, many people don't look their age. Especially when they're that young. Remember, everyone's memories of him were three years old by then. Combine that with the excitement of his return and it's more likely everybody was simply mistaken."

  Mulder finally noticed the youths eyeing the car. He pushed his face close to the window. A sixteen year old boy with a stud through his left cheek flipped a finger at him. Mulder smiled and waved back cheerily. "Boone's statements about the change in Stevenson's emotional status are critical. It indicates the Quintannin case was the catalyst that led to his disappearance."

  "If that's so, why did he wait another year to vanish?" Scully asked.

  Mulder shrugged. "It took him that long to gather the files he wanted?"

  "The files were right there in the office. He could have taken them the next day."

  "He needed to make plans?"

  "A year's a long time to plan."

  "He waited for the perfect time?"

  "What made one time better than another?"

  "Nothing we have any evidence for. Except possibly..."

  Scully felt Mulder's attention pull away from the street side watchers. She twisted around to look at him. "Except what?"

  Mulder's eyes shone. "He waited for something. A particular sign that would trigger him into action."

  "What sign?"

  "Something important enough for him to throw his whole career away, even risk his life." Mulder's fingers beat a rapid dance on the police car's upholstery.

  She recognized the signs that another piece of the puzzle had fallen into place. "What do you think it was?"

  "Not yet. I have an idea but it needs a little more work."

  Scully knew better than to push. She rotated forward in her seat just as they pulled over in front of a pile of bricks that had once been a hotel.

  Ryan led the way into the structure. Their footfalls echoed hollowly on worn treads as they walked up to the second floor. Scully kept her eyes up on the ceiling's cracked plaster, looking for pieces likely to break loose. There were too many to count.

  "It's number twenty-seven," Ryan said.

  Scully looked to her left when they topped the stairs. She reached out to the closest door and straightened a corroded brass 2 hanging upside down. "This is twenty-two. He must be at the far end."

  The last door on the right was Quintannin's. It hung open half an inch into a dark room.

  Ryan looked at Mulder then backed to the far wall and drew his revolver. Scully and Mulder slipped automatics out of their holsters and positioned themselves on each side of the door, Scully on the left, Mulder to the right. Mulder pressed his ear against the wall and listened. He shook his head.

  They set themselves. At Mulder's nod Ryan kicked the door full open. Mulder dived into the room, low and left. Scully dodged to the right. They froze in crouches, guns level.

  Scully counted to twenty. When nothing happened she looked over at Mulder. He shrugged and rose. They checked Quintannin's place thoroughly. It didn't take long.

  The apartment only had two rooms: a combined living room and bed room, and a small bath without a door. A coffee pot and a food encrusted microwave on a folding metal table in one corner of the larger room served as a kitchen. Furnishings were painfully simple: a soiled purple sofa with its upholstery worn through in three places, one dented metal chair, and one scarred kitchen table.

  Ryan left to question the manager. Scully and Mulder began searching. Mulder found two prescription containers in the bathroom and handed them to Scully. "What do you think?"

  She read the labels. "Mister Quintannin was a man about to die. These," Scully shook the bottle of pills in her left hand, "are propranolol for angina. This one," she held up the other bottle, "is dynorphin. It reduces the possibility of a stroke." She handed the bottles back to Mulder. "From the dose levels I'd say it was a close race to see which condition he'd succumb to first."

  Mulder scanned the apartment again. "This place looks like someone waiting for the end and hoping it wouldn't be too long. Let's see what Ryan found out."

  They found him outside by the police car watching the youths who were watching him. Scully noticed a change. When Ryan parked, many of the children on the street were in their early teens or younger. They had left. The new occupants averaged a surly eighteen. They'd scattered themselves strategically along the street. Most just leaned against boarded up buildings. Others walked slowly up and down, eyeing the police car, Ryan, and the two FBI agents. Ryan's hand rested on his revolver. "I got what we need," Ryan said. "Let's get out of here."

  Without a word Scully and Mulder got in as Ryan slid behind the wheel. Tires squealed as he gunned the car away from the curb and headed back toward a safer part of town. "I couldn't tell if those kids were just curious or what," Ryan said. "Good thing you came out when you did so we didn't have to find out. We just missed Quintannin. The manager told me an ambulance took him to the hospital an hour ago. Didn't know why."

  "How far away is the hospital?" Scully asked.

  "Normally twenty minutes but-" Ryan slapped the switches for the siren and lights and stomped on the accelerator, "-we should be able to make it in less than half that."

 

  Scully's watch told her they made it in five. The car screeched to a halt beside the emergency room entrance. "There are times when it's fun to be a cop," Ryan exclaimed as they ran into the hospital.

  She brushed strands of red hair out of her face. "I haven't had a ride like that since Dan took us through the woods."

  Scully took the lead. Hospitals were her territory. She stepped up to the receptionist. "We're FBI agents conducting an investigation that involves Mr. Skyler Quintannin. We understand he was brought here this morning. Please tell me what his status is and where we can reach his physician."

  The receptionist ignored the extended identification card and instead raised an eyebrow in Ryan's direction. He nodded at her. "They're okay, Francine."

  The receptionist searched through a stack of folders and grunted her satisfaction when she found the one she wanted. "Skyler Quintannin was admitted at eight twenty-five this morning. Unconscious. He complained of severe chest pains when the ambulance got to his apartment. He lost consciousness on the way to the hospital. The doctor on call diagnosed him with arrhythmia. They rushed him into intensive care. Mr. Quintannin was still alive as of-" the receptionist stopped to look at her watch, "thirty minutes ago. Doctor Doris Valle is in charge of the case. Her office is the third door down the hall on the right."

  They headed down the hall. A forty year old woman with a hard look was pulling closed the door to the office the receptionist had indicated.

  "Dr. Valle?" Scully asked.

  "Yes?"

  "This is Special Agent Mulder and Officer Ryan. I'm Dr. Dana Scully. Agent Mulder and I are with the FBI and need to interview Mr. Quintannin. Can you tell us what his condition is?"

  "Doctor Scully? Medical doctor?"

  Scully nodded curtly.

  "Isn't that unusual? Why would a doctor want to be an FBI agent?"

  "I got interested in forensic pathology when I worked in a coroner's office my last year of college. A career in the FBI seemed a natural way to pursue that field. About Mr. Quintannin?"

  "He's experienced a massive myocardial infarction triggered by an arterial thrombosis."

  "Prognosis?"

  "Terminal. If he hadn't been halfway to the hospital when the worst of it hit he'd be dead by now. Mr. Quintannin's conscious but refuses to be placed on life support. His living will specifies a natural death and the hospital's decided to honor that request. He won't last the night. Even with mechanical aids he'd only live a week." Dr. Valle shrugged.

  "May we talk to him?" Scully asked.

  "As long as you keep it calm. Something to do would be good for him, take his mind off the wait. He understands his situation. He's in room one hundred and ten, just down this hall. If you'll excuse me I-"

  The emergency room doors burst open and screams echoed down the hallway. "Oh, damn," Valle exclaimed and dashed toward two medics wheeling in a gurney surrounded by half a dozen crying people.

  Scully led the way down the hall. Room 110 was on the left. Through a window in the door she could see it consisted four small bays separated by light green, cloth covered metal frames. Each bay held a patient connected with wires and tubes to a confusion of instruments. The bays were divided into pairs by a walkway that ran from the door to a console manned by two nurses.

  Scully pushed through into the room. The men started after her but halted as the pungent aroma of antiseptics poured over them. Scully gave them a questioning stare. Mulder squared his shoulders and plowed into the thick air. Ryan followed in his wake.

  One of the nurses met them halfway up the walkway.

  "Dr. Valle gave us permission to speak to Skyler Quintannin," Scully said.

  The nurse looked around at the second nurse who picked up the phone. A moment later the nurse on the phone nodded. "Okay," the first nurse said, "but he can only take a few minutes and please, don't get him excited."

  She led them to the cubical closest to the right side of the entrance. Mr. Quintannin lay with his eyes closed. Thin, yellowish skin stretched over sharp facial bones gave him a skeletal look. Wires and tubes from the cubicle's life support machinery hung limply on various hooks and knobs; none of them were attached to the sick man. "Mr. Quintannin?" Scully said softly.

  Skyler Quintannin opened sunken eyes rimmed black-and-blue. "Yes?" he wheezed.

  "I'm Special Agent Dana Scully from the FBI. Your doctor said it would be all right if I asked you a few questions."

  To Scully's amazement, he managed a smile.

  "That'd be nice. Help pass the time." His smile twitched. "You may want to hurry. Understand?"

    She nodded. "I need to ask you about your son, Allan, and Agent Stevenson. It's been a long time but anything you can remember may be important."

  Skyler Quintannin looked past Scully and saw Mulder and Ryan for the first time. "Zack? What are you doing here?"

  Ryan leaned forward. "Came to see an old friend. How's it going, Sky?"

  Quintannin settled himself deeper in the bed. "Not bad, Zack. They gave me something for the pain. I'm comfortable enough. I just wish there was something to do until- Who's that next to you? Another FBI agent?"

  Mulder took a step forward. "Special Agent Mulder, sir."

  "Nice to meet you, young man." Quintannin turned back to Scully. "You want to know about Allan? I really can't tell you much. He disappeared, came back, disappeared again, and came back again. Only this last time he was dead. It didn't seem fair."

  "Do you have any ideas about what could have happened to Allan, either time?"

  "None that you'd believe."

  "We won't laugh, Mr. Quintannin," Mulder said. "It may be we already know what you're going to say."

  He looked up into Mulder's eyes, searching, questioning. Finally, he sighed. "I think someone from outer space took Allan the first time. It's the only explanation that makes sense. Then someone in the government wanted to find out what Allan knew so they took him."

  "You believe someone in the government killed your son in an attempt to find out what he knew?" Scully asked.

  "No. I think they killed Allan because he remembered something they didn't want anyone to find out about!" Quintannin fought for breath.

  A nurse caught Scully's attention, warned her with a look to go easy.

  Scully placed a calming hand on Quintannin's upper arm. It felt like a broom stick draped in cold thin cloth. "Easy," she coaxed.

  Quintannin forced his breathing calm.

  "What makes you think they could find out anything?" she asked. "We understood Allan had amnesia."

  Quintannin nodded. "He did that night. But when he woke up the next morning things started coming back to him. Just odd shapes and random sounds at first. As the morning wore on, the memories got clearer. Allan said he remembered hiking away from the main group of scouts. A light dropped out of the sky, blinding him, then an upward tugging sensation made him sick to his stomach. Allan was about to tell us what happened after that when the government men arrived."

  "And?" Scully urged.

  Quintannin sighed again. It was like watching a suddenly emptied sack collapse on itself. "And nothing. That was it. We never saw Allan alive again." He looked at Ryan he said, "But we sure tried, didn't we, sheriff?"

  Ryan nodded. "We sure did."

  Scully twisted around to look at Ryan. Sheriff?

  Quintannin coughed. "Too bad we never found out anything, considering all it cost us."

  She returned her attention to Quintannin. "What do you recall about Agent Stevenson?"

  Quintannin managed a weak smile. "John was a great guy. I think he took Allan's second abduction as hard as we did. He couldn't understand who in the government would kidnap a kid. Stevenson burned himself out on the case. It took him a year but one day John showed up to tell me he finally had the proof."

  Mulder stepped up next to Scully. "You say you saw him a year after Allan's death?"

  Quintannin's voice began to tremble. "Sure did. Stevenson woke the wife and me late one night. He looked tired and a little scared but excited. He said he could only stay a second. He just wanted to let us know he found out who took Allan, why they did it, and that to trust him. He'd take care of things."

  "What things?" Scully asked.

  A blank look took over Quintannin's expression. "Hold the government accountable somehow. We never got to ask him because he was gone the next second. We heard a car drive off a moment later and that was that. We never heard from him again."

  Mulder took out the photo Jessup gave him. He held it so Quintannin could see it. "Do you recognize these men?"

  "No. I...wait, yes. The guy on the left is old Frank Jessup. Couldn't say who the other fellow is. Jessup sure looks young in this picture. Got to know him real well back when Allan disappeared. He and Stevenson came up from Carlisle for several days to help with the investigation. They were very close, like brothers. Haven't seen Jessup in fifteen years at least. How is he?"

  Scully smiled at him. "He's fine."

  Quintannin coughed.

  She looked at Mulder. "I think that's all we need for now, isn't it, Fox?" She purposely used his first name, something she never did, to warn him they had to leave now no matter what questions remained unanswered.

  Mulder nodded. "Thank you for your help, sir."

  Quintannin looked up into Mulder's eyes. "You believe me, don't you. I can see it. You believe Allan was taken by aliens."

  Mulder looked down at the dying man, "No, Mr. Quintannin, I don't believe it. I know it."

  Skyler Quintannin smiled. Scully motioned it was time to go. As she started to leave Quintannin took her hand to stop her. His fingers felt cold and dry.

  "Stevenson told me..." Quintannin gasped. "He told me if there was anyone who came for him that could be trusted, I should tell them he could be found."

  "Did he say how?" she asked.

  Quintannin choked on a dry cough. "Stevenson said he'd show them how to do it. There'd be a sign."

 

 

23

 

Chaucer Memorial Hospital
Kent, Massachusetts
Sunday, 6:02 P.M.

 

  Scully forced her weary legs to carry her towards their car; the others followed listlessly. Cones of light from the parking lot's lamps painted harsh yellow circles around the lot's perimeter. Mulder trailed slowly after her, withdrawn into his own thoughts. Ryan dragged himself behind the police car's wheel and drove them back to the station.

  "Thank you for taking us around today," Scully said before sliding into their rental car.

  He managed a thin smile. "It was an honor and a pleasure, Agent Scully. What time should we get together tomorrow? Day shift starts at eight."

  "Eight sounds good. Mulder?"

  "Yeah. Eight. Fine." His eyes tracked vaguely in their direction.

  Scully gave Ryan a half-smile. "That's the way he gets sometimes. We'll see you then."

  Ryan nodded and walked into the station.

  Scully pushed Mulder into the passenger's seat and drove to their motel. After a quick meal they walked to their rooms. Scully pushed her door open. "Good night, Mulder."

  He waved at her. "Night, Scully," and disappeared inside his room.

  Scully stepped into own room, automatically scanning its interior, no intruders. She took a steaming shower to burn the stiffness out of her neck, donned powder-blue silk pajamas and slipped into bed. Stretching full-length under the crisp sheets, she relaxed, letting warm sleep embrace her.

  She'd forgotten to set the alarm.

  Scully reached out to where she'd placed her travel clock on the right-hand corner of the bed side table. It wasn't there. She opened one eye. The clock sat on the table's left-hand corner. She wrinkled her brow at its position, then rolling over for extra reach, set the alarm for six-thirty without questioning how the clock had moved itself.

  Scully lay back and had almost succumbed to sleep when she picked up the rhythmic beat of footfalls coming through the adjoining wall to Mulder's room. They stopped. She heard two thuds as if shoes were being dropped to the floor, then the footfalls started up again, but quieter.

  Mulder was pacing. She'd seen him like this too often to worry about it. He got so wrapped up in a case he drove himself to excess. Afterwards he'd need a week's sleep to recuperate. Scully knew he could take this sort of abuse now but in ten years it would burn him out.

  Scully's eyes closed. As she drifted off to sleep a faint smile played across her features at the image of Mulder ten years older...and bald.

 

  The blare of a truck's horn jerked Scully to a sitting position. The bed covers slipped down into a pile at her waist. She checked the clock: 12:04 A.M. As she lay back to let sleep engulf her, Scully imagined she could still hear the sound of Mulder's pacing.

 

+++

 

  Mulder kicked the door to his room closed and belly flopped onto his bed. His eyes were closed, the bed was soft and the motel was quiet. He couldn't sleep.

  Skyler Quintannin's voice haunted him. 'Stevenson said he would show you how to find him. He'd leave a sign.'

  Mulder rolled face-up on the now-rumpled bedspread. He felt thick wrinkles pressing grooves into his back. His eyes stared wide at the ceiling.

  'Stevenson said he would show you how to find him.'

  Mulder pressed the palms of his hands deep into his eyes.

 'He'd leave a sign'.

  He levered himself up and sat on the edge of the bed, his hands braced on either side of him. The Stevenson mystery had him in its grip. It was hopelessness to resist.

  Mulder began pacing, slowly at first, then faster as his head cleared. The sound of his heels hitting the motel's thin carpeting seemed too loud in the small room. He looked at the wall separating his room from Scully's.

  Mulder pulled his shoes off, letting them fall to the floor with loud thumps that made him wince. He began pacing, more quietly this time. He stopped and looked at her wall again. She knows I'm up. Probably thinks I enjoy this.

  He shook his head and returned to his pacing. Questions boiled uncontrolled into his consciousness. How will Stevenson show us? When? Where? Do I already have the information and don't know it or is it something I still haven't found? Time drifted by uncounted.

  A truck's horn blared away outside. He didn't bother to check the time. It didn't matter. He let the interruption fall away from him.

  Pieces of the puzzle danced around him. Facts would touch, cling if they fit, bounce apart if not. In the back of his mind two pieces merged with a third. A pattern started to form only to collapse when confronted by a contradictory clue. Two pairs met, trembled, then blew apart in four different directions. It went on.

  Mulder ceased to exist except as a vessel containing the pieces of the puzzle careening through his mind. Slowly, out of the gray chaos, a shape began to grow. He didn't have to struggle to get pieces to fit. The emerging pattern called to them. They slid into perfectly matching niches and locked solid.

  The hour hand on the room's clock radio pointed to 2:00 A.M. when Mulder finally collapsed back onto his bed with a grin. He knew what had happened to Stevenson.

 

+++

 

  Scully woke to her alarm's insistent ring. She followed her morning routine of stretching, showering, dressing and checking her gun. Her travel clothes were getting depleted so when she stepped outside into the warmth of the morning sun she had on the green suit she'd worn three days ago. The room hadn't come with a complementary iron. She hoped no one noticed the wrinkles.

  When Mulder failed to answer a discreet knock she decided to have breakfast and try again later. He needed the sleep.

  Her eyes grew round when she stepped through the door to the diner. Three booths down on her left, Mulder sat hunched over a mountain of dishes. She slid into the seat opposite him. Mulder smiled but didn't say anything because he was busy chewing an enormous bite of French toast. She surveyed the carnage on the table. "Leave anything for the rest of us?"

  He swallowed. "Lots. The chef says there's plenty of string beans left."

  "Thanks."

  Mulder's waitress came over.

  Scully read her name tag. It had the name Pat hand-lettered in black marker. The shadow of the previous waitress' name could still be made out behind the new name. Scully figured the turnover in staff must be high. "Just toast and coffee please," Scully said.

  "Black or-"

  "Black."

  "Same tab?"

  "Right," Mulder said.

  "Okay." The waitress scribbled something on her pad. "Back in a minute."

  Mulder frowned at Scully.

  "What?" she asked.

  He shook his head in disgust. "The way you eat."

  "The way I eat? What about-"

  "You're throwing your life away on dull food." Mulder held his arms out wide. "The world's full of wonderful flavors and yet you starve your taste buds. You may outlive me but will it have been a life you enjoyed?"

  Scully sat back, off-balance at having Mulder lecture her on eating habits for a change. Conviction hardened her look. "Ask me that when you're on your death bed one minute before your heart seizes up."

  "It's a date." He grinned and slapped crumbs off his coat.

  "What got you fired up so early? I expected you to be out half the day after the all-nighter you pulled."

  "Sorry if my pacing kept you up."

  "It didn't."

  "Good." He fixed her with an unblinking stare. "I think I've figured out what happened to Stevenson. If I'm right, this case could be wrapped up in another day or two. I don't want to lay it out yet. There are a few gray areas that need clearing up."

  "What now?"

  His expression turned cagey. "I think we should split up. I need some information from the Bureau that can't be trusted to a clerk."

  Pat returned with Scully's order. "Toast and black coffee."

  "Thank you," Scully said looking up. She noticed Pat's smile seemed plastic, unnatural. Then she remembered the three months she'd waited tables in a coffee shop during her first year at the University of Maryland and let her smile toward the waitress warm.

  Pat furrowed her brow at Scully's smile before slowly walking away. Scully turned her attention back to Mulder.

  Mulder leaned closer. "I hoped you'd be willing to go back to DC and do a little leg work for me."

  "Specifically?"

  "Run a background check on Ryan, Dan, and Jessup."

  Scully winced at the coffee's bitterness. She picked up a piece of toast. It was charred black. She dropped it and it struck the plate like a piece of tile. "What am I supposed to be looking for?"

  "Anything. Everything. Try to find something that might give us some leverage to pry them loose. There are enough inconsistencies in the evidence to suggest one or more of them is hiding something. While you do that I'll head back to Carlisle. I think that's where our questions will be answered."

  The waitress returned with a glass pot of black liquid. She nodded at their cups. Her plastic smile hadn't changed. "Refills?"

  Scully hastily covered her still-full cup with her hand. "No, thanks."

  "Me neither, Pat," Mulder said with a smile. "Breakfast was great but I need something to finish it off. Uh...I know. Do you have any apple Danishes?"

  She stared down at the pile of dishes in front of him and shook her head. "I'll see what I can find."

  "That would be great. Thanks."

  Pat left to hunt for his dessert.

  "Warmed up if possible," Mulder called after her.

  She waved a hand in acknowledgment without turning. Scully frowned as she noticed that Pat ignored the frantically waving hands from two booths as she walked by them.

  "There's an airport twenty miles west of here," Mulder was saying. "I thought you could catch a shuttle."

  "Sounds good," Scully said absently. "How will you get back to Carlisle?"

  "Rent a second car. The bureau can afford it. Give me a call as soon as you find out anything."

  Scully was attempting a second swallow of coffee when Mulder's Danish showed up. He took it in four bites. Scully's eyes widened when he dropped a six-dollar tip on the table. "That's a little generous for a government employee, isn't it?"

  Mulder swept his hand above the dishes. "Have some compassion, Scully. Look at all the poor girl had to carry."

  He paid their bill and they left.

 

+++

 

  As soon as the diner's door closed behind Scully and Mulder, their waitress' smile collapsed into the deep-set folds of a much-used frown. She picked up the phone and dialed without taking her eyes off them. "Murkson there?"

  She watched Scully and Mulder walk into the motel's office. A loud click told her the call had been transferred.

  "This is Murkson."

  "It's Brodney," she said. "They just left the diner. Christ, how that Mulder can eat."

  "He may not be able to enjoy it much longer. What did you catch?"

  "Not much. All I could overhear was something about their splitting up. That's all."

  "Got it. The other teams arrived half an hour ago. We'll meet behind the bowling alley on Pembrook Boulevard and regroup. By the way, the boss has recalled the other FBI agents he had Skinner order to follow Scully and Mulder."

  "How will he explain to Skinner why you're staying behind?"

  "He doesn't explain anything to anyone. As far as Skinner's concerned I'm the only FBI agent the smoker trusts. Skinner will find out soon enough who I really work for."

  "Skinner won't like it."

  "So?"

  "He can only be pushed so far."

  "Let the boss worry about Skinner."

  "Gladly. Anyway, it's good the real FBI agents have been withdrawn. If any termination orders come down they would have been in the way. Do you think it'll go that far?"

  "Hard to say. The director's edgy. You know his feelings about having to wait and react to what other people do. But he has to wait, for now. Scully and Mulder are close, closer than anyone's gotten in forty years."

  "Can we project ahead and cut them off based on what we know now?"

  "Impossible. No one here can make sense out of Mulder's actions. He exists in another world. That's all for now. Clear out of there as soon as possible. We won't wait for you." He hung up.

  Brodney pulled off her apron and dropped it on the floor. She walked out the diner's rear exit without saying a word to the other waitresses who gaped at her departure. Outside she removed her name badge and after wiping her fingerprints off, dropped it in a garbage can. She smiled faintly down at it, thinking about the irony of using Pat for a cover name.

  Patrick was the name of the first man she'd killed.

 

 

24

 

Kent, Massachusetts
Sunday, 7:54 P.M.

 

  Scully let Mulder off in front of the police station. "Good luck, Mulder."

  He patted the top of the car. "Bye, Scully. Have a good trip back."

  "Thanks." Scully watched Mulder disappear into the station, then looked over her shoulder at Kent's early morning traffic. She accelerated into a break in the flow. Once outside of town, she took Interstate 202 west toward Greenfield Municipal Airport where she could get a shuttle for D.C. Road construction stretched the half-hour drive to two hours. She barely managed to catch the last flight out for the day.

  On the plane, Scully's thoughts drifted back over the morning's conversation with Mulder. The more she thought about it, the less sense his suggestion for them to split up made. As a team they provided each other the most essential component of field work, back-up. Having someone to watch your back was one FBI guideline Mulder always followed. It had saved their lives on too many occasions to be ignored. There could only be two reasons why he sent her away: either everything was so benign no possible threat existed, or the danger was so great having a back-up wouldn't help. Scully's stomach knotted. She knew the second reason had to be the case.

  Scully rested her chin on her fist and looked east out of the plane's small window. What are you up to, Mulder?

 

 

25

 

Kent Police Headquarters
Monday, 8:37 A.M.

 

  Mulder pushed open the police station door. Kent must have been quiet last night because the desk sergeant lolled in his chair smiling with his eyes half-closed. Mulder dropped his suitcase. "Morning, sergeant. I'd like to thank Chief Paige for his assistance. If Ryan's around I thought I'd say goodbye to him too."

  The sergeant's smile changed to a chuckle as he pointed toward Paige's office. "They're both in there but I'm not sure you'll want to interrupt their...er...conference."

  Mulder walked to Paige's office. Paige's strident voice was easy to hear through the heavy door. Mulder leaned against the frame with an ear close to the wall. First a frown, then a smile crossed Mulder's lips as he listened in on Paige's bellowing.

  "Damn you, Ryan! When I assigned you to help those two FBI agents I didn't authorize you to take over half of the station! Look at these accounts: you took the best office in the building which was supposed to be surveyed for conversion into my new office, signed a twenty-dollar voucher for lunch, locked up a phone line for five hours, and used the new car. My new car! All I had in mind was for you to tag along and point out landmarks, not get involved in the investigation. I've tolerated you these last few years because you haven't been any trouble. But after yesterday I promise you one thing, Mister. You're out of this department by the end of the week, retirement or no retirement." Sheriff Paige finished this last declaration in a low growl.

  When he paused for breath, Mulder broadened his smile, opened the door and marched into the office.

  Ryan stood at attention just inside the door as if the first blast of Paige's fury had turned him to stone. Paige stood behind his desk, leaning forward on both fists, his face bright pink. Mulder ignored the prickly tension that charged the office. He grabbed Ryan's hand and pumped it. "Officer Ryan! It's great to see you again. I wanted to thank you for all the help you gave Agent Scully and myself yesterday."

  Mulder almost fumbled his lines when he caught sight of Ryan's grin. He seemed to be reveling in the sheriff's blasts.

  Mulder turned towards the Paige. "Good morning, Sheriff. I'm glad I had this chance to say good-bye. Thank you for your support. Assigning Officer Ryan to assist us was brilliant. With his help we completed our investigation in just one day. Without him, Agent Scully and I would have been in your hair at least a week."

  Sheriff Paige fell backward into his chair, mouth agape.

  Mulder charged ahead. "In fact, Officer Ryan was so useful I hoped you'd let him continue to work with me a few more days. Agent Scully returned to headquarters for some research and I could use his help."

  Paige blinked spasmodically. Mulder cast a glance at Ryan who nodded imperceptibly. "You see, Sheriff," Mulder said. "I need to return to Carlisle for some follow-up work. Officer Ryan would be a great help."

  Hope glimmered in Paige's eyes. "You want to take Ryan away?"

  "Yes, sir. If you can spare such a valuable man, another pair of legs would be a big help." Mulder worked up his brightest grin and waited for the sheriff to recover enough to answer.

  Paige's face cracked into a smile. "Agent Mulder, the Kent Police Department is always eager to help the FBI in every possible way. By all means take Officer Ryan-" he looked pointedly at Ryan, "-for as long as you want."

  "Thank you very much." Mulder shook Paige's hand.

  The sheriff picked up some papers and pretended to read. Mulder started toward the door. Halfway there he stopped as if he'd remembered something and turned back towards Paige. "I just thought of one last little detail. It's nothing, really. You see, as with any investigation, some aspects of it are delicate. In such cases uniformed officers tend to make people uncomfortable. Would you authorize a temporary promotion to detective for Officer Ryan? That way he can work in plain clothes. It'll make things easier." Mulder smiled innocently.

  The papers Paige held crumpled as his hands twisted into white-knuckled fists. "Anything. Anything! Just get..." He fought for control. "I mean, of course. Now, if you'll excuse me I have to get back to work."

  Mulder thanked the sheriff again, wished him a good day and left the office as quickly as possible. Ryan followed close on his heels.

  When they were safely outside the office, Ryan's smile beamed without restraint. "Agent Mulder, thanks for the sales pitch. You laid it on mighty thick but Paige bought it. I just wish you'd waited a few more minutes before barging in. I was enjoying the attention."

  Mulder eyes widened. "You enjoyed Paige blasting away at you?"

  Ryan laid a hand on Mulder's shoulder. "When you get old, people don't notice you. Every morning I greet the desk sergeant. He returns the greeting and five seconds later he's forgotten I ever showed up. When the Chief blew up at me just now, it was like I was alive again. I may have been in trouble but at least I existed."

  "Zack, I may have dressed things up for the sheriff's benefit but I meant everything I said. If you're interested in more work...."

  "Nothing would make me happier. But if you don't mind, it's Detective Ryan from now on."

  They informed the desk sergeant of Ryan's promotion, cleaned out his locker, picked up Mulder's suitcase and left the station. Outside, Mulder looked up and down the street. "Where's a good car rental agency?"

  "Got it covered." Ryan led him around the building to the station's parking lot. He took a key from his pocket and calmly climbed behind the wheel the same police car they used yesterday.

  Mulder settled into the passenger's seat. "Isn't this supposed to be Paige's-"

  "Don't ask." Ryan drove out of the parking lot. As they passed the front of the police station, Mulder thought he heard Paige bellowing again but wisely decided to ignore it.

 

  They stopped at Ryan's apartment to pick up his traveling supplies. While Ryan packed, Mulder browsed.

  A three-tiered bookshelf bordered a spotless living room sparsely filled with top quality furnishings. Mulder quickly discovered all the books on the shelves were references on criminal investigation. There was one complete section on forensics with several weighty volumes dedicated to autopsy procedures. He smiled at the image of Scully and Ryan in a heated debate over autopsy techniques.

  Mulder followed the bookcase around the room until it ended at a wall covered with framed letters and awards. Mulder's eyebrows went up. Ryan had received commendations from every level of police management all the way to the state level. There was also a commendation from the FBI for assisting in a serial-killer investigation and another from the Federal Justice Department for work on the Corini Organized Crime Investigation. Mulder shook his head. And now he empties parking meters.

  Ryan returned with a small blue suitcase. He'd changed into a white shirt open at the throat, a medium-gray sport coat, and sharply pressed, light-grey slacks. Mulder waved at the framed commendations.

  Ryan's cheeks reddened. "That's my ego wall."

  "Nothing wrong with that. I wish I could fill a wall like this." Mulder studied Ryan with new respect. "Boone and Quintannin called you sheriff. Yet when we first met you were working as a meter maid. What happened?"

  Ryan's smile faded. "Allan Quintannin happened. The year after Allan disappeared was good for me. I solved three big cases which helped me to be elected sheriff, youngest in the state's history. Then Allan returned. After we buried him I promised his parents to do whatever it took to find out what happened. I used every connection I had to track those three men down. I got almost nowhere. Along the way I must have leaned on someone too hard. The word came down for me to ease up. I didn't. A month later I was relieved of my position by order of the governor. They allowed me to remain on the force but promotion was prohibited. That's how it's remained all these years."

  "The Quintannins fared just as poorly," Ryan said. "He and his wife spent everything they had to find out who killed their son but never turned up anything. They hired a private investigator named Albert Jenkins. He died on the case. It was supposed to have been an accident but the other car and driver were never found. I knew Albert. He was sharp and an excellent driver. I never accepted that his death was an accident. The Quintannins ended up in the poor house."

  "You said you found out almost nothing. What did you turn up?"

  "It was more what I didn't find. When I couldn't discover any direct leads on the men who took Allan, I tried a little reverse psychology. I made a nuisance of myself with every government agency I could think of. All but one gave me a bored runaround." Ryan leaned forward. "The FBI, CIA, State Department, Justice Department, and Congress all said they didn't know anything but didn't try to stop my inquiries. When I tried the military I ran into a stone wall. I started with the security police commander of the local Air Force base. When I asked him if he knew anything about the case he shut up fast and told me to wait outside while he made a call. Half an hour later a Major Gill met me in the commander's lounge. He stated the military had nothing to say on the subject and that I would be well advised to drop the whole issue. Gill offered this advice with enough emphasis to make it clear it was a threat. From that point on all my inquires were referred to him. I tried the same routine with the closest Army and Navy bases. It got me nowhere except they didn't stop me cold like the Air Force. Just before my demotion, I called a civilian friend who worked in Air Force security to check out this Major Gill. My friend called back two days later to say there was no record of any Major Gill that fit the description. The next day he called again to tell me he'd been fired. Three days later I received my own marching orders. As a regular street cop I didn't have the leverage to continue the investigation. I had to give up."

  Mulder pulled out his cell phone and dialed Scully's number. She picked at the end of the second ring. "Hi, Scully. How's the commute?"

  Static fuzzed her voice. "Great. Just great. The flight went smoothly but as soon as I was on the road I hit some road construction. They're feeding us through one at a time. At this rate it'll be dark when I get back to the Bureau. How are things there?"

  Mulder smiled into the receiver. "Moving forward. The reason I called is to ask you to add a couple of names to the list: a private investigator named Albert Jenkins and Major Gill, Air Force. Jenkins died in a suspicious car crash forty years ago near here. The Major was his contemporary but seems to be one of those people who never existed." He relayed the descriptions Ryan provided. "See what you can turn up."

  Sarcasm poured out of the phone. "Sure. My pleasure. Anything else?"

  "Enjoy the scenery."

  "Thanks a lot."

  Mulder laughed and dropped the phone into his coat pocket. "Shall we go?"

  "Might as well. We can stop at a drive-in just outside of town for lunch. You feel up to the biggest double cheeseburger in Massachusetts?"

  "Detective Ryan, you're my kind of man. Lead on."

 

 

26

 

Interstate 202
Monday, 11:35 A.M.

 

  Twenty-foot tall human arms thrust upward from both sides of the gravel driveway. Directly overhead, their enormous hands arched towards each other to grip a ten-foot diameter hamburger, complete with lettuce and a huge glob bright red catsup. The arm on the right sported a plaque at driver's-eye level. Three inch boldface letters welcomed drivers to:

 

PETE'S BURGER PALACE
Parking for patrons only

(Rest room use only with purchase)

 

  Below this pronouncement was the drive-in's menu, which included a wide assortment of burgers, Pete's Special Double cheeseburger (the biggest damn hamburger in Massachusetts), fries, drinks, and a house specialty called Elephant Skins.

  "Elephant skins?" Mulder asked.

  "Deep-fried pork jerky," Ryan explained. "Think of it as bacon with an attitude."

  They both ordered Pete Specials, skins, and malts. Ryan passed money through the drive-through window and received a gallon-size white paper bag and two drink mugs in exchange. He handed the food to Mulder and drove back to the Interstate.

  Mulder experimentally crunched one of the inch-wide meat strips , dropped his lower jaw and began fanning his mouth. "Did I mention they were spicy?" Ryan asked innocently.

  Mulder paused in a long pull on his malt. "Let's say challenging." Mulder tried another bite. Tears dampened the corners of his eyes. "Too much for me."

  "Your generation's soft." Ryan stacked two of the skins and took them in one bite.

  Mulder shook his head in admiration. "You're a better man than me, but I bet Scully would give you a run for your money."

  "Likes hot food?"

  "You should see her go through an order of Kung Pao Chicken. She treats the hot peppers like they're candy."

  "Sounds like we could have hit it off, if she were thirty years older."

  Mulder's eyes widened. Ryan gave him a crooked smile. "Oh, grow up." Ryan slipped an elephant skin between the layers of his burger and took an enormous bite. He chewed thoughtfully, nodding with approval.

  Mulder nestled his bag of elephant skins into a metal cup-holder where he hoped they wouldn't set fire to the car and attacked his cheeseburger. He soon discovered that Pete's believed in truth-in-advertising. Only a valiant effort got him through it. Mulder's respect for Ryan took another leap when the man not only finished his order but cleaned up the remainder of Mulder's elephant skins. "The secret's in pacing," Ryan said. "You young folks are always in too much of a hurry. Us oldsters know it's better to go slow and make the distance."

  "I'll remember that."

  Ryan fiddled with the radio. The sound of the Beach Boys suddenly erupted out of the speaker. They sped down the highway with Ryan drumming on the steering wheel and Mulder tapping his right foot to the music.

  In the distance, low clouds collected near the horizon.

 

 

  "We're here," Ryan said.

  Mulder opened his eyes and sat up from a slouch. "Here where?"

  "Carlisle."

  "So soon?"

  Ryan smiled over at him. "Time goes fast when you're snoring."

  Mulder stretched. "Guess so."

  Ryan pulled to a stop in front of the police department. Mulder climbed out and looked up. A few wispy patches of blue fought a losing battle against bunching clouds. "What happened to our good weather?"

  Ryan examined the sky. "Radio said a front's moving in. Forecast isn't good."

  They lifted their suitcases out of the trunk and entered Carlisle's police headquarters. Sheriff Baker was talking to the desk sergeant when they walked in. He stepped over with his hand stretched out. "Back again, Agent Mulder?"

  Mulder shook the sheriff's hand. "Yes, sir. This is Detective Ryan from the Kent police department. Agent Scully had business back in DC." Mulder's eyes panned around the station. "We could use a place to work if you have anything to spare."

  Baker scratched his balding head then pointed to a hallway leading off to the right from the sergeant's desk. "Konkin's on leave. You can use his office as long as you don't mess it up. Room number three."

  Mulder nodded. "Thanks."

  Mulder and Ryan wandered down the hall. Konkin's office had a desk with drawers down one side, a brown leather swivel chair and a single, hardwood chair facing the desk. The furniture barely fit into the room. There were no windows to soften the claustrophobic closeness of the walls. Ryan dropped into the wood chair. Mulder squeezed behind the desk. "Compared to Kent we've come down in the world."

  Ryan held up a hand. "I'll wait to pass judgment until we've tasted the local pizza."

  Mulder's smile faded to business-like blankness as he handed Ryan the Stevenson file. "You'll find the file on Michael Fitch's disappearance in there. Make a copy for yourself and review it. See if you can come up with a new angle. If you do, go with it. If not, touch base with the people already interviewed and see if they've remembered anything else. While you do that, I'll pay Jessup a visit."

  "Say hello for me. Let him know I expect to scrounge a dinner off him before this is over."

  "I'll do that. Oh yes, book us a couple of rooms in a decent motel." Mulder called Scully. There was no answer on either her office or cell phone. He tried Jessup.

  Angela's Italian-spiced accent answered. "Frank Jessup's residence, how may I help you?"

  "Angela, this is Agent Mulder. Is Mr. Jessup around?"

  "One minute, I'll get him for you."

  Jessup's voice resonated out of the receiver. "Agent Mulder. It's good to hear from you again. Are you back in Carlisle?"

  "Yes. My investigation in Kent turned up a few loose ends. I'd like to talk them over with you."

  "No problem. When should I expect you?"

  "About half an hour?"

  "That'll be fine. Uh...will Agent Scully be with you?"

  Mulder's smile broadened. "No. She returned to DC."

  Jessup's relieved sigh was loud enough for Mulder to hear. "Oh, that's too bad. But I tell you what, if you're staying overnight why not camp here. Your room's still open."

  "That's very generous of you, Mr. Jessup, thank you. I'd like that. If it isn't too much trouble, I'd like to bring my assistant with me. Officer Ryan-" Ryan looked up, mock anger glaring out of his eyes. Mulder put his hand over the receiver and mouthed an apology. He returned to Jessup, "I mean Detective Ryan from Kent is filling in for Scully. Could he use her room?"

  Static sizzle on the line for a moment. "You mean old Zackery Ryan?"

  "Yes."

  "I see. I'm afraid that room's being redone right now. I'm afraid it can't be put back together for a few days. Sorry."

  "No problem. Detective Ryan can stay in town. That's where his work is so it'll be more convenient for him. See you soon."

  "I'll be waiting for you."

  Mulder hung up. His fingers drummed on the receiver.

  "Something wrong?" Ryan asked.

  "Hard to say. Jessup sounded worried you were in town."

  "Yeah. I got the same impression yesterday when I called. He sounded threatened."

  "He certainly did." Mulder's smile stretched broader. "Well, I'm off. I'll spend the night there so you'll only need one motel room."

  Mulder picked up a rental car from an agency two blocks from the station and headed for Jessup's. As promised, Jessup stood on the cabin's broad porch as he drove up. Mulder scooped his suitcase off the rear seat and walked up the steps. He shook Jessup's hand. "It's good to see you again."

  Jessup returned Mulder's firm grip. "Likewise, Agent Mulder. I hoped you'd find it necessary to come back."

  Mulder's brow knitted. Jessup's comment didn't fit his theory.

  "Your room's all ready. Go unpack and relax. We can talk whenever you want."

  "Thanks. I'll just be a few minutes."

  Mulder walked up the stairway to the second floor. On the landing he glanced into what had been Scully's room. Furniture had been moved to the center of the room and covered with plastic. It looked like the room was about to be painted, yet the room was in perfect condition. Mulder nodded to himself. It all fits.

  As soon as Mulder unpacked he started to punch Scully's number into his cell phone. Halfway through he stopped, thought better of it and pocketed the phone.

  He found Jessup in the kitchen. A huge tray of rolls fresh from the oven steamed on the dinette table. The rich aroma of warm bread filled the room. "Sit yourself down and have a snack," Jessup said. "There's fresh coffee in the pot and all the rolls you can eat." Jessup took an enormous bite out of one he'd slathered with butter.

  Mulder stepped to the rear door. "Thanks. Not right now. If you don't mind I'd like to take a walk in the woods. A city boy like me doesn't get that opportunity often."

  "Sure. Enjoy yourself. But don't be too long about it or there won't be any rolls left." He lifted another from the tray to give substance to his warning.

  "I won't be." Mulder pushed the kitchen door open and stepped down with a crunch onto the pine needle covered ground. He walked west ten minutes enjoying the resinous scent of the trees and the shifting patterns of light and shadow their branches cast on the forest floor. When he gauged the cabin was out of listening range, he took a seat on a stump and activated his phone. He heard it ring once before being answered.

  "Scully."

  "Hi. it's me."

  "How was your trip back to Carlisle?"

  "Fine. I even had company." Mulder related the story of how Ryan came to accompany him. He couldn't resist describing the lunch they'd eaten.

  She made the obligatory sigh of resignation then asked, "How did Jessup receive you?"

  "Like a long lost son. The opposite of what I expected. He seemed concerned that Ryan came with me. Even made up an excuse so he wouldn't have to meet him."

  "I'm not surprised." She said.

  "Why? What did you find?"

  "Let me get rid of a few other things before we get to that. First, Harriet's fit to be tied. She ran the records check you wanted. The only large block of missing files were from the original X-Files office. Thirty-eight case folders from 1949 to 1954 are unaccounted for. Harriet's convinced it's all your fault."

  "I wasn't even born then."

  "I mentioned that. It didn't phase her. She's sent a formal letter of complaint to Skinner."

  "Great. What else do you have?"

  "Ryan checks out okay except he left a few things out about himself. He was elected the Sheriff of Kent the year before Allan Quintannin reappeared. For no apparent reason he was fired by the governor himself shortly afterwards. In spite of this Ryan stayed on with the Kent police force as a regular police officer. Over the next forty years he received thirteen state and two federal citations for service above and beyond the call of duty, yet he was never considered for management again."

  "I found that out yesterday. You should see his apartment. One whole wall is covered with awards. Ryan thinks the demotion was the result of his attempt to track down the men who took Allan. He got far enough to link it to the Air Force before he got fired. What did you find out about Jessup?"

  "Pretty much the same story except he was able to retain his position as sheriff. Must not have pushed as hard as Ryan. Jessup seems to have been a good, honest cop. Al Jenkins was a first rate private investigator. In fact, he had been an FBI agent for ten years before he went into private practice. He died in an auto accident one month after Allan Quintannin's death. They never found the other person involved in the accident."

  "Ryan thinks Jenkins was murdered because he investigated Allan's second disappearance for the Quintannins. Do the records show any indication of foul play?"

  "Sorry, Mulder, nothing. His car was found plowed into a tree. The investigation turned up additional dents on the car's left front fender which indicated someone may have tried to pass him and cut it too close."

  "He could have been forced off on purpose."

  "Yes...or he could have dodged to miss a squirrel. Not everything has to have a sinister cause."

  "What about the mysterious Major Gill?"

  "There's no record of anyone with that description ever being in the Air Force."

  "Doesn't that sound sinister to you?" A smile crept into his voice. Her silence made him think he'd lost the connection.

  "Scully?"

  "Yes, Mulder. I'm still here and yes, it does sound sinister to me because Major Gill isn't the only one who never existed."

  Mulder sat up straighter. "What do you mean?"

  "Just this. Dan Toomey doesn't exist either."

 

 

27

 

Washington, DC
Monday, 2:02 P.M.

 

  In a dimly lit office in an undistinguished building, the smoking man drummed his fingers and watched the straight row of five telephones lined up along the top of his desk. He lit a cigarette, took a puff, crushed it out. Lit another.

  He hated to wait. Waiting meant something had to happen before he could react. Reacting is dangerous. It puts you on the defensive. Much better to take the initiative and force the enemy to react to you. But he had to wait.

  The second phone from the right rang once.

  Another ten seconds of waiting for the light on the side of the phone to flash it's all-clear assurance that the line wasn't tapped. The light blinked once. He picked up the phone. "Speak."

  Indistinct whispering issued from the receiver.

  "What did Scully tell him?"

  More whispering.

  "What did Mulder say?"

  Whispering.

  "Anything else?"

  Another whisper.

  "No. You were right to contact me immediately. We got what we wanted and as long as Brodney's still listening we'll find out if they say anything else important."

  He took a slow drag on his cigarette, making it glow blood-red in the room's shadowy lighting. He blew the smoke out slowly, studying the end of the cigarette, then crushed it out. "Move in. Terminal force is authorized against everyone."

  The phone whispered one more word, a name.

  "Yes," the smoking man said. "Mulder too."

  Waiting was over.

 

 

28

 

Jessup Residence
Monday, 2:08 P.M.

 

  Mulder chewed his lip.

  "Mulder? Are you still there?"

  "Yes. Sorry, Scully. I was thinking."

  "I heard the gears grinding. So what do you think?"

  "About Major Gill? He's one of those shadow people who coordinate the government's dirty work. We'll never hear of him again. Al Jenkins may or may not be important."

  "And Toomey?"

  "Nothing much. Most likely he's never done anything to warrant a record. After all, he's only a handyman. Not exactly the type of person any of the intelligence agencies would track."

  "What will you do now?"

  "Ryan's looking around town. He may turn up something. Maybe I can dig a few more facts out of Jessup." Mulder heaved a resigned sigh loud enough to ensure Scully heard it. "It looks like our investigation is a bust. Kathleen Brannigan's file can be closed out. The Samuel Mane and Joshua Evan cases have to stay open but we can file a recommendation to have them archived. There's a lot of new information on the Fitch and Quintannin disappearances but it won't be significant to anyone in the FBI except me. Stevenson's eluded us. That failure and our expense account will probably get me in dutch with Skinner again."

  "Should I type our final report?"

  "Uh...no need to rush into it. I'll be back soon enough and we can work on it together."

  "You hate paperwork."

  "Yeah, well. I still need to keep my hand in. Besides, something may turn up at the last minute."

  "Mulder, what's going on? You never-"

  "Sorry, Scully. Got to run. If everything works out okay I'll see you tomorrow."

  "Wait-"

  Mulder disconnected.  "Sorry about that, Scully."

  A shaft of sunlight broke through one of the few remaining openings in the clouds and struck him across the shoulders. The sudden warmth brought a smile to his face as he dropped the phone back into his pocket. Mulder lounged on the stump. The best part of an investigation for him is that moment when everything is clear but before the final closing action takes place. His smile faded. There were too many unknowns to get overconfident, too many unanswered questions, some of which could place Scully and his lives in jeopardy.

  Mulder jumped up and hurried back up the trail toward Jessup's cabin. It was time to get answers.

 

 

  Mulder emerged from the woods into the clearing at the rear of the cabin. He stopped to watch Dan scratch at the weeds overrunning a bed of blue asters by the cabin's door. "Hello, Dan."

  "Good afternoon, Agent Mulder."

  Mulder walked to the kitchen door. "Could you come inside for a few minutes? I need to ask you and Jessup a couple of follow-up questions. There are a few loose ends that need to be resolved. It shouldn't take long." Mulder held the door open.

  Dan smiled and leaned his hoe against the cabin. He preceded Mulder through the door. There were five rolls left on the baking sheet. He broke one free and started munching it as Mulder led the way into the living room. Jessup sat on the sofa facing the fireplace. He looked up as they entered. "Hi, Dan. Get rid of those weeds?"

  "Almost, Mr. Jessup. Agent Mulder asked me to come in for a minute."

  Jessup turned to look at Mulder. "Well, young man? What can we do for you?"

  Dan took another bite out of his roll.

  "Mind if I sit down?" Mulder asked.

  Jessup laughed. "Don't be so formal. Relax." He fanned an open hand over the sofa and chairs. "Take a load off."

  "Thanks."

  Mulder settled himself into an easy chair that faced both men. Dan chewed his roll. Mulder looked at the handyman. "Agent Stevenson, you might as well take a seat too."

  The man who called himself Dan Toomey didn't blink. He swallowed the last of the roll, sat down next to Jessup, and looked at Mulder. "Thank you."

  Mulder's mouth sagged. He'd counted on the announcement of his discovery that forty years ago John Stevenson assumed the identity of Dan Toomey would catch them off guard. Instead, Jessup and Stevenson sat like nothing had happened. Mulder snapped his jaws together. His eyes squinted. The puzzle still held together. He just needed to see how their lack of reaction fit. Excitement blazed out of his eyes. "You wanted me to figure out who Dan was. You even showed me, just like Skyler Quintannin said you would. The picture! You purposely gave me a picture that didn't have Agent Stevenson in it to put me on the trail."

  John Stevenson leaned toward Mulder. "Exactly. If it makes you feel any better you did surprise us a little. We didn't expect you'd figure it out this soon."

  "Right," Jessup chorused. "I didn't think you'd be back for two more days. When did you turn to the trick?"

  Mulder nodded at Stevenson. "The morning Dan...sorry, Agent Stevenson took Scully and me to the meadow."

  "What!" Jessup said. "That soon? The photograph was supposed to be the clue to put you onto the Stevenson-Toomey switch."

  "I know that now. But by the time I asked people about it I was already convinced Dan was Stevenson."

  Stevenson's gray brows bunched together. "How?"

  "Jessup said you referred to your cases as the twilight cases. That was such an obvious takeoff from the Twilight Zone series that there had to be a connection. That show didn't air until 1959, four years after your disappearance. Jessup had to have known you in the 1960's. You had to be Dan."

  "That's pretty thin," Jessup said.

  Stevenson smiled. "I think Agent Mulder specializes in thin."

  Mulder opened his hands. "Now, will you please tell me what's going on?"

  "First, tell us what you've deduced?" Stevenson asked.

  Mulder noted that since his revelation of Stevenson's identity, the true relationship between Jessup and Stevenson was more obvious; John Stevenson was in charge, Frank Jessup was the assistant.

  Mulder eased back from the edge of his chair. "Forty years ago you recognized the Fitch and Quintannin disappearances as alien abductions. Your investigation came up empty handed so you returned to D.C. Three years later the unbelievable happened, Allan Quintannin returned. You'd gotten close to the Quintannins so they called to let you know. You drove all night to get to Kent as soon as possible but someone beat you there. Three government agents connected with the Air Force had already kidnapped Allan. Your efforts to find them failed. Three weeks later the Quintannins got the telegram that said their son was dead. You swore you'd get to the bottom of it even if it cost your career. A year later something happened that forced you to run. You stole thirty-eight FBI case files and disappeared. I assume the files you took pertained to cases similar to Allan's. Sheriff Jessup helped you establish the Dan Toomey identity and you've used it to hide for forty years."

  "I haven't been hiding," Stevenson said. "I've been working, but that can wait for a moment. You've got most of the puzzle. A few pieces are missing but that's easily corrected." He cleared his throat. "When I attended Allan Quintannin's funeral, all I wanted to do was hunt down the men that had killed him. Over the next year I learned that his tragedy was just one of many crimes committed in the name of protecting the people. The files I took were the records of those cases. If I hadn't taken them, they would have been destroyed. The actions those files document cover the gamut from abduction and murder to human experimentation. The organization that undertook these actions started in the Air Force in the 1940s. A UFO crash in forty-seven provided proof of the existence of aliens with a superior technology. Someone made the decision that this information had to be hidden from the world. A small group of men were recruited from a special operations task force in the Air Force to prevent the release of information about the crash and any future events of the same kind. To maximize secrecy, they were separated from the military and allowed to operate under their own initiative. By 1950 this organization had developed a sense of elitism. They believed they had the right to do anything to obtain information about UFO technology. Allan Quintannin was just one example of their handiwork. Somewhere along the line this organization became international, working for its own interests instead of the United States."

  Mulder nodded. "I call them the Alien Artifact Recovery Team. Why didn't you expose them?"

  Stevenson shook his head ruefully. "Knowing and proving are two very different animals, but let me finish. After a year I'd only collected a small part of what I've related. Then two things happened at once: the coverup team discovered I was on to them and Michael Fitch returned. Two days after a friend warned me I was the subject of a military investigation, Michael Fitch's father called to tell me there was nothing new about his son's disappearance. That was a prearranged signal we'd agreed upon for me to move into action in the event Michael ever returned. It seemed obvious that the men who took Allan Quintannin found out about his return by tapping the telephone to his house. His parents' call to me was the coverup team's cue to move in. I assumed the same setup was in place at the Fitch's home so I told them to give me that 'nothing new' message if Michael turned up."

  "That was the purpose behind your early morning visit to the Fitch's a year after Allan's funeral? To pick up Michael?"

  Stevenson frowned with his brow. "Yes. But how did you know?"

  "Ryan was on a stakeout in the area that night. He saw you."

  Stevenson gave him a wry smile. "Officer Ryan always was a good cop. He's lucky they just fired him. I'm sure there were some who favored a more permanent arrangement." Stevenson ran a hand through his short, gray hair. "Michael Fitch just walked through the back door in a daze one night. A storm had made it possible for him to wander home unseen. I grabbed the files, except the one that got jammed behind the file cabinet, and ran. Michael's parents knew what had happened to Allan so they'd previously asked me to protect him if Mike ever came back. I picked up Michael and scrambled our trail. Three months later we sneaked into Carlisle under aliases. Beards helped. Frank put us up so Michael's parents could see their son from time to time. They didn't like giving him up but knew if word ever got out, he'd be lost, like Allan."

  Jessup excused himself. He returned a moment later with three mugs of coffee. Stevenson nodded his thanks as he took one of the mugs. "Twenty-four hours after I picked him up Mike's memory came back. He'd been examined and run through endless tests. Michael's description of his prison was uninteresting: white walls, lots of bright lights and operating tables. He retained no memories of his abductors. To him the strangest thing was he never got hungry, needed a bathroom, or required a haircut. Time seemed to stand still, which is consistent with his not aging during the years he was gone. Four years went by without incident with Jessup and I spending most of the time on our investigations. Then one morning Michael woke with a rash on his neck. By noon it covered his entire body. He died before sunset. I found a discredited doctor to perform an autopsy. It turned up nothing, except this."

  Stevenson's fingers trembled as he withdrew a small case from a pocket. Inside was a capsule one inch long and a quarter inch in diameter. The outer shell was clear. Inside, hair fine wires and intricate electronics still glistened after forty years. He handed it to Mulder.

  Mulder studied it carefully. "This was located in Michael's sinus cavity?"

  Stevenson's eyes widened. "How did you know that?"

  "I've seen one of these before. Scully removed an identical capsule from a teenager who had been abducted and returned. I believe these are used as tracking and controlling devices. The one I saw was confiscated. It never turned up again."

  Stevenson nodded at the capsule. "This one came from Allan Quintannin. We got a second from Michael Fitch's body. I don't know how the recovery team missed it. X-ray machines back then must not have been as sensitive as they are today."

  "I thought Michael's parents were against autopsies?"

  "After I confided to them about Allan's return and the capsule, they agreed to a secret exhumation." Stevenson's eyes locked on the capsule. "Think of it, Mulder. You're holding physical proof that extraterrestrials are on earth. Concrete. Undeniable."

  The capsule bounced around in Mulder's shaking hand. He handed it back to Stevenson. "Why didn't you release this to the press? Isn't that what all this is about?"

  Stevenson shook his head. "No, it's not. I'm after the recovery team. That's the real enemy. Over the years they've increased their power. I don't believe they're interested in anything as melodramatic as world domination; they truly believe what they do is for the greater good of mankind. In many instances I agree with their policy of secrecy. We're not ready for some of the technology the aliens have. What must stop are the ruthless methods the syndicate employs. That's what I've been doing these last forty years, trying to find out enough about the recovery team to force them under some kind of control. Without the resources of the FBI it's been slow work. Frank's the one who's made it possible. I had to confide in someone and after I told him my story he wanted to help."

  Jessup spread his hands. "I provided information available to me as a sheriff. Calling it a hobby gave the requests for reports of alien activity a cover. When something came in, John would investigate. It worked for forty years."

  "The work isn't done yet, Agent Mulder," Stevenson said leaning forward. "I can prove aliens are on earth but I can't substantiate criminal allegations against the recovery team. The files document what they've done but the proof, three photographs and two witnesses, isn't strong enough. Now there's another problem, which is where you come in."

  Mulder squared his shoulders. "What's the problem and how can I help?"

  "The problem is one that gets us all: age. I'm too old to be effective anymore. That, plus Frank's retirement, has limited our ability to conduct investigations. We need someone to carry on the torch. Someone with better connections and youthful enough to complete the project. We're gambling that you're that someone."

  Mulder cupped his chin in his hand. There wasn't any hesitation about taking on the responsibility. He'd already invested six years in fighting the recovery team for proof of extraterrestrials. The information Stevenson offered would be of immense importance, but once he took charge of this information he realized his life would be in constant danger and it wasn't just his safety that needed consideration. Scully would also be in jeopardy.

  Stevenson interrupted Mulder's thoughts. "There's more. It'll be impossible for you to continue like you have been. As the agent in charge of the X-Files you had enough value to provide you with some protection. The recovery team uses you to solve cases that baffle them. This and your importance as an FBI agent buys you a little leeway. But, if you take over my work, what you'll know will make you more dangerous than valuable. You have to keep it a secret or you'll be dead within a week. This means you can't risk telling anyone. Not even your partner. You have to work alone."

  Mulder kept his voice level. "I trust Agent Scully with my life."

  Stevenson held up both hands. "I'm sure that trust is justified, but if they suspected you were investigating them, they wouldn't hesitate to use drugs on her to extract the truth. If that happened and she knew what you knew, both of you would be killed."

  Mulder shifted uneasily. "I've been contacted by people who've helped me on many X-Files cases. Is this third group also against the recovery team?"

  "They belong to the recovery team. There's a small faction within it that agrees with its tenets but not with the methods. Like me, they have to protect their identities. They use you for their own purposes but don't be fooled. They'd kill you as fast as the rest if they thought you had my files. If you take this on you must completely change how you deal with X-Files cases that involve the recovery team. To date you've been their puppet. The team feeds you a little information, you do the legwork, and they move in to clean things up. That won't do any longer. You have to evolve into something more. You must become an equal player. In some cases you'll have to adopt their ruthlessness to accomplish what needs to be done and stay alive."

  Mulder's lips pressed to a line. "I won't kill."

  "You already have, Agent Mulder. You've killed killers, people who were going to kill you, or Scully, or someone else. The recovery team's armed with the best professional murderers in the world. If you go up against them, eventually you'll have to kill, or be killed. You'll avoid it wherever possible, of course. You won't hunt for them. But, you'll eventually find yourself in the position where killing's the only option. If you can't accept that, you better get out now."

  Mulder lowered his head.

  "One last thing and we'll let you think it over," Stevenson said. "This will change your whole life style. You must find a safe place to store the files. Someplace only you know yet is readily accessible. You must assume you're always under observation. They'll never rest once they suspect you. You'll have to figure out ways to find out about them without them suspecting you've become a player. You'll have no privacy. It's probable your apartment, car, and phone are already bugged because of your involvement in the X-Files. Assume they hear every word you speak."

  Mulder's head jerked up, his eyes wide. "Phone?"

  "Yes, of course." Stevenson's forehead wrinkled. "Why?"

  Mulder pulled his cell phone from his pocket. "Scully called me on this today to tell me her records search indicated Dan Toomey never existed."

  "Damn!" Jessup leaped to his feet.

  "How long ago?" Stevenson demanded.

  Mulder checked his watch. "One hour."

  Stevenson looked at Jessup. "If they were already in position they could be here any minute." He turned back to Mulder. "You don't have a choice about whether or not you want to carry on my work. I know how the recovery team operates. Your conversation with Scully was overheard. Like it or not you're a player now and you've got to get away before they arrive or you'll be killed."

 

 

29

 

Jessup residence
Monday, 2:14 P.M.

 

  Mulder followed Stevenson up the stairs. "When Scully said Dan Toomey never existed I covered it up. I didn't want her to know I already suspected as much until I could prove my theory. If the phone was tapped maybe-"

  Stevenson yelled back over his shoulder. "If is a word you can't use any longer. Always assume you're watched. If you're wrong there's no problem. If you're right, you've played it safe. Another thing, the recovery team won't be put off by a little double-talk. They move on every lead no matter how small."

  They swung left around the post at the top of the stairs and cut to the right, into a room lined with file cabinets. Stevenson thrust his hand into the middle drawer of the last cabinet and jerked out a slim folder. He held it out to Mulder as well as the capsule. "That's forty years work. Take care of it."

  Mulder gave him a quick nod. "I will, as if it were my own."

  "It is, now. And your life."

  Mulder opened the folder. Inside was a computer disc and a plastic bag with the second capsule. Mulder added the first capsule to the bag and slipped the bag and computer disk into his coat pocket.

  "You need to hurry," Stevenson said.

  "Right."

  They paused just long enough for Mulder to grab his suitcase, then plunged down the stairs and outside. Mulder glanced up at a bank of low, dark clouds that had blotted out the last vestige of blue. The air tingled with eminent lightning. He jumped behind the wheel of his car.

  Stevenson leaned in. "Buy a laptop computer to use with that disc only. Never save anything on the hard drive. Always work through the floppy. It's slower, but more secure. Never hook up to a modem. Never let anyone else use the computer or let it out of your sight. Bugs can be planted in seconds. If you think the computer's been tampered with, buy a new one. Only use it where the monitor can't be overlooked by someone."

  Emotions contorted Stevenson's face. "I'm trying to think of the best advice to give you. Something that could save your live. I guess it's that those files are a double-edged sword. They put you in danger but they also give you power. Because you can't hide like I did, your only hope is to use that power to hold the recovery team at bay. Good luck." Stevenson gave Mulder's hand a single, hard shake then walked back to the porch to stand by Jessup.

  "Aren't you going to run?" Mulder yelled out at them as he fired the car's engine to life.

  Jessup shook his head. "Too old for it. Our best bet is to play our stories out and hope you put enough doubt in their minds to stop them from doing anything extreme. Now go!"

  Mulder gunned the car and hit fifty before he rounded the first turn in the road.

 

+++

 

  "Well," Stevenson sighed. "That's that. I guess I'll finish weeding those flowers."

  Jessup watched the dust from Mulder's car settle. "You think he has a chance?"

  "He's smart enough. I just hope he has the will to fight as ruthlessly as the recovery team. If not..." Stevenson shook his head. "He won't last the day."

 

 

30

 

Jessup residence
Monday, 3:14 P.M.

 

  Mulder's car showered the roadside brush with gravel as he fought for control around the turns. Just as the highway intersection came into view, a dark sedan careened off the highway onto the road. Dust billowed behind it as it sped toward him. Mulder dodged right as the car hurtled past.

  A second car followed close on the bumper of the first. A third appeared out of the dust of the first two but instead of flying by him it swerved to block the road. The maneuver threw up an even denser cloud of dust that boiled toward Mulder.

  He slammed his breaks and wrung the steering wheel as the dust settled.

  Two men rose in unison out of the car and strode toward Mulder. One approached the driver's side while the other moved to the passenger's side.

  Mulder tried and failed to keep both of them in sight. He smiled grimly to himself. Standard procedure to surround a suspect.

  They were stereotypical examples of government agents: young, fit, nondescript men in conservative dark suits and sunglasses. Mulder asked himself why sunglasses made government agents look soulless. He wondered if they made him look that way.

  "Agent Mulder," the man closest to Mulder's door said. "Please step out of the car."

  "May I ask who you are?"

  The man displayed an identification card that looked official, but Mulder didn't recognize the agency logo. The card identified him as Agent MacMurray. No first name or identification number were visible. "My associate is Agent Larr. Don't make me repeat my request, Agent Mulder."

  Mulder eased out of the car, careful to avoid sudden movements.

  "Thank you, Agent Mulder. Please stand out of the way. I need to search this vehicle." MacMurray offered no authorization for the search. The manner in which the men carried themselves indicated objecting would accomplish nothing. MacMurray went through the car quickly and thoroughly while Larr watched Mulder.

  MacMurray came around the car with his hand extended. "Agent Mulder, may I please have the keys so I can open the trunk?"

  Mulder had no choice but to hand them over.

  MacMurray checked the trunk with the same negative results and returned to Mulder. "I'm afraid we must ask you to voluntarily submit to a body search."

  Tension sparked the air. Agent Larr closed in behind Mulder. Mulder stalled. "What if I refuse-"

  Larr smashed a fist studded with bulky rings into Mulder's back, halfway up and to the right of his backbone. Blinding pain exploding in his kidneys. As he crumpled forward on one knee, Larr drew his fist up for a second blow to Mulder's exposed back.

  The sound of tires skidding on gravel made him pause. A fourth car drove up and stopped twenty feet away. Sheriff Baker climbed out of the car. He stood still, taking in the scene. Agent Mulder was on the ground surrounded by two men in what looked like a holdup. The doors and trunk to Mulder's car were open. Baker leaned back into the police car to say something to the officer in the driver's seat, then walked over to the three men.

  Mulder staggered to his feet, breathing deeply to fight down the nausea churning in his stomach. Cold sweat beaded his forehead.

  "Good afternoon, Agent Mulder," the sheriff said with a nonchalant smile. "Gentlemen," he nodded toward the darkly dressed men. "If I didn't know any better I'd say this looks like a classic case of assault and battery."

  Mulder opened his mouth to talk, but the first man cut him off. "I'm Agent MacMurray and this is Agent Larr. We're conducting a search for some documents. Agent Mulder is...assisting us."

  Baker raised an eyebrow at Mulder. "Interesting way you federal types have of helping each other. What do you have to say about the situation, Agent Mulder?"

  Mulder realized the way he handled the situation would have an irreversible impact on how the recovery team perceived him. His head spun from the pain of the blow. He blinked hard to clear the fog away; it didn't help. He needed time to figure out the best course of action. He didn't have it. Two thoughts came at once: he was tired of jumping through the recovery team's hoops and anger that these people thought they had a license to do whatever they wanted. He made his decision.

  Mulder pressed a palm into the small of his back and forced himself to stand straight. "I have no idea who these men are. They cut me off a few minutes ago and forced me to submit to a search. They have no warrant. They've retained me against my will which constitutes assault and subjected me to battery. I wish to formally charge them with kidnapping a federal agent."

  Baker inclined his head at them. "They claim to be federal agents themselves."

  Mulder's stomach began to relax. He breathed easier. "That's what they told me but their ID cards aren't familiar and you know how easy it is to get fakes."

  Baker turned toward the two men. "Let's see those cards."

  "Sheriff," MacMurray said. "We don't have to stand for this. We are duly authorized-"

  His objections were cut off by the distinctive chunk of the sheriff's driver pumping a 12-gauge shell into a shotgun.

  Sheriff Baker held out his hand. "Your IDs, please."

  They handed him the cards.

  Mulder noticed their actions had become off balance. They were like men of power who, for the first time in there lives, found themselves without the strength that protected them. They'd been forced onto the defensive. They didn't like it.

  Baker pocketed the ID cards. "I'm afraid I agree with Agent Mulder. Your cards are unfamiliar. Can you offer any other affidavits?"

  Mulder saw the men's shoulders sag. They looked at each other but before either could talk Mulder continued to push his advantage. "Sheriff, if I'm not mistaken these men are armed. Gentlemen, since you are now under arrest I must ask you for your weapons."

  Mulder gambled that Sheriff Baker's presence, the deputy with his shotgun and his own gun which he'd drawn, would be enough to force them to back down all the way. The two men tensed, then gave in. They slowly withdrew their weapons and placed them on the hood of Mulder's car.

  Mulder tossed the guns onto the front seat. "Please get into the rear seat of the sheriff's car." They obeyed with glazed eyes. "Sheriff, would you secure these men? I'll follow you into town to press charges. By the way, two cars preceded the one these men towards Jessup's place. You may want to radio for some officers to check it out."

  "Right."

  On the way to Carlisle, Mulder racked his brain for a plan to get to Washington alive. Nothing came to him. He felt like he'd been swept into a maelstrom and its power was pushing him along faster than he could adjust. A fitful drizzle began splattering dusty craters on his windshield.

  The drive was too short. They pulled up in front of the station before Mulder had little more than a glimmering of what he needed to do, but he hoped he had enough to run with for the next few hours...if the situation held together that long.

  Sheriff Baker had the two men fingerprinted and locked up. They didn't say a word. Mulder filled out the complaint then followed Baker into his office. "What I'd like-" Mulder began but was silenced by the sheriff's phone.

  Baker picked up the receiver. He started to tell the caller he was busy but stopped. The strident voice went on for three minutes. Baker sighed. "No, don't do anything. I'll send help right away. Just cordon the area off to preserve any evidence."

  Baker slammed the receiver into its cradle. "Jessup and Toomey are dead. Shot. Once in the back and once in the head. My deputies discovered them just outside the kitchen door. They'd been left where they fell, in a bed of blue flowers. My men found Angela's body in a kitchen closet. Looked like she'd tried to hide there. It didn't do any good. Tire marks indicate the men in the two cars you mentioned were there. The cars are gone. They must have escaped overland."

  Rage burned in the sheriff's eyes. "Sit down and get comfortable, Agent Mulder. Like the two men I just locked up, you're not going anywhere until I know what's going on."

 

 

31

 

Carlisle Police Headquarters
Monday, 3:02 P.M.

 

  Mulder's lips hardened. Two hours ago he thought he had everything in control, now three people were dead, two more jailed and he was on the run from an organization intent on killing anyone between them and the computer disk in his pocket. The world was falling apart faster than he could pick up the pieces. How could he do to stop the killing? What should he do with Stevenson's files? His eyes locked on the sheriff's intractable stare. Most importantly, what could he say to Baker?

  Deep Throat, Mulder's first information source from within the recovery team, warned him to trust no one but Deep Throat had been murdered by his own people. Stevenson also advised being secretive but then he'd been murdered. Now Mulder found himself plunged into the same death trap. Everyone who entered that trap died. He had no illusions about his chances of survival. The stakes were too high, the enemy too desperate. Mulder was a player now whether he liked it or not. His life depended on how well he followed the rules of the game.

  Mulder blinked. The shadow of an idea lurked at the edge of awareness. He cleared his mind to let it enter.

  Mulder's heart pounded. If his weakness was that he didn't know how to compete in the kill-or-be-killed world of his enemies, then his best strategy was not to play by their rules. If he could draw them into a different game, one in which he was the stronger player, the advantage would be his.

  Their strength was secrecy. It provided the cover needed to hide their actions. Remove that cover and they'd find themselves exposed to the light. Like roaches they'd scatter for darkness. Instead of his being pulled into their world he needed to drag them into his, into the light. There they would be as lost and helpless as he'd be in their black world of death.

  Mulder's eyes widened. He'd act in ways incomprehensible to the recovery team. Where they covered up, he'd expose. Where they killed, he'd spare. He'd be unpredictable, enigmatic. Such enemies were the hardest to bring down. Mulder had his plan. So far he'd only reacted to the recovery team's actions. Now it was his turn to act.

  Mulder focused his eyes on the sheriff. Baker still glared at him. Mulder reached into his coat pocket for the computer disk and plastic bag. He placed them on the sheriff's desk. For years he'd ached to go public about the government's UFO coverup. Now that moment was at hand. Dark uncertainty haunted him. I wonder how it will end.

  Mulder took a deep breath. "Sheriff. I want you to listen to me more carefully than you've ever listened to anyone before." Mulder explained everything from Scully's discovery of the lost file to MacMurray's search for the disc and capsules. Baker didn't twitch an eyebrow when he mentioned alien abductions. Mulder sighed when he'd reached the end. "Well, sheriff?"

  Baker thumbed the capsules in the bag. Mulder saw his eyes squint as he examined them. Baker's right arm snapped out like a rattlesnake to grab a phone. "Olsen? Good. Take a car over to Clive Ingman's lab and bring him here right away. If he puts up a fuss tell him I've got a gismo for him to look at unlike anything he's seen before and I want him to tell me what it is. If that doesn't work, arrest him. Do whatever you have to but get him here...now."

  The sheriff slammed the phone into its cradle. "I should throw you out of this office after a story like that." Baker looked down at his desk. "But three people have been murdered and that makes a difference. Clive's the town's electrical whiz-kid. If he can't figure out what these are," Baker shook the plastic bag at Mulder, "then I may believe you. Otherwise..." The sheriff's face turned cold.

  Mulder cleared his throat. "Fair enough. While we wait for Mr. Ingman, is it okay if I check up on Ryan?"

  "Detective Ryan got called back to Kent shortly after you left for Jessup's. He said he'd leave a note for you before he left. By the way, it's Doctor Ingman."

  Mulder nodded his appreciation for the information. He leaned forward to get up. Baker's stare stopped him. "Do you mind if I get Ryan's notes?" Mulder asked.

  There was no humor in Baker's smile. "Just relax, Agent Mulder. I'll have them brought in." The sheriff picked up the phone and asked the desk sergeant for Ryan's papers.

  Mulder smiled at Baker. "If I didn't know better I'd think you didn't trust me."

  "Let's understand one another, Agent Mulder. I'm sitting on the first triple homicide in Carlisle's history. To the best of my knowledge you were the last person to see the victims alive. FBI or not that makes you the prime suspect. Until you can prove to my satisfaction that their deaths weren't your fault, I'd just as soon keep you in sight. So please remain seated. Unless you'd prefer to be locked up?"

  Mulder eased back into his chair. "That won't be necessary. Now that I think about it, this office is really quite pleasant." Mulder's smile had no effect on the sheriff's hardened expression.

  A timid knock announced the arrival of Ryan's files. His note was on top of the stack.

 

  Agent Mulder,

  I got a call from Kent ordering me to return immediately. No explanation, just threats about what would happen to my pension if I didn't leave at once. Before the call I managed to contact everyone in the file. No new information to report. Couldn't find anyone else to talk to about the case. I'll contact you as soon as I reach the station in Kent. Sorry to desert you. Maybe we can get together for another round of burgers someday. Thanks for everything.

  DETECTIVE Zackery Ryan

 

 

  Paper clipped to the letter was a report on the calls. Ryan had signed each with detective in boldfaced capitals. Mulder was finishing the last page when someone began pounding on Baker's door with a sledge hammer.

  Baker smiled. "Clive has a heavy knock."

  Dr. Clive Ingman stepped through the door. He stood six-foot-five with muscles that strained the seams of his XXXL sport coat. Golden hair topped a square-jawed visage that conjured images of Vikings. The floorboards groaned as Ingman strode into the office. He looked to be thirty-five.

  Mulder smiled. Scully's got to meet this one.

  "You wanted to see me, Sheriff?" Clive's deep voice rattled the windows.

  "Thank you for coming so quickly." Baker pointed to a chair. "I have something I want you to examine, but first let me introduce Special Agent Mulder of the FBI."

  Mulder extended his hand. "Nice to meet you."

  Clive's hand engulfed Mulder's. "Likewise."

  Ingman cautiously eased himself halfway into a chair too small for his frame, paused to make sure it could support his weight, and pushed the rest of the way down into it. The chair creaked at the unreasonable task. Clive turned to Baker. "You said you had something for me to look at."

  The sheriff handed Mulder's plastic bag to Clive. Ingman's face lost all expression as he concentrated on the capsules. He fingered them through the plastic. "Mind if I take one out?"

  Baker raised his eyebrows in Mulder's direction. Mulder nodded. "Help yourself. But be careful, they're irreplaceable."

  Dr. Ingman gingerly opened the envelope and rolled one of the capsules onto Baker's desk. From his sport coat pocket he took out a small case which contained a set of jeweler's tools. Selecting tweezers and a magnifying loop, he lifted the capsule close to his eye. He scarcely moved except to twist his wrist to look at all sides of the capsule. Ten minutes later he returned the capsule to its bag. Dr. Ingman leaned back in his chair, eyes turned upward.

  Baker's patience exploded. "Well? What do you think?"

  Clive jerked as if he'd forgotten there were other people in the office. He smiled sheepishly. "Sorry." He sat up straighter his, chair creaking in pain. "Yes, well...thank you for calling me. It's been very interesting. First, let me say that I know what it is."

  Baker stabbed a look at Mulder.

  "Second, I've never seen anything like it before in my life."

  Baker shifted his glare back to Ingman. "What do you mean you know what it is but you've never seen it before?"

  "I believe the basic configuration's indicative of a communications device." He held up the bag and pointed at the outer lacework of wires. "The outer shell of wiring could be the antenna. This mass of tiny components at one end I assume is the tuning module." His eyes went vague. "I'm not sure about the cone-shaped monolithic element at the other end. It could be a battery." Ingman shrugged. "All this is conjecture, of course, but I'm confident further investigation would substantiate my evaluation."

  "You just explained a lot about something you said you've never seen before," Baker grumbled.

  Ingman crossed his arms. More seams threatened to burst. "The antenna configuration is new to me, the components are smaller than I've ever seen, their markings are unfamiliar and I can't figure out where the integrated circuits are located. But yes, I believe I know what it is. It's just the details of its construction that are foreign to me."

  Mulder looked at Ingman with the blank expression of an electronic illiterate.

  "Doctor Ingman received his Ph.D. in this field," Baker explained. "He's the pride of Carlisle."

  Ingman laughed it off. "Me and the high school quarterback."

  "Ingman has five patents in integrated circuit design," the sheriff continued, "is the associate editor for three professional journals in this technology, and spends most of his time as a consultant to our military and several foreign governments on advanced electronics. When he says he doesn't recognize these circuits it means that they probably weren't made on this planet."

  Ingman chuckled. When the others failed to return his laughter he turned serious. "Where did you get these capsules?"

  Mulder opened his mouth but Baker cut him off. "Couldn't someone in the defense department have developed these without your knowledge?"

  "Not in the United States. I would have heard about it. I'd also bet no other country could have made them. The radical configuration and size reflect a technology years ahead anything I'm aware of. Now, where did they come from?"

  "From the sinus cavities of two young men who died forty years ago," Mulder said flatly.

  "Forty years?"

  "At least. We're not sure how many years before that the capsules had been implanted in them."

  "Half a century," Ingman said to himself. "Unbelievable."

  Mulder felt cold perspiration bead his forehead. "Dr. Ingman, what's your opinion of where these devices came from?"

  "Agent Mulder, I laughed when Sheriff Baker said these capsules hadn't been made on this planet. It's an inside joke with us in the industry." Ingman strained forward as best as he could in the tight chair. "There's always someone involved in the development of revolutionary circuit designs. Some researcher could have leapfrogged current technology to make circuits as advanced as these. However, if these capsules are as old as you say they are, then I have to admit it would have been impossible for these to have been made on earth. That long ago the first transistors had just been fabricated. The smallest of those was larger than both capsules put together. Yet the circuits in each capsule undoubtedly contain hundreds, perhaps thousands of transistors. Personally, I don't believe in flying saucers but after what you've shown me I may have to change my opinion."

  Mulder cocked his head at Baker.

  The sheriff sighed. "I don't believe in UFOs either but since no one knows more about the subject than Clive I'm forced to accept his assessment. This lets you off the hook, Agent Mulder...for now."

  Baker swiveled to face Ingman. "Clive, would you take one of these capsules back to your lab for a thorough examination? I need to know as definitely as possible where these things were made."

  A grin stretched across Ingman's face. "I was hoping you'd ask me that. There's nothing I'd rather do."

  Baker turned to Mulder. "Okay with you?"

  Mulder flinched. Too many times in the past, concrete evidence had disappeared leaving him empty handed. He wasn't comfortable about releasing one of the capsules to a stranger. Yet he needed the capsules validated. To pursue his plan of openness he'd have to trust people. Mulder's frown deepened. If he gave Ingman a capsule it also meant one more person was in danger of being killed. "Dr. Ingman, would you mind company while you work? As I said before, the capsules are irreplaceable. If the sheriff assigned someone to keep an eye on it, I'd agree to release one to you. It's not a matter of trust...."

  Ingman's grin changed to a sneer. "Of course not."

  "Doctor, three people have been murdered because of these capsules. If you take one you'll be in danger. People have died because they knew less than you do right now."

  Ingman's sneer faded when Baker confirmed that Jessup, Dan, and Angela had been killed.

  "Under those circumstances I think a guard would be both appropriate," Ingman's smile returned, "and appreciated."

  Mulder removed one of the capsules from the bag and gave it to Ingman. "I'll also need a receipt which states who you are, a description of the capsule and the assessment you just gave us. If something happens to that capsule I need as much documentation as possible."

  "I'll write it now."

  Baker handed him paper and a pen.

  Mulder turned away from the furiously scribbling doctor. "Sheriff, if you give me a little support it'll speed the investigation. Would you have someone make hard copies of the disk? It may contain information about who killed Jessup and the others."

  The sheriff called two officers into the office. "Stan, " Baker said to a hulking, football type. "You're assigned to the professor. See that capsule by him? Keep it in sight at all times. Make a record of where it is and what's done to it. When he's not working on it see that it's locked in a safe and sleep next to the safe. Understand?"

  "Yes, sir." Stan walked around Baker's desk to stand as close as possible to the capsule.

  "Stan's naturally suspicious," Baker whispered to Mulder. "He's ideal for the job."

  Baker spoke to the second officer. "Henry, make eight hard copies..." the sheriff looked in Mulder's direction who nodded agreement. "Right. Eight copies of this disk for Agent Mulder who'll be in Konkin's office."

  Henry hurried out with the disk.

  Ingman handed Mulder two legal-sized sheets of paper. The doctor's hands impatiently opened and closed into ham-sized fists while Mulder read the receipt.

  "Looks good, Doctor," Mulder said. "Thank you."

  Ingman picked up the capsule and fled the office with it clutched in both hands. Stan followed close behind.

  Mulder got up and, after a nod of approval from the sheriff, left for Konkin's office. He guessed Zack should have reported in by now so he called the Kent Police Station. The phone at the other end of the line rang twice.  "Police Department. Officer Egan speaking. How may I help you?"

  "This is Special Agent Mulder with the FBI. Is Detective Zackery Ryan available? He was on assignment with me but got called back to Kent. Has he arrived yet?"

  "Well...yes, sir. He has but...you better talk to the chief."

  Three electronic clicks informed Mulder his call was being transferred. Police Chief Paige's voice came on the line. "Agent Mulder, I sorry to have to tell you this but Officer Ryan's been in an accident. He's in the hospital."

  "What happened?"

  "Ten miles outside of town he ran his car into a tree. The dent pattern on the left side of his car suggest someone purposely ran him off the road."

  "How is he?"

  "Stable but badly beaten up. He's in the intensive care ward. Agent Mulder, you told the desk sergeant Zack had been called back here?"

  "Yes? So?"

  "No one in this station made that call."

 

 

32

 

Carlisle Police Headquarters
Monday, 5:32 P.M.

 

  "Agent Mulder?" Paige asked.

  "I'm still here."

  "There's more bad news. Skyler Quintannin and Doc Boone are dead."

  Mulder sighed. "How?"

  "Quintannin fell unconscious last night. The night staff didn't know about his living will so they put him on a respirator. Some time this morning the respirator failed and he suffocated."

  "Where were the duty nurses?"

  "Called away."

  "Both of them? From an intensive care ward?"

  "I thought that was strange, too. So I had the hospital look into it. One got a call from her landlord about someone moving around in her apartment. She left to call the police. The other nurse heard some screaming and went to investigate. She got trapped behind a door that jammed on her from the outside. They were only gone ten minutes. Unfortunately, it was ten minutes too long."

  "What about Doc Boone?"

  "That one's gruesome. Doc cut his hand off on a radial-arm saw. Bled to death. There was a bridge tournament in the next room so plenty of people could have heard his cries for help but no one heard him. The medical examiner assumes he passed out from shock immediately after the accident."

  "Accident?"

  "That's what I've asked myself a dozen times. Too many accidents have happened to people connected with your investigation."

  "I agree, Sheriff. If I may make a suggestion..."

  "Please do."

  "I'd hate for Ryan to get lonely. Maybe you could spare a deputy to keep him company. Just for a day or two until I get things nailed down."

  "I catch your drift, Agent Mulder. Ryan won't be lonely."

  "Thanks."

  Mulder's hand remained clenched around the phone after he hung up. Five people dead, another seriously injured. So far his success as a player wasn't very good.

  Mulder stood and paced with short stiff steps. He had to stop the recovery team from murdering everyone in sight. "Ingman will be okay with his bodyguard," he said to the empty room. "I'm safe as long as I stay here. Scully!"

  He jerked the phone off its hook and punched her number at FBI Headquarters. He counted three rings before it was picked up. "This is Scully."

  "It's Mulder," he sighed.

  "Are you okay? You sound out of breath."

  "It's a madhouse here. How is it at your end?"

  "Wonderful," she said flatly. "After your data search, Skinner ordered me to assist in an autopsy. I just finished the report. Another five minutes and you'd have gotten the answering machine. I'm going home. Call me tomorrow."

  "Wait! Don't hang up."

  "What?"

  "You can't go home."

  "Look, Mulder. I haven't had a bath in thirty-six hours, traveled all morning, chased through records in the afternoon and cut up a dead man in the evening. You'd better have a good reason why I can't go home."

  "Jessup and Toomey are dead. So's Angela. Shot. Zack's in the hospital. He got run off the road like Jenkins. Quintannin and Boone are also dead. Someone's ordered everyone connected with this case killed. You could be next."

  He heard her breath catch. "What about you, Mulder?"

  "Top of the list. I'd be dead now if Sheriff Baker hadn't saved me. They tapped either your phone or mine. They're probably listening to us right now."

  "Who are they and why are they after us?"

  "It has to be the Alien Recovery Team. Probably the same people who killed Deep Throat, my father, and your sister. Now we're the targets because I found Stevenson."

  "He's alive! Who is he? Why did he disappear?"

  "Sorry, Scully. He's not alive. Not any more. Dan Toomey was Stevenson. When I called you from Jessup's place the information you gave me confirmed my suspicions. Jessup created the Toomey cover so Stevenson could investigate the recovery team in secret."

  "And the files?"

  "I can't go into that right now."

  "What are you going to do?"

  "Sleep. Then think. I figure we have twenty-four hours to resolve everything. If it can't be done by then...."

  "So I need to make myself as small a target as possible."

  "The smaller the better. Try to let as few people as possible know where you are yet have someone you trust close by so you're not alone."

  "I'll think of something. How will we get in touch with each other?"

  "I'll figure that out tomorrow. Right now I'm too tired to think."

  "Mulder?"

  "Yes?"

  "Watch your back."

  "You too, and Scully...if this blows up-"

  "Get some sleep, Mulder. You need it."

  Mulder pursed his lips. "Yeah. Talk to you tomorrow." He hung up.  I hope.

 

 

33

 

Intronics Laboratories, Inc.
Monday, 6:49 P.M.

 

  Dr. Clive Ingman hunched over a slate worktable that ran the length of the long room. His nose almost touched the sheet of white paper laying in front of him. Mulder's capsule occupied the sheet's center. He'd already discovered a seam around the middle of the clear outer shell. He pulled the halves of apart and placed them in a petri dish. "Marcus?"

  "Yes, sir?"

  "Please bring me microtool set number three...no. Make that a number five."

  "The nonmetallic one?"

  "Right."

  While Ingman's assistant sorted through the contents of an olive-green cabinet, Ingman adjusted the fit of his jeweler's loupe. Marcus placed the tool kit within reach. "Thanks," Ingman said as Marcus unfolded the purple, felt lined case. "We'll start with a needle probe."

  The tall, spare lab assistant took a five-centimeter glass needle in his thin fingers, locked it into a pen-shaped handle, carefully ran a grounding lead over its surface to eliminate any static charge, and held it out to Ingman.

  "Thanks." He nodded to the petri dish. "Check those pieces out for me, will you?"

  Marcus carried the dish to a smaller table and sat down at an optical microscope. "What am I looking for?"

  "Everything."

  "One of those?"

  "One of those." Ingman heard a sigh and the rustle of paper as Marcus started filling out a data sheet to record his observations. It reminded him he needed to do the same.

  He walked over to the stationary cabinet and took out a new report book. Returning to the table, he turned to the first page and meticulously filled out the date, time, location and a brief background on where he got the capsule. His hand hovered a moment before he entered Mulder's theory about the capsule's source.

  Ingman turned the page, dated and numbered it in the upper right-hand corner and got to work.

  "Length: two centimeters," he said out loud as he wrote the measurement in the ledger.

  "Diameter: point-eight centimeters."

  He pulled a small electronic scale over.

  "Mass: two grams." He calculated its density. "Hmmm...three times denser than water. Much lighter than our technology." He looked up. Our technology?

  He shook his head and returned his attention to the capsule. "Physical description: An outer lacework of fine, silvery, metallic wires..." he scanned one of the filaments with an optical micrometer, "approximately two-thousandths of an inch in diameter. They enclose what appears to be a microelectronic circuit. The inner structure consists of two parts: a monolithic, dull black, cone-shaped object with its point directed outward and a mass of multicolored components mounted on its base."

  He used the glass probe to roll the capsule over. "The components and their orientations are homogeneous in construction; they show no circumferential or longitudinal symmetry. The lacework structure is open at the end opposite the cone."

  He grabbed a pair of plastic needle nose pliers from the tool kit. They fit poorly in his oversized hand. Pinning the closed end of the lacework frame to the table with the probe, he reached in and grabbed the mass of components by a tab that seemed made for the purpose. A gentle pull slid the electronics out of the frame.

  "The internal assembly pulls out easily indicating it was designed for disassembly. I believe-"

  "Sir?" Officer Stan Pulgar said.

  Ingman flinched. His tenuous grip on the pliers slipped. They fell from his hand and clattered onto the table. The precious capsule rolled diagonally away from him and dropped off the table's edge. He heard a soft tick as it hit the tile floor.

  "Damn!" Ingman scrabbled on his hands and knees under the table. He found the capsule lodged against one of the table's legs. It had broken in half. "Oh, God."

  He picked the pieces up and crawled out from under the table.

  Stan offered him a hand up. "Sorry, Doc. It's just that I thought you ought to know-"

  "Know what?" Ingman snapped. He forced a slow breath. "I apologize, deputy. I should have been more careful. What did you want?"

  "You better come look." Stan walked back to the window he'd been standing near.

  Ingman placed the two pieces of the capsule in a second petri dish and joined him. "What?"

  "Just a sec...there." He pointed towards an intersection half a block away. Two dark sedans turned left onto the road fronting the laboratory. They cruised slowly down the street to the intersection at the far left before slowly turning out of sight.

  "How often have they done that?" Ingman asked.

  "That's the fourth time."

  Ingman massaged the tense muscles in the back of his neck. "Marcus?"

  "Yes, sir?"

  "Go turn on all the lights in the place; all three floors. Make it look like place is full of people. In fact..." Ingman ran a beefy hand through his gold hair. "Call everyone in."

  Marcus gulped. "All of them?"

  Ingman saw the cars round the corner for a fifth time. "All of them. Now. And say I'm offering doubletime to everyone and a hundred dollar bonus to the first person who arrives."

  "Uh..."

  Ingman smiled. "Yes, the double-time applies to you too, but not the bonus."

  Marcus hurried away, grinning.

  Ingman nodded at the cars. "That should give them something to think about."

  "Looks like Agent Mulder wasn't kidding after all," Stan said.

  "No. Which only whets my interest in the capsule all the more. Excuse me."

  Ingman returned to the table and picked up the two pieces. His hands rotated slowly showing him every detail of their construction. The end opposite the tab he'd grabbed on the component piece had five small tangs extending from it. The monolithic half had five receptacles. Ingman lined up the connectors and pushed. The capsule snicked back together. Ingman smiled.

  He pulled the halves apart and reconnected them again. "Good boy. Now lets see what other surprises you have." Ingman picked up his pen. "The capsule separates into two parts consisting of the monolithic cone and an assembly of components. They are connected via a five-pin interface. The component half is studded with what appear to be leaf-spring contacts on the outside surface of each component. The components themselves are mechanically mounted on a central post. The outer lacework may be the conducting harness providing electrical continuity between the components. These components are marked with a system of colored dots which probably identifies their function and electrical characteristics. This color code is different from all standard electronics designation codes. Most of the components have two connections to the outer harness. I believe this marks them as simple resistors, capacitors, and inductors similar to our electronic components." He paused. Our?

  He turned his attention to the cone. "With only five connectors, the monolithic unit has to be a power supply, probably isotopic."

  He passed the unit through a suite of radiation detectors. Beta, gamma, and alpha counters remained at zero. Ingman returned to the worktable. "No radiation leaking. Inconclusive. Their-" His face clouded. Their? What am I talking myself into?

  He lined through their and replaced it with a the. "The shielding could be good enough to prevent leakage. The unit appears to be a single piece with a molded exterior cover. No seams are visible."

  Marcus walked in. "Everyone got called. Only half answered. Most of those are on their way."

  "Good. Done with the optical scope?"

  "Finished before you sent me out."

  "What did you find?"

  "Nothing, really." Marcus walked over to the smaller table to get the sample. The two segments of the shell rolled around the petri disk giving off the quiet, gritty sounds of glass rolling on glass. He handed the dish to Ingman. "Fused quartz. Stress-free."

  "Anything exceptional?"

  "Top quality stuff but not remarkable. We can do as good in our fab shop."

  Ingman looked thoughtful.

  "You looked surprised, Doctor Ingman. Expecting something out-of-this-world?" He grinned.

  Ingman stared at him.

  Marcus' smile fell away. "Where did you get the capsule from?"

  "An FBI agent gave it to me."

  "Where'd he get it?"

  "From the sinus cavity of a teenager."

  "Huh?"

  "Who had it put there over forty years ago."

  Marcus' eyes went round. "Forty...that's impossible."

  "My reaction exactly. Here, run a mass-spec on this." He handed Marcus the lacework harness. "I'll be at the microscope."

  "Forty years?"

  "Get going, Marcus. I need to know what this thing is by morning."

  "The spectrometer's cold. It'll take two hours to heat up."

  "Then I suggest you get started."

  "Yes, sir."

  A man and woman burst through the room's double doors. He wore a half-buttoned white shirt and wrinkled brown slacks. She had on a blue sweater and a pair of green-checked sweatpants. They both sported tennis shoes pulled on over feet without socks.

  "I got here first," the woman said breathlessly.

  "Only because I opened the front door for you," the man grumbled.

  "Relax," Ingman said. "You both get the bonus. You're Samantha Morgan from the analysis lab, right?"

  She swept unbrushed brown hair out of her face. "Yes, sir."

  "Good. Go help Marcus fire up the mass spectrometer. I need a nondestructive reading on a sample he's carrying."

  "No sectioning?"

  "Absolutely not. No cutting of any kind. I don't want that sample as much as scratched."

  She plucked the sample dish out of Marcus' hands and studied the harness. "Well...it'll fit into the chamber in one piece but all bets are off if it outgases and ruins the vacuum. That wouldn't be a problem if we'd gotten the booster pumps I asked for."

  "Get me that reading within the hour and you'll get those pumps."

  Her eyes snapped up. "That serious, huh? Mind if I push the preheaters for all their worth?"

  "Just don't fry anything."

  She grinned. "You'll have your number in twenty minutes." Samantha poked Marcus in the ribs hard enough to make him cough. "Follow me, skinny. Let me show you how to break a few operational guidelines." They left with Marcus rubbing his side.

  "You probably don't know me-" the man began.

  "Curt Harriman, electronic assembly," Ingman said.

  The man's mouth fell open. "How?"

  "I read your file when we hired you away from Microsoft last month. I need an inventory on the constituents in this unit." He handed Curt the component half of the capsule.

  The man squinted at them. "Small." He picked up Ingman's loupe and screwed it into his right eye. "Not American or Japanese. The markings could be the new Chinese identification system but the shapes of the components are all wrong. I'll see what I can do."

  "Good. I'll be at the microscope."

  Ingman dropped onto a stool in front of the dual-eyepiece microscope Marcus had used. He set the scope to a magnification of twenty diameters and slipped the monolithic unit onto the instrument's carriage. He looked at the bottom first. The five tiny receptacles looked like caverns at twenty power.

  Ingman began adding more notes to his log. "The sides of each receptacle are of the same black material as the body except for one surface that has a simple metallic leaf-spring connector. The configuration is unconventional but not remarkable."

  Ingman began examining the main surface of the unit's bottom and froze. He'd spotted a seam.

  It divided the component into two even halves with three receptacles on one half and two on the other. He traced the seam up and down the angled sides of the cone. He felt cold perspiration cover his forehead. Please, don't let it be a weld seam.

  He increased the magnification to fifty diameters. Both sides of the enlarged seam curved inward to where they met. His breathing became short and shallow. A weld seam would have an outward flashing of waste material from molding or show a rounded contour from adhesives. This was a press fitting.

  Ingman grabbed a number-six ceramic scalpel and inserted its razor-thin edge into the seam while holding the component between the tips of two fingers and twisted. The unit popped apart. He placed both halves on the microscope's carriage and dialed them into focus. Ingman stared for five minutes before reaching for his log.

  "The monolithic component disassembles into two sections. The inner surface of each is covered with a micro-matrix of lines and cubes. The structure is colored in pastels, predominantly in shades of blue-green and red. Its appearance is similar to a city of block-shaped buildings viewed from a thousand feet in the air. I have seen structures like this many times. It's an integrated circuit."

  He laid his pen down and returned to the eyepieces after dialing the magnification up to one hundred. Ingman peered through the eyepieces. Off to the right he saw the telltale stacking of semiconductor layers that could only be a transistor. Then another, and more. A field of the units stretched to the blurred borders of the his field of view. Smaller blocks identified themselves as resistors, others as capacitors. This was his world. He dove into it.

  Ingman tore himself away from the microscope to write in the log. "Transistor density is at least five million per square centimeter, ten years ahead of anything on earth." He didn't balk at the word. "The conducting material appears to be the same as the harness but the conductors are so small and close to each other I can't understand why arcing isn't a problem. However, the basic circuitry is easily identifiable. I believe the unit is a-"

  The phone rang. He picked it up. "Ingman speaking."

  "This is Samantha, sir. We've got the mass-spec on the harness. You better talk to Marcus."

  Ingman heard shuffling sounds as the phone changed hands.

  "Sir?"

  "What's it made out of?" Ingman held his breath.

  He heard Marcus swallow. "Uh...we detected hydrogen, sir."

  "Damn. Outgassing. I was afraid of that. Did it compromise the vacuum too much to get a reading? Do you think we can suck enough out of the harness to get a signal through-"

  "No, sir. You don't understand. The harness didn't outgas."

  "Then where did the hydrogen come from? Is there a leak or-"

  "No leak, sir. The system's tight. We got a good reading. It gave us a sharp spike at atomic number one. It's hydrogen."

  Ingman massaged a temple and looked at the microscope. The eyepieces called to him. "Marcus, you're not making sense. What do you mean it's hydrogen? What's hydro-" His eyes widened. "Are you trying to tell me the harness is hydrogen?"

  "Yes, sir. We took three readings. They all showed the same thing. The harness is almost pure metallic hydrogen. Samantha's recalibrating the spectrometer now for another run. She can't accept the results of the first tests." Excitement slurred Marcus' speech. "I'm having a hard time of it myself. People have been working to fabricate a solid form of hydrogen for fifty years and all of a sudden here it is and stable at room temperature. Want me to bring it back?"

  "Yes. No. You said it's not pure?"

  "Right. We got seven other spikes but called before we nailed them down."

  "Okay. Let Sam finish her recal then run it through again. Get me numbers on the other elements and try to squeeze out estimates on relative concentrations."

  "Right. Wait...she's signaling the cal's done. Back to you in ten minutes."

  "Okay." Ingman hung up. He shook away the fuzziness that was beginning to slow him down.

  "Dr. Ingman?"

  "Yes! Sorry, Curt. What is it."

  "Here's your inventory." The man held out a sheet of paper.

  Ingman walked over to take it and jammed to a halt as the work space in front of the technician came into view. On a sheet of paper taped to the middle of the table, fifty colored specks lined themselves up in six neat rows. A half-centimeter long pin lay by itself at an angle to the rows. "What have you done!" Ingman roared.

  Confusion flashed across Curt's face. "You told me to inventory the thing, so I did." The technician shook his head. "Not an easy job either. The components are the smallest I've ever seen and it took a while to figure out how to break them loose."

  Ingman's face blanched. "Break!"

  "Relax, Doc." Curt waved a hand at him. "No damage done. The thing's designed to come apart." He handed Ingman a second sheet of paper. "That's a schematic...as close as I could figure. The shapes pretty much indicate what each component is." He pointed to the first roll of specks with a pencil. "Capacitors." The pencil moved to the next row. "Resistors, and so on. The only problem is this row." Curt pointed to the last line of components. It only held three specks. "Can't figure these out either from their shape of how they fit into the circuit." Curt shrugged. "Anyway, there's your inventory. I can snap the thing back together in ten minutes. No harm done. Then you can reattach it to the integrated circuit."

  Ingman's massive head snapped around. "How did you know the other unit's an integrated circuit?"

  "Has to be. My half's plainly designed as a support and buffer to one."

  Curt scratched his stubbly chin. "Only problem is that five pin connector. Should need at least a twenty-four."

  They stared at each other. The light went on for both of them at the same time. Ingman said it first. "Clock-gated transfer!"

  Curt nodded vigorously. "It has to be. Two lines for a clock-gate signal with instructions on where to shunt the main information on the other three lines. Man, this thing's hot."

  "But how-"

  Marcus crashed through the door to the laboratory. "Hydrogen! Confirmed. The other elements are rare earths. Here's a list."

  Ingman ignored the paper Marcus held out. "Where is it?"

  The assistant held the petri dish out slowly as if reluctant to relinquish it. Clive took it and raced for the test apparatus cabinet. He rummaged until his hand closed around a Teltronics resistance meter. Ingman plugged the unit in and attached two Huggens micro-clips to an open length of the harness' hair-thin wires. "The wires are too small for the clips to hold. I'll keep them in contact; you run the tester."

  Marcus punched the unit's on button. "Setting?"

  "Start with ten milli-ohms."

  "We're already there. No reading."

  "Go to micro-ohms."

  Marcus twisted the sensitivity knob. "Still no reading." Marcus' voice cracked with tension.

  "How low can that thing read?"

  Marcus squinted perspiration away from his eyes. "Ten to the minus twelve ohms."

  "Do it."

  "That's ridiculous. Nothing that size could have that low a resistance. The overload will blow the bridge circuit."

  "I paid for the damned meter and can throw it out the window if I want. Now change that setting."

  Yes, sir," Marcus said stiffly and threw the selector to the lowest range.

  "Well?" Ingman asked. His breath had quickened to short gasps.

  Marcus' voice trembled. "No reading! Not even a flicker. That's impossible."

  "No," Ingman said, his voice husky. "We all know there's one thing that can do it."

 

 

34

 

Carlisle Police Station
Tuesday, 5:47 A.M.

 

  Mulder stretched himself awake.

  Last night the cot in the police station's overnight room had seemed like heaven. this morning he grimaced at the kinks it had given him. After a hot shower Mulder admitted he felt better than he had a right to. Today might find him dead, but right now he felt good. And hungry.

  Mulder didn't want to make an easy target of himself on the street so he gave a police officer a twenty and asked him to go to the best place in town for breakfast and order one of everything. The desk sergeant told him nothing new had developed overnight. Mulder stuck his head in Baker's office. It was empty. He walked back to Konkin's room.

  Along the top edge of his desk, eight stacks of paper, each three inches thick, were lined up in military precision. On top of each stack was a floppy disc. The original disk Stevenson had given Mulder lay in the center of the desk with a note.

 

  Agent Mulder,

  Here are the copies the Chief asked me to make for you. I also made copies of the disk.

  Henry.

 

  Mulder read his watch: six-fifteen, too early to contact Scully. He took his emergency plastic bag of sunflower seeds out of his coat pocket and began nibbling.

  Yesterday's rough strategy about what he needed to do had formed itself into a definite plan while he'd slept. Now he fleshed this plan out with the critical details needed to keep Scully and himself alive. His breakfast arrived.

  The forearms of the officer who had gone out for Mulder's breakfast bulged from the weight of the tray he wrestled into the office. Steam from half a dozen covered plates carried hot sausage-and-egg aromas that threw Mulder's taste buds into convulsions. The officer set the crowded tray down in front of Mulder. "Jan at the Breakfast Nook said that if this doesn't fill you up, nothing will. Here's your change." He handed him thirty-seven cents and left.

  Mulder ripped covers off still-sizzling plates and attacked without restraint.

  Twenty minutes later he leaned back and loosened his belt. Everything was gone except half a biscuit and one piece of toast. Mulder cleared the tray off the desk and returned to work.

  He put five of the floppies in envelopes addressed to five people he trusted. To each envelope Mulder added a letter that explained what he needed them to do. He took the envelopes to the desk sergeant. "Would you send these by same-day express? Thanks."

  Back in his office, Mulder addressed five hard copies of the files to the same people. He placed these packages in the regular mail drop. Next he wrote a report on everything that happened on the investigation from Scully's discovery of the case folder to the packages he'd just mailed. The only thing not included were the addresses on the parcels.

  Mulder walked out into the station and knocked on Baker's door.

  "Come in," Baker called out.

  Mulder took a seat. "Good morning."

  "We'll see," the sheriff grumbled. "I spoke to your friends from the road to Jessup's place. They refused to talk. Didn't even want a lawyer. All attempts to identify them failed. Their prints aren't on record, the weapons aren't listed, and no one acknowledges the logo on the ID cards. If it wasn't for your complaint I don't know what I'd do with them."

 Mulder smiled. "Let them go."

  "What?"

  Mulder leaned forward to rest his elbows on his knees. "They're members of the recovery team I told you about. Because they might tell what they know about the team to get themselves out of jail, one of two things will happen. Either the recovery team will get a judge to order their release, or they'll be killed."

  The sheriff's mouth dropped.

  "That's the way these people work. For them the world is a very simple place. The team is authorized to do anything to cover-up the truth. Murdering their own men to maintain the cover-up is consistent with their past actions. Keeping those men will accomplish nothing. On the other hand, their release would be the last thing the recovery team expects. It goes against everything they understand. An unexpected move like that may slow them down. It could buy me the time I need for my plan."

  "You talk like I'm one-hundred percent convinced everything you've told me is true. Until Doctor Ingman provides concrete evidence, I'm just going along...for the present."

  "If I don't press charges you have nothing to hold them on."

  Baker straightened. "They carried unlicensed guns."

  Mulder shrugged. "A misdemeanor. They'll plead guilty, pay the fine, and be gone in two hours."

  "They know something about who killed Jessup and Toomey."

  "Stevenson," Mulder corrected.

  The Sheriff's face turned purple. "You say!"

  The phone's peal split the tension. Baker grabbed the receiver. "Yeah? Okay, send them in." He glared at Mulder. "Ingman's here with his analysis of the capsule."

  Stan pushed the door open for the doctor. Clive Ingman dragged into the room more by willpower that muscular effort. He rubbed at dark circles under his eyes as he collapsed into a chair.

  "Let's have it," Baker fired at him. "What did you find?"

  Ingman lifted a work-ravaged face set with eyes that glowed with excitement. His voice came out rough. "The device is definitely not from Earth. I took it apart-"

  Mulder jumped out of his chair.

  Ingman waved a hand at him. "Don't panic, the unit's all right. It's modularized and reassembles easily. As I was saying, I was able to disassemble it and examine each part in detail. It's a communications device activated by a very high frequency microwave signal. The signal both triggers the device into activity and supplies the power to drive it. That's why there's no power supply. When a signal is received, the unit transmits a series of electrical pulses into an unused area of the brain believed to be the site that once pertained to homing instincts. My guess is that the individual had been conditioned to return to a specific location when the device was activated."

  Mulder nodded. "I had a case where teenagers implanted with these devices felt a compulsion to go to a certain location for abduction."

  Baker exploded. "Now just wait a minute! You've explained what you think these things are but haven't said one word that proves they came from Mars!"

  Ingman leveled a steady look at him. "The configuration, technological sophistication, and degree of miniaturization are a decade ahead of the current state of the art, yet they are forty years old. Ignoring all that, there is one irrefutable piece of evidence that the capsule came from somewhere other than Earth."

  Ingman tried rubbing the exhaustion out of his features with his beefy hands. "I couldn't understand why the capsule wouldn't fry the brain of a host if he happened to be too close to the transmitter. The power running through the device in such instances would heat it to lethal temperatures. Then I discovered this."

  Ingman's shaky hand used tweezers lift a small pill-shaped framework of wires out a padded case. "This is the conducting harness that connects the device's modules together. It provides both structural support and electrical continuity. It's a high temperature super conductor!"

  Baker's blank stare confounded the doctor.

  Ingman's voice trembled. "High temperature superconductors are the holy grail of electric power. It has absolutely no resistance. I could run a thousand amps, ten thousand, through the smallest wire in this harness and it wouldn't raise its temperature a fraction of a degree. So far my efforts to analyze it have failed. A spectrographic analysis proves it's a form of metallic hydrogen doped with rare earths. That's how its makers resolved the problem of heat. There isn't any."

  The sheriff stared glassy-eyed at the doctor. "And this is something we can't do on Earth?"

  "No. And its potential is so great that anyone with it would use it. The advantages to whatever country had this technology would be too great to resist."

  Baker shook his head. "Okay, Agent Mulder, you win. Do you still want those two men released?"

  "Please."

  The sheriff picked up the phone and ordered the desk sergeant to start the paper work. He let the phone drop back into its cradle. "Now what?"

  Mulder turned to Ingman. "I need a detailed report on everything you discovered. "

  "Done. My secretary typed it up before I came over. One of the police officers is making copies of it right now."

  "Good." Mulder turned his attention toward Stan. "Anything unusual happen last night?"

  Stan shook himself awake. "Uh...yes. Someone followed us to the lab. Once we got there I stood near a window overlooking the street. Two cars repeatedly drove by. As soon as the Doctor's assistants showed up, the cars disappeared."

  Mulder focused his attention on Baker. "Are you ready to admit that the devices I showed you are alien technology?"

  Baker fidgeted under Mulder's relentless gaze. "Yes. Based on Clive's testimony that's a conclusion I'm forced to accept."

  Mulder pressed. "Will you put that in writing?"

  Baker glanced at Ingman who nodded. The sheriff sighed. "Yes. I'll do it right now."

  "Good." Mulder stood up. "I'll be in my office for a couple of hours before I try to make it back to FBI Headquarters. Doctor, if you could get your report to me as soon as possible I'd appreciate it. Thank you very much."

  Ingman pushed himself out of his chair. "Agent Mulder, what about the device you loaned me?"

  Mulder barely hesitated. "Keep it. Continue your research. Use anything you discover but I'd advise against citing the origin of those ideas. Also, I'd like to give you a letter with some instructions which I'd be grateful for you to follow."

  "Of course, anything you want." Ingman shook Mulder's hand and left the office. Mulder followed him out as Baker called for a stenographer to be sent in.

  In his office, Mulder began scribbling instructions for Ingman. His hand started shaking so badly the writing became illegible. Mulder wrapped his left hand around his right to stop the shaking. He lowered his head until his forehead rested on his clenched hands. At last. After all these years....

  He looked up and heaved a calming breath. His hands stopped shaking. Mulder smiled and continued writing.

  As he finished, Ingman entered with a two-inch thick stack of papers. "Here are eight copies of my report."

  Mulder took the papers. He subtracted a copy of Ingman's report from the stack, added to it one of the floppies, a hard copy of Stevenson's files, a copy of his investigation report, the instruction letter, and handed them to Clive. "You've been a great help, Doc. I think you'll find these interesting reading. I suggest you keep security tight around your laboratory for several days. If you get an all-clear signal from me you can relax. If not...."

  "I understand, Agent Mulder. I'll be careful." Clive left with the new stack of papers.

  Mulder repeated the morning's procedure. Copies of his report and the doctor's were addressed and sent, this time by certified mail, to the same five addresses. He repeated this with the sheriff's report when it arrived, except it went via UPS. Lastly, Mulder repacked his suitcase.

  He carried the remaining copies into Sheriff Baker's office. "Here's a copy for you, Sheriff. After I contact Agent Scully I'll be leaving."

  "How do you intend to get back safely? From what you've said the recovery team won't hesitate to kill you if they get the chance."

  "I'll figure something out."

  For the first time in twenty-four hours, Baker broke into a smile. "Make your call and check back with me before you leave. I may be able to help."

  Mulder nodded and left. The desk sergeant stopped him in the main lobby. "Agent Mulder? The Chief ordered me to release the two prisoners. Did you want to say anything to them before they leave?"

  A sly smile touched his lips. "Yes. In fact, let me give them their personal effects."

  Mulder signed for two large envelopes made bulky by automatic pistols. He walked into the holding area where the two men had been kept. Blinding hatred raged out at him when he stood in front of their cell. "I see your night in jail has done nothing to improve your dispositions," Mulder said with a warm smile. He nodded at the jailer to unlock the cell. Mulder stepped in, picked up one of the men's coats from the back of a chair, and handed it to him. "I've convinced the sheriff to release you without charge. Here are your belongings." He handed each of them one of the envelopes. "I'm sorry about the arrest but it was unavoidable what with the sheriff sticking his nose in. Everything's been hushed up so we can all relax."

  Their anger melted in confusion.

  "In fact I'm looking forward to working with you in the future. You see, your boss and I are about to make a mutually beneficial agreement."

 

 

35

 

Carlisle Police Station
Tuesday, 11:37 A.M.

 

  Mulder left before the prisoners could ask any questions.

  "What are you so happy about?" Sheriff Baker asked as he stepped out of his office.

  Mulder nodded toward the lockup. "I just gave our two friends their walking papers. If they live long enough to report back, their superiors will get headaches trying to figure out what I'm up to."

  "It's already having that effect on me." Baker headed back to his office while shaking his head.

  Mulder returned to Konkin's office and dialed Scully's number, then canceled it before the first ring. He needed a way to talk to Scully away from tapped lines. He remembered a pay phone in the station's lobby. Not ideal, but it would have to do. Mulder walked into the hallway and squinted in semidarkness. Half the corridor's lights were out. He turned left toward the pool of light that was the lobby. The phone hung on the wall near the desk sergeant's station. His pocket notebook provided a seldom used number perfect for his purpose. His lips drew back in a smile for what he was about to receive.

  The phone on the other end of the line hadn't finish its first ring before it was jerked into operation. A drill-sergeant hard voice erupted from Mulder's receiver. "Records, Harriet Crenshaw speaking."

  "Harriet, this is Mulder. Would you-"

  "Mulder! So you've decided to beg forgiveness. Well you're too late. My report on your slovenly records management already went forward."

  "Harriet, please..."

  "Please nothing! You had your chance and blew it. To top things off, you had the gall to make Agent Scully pick up the pieces for you so you could run off and play Mister Agent Man, so don't expect any favors from me."

  Harriet was about to fire another salvo when she made the tactical mistake of pausing for a breath. Mulder seized the opportunity. "Harriet, just listen for a second. There's a gun to my head!"

  Mulder heard her measured exhale. "So, what's your point? People who abuse files the way you do should get what they deserve."

  "So, I need your help. How about it?"

  Harriet humphed. "Okay, okay. Don't make a big deal out of it. What do you need?"

  "Would you call Scully to the phone in your office? I need to talk to her without anyone eavesdropping."

  "What are you up to? This doesn't sound like established procedure to me. You always go against the book. I don't see why-"

  "Harriet, please! There isn't time for this." Mulder looked around for inspiration. His eyes brightened. "Harriet, remember that files search Scully requested?"

  "Yes?" she said suspiciously.

  "Well, I found the missing files. They're on a floppy, with hard copies. Just for you. All thirty-eight of them. But I need to talk to Scully before it's safe to bring them in."

  "That's different! Hang on and I'll have her here in a few minutes. By the way, is there really a gun pointed at your head?"

  "Metaphorically speaking, yes. Why?"

  "Just ask the metaphoric person with the gun not to pull the trigger until I get those files. After that tell him I hope he enjoys himself." She put the phone on hold before he could respond.

  Mulder ran through his plan one more time for flaws. He found too many.

  "Mulder?"

  "Hi, Scully."

  "Why did you have me come all the way to records to talk to you?"

  "To beat phone taps. I hope. Have a good night?"

  "Terrible. But I'm glad I stayed here. My landlady called to say someone broke into my apartment. Looks like you were right."

  "Where'd you sleep?"

  Scully hesitated. "I found a place."

  "Come on, Scully, give. Where?"

  She sighed. "The morgue."

  "You're kidding."

  "Slab three speaking. The worst part was breakfast. All I could find were some dried-out donuts from a machine. How'd you do?"

  Mulder swallowed. "Uh...about the same."

  "What now? I'm not prepared to spend the rest of my nights in a room full of dead people."

  "I need to figure out how to get back to headquarters in one piece."

  "That may not be possible. There are half a dozen plainclothes guards in the front and rear lobbies. The grapevine says they're not FBI. The official word is that everyone is supposed to stay out of their way. I think they're waiting for you."

  "Sounds like it. I'll get in somehow. In the meantime stay close to Skinner's office. That's where I'll head. See you soon."

  "Watch yourself, Mulder."

  "You too, Scully." He hung up. Deep in thought, Mulder leaned against the station's reception desk.

  "Everything okay?" the desk sergeant asked.

  Mulder turned to him. "Ask me tomorrow. By the way, some of the hallway lights are out."

  The policeman nodded. "Circuit breaker popped. Maintenance will reset it in a few minutes."

  Mulder returned to his office for his suitcase. He picked it up and took one last look around the office. Concern about the long-range effects of what he'd put in motion troubled him. His doubts reached out for answers, returned empty-handed. Mulder sighed, opened the door, and stepped into the hallway's darkness.

 

  Back in the lobby, Mulder knocked at Baker's office.

  "Enter."

  Mulder strode in. Baker sat on the front corner of his desk. "I'm about to leave, Sheriff. I wanted to thank you for all your help. I know it hasn't been easy."

  "You have a talent for understatement, Agent Mulder."

  "Which makes asking another favor that much harder."

  Baker crossed his arms. "What is it this time?"

  "After what happened to Officer Ryan, I think my best bet to make it to Headquarters is to borrow a squad car and drive back with one of your officers."

  The Sheriff's eyebrows shot up.

  "The sight of a uniformed officer in the car may inhibit the recovery team long enough for me to make it. He can bring the car back after he drops me off."

  "You assume the team has this building under surveillance."

  "Their presence at Clive's lab proves it."

  "Then they'll know the second you leave and have eight hours to act while you're on the road between here and DC."

  "That's the risk."

  "Why not fly?"

  "I have to avoid situations where I can be stopped and isolated. There are any number of places in an airport where that can happen. Same thing for trains. My best bet is to make a nonstop beeline between here and DC. Using a car buys me maximum flexibility. I can't call ahead for an escort because I couldn't be sure it wouldn't be infiltrated."

  "Agent Mulder, if this recovery team is as big as you say they are it seems to me you don't stand much of a chance."

  "It's the best plan I could come up with that endangers as few people as possible."

  "It won't work, Mulder. There are too many opportunities between here and D.C. for an ambush."

  "If you have a better plan I'll be happy listen."

  "Glad you asked. Here..." Baker threw a bundle at Mulder. "Put these on and give me your clothes."

  Mulder recognized the bundle as a police uniform. He smiled with understanding and began changing. The sheriff picked up the phone. "Send Foley in." A moment later Officer Jim Foley entered the room. He was twenty-five, tall and slender, physically identical to Mulder. Without a word he began putting on Mulder's suit.

  Baker pointed at Mulder's suitcase. "Take only what you absolutely need. If you try sneaking out of here with anything as obvious as that suitcase you'll be spotted no matter how you're dressed."

  Mulder opened his suitcase and extracted the last two copies of the files and the plastic bag with the second capsule.

  "Good," the sheriff said. "Now Foley, I want you to carry that suitcase into the lobby and walk by the windows so you'll be mistaken as Mulder by anyone outside. Then sit down like you're waiting for something. Check your watch from time to time. That sort of thing. Go." Foley nodded and left quickly with a big grin on his face.

  Baker shook his head. "Foley's new. This is like an undercover assignment to him." The sheriff stood up. "You are about to report to a call for police assistance. Two officers will accompany you. Follow their lead. Good-bye, Agent Mulder, and good luck." They shook hands.

  "Thanks again, Sheriff. I'll let you know how it turns out."

  "I'd appreciate that. Now report to your call, Officer Foley."

  When Mulder stepped into the lobby, the desk sergeant hooked a thumb toward the police parking lot. "Shake a leg, Foley! Car number seventy-six, and try not to shoot yourself in the foot this time."

  The real Foley ignored the sergeant's comment but Mulder noticed bright red spreading outward from his ears.

  Mulder sprinted down the hall toward the rear of the building. He stepped outside into a steady rain only to jump back as a squad car screeched to a halt on top of the spot where he'd just stood. The front passenger door swung open. A policeman in his forties yelled at him from behind the driver's seat. "Get it in, Foley! We're late!"

  Mulder barely slammed the door closed before the car surged out the parking lot. It curved sharp left, spraying a curtain of oily water high into the air.

  With his left hand fighting the wheel, the driver extended his right to Mulder and yelled to be heard over the screech of the tires. "Name's Fields, Agent Mulder. That's Higgens in the back. Now hang on!" Fields floored the accelerator, hit the siren and set off the riot lights simultaneously. Carlisle's main street blurred into a multicolored stream of lights.

  Mulder stared out his side window then looked around at Fields with a questioning stare. Instead of leaving town they were heading deeper into Carlisle. Fields caught Mulder's look. "Don't worry. The Chief's got everything planned."

  Higgens patted Mulder on the shoulder. "Don't let Baker's sour look fool you. He's enjoyed this as much as the rest of us. It was all we could do to keep him from coming along."

  Mulder relaxed as much as the car's hurtling speed let him. They screamed around a tight turn into a drive that led to the rear of a large building. Fields stood on the brakes just before they plowed into a loading ramp. Fields and Higgens scrambled out. "Come on!"

  They entered the building at a dead run. Higgens shouted at Mulder. "This is the hospital! We need to get to the roof!"

  They shunned the elevators to tear up two flights of stairs three steps at a time. The men exploded through the door onto the roof. Parked in the middle of the open space, a police helicopter's rotors were rhythmically thumping the air. An open door invited Mulder to board. Fields shouted above the roar of the chopper. "You'll be in DC in two hours." He gave Mulder's hand a quick shake and shoved him toward the helicopter. "Good luck!"

  Mulder ducked under the downward blasts of rain-soaked turbulence from the rotors and climbed in. His stomach churned as the blades bit deep into the air, vaulting the helicopter upward.

 

 

36

 

Carlisle Police Helicopter
Airborne between Carlisle and Washington DC
Tuesday, 12:54 P.M.

 

  An air pocket slammed the helicopter to the right. Mulder's safety belt cut into his left hip as it stopped him from flying into the pilot. Out of the left window Mulder spotted a soft glow filtering through the convulsing storm clouds. Mulder nodded at it. "What's that?"

  The pilot checked his watch. "Hartford, probably."

  The copter lurched again.

  "What's the problem?" Mulder yelled over the engine's complaining shriek.

  "It's the approaching storm. We've been lucky so far, no down drafts."

  "Will it be like this the whole way?"

  The pilot shook his head. "No. Once we get out of the backwash from the Adirondacks things should settle-" He cupped a hand over the headset in his right ear. "The chief's on the radio," he shouted.

  Mulder pulled on a headset the pilot tossed him. "Hello?"

  "Mulder? It's Baker! Things blew up ten minutes ago. A mob of your friends stormed the station with a warrant for your arrest. When they didn't find you they cornered me with a court order to tell them where you were. I couldn't lie but I bought you some time. I said you were on your way to D.C. When they asked how, I said you left in a police car. They took that to mean you intended to drive. I didn't correct them. They took off out of town after you."

  Mulder automatically looked down to the highway they'd been following south. The heavy clouds blocked the sun so effectively all he could see were small pairs of yellow headlights creeping along the wet gray ribbon of the expressway. "How long will it take them to figure out there's no one in a squad car between Carlisle and DC, Sheriff?"

  "They won't. After Fields and Higgens dropped you off they picked up Foley and headed toward Washington. They're playing decoy. The way Fields drives he won't get caught soon. I sent two more police cars after them just in case things get rough."

  Another pocket of turbulence pummeled the small craft. Mulder's shoulder smashed into the copter's door. His pilot cursed and fought for control while the engine screamed in protest. Mulder pulled himself up. "Sheriff, two police cars won't stop the recovery team. Your men are in danger."

  "What can I do?" Concern hardened Baker's voice.

  "There's only one thing the recovery team's afraid of, the light! One television camera will intimidate them more than a hundred armed men. Call the local news people and tell them about the chase. Have them send news vans out to cover the action. A helicopter would be better. Just don't mention anything about aliens or UFOs. They'd laugh you off the line. Say it involves a government cover-up and they'll send everything they've got. If you have any pull in the next town on Field's route call there with the same message. It's the only way to save your men."

  "Right. Over and out."

  "Things heating up?" the pilot asked as Mulder returned the headset.

  "Sizzling."

  The pilot nodded and leaned on the throttle. Mulder stared at his watch and watched the seconds tick by. Drive fast, Fields. Drive damn fast.

 

+++

 

  "They're gaining!" Higgens yelled over the strident waver of their siren. He'd bent around in the squad car's front seat to look out the rear window. A line of dark, unmarked sedans crawled deeper into the area illuminated by red pulses from the squad car's flashing lights.

  "Not for long," Fields said and flattened the accelerator to the floorboard. They rocketed past civilian cars that ducked left and right.

  "That's doing it," Foley said with a jittery voice. He'd jostled himself around in the back seat to watch their pursuers.

  "I make out two cars," Higgens said. "Foley?"

  "Three, I think. The way they're lined up it's hard to tell."

  The police car jerked hard left onto the shoulder. "Idiot!" Fields yelled past Higgens to a pickup that refused to move over. "Can't you recognize a police car with its lights flashing?" The truck fell behind and Fields accelerated back into the fast lane. "That jerk's not moving over. He'll either hold them back or we'll see how many there are as they go around him."

  Fields leaned against the steering wheel attempting to get a clearer view through the rain-splattered windshield. "Foley, what's happening back there?"

  "Hard to see. I think...yes. They're going around."

  "What's the count? Two, or three?"

  Foley swallowed. "Five, and they're catching up again."

  Fields ground the ball of his foot down on the accelerator.

  Rain fell harder. Fields squinted for cars hidden in the white mist of raindrops exploding on the pavement. He eased up on the pedal.

  "What are you doing?" Foley cried. "They're almost on our bumper!"

  Fields tightened his grip on the wheel. "Have to, kid. Can't afford a smashup."

  A moment of deeper darkness engulfed them. A split second of rain-free silence filled the car before the torrent renewed its attack on the front window. The road was almost empty of cars. "What happened?" Foley asked.

  "Must have just passed under Route ninety," Fields yelled back. "Most of the traffic gets off to take it west to Springfield or east to Boston. That's good for us. Clears the way." He stomped down on the accelerator.

  The pounding rain had forced the few remaining cars into the slow lane. The police car flashed by them in a streak of pulsing red. "How are we doing?" Fields asked.

  "One car's moved onto the paved shoulder." Foley said. "He's coming up on our left."

  Fields' eyes dropped to the speedometer: one hundred and four. "Christ, what's that car got under its hood."

  The dark car pulled even, its tinted windows out of place in the storm's gloom. It began a slow drift sideways towards them. "Hang on." Fields yelled. "This is it!"

 

 

37

 

Airborne over south eastern New York
Tuesday, 1:23 P.M.

 

  Off to Mulder's left, New York City's massive glow burned into the darkness of the storm. The pilot inclined his head at the light. "Halfway to DC."

  Mulder glanced at his watch. "How much longer?"

  "We got lucky. Caught a tail wind off the crest of that storm. I figure half an hour give or take a few minutes."

  "Good. Push it for all it's worth. Seconds count."

  The pilot leaned harder on the throttle.

  Mulder bent over a map, then glanced out of the window. New York's radiance fell behind. Smaller glows drifted passed in slow motion. The larger one to the left had to be Philadelphia, a poor second to New York's multihued glory. He looked straight ahead trying to spot Baltimore but couldn't see anything. The sky brightened. They'd outrun the worst of the storm. Mulder gratefully eased some slack into his seat belt.

  The pilot shook his head. "Don't. The weather may look better but there's usually a lot of clear-air turbulence ahead of a front that big. The worst could be ahead of us."

  Mulder cinched down on the safety belt and wondered if Fields was having to do the same thing.

 

+++

 

  Fields pulled the wheel hard right, focusing on the steering wheel's jittering, trying to outguess when the car's wheels would break free of the rain-soaked road. Their car dove across two lanes of traffic and cut off an ancient Studebaker. Fields straightened, then pulled right again down an offramp and braked hard for the intersection rushing toward them.

  "Where are you going? Foley pleaded. "They'll catch us for sure if we leave the highway."

  "Got news for you, kid. We were already caught. Had to get away from any civilians in case things get rough."

  "Rough?" Foley asked. "What do you mean? We're just supposed to lead them on a wild goose chase to buy Mulder some time. Once they catch us we just give up, they see we're cops and everyone goes home. Right?"

  Fields and Higgens traded glances. "Sorry, Foley," Fields said. "These guys have killed too many people to be the type to send us on our way."

  "So?"

  "So get ready," Fields said and used his thumb to break loose the leather tab that held his revolver in its holster. Higgens followed suit. Foley swallowed and began rummaging in Mulder's suitcase for his weapon.

  Fields turned right onto a dirt road soft with mud. He glanced over his shoulder at Foley. "Brought your weapon?"

  "Yes."

  "Know which way to point it this time?" Fields forced a smile.

  Foley didn't return it. "Yes. I only hope-"

  A sharp metallic ting filled the car's interior.

  "They shot at us!" Fields yelled. He joggled the car left and right, attempting the impossible job of simultaneously dodging and maintaining control in the slippery mud. The right front tire hit a soft spot, dug in, and spun the car around. The rear tires sent thick walls of mud arcing up and out as the vehicle pivoted on the trapped tire. The squad car jammed to a halt perpendicular to the road with the passenger's side facing the direction they'd come. The engine stalled.

  Rain pattering on the squad car's roof accentuated the sudden silence.

  "Everyone okay?" Fields asked.

  Higgens and Foley tested their joints and nodded.

  Fields stuck his head in front of Higgens to look out the side window. He wiped at the condensation blocking his view. The smeared water shattered the outside scene onto hundreds of soft-edged vignettes. All he could make out were diffused red flashes from their lights. He cranked the window down.

  The rank odor of soaked brush followed fat drops of rain into the car. The drops splattered against Fields' cheeks.

  "See anything?" Foley asked.

  "Yeah. They're coming."

  A pair of headlights grew out of the darkness. Fifty feet away they pulled right and stopped to reveal a second pair that went left. Two more pairs followed the same maneuver with a fifth staying on track in the center of the road. The engines stopped but all five pairs of headlights remained on in a blinding row. Droplets falling through the cones of the car's lights flared to momentary brilliance before disappearing into the mud.

  The sounds of doors being jerked open and slammed closed carried through the hammering rain.  "What are they doing? Foley asked straining to look through his window.

  "Deciding what to do," Fields said. "Or how to do it. My guess is-"

  "We are federal agents," a man's voice cut through the rain. "You are ordered to place your weapons on the roof of your vehicle, open the doors on this side and exit with your hands on top of your heads."

  "I challenge your jurisdiction over us," Fields yelled back. "We are duly appointed peace officers of the county of-"

  There was a loud crack followed by the popping sound of a bullet flying through the air near the car. The voice in the darkness called out to them again. "We know you are transporting Agent Mulder. I have a warrant for his arrest and John Doe warrants for anyone impeding our efforts to incarcerate him. You will follow orders or suffer extreme consequences."

  Fields leaned further out the window. "There is no one in this car named Mulder. I am Sergeant Fields of the Carlisle Police Department. Officer's Higgens and Foley are with me. No one else.

  Raindrops splashed down onto the road, melting the gouges dug by the police car's wheels. Fields started counting his breaths.

  "I need to verify what you've said. Exit the car as you were instructed. I won't repeat the order again."

  Fields slipped his .38 special from its holster and eased back toward the far side of the car. "Stay low," he whispered. Foley's foot ran into the door. "Quietly." Fields voice strained in the silence. He reached behind him and grabbed the door's handle, lifted it slowly and pushed the door open. He slid out feet-first into the mud.

  Fields crouched and crabbed sideways toward the car's front end. Mud soaked through the knees of his pants. Two soft sloshes told him Higgens and Foley were out of the car. In the half-light of the storm's darkness he could make out their silhouettes, kneeling, weapons drawn. Raindrops struck the back of his neck, mingled with cold sweat, and trickled down his back. Almost hidden by the sound of the rain a helicopter's blades pounded the air in the distance. Fields wondered if was Mulder.

  "You were warned," the disembodied voice behind the row of lights said. "Now-"

  Fields heard footsteps sloshing behind the lights but no dark shapes moved towards him. Car doors opened and closed and two engines started. The outer two pairs of lights pulled out and around to head back toward the highway. He chanced a peak over the hood. Far down the road, two new sets of headlights approached. Red taillights sped to intercept them.

  "Reinforcements?" Foley asked.

  "Doubt it," Fields said. "If it was they wouldn't have sent two of their cars away."

  "Sergeant Fields?" the voice in the darkness said. "Come out at once or we will open fire."

  Flashing red lights erupted from the newcomer's roofs. "I think not," Fields yelled. "We're not alone any more."

  "Then you think wrong."

  The metallic sound of ammunition clips being locking into automatic rifles froze Fields' heart. He looked down at his revolver and pursed his lips. He felt Higgens' and Foley's eyes on him. He sighed, extended his hand over the car's hood and opened his fingers. His gun clattered loudly on the metal surface.

  "Do it," Fields said to his men. They nodded and repeated his example. The three men raised their arms and slowly stood up.

  Brilliant light burned out of the sky. Fields' eyes winced in protest, adjusted, and opened wider. A seventy-foot circle of light bathed his car and the cars of the men who faced him. Overhead, the heavy wop-wop of helicopter blades drowned out the sound of the rain.

  "This is the KMPC news-copter out of Worcester," a loudspeaker blared. "We are transmitting live to our television news station and there are four news-vans on the way. Can anyone tell me what's going on down there?"

  Fields lowered his eyes. Men in dark suits scrambled fighting to get into the cars and out of the light. The cars fired up their engines, spun around and fled into the darkness.

  Higgens and Foley waved wildly at the copter and shook fists at the retreating vehicles. Fields let out a sigh of relief and looked south. "We've done all we can, Mulder," he whispered. "Now it's up to you."

 

 

38

 

Maryland
Tuesday, 1:57 P.M.

 

  Mulder pointed out the pilot's window at the city's skyline. "Baltimore?"

  "Right," the pilot said and nodded ahead. "DC is only twenty miles ahead. We'll set down in ten minutes."

  "Thanks." Mulder yelled and punched buttons on his cell phone. He hunkered down to block out as much of the helicopter's noise as possible

  "This is Agent Sc-"

  "Scully, it's me! I'm coming in! Go down to the street and signal my cab away if it's not safe. And by the way, if we get through this I'll take you to another ball game like you made me promise. See you soon." Mulder hung up before she could respond. He hoped she caught all of his meaning.

 

+++

 

  Scully stared at the phone. Mulder was coming in hours before anyone expected him. She couldn't figure out how but the reference to a ball game had to be his signal that he knew the call had been monitored.

  Her eyes widened. A diversion!

  Scully grabbed her automatic, clipped it to the waistband of her shirt and dashed out her office door. Thirty feet ahead an elevator pinged and opened its doors.

  She had to move faster than the recovery team could respond to keep them off balance. She marched stiff-armed towards the elevator's waiting doors.

  "Dana, hold up a minute," a feminine voice called from behind her.

  Scully looked around. Skinner's secretary ran up, her long blond hair swishing in the air.

  "Sorry, Jill," Scully said taking a backward step toward the elevator. "I don't have-"

  Jill gulped a huge breath. "You sure make a girl run."

  Scully shifted her weight for another step. "Jill-"

  Jill stopped her by dropping a hand on Scully's shoulder.

  "I'm sorry about hanging up on you the other day." The secretary touched a slender finger to the corner of her mouth. "Or was it last week?"

  "It doesn't really matter, Jill. I have to go."

  "But it does matter. We have to work together, don't we? It's no good our being mad at each other considering how often we're thrown together, is it?"

  Scully pulled against the secretary's restraining arm to inch closer to the elevator. "Whatever you say, Jill. I have to run."

  The hand stayed glued to her shoulder. "You agents, always in a hurry."

  "Jill, please!"

  The secretary slid her hand the rest of the way around Scully's shoulders. Another ping sounded in the hallway followed by a mechanical sigh as the elevator closed its doors. Scully's hands balled into fists. Damn.

  She brushed Jill's arm away and hurried down the hallway. "I have to go. There's a situation that needs to be worked right now. I'm sorry if-"

  "Well! You needn't get physical about it."

  "I told you I was in a hurry but-"

  "But nothing," Jill said rubbing her arm. "You're like all the rest of the agents. Think you're something special. No time for a lowly secretary. Just you wait until Mr. Skinner hears how you hit me."

  Scully jerked around. "Hit you?" I didn't-"

  "It'll probably be black and blue by morning," she said through pouting lips.

  "It will if you keep wringing it like that. Good-bye, Jill." Scully spun around and stalked off.

  The floor indicator showed the elevator had already moved to the ninth floor, six above her. Scully looked towards the stairs fifty feet down the hall, decided the elevator would be faster. She jabbed the down button with a stiff finger. The elevator indicator began a slow decent, stopping at each floor. Scully checked her watch, six minutes lost.

  The doors drifted open. She darted inside only to be forced back by Assistant Director Skinner's exit. "Oh, Agent Scully. Glad I caught you."

  She tried sidling around on his left. "Sir, I really don't have time-"

  He stepped sideways blocking her move toward the door. "I need to talk to you about your autopsy report on the Fredrick's case. The contents of the report are acceptable but you used an out-of-date form."

  Her mouth fell open. "I'm sorry. I'll ask Jill-"

  "My secretary's overworked as it is. I'd appreciate it if you'd take care of it yourself."

  Scully clamped her teeth shut and nodded.

  "Good. Now, there are a couple of other matters I need to discuss with you-"

  Scully dodged around his right and into the elevator and savagely punched the lobby button. "Sorry, sir. Mulder just called and-"

  Skinner froze. "Mulder!" The closing doors cut off Scully's view of his startled expression.

  She watched the floor lights. Please, don't stop. She closed her eyes and prayed. The door slid open onto the lobby.

  She'd concentrated so hard on willing the elevator down, the crowded lobby's sudden appearance caught her without having formulated a plan. She checked her watch. Nine minutes had passed since Mulder's call. She took a deep breath and stepped into the lobby.

  Six men in dark suits stood out from the usual crowd of visitors. Cold pricklings ran up her back. Her eyes darted to a tall man leaning against the metal detector's frame. Did he know the man who killed my sister? She looked at a short one by the stairs. Did you help?

  Scully tightened her lips and walked with exaggerated stiffness towards the main entrance doors, careful to not turn her head. She shifted her eyes side to side like someone trying not to be seen looking around them.

  Six pairs of dark glasses followed her.

  She leaned against one of the huge Plexiglas doors fronting the lobby and stepped through. Outside, she checked her watch with exaggerated attention and looked up the street.

  Scully caught a sideways glimpse of the six men crowding behind the front door. Just then, a seventh hurried over to the tall man. After the men exchanged a few heated words, all seven charged out of the door toward her.

  Scully ran toward the street. A taxi started to pull over to pick her up. At the last moment, she waved her arms overhead to warn it off. Her signal, and the sight of seven men busting out of FBI Headquarters, convinced the driver to speed off.

  Five men flowed around her and jumped into dark cars parked near the entrance. They tore off after the cab. Scully was about to turn when a voice called her. "Agent Dana Scully?"

  It wasn't a voice she knew.

  With a fluid motion she turned and brought her automatic to bear on the two men headed toward her. She caught them with their hands inside their coats reaching for their weapons. "Down!" she yelled. "Get down! Now! Lay flat! Put your hands behind your heads. Do it!"

  Their decision to comply only took as long as it took to see she'd released her gun's safety. They'd just laid down when two regular lobby guards rushed up to her.

  Scully recognized one of them. "Cuff these men, Hank. Be careful. They're armed. Put them in a cell until you hear from me."

  Hank nodded. "What did they do?"

  "They want to kill Agent Mulder." She answered flatly and charged back to the lobby, the weapon still in her hand.

  People pulled far back as she stormed through the metal detector. It wailed as her automatic set it off. The guards recognized her, noted the look on her face and let her pass.

  Dana Scully was mad. Mad at the recovery team for all they'd done. Mad at Mulder because he put her in a situation where she might have shot someone. Mad at Skinner for setting them up to be killed. But most of all her rage focused on cancer man. He was the one who had to be stopped.

  The elevator carried her up. She clenched and unclenched her fingers around the grip of the gun; the handle's sharp knurling bit deep into the palm of her hand.

  Scully stormed past Jill's ineffectual gestures and burst into Skinner's office. Cigarette smoke assailed her nostrils. She marched to Skinner's desk. The automatic, still in her hand, made a deadly thud as she leaned her hands on the desk. She thrust her face at him. "Do you care so little for your agents that you let someone like that," Scully pointed at the man in the shadowy corner, "kidnap and murder them?"

  Skinner ground his teeth. "Agent Scully, you don't understand."

  "You're right! I don't understand. Sacrificing Mulder is inexcusable."

  "Agent Scully," the smoking man said in a calm voice, "If you'll listen-"

  Scully's weapon leaped up and centered itself on the man's heart. She thumbed the safety off with deliberate slowness. Her finger pressed firmly on the trigger. Her other hand, outstretched toward Skinner, warned him not to interfere. "No." she said, her voice hushed to a whisper. "You listen. Last year one of your men murdered my sister. It was a mistake. They were after me. I may not have the evidence to prove you were involved but your problem right now is that I don't care. You're also tied in with the death of Mulder's father a month earlier. Yesterday five people were killed and another's in the hospital, all at your command. You have to be stopped."

  He stared down the dark bore of Scully's gun. The glowing tip of his cigarette began to tremble. "Agent Scully, there are so many things you don't understand."

  "There are things too many people don't understand," Mulder said as he stepped into the office.

 

 

39

 

Assistant Director Skinner's Office
Tuesday, 1:14 P.M.

 

  "Mulder!" Scully cried out. "How-"

  Mulder jerked a thumb toward the ceiling. "The roof. Sheriff Baker arranged a helicopter flight. As you guessed, I needed a diversion to draw the recovery team away so I could make it down here. Whatever you did worked. But I didn't expect you to carry it quite this far." Mulder nodded at the gun leveled on cancer man.

  "I was about to settle a number of old scores."

  "It'd be a waste of a good bullet."

  Mulder walked over to Skinner's desk and plopped a large stack of papers on it. He turned back toward Scully. "There are legions lined up for his job. The power draws them like maggots to rot. His replacement could be worse."

  Scully clicked the gun's safety back on. "You're not worth the bother," she said to the smoker.

  Mulder faced Skinner. "Sir, seven days ago you assigned Agent Scully and myself to locate Agent John Stevenson and remand him, along with any FBI files in his possession, into your hands. I'd like to report the case is closed. Agent Stevenson was located but before he could turn himself in, he was murdered. Executed, I suspect, along with four other people under the orders of your guest."

  Skinner snapped cold eyes in the smoking man's direction. Mulder nodded at the papers he'd dropped on the desk. "That stack contains my report, the stolen FBI files, and many related files assembled by Agent Stevenson over the last forty years. After you've reviewed them I'll be at your disposal to answer any additional questions you might have. Now, if you'll excuse me, I'd like to go off duty and get some rest. It's been a long week."

  Skinner rested his right hand on Mulder's report. "I'm afraid it's not that simple, Agent Mulder."

  "What Assistant Director Skinner means," the smoking man said in a low voice, "is that you're ordered to place yourself in my custody. You need to be...debriefed...on many things you may have learned that are classified."

  Mulder gave the smoker a sardonic smile. "How long will this debriefing take?"

  The man motioned in the air with his cigarette; the ruddy glow of its end traced an ellipse. "It's difficult to tell. Let's just say you'll be gone indefinitely. Agent Scully, I think you need to attend the debriefing, too."

  "I'd like to oblige," Mulder said. "But I'm afraid my FBI responsibilities force me to decline."

  "That's an option you don't have."

  Mulder slipped his hands into his pants pockets. "It's one you'll have to accept. And if the thought occurs to you to force the issue, I have to tell you that several copies of my report are in the hands of people who are aware of the situation. If Agent Scully or I drop out of sight, or meet with an accident, they've been requested to mail the report to the news agency of their choice."

  "Mulder!" Skinner said. "You can't do that. Those files are classified."

  Mulder looked over his shoulder at him. "I'm afraid not, sir. All of the FBI files were either never officially classified or, because they exceed certain time limits, now come under new congressional regulations making them public domain. In any event, the FBI files account for only twenty percent of what would be released. The rest was collected by Agent Stevenson after he left the agency. He entrusted them to me for disposal as I see fit shortly before he was murdered."

  "This is the second time you've worked this gambit, Agent Mulder," the smoking man said.

  Mulder grinned. "Ever play tennis?"

  "Tennis?"

  "The first rule in tennis is to never change a winning game."

  The smoking man didn't return Mulder's smile. "It may have worked with the Anasazi case but not this time. I'm sure you'll be convinced in the debriefing to give me the names of your associates who, in turn, will be prevailed upon to give up their copies."

  Mulder shook his head. "I doubt it. You see, I asked each of them to make several copies and set up the same type of protection for themselves. Right now the files you want to bury are propagating outward at a geometric rate like a chain letter. You'll never track them all down. Face it," Mulder stepped so close it forced cancer man to lean back, "you've lost this one."

  Mulder saw perspiration bead on the man's forehead. The cigarette slipped from his fingers. It landed on the floor and began scorching Skinner's carpeting.

  Mulder crossed his arms forcing the man to back up a step. "I'd like to suggest a mutually beneficial arrangement. Call off your dogs and I'll promise not to release to the newspapers what I have on your organization."

  The smoking man's eyes got distant as he fished a pack of cigarettes out of a pocket. As he brought the pack up to extract a fresh smoke, Mulder plucked it out of his hand. "In case you didn't know," Mulder said. "It's illegal to smoke in a federal building."

  Rage contorted the man's face. He opened his mouth to talk but before he could, Skinner's massive shadow engulfed him. "Agent Mulder's right. Smoking isn't allowed in this building. Especially in this office. Not any more."

  Cancer man's eyes shifted from Skinner to Mulder. "You think you've won. You haven't. I've played this game since before you were born. You don't even know the rules."

  "I'm changing the rules. That makes us even."

  Cancer man's mouth curved into a dark smile. "We'll see." He left through Skinner's private door.

  They all stared at the door. Skinner broke the spell by walking back behind his desk. "Agent Mulder, your file will never be officially recognized. He'll find some way to quash it."

  "I'm sure you're right," Mulder agreed. "I just hope we've given him enough to worry about so that he withdraws his agents."

  Skinner pursed his lips.

  "If that's all, sir," Scully said. "We'll leave." She nodded at Mulder and headed towards the door.

  "Yes, that will be all. You may go." Skinner said absently as he stared at Mulder's report. "No. Wait. I have a complaint here from..." he paused to lift a letter off the corner of his desk, "Harriet Crenshaw. She claims Agent Mulder's been criminally negligent in maintaining the X-Files records." He looked up at Mulder. "I concur with her recommendation that you need a refresher course on the subject. Report to the auditorium tomorrow morning at eight for an all-day seminar on records management. That will be all." Skinner placed the letter on his actions-completed box and picked up a new folder from his overflowing in-basket.

  Scully pulled Mulder out of the office before he could object. "Quit while you're ahead, Mulder," she said.

 

 

40

 

FBI Headquarters
Friday, 3:41 P.M.

 

  Scully stuck her head in Mulder's basement office. "How's life?" she asked.

  Mulder reclined with his feet up on his desk and a stack of papers in his lap. He smiled at her. "Life's great. There's a good softball game on tonight. Interested?"

  "No thanks. Hear anything more about the Stevenson case?"

  Mulder's smile twisted cynical. "We're still alive. I guess my gambit with cancer man worked."

  "You're playing a dangerous game with a dangerous man. Are you certain that's what you want?"

  "I've been his puppet too long with nothing to show for it. It's time I took some chances if I want to get anywhere."

  "Where is it you think this new tact will take you?"

  He gave her a whimsical smile. "Towards enlightenment."

  "What have you found out so far?"

  Mulder's eyes focused somewhere far away. "I'm getting an impression there's a pattern to their actions. It's just out of reach."

  "The Recovery Team's?"

  "Huh? Oh...no. The aliens. Maybe...." He shook his head. "I don't know. It's just a feeling."

  She pursed her lips. "Anything else?"

  "On the Recovery Team, yes. Names, addresses, and mostly unsubstantiated records on their activities." Scully raised her chin slightly. Mulder knew she only made that gesture when something concerned her.

  "Things useful to a player?" she asked.

  Mulder's face lost all expression. "Perhaps."

  Scully's chin stayed elevated, but she smiled. "Doesn't it bother you that after so much work to get evidence on alien visitations, you're not able to release it to the public because it would compromise your protection?"

  He shrugged. "Of course. I wish I could have thought up another way to keep us safe, but I couldn't."

  Scully's eyes drifted around the room. "Do you think cancer man's bugged this office?"

  Mulder grinned. "I'm counting on it. His problem is he has to decide if what I say is the truth or a ploy to draw him out."

  "Wouldn't discretion be safer?"

  Mulder gravely shook his head. "Cancer man's killed too many discrete people for me to copy their example. I'll play my cards wide open. That's a game he can't understand. It's time someone forced him to play by rules that don't deal him all the aces."

  Scully squinted at Mulder. The sharper focus did nothing to clarify his motives. "You really have become a player." Mulder didn't say anything. She changed the subject. "I heard you released the men I arrested."

  "No reason to keep them. Besides, I didn't want them to charge you with false arrest."

  "False arrest! They wanted to kill you."

  "Can't prove it. In any event they didn't get off Scot-free. We got mug shots, fingerprints, and addresses. Combining that with similar information from the two I collared in Carlisle and what I got on cancer man helps size up the competition."

  "Cancer Man?"

  "The pack of cigarettes I took from him had his fingerprints all over them."

  "Find out anything?"

  "A little. Not much. He's too well protected."

  "You've collected all this information on the Recovery Team, cancer man, and some of the people who do his dirty work. What good is it if you can't go public?"

  Mulder leaned toward her. "Knowledge is always power. Right now I need to gather as much as possible to stay alive and eventually put the brakes on their activities." Mulder's eyes burned with a light Scully hadn't seen before, one she wasn't sure she liked.

  Mulder fanned a handful of papers at her. "If I can't go public with the files at least I can read them. It's pretty interesting stuff. Oh, yes! I heard from Zack today. He's out of the hospital. He decided to take his retirement and says he's happy to get it. I got Skinner to send him a letter of appreciation. Zack says he'll add it to his collection."

  "What about Bob Weem?"

  "Zack told me Bob guessed what was coming and blew out of town shortly after we left. He called Zack in the hospital to tell him he was all right but wouldn't say where he was. Zack guesses Weem will lay low for a while." Mulder ruffled the edge of the papers he'd been reading in an impatient gesture. "I called Sheriff Baker to thank him for his help. He says Clive is going crazy trying to figure out how the alien device I gave him works."

  "Clive?"

  "Someone you never met. An electronics geek from Carlisle. You might like him."

  "I doubt it with a name like that. He's probably five-foot-two and wears glasses."

  Mulder laughed. "You'll have the chance to see for yourself. He'll be in town next week to brief me on his latest research."

  "What did you do with the other capsule?"

  "Sent it to you-know-who."

  "The Lone Gunmen?" Scully asked.

  "You gotta love those guys."

  The corners of Scully's mouth turned down. "You love them."

  Mulder smiled. "Clive wants to meet them and compare notes."

  "Have they discovered anything?"

  Mulder's expression brightened. "The last thing we expected. The alien technology is more advanced than us but not by much. Most of the circuitry is understandable. The only stumbling block is the high temperature superconductor."

  Sarcasm gave her voice a sharp edge. "You mean the technology is only a hundred years ahead of us instead of a thousand?"

  "More like ten. Frohike-"

  "That lecher?"

  "Gently, Scully. That lecher has an I.Q. of one hundred and eighty. He believes there may only be one or two breakthrough technologies separating us. That could be the explanation for so much alien activity lately. They're uneasy about our progress."

  "If so, why don't they attack us before it's too late?"

  "No idea." Mulder gave her a self-satisfied smile.

  "What?" she asked.

  "I notice you don't raise an eyebrow anymore when I mention aliens. Are you ready to accept that they're here?"

  Scully's raised her eyebrow a quarter inch.

  Mulder wouldn't let her off. "Scully, in the face of the capsule's physical evidence, can you still say you don't believe we've been visited by aliens?"

  He saw her back stiffen at the challenge. He'd forced her into a corner and she didn't like it. Mulder also knew her disciplined mind wouldn't let her ignore facts. For once the facts were on his side.

  Her arched eyebrow dropped back in place. "I believe the evidence suggests that alien activity on earth is possible," she said with calculated exactness.

  Mulder raised an eyebrow.

  "Even probable," she added. "But there are other possibilities which are equally likely even though you may find them unattractive."

  Her look hardened. Mulder knew he'd gotten as much out of her as he could. While they talked he'd been continuously fingering the files. She nodded at them. "Anything interesting?"

  "Lots. Pull up a chair and read about a few government scandals."

  "Can't. I've got a date."

  "With whom?" Mulder asked absently, his attention drawn back to the files in his hand.

  "Art Henderson from cryptography."

  He looked up and frowned. "Henderson? Not the guy with big ears?"

  "They're not big." She shrugged. "Not that big."

  "Yeah, well, good luck."

  "See you, Mulder." Scully said as she walked out the door.

  "Right." Mulder said vaguely.

  There was a lot to read, a lot to learn.

 

 

EPILOGUE

 

Washington, DC
Saturday, 9:48 A.M.

 

  The smoking man sat in the hard plastic chair with his elbows on his knees, fingers tightly interlaced. He concentrated on the industrial-gray carpet. There was no point in looking around the room for some decoration to hold his attention. There were none. He'd used offices like this himself. Get a weekend rental, use the furniture available, hold the necessary meetings, then abandon it without a trace. It was safest way to avoid wiretaps.

  They were purposely making him wait. It was a technique to make a man about to be dragged over the coals nervous. He'd used it himself.

  The smoking man snorted. He'd given the organization over thirty years and now they tried a cheap trick like this on him, like he was some green recruit. A lousy little psych trick. It was working.

  He pulled a pack of cigarettes out of his right coat pocket, thought better of it and shoved them back. He flinched when the door to his left opened but didn't look up. One of his operatives walked out of the inner office. "Murkson," he acknowledged without raising his eyes from the carpeting.

  "Sir," the man answered, careful not to look at him, and left the room.

  Members of the organization avoided looking directly at each other whenever possible. That way no one worried if they were being studied for future identification. It was a polite gesture, a company thing.

  Cancer man nodded his head. Murkson had followed this custom. He was a good man: steady, reliable, a little hesitant perhaps when the termination object was a female, but time and experience would take care of that.

  The smoking man frowned and wondered if he'd live long enough to finish Murkson's training.

  An old man's voice called from the inner office. "Come in."

  The smoking man stood and straightened the suit on his narrow frame. He walked into the room. To his right, a floor-to-ceiling window framed a tall, slender silhouette. The silhouette's back was to the smoking man out of courtesy.

  "Yes, sir?" the smoking man asked.

  "The most recent business with Agent Mulder didn't develop as we'd hoped."

  "We got Stevenson."

  "Mulder got the files."

  "Yes, sir."

  "Mulder got two control capsules."

  "Yes, sir."

  "And he succeeded in protecting himself."

  "Yes, sir. We got into the postal department once we knew his gambit. Most of the packages he sent have been intercepted."

  "But not all of the packages were stopped."

  "No, sir."

  "The people who received packages?"

  "All neutralized except five. They're too well protected to touch."

  "What is the count?"

  "Eleven."

  The silhouette shook its head. "Eleven people killed. That's a lot for an exercise that failed."

  "I wouldn't say-"

  "I would."

  "Yes, sir." Cancer man's fingers fidgeted with the pack of cigarettes in his pocket. The cellophane wrapper made small crinkling sounds that filled the deadly quiet of the room. "Mulder still doesn't have anything he can use against us."

  The silhouette turned to face him. Eyes hidden in the figure's shadow stared at him, studied every detail of his appearance.

  Cancer man felt his pulse start to pound.

  "Go to the desk," the silhouette ordered.

  He turned left and walked toward a scarred rental desk. It held a three inch-thick stack of papers. He picked up the top sheet. It was a letter from Mulder to the silhouetted man. The smoking man blanched in surprise.

  "It was sent to my address," the silhouette said. "My personal address! Mulder said he thought I'd like a copy of Stevenson's file as a professional courtesy. He said he looked forward to working with you again."

  The smoking man jerked his head around. The silhouette nodded. "It seems our little FBI agent has turned into something more than we expected, perhaps even a player."

  "What do you want me to do?"

  "Nothing. Mulder's got us tied up for now. Some of the first-level directors believe we may have to bring him into the organization."

  The smoking man stiffened. "Mulder's not one of us. He doesn't think the way we think. He-"

  "This isn't a club. It's here for our survival. If we decide to bring Mulder in it'll be because it increases our chances of doing so."

  "He'd never come."

  "He might if he knew what we were trying to do."

  "Yes, sir. If you say so. Is there anything else?"

  "No." The silhouette turned back toward the window.

  The smoking man dropped Mulder's letter back on the stack and turned to walk out of the office.

  The silhouette spoke up, stopping him. "What did Mulder mean when he said he looked forward to working with you again?"

  The smoking man's brow wrinkled. "I don't know."

  The older man shook his head in confusion. "No. None of us can understand it either."

 

THE END

 

  Thank you for reading Player. I hoped you enjoyed it. My motivation for writing this story was that if Mulder was as smart as they made him out to be in the beginning of the series (Mulder seems to me to have become less intelligent as the series worked its way into the final years) he would have won at least some of the cases involving confrontations with the smoking man. Player gave Mulder the opportunity to finally win, and win big.

Disclaimer: The X-Files is the property of Fox Television. Only the elements unique to Player are the property of the author and may not be used without his explicit permission.

 

 
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