Topaz X-Files fanfic by bardsmaid, MSR mytharc Season 6

Topaz

by bardsmaid

Chapter 9

Monday, 7 June 1999

Reagan National Airport
Washington, D.C.
5:38 a.m.

Mulder yawned and glanced around the high-ceilinged terminal. He'd had to get up far too early to play this game. To keep whichever Consortium lackey they'd be sending after him from questioning his taxi driver about where he'd been picked up, he'd taken a taxi only as far as the Pentagon, then switched and come the rest of the way on the Metro.

The next few minutes would give him an idea of just how difficult it was going to be to fly from Sacramento to wherever Krycek was a few days from now. If they had someone here and another snoop waiting on the other end, things wouldn't be so difficult. But if they decided to send their spy along on the flight with him, this little dance was going to get a whole lot more complicated. The Gunmen were here now, spread around the concourse to observe whoever might be tailing him; he'd spotted Langly in one of the gift shops when he first came in. No doubt the level of surveillance the group had on him would also reveal something about the threat level they thought he represented.

Mulder stood and reminded himself to look suitably stunned. He was, after all on his way to try to find out where his sister's remains had been found.

After all these years.

Once he was on the plane, it would be easier to focus on the concept of Samantha rather than the strategy involved in selling this diversion.  Even in responding to Skinner's e-mail about the strange scattering of Smoky's ashes, it had seemed better to go with their public narrative for now and say that yes, Samantha's remains had been discovered. Later, whenever he and Skinner had a chance to meet in person, he could explain what was really going on.

Pulling a pad of paper from the pocket of his jacket, Mulder jotted down a reminder to check Smoky's file box once he returned to D.C. One of the newspaper clippings, he remembered clearly, was about the burial of the six Nazi agents. There had been some penciled notes in the margin, but he hadn't paid much attention to them at the time. Skinner was right to see Smoky's bizarre request as a red flag, though; every last thing the old son of a bitch had done had been strategic. The location at the old potter's field should definitely be examined.

Stuffing the note pad back into his pocket, Mulder glanced at his watch and then at the area around him. John Byers was making his way toward a restroom. Mulder waited a little more than a minute, then slipped into the restroom himself. Quickly he located Byers' shoes under one of the doors and let himself into the adjoining stall.

"You have two sets of eyes on you out there," Byers whispered, "although they may also have access to the airport's video tapes. No indication yet of whether either man is likely to follow you onto your flight."

"I spotted the one guy," Mulder said. "Brown shirt and tan shorts."

"Right." Byers paused. "We'll watch the boarding, then e-mail you to let you know whether either one follows you on. I'd better go now. You board pretty soon, don't you?"

"Yeah, in about eight minutes."

"Good luck. We'll be in touch."

The shoes below the divider moved, the door lock snapped open and Byers' footfalls echoed toward the exit and then out into the terminal. Mulder waited, counting the seconds. In his mind, he tried to picture Samantha at fourteen--taller, with her facial features changing, stretching toward the adult she would never become.

Of course, the irony of this ruse was that it was an echo of reality. At some point, maybe when they'd tracked down the elusive Pasadena group, he'd be looking for her in earnest. The thought that her bones were likely lying out somewhere, just waiting to be found and taken home, made him want to drop everything and start searching now. But Krycek was right; at the moment they needed to focus on the immediate threat, the men--or aliens--who were manipulating live people, the way they had Tracy.  Besides, if he wanted Krycek's help finding Samantha, he was going to have to play by Krycek's rules.

Mulder turned, flushed the toilet in his stall and paused in front of the mirror by the wash stands to inspect his hair, which was much shorter than usual.  Carefully he touched the top of his head with an open hand; the hairpiece covering the shaved area seemed secure enough, though it felt strange enough that he was constantly aware of it. Looking his reflection in the eye, he tried for a confident look, which fell flat; solemn was the best he could muster. But what the hell; he was supposed to look grief-stricken, not confident. His discomfort could help him do that.

Shouldering his bag, Mulder returned to the terminal. Brown Shirt was sitting in one of the row chairs, pretending to read a newspaper. Setting his jaw, Mulder headed for the boarding area.

*~*~*~*~*

Cheyenne, Wyoming
8:47 a.m.

Eighteen sat poised in the car's back seat, watching as Four approached carrying the barely-conscious female. It had been necessary to suppress her once Four discovered that the human she'd imprinted to was little more than a hundred miles away. They would drive farther this time without stopping, only bringing her around once they'd gained some distance. Which suited Eighteen; this state of Wyoming seemed filled with a broad emptiness that made her want to hurry across it and get to somewhere else. Though what she really wanted--to reach a place where her own kind would be waiting--was no more than a dream now, a futile wish.

"Ready?" Four asked.

He was beside the car now, carefully angling the girl's head through the open doorway. Together they settled her and secured her in the seat. Eighteen smoothed back the short, wispy hair beside the girl's ears, checked the seat belt one last time, got out and closed the door. Going around to the passenger side of the car, she looked up into the piercing blue overhead. Now that they were leaving, the sky here was clear and the wind, which had blown and howled almost continually over the last two days, had finally quieted.

In a way, the weather had paralleled the female's inner turmoil. There would be a long path for her yet, but unlike in her own case, the one the female had imprinted to was still alive.

*~*~*~*~*

Elleryville, Pennsylvania
10:17 a.m.

At the sound of the bell over the front door, Don Willingham looked up from his desk.

"Nathan Meyer," he said. Standing, he went to the counter and offered his hand. "It's been a while." He paused. "Listen, I heard about your niece. I'm sorry, Nathan. Truly I am."

Nathan shrugged. "Thanks, Don. Appreciate it." He paused and let out a sigh. "I never did understand her. Wish now that I had." He straightened and held out a paper sack.

"Whatcha got there?"

"Fertilizer," Nathan said, setting it on the counter. "Can you analyze it?"

"For?"

"Anything. Chemical content, I guess."

"What's it supposed to be?"

"Regular vegetable food. It's the last of the stuff Shirley was using in her garden."

Don leaned against the counter, opened the bag, took out a handful of the grainy contents and sniffed. "Smells normal."

"I know. But this FBI agent who came here last week--you know, to tell us about Tracy--she was taking samples of the soil in Shirley's garden beds. I asked why and she said it was standard procedure, just in case."

"In case what?"

Nathan shrugged. "I don't know. In case there was some kind of funny business going on. And there were any number of things, looking back on it now, that were strange about Shirley's and Tracy's circumstances. So I figured, you know, can't hurt to be thorough... even though the possibility seems kind of 'out there'."

"Makes sense," Don said, turning to set the bag on his desk. "He took soil samples, huh?"

"It was a woman. And yeah, she did."

"Okay, this'll have to be done at the Somerset office. But I'm going there this afternoon. I'll take it over. Probably take a couple of days, but I'll let you know when I find something out."

*~*~*~*~*

To: spooky@quick.net
From: redwall@zipmail.com
You're in luck. Neither snoop boarded your flight. It sucks that you're having to make this trip. That said, go out and give those bastards the performance they deserve.

                                                                                          -MF 

*~*~*~*~*

Outside Boulder, Colorado
1:14 p.m.

Carrie signaled and slowed, waiting for half a dozen bicyclists in yellow and black spandex to whiz past her, then pulled into Nelson's driveway. No doubt the change of setting would have had an effect on her patient, and she should know exactly what that was.

In the broad, shaded area between the house and garage she parked and turned off the engine. Not that she wanted this to seem like Mom checking up on a grown kid.  Glancing up, she could see one of the bunkhouse curtains being pulled back slightly. She waved and got out of the car.

The door to the bunkhouse opened just before she reached it.

"Hi," he said, and nothing more. He opened the door wider.

"I had some time," she said, stepping inside. "Tyler's over at his best friend Patrick's house for a while, so I went over to school to take care of a few things. Figured I'd stop by and see how you're doing."

Krycek shrugged. He looked a little pale, though there was always the chance it could be the lighting.

"Squirrels are crazy around here," he said finally, pointing toward the ceiling. "They run around up there like there's some kind of stampede going on."

"Have you seen them yet? People tend to be kind of surprised the first time or two."

"Yeah." He shook his head. "Never seen any that big. Or ears like that. Never saw a black one before." He half-smiled. "People from villages around where I grew up, if they saw something like that, they'd think they were little devils racing around in the trees."

Silence enveloped them again. Carrie slipped her hands into her back pockets.

"So how are you feeling?" she said. "Still making progress?"

There was a second's hesitation before he nodded. "Nausea's fading a little more, thank god."

"Good. It's no fun, I know. Are you eating well?"

"Told you I'd eat whatever you put in that fridge for me."

"Good." She pursed her lips. This was beginning to seem like a re-run of this morning with Tyler, a certain awkwardness after the warm reunion of the day before. "Look, would you like to take a walk?"

After a moment he seemed to loosen. "Okay, yeah. Just let me get my shoes."

He disappeared around the corner. Carrie let out a soft sigh. One thing she'd learned from her years as a mother was that people often opened up more easily if they were busy doing something unrelated. Hopefully that would be the case here.

"Have you been on the east trail?" she asked.

"Yeah," his voice came from the next room. "Went down there yesterday, to where the hills drop away."

"Great view, isn't it?"

*~*~*~*~*

To: topaz@rift.net
From: spooky@quick.net
Made it to Sacramento. Had friends scouting Reagan while I was waiting for my flight. They spotted two guys watching me, but neither ended up taking the flight I was on, which has to be a good sign. If the pattern holds, it will make it that much easier to manage the next flight without being spotted. I'll be here tomorrow, but will be done here after that. If you're ready to make this happen, know that I need time to buy myself a ticket to wherever you are.

 An electronic trail's ready to be put in place tracking me to NYC, and from there to Greenwich. A friend will be going to JFK, then traveling to Mom's house in my place, so there will be someone in the house with her, though he'll make sure to stay away from the windows in case the group has eyes on her. He'll be doing a little spy vs. spy while he's there, checking to see whether she's being watched.

Crazy to be here, knowing Samantha was actually in the area once. Though I can't help but wonder how closely this story I'm feeding the group may be to reality.

                                                                                         -M

*~*~*~*~*

Outside Boulder, Colorado
1:23 p.m.

Carrie followed Alex up the trail, letting him set the pace. A light breeze made its way through the treetops overhead, setting them swaying gently, sending a low murmur through the grove.

"How's Tyler doing?" Alex asked now, not turning around.

"He's doing fi--" She paused. "Okay, it can be a little awkard, living away and then coming home again. We talked about that a bit this morning--how it was for me when I came home for the summer after my first year of college."

"He's not giving you problems, is he?"

"I think he's just trying to make the switch between two households with different styles. And rules. We just need to give it a little time." She glanced ahead, at a squirrel running up a tree trunk. "You said you hiked down into... well, Nelson calls it "the hammock", because it's not really a plateau; it's swaybacked, like an old horse. Good workout, going all the way to the far side, though."

Alex grunted a reply. Carrie opened her mouth but thought better of it and continued along the trail. At the edge of the trees they stopped briefly. Ahead, the path nearly disappeared in the short grasses leading up the rise to the peak. Carrie waited until Alex's breathing had evened. Undoubtedly, the stronger he got, the more he was going to detach from her, and she needed to let that happen naturally.

"Want to sit?" she asked, gesturing toward the log bench just off the trail.

He shook his head, and started forward again, more slowly now. At least he was pacing himself, which was a good sign. The way was steeper now, so she followed in silence, taking in the various yellow wildflowers and the occasional clump of purple-blue lupines, working to keep her pace and breathing even. Finally they reached the summit and looked out over the broad, bright plain to the east. Even at this point, he seemed to have nothing to say.

After a moment Carrie drifted to the right, to a rock formation shaded by a cluster of pines. She found a relatively smooth surface and sat down. Closing her eyes, she focused on the breeze cooling the sweat along her hairline. Eventually she heard the crunching approach of Alex's shoes. When she opened her eyes, he was already seated on a rock beside her.

"Need you to do something for me," he said, staring out at the horizon.

"Sure. What is it?"

His mouth opened but no words came out. He shook his head. "Tell me if I'm crazy, I guess."

"What do you mean?" She pulled her legs up in front of her and wrapped her arms around them.

"I've been... seeing things... the last few days." He pushed out a breath. "And it's damn creepy. Don't know what the hell it means, whether I'm going crazy, or..." He shook his head again and glanced at her.

"What is it you've been seeing?"

"Tracy. Almost a week ago I got this flash of her, like a portrait hanging on a wall. She looked pale. She was wearing a red hat, and her hair was really short." He turned to face her. "Wasn't a memory; I never saw her look anything like that." He shrugged. "Saw it maybe three or four times after that, only the image seemed... more faded after the first time. Guess the rest of it's stuff I've felt rather than seen." He paused and let out a slow breath. "Okay, this is going to sound nuts, but when she had the seizure, she was in Kentucky; I was in D.C., But I felt this... panic... coming from her all of a sudden, like she was right beside me; she was telling me there was pressure in her head. Scared the hell out of me. I called Mulder. Turned out to be right when it happened to her. Then every once in a while I'd get this feeling, like she,... I don't know how to put it... that she needed my support." He glanced at her briefly. "All this time, they say she was unconscious."

"And now she's gone and you're still feeling this?"

"Seemed to be fading, until yesterday. I was down there"--he pointed to the hills' edge beyond the 'hammock'--everything was fine, and all of a sudden I was dizzy, and I got a jolt of that panic of hers again. Not as strong as when she had the seizure, but..." He sniffed in a breath. "It was enough to knock me down."

"And you're sure this wasn't just some general feeling of panic?"

"I know what normal panic is." He flashed her a bitter smile. "You should know. You've seen it."

Carrie nodded. She certainly had.

"It wasn't anything like that."

"Maybe your mind's trying to associate this phenomenon, whatever it is, with something it's already known--you know, put the new blocks into the available boxes."

After a beat, he nodded.

"Has it happened again? Since yesterday?"

He shook his head. "Hell, even when it happened it was like someone flipped a switch--all of a sudden, the feeling was gone. Made me wonder whether it'd even happened. Except that I was sitting on the ground. Guess it's making me wonder whether I'm delusional or something." He ran a hand back through his hair. "Which is, you know, the last thing I need right now."

"Stress could be part of it. Between the first wound you got, the weight of losing your friend, and the tension of having to elude these men you say are following you..." She sat up straighter. "Even the anticipation of your brother coming here, when you two have had such an edgy relationship..."

His mouth twitched. "And almost not making it out of the old man's clutches."

She frowned and waited, but he offered nothing more.

"What do you mean?"

"The old man was out to get Mulder. Had been for a long time. Wanted to break him--maybe just to see him broken. Anyway, Mulder was in hiding, but two weeks ago the old man managed to snag Mulder's mother--" He glanced at her. "My mother. Anyway, he was using her as bait, and he managed to corral me, too. His grand plan to get rid of all of us. He was going to start by having me shoot my mother--"

"Oh, Alex." A chill went through her. "And in front of the rest of them?"

"Yeah. The bigger the emotional bang, the better. It's the way he was."

"So what happened? Obviously you survived."

"She actually stood up to him and told him she'd do it herself, so Mulder or I wouldn't have that on our hands." He shook his head. "But I was thinking, there's only one place this is going to go, the way it's headed. So I said I'd do it." He paused, noticing Carrie's grimace. "Had to get hold of a weapon somehow."

She nodded.

"The odds looked... insane. And one of the old man's goons was there, with his gun aimed at me." He shrugged. "But I had to give it a shot. What choice did I have? Mulder and Scully and my mother, and..." He shook his head. "Wasn't going to just give up, hand us all over without trying something."

"So...?"

"Went on instinct. That and adrenaline, I guess. Turned as fast as I could, dropped the old man with one shot. His goon winged me; that's what this is--" He gestured at the spot on his side and stood.

Carrie let out a half-held breath.

Alex bent down, picked up a couple of loose rocks from the ground and straightened again. He took a few steps to the peak's edge, tucked one of the stones into the edge of his pocket and tossed the other hard.

"Thing is," he said, watching the rock arc and then tumble down the hillside, "he had me going to the pistol range every week for months before that. Had no idea what he was prepping me for. Maybe nothing; maybe he was just fucking with me. He liked to do that--keep you off-balance." He slipped the second rock from his pocket. "But it paid off in the end."

Jaw clenched, he paused, squinted into the distance and sent the rock flying.

*~*~*~*~*

There was no way I would have chosen the trip to Lincoln; too much of it was like going after John Lee Roche the second time around, all the old familiar feelings about my sister surging up, threatening to take over. I'd known they would come. But I knew, too, what had happened when I'd gone after Roche, the way he'd led me on. I had to stay strong, not let myself get carried off on detours, even if they were ones I ultimately wanted to be lured down. I had to connvince the men of the consortium that I'd been so hobbled by my grief for my sister that I couldn't be any kind of credible threat to them.

Still, everywhere I went, I found myself asking whether Samantha had ever been there. Had she seen these low hills with the green grasses and the scattered oak trees on them, their branches dipping low to the ground? Had she known this old-fashioned little town with its brick storefronts with the benches on the sidewalk in front of the display windows? Had she warmed herself beside the wall of the old kiln at the town's clay factory, stopping for a few hours or a restless night before running farther toward the mountains, hoping to escape her captors?

It was all too easy to get carried away with speculation, which is why I arrived with a checklist of exactly what I needed to accomplish while I was there: show up at the mailbox store, ostensibly the point of origin for our package of remains, and ask the questions they wouldn't be able to answer; inquire at the police department about whether they'd heard of anyone discovering bones recently, and while I was there, ask about any Jane Does from the period Krycek had indicated for her disappearance; drive out into the countryside, making occasional stops and playing the searching, grief-stricken brother for the benefit of whoever the group had tailing me.

Wait for Krycek to contact me with his location, and attempt to maintain my sanity while I did so.

I spotted my tail soon enough, an older guy with a short salt-and-pepper beard and a tan poplin jacket. It made me wonder just how big the group's network was, that they could call up someone anywhere in the country to spy on an enemy for them.

Of course, the employees at the mailbox store knew nothing about our mystery sender, even though the Gunmen had hacked into their system and left electronic proof of the package entering the system from their location. I pressed them to re-check their records, and they did--twice. Judging from the tight-lipped repsonse I got the second time, I figured I'd better quit before they threw me out. I asked for directions to the local police station and left.

The local P.D. just happened to be located across the street from the town's major employer, a big, dusty factory that had been producing everything from roof and decorative tiles to sewer pipes from the local bounty of high-quality clay since the late 1800s. Which was important, as the deputy pointed out, because it meant the remains--including bones--of any ground-buried corpse in the area were going to decay at a faster rate than in most soils. I made a note to tell Scully that  the bones we had would need to have come from a casket, especially since the smaller hand bones we had would have long since decomposed at an exposed burial site.

As it turned out, the local sheriff's office had recovered half a dozen Jane Does over the years who had remained unidentified, but none of them were even close to being age matches for Samantha, given the dates when they were recovered.

Between the information I'd gotten from the local P.D. and what I'd learned from Krycek, though, I was beginning to question why I'd ever assumed Samantha had survived. When I took my rental car out of town to put on a show for my friend in the tan jacket, I must have been pretty convincing. After that, it was just a matter of surviving the night and hoping Krycek would reply with a location. If he didn't, I was going to be back at square one.

*~*~*~*~*

Rock Springs, Wyoming
1:47 p.m.

The girl made a grunting noise and gestured toward the building. Eighteen's arm was hooked around her waist so they moved awkwardly, but she complied now, stepping closer to the red brick surface of the old railroad depot. Wind howled around the corners of the roof above them. The gusting against them had stopped as soon as they'd turned this corner, a welcome relief.

Slowly the girl reached out and touched her fingertips lightly to the glass. After a moment she reached for the window frame, tracing its edge, reaching up one side as far as she could and then standing on tiptoe to follow the curve of the window to its apex and back again. Another sound of satisfaction came out of her. There was something soothing about the shape of it, so much nicer than the angular, square windows in the rest of the building. There was something familiar about it. A good feeling. She stretched and traced the contour of the window again, almost humming.

"Do you like that?" Eighteen asked.

This time her response was a moan. If only she could talk--could think and have words come out, the way other people did.

Four appeared from around the corner of the building, his hair and jacket blowing to one side. He pointed to his watch.

"It's nearly time to go," said Eighteen. "We should walk a little more before we have to get back in the car."

The hand around her waist retreated; her sweater was being straightened. Now Eighteen tugged the sleeves down to cover her thin wrists. Four came up on her other side and the three of them set slowly off, arm in arm into the wind, past the depot building and the narrow strip of grass and trees, headed for the parking area.

*~*~*~*~*

1ST ELDER: Yes?

FRANK: This is McBurney checking in. Your target came in on the 8 a.m. flight I was alerted to. He rented a car right away and drove here to Lincoln. Went to the mailing store first, like you said he would. Wasn't there too long--maybe fifteen minutes. Seemed kinda pissed when he came out.

1ST ELDER: Do you know what he was told there?

FRANK: Not yet. I've been keeping up with him. I'm figuring not much of anything, though, based on his reaction as he was coming out the door, and the fact that he went to the police station next. I've got a buddy there. He said your guy, Mulder, was asking about anyone having found bones in the area recently, or even rumors of anyone finding some. But my source says nothing like that's happened around here.

1ST ELDER: So Mulder has left, has he?

FRANK: Nope. He drove down to Loomis--that's the next town--to the sheriff's sub-station. Talked to them for maybe 20-25 minutes. Then he went back to Lincoln and got himself a motel room. That's where he is now. I'm in the parking lot.

1ST ELDER: Find out what was told to him at the sheriff's station.

FRANK: I will. My guess is that he's getting a little shut-eye, or re-grouping or something, and then he'll go out again. About half an hour ago he ordered some take-out from the place across the street.

1ST ELDER: Continue to follow him until he leaves. And keep us updated, especially if you learn anything of value.

FRANK: Will do.

*~*~*~*~*

I was left nearly speechless by what Alex told me. Well, not completely, I guess, because I asked him half a dozen questions after that, trying to fit the pieces together; why he'd been working for his father (he hadn't exactly; he didn't have the option of walking away--not alive, at least--and had been watching for his chance to, as he put it, "escape the old man's web"), and about why Tracy had been in Kentucky, and with Mulder, when Alex had only partially recovered and would still have needed her help. The fact that he'd send her away to protect her from his cold, calculating father, that he'd sent her to the brother he sometimes seemed to discount so easily...

He'd ended up relying, as much as anything, on his mother. Why, I asked. Because he had no one else, he told me. Because she was the only possible way to get Tracy to Mulder. He skirted the glaringly obvious way--contacting Mulder directly--and he didn't seem inclined to go into the reasons for that. But at the time I wasn't really focused on that single detail; I was caught up thinking about the fact that he'd managed to trust, even temporarily and out of necessity, the woman who'd given him up.

At this point the tension inherent in the things we'd been discussing was palpable, but suddenly a bird of prey kited by overhead, offering us a welcome opportunity to switch topics. Alex was curious about the bird, with its distinctive gray-and-white patterning on the underside, and I told him it was a goshawk, the sole predator of the odd-looking squirrels who lived in the surrounding pines. Watching the bird gave us a needed chance to decompress.

We watched the goshawk ride the air currents for quite some time, and finally decided it was a good time to start back to the bunkhouse. Tyler would probably end up spending the whole afternoon with Patrick, but I'd stayed with Alex far longer than I'd planned to, and there was dinner to get started.

On the way down, Alex mentioned that his mother had written to him nearly a week earlier and he felt that he should reply, but he had no idea what to say. He had nothing to say at the moment. He looked me in the eye. He had no experience with this sort of thing, he said, and the reality was that except for their three brief encounters, he didn't really know her. What did he tell her--at least to keep the lines of communication open?

I tried to be my most objective. I tried not to swallow, but it was hard. Tell her the truth, I said, that you're making progress healing--mothers like to know that kind of thing--but that it's taking all your focus right now. Say you'll try to keep in touch, or thank her for keeping in touch.

Or whatever feels right; I said that last. Because really, I didn't completely understand how he felt about her. Or how I did, given what her decision had put him through.

*~*~*~*~*

Beehive Suites Hotel
Salt Lake City, Utah
5:48 p.m.

Eighteen turned from the window and glanced briefly toward the room. The female was lying quietly on one of the beds. Four was sitting on the end of the other, watching the local news, a nightly custom he'd taken up since they started this trip. She'd fed the girl soon after they arrived. Now there would be the evening hours to fill somehow.  She let out a small sigh and turned back to the window. They were on the fourth floor, high enough to see the edge of the airport runway a little over a block away. Beyond it rose a thick wall of mountains, like a blockade deliberately set in place.

There was an indoor pool downstairs, and it would be nice to take the female in the water, to let her float and move her limbs. But in her current state, having to be assisted, she would draw the kind of attention they could ill afford, so the bathtub would have to do. At least there was a bathtub.

Eighteen re-focused on the scene beyond the glass. Three more hours until the sun would set.  She heard a roar of engines and watched as a plane came into sight, gradually descending and finally disappearing behind a nearby building.

*~*~*~*~*

Outside Boulder, Colorado
5:51 p.m.

Krycek opened one eye, closed it briefly and finally opened it again. He squinted at the clock and pushed out a breath. After Carrie left he'd come upstairs, figuring he'd lie down for a few minutes. But that had been two hours ago--another reminder that his body still had a long way to go to reach full strength again. Pulling up, he stood and went to the window that looked down over the parking area. Nelson was washing his old Jeep, and a shaggy little dog was running around, barking at the hose.

Maybe the fatigue hadn't all come from his body. Their conversation had been pretty brutal. He hadn't planned on letting out nearly as much as he had, but Carrie was good at drawing you out. She'd sit there in one of her non-threatening positions, like when she'd be sitting on the floor with her arms wrapped around her legs, and you'd just end up spilling. Which in the end was probably a good thing, rough as it could seem in the process.

Their exchange had gotten a little heated toward the end, when they'd started to talk about retrieving Mulder. He'd wanted to keep her out of it, partly for her own safety, but also because he wasn't sure how much Mulder would end up saying about him. But Carrie wanted to pick him up. She wanted to meet him. She wanted to "have a sense", she said, about who she was bringing here. He'd stuck to his position, and things were starting to get a little tense... until she'd asked what kind of a mother she'd be, what kind of protector of Tyler or friend to Nelson, to be involved the way she was and not understand exactly who she was dealing with, and what the ramifications might be.

She had a point.

So Carrie'd be picking Mulder up at the university. Hopefully he'd keep his mouth shut. But this was Mulder; there was a good possibility he'd do anything but, and he was going to have to be ready for that, one way or the other.

Krycek went into the bathroom, dampened a washcloth and wiped it over his face. He glanced at himself in the mirror--hadn't shaved since yesterday--and thought about standing in the bathroom of the Baltimore condo, razor in hand, Tracy sitting behind him on the edge of the bathtub. For a moment he could picture her coming up behind him, slipping her arms around his waist, resting her cheek against his right shoulder. They'd spoken quietly, so as not to be heard. They they'd just held each other, a small thing and everything all at once.

Making himself refocus on the mirror, Krycek turned away. Downstairs, he booted up his laptop. There were e-mails to write.

To: cranebill@zipmail.com
From: topaz@rift.net
Sorry for taking so long to get back to you. Got your last mail--thanks. Managed to make it to where I could get some good medical care and I'm finally starting to heal up the way I  should. Mulder figures we need to meet in person if we're going to be working this thing together, so he should be coming here in the next couple of days. Hoping we can make this work. Thanks again for taking Tracy for me when you did. Could have been a lot worse if things had gone down some other way.

                                                                                         -A

*~*~*~*~*

Elleryville, Pennsylvania
6:18 p.m.

"Nathan?"

There was no reply. Jean Meyer stood at the foot of the stairs, hands on hips. She called again, and this time was rewarded with a muffled reply from somewhere on the second floor. She waited a moment but her husband didn't appear, so she started up the stairs. She found him in Tracy's room, sitting at the desk.

"Dinner's nearly ready," she said as she entered.

Nathan was sitting at what had been Tracy's desk, smoothing out a crumpled piece of paper.

"Nathan, what are you doing?"

"Just looking around," he said, turning toward her. "Guess that bag of fertilizer got me thinking."

"Have you heard from Don? Did they get any results yet?"

"No."

"Then I'm afraid I don't understand. What is it you're looking for?"

He looked up, setting aside several pieces of lined notepad paper. "I don't have the first idea, Jeannie. I guess just anything that looks odd, because that's what's stood out to me since those FBI people were here--that there was something seriously strange going on around Keith and whatever he was involved in." He paused. "Something that goes beyond my take as a skeptic because Shirley was my sister and I wanted to be sure Keith was good enough for her. Whatever it is, it poisoned Shirley and maybe now Tracy, too."

"What is it you've got there?" Jean said, coming closer and looking over his shoulder.

"Found these in the trash basket," he said. "Not that it's my custom to be looking in trash baskets."

"I threw those in there," she said. "I was up here the other day cleaning up a little, and I found a whole stack of them underneath the cushion on the window seat. Like scribbling, almost." She shrugged. "You think they mean something?"

"Good grief, I have no idea." He pushed one of the papers toward the one next to it. "Don't look like anything to me, except maybe a sign of someone who's a little touched in the head to be drawing the same thing over and over again. They're all the same." His hands rose in the air in a gesture of helplessness. Finally he stood.

"But that's just it," he said. "Nothing about all this makes sense. Right now the only thing I'm going on is 'weird'. And this looks as weird as anything." He let out a sigh. "So I think I'm going to send a few of these to the FBI. If they turn out to be nothing, I figure it's no big loss. "

With a shrug, he turned away and followed his wife downstairs to the kitchen.

The drawing looked like this:

 

*~*~*~*~*

To: spooky@quick.net
From: topaz@rift.net
Fly into Denver International. There's a shuttle that runs hourly to the university in Boulder at ten after the hour; get it at the SuperShuttle ticket counter on Level 5. When you reach the university, my contact will be waiting. but they won't approach you until you've walked a few blocks so we can make sure nobody's tailing you. Take a few turns along the way so anyone following you will be obvious. If everything looks okay, you'll be picked up and brought here.

Send your itinerary and the name you'll be traveling under as soon as your schedule is firmed up so we know when to expect you. If you find you've been followed onto the plane and have to cancel, let me know. Good luck.

*~*~*~*~*

Gold Hills Motel
Lincoln, California
9:14 p.m.

Mulder switched off the light beside the bed, waited a moment and then went to the window. Pulling the edge of the drape back slightly, he looked out into the parking lot. Sure enough, Tan Jacket was still there, though he probably wouldn't stay long once he figured his target had turned in for the night.

And he was headed for bed; he'd been up too many hours and flown through too many time zones today. Letting go of the drape, Mulder padded to the bathroom and sat on the edge of the tub in the dark. He'd scour the area further tomorrow, just in case there was anything to be found. It was possible that Samantha'd passed through here, though from what he'd learned from talking with a few locals this afternoon, the town was experiencing a building boom that seemed likely to mushroom over the next few years, meaning that more and more open land would be turned into housing tracts, and whatever remaning traces there might be of a body that had lain in the area for twenty years or more would be unnoticeable to someone running a bulldozer or a backhoe.

Mulder stretched his head to one side and then the other in an attempt to loosen his neck muscles. He'd met Scully online in a game room and they'd played checkers for a while. It was an idea she'd floated before he left, her way of helping to keep him from drowning in speculation about his sister. She'd won the first game and he'd won the second, and over the course of play they'd had a chance to exchange a few innocuous bits of conversation.

Mulder stood now and returned to the window. Peering between the drapes, he could see that Tan Jacket's car was gone. Maybe he should get dressed and go out somewhere just to spite the guy. But no, the bed was calling, and loudly at that. There was time for just one more thing.

Flipping open his laptop, Mulder hit the power button and waited. When his desktop had loaded, he connected to the internet and clicked on his e-mail. There it was, the message he'd been waiting for from Krycek. And the guy was in... He clicked on the subject line and opened the mail. He was in Denver. He read the message and Krycek's instructions twice. The crisp, almost edgy tone was familiar--maybe too familiar. It reminded him of a certain cold, barred cell, a momentary stand-off, and a face too close to his own saying, "You're going to need me in here."

Something tightened inside him, but he reached for the notepad on the table beside the bed, flipped through it to find the airline's phone number and dialed.

Yeah," he said quietly when a voice came on the line. "I'm going to need a flight day after tomorrow from Sacramento to Denver. What morning flights do you have?"

*~*~*~*~*

--the next day--
Tuesday, 8 June 1999

To: che774@telcom.com
From: topaz@rift.net
Been a little preoccupied lately, so I guess it's time to get back up to speed. What have you dug up on our Pasadena connection so far? What about San Diego? Let me know how your research is going.

Body's finally healing, which is good. Mulder shows up tomorrow. Think I'm going to have a permanent knot in my gut until he's gone again. Wish me luck.

                                                                                                      -K 

*~*~*~*~*

Gold Hills Motel
Lincoln, California
8:37 a.m.

Mulder put a dot on the map to mark the air base, and measured the distance to Lincoln. A little over twenty miles. In 1980-81, the towns in the area would have been small, independent spots on the map rather than the overlapping spread they'd become over time. If Samantha had come this way, how far would she have gone? If she'd escaped, would she have taken a ride from someone, or shunned all adult help as unreliable and dangerous, and hiked as far as she could on foot? How far might she have gone... assuming she was in any shape to travel?

If she wasn't, she probably wouldn't have lasted long enough to make it out of the metro Sacramento area. But in that case, someone would almost certainly have found her body, and the bodies of children made news. Chances are, it would have resulted in some kind of newspaper report he'd have stumbled across years ago.

Refocusing on the map, he looked at the main artery that had brought him here--Insterstate 80. If for whatever reason she'd taken a ride with someone--or if she'd climbed into the back of a parked truck that later took her in this direction--she could have ended up states away, completely untraceable. Which was no help at the moment since he was here in Lincoln now, and wherever he went today had to fit in with the narrative of having received remains mailed from this little town.

Still, if you looked at I-80 as a closed fan with the air base as the pivot point, opening it to the left took you to Lincoln; anyplace else in that direction would have been too far for a young girl to plausibly reach. And to the right... He studied the map. Another highway--50--ran there. If his "fan" were extended in that direction, three points emerged to connect the dots across the fan's top--the farthest points it would have made any sense to go before civilization dropped away and the Sierra foothills took over: Lincoln to the north, Auburn to the northeast, and Placerville almost due east.

If she'd even come this way.

If she hadn't hitched a ride that had taken her far out of the area.

If she hadn't died before she was able to put any distance between herself and the men who'd tormented her.

Mulder stood and ran a hand back through what was usually his hair but now was a disconcerting patch of smooth scalp. Frowning, he put on his socks and shoes and slipped a flannel shirt over his T-shirt. Then he took the hairpiece he'd gotten from Kristen, settled it over the bald spot and carefully snapped the perimeter clips into place, securing it to his own hair. She'd promised him there was no chance of it blowing off unless he ended up in a Category 5 hurricane, but just for insurance he slipped a baseball cap on over it. One less thing to worry about.

If Samantha had come this way, it would be worth traveling the perimeter of the area he'd laid out just to familiarize himself with it. What could it hurt? Besides, that same perimeter could also plausibly apply to their hypothetical mailer of the remains. Rather than expose himself by mailing the package from his hometown, Mystery Mailer could have traveled here from any point within the area he'd just marked out.

Mulder grabbed his keys and the map, flashed a grim smile at the mirror and headed for the door. It was time to give Tan Jacket something to do.

*~*~*~*~*

Longmont, Colorado
9:16 a.m.

"Are we going to go hiking, Mom?"

Carrie watched as Tyler took his toast out of the toaster and slathered it with peanut butter.

"That was the plan, right?" she said. "What, have you changed your mind?"

"No. I want to go. I haven't been anywhere that's really quiet and smells really good in"--he licked peanut butter off the edge of his finger--"a long time. Dad and I went to the Marin headlands, but that was back in March."

Carrie poured herself a bowl of granola. "So where do you want to go?"

"Mm... I think Button Rock."

"Oh? Why?"

He shrugged. "It's nice out there. And it doesn't take all day."

"You have plans for this afternoon?"

Tyler shrugged and colored slightly. "Patrick said Ryan might come over later." He paused. "Is that okay?"

After a beat, she smiled. "Sure." She took a bite of her granola and began to chew it. Slowly, the scene in front of her went out of focus.

"Mom, do you not want to go to Button Rock?"

Carrie pulled herself back to her surroundings. "It's fine. I was up there a little over a week ago, but it's okay. I think I'm just... still feeling a little drowsy. I had a hard time getting to sleep last night." She made herself smile. "But a little hiking will fix that." She gestured toward the stairs. "Go ahead and get your backpack, Ty."

*~*~*~*~*

Outside Boulder, Colorado
9:17 a.m.

Krycek read over Mulder's mail for the second time. He'd be coming in on a United flight that arrived at 8:20 a.m. which meant he'd have to wait until the following hour to get the shuttle, putting him at the the pick-up point at the university at a little after ten.

Krycek pushed out a breath, stood and drifted from one window to the other. Maybe an early flight was all Mulder could get. Maybe he was figuring if he came early, they'd be able to wrap things up in an hour or two and he could be on his way again. But realistically...

Realistically, the only way they were going to finish quickly would be if this thing blew up completely. The ugly truth was that they had years of bad blood to get past, each of them with old thorns buried deep in their flesh, the wounds only half scarred-over. If they were going to be able to go forward with any kind of solid trust in one another...

Krycek ran his hand back through his hair and looked up at the honey-colored celing beams above him. He and Marita had started out on even footing, no baggage, both of them understandably wary at the outset but each with something solid to bring to the table. And look how that had turned out. Maybe this thing with Mulder was just a pipe dream, the fantasy it had always been--a cold, poor little kid's desperate wish. One he'd hung onto for far too long.

*~*~*~*~*

Button Rock Reservoir, Colorado
10:47 a.m.

From her perch on the slope, Carrie watched Tyler skipping rocks at the lake's edge. It was a good sign--the way he'd anticipated doing this and picked up appropriate, flat stones along the trail as they walked. It showed that he was thinking ahead, a skill that would serve him well as he grew. Hopefully it would help him avoid pitfalls like the one she'd fallen into herself years ago.

Yesterday's talk with Alex had been painful in a way she hadn't anticipated, not  only because of what he'd admitted to, but what she'd seen in herself. Last night, trying to get to sleep, it had suddenly become so clear: how everything she'd done with Tyler, all these years, had been a form of penance, an attempt to make up for what could never be corrected. Not that Ty didn't deserve her focus and her efforts. But the admiration that sometimes came her way because of her parenting was something she hardly deserved. Coming from Alex, it was painful.

Over time she'd buried the whole thing so deeply that she thought it was gone for good. But now it seemed to be clawing its way out of the ground, and at a time when she--and by extension Ty and Alex--were in critical need of her clarity and focus.

*~*~*~*~*

To: topaz@rift.net
From: che774@telcom.com
I had hoped to have more for you by this point, comrade, but since the period we are focusing on is pre-internet, it appears that much of the investigation into Dr. Keith Acres and Pasadena will have to be done on the ground. The man was a researcher in cellular biology at the technical university there. I've found three colleagues whose names were associated with his on published papers: Henry Taylor, Carl Morris and Stefan Schoepke. Taylor is now deceased and Dr. Morris is currently in a convalescent facility following a stroke. Dr. Schoepke, the youngest of the three, is still teaching. Fruitful avenues of investigation: funeral home records, county law enforcement reports on the death and autopsy. Perhaps even locating the gravesite will be of some use. And of course talking to his colleagues, whose contact information I will endeavor to find.

Research is continuing into Prangen in San Diego. So far, no promising connections have emerged. If the company was knowingly involved in the experiments you've been alerted to, the fact has been well hidden.

No doubt the prospect of your brother's impending visit has you a bit on edge. Understandable, but know that both of you are, in the end, sincere and solid men. If somehow you can both manage to lay aside your figurative shields and weapons, this should become apparent. My sincere wishes for the best possible outcome.

More as I have it.

*~*~*~*~*

Outside Boulder, Colorado
11:15 a.m.

Krycek snorted out a half-laugh. "Sincere and solid"? Ché was losing it.

He pushed the laptop aside and stood. This was starting to feel like the kind of day that never ended. But Ché's mention of "figurative shields and weapons" brought up something that had been rattling around in his head for days now. He needed a weapon. And sooner rather than later. Once he left here, it would be easy enough to pay some guy to go into a gun shop and buy him a new one--one without any inconvenient criminal history attached to it. In the meantime, though, if anyone managed to find him here, out in the sticks, he'd be a sitting duck, nothing more than a sacrificial offering.

Krycek went to the window and glanced out into the parking area. Nelson had left for the lab. Time to do a little snooping around.

*~*~*~*~*

FRANK: McBurney here. I'm tailing Mulder again. Actually, he seems to be leading me on a wild goose chase today.

1ST ELDER: Has he spotted you?

FRANK: No, I know how to keep myself out of sight. Anyway, we're in Auburn at the moment, fourteen-fifteen miles from Lincoln. Small town.

1ST ELDER: Where has he stopped? Has he spoken to anyone?

FRANK: Made a beeline for the police station. Asked about anyone finding bones--the usual. I called there after he left and said I was trying to catch up with a friend who'd just been there. It was easy enough to get them talking. Wait, what the--"

1ST ELDER: What's happening?

FRANK: We're in the old-time downtown area. He's been wandering around--you know, like any tourist--for the last twenty minutes, but he just went into a building... just a minute; I'm getting closer... Okay, that came out of left field. It's a psychic's office. Apparently he's gotten the sudden urge to communicate with the spirits, or to have his fortune read.

1ST ELDER: No, this would be plausible for Mulder. Contact the psychic after he's gone and find out what went on.

FRANK: Will do. I'll get back with you later.

*~*~*~*~*

McMillan Psychic Services
Auburn, California
1:13 p.m.

Mulder pushed the door open, setting off a tinkling bell on the back of the knob. He found himself in a small reception room--striped wallpaper, brochures on a small table beside a cluster of candles, a loveseat, a desk. No crystal ball or new-agey graphics--a good sign.

Footsteps echoed, coming closer. Soon a broad, pleasant woman appeared from a back hallway, a small styrofoam box in her hand.

"Can I help you?" she asked.

"I hope so. Are you Linda McMillan?"

"Yes." She set the box on the desk. "Excuse me, I was just grabbing a little late lunch. What can I do for you?"

"My name is Fox Mulder. I'm with the--" He caught himself. "I'm an investigator. I used to work for the FBI. Look, there's a man following me, a guy in a tan jacket. He's going to come in here and ask what we talked about. I'd appreciate it if you'd tell him you weren't able to help me." He pulled a couple of bills from his pocket and held them out.

Linda frowned. "May I ask what this is about?"

"I'm searching for a person who sent a box of human remains to my partner at the Bureau. The package was sent anonymously from Lincoln."

Linda paused a moment and slowly sat down at the desk. "There's more to it than that, isn't there?"

Mulder nodded and sat on a nearby chair. "Tell me what is is, and I may be interested in one of your paid readings."

Linda closed her eyes briefly, then opened them again. "Some part of this--the bones or the package or... I'm not sure; I generally work through pictures. But some part of what you told me is fake, made up in order to protect... you, Mr. Mulder."

Mulder's mouth sat half-open. After a beat he forced a smile. "Can I offer you an incentive not to tell that to the man who's following me?"

"That's really not necessary. But I have a dog who's very sick at the moment. If you insist, I'd be glad to put your offering toward Teddy's vet bills."

"Sounds good to me." Mulder handed her two twenties. "Now, I really do have something I'm looking for. Someone, that is."

"Do you have a picture?"

Mulder slipped his wallet from his pocket, pulled out a small photo of Samantha and handed it to the woman.

Linda McMillan ran a finger lightly across the surface of the photograph and closed her eyes.

"She was"--he took a deep breath--"kidnapped from our home when she was eight." He could feel his heart banging loudly inside his shirt, a faint stickiness coating his palms. "I know it's going to sound strange, but I've been told that she was used in genetic experiments in the area here, that she managed to escape at one point, but that it's assumed she died soon after."

"She was young. Thirteen. She did spend time in this area." She opened her eyes. "But I can't tell whether she ever left or not."

"Is she alive?"

Linda paused, holding a breath, and looked past him. Finally she let out a sigh. "I can't say. I'm not getting anything." She handed the picture back to Mulder. "I'm so sorry.  This isn't an exact science. Often information comes to me. But not always. I'm very sorry it hasn't in this case." She stood and offered her hand. "You don't owe me anything, Mr. Mulder. After all, I wasn't able to help you." She paused. "Which is what I'm going to tell the man who will be inquiring about you."

*~*~*~*~*

Great Salt Lake, Utah
1:58 p.m.

The girl sat on the sand, wrapped in a beach towel Eighteen had brought along, its edges flapping in the breeze. Overhead, gray-white clouds scudded across a field of pale blue. A few feet away, Eighteen was walking barefoot along the water's edge. As she moved, clouds of tiny flies rose up in front of her, making thin, gray swirling patterns just above the sand's surface.

The girl squinted into the distance. If not for the wind, it would almost be warm. Hands circled her shoulders from behind, Four pulling the towel up higher around her neck. He sat down beside her and looked out over the broadness of the lake, his forehead creasing into ridges, like the waves just beyond the waterline.

Closing her eyes, the girl listened. There was something familiar about the wave-rhythm. She knew it from some other place, another time. But there was something wrong here. These waves were small, and came in without proper pauses, coming and coming, relentless, somehow melting away without actually retreating. The waves she knew were big and languid, roaring in, pausing as if to take a breath, then sweeping out again.

She began to rock. She could hear the slow, roaring waves. She was standing in ankle-deep water. Sand streamed away from between her toes, pulled out by a retreating wave. On a nearby rock, a gull stood on one leg. She could see a red dot, like paint, at the tip of its yellow beak. Now she felt something warm behind her, the closeness of someone's body...

Her eyes came open and she squinted against the brightness. But Four hadn't moved. He was sitting, as before, on her left.

*~*~*~*~*

Outside Boulder, Colorado
2:03 p.m.

A shiver washed through Krycek, pulling him back to alertness. He'd nearly fallen asleep.  Glancing at the clock, he got up and went to the window. All day the hours had been moving like a river during a Russian winter. Though winter, at least, led to spring, whereas this day, when it was over, was only going to lead to a big question mark.

Outside, two of the devil squirrels were chasing each other around the trunk of a tree. It made him think of himself and Mulder--not the kind of reminder he needed right now. Or maybe the universe was trying to tell him something.

He pushed out a breath, opened the door and went out into the parking area. Picked up a fallen pine cone. The waiting sucked. The speculating sucked. They'd been doing okay, he and Mulder, over the last few weeks, swapping information and tips. Yeah, it had happened through the filter of e-mail, but still, any cooperation between them was a good sign. Mulder'd been decent to him in Reston. Granted, he'd just saved everyone's life and gotten shot in the process. Still, it was face-to-face. It had to count for something.

You're the older brother, Che had said. Carrie'd pointed out how their radically different backgrounds had created a potential chasm between them. But she'd also said their differences could mean each of them could bring something valuable to the table--that they could fill in each other's gaps. Yin and yang, she'd said with a hopeful smile.

Tossing the pine cone into a cluster of small trees beside the garage, he went back inside. Approaching the fireplace, he reached down behind the wood bin and pulled out a hunting knife. It was the only thing close to a weapon he'd been able to find in the garage, not as sharp as it could be, but Nelson was the super-organized type, liable to realize if anything in his shop area had been moved, so he hadn't chanced trying to sharpen it on the grinder he found there. Whatever he did, he wasn't about to jeopardize Carrie's trust in him by doing anything that would make Nelson suspicious.

If push came to shove, a knife wasn't likely to be enough protection. But it was all he had. He'd just have to make do.

*~*~*~*~*

To: thelark@zipmail.com
From: spooky@quick.net
Just checking in so you'll know I'm still  alive and sane. Okay, no saner than usual, I guess. I've been taking the scenic tour of the area, looking for any potential clues and managing--I hope, at least--to drive the guy shadowing me a little crazy in the process.

Did you know the gold rush started right here in this area? I stopped at Sutter's Mill about half an hour ago. Even saw flakes of gold in the water along the riverbank.

This morning I mapped out a triangular area Samantha might have plausibly traveled through and am driving through it in case anything I see should stand out as useful later when I have a chance to do more investigating. I can see you rolling your eyes about this but I stopped in to see a psychic--not the crystal ball type, but someone who consults regularly with local law enforcement. She was able to figure out why I was there without my saying anything, so I asked her about Samantha and she said she had the impression that Samantha had been through the area, but she couldn't tell whether or not she was still alive. She didn't try to charge me.

It's not much, but at least it leaves me feeling a little better about Krycek's claim to have been sent here to search for Jane Doe records. I guess in a way I'm focusing away from sound of the clock ticking down to our meeting because who knows what will happen, or which Krycek I'll end up with: the one from the Reston house or the huckster who can get me anything or anyone I want for a price, and as long as it suits his agenda? If you should happen to find yourself in the mood to pray, I wouldn't complain if you sent one up for me.

I'm off to buy you a souvenir. Then I'm on the road again to play Pied Piper to the guy who's trailing me. Will check in again tonight.

                                                                                         -Return of the nightingale 

*~*~*~*~*

Gold Hills Motel
Lincoln, California
9:16 p.m.

Standing in the dark beside the window, Mulder carefully pulled back the edge of the curtain. Sure enough, Tan Jacket was pulling out of the parking lot. With any luck, he'd be able to give the guy the slip tomorrow at the airport, leaving his flight plan to Denver clear.

Mulder watched until the car pulled out onto the street and disappeared. Finally he turned on the light and approached the two suitcases on the second bed. The clothes he'd wear as his cover persona were on top for easy access: brown slacks, a brown tweed sport coat and a matching tweed golf hat that he'd carry but not wear--all the better to show himself off as a balding man. In a side compartment was a wallet containing his his target identity, Dr. Aaron Roth, a psychology professor on his way to visit colleagues at the Boulder campus. Along with the wallet were a thick gold wedding band and a small pebble that would go into his right shoe to force him to limp slightly. According to the Bureau's experts, changing your gait was one of the easiest ways to disguise yourself, especially from anyone watching you from a distance.

Mulder moved to the second suitcase and unzipped it. Inside, cushioned in several towels, were Krycek's things, including a prosthesis that Mulder had never seen him wear, with a pincer-like mechanism at the end rather than a hand. There was also a bundle of sock-like items, a spare harness, some type of unfamiliar-looking tool, two tubes of ointment and a jar of skin cream.  Mulder paused, looking at the wire that ran from the wrist area of the prosthesis up the arm and behind, across the back of the harness. The "wrist" junction appeared to be covered in a series of rubber bands. Carefully, he pressed the pincers apart with his fingers. He'd never actually seen anything like this before. It certainly wasn't the kind of thing you'd gawk at when someone was wearing it.

Mulder let go of the apparatus. If Krycek had, as Sandy Miller suggested, lost his arm in the Tunguska woods...

He flashed on the interior of a small cabin, a kind woman and the sudden entry--complete with large knife--of the angry, bearded husband whose truck he'd stolen at the camp and crashed. She'd talked the man out of his plan soon enough, but what if she hadn't succeeded? Who had caught up with Krycek, especially considering that he should have been able to ward off all comers with a mention of his connection to the camp commander, a man he'd been joking around with as if the two had been bosom buddies for years?

Mulder's hands curled tight. Tension flooded him. It was Krycek's own damn fault. He'd planned their little jaunt, for reasons he'd never been able to figure out. If Krycek had wanted to torment him, he could have done it so much more conveniently right here in the U.S., kidnapped him and held him in a deserted building somewhere until he'd satisfied whatever urge had been driving him--revenge, the desire to manipulate. Maybe pure, bullheaded meanness.

Abruptly Mulder turned away and headed for the bathroom. It was no time to start dwelling on something that would only make him lose sleep. He brushed his teeth, used the toilet, washed his hands and wiped a wet washcloth over his face. He made himself picture Krycek lying in the shadowed bedroom of Smoky's Reston house, then Krycek approaching from the parking lot of the Owensburg hospital, serious, jaw set, quiet. No bravado there.

Flipping the light switch, Mulder headed for the bed in the dark, lay down, pulled up the sheet and blanket and stared at the thin slash of light coming in between the drapes. Gradually an image of John Sutter's old mill drifted into his head, with the river flowing past it, full of tantalizing golden flecks flashing their brightness in the sun. The pioneers had managed to survive there. Samantha had always been a scrappy kid. Could she have developed enough survival skills to stay alive and hidden? Could she have managed to survive the cold of winter? How long would she have held out before she sought out some fringe of civilization again? Would she have been traumatized enough not to even try?

*~*~*~*~*

Outside Boulder, Colorado
11:14 p.m.

Krycek sat on the edge of the bed in the dark. He'd fallen asleep earlier, but not for long. Now there was a knot in his gut and all hope of getting to sleep had slipped away, like the Oil disappearing into the spiral on top of its ship. He'd gone out walking several times during the day, though he'd been careful not to overdo it; he could hardly afford any setbacks in his recovery at this point. Not after all this time put in. Not when there was work to be done, leads waiting to be tracked down. And out there somewhere aliens with or without human collaborators experimenting on humans as if they were bugs.

Running his hand back through his hair, Krycek stood and went to the window. There should be nearly half a moon up there... No, it was too early for it to come up yet. He flipped the lock on the window and tried to push up on it, but it was stuck.

Whatever.

Turning, he grabbed the flashlight beside the bed and started down the stairs. He was stuck in this place, and the realization of it only made him more antsy than before. It was a damn good thing he'd never ended up in prison.

Across the parking area, the lights were out in Nelson's house, aside from a carriage light beside the front door. Looking up, he could see the treetops swaying. He was tired of thinking about tomorrow, figuring out how it might go, because none of the scenarios in his head were playing out very far from disaster. Five years of push-and-shove between the two of them. How were a few weeks of something different going to change that, realistically?

Kryck stopped abruptly, suddenly aware that he'd been pacing from window to window again. He closed his eyes, opened them again after a beat, slipped on his shoes and went to the door. Slipping outside, he closed the door quietly behind him. Beside the garage, on the side farthest from the house, the trees were younger, shorter. Above them hundreds of stars glittered. fierce points of light against the blue-black of the sky.

The night he'd kissed her on the rooftop, after they'd managed to pull themselves away from each other, Tracy had looked up and pointed to the stars. For years they'd seemed nothing but ominous to him, a reminder of what was to come, but to her they'd been sheer beauty, just a pattern of light--a gift the night had brought. For a brief second, before they turned, he was able to see them the way she had.

After a moment he sat down on a stump beside the wall of the garage, closed his eyes and leaned back against the wall. A low, quiet whoosh whispered through the treetops. Krycek shivered in the brisk air.

(End Chapter 9)

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