The girl walked carefully back to the bed and eased herself down, pausing to set the glass of water on the night stand. It had been happening less frequently, the nausea, and she was grateful.
Carefully she rolled onto her side and closed her eyes. It was early still; dawn was only a pale light on the eastern horizon. The pillow was flat, but he'd insisted on asking the man for an extra. So she'd be comfortable: he hadn't said so, but he was easy enough to read. He was a scared man--a hard man--and this was atonement for him in some way, something he owed himself or someone else. A spark of light in the middle of his overwhelming darkness.
She'd been glad enough to accept the room he'd paid for. It was much nicer than the shelter she'd spent the night in after the money ran out, certainly better--safer--than the cardboard box she'd slept in the first night she came to Washington. The room gave her the gift of time. A week--five more days--and then she'd need to know what she was doing, why she was here in Washington, what had drawn her to this place aside from the need to escape Elleryville and everything it represented.
Easing herself onto her back, she rested her hand over the small, quiet roundness of her belly. They said it would begin to move eventually, that she'd be able to feel it inside her. It hadn't happened yet, though she could sense it there, a small candle flame waiting, building.
She hadn't seen her benefactor again. He'd wanted nothing more than to do his penance, to toss his coin into the pot and move on. It was a relief that he'd asked for nothing in return, the way people invariably did when they knew anything about her. But something had gone wrong for him since he brought her here. He was hurt, injured in some way. She'd known it since last night.
She knew his name. He'd neither told her nor had the man from the bar called him by any name, but it had come to her, the way things did. Her blessing or her curse.
He was lying on his back.
Everything was muffled, foggy. He couldn't see through the haze, but he knew the surface under him was flat. From time to time he struggled to move but his efforts gained him nothing. He could sense them. No, he could see them now: all around him, men and boys with only one arm, knotted sleeves dangling on the left sides of their coats. They were coming closer.
His breathing was slow, steady; he could hear it in his ears, as if the rhythm of his body surrounded him. His pulse quickened as the one-armed men approached. Suddenly he was rising, as out of deep water, the surface closer and closer. Then a rush of brightness and pain.
Alex Krycek opened one eye. Colorless early morning light filtered through the window.
His stomach knotted. He swallowed against the dryness in his throat and tilted his head carefully. White walls, white ceiling. His side throbbed with a pulse of its own. Footsteps sounded in the hall. A nurse passed by the door without looking in.
The recorder. The old man might have been concerned about him last night but he'd be focused on the recorder now, on finding out who'd placed it and paying them back for the inconvenience, the near-miss. It wouldn't take him long to go through the list of possibilities and when he ran out...
Somehow he'd have to find a patsy. But he was flat on his back, as helpless as he'd been by the fireside in Tunguska when they'd held him down and hacked off his arm. It wouldn't take the old man long to do his checking: DOD, CIA, NSA, the Elders. He wouldn't stop until he'd found the culprit.
Krycek eased his head to the side, hoping to find the controls to the bed. No luck. Someone with two arms hadn't thought to put them on the side where he could use them. Or had purposely put them where he couldn't. They were always holding you back in these places, keeping you in bed until you were too groggy to stand, erring on the side that made it hard for you to get yourself going again. Another element of the pampered American lifestyle.
He reached beside him for a second pillow and took a breath. Quickly he pulled up, grimacing against raw pain, forced the pillow under his head and collapsed against it, panting. It was better. Up a few inches. He'd get used to it. The water pitcher and a glass sat on the bedside table just out of reach.
She'd been just a footnote but he could picture her now, plain but pleasant, pale-skinned and... something. There'd been nothing slick or polished about her, no posturing or pretense. Today was... He squeezed his mind. Tuesday as near as he could figure. Which meant she had five days left--five days until the room money ran out. By then he'd be out of here. He'd check with Gino and find out what had happened to her. If she was smart, she'd get herself together and leave town. He'd call Gino when he could. If the old man hadn't caught him by then and hung him out to dry.
It had caught him by surprise, the offer spilling out of his mouth almost before he'd realized what he was doing: Alex Krycek, suddenly the champion of downtrodden waifs. What was wrong with this picture? But the streets weren't safe for kids like her, on the run and pregnant to boot. Woman--girl--carrying unplanned child: not exactly a way to start out ahead of the game. Not good for the kid, either. He should know.
Anyway, the room over the bar was the perfect place for her to catch her breath, plenty of people coming and going downstairs, enough activity so that the movement of any one person would never stand out.
If she were smart, she'd take advantage. Make her plans and move on.
Scully rolled carefully on the narrow sofa and stretched, catching the scent of air-dried sheets Mulder had used to make her bed up the night before. The aroma of coffee was beginning to drift through the air.
On the run.
They'd left D.C.
It was no dream.
Footsteps approached the couch. Scully opened her eyes.
"Good morning." Teena Mulder smiled tentatively.
Scully made herself smile back. "Good morning."
"I... I don't mean to disturb you. I'm going to be in the shower. I just wanted you to know there's coffee brewing in the kitchen and I've set out towels in the guest bathroom."
She had a sense of the longstanding disconnect between Mulder and his mother, but the woman was trying, obviously making an effort.
"Thank you very much."
Teena glanced around the room and back to her. "I hope you slept well."
"Yes, thank you. It was"--Scully smiled--"much better than earlier, sleeping on the bus."
They were fugitives.
The chime on the mantel clock struck eight times; the sound echoed and disappeared and was replaced by silence. Scully swallowed and pushed up on one elbow.
"Mrs. Mulder, I don't mean to alarm you, but do you think there's any chance the Smo... that Leland--the man you call Leland--will look for us here?"
Alarm flashed through Teena's eyes and then was consciously put down. She paused before she spoke.
"It's Dana. Please call me Dana."
"Dana." A pause. "You'll have to excuse me if this is a bit difficult... all of this..." She glanced toward the room where Mulder was sleeping and then back at her guest. "I'm very much out of practice. Just... be patient, please."
"Leland, if he knows anything, he knows there hasn't been any... relationship, no real tie... or connection... between Fox and me for many years."
Scully felt her cheeks heat.
Teena shook her head. "It hasn't been Fox's fault."
"Mrs. Mulder, you don't need to explain yourself to me."
"Leland," Teena sighed, "I believe this is the last place he would think to look for Fox now. I was caught completely off-guard finding the two of you here last night. To think that Fox would actually come--" Her voice trailed off. She sighed.
"He wanted to see you."
"I just wanted to make sure"--Scully cleared her throat--"that we weren't putting you in any danger. Mulder--Fox... When he needs to know something--when he feels he needs to know--that need sometimes overwhelms reason."
A smile of recognition passed Teena's face. "Thank you," she said, "for being understanding."
After a moment she excused herself and disappeared into the hallway.
Scully lay back against the pillow and looked up at the ceiling. True to the state of mind indicated in her letter, she was making a genuine, if not entirely smooth, effort. Reconciliation was a process, though, not a single incident. Hopefully for Mulder's sake it would continue to go forward.
The old man took the cigarette from his mouth and let out a stream of smoke. "Yes," he said into the phone. "Check every flight manifest, every rental agency."
He hung up and took another drag on the Morley. Smoke spiraled lazily upward.
He'd been remiss in not starting this search last night, but he'd been too wrapped up in the accident then, in his concern for Alex. He wouldn't make the same mistake again, or underestimate Fox Mulder. He'd spared Mulder for years for Teena's sake, but he was a distinct liability now, too dangerous to leave to the whims of mercy.
Out of the corner of her eye Scully noticed Mulder pass through the corner of the room, headed for the kitchen wearing only his jeans from the day before. His hair was wild. She glanced up from her cup of coffee and the magazine in her lap.
" 'Morning," she offered.
He seemed not to notice. Her eyebrows went up slightly and after a moment her gaze returned to the glossy page in her lap. The luxury of time to sit down and look at a magazine, especially a gardening magazine like this one, full of small backyards transformed into colorful oases... How long had it been?
"Scul--" It trailed off into a groan, followed by a strange thump.
No answer. Scully set aside her magazine and went into the kitchen.
"Mul--" Her pulse quickened. Mulder lay sprawled on the floor, looking for all the world like the chalk drawing from a crime scene.Quickly she knelt down and pressed two fingers against the side of his neck. He opened his eyes.
"Scully" He struggled to focus. "Where--?"
"Lie still," she said gently.
He looked around, confused, and started to pull up. "How did I get here?"
She eased him onto his back again and felt his forehead. "Mulder, you're burning up."
"I know. I feel like shit. I was... I was coming out to get a glass of water--"He grimaced as her hand passed his temple.
"You must have hit your head when you fell," she said, examining the area. "Not hard, it seems. Just a glancing blow."
She swallowed and looked up. If it was something serious... They could hardly afford to go anywhere, to be seen in a hospital or have records sent for. Not information anyone could use to trace them.
She cleared her throat. "When did it start, Mulder? When you woke up?"
He shook his head. "Last night, I think. Somewhere between New York and here."
"Maybe it's just a simple flu," she said. "We'll have to watch you."
"Can I get up now?" He looked up, half-focused, at the ceiling. "I want to go back to bed."
"Here, sit up first..." She helped him to a sitting position. "Now just take a minute, give yourself a minute." Her hand rested on his shoulder. It was too hot--smooth and baking from within.
They looked up.
"What happened here?" Worry etched Teena's face.
"I... guess I passed out."
"He's got a fever." Scully said. "It may just be the flu." She turned back to Mulder. "Are you ready?"
Mulder nodded and got up carefully, Scully on one side, his mother on the other. Slowly they helped him back to the spare room and into bed. Teena excused herself and went for a damp washcloth and something to bring down the fever. Mulder pushed the pillow farther under his head, grimaced and poked at it again.
"I've got things to do, Scully. How am I going to--" He looked up, at the ceiling. "I've got people I have to contact." His breathing was heavy; his skin flushed. Beads of sweat sat on his forehead.
"It's okay, Mulder. You have to take care of yourself first."
He bit his lip. "We need--" He sighed, looked at her--a long look--and shook his head. He let his eyes close.
"Get some rest, Mulder. That's the first step. Right now it's probably the only step you should be taking." She smoothed a hand back through his hair and watched the creases in his face slowly begin to loosen. He rolled onto his side, facing her.
"Can I have another blanket?" His eyes remained closed.
"Just a thin one. We need to make sure we get this fever down."
She reached for the blanket on the rocking chair and spread it over him. His expression seemed to ease. His breathing was quieter; gradually his eyelids began to relax.
"What about you, Scully? How are you doing?" His hand came out from under the covers, searching, and settled hot against her arm.
"I'm okay, Mulder." Half a smile passed her lips and she pressed his hand briefly. "I've got a patient to take care of."
For a few moment she watched him--the beads of sweat on around his hairline, the up-and-down of his breathing, the pink flush that tinted his skin. Finally she looked up, through the window. The thick gray fog that had swirled so close to the house earlier had lifted into a pale, patchy cloud cover. The day was just beginning.
"Sandy, what've you got, girl?"
"Nothin'." Sandy folded the note, stuffed it into the pocket of her jeans and looked up at her mother. "I got to get out of here. I can't take this sitting around." Her gaze scanned the room. "I guess I'll go for a walk."
"You sure you'll be alright?"
Sandy gave a sigh. "Well, if I take the last few days as any sign, probably not. But it don't matter." She shrugged. "If somethin's gonna happen, it's gonna happen anyway." Her fingers reached for Rita's envelope next to the pile of junk mail and pulled it carefully behind her. She crumpled it with one hand until it was small enough to hide in her palm and stood up. "I'll be back later."
"Mom, I don't live at home no more."
"Sandra Jo, you know we're just worried about you."
She nodded and looked down. "Couple of hours, I guess."
She pushed the screen door open, hesitated, then went down the stairs to the yard below. Roddy's fire truck lay overturned in the dirt. She could feel it--the pressure starting in her throat, the oversize ache in her heart. It was coming again but it didn't matter anymore; she was past shame and anyway, she was beginning to learn to ride it out.
But not here. Not where her mother would be watching. She broke into a jog and made it to the first trees before the crying overtook her. She continued without slowing, arms aching for Roddy's smooth little body, legs on autopilot, going and going, instinctively darting around low spots and exposed tree roots, watching the passing scene through a blur of tears. When she got home again she'd pick up Roddy's truck. She'd bring it in the house and wash it off and rub it dry and put it up on the bookshelf.
A minute later she was at the creek's edge. The water moved smoothly, glossily over the little rock dam and spilled down the other side. It was only three feet high, the dam, but it created the perfect place to swim--shaded, undisturbed, peaceful. Sandy sat down on her rock and closed her eyes. She leaned forward and hugged herself hard and pretended her arms were Cy's arms. She'd wanted to ever since it had happened and yet she couldn't before. Cy had shot Roddy and himself and ended her world. How could she ever want that kind of touch around her again?
But the letter she'd gotten in the morning's mail had said otherwise. It was full of promise and foreboding. Reluctantly she opened her eyes, loosened her grasp on herself and reached into her pocket for the note. It said:
Dear Sandra Miller,
It has come to my attention that what happened to your husband and boy was likely not done by his own hand. I mean no disrespect, and I know your people and Cy's may not be disposed to believe me, but if you are willing, I would like the chance to talk to you about this. If it were me, I know I would take comfort in knowing his innocence.
May the Lord's arms circle you and hold you up.
Yours very sincerely,
"How long 'til I can get out of here?"
Krycek's eyes moved methodically from one hook to the next along the top of the privacy curtain. The pain was building again; he had to work to keep it out of his voice, out of his breathing, but he wasn't about to press that button. At least, not while the old man was here.
"We have to be careful, Alex. Complications can be dangerous. Risky."
Krycek looked up at the ceiling. He bit the inside of his lip. "You know I hate being cooped up in these places."
"Yes." There was a moment's hesitation where the old man nearly reached for his pocket. "Yes, I know you do. But you have to be reasonable. We want to make sure you're alright--that it's safe." The old man settled an appraising eye on Krycek and then stood. "I'll go see if I can find your doctor."
Krycek watched him leave the room.
Safe. He wanted him safe to do his work, the way he'd want a pack animal in top working condition. Or a woman he'd keep to produce his offspring. Healthy meat on the hoof. Krycek's hand curled around the bed rail and gripped it. Blood pulsed steadily through his tightened fingers.
The old man hadn't said a word about the recorder. Or Mulder, for that matter. Maybe he was holding something back, waiting for a time when the information would have more strategic impact.
He was flat on his damn back. How would he ever find a patsy in time, before the old man got through with his checking?
Letting out a measured breath, Krycek blinked back the pooling moisture in his eyes. He looked up at the ceiling and wandered among the abstract patterns there, deliberate, determined to push the pain to the back of consciousness. The old man would be back soon enough.
Each time he woke he tried to think of some way to explain the recorder, someone he could pin it on who couldn't be traced, somebody whose motive would make sense, but each time he came up dry. He'd never come up dry like this before. It was the drugs; his head still wasn't clear. He'd wake up and by the time he could think straight, the pain would be rising, jostling with reason, derailing it. He pictured himself suddenly an old man, wrinkled and lying helpless on a white hospital bed.
Krycek gripped the bed rail harder. He could count the pulsing now, deep inside his fingers, in his side, all around him. His stomach ached. It had been too long. Maybe the doctor was off-duty. The old man never gave up. He'd keep looking until he found someone.
Just ten more seconds, fifteen. He could wait that long. His breathing was loud in his ears, ragged and harsh. The pain was rising around him, swallowing him like quicksand.
Quickly he grabbed for the button and pushed, then struggled to count the seconds--anything to keep from drowning in the hot, pulsing chaos. Sweat--he could feel the sweat--and then, gradually, coolness, distance. Time was suspended; he could breathe again. The haziness was approaching, gray and beckoning.
No, the boy over him. A freeze-frame mask of terror haloed in brown curls, the child stared at him, curious, as if he were a beetle stuck on its back, flailing.
Somewhere in the distance a door closed. Footsteps approached and suddenly the old man was looking down at him. He seemed concerned for a moment. His lips were moving, saying something. Three. Three or four.
The old man got hazier and hazier, but his face seemed to come closer. There was a touch he could barely feel, the old man's thumb wiping something from the corner of his eye.
Krycek swallowed and slipped away, suspended in a web of whiteness.
The covers were pulled up high around her sleeping son's neck, and his face was flushed with the heat of the fever. Teena Mulder paused beside him. She wanted to reach out, to pass a hand through his hair or smooth over his cheek, to reassure him, or maybe herself. Her hand moved halfway and stopped. It would only disturb him. He'd gone through enough already.
Slowly Teena turned and left the room. She could see Dana sitting on the sofa, looking for something in her travel bag. She seemed listless except for the times when she went to check on Fox. But it was understandable. Teena took a few steps into the room.
Scully looked up. Teena came around and sat in the wing chair opposite the sofa.
"If there's anything you need, anything that will make this time go more pleasantly..."
"No, I'm fine, Mrs. Mulder. Thank you."
"Please, call me Teena. I... I know what it's like to be staying in someone else's home. I spent a week at my sister's recently and I know how ungrounded you can feel, despite your hostess's best efforts."
She smiled and Scully smiled in return.
"If you need anything, please don't hesitate--"
"Thank you. Thank you for letting us stay here. I know it means a lot to--" Scully shook her head. "He's never let me call him Fox. After all this time I don't think I could say it. But I know it means a lot to him, your putting us up."
Teena nodded and fought the urge to look away. There was a picture in Dana's hand.
"She's a beautiful little girl," Teena offered, leaning closer.
"Is she yours?"
Dana seemed to hesitate before nodding.
"I wasn't aware you had--" She paused. "How old is she?"
Oh, no. It was obvious from Dana's reaction that somehow she'd said the wrong thing. Said something very wrong.
"Emily was... she was three and a half in this picture," Scully began, looking at her hostess without focusing. "She passed away about a year and a half ago."
"Oh, I'm so sorry." Heat rose in Teena's face, along with memories of concerned neighbors inquiring about her kidnapped daughter. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean--"
"You couldn't have known." The voice was small, lacking the strength of conviction, and Dana's face was a sudden stark canvas of loss and emotion. She set the picture on the cushion beside her and got up quickly from the sofa. "Excuse me," she murmured and hurried from the room.
Teena listened as the bathroom door closed and the lock button popped. If she had a mirror, she wouldn't choose to look in it now. Once, when Fox was little, she'd been able to feel what mothers feel, to use that intuition to know what needed to be done, or said, to bring welcome or comfort. But the instinct had utterly gone, vanished with so many years of disuse.
From the mantel, the clock dropped a single note into the silence.
Walter Skinner read over the words on the screen tight-lipped. He paused, jabbed the 'enter' key to send and glanced at his watch. 1:15. The building engineer wouldn't be back from lunch for another half hour; barring anything unexpected, he was safe for another few minutes. He walked to the maintenance office door, listened--nothing--and returned to the shadowed desk. The glowing screen confirmed that his mail had been sent. He leaned over the keyboard and typed again briefly. He clicked 'send', got up and went to the door, opening it carefully and looking out into the vacant hallway in the direction of his apartment. Satisfied that no one was around, he pulled the door closed and returned to the computer.
Quickly he shut down the program, unhooked the phone line and reconnected it to the desk phone. He slipped the laptop back into his sports bag. Maybe he was a coward. Maybe he was a fool. Time would tell. Whatever time he had left.
The girl hesitated at the edge of the park, scanning for empty benches, and finally started forward toward a cluster of trees. The afternoon was hot--too hot, anyway, to sit comfortably in the sun. The benches under the trees were all occupied, but as she reached the second bench a man in a business suit stood and left. The girl sat down. She was hungry now. She opened her backpack and reached inside.
It had been a good day. There was part of a child's burger, another end of a burger--this one with a pickle and tomato slices--and almost an entire fish sandwich. The old man combing the dumpster next to her had reached the fish sandwich first. He'd taken it eagerly but then had looked over at her, paused, and handed her the bag with a little flourish, the small kindness of a man who had once had a daughter, thank goodness, rather than the barely-concealed gleam of the men who hoped they might buy a different kind of appreciation with their offerings.
She took out the child's burger and unwrapped it. It was plain, just meat and a bun with a swipe of sauce, but it would do for now. The fish sandwich she'd save for dinner.
The park was small, barely a square, paved and dotted with benches and trees. A statue presided from a pedestal in the center. She'd rather have been on the broad stairs beside the lake on the Mall, feeling the little bit of breeze that came off the water. She would have liked to see the man again, the one who'd lost his job, the one whose mind was in such turmoil, struggling with what to do. But he was gone, somewhere far away. And anyway, her instinct had led her here. It was close to the bar and she didn't feel like walking today.
The girl nibbled carefully at the meat patty, leaving the larger, unfilled part of the bun. She paused, peeled off a piece of the bread and tore it into little bits. When she had a palmful, she tossed them onto the ground. Two small brown birds landed several feet away, hopped toward the crumbs, and were soon joined by more birds. She smiled and tore off another piece of bun.
Maybe something would happen here. Maybe she'd discover why she'd come to Washington in the first place.
Mulder woke gradually to his own heat. Every part of him ached. He opened one eye.
The room was bright with sunlight. Grimacing, he eased himself onto his back. Outside the window green leaves swayed lazily back and forth. He strained to hear through the silence but there was no sound.
Carefully he pulled himself to a sitting position. His stomach was sour, precarious. He stood, easing himself up on shaky limbs. He was cold, and if either Scully or his mother walked in, he was standing here in his underwear. But they'd both seen him this way before; it was no big deal. Not at the moment, anyway. Making it to the bathroom and back without passing out--now that was a big deal. He made his way slowly toward the door and paused a moment to lean against the door frame. His mouth was thick and dry; he was baking from the inside.
From where he stood he could see Scully asleep on the couch. If she needed the rest then it was good she was getting it. His mother didn't appear to be around; there was no sound except the ticking of the mantel clock. It was after four, late afternoon.
He moved again, down the hallway slowly, like an old man, into the bathroom, bare feet hot against the cold tiles. After a pause he eased himself gingerly onto the toilet and rested his head in his hands.
Krycek had known: he'd seen the recognition in Krycek's face even as he lay in shock on Scully's floor. He knew his mother had passed along his little secret. And Krycek could figure easily enough that he and Scully would come here now; he'd know that the need to talk to his mother would be as strong as the lure of any bit of information--or false information--Krycek had ever given him.
Mulder rubbed his arms, shivering.
Cautiously he stood and moved to the sink, watching his footsteps, monitoring his equilibrium. He looked up slowly into the mirror. Wild hair, pasty skin, eyes pinkish and half-squinting against the light: he looked like he'd been run over. Felt like it, too. The pressure in his stomach worsened and moved up into his throat. He leaned against the sink, head down, eyes closed, sweating. Shaking.
But the moment passed. Relieved, he cupped his hands under the faucet and drank what he could, then wiped them on a towel, turned and went to the door with slow, careful steps. He paused in the doorway, already fatigued. There was a sound from somewhere outside, maybe the garage door closing. He started down the hallway toward the bedroom, the mattress his only goal. He coughed once and paused to lean against the wall, then moved on.
Krycek could give them away. If he'd come here... He had come here. To this very house. For what? Just to confront her? To see what her life was like? Had Smoky sent him?
A sudden flush of heat and sweat coated him. He half-sat, half collapsed onto the bed. The next moment, his cheek was pressed against the pillow. His body was shivering, a subtle movement he couldn't seem to stop.
"Fox?" His mother stood in the doorway. "Are you alright?"
She came in, came closer.
"I got up... for the bathroom, Mom. I just got back. Guess I ran out of gas."
She looked helpless, as if she wanted to reach out but couldn't.
He pulled his legs up onto the bed and fumbled for the covers. His mother came closer and spread the blankets over him, smoothing them up around him. He was still shaking. He grasped the edges of the sheets with his fingers and pulled them up around his neck.
"Thanks." He looked up at her.
"Can I get you anything, Fox?"
He shook his head. "Maybe some water."
She turned and started toward the door.
"Mom, I have to know something. Why did he come here? Why did Kryc--" He forced his lips together and ground the word out. "... Alex... come here? What did he want?"
Her mouth went tight. Inside, he flinched.
After a moment she came closer, back to the bed and looked at him, her expression gradually softening. The rocker was within arm's reach. She pulled it close to where he was, sat down and looked toward the middle of the bed.
"He wanted to know why. He... I think he must have been wondering for a long, long time why I did it." She sighed. "Why I went through with the pregnancy when I had no intention of keeping him." She was looking out the window, light-years away, in another place and time."He just"--her hands went up--"appeared on the front porch, out of the blue. I went to answer it and there he was, so... intense. He wanted to talk. I think he wanted to see who I was, to see who would give away a baby--"
"Did he threaten you?" He pushed up on one elbow. Cold air surrounded him. "Did he hurt you in any way?"
"He was already hurt when he came here, Fox. I think that's why he came."
His mouth tightened."He kills people for a living, Mom. He killed my father." His voice was harsh and raspy; it made his head ache. "Ask Scully about his handiwork in Kentucky last week. Ask her about the little boy."
He lay back against the pillow and stared at the ceiling. His pulse was loud, churning. He turned to look at her. She was wide-eyed, shaken.
"Mom--"He reached out a hot hand and touched her knee. "Mom, I... Cheap shot. Sorry, I just--" He stared at the ceiling. "There've been so many times between us, so many incidents where--"
He eased himself into what he hoped would be a more comfortable position and pulled his arm back into the warmth of the blankets. He ached all over.
"It's not your fault, Fox--the things that have happened to you. Between you." She wiped under one eyes with a tissue she took from her pocket. "It's taken many years to weave this... this tangled web."
He swallowed. His eyes wanted to close. He wondered how long Scully'd been sleeping.
"Why didn't you tell me before?" He felt three years old again, small and insignificant.
"I... I couldn't see past myself to... what I was doing to you, until Alex--"
Mulder's eyes squeezed shut. He breathed in and held the breath until his lungs ached, his ribs ached. "Will he give us away, Mom? Do you think he'll tell Smoky?"
He opened his eyes and frowned at her. His jaw ached from holding it tight.
"He was scared, Fox. He was like... a hunted thing. If I know anything--anything at all--he would never tell Leland. He would never give him that advantage, that potential to use against him."
Mulder closed his eyes.There was silence, then more silence. Finally he heard his mother get up. The rocking chair was being moved back to its usual position. Her footsteps went toward the door and then hesitated.
She was coming closer again. "Fox, I think I did something terrible."
He waited, eyes closed.
"Dana--she had a picture of her daughter. I said something... I didn't know..."
Mulder opened his eyes and read the pain in her face. He pushed back from the edge of the bed and motioned for her to sit. Carefully she eased herself down. Seconds passed.
He took a breath."She's made my life--" He could feel his heartbeat, labored.
"What, Fox?" his mother said after some moments had passed.
He closed his eyes."She's made my life--" They were hot. He swallowed.
Empty, pulsing silence.Her hand touched his shoulder.
"I wanted to keep her safe, and--"
His mother's hand smoothed through his hair once, twice, gentle, and came to rest against his shoulder.His eyelids tightened.
"So you've found nothing?"
"We checked every passenger manifest, sir, from every airline."
"From Dulles and National?"
"From both airports."
The old man took the cigarette from his mouth and ground it out in the ashtray in front of him. "And the rental agencies? Have you checked them all?"
"Every one. The information's all in their database, sir. Once you're in there you can check on every car they've rented anywhere in the country.'
The old man pulled another Morley from the package and put it to his lips."Then they must be traveling under assumed names. I'll arrange to get you the security camera videos. I want them checked until we find our targets."
"For the airports?"
"And the rental agencies."
"But, sir, that could take... days, it could take--"
"Get someone to help you, Mr. Colfax. You have people at your disposal. If you're not capable of completing this assignment--"
"No, I... I'll get right on it, sir.
"Good. Let me know as soon as you've found them."
The old man hung up the phone and pulled a lighter from his pocket. He flipped it and watched the flame, the way it rose and bobbed. Then he leaned in slowly until the tip of the cigarette touched the flame.
The girl at the door looked younger than her nineteen years, her brown hair long and wavy, her cheeks rosy in spite of the nervous look on her face. She'd been running, or crying, or both.
The girl nearly made a face but did a neat job of stifling it."It's just Sandy, ma'am. Nobody calls me Sandra but my mom."
"Well, come on in, Sandy."
Rita held the door open and Sandy slipped past her. Rita led the way into the living room, to the sofa.
"You must've got my message," Rita began, sitting down across from her guest. "I didn't think I'd see you so soon."
"Yes, ma'am. I guess I just--" She looked up, at the raised pine ceiling and back down again. "I guess I just needed to know about... what you said... in the letter. About Cy." She gripped one hand with the other.
"You might know," Rita began, settling back into her chair, " that the FBI was looking into a matter at the plant when all this--this--happened. My Andy had come down with some symptoms--lung troubles--and I'd watched my husband die from the same kind of thing. Bob worked 22 years at the plant. He wasn't the only one affected, either. He had friends at the plant who'd gone through something similar, though the plant doctor always said the cases weren't related. Bob went downhill slowly for quite a number of years. It's hard, you know"--she looked at Sandy--"to watch someone just waste away like that."
The girl nodded solemnly.
"And so when I saw it start happening to Andy, I--" She stopped abruptly and looked down. She took a breath and closed her eyes. "''Scuse me, missy; I didn't intend--"
"It's okay, ma'am. I know what it's like."
Rita waited for the pressure to subside. When she was sure her eyes were clear, she opened them. The girl was sitting forward in her chair, earnest.
"Yes, I suppose you do, don't you?" She smiled through her sadness. "I believe I've gotten sidetracked. What I meant to say was that the FBI was called in, and one of the agents who came to see me had a theory about what was going on here at the plant, and about your husband's part in what happened."
The girl squirmed uneasily.
"It's his theory that something bigger is going on here in Owensburg than meets the eye. Now I don't mean any disrespect by what I'm going to say here, Sandy, but his theory is that Andy's accident was no accident, that your husband ran him over on purpose..."
Sandy's lips twisted.
"...But that it wasn't his idea, that somehow somebody else had gotten him to do it, to get him out of the way so this investigation at the plant would stop. So I'd stop," she said. She paused and took a long, slow breath.
"But why would Cy do that?"
"I'm not saying he wanted to, missy, just that someone might have talked him into it some way.
"So that people would think it was just another part of the feud between them and never look any farther than that. And if that's the case, it worked pretty well, didn't it?"
"But I can't see him doing that. I know Cy's--" She shrugged. "You know how guys are. They want to be tough. They butt heads to see who comes out on top. I know Cy's talked about your son. But I don't think he ever really meant to do him no harm."
"I understand. It seems so silly, so... unworthy of a person's time, you know?... to keep on holding a grudge that way. It's not my way. Anyway, after the FBI medical examiner had gone back to Washington, I come home from church Sunday morning to find this fellow with the theory sitting on my doorstep. And he tells me that his former partner--the medical examiner--has been threatened by a certain powerful man in Washington for working on this case, and that the Assistant Director who was in charge of it had been set up and involved in a criminal matter, all because they were looking into things here at the plant.
"Mind you, it all sounded pretty far-fetched to me, like something off of a TV movie, but he's very serious, very intense, this young man, and this is what he tells me. He says he thinks your husband was put up to running Andy down just like I told you, and that afterward somebody was sent to kill your husband so he couldn't ever tell what had happened. And he thinks he knows who might've done it. So off he goes to talk with the agents on the case, and he comes back right around supper time and says he had the agents show a picture of the man he thought killed your husband to Cy's friends, and that a couple of them remembered seeing this fellow that very day--the day it happened."
"Oh, my God."
"So it seems to make sense, what this man Ben is saying. He said the man who killed your husband and boy--who he believes did the killing--is an assassin who works for the man in Washington who's been doing all the threatening."
"Oh, my--" The girl covered her face and sobbed. "You know this is much better and it's so much worse. Oh, God--"
Rita watched the girl's shaking. Gradually it slowed and stopped. "You going to be okay, missy?" she said softly.
Sandy looked up. Her face was red. "Yeah," she said, nodding. "I'll make it some way, I guess. It's just... Oh, God. I mean it's... it's a comfort to know Cy didn't do that... wouldn't do that to Roddy. But someone just coming up to the car out of nowhere..." She closed her eyes. "How can people be like that?"
"I don't know, missy." Rita shook her head. "I honestly don't understand."
Sandy opened her eyes and wiped below one of them with the back of a hand. Rita leaned forward with a box of tissues.
"Thanks," she said, taking one and then a second.
"It's quite alright, missy." She gave Sandy a knowing look. "I've been keeping them in every room lately."
Sandy stopped in mid-wipe and gave a pained smile. "Boy, do I know what you mean!" She shook her head. "Really and truly." She sighed, leaned back against the sofa cushions and shook her head. "Man, life sure is strange."
Rita nodded. "It certainly seems to work out that way."
"So what happened? Are they going to look into that now? That this other guy killed Cy and Roddy?"
"Not quite so easy, missy. Yesterday, just like Ben said would happen, the FBI agents assigned to the case were sent home to Washington."
"So nothing's happening about all of this?" Sandy sat forward. Her mouth quivered.
"Nor the problem at the plant, either. Ben said it would happen. He seemed to want to get to the bottom of this himself. Set me up with an e-mail account. Do you know anything about computers?"
Sandy shook her head.
"Well, you can get this free mail thing, so you can send messages. He got me set up with an account, and I can go to the library anytime and check it, just like looking in a mailbox. But nobody can trace it like a phone call or a letter, which seems to be a smart precaution with everything that's been going on around here. So anyway, he said he'd stay in touch if he found out something that would help us here." Her lips tightened.
"Oh, no. Something else happened, right?"
"Last night I had a phone call from the agent who'd been here--Agent Wilkins. He said Ben and the woman agent--the medical examiner, Annie Barrett, his partner--had both disappeared from Washington and he was afraid something had happened to Annie at least, if not both of them."
Sandy shook her head and wiped at the corner of her eye with the tissue she held. "So where does that leave us?"
"Us?" Rita raised her eyebrows and attempted to look stern.
"Don't you just feel like you have to do something?"
Rita opened her mouth and stopped. She focused on her suddenly intense young guest.
"Yes, I do," she said slowly. " I think you understand very much how I feel. But you can see what's happened already. I'm just trying to keep a level head right now."
"Grammy?" came a soft voice from the doorway.
"She's the reason," Rita said, nodding toward the round-faced girl standing in the doorway. "She's my granddaughter. I don't want to go making her life any worse." She gestured to the girl. "Come here, sweetie."
The girl came to the edge of the sofa. She was a plump child with pale skin and strawberry blonde hair.
"Bethy, this is Mrs. Miller."
"Please, just Sandy." Sandy shook her head. "I'm no lady."
"Sandy, then. She's come to visit us."
Bethy smiled shyly, then came closer to Sandy and sat down next to her on the couch.
"So as I was saying," Rita continued, "I'm waiting to hear from the FBI agent I'd talked to first, Will Wilkins. He's trying to find out what he can about Ben and Annie; they seem to hold the key to our being able to go forward here. If you'd like, I'll let you know when I hear something."
"Please, yes. I'd appreciate that."
"I've always believed there has to be a way to make things right, but lately I seem to have run into a brick wall." Rita shook her head. "Shakes your faith in life. In everything."
Sandy nodded. The little girl rested her head against Sandy's arm. Sandy looked startled at first, then smiled at Bethy and put her arm around the girl's shoulder.
"Oh, I was meaning to ask," Rita said. "Do you have any source of income, now that...?"
Sandy nodded. "No, ma'am. I've gotta... I mean, I guess I'm going to have to find something, somehow. Or end up living back at my mom's place." She sighed. "That's really hard to do--really hard--after you've been on your own, had your own place, your own--"
"Yeah." Her eyes were wet again. Bethy looked up, concerned. Sandy gave her a hug.
"I might know of something," Rita said. "Someone who might need some help. Let me check on it."
"Thank you. I'd really, really appreciate it. I--" She looked down. "I just can't see myself moving back home. Not after all this."
"Well, I'll check and let you know then."
"I wonder, you know," Sandy said. She sniffed and dabbed the ragged tissue at her face again. "It just struck me, Cy and your son, with all their grousing about each other: I wonder what they'd think if they could see us here, like this, now?"
Rita was thoughtful.
"Maybe they'd learn something," she said quietly.
Scully paused at the doorway and peered into the darkness of the spare room. A streetlight spread a patch of dull light on the carpet. The room was warm--warm from closed windows and warm from the struggle Mulder's body was playing out against itself.She took a careful step inside the room, then another and another until she was beside the bed. Her partner was asleep, his breathing shallow, rapid. She bent down.
Suddenly he rolled and groaned.
"Mulder?"She reached toward him. Her hand was caught in a hot grasp. "Mulder, it's me."
He curled toward her, opened his eyes and looked at her. His hand burned her wrist.
"Are you feeling any better. Mulder?"
He paused, trying to clear his head, and grimaced. "No."
"I need to take your temperature again. It's been hours."
He let go of her hand. She reached for the thermometer on the bedside table, shook it, put it in his mouth and waited."Your mother went to bed early," she said.
"It's about 9:45. I couldn't sleep. I fell asleep this afternoon..." She looked out the window, to where the streetlight cast shadows across the yard. "I slept for three hours."
A hot finger brushed her forearm.
"I guess I needed it. But it's so strange. Everything. Like a dream, Mulder, no... no tether. I feel like a balloon floating with no tether."
She took the thermometer from his mouth and carried it to where the light from the streetlight spilled into the room.
"How am I doing?"
"The same," she said, disappointed.
"Feels the same."
"At least it's not worse. You should take a couple more of these." She reached for the bottle on the nightstand.
She took the glass from the bedside table and went to the bathroom for fresh water.
It wasn't any better. But it wasn't worse. Cancer Man would check all the transportation records he could find going out of Washington. There were no records for bus tickets, but there would be security cameras in the terminal. They'd been... No. Frohike had pulled her aside while Mulder went in for the tickets. There were fewer cameras outside. They'd walked at first, when Mulder had returned. It had felt better to be moving, slow and steady. Then the bus had come. It had boarded outside.
Scully turned off the faucet, carried the glass back to the bedroom and bent down next to the bed. Mulder propped himself up on one elbow. She held out two of the capsules. Hot fingers picked them out of her hand, then reached for the glass unsteadily; together they guided it to his mouth, hot fingers over cool. Tipped it.
She heard him swallow, then swallow again. The glass came toward her and was relinquished. Mulder lay back against the pillow.
"We're spinning our wheels here, Scully."
"Can't be helped." She paused. "I think... I think your mother's making some progress. It's awkward but she's trying very hard to open up, to be welcoming."
"You think Krycek will give us away?"
"That's what she said." His voice was dry.
"There's something... something I saw in him at your apartment, Mulder." She shook her head. "I don't think he will."
He sighed."I've got people to contact, Scully. Will you do something for me in the morning?"
"I've set up an e-mail account so I can contact the Gunmen, keep tabs on things. It's on the laptop but I don't want to send anything from here, anything that could compromise Mom. If you can get to the library, can you check it for me?"
She sat down on the floor and leaned back against the bed. Stars were visible through the darkened windows, winking from between wisps of swirling fog. He was quiet now, his breathing even. The carpet under her fingers was soft; it reminded her of the carpeting in her mother's room. Somewhere worlds away. Untouchable.
"Scully, have you ever thought about the fact that someday all of this will be gone, that the sun will have swelled up to engulf the earth and all this--everything we have here, everything that's been built up over centuries, over millennia--will have vanished with no marker, no evidence, not even a memory of it--as if it never was? Then why do we do it?--why do we keep on? Why do we get up in the morning?"His hand was near her head.
"I don't know, Mulder. I guess that if we... if we thought about it too much, we might... stop getting out of bed in the morning." She reached up and took his fingers. "Would you stop, Mulder? Would you stop getting up in the morning?"
His head moved closer, to the edge of the mattress.
Walter Skinner took a sip from his glass and looked at the clock for the third time. He pushed against the back of the recliner and let the foot rest come up. The lights were off but all the props of relaxation did no good. He might as well have been sitting in a dentist's chair.
Pulling up again, he stood and went to the window overlooking the balcony. City lights spread in patches to the horizon. He could end up someplace like Lompoc, out in the middle of nowhere, minimum security fences and dry scrub chaparral on endless surrounding hills with blue sky overhead. And the occasional missile to rattle the barred windows of his cell, announcing the start of its twenty-minute trip to the Bikini Atoll. He grimaced and reached to open the sliding glass door to the patio.
A knock came on the front door.He strode toward it, setting his glass on the coffee table as he passed, and looked through the peep hole.
Scowling, he turned the lock and opened the door."I don't recall advising you to come in costume," he said.
Wilkins was wearing drab green coveralls. A wooden tool box was in his hand. "There's a method to the apparent madness, sir," Wilkins said.
The corner of Skinner's mouth twitched and he nodded toward the interior of the apartment. Wilkins set the tool box next to the door and followed Skinner, who passed through the living and dining areas toward the balcony. He pushed opened the sliding door and stepped outside into the muggy warmth of evening.
"I assume your note referred to Agent Scully," he said, pulling the door closed behind them. "I'm not entirely sure my apartment hasn't been bugged, but I think we're safe out here." He sat down on a white patio chair and motioned for Wilkins to do the same.
"Mulder came to see me in Owensburg Sunday," Wilkins said. "He told me Scully'd been threatened by this smoking man, whoever he is, and that you'd run into trouble. Said we'd be pulled yesterday and shipped back here, and he was right."
"I went to check with Scully yesterday and she wasn't anywhere. So I did a little checking at headquarters. She's applied for a six-weeks leave of absence. Were you aware of that?"
Skinner's mouth twisted. He shook his head.
"I just wanted to talk to her, compare notes." Wilkins said. "She wasn't answering her phone so I decided to drop by her apartment last night and"--his eyebrows went up--"that's when I found it."
"A blood stain, sir. Nasty-looking thing. In the bedroom. Two cleaning service guys in unmarked coveralls were cleaning it up."
Skinner frowned at his visitor."Agent Wilkins, are you aware that you've probably put yourself in grave danger just by showing up at Scully's apartment? Do you think the place wasn't being surveilled? Are you unaware of what's happened to everyone else who's been involved in this case?" His voice was rising.
"I know, sir. I took precautions."
Wilkins looked down at his coveralls. A patch over the breast pocket said 'Jamal'."It wasn't this one," he said, looking up. "I was the pizza delivery guy."
Skinner pursed his lips and waited.
"It's just a disguise thing I've developed, sir. Experience has taught me that I stand out about as much in some parts of this town as you would in, say, inner city Detroit, sir. If you catch my drift. And I've found that people's preconceptions strongly affect what they see. Or at least, what they notice. So I've put those preconceptions to work for me. If I show up as the pizza delivery guy, the mechanic, the maintenance man, the janitor"--he nodded toward Skinner--"if I come as what people in this neighborhood expect me to be, why then, they don't seem to notice me at all. I don't stand out." Wilkins held Skinner with his gaze. "I doubt, sir, that many people here are going to remember the maintenance man who came to your door just now. The fact is I just won't stick in their minds."
The corner of Skinner's mouth creased. "Touché, Agent Wilkins."
Both men looked out into the night. The sound of horns honking drifted up from the street.
"I'm concerned about Scully, sir. Do you know what's happened to her? Apparently Mulder's left town, too. Were you aware that he moved out of his apartment three days ago?"
"No, I've been out of the loop. I was... the plant was set up in my car late Saturday night. I've been on administrative leave; I haven't even been in to my office." He stared out toward the horizon.
"Scully saw the counselor, sir. Yesterday morning. Kosseff filed the leave petition on her behalf."
"I'd advise you to be careful, Agent. Putting your nose where it's not welcome is an excellent way to end your career."
"What would you have done, sir, if you'd been there? Would you have just let it go?"
Skinner shifted in his chair.
"Do you think they've gone somewhere together, sir?"
"I don't know. It's possible. Okay, it's probable. Unless something happened to her in her apartment." Skinner glanced at Wilkins and then out into the night.
"Rita Johnston gave me an e-mail address for Mulder. I sent him a message early this morning, sir, but I haven't heard anything back."
Skinner turned to him abruptly. "You pulled Rita Johnston into this?"
"She went to a neighbor's, sir. I called from a friend's house. If they've got either of us tapped, they didn't get to us. Besides," he smiled. "She's the original guerilla granny. I'm pretty sure she knows how to be careful."
Skinner scowled. "I knew Mulder was out of his apartment. He came to see me outside the police station Saturday night. Said he was flying to Kentucky. He was looking for something on the Smoking Man. He thought all the pressure of the case was making the Smoking Man nervous, that he'd gotten sloppy with the Andy Johnston hit-and-run, that he was bound to trip up soon."
"And Mulder's stake in all this?"
"The Smoking Man's the reason Mulder was pushed out of the Bureau."
"Mulder's looked into a lot of things over the years, stirred up a lot of mud in the stream bed."
"And he's gotten too close to something?"
"That's what I figure." Skinner shook his head. "So what was this... blood stain... you saw in Scully's apartment?"
"Middle of the bedroom floor, sir. A good yard across by the time they'd gotten soap and water worked into it."
"Why would she have left town, sir? Mulder said she'd been warned to keep her nose out of the case. But why would she just up and leave like this? If she left... Do you know anything about the leave she requested, sir?"
"Agent Scully--"Skinner sighed--"Scully's been under a lot of pressure lately. I think a good part of it was Mulder's dismissal and her reassignment to Quantico. They've grown rather... close over the years." He glanced at Wilkins. "Like soldiers under fire, they work off each other's strengths; they know how to anticipate one another." He shrugged. "Then as soon as she gets to Quantico I load her with these extra assignments--the first Johnston autopsy and then taking her along to Kentucky. But I've never seen her complain or even contemplate asking for leave time. Quite the contrary. She prides herself on her sense of duty. This?" He shook his head. "This isn't like her."Skinner leaned forward; his head dipped down.
"What about you, sir? Is there anything I can do to help you?"
Skinner looked up and frowned. "You can help yourself by staying out of my situation. Do you know who you're up against here, Agent Wilkins? I don't think you have any idea. These people act with impunity. They do whatever they want. And they take out whoever gets in their way. Look what happened in Owensburg, Agent. Are you willing to have that happen to you?"
"People collaborated with Hitler for the same reason, sir. Because they were scared shitless."
"Look, Agent, I thought I was doing the 'right thing' by pushing this beryllium cover-up investigation in the first place. Rita Johnston is the sister of a man who saved my life in Vietnam, and all I could see--all I could see coming out of this--was good. A chance to pay back my friend, a chance to help this woman who'd lost her husband and appeared to be losing her son... to help other people working in that plant who might otherwise become affected by this disease." He turned to face Wilkins. "Now Andy Johnston is dead. Cyrus Miller and his two-year-old son are dead. I've been set up to where I can't do anyone any good, and Scully... I don't even want to begin to think about what might have happened to Agent Scully."
"So you're just not going to? You're going to leave it at that?"
Skinner stood abruptly."Agent, I don't think you have the right--" He turned away, strode to the railing and gripped it hard. The wrought iron pulsed under his hands. Below him car headlights traced a glowing, out-of-focus dotted line in the darkness.
"No, maybe I don't, sir," Wilkins' voice came quietly from behind him. "Maybe I'm just an uppity young agent who doesn't know his place. I just figured, sir, maybe you'd be willing to help me find a damn good agent you've shown a lot of respect for."
The chair scraped against cement as Wilkins got up. "Thanks for your time, sir."
Footsteps crossed the patio and the glass door slid open.
"There are three guys, here in D. C., friends of Mulder's, kind of... far out. They may know something."
(End Chapter 2)
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