Wednesday, May 26, 1999
The bulky man on her doorstep was familiar, though she hadn't seen him in decades. He'd put on weight in the intervening years.
"I have information for you," he said, his voice still as dry and monotone as ever.
"I'm not interested." Teena Mulder's grip on the half-open door tightened. "Whatever you have to say, just say it."
"We've received information that your son discovered someone doing new vaccine research"--he paused--"against a grave, international threat."
"Fox doesn't discuss his work with me. I'm sure anything he's found will be in a report." She glared at him. "One you no doubt have access to."
He seemed unfazed by her accusation. "Our sources also tell us that Alex Krycek may be looking for this researcher."
"Tell him that if he approaches her, we will do to him as he did to Spender."
The man turned, went down the steps, coat flapping behind him, and disappeared into a waiting limousine. Teena closed the door quickly, locked it and peered out through the peep hole until the black car had disappeared from view.
A buzzing rose inside her, a knot forming in her stomach. She should contact Alex, to warn him, but she hadn't even had time to purchase a new laptop since giving him hers two days earlier.
Fox. She should definitely call Fox.
Or was contacting them exactly what the man had wanted? Was her home bugged? Her phone line tapped?
She drifted to the window. Long-stemmed white daisies waved gently in the breeze in the bed below the sill. Overhead, a white cloud was thinning in the perfectly blue sky, wisps of it tearing away from the greater mass and dissolving.
Teena's fingers trembled against the glass. How deceptively beautiful the day was.
She gripped the edge of the window sill.
Even after Leland's death and finding Alex, it wasn't over. It would never be over.
Pain in his neck, and a steady low vibration of his head against...
He worked to clear his head.
Alex Krycek stirred. Country music played low over the hum of road noise. He was warm, probably sun coming through the windshield.
"Five," a young voice came from behind him. "Six... Seven."
"Eight, over there." This voice--a woman's voice--came from the driver's seat beside him.
Krycek swallowed, mouth dry. An image of the hospital room filtered in, sitting on the bed and rocking Tracy against him even though he was pretty sure she was already...
He swallowed, forced his eyes open and squinted into the haze of morning. Blinked, and then did it again. Flat land. Car dealerships and professional buildings, everything broadly spaced. Upscale area.
A heaviness began to seep over him, settling like an invisible sandbag against his chest. His right side ached--the new wound.
"Morning, Jeff," the woman said, glancing over at him. The wrinkles in her face didn't seem as deep in the daylight, though her hair, pulled back and braided, looked the same as it had the night before, white streaked with gray.
"Where are we?" His voice was low, gravelly.
"Just leaving St. Louis."
"You missed the arch," Bobby chimed in from the back seat.
Krycek sat up straighter. His head was thick and he had no interest in waking up to this reality, but she'd expect him to go forward, to do what he could about the threat. He owed her that.
"Feeling any more rested now?"
And if the woman asked more questions, he'd need to get his mind to work well enough to string together a coherent narrative about himself and this trip he was taking. He'd pretty much gotten into her car outside Owensburg and fallen asleep, except for the forty-five minutes they'd spent having an early breakfast at the IHOP in Paducah. Which had been a little nightmare in itself--at least inside his own head.
He shrugged. "Had some surgery a few weeks back. I'm supposed to be taking it easy, but then this came up." 'This' being his brief "friend in trouble" explanation for needing a ride west.
"Then probably better you didn't have me drop you at the rail yard in Lexington like you planned. Would've been a lot rougher ride, especially given your condition. These old station wagons may be gas hogs, but the seats are mighty comfortable for long trips." She paused. "Thanks for the gas money, by the way."
Outside the window the buildings were beginning to thin.
"What's the next big place?" he asked.
"About four hours driving, but I'm going to have to stop and rest before then. Been driving since ten last night."
"Smart move, stopping." He'd gone through this with Scully two days earlier. At least, unlike Mulder, she had the sense to recognize when she'd had enough and had gotten off the road.
"I used to drive with a long-haul trucker," she said. "Taught me where my limits are."
Mulder. Back at the Reston house he'd blurted out something about Vanek's work. Which meant the old men were likely to hear about it from Darryl Silver; they'd find him and grill him about every little detail of what happened there. They'd want to know about anyone doing vaccine research, and take it for themselves. Just as important, they'd want to make sure Mulder or anyone else who knew about it couldn't float that info anywhere the Colonists might pick up on it.
Which meant he needed to warn Mulder that they'd be watching him. As for himself, most likely it wouldn't upset the suits from the board room too much that he'd taken out the old man. But with Vanek gone, they'd assume he'd gotten greedy and gone searching for her. Which meant they'd be looking for him, too.
Krycek swallowed. He reached around and touched the new wound gingerly. Silver's bullet had clipped the side of his waist. Fate or luck or whatever must have been with him, because the hit had been too low to splinter a rib, too high to hit vital organs. But it had gouged out a messy chunk of flesh and now it stung worse than it had yesterday. Definitely not a good sign.
Krycek squinted against the brightness coming in through the windshield, glanced around the car and focused on the plastic milk jug full of water next to his feet. He reached for his pocket and worked out the prescription bottle.
"Mind if I have a little of this?"
"No, go ahead. That's what it's there for."
"Got some medication I need to take."
He set the jug between his legs, worked the cap off and set it on his knee. Worked the cap off the prescription bottle with his teeth and shook out a pill onto the denim of his pants. Putting the cap back was trickier; suddenly he could feel Bobby's proximity, looking over his shoulder to see how a one-armed man would manage to work a cap onto a bottle.
He downed the pill and chased it with a couple of swallows from the jug, then capped it and set it back on the floor. Slouched down in the seat and closed his eyes, hoping to find a comfortable position.
Tracy'd tell him to lie down. She'd tell him his body needed the rest. Maybe even that the boy would appreciate the chance to sit in front for a while. What kid refused the opportunity to ride shotgun?
His thumb worked its way into his pocket, feeling for the little card that had held the turquoise earring, but he came up empty. He must have left it on the hospital bed. He thought back to two mornings ago in the Reston house, surreptitiously passing the earring on its little card to his mother, her passing it back to him later, a sign of solidarity, of two operatives joined in their determination to resist the common enemy. He could feel her hand against the side of his neck, there at the end, as he sat on the tailgate of the minivan, trying to hold himself together, waiting for Scully to drive him to Owensburg.
Krycek swallowed against a growing pressure in his chest and opened his eyes. "Any chance I could swap with Bobby there for a while?" He pointed to the back seat.
"Yeah, I want to sit up front, Nana. Can I?"
A mile or so down the road they pulled off onto the shoulder. Krycek got out, waited for Bobby to get into the front and shut the thick door behind him. Then he settled himself into the back seat, moved a bag and a box onto the floor and lay down across the expanse of red vinyl. He closed his eyes. The heavy car lumbered back onto the highway and gradually built up speed. He let the rhythm of it start to carry him from consciousness. He was alone this time, no fingers between his, no strong thin, arm above those fingers. No personal cheering section. No soft, smooth body lying spooned behind him in the sunlight, keeping the world at bay.
His hand wanted to curl, but there would be no response this time, just an emptiness he wasn't ready to face. Stretching his fingers out, he rested them against the leg of his jeans.
Mulder's rented room
Georgetown, Washington, D.C.
Scully stirred and opened her eyes. Mulder lay between her and her view of the clock on the small table beside the bed. He turned toward her when she pushed up.
"You're awake," she said, settling back against his shoulder. "What time is it?"
"Just past 10:30." He ruffled her hair with a warm hand. "Feeling delinquent for not getting up earlier?"
"No, actually." She paused and frowned. "I think it's going to take me a while to transition from everything that's happened lately." She looked up at the ridges in the pale green ceiling overhead. "Have you been awake long, Mulder?"
"Maybe half an hour." A somberness seeped in and filled the room. After a moment he let out a sigh. "Maybe coffee would help."
Scully moved out of his way. Mulder sat up and put his feet on the floor. He looked up and closed his eyes. "Twilight zone," he said. He turned to glance at her. "And I used to think our regular routine was 'out there'."
"Did you sleep okay?"
She half-smiled. "When I slept, yes."
"Small bed didn't bother you?"
"Not at all." After a beat, her smile broadened. "I've been thinking about this room, about coming back here with you."
On the desk, a phone rang.
"Mine or yours?" he asked.
She stretched toward the desk. "Yours."
He went around the bed to retrieve it and switched it on. "Mulder."
Scully lay back against the pillow and studied the light filtering through the small panes of glass in the door.
"No, Mom... No, just... Just stay where you are. For now, anyway. If you go anywhere, they're likely to follow you." A pause. "I'll get my friends to connect with you about the computer. I'll call them now. Yeah... I will, Mom... You, too."
Mulder turned the phone off and frowned.
"What did she say?"
"You know how Skinner and I were debating the pros and cons of a normal reinstatement? Well, it looks like our decision's been made for us. Mom was visited several hours ago by a man from Smoky's old group. Evidently they're not happy about us coming across Vanek's work."
"I don't know. Maybe they want to be the only game in town. Maybe they want to use it."
"Or destroy it."
His hands went to his hips. "Maybe."
"What else did she say?"
"They were told that Krycek is going after Vanek. The man told her if Krycek contacts Vanek, they'll kill him like he killed Smoky."
Scully pursed her lips. "I wonder if Krycek realizes this. Mulder--"
"I guess I haven't been thinking about Krycek, but he took off without any supplies at all, and with no way to care for that wound. I'd assumed as soon as he was finished with Tracy that we'd have it looked at, properly cleaned and treated. He's going to need antibiotics and... You know, I'm not sure he'd even be able to change the dressing by himself if he did have fresh bandages."
"And he's not likely to look for any kind of legitimate help with it. It would be like advertising that you're some sort of suspicious character. Would make you pretty damn easy to remember." He paused. "I should e-mail him. Assuming he stops at some point to check his e-mail. Do we have any idea where he is, Scully?"
"He just said he wanted to check out this group that was apparently--at least at one time--headquartered in Pasadena. But nothing about how he planned to get there. Or how he'd find the group once he got to Pasadena, for that matter."
"Or how he was going to make it that far with two unhealed wounds. Though he always seems to manage to find a way to survive." Like a cockroach, he thought, though somehow it sounded wrong, now, to say it.
"True. He made it out of that missile silo in North Dakota. But I think the hospital--that alarm bell going off--was simply the kind of opportunity he'd take without thinking, because anywhere would be better than being in custody."
"Until you run out of steam. Or into trouble." Mulder pictured Krycek in the shadowed bedroom at Smoky's Reston house. He'd seemed pretty low there. Certainly not in any shape to make it very far on his own. "How would we find him if we needed to?"
Mulder waited. "What?"
"Ché, Mulder. His friend Ché. Apparently he's some sort of computer geek. And Krycek trusts him. They seemed very close, actually, the two of them, when we stopped by before we left for Owensburg. He lives right over in Adams Morgan."
"Then maybe we ought to pay this Ché a little visit."
Just west of Columbia, Missouri
Krycek made his way slowly along the path leading toward the river. At the edges of the broad, cleared area, cottonwood trees were sending a continuous stream of fluff into the low, steady breeze.
Mona was asleep in the car. She'd brought Bobby a variety of things to keep him busy: a jump rope, one of those little paddles with a rubber ball attached to it, a set-up for playing horseshoes. But eventually he'd tired of those, and anyway, he was a kid; he needed to get out and wear off his energy for the few hours he wasn't stuck inside a moving vehicle.
The river wasn't visible from the parking area, but Mona'd stopped here before and supposedly it was about a quarter-mile down the path.
"Don't go too far ahead," he called out to Bobby. The kid was about fifty yards in front of him.
Mona seemed to keep him on a relatively short leash. Not harsh, but he knew well enough where the boundaries were. At least he shouldn't be the type to take off headlong and end up falling into the river. Which was good because he wasn't in any condition to save anybody, and beyond that, he hadn't wanted to disturb Mona by waking her up to tell her they were taking a walk in the first place. He'd looked in the glove box searching for paper to write a note on, though, which is where he'd seen the .22 pistol she kept. It would be better than nothing if he had the chance to take it, though if she noticed it missing, she might call law enforcement, which would bring a focus on him he definitely didn't need.
Krycek looked ahead into the brightness. Bobby was turning cartwheels in the road, apparently waiting for him to catch up. He'd eaten half of one of Mona's peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, but there was still a gnawing in his stomach, or maybe just in his gut, he couldn't tell, and he'd been feeling achy since he woke up.
He'd been wearing the same clothes for three days... No, four. It'd been Friday night when the old man showed up unexpectedly to haul him away to interrogate his mother, and he'd showered maybe a couple of hours before that, a shower he wasn't likely to forget, his mind stuck on the phone conversation he'd just had with Mulder--that Tracy'd collapsed, that they'd taken her to the hospital and had no idea what was wrong with her.
Krycek glanced ahead. He'd nearly caught up with the kid, who was pointing to a marshy area just off the path. A large white bird rose from the water and flew off.
"Egret," he said. He stopped, scanned the area and came up beside the boy. "Look. See that?"
He pointed. "On that stump."
"Know what it is?"
Bobby shook his head.
"Great blue heron."
"But it's gray."
Krycek shrugged. "I know. But that's what it's called."
He picked up a pebble and tossed it into the closest part of the marsh. The heron tensed, hesitated and finally lifted into the air, flapping slowly upward on huge gray wings, headed east.
Bobby turned and watched until the heron was out of sight.
"Can we go all the way to the river?" he asked.
Krycek turned to look behind him. They seemed to be about halfway, and as long as he took things slowly, the exercise was bound to do him good. "Yeah, I guess."
Bobby took off running.
"Not too far ahead."
Bobby turned and shook his head. "I won't."
Near the embankment above the Missouri, Krycek managed to find a fallen tree to sit on.
"It's really big," the boy said, looking out at the wide, muddy flow.
Krycek nodded. Not as wide as the Iset where it flowed through Sverdlovsk, though maybe the difference lay in the fact that he'd been a boy then, when everything looked twice as big than it actually was. He glanced beyond the river to the gently rolling landscape on the other side. There were bluffs farther upstream, the kind that looked like they might hold caves.
He should contact Mulder, warn him that the old men might be watching him. He had the better part of $400 in his pocket, and Ché could get him more, once he was able to call him. He was without a computer again, the one his mother had given him left behind in Scully's van when the opportunity had come to run.
All that cooking Ché'd done, prepping a dinner that was supposed to be their big celebration of him finally getting out from under the old man's thumb for good. Well, that much had happened, but not the way either of them had imagined. Ché didn't know about Tracy. Hadn't known anything about her, really, beyond the bank account he'd had him set up for her.
The picture materialized in his mind: Tracy on the chair in his room, yellow dress on, feet up on the chair rungs, trying to keep from laughing, telling him Ché sounded interesting. "Too interesting for someone you'd know", she'd said, and tilted her head the way she did, all that smooth hair slipping to one side.
Krycek sniffed in a breath. She'd want him to enjoy this--the little cottony things floating in the breeze, the river. The trees and birds.
He looked at the boy, soft skin and gangly limbs, the uneven edges of his hair ruffled by the breeze.
"We should go." He stood. "Wouldn't want to worry your grandmother, have her wake up and wonder where we are."
Bobby turned back for one last look at the river and they started out along the path again.
"You looking forward to seeing your mom?"
"My mom, yeah." The boy looked up at him and wrinkled his nose. "But not Ryan."
"Her boyfriend?" The one who'd sent Mona on this trip in the first place, because he'd been beating on her daughter.
"Yeah. He doesn't like me. That's why I've been living with Nana."
"Good thing you've got Nana in your corner. You're lucky that way."
Scully pressed the buzzer below the "Take your chances!" sign and waited. In the end she'd come alone; after discussing it, she and Mulder had agreed that Ché might be more forthcoming if it didn't look like he was being pressured by two federal agents.
A lock turned, then the doorknob. Ché's face and surrounding wild curls appeared in the opening.
"Hello," he said, surprised. His face brightened. "You are here with Aleksei?"
"Um, no. I'm sorry. I... need some information. May I come in?"
The face in the doorway became serious. After a moment he opened the door wider.
"You have news of Aleksei?"
He cleared the books off a rocking chair and motioned for her to sit.
"We didn't actually get introduced the last time," she began. "I'm Dana Scully."
Ché looked taken aback, then puzzled. "Well, I have heard much about you," he said. "Sit."
"Tell me, what is it you need?"
"Krycek is on the run." She paused and moistened her lips. "My partner and I were supposed to apprehend him, and he"--she shrugged--"apparently had other, more pressing things to attend to. He was injured at the time he shot Spender, the Smoking Man. You saw him after that, when we stopped here. But when he ran, he had nothing with him, no way to take care of the wound--"
"You are hunting him to arrest him?"
Scully pursed her lips. "No. I have to admit that we haven't always had the easiest relationship with Krycek... but he's been helpful to Mulder and me recently. Very helpful, in fact. If it weren't for Krycek, Mulder and I and his mother would be dead right now. He took a huge chance in what he did there." Scully cleared her throat. "We're concerned that he may not be in any shape to travel. And we've learned that Spender's group is convinced he's going after a Dr. Maria Vanek--"
Scully frowned. "Excuse me?"
"Vanek--Maria Ivanova. Aleksei knew her years ago. Bad memories, very obviously. And then she contacted him recently."
"She's run from the facility where she was experimenting on a group of children. Headed west, at least as far as the Kentucky border. Spender's group has vowed to kill him if he makes contact with her. We thought he should know. Do you have a way to contact him?"
"You must understand, Miss, I know only what Krycek decides to share with me. Many times, that is nothing. Other times"--he shrugged--"he lets me know more than I think even he intends. Aleksei and I, we are like the great rhinoceros and the little bird who lives on his back, pecking away at the bugs that torment his host." He gave a self-effacing smile. "And believe me, of the two, I am not the rhinoceros."
Scully smiled in spite of herself. "How did you two become acquainted, if I may ask?"
"I was sixteen," he said, "a naive student in Prague with a fascination for, shall we say, exploring computer data. Things were very primitive in those days. I managed to hack into some government documents--things they would not like to have the public know. So they were out looking for me, and someone invited me to a party at an embassy, and Krycek was there. Actually he had just made a poor attempt to insult the piranha and she'd shredded him to ribbons--figuratively, of course. But I noticed, and we got to talking. He was slick. And I was feeling this warning--danger, danger! And yet at the same time he seemed very earnest in saying he would help me escape to America."
"And he did?"
"Yes. I was very grateful. It saved me from my father's fate... He was imprisoned for many years," he added. "And since then, I see Aleksei from time to time. I help him with information and communications, and he helps me. Sometimes I realize it is like playing with fire, dealing with him. But there's another side to him, too--very loyal, very dedicated." He shrugged. "Altogether a mystery of a man."
"So I've begun to see." She paused. "You may have to wait for him to call you. He no longer has a laptop, so he may only be able to get in touch with you by phone. I'd appreciate a call if you hear from him. Also, I have some information he may find useful in the search he's planning to do."
"I will tell him when he calls. I hope he will call. Things have been difficult for him the last four or five months."
"Actually, it's possible they've gotten more difficult. Do you know anything about a girl named Tracy?"
Mulder's rented room
Georgetown, Washington, D.C.
"I can't believe this, Mulder." She switched off the phone and slammed it onto the desk. "Okay, yes, after all we've seen, after all the evidence we've had disappear over the years, this fits the pattern perfectly."
"It just doesn't make it any easier to accept," he said, thoughtful. "What exactly did Dr. Wykoff say, Scully?"
She took a deep breath. "That this morning when he went to examine Tracy's body, it was gone. Not 'gone' as in 'the drawer was empty'; there was another body there, of a girl about the same age and build. They have no idea who she is."
"I bet it was that man in the hallway." He wagged a finger at her. "I told you there was something about him."
"Besides the fact that he continued to sit there after the fire alarm had gone off?"
"Yeah, besides that. I almost feel like... like I've seen him before. Somewhere. Like we've seen him."
She eyed him questioningly and sat down beside him on the bed.
"I have no idea where, though." He paused. "What about your lab samples? Did Dr. Wykoff check on them?"
She frowned. "I didn't think to ask him. It seems pretty unlikely, though, that they'd disappear, too."
"If you don't want people to know about your work, you clean up everything."
"But Mulder, how would they know what to look for? And where?" A pause. "Okay, I'll call him back."
She reached for the phone and dialed. "Yes, Dr. Wykoff, please." She rolled her eyes and pulled one leg up onto the bed.
Mulder got up, pulled a cardboard box from beneath the wing chair and started to go through the contents, trying to decide where to put them. A knock came on the door.
He set the box aside and went to answer it. It was his landlady's son with a large box--a new microwave oven to replace the one the room had come with. He signed the receipt, waited for the man to explain the trimming they'd be doing to the ivy next week, then took the box and went inside.
Scully was sitting on the bed, phone off, mouth tight.
"What did he say?"
"The fetus had been put in a refrigerator drawer at the hospital. It's gone. The samples we collected had already been sent to the lab, though. He's checking on them now."
The phone rang. Scully reached for it and switched it on. "Yes?"
Mulder could hear the sound of chatter on the other end. He watched his partner's face go from puzzlement to incredulity and back again.
"What did he say?" he asked when she finally switched off the phone.
"It's gone, Mulder. All of it. Every sample we took."
"Then I think we're on to something, Scully. Something a lot bigger than we realized."
"Sorry I missed dinner the other night."
Ché smiled with relief at the low, sandpaper voice on the other end of the phone line.
"Aleksei. Are you all right? I heard that--"
"I received a visit this afternoon, from Agent Scully. She said you had gone--escaped from them--and that she was afraid that you would have no way to properly take care of the wound you received in your encounter with the old man." He paused. "Also she wanted you to know that the pack of vultures will be on your trail."
"How does she figure that?"
"Evidently one of them showed up on your mother's doorstep this morning to tell her that they knew Mulder had discovered the piranha's research. Also they assumed you had gone after her, and they said if you make contact with her, they will kill you."
Ché frowned. It was a resigned 'fuck', not a characteristically explosive one. Not a good sign with Krycek.
"Aleksei, is everything okay? What can I do to help you?"
"I'm headed for..." There was a long pause. Too long. "Hell, I'm trying to make it to California. Pasadena. I found out something the other day, about the groups trying to colonize. There may be a group we never knew about."
"Scully mentioned that she had information that might be helpful to you. She said something about San Diego. Does that mean anything?"
"Yeah, thanks. Tell her to send it along."
"Do you have a way to receive it? She said you are without a laptop."
"Gonna have to pick one up, maybe a day or two. Can you put some more money in the emergency account?"
"Of course. How much?"
"Very well. Do you have the ID that goes with it?"
"No." A pause. "The other night, I'd just gotten back to my place on that last run and the old man was there waiting to haul me off. Didn't have time to do anything except wash my face and change my shirt."
Nothing more. Silently, Ché counted to himself. With Krycek it was prudent to wait, not to offer help too quickly, which might offend him.
"Look," the voice came again. "I'm in Omaha. For the moment. Woman's giving me a ride as far as North Platte, Nebraska. Name's Mona Pennington. Driving a big old Mercury wagon, cream with that wood-look stuff on the sides. West Virginia plates KLB 081--"
"Aleksei, are you in danger from this woman?"
"No." There was an attempt at a laugh. Then a pause and the static of a breath pushed out. "I'm just... I think I'm not in any shape to be doing this now. I think the wound may be infected, and... hell, I can't even patch gauze and tape together worth shit, much less take care of whatever else it needs."
"Aleksei, you need help." Ché reddened; the words had just spilled out. He cringed, waiting for the inevitable push-back. Which didn't come.
"There's a woman--doctor--who took care of me after... after the silo. She was a good doctor. Really good. She's in Colorado; it isn't that far from where we're headed."
"And you want me to find some contact information, yes?"
"Dr. Carrie Phillips. She teaches at the university in Boulder, but I think she lives somewhere else. Some town in the area."
"And you want me to contact her?"
Silence on the other end. Ché glanced up, at the early evening light reflecting off a pair of windows across the street.
"No, I'd better do it," the reply came finally. "Thanks. Number here's 402-555-1607. I'll be here tonight, but we're moving out early in the morning."
"Will do, my friend. I'll get right on it. You can count on me."
Hang in there, he was tempted to add, but managed to refrain himself. Certainly Krycek seemed like he was hanging on by a thread of one sort or another. Why would he give his traveling companion's name and car description unless there was the possibility someone would need it to trace him if he disappeared?
To say nothing of the story Scully had told, of Aleksei laid up from another gunshot wound--one that, to her credit, she admitted having inflicted herself--and the girl Tracy, for whom he'd set up the bank account, taking care of him after he'd been discharged from the hospital. And something else occurring in the midst of all that to draw his hard-edged, tightly-controlled, calculating assassin friend to a hospital bed to hold the girl as she lay dying.
Ché set the phone aside, flipped up a new browser and quickly typed in a URL.
Mulder peered between the blinds in the narrow window.
"Anyone coming yet?"
"Not yet," he said. "Scully, I can't believe Skinner was able to get a private room on such short notice."
"Being Assistant Director must have its perks."
"You know," he said, "watching everyone out there eating is making me really hungry. You remember the last time we were here?"
"Yes, I do indeed." She smiled broadly. "I remember sitting on that bench outside, waiting for our food to be ready"--she came up beside him--"and then eating in the park."
"And you falling asleep there." He slipped an arm around her waist but quickly withdrew it. "Looks like we're on."
A moment later the door opened and Walter Skinner stepped inside.
They'd chosen Carravaggio's because it was always busy, and because there were two entrances. Hopefully anyone tailing one of them--if there were anyone--wouldn't notice the others coming or going.
As they were sitting down, the door opened again and Will Wilkins appeared, grinning when he saw them.
"Will, great to see you," Scully said. She paused. "Are you strong enough to be doing this?"
"I figure I'm good for about an hour," he said. "Manny dropped me off. He said he'll come back around for me when we're done. I do believe I'll claim that soft chair over there in the corner, though."
"He's a good analyst," Skinner said. "I figured he could add some perspective to what we're dealing with."
"Which is?" Will said.
"Several things that have come to light in the last few days," Scully said. "Mulder discovered evidence that a doctor at the Beeson-Lymon plant has been experimenting on three children at the direction of the Smoking Man. She's disappeared now--"
"How does this fit with resuming the investigation?"
"Apparently Old Smoky had this little private program going on the side," Mulder said. "But the group he was a part of has been receiving beryllium under the table from the plant, probably from Beeson personally."
Will looked puzzled. "So, can't we nail them for that?"
"Unfortunately," Skinner said, "These men have collaborators throughout the Bureau. I can't say that we'll get anywhere trying to press charges of any kind in this case, if the end result is that it will cut off their supply of something they want."
"Are you kidding me?" Will frowned.
"Unfortunately, no. It would be the same as what happened when Mulder tried to show his tape of the Cancer Man."
"All of a sudden," Mulder said, "the Director was called away on a matter of"--he made air quotes--"national security. And everyone else was mysteriously in meetings all day."
"Until they'd figured out a way to eliminate our request," Scully added.
"You mean Krycek going after the tape?"
"Bingo." Mulder frowned, picturing the knife against Scully's throat.
"So this whole thing is going to go away?" Will said. "Like the last time? What will I tell Rita?"
"Actually," Skinner said, "the whole investigation may turn out to be a non-issue. Harlan Beeson is in a coma. His attorney is out of the country at the moment; we're trying to contact him to find out what sort of succession Beeson's planned for the company. But rumor has it that his son has been written out of the will."
"So there's a chance that the plant could be sold?" Scully asked.
"These men," Mulder said, "Smoky's associates. They'll go right to the new owners and negotiate some sort of deal they can't refuse."
Will shook his head. "And their berylllium deal and the plant conditions that are killing workers will go right on along, just like always."
"Krycek said they're selling the beryllium to help finance their hy--" Scully stopped abruptly and colored. Her lips pressed into a thin line.
Skinner and Wilkins looked puzzled.
Finally Mulder cleared his throat. "Maybe here's where we get down to the real problem."
Krycek looked at the stack of clothes on the bed. By the time they'd gotten to Omaha, Mona had been running on empty again, and beyond that, he needed some time alone. So he'd paid for two motel rooms and they'd agreed to set out again on the last leg of their trip at 5 a.m.
Bobby had been ecstatic to see that there was a swimming pool, and he'd agreed to watch the boy in exchange for Mona going to the local Walmart to pick up a list of clothes and supplies he needed. The hours in the car should have rested him, but he was running a fever again and feeling worse than he had this morning. Mona'd been a good shopper, though, had gotten exactly what he'd specified, and in the meantime Bobby'd splashed and played himself into a state of kid bliss.
Sitting there watching the boy, it had dawned on him that it had been nearly a year since he'd hauled Gibson Praise to New Mexico. He remembered the stop they'd made at a state recreation area in the middle of the night, Gibson splashing in the warm shallows of the lake in the dark after too many hours of driving and stickiness. The kid must hate him now for delivering him to the consortium research team, in the kind of slow-smoldering way he'd hated his mother all those years for giving him away. Because in the end, what they'd done to Gibson was worse than anything he could have imagined.
At least Tracy hadn't fallen into their clutches. It would have been a fate worse than the one she ended up with.
He fingered the edge of one of the new T-shirts absently, then pushed it aside and went through the toiletries, reaching for the razor and then setting it down again. Maybe in the morning, if he felt better.
He was going to have to do this--call Carrie Phillips, see if she could help him with the wound. They were bound to be coming after him, and the last thing he'd want would be to put Carrie and her son Tyler in danger. But he'd had a head start; it would take the old men a while to pick up on his trail, if they found it at all. At least Mulder and Scully weren't likely to tell anything they knew. And it wasn't like he had to stick around at Carrie's forever.
Still, what would he say? Hi, it's me, the guy with the internal radiation burns and the nightmares from three years ago. Any interest in helping me out again?
Maybe she'd forgotten. Maybe she was out of town, or busy with some project of Tyler's, or up to her ears in papers to grade, or a research project.
He sat down on the bed, leaned forward and rested his head in his hand. Let his focus float until he was nothing more than the steady beat of his pulse. His eyes watered and burned. When he choked on a breath, he lay back, squeezed his lids shut and let the wetness trickle from the corners of his eyes into his damp hair beside his temples. For a moment he could almost feel her, just the hint of a touch, as if she were caught inside something and couldn't quite reach through to him.
BBut he'd seen enough death and enough bodies to know what final was. When it was over, there was nothing, no matter how much he might like it to be otherwise.
Maria Vanek looked out her motel room window into the parking lot beyond. The truck was repainted now, navy blue instead of its former white, and the canopy top had been replaced with a vinyl tonneau cover, which should make it virtually invisible to those looking for Brian's homely little pickup. She'd managed to obtain two more sets of license plates while wandering around this afternoon, which made up somewhat for having to spend an entire extra day in this parched, insufferable town. It indicated something--and definitely not something good--when a community's claim to fame was a series of upended old cars planted in a field beyond the city limits.
Perhaps she should go swimming. It would be good to get some exercise before having to sit for ten hours in the truck tomorrow. Albuquerque was tomorrow's destination, and hopefully the scenery would have changed for the better by the time she arrived there.
Maria went to her suitcase and searched for her bathing suit. Perhaps time in the water would also help to chase away the bank of gray clouds hovering at the back of her mind. At least, temporarily. The message from Ché, Krycek's little messenger, had only served to underscore the gravity of her situation. Spender's group would be out to find her, hoping they could cull the secrets of her research. No doubt Mr. Disguised Custodian/FBI agent Fox Mulder--he of the deliberately injured palm--would be shaping up whatever evidence he had in order to file charges against her for... for something: child abuse or whatever allegations the FBI's lawyers thought would stick. At the least, there would be some kind of warrant out for her arrest. They couldn't possibly have enough evidence to prove anything as it was; they'd want more than anything to be able to interrogate her.
In reality, her situation was every bit as grave as it appeared. She had cash--eight thousand dollars she'd squirreled away for just such an eventuality--but that would run out soon enough without a salary. In California, no doubt, she could locate someone who could get her a high-quality fake ID; there were so many undocumenteds there, from so many different places, that the demand for such things would no doubt be high.
And her planned approach to Mr. Lew? No doubt it was a long shot, but it was the only one she could see at the moment. Their message board exchanges had always been cordial, his analytical skills and his background evident from their many discussions. He worked at a major pharmaceutical company north of L.A., in one of those towns people settled in to raise children away from the evils of urban life, where hiking trails and spacious yards promised room to really breathe. Such a place might also offer her a new base of operations.
AAt this point she had to examine the possibility, having at her disposal no other that she could see.
"Wow," Will said, wiping a hand across his brow. "That puts an entirely new spin on reality."
"I found it all extremely implausible myself," Scully said, "until I kept coming across evidence that, frankly, I can't find any way to refute."
"If you two go investigating these leads of yours," Skinner said, "Tracy's aunt and uncle, and whatever you may either find in California or learn from Krycek... I don't see how it could benefit you to be officially attached to the Bureau. Aside from giving you a salary, of course."
"Which is a big deal for some of us unemployed types." Mulder forced a smile. "Sad but true."
"But any reports you'd make... There would be no way to keep them from getting into the wrong hands. Hell, we don't even know who most of these people are, Mulder."
"Except after they're finished with one of their cronies," Mulder said. "Like Blevins. Blood on the office carpeting and a handgun conveniently placed next to the body. Real subtlety."
Skinner sighed. "True. But I think it proves the point. Any reports you made would only make it easy for them to track you."
Will frowned. "How far are they likely to get without a badge, though? You know, you try to interview folks, or get information from some local PD; they're not likely to open up to a private citizen. I doubt that 'I used to be an FBI agent' is likely to get them very far."
The corner of Skinner's mouth pulled.
"What if," Will said, "you were to keep Scully on the payroll and assign her to--" He turned to Scully. "You don't have an assigned partner at the moment, do you?"
Scully shook her head. "No."
"Then what if you attached her to Manny's and my investigations as a sort of third wheel. These guys looking for your Dr. Jeckyll, they're not going to mind if you find her, right? I mean, if she's got something they want and we find her, it saves them the trouble. So we drop the Beeson-Lymon case, at least for now, and we switch to tracking this perp. It's still going to tie in to the plant, and give us a reason to be interviewing people there. Hell, we may even find out something that will help us nail Beeson to the wall somewhere down the road."
"But there are leads Mulder and I--"
"So then you take a few days, or a week, and go track down your leads. We can still put your signature on the reports, and as far as these shadow-people know, you've been with us."
"And I decide not to submit Mulder's name for reinstatement, is that it?" Skinner asked.
"You can't be too careful about that guy Spooky," Mulder said. He waggled his eyebrows weakly.
"If you can put us on a few investigations that might help these two," Will said, "it would be a start, and we could re-evaluate down the road. It might be enough to make them think Scully's changed her stripes, gone straight finally"--he grinned--"so that they stop paying attention. Lull 'em into complacency. And I'm not trying to put you on the spot, Chief, asking for non-legitimate work. Bureau's got an interest in this Vanek, I'd think, and whatever information her investigation might turn up."
Skinner stood hands-on-hips in the corner. He glanced from Mulder to Scully and let out a sigh. "What do you two think? You're the ones most directly affected here."
Krycek reached for the phone and held it a moment, then punched in the number written on the little notepad on the bedside table. The buzzing inside him, which had been a low backbeat, strengthened and surged to the foreground.
Two rings. Three rings. Four.
The one thing he hadn't thought of was the possibility of her not answering.
Fifth ring, and the answering machine kicked in.
"Hi. You've reached Dr. Phillips. Or not reached me; sorry about that! Leave me a message and I'll connect with you as soon as I can. Thanks."
Krycek pushed out a breath. "This is Alex Krycek. You took care of me a few years back at John Davies' house in Boulder. I had some... chemical burns..." What if she didn't get the message until after they'd left? What if she were out of the country somewhere on vacation? "Anyway, I'll be in the general area by tomorrow and I've got a wound I could use a little help with--"
"Alex? Is that you? 34 Alpenglow Drive?"
He let out a half-held breath in relief and sank back against the pillow. "Yeah. I thought maybe you'd forgotten."
"Your case was like nothing I've ever seen before or since, so no, not forgotten. How are things with you?"
His mouth opened, but no words came.
"They've been better."
"They'd been better when you were here before. I hope it's not a pattern for you. So what do you need?"
"I've got a... someone winged me with a bullet. I was lucky--hit my side, about waist-high. Not far enough in to hit anything vital. But it looks like maybe it's infected now, and I'm having trouble cleaning it up--"
"Is the bullet in the wound?"
"Never was. It just winged me."
"How long ago did this happen? Has anyone looked at it?"
"Two days ago. Two and a half. Someone who's a doctor cleaned it up a little at first, but I've been on the road..."
This was getting to sound worse and worse. Why would she even touch a situation like this?
"Did they give you any antibiotics?"
"No, it's... circumstances are kind of hard to explain. Wasn't able to take a shower, either, until a couple of hours ago. Probably didn't help."
"And how are you feeling in general?"
"Think I'm running a fever. Just feel kind of... bad. Weak. No energy."
"Is your heart rate high? Have you been having chills?"
"Okay, that's good. And where are you now?"
"Omaha. I'm riding with someone as far as North Platte. Looks to be about four hours north of you."
"I can't go that far; I've got a final to give tomorrow, but if you can make it to Sterling, that's about halfway. I could drive out and pick you up there."
"Okay, I'll see what I can do. What's your time frame?"
"My final's in the afternoon. Three o'clock."
"Okay. I"ll be in touch." He paused. Closed his eyes. "Look, I appreciate it. You were... a big help before. Major help."
"Well, thanks for saying so."
"There's... uh... one more thing. I don't want to disrupt your lives or anything, you and Tyler, but there might be somebody out looking for me, someone I'd rather avoid. Just wanted you to know I'm not exactly risk-free."
Empty air on the other end of the line.
"As I recall, your circumstances were rather shadowy before. But we all survived." A pause. "At the moment, I think a little disruption may be exactly what this doctor needs."
Mulder stared out at the water splashing in the fountain in the middle of the square. Scully's head was against his shoulder.
"What do you think, Scully?"
Her hand squeezed against his leg. "I guess I just hoped I could recapture the feeling I had the last time I was here. You know, before we knew about Dr. Vanek's work. Before Tracy fell ill."
"Before you stood in a room with Smoky thinking you were never going to make it out alive?"
"Yes, that." She shifted against him. "You know, if Krycek hadn't been there, he might have asked you to shoot your mother."
"I know. I've been thinking about that." He let out a sigh. "A lot."
She looked up at him. "What do you think about this arrangement with the Bureau, Mulder? You were pretty quiet back there."
He shrugged. "It is what it is. It probably gives us our best chance at making progress right now." He caught his lower lip between his teeth and held it.
"You know, Mulder, my expenses on the road will be covered. And the bed fits two. It doesn't cost any more in gas for you to be there. For that matter, I never eat a full meal."
"I know, Scully."
"And as Will said, we can re-evaluate down the road."
He nodded, finally managing to pull his focus away from the falling water to the woman beside him. He smiled.
"What?" she said.
His hand against her waist pulled her closer. "At least I don't need an excuse to kiss you this time."
"No," she said, the corners of her mouth pulling into a smile. "No, you don't, Mulder."
With the other hand he brushed the hair back from her face. He leaned in, brushing her cheek with his lips. Found her mouth and let the strength of her response reassure him.
The brown-haired woman stepped into the darkened hallway. At the far end, she could see him standing in the doorway to the small room. After a moment, she came up behind him.
"You've done all you can, you know, D-Four."
His focus remained on the shadowed figure in the bed. Moonlight filtered through the lace curtains, throwing patterns on the quilt and pillow, a hillscape in muted pastels.
"I know. But will it be enough?"
"New paths of any sort are forbidden," she said.
"I've already stepped over that line. And so have you, by helping me."
"We're not under the same strict regulations as you."
"Because your kind chose to step away many years ago. But it doesn't mean you won't be treated like anyone else if we're discovered."
"Then we must not be discovered," she said simply.
A sound came from the bed: an escape of breath and a faint moan, almost like the note of a song. The quilt moved slightly and then was still again.
"There's still time to turn back," she said. "To remain safe."
"No," he said. "I've stepped past that line. Now--finally--is the time to act."
(End Chapter 1)
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