Title: The Beginner's Guide to Tightrope Walking
Author: Kel
Feedback: ckelll@hotmail.com
Disclaimer: I created former FBI agent Jerry Luskin, but he's probably not the reason you're reading this story. Mulder, Scully, Skinner et. al. belong to another.
PG, for a few bad words and mature concepts MSR, Mulder/Scully married with child
Spoilers: Breaks with canon after "Requiem." Seasons 8 and 9 never happened. Mulder and Scully have a son named William, but he wasn't born in a ghost town or adopted by farmers or anything stupid like that.

Summary: "Mulder left the FBI about a year after me, but where I got the gold watch and the pension, he got the royal screw."

Sincere thanks for my betas: To Michelle, who's been hearing bits and pieces forever. To Amanda, who read it so many times I was afraid she was going to block me. To Marasmus, who once again pointed out some *minor* structural defects. To Linda, my personal Underwriters Laboratories.

My retirement from the FBI didn't work out the way I planned. My kids grew into wonderful adults, but not exactly financially independent. My mother-in-law wouldn't be safe living on her own, and I sure as hell didn't want her living with me. My portfolio, such as it was, took a dive down the toilet. What the hell, I never was much for golf. I "retired" into the private sector.

Jerry Luskin, FBI, became Luskin Associates. I was Luskin Associates back when it was just me and my answering machine. Now it's me, my office manager, and Fox Mulder.

Six years ago when I hired Mulder, I told my wife how the FBI had sacked him, stripped his benefits, and screwed with his security clearance. And my wife looked me right in the eye and asked, "So when did Mulder's problems become your problems?"

"He's good. I can use him."

"He knocked up his girlfriend and then vanished."

We were sitting at the kitchen table, the remains of our dinner pushed to the side. I knew that out of everything, Roz would focus on Dana going through pregnancy alone. "He can't support his kid if he doesn't have a job," I said.

"He ran out on her," she said. "What was his excuse?"

"He doesn't like to talk about it," I said. I tried to smile, but she was really steamed now.

"He finds out there's a baby on the way, he disappears for months, he has nothing to say for himself, the FBI figures out he's a worthless louse, and *you* give him a job."

"Roz, listen. If he really was a louse he would have come up with a story. He didn't say a word, and that means something else. Remember the old days? Back in New York, or in DC after my transfer?"

She cooled down and took a minute before she answered. "I remember how your first ASAC said you'd never last if you couldn't even keep your wife from working. I remember late at night, waiting for you to come to bed while you sat in the kitchen smoking cigarettes. I remember you saying we could read whatever we wanted from the newsstand, but we couldn't have any subscriptions."

I'd forgotten about that. "*TV Guide* was okay. *Reader's Digest.*"

"It was like the ghost of Joe McCarthy moved in with us. You never told me, but I was afraid to sign a petition or answer a survey, and I didn't even know why. Is that what you mean?"

"That and more." I couldn't speak about it while it was happening, and afterwards it was ancient history. For the first time I told her what used to happen to FBI agents who got noticed in the wrong way. How guys would lose their job and get blackballed from ever getting another. There was no way to defend yourself.

"J. Edgar Hoover is dead, Jerry," she said quietly.

"Hell, yes. You think I'd have the guts to give Mulder a job if he was still around?"

She relented: "Far be it from me to tell you how to run your business."

Mulder left the FBI about a year after me, but where I got the gold watch and the pension, he got the royal screw. It's one thing to fire a guy, but when you actually try to ruin him--well, I hadn't seen that kind of crap since Hoover died. It pissed me off.

Mulder happens to be a top-notch investigator. "Spooky" Mulder, they used to call him, and it was a compliment until the suits found a way to turn it against him. Normally he would have had more job offers than Kraft's got cheese, except the Bureau got him branded as a security risk. He was adjudicated as unfit for even the lowest clearance, "by reason of one or more of the following: questionable allegiance to the United States; criminal conduct; personal conduct; substance abuse; mental disorder." It's a crock, but I'm stuck with it. I can't use him on *sensitive* cases, and *sensitive* has a broad definition these days.

Even so, he pulls his weight. Even when he decided to go back to school and I only saw him a couple of times a week, he earned what I paid him, and now that he's around more, he's a bargain. Still, it stinks when I have a *sensitive* case where I could use his spooky help and I'm forced to muddle through on my own.

I was working on something like that for my premier client, an international construction firm. One of their mid-level sales drones was spinning tunes on the wrong jukebox, and they needed to find out who it was. It was a little case, in the scope of things, but it was a big case to me, and it burned that I couldn't use Mulder.

This case was perfect for him. One of those web-of-lies things where a poor slob like myself could tear his hair out for weeks to learn what Mulder would see in the first five minutes. True, it would still take a week of tedium to back up whatever it was that Mulder pulled out of the air, but I wouldn't be working in the dark.

Then I got an idea. My client had given me a tape of a conference so I could get a look at the possible suspects. I popped it into the VCR and called Mulder in to watch with me. In the interest of national security, I turned off the audio. I was bending the rules, sure, but I figured it would be worth it. I thought it would make my life easier. Ha ha ha.

Mulder slouched in the chair next to me. Either he had already guessed what I wanted from him, or he was too bored to ask. After about ten minutes I hit the "pause" button.

"You can't tell me who they are," Mulder said. "Or what they do."


"You want me to finger someone."

"Yeah. Use your Mulder magic and tell me who's gone bad."

I was ready for some high-octane sarcasm, but he was very quiet that day.

"I want to watch the rest," he said, and so we did. I pulled my chair back so I could watch Mulder watching the tape. He was stuck with only the video to watch, but every once in a while he snuck a glance back at me.

An hour later, the tape wound to an end.

"Well?" I asked. I really didn't like the look on his face. He was taking way too long to decide what to tell me.

"There is no Mulder magic, and you haven't given me anything to go on," he said.

"What about the stuff from your thesis? *The Neurophysiology of Intuition*?"

"People reveal themselves, if you know how to watch." He scowled. "And *listen.*"

"I'm aware of that, Dr. Mulder," I said.

He wasn't usually this temperamental, but I'd managed to hit him in a couple of sore spots. Spooky Mulder was bad enough; now he was Spooky Mulder, Ph.D, who was such a threat to the USA that he had to watch my video with the sound off. His own research was classified higher than he was.

He dismissed the title with a wave. "Okay, here's what you want, except I don't really know because you didn't tell me anything. Everybody on that tape is hiding something from somebody. But you're a penny ante little operative, and they're not going to hire you to hunt down Ali Atwa. So you're looking for some low-level schmuck who's not as smart as he thinks he is. And that would be--" He took the remote from me, rewound and froze the tape. One man was standing at the front of the room behind a lectern, and everyone else was seated."--that one."

"Thanks. I'll focus on him," I said.

"That's nice. I'd hate to think you'd have him killed on my account."

"You know me better than that, Mulder."

"Yeah, I do. Spooky, isn't it?"

He got up and left, which was fine with me. I have no problem with him setting his own hours.

I spent the rest of the day following up on Mulder's low-level schmuck, and by the time I went home I was reasonably sure I had the right man.

I didn't see Mulder for the next couple of days, although Marthe, our office manager, said he came in once while I was at lunch. Late on Friday I answered a call from Mulder's home phone, but it was his wife, Dana Scully.

I'd worked with her too, back at the FBI. I once told Mulder that she was the Michael Jordan to his Scottie Pippen, and he'd laughed and agreed with me.

"Oh, hi, Jerry," she said.

We exchanged the usual chitchat, with a few awkward pauses, and once we'd established that everyone was healthy, I took pity on her and mentioned that Mulder wasn't in the office.

"Anything I can do for you?" I asked.

"It's not important."

"I can give him a message, if I see him."

"But you're not expecting him."

"Not really." I waited a minute or two in silence. "Well, it was nice talking to you," I added, mostly to see of she was still on the line.

"Oh, uh, tell him to get milk."

On Monday I went over to present my findings to my client and found the place in full-crisis mode. One of their VPs was dead in a massive house fire. A suspicious fire. Investigators were sifting through the rubble, trying to find enough of the victim to bury.

It wasn't the guy Mulder had fingered, but it was one of the guys from the tape.

I can't even say why, but it gave me a scare. Nobody's ever called me "Spooky," but I had a bad feeling about Mulder, and I had to check it out. Only I don't have that Mulder magic, so I was going to have to find the facts.

I didn't see Mulder that day or the next, and when I got him on the cell he shook me off. Wednesday one of his clients phoned in a low boil because Mulder hadn't been returning his calls.

This wasn't just any client, it was Mulder's biggest account, and it took me half an hour to unruffle his feathers.

Then I did something I should have been ashamed of; I checked the activity on Mulder's credit cards. What I found looked innocent enough, but it took me by surprise. Friday night, a charge from Applebee's. More on Monday and Tuesday, and two more from today. He was there right now, running up a tab. Do I care where he eats his lunch? Not really, but I drove over anyway.

At night Applebee's is all kids. My wife likes the Weight Watchers menu, but I tell her we don't have enough piercings between us to get in. In the day time they get the geezer crowd. The parking lot was less than half full when I drove up. I parked next to Mulder's Honda, and I went on in. It would be awkward if he was there with another woman. Hell, it would be awkward even if he was there with his wife.

Well, he wasn't with his wife, and it wasn't hard to spot him. He was shooting darts with a big man in cowboy boots.

I sat down at the bar where I could watch them and I ordered a soda.

"Good one, Mulder! Best two out of three?" Cowboy-boots had a booming voice, but no drawl.

"Barry, you won. You can't say *two out of three* after you win," Mulder explained.

"But I want to play again."

"Say *double or nothing.* That means if I win I owe you nothing, but if I lose I owe you twice as much."

"*Best two out of three* gives me two more games. This *double or nothing* is only one more."

"Sorry, bud, that's how it works."

"Okay, *bud,* then double or nothing it is."

I never saw a man get more pleasure from a game of darts. Mulder seemed pretty jolly himself, until he caught sight of me.

"What are you doing here?" he asked.

"Sorry to bust in on your man-date," I said.

"Give me some space here, okay? I'll call you later."

If I didn't know his wife and kid, I think I might have fired him on the spot.

"Prentice Farm Poultry," I said. "Sound familiar?"

"Yeah, got it covered."

"Mr. Prentice doesn't think so."

"He's an idiot."

"No, I'm an idiot. I'm actually paying you to piss off my clients for me," I said.

"Give me a week."

Mulder's friend ambled over with a dart in his hand.

"Hello, bud. Would you like nexts?" he asked.

"Not now, Barry," Mulder told him.

"Hi, bud," I said, offering Big Barry my hand. "Come here often?"

Barry shook my hand, but then Mulder took him by the arm and steered him back to the dart board.

"Who's your pal?" I called.

"I'll see you later, boss," he called back.

I got off the bar stool and grabbed him by the shoulder.

"Excuse me. Do you work for me or don't you?"

"Of course I do, but this is personal."

"Oh! You're the boss!" Barry put down his dart and turned to study me.

"I am," I said. "Say, what kind of work do you do?"

"I'm a tourist. By any chance, do you bowl?"

"Do I bowl?" I echoed.

That's when I figured it out. Barry had some kind of brain damage. Mulder has a soft spot for people like that, and maybe a professional interest as well. I used to sit in on his lectures, and I remember one where he challenged the class to define what it meant to be human. Whatever traits they named, he could come up with someone who lacked them.

"There's a bowling alley nearby. I would be honored if you two would join me for a game," Barry said.

"Jerry's a busy man," Mulder said.

"No, I have time. It sounds like fun."

I could say I felt sorry for the guy, with his big, open face, but mainly I did it to tweak Mulder. Either way, the three of us actually went bowling. At first I thought Mulder was trying to let him win, but finally I decided he just wasn't very good. I won the first game, and then I made my excuses and left them alone with each other's company.

"I'll see you tonight, Mulder. I'll be following a poultry truck, and if you still work for me you'll be there too."

"Nothing's going down tonight," he said, but I walked out before he could finish.

That night I was hiding in a Prentice Farm van watching some men load pallets into a reefer truck. If they finished without any incidents, I would switch to my own car and follow it to its destination. I hadn't heard a word from Mulder.

This was dumb. I didn't have back up, and my mind was on Mulder a lot more than it was on any chicken-parts hijackers. My safety wasn't the issue, because if it comes down to it I'm going to protect my own neck before some chicken's. But there's a right way to do things, and this wasn't it. I was acting as if nothing was going to happen. I was acting as if the only reason to be there was to see if Mulder was going to show.

The truck pulled out and I waited for the loading dock to go dark before I went back to my car. I guess I was relieved when I found Mulder there waiting for me. I unlocked the door and he got in. I flipped on the tracker and I started to drive. I like the forced confinement of a long car ride when you need to ask tough questions. Neither of us spoke until I pulled onto the highway.

"I know who it is," Mulder said.

"Yeah? Any reason you're keeping that nugget from the man who paid us to find out?"

"It's his son."

"Damn," I said.

"Next Wednesday, the New York shipment. I'll catch him on tape."

"Make it good." With airtight evidence, we might be able to get the kid to come clean to his old man, but we'd still lose the account.

"Mr. Prentice will want to make it go away," Mulder said.

"He's got the bucks." Don't we all wish we had the means to smooth the way for our kids?

"Anyway, he's not going to hit tonight."

The GPS showed I was within a mile of the Prentice Farm truck. I wanted to get close enough to see it, then I could fade back and follow just out of sight.

"The old man doesn't have a clue?" I asked. I was stalling now, putting off the moment when I'd have to ask Mulder about the dead guy.

"He may have," Mulder answered, "but it goes against everything he wants to believe."

"Yeah. I got a problem like that myself," I said.



"Take it easy, Jerry."

"What the hell does my son have to do with this? I mean you, Einstein."

"Me? What about me?"

How do you ask your employee if he's murdered anyone recently? Same as any other interrogation--you come at it sideways.

"You blew off work for a week," I said.

Mulder shrugged. "So?"

"So I'm kind of wondering if you blew off work so you could barbecue a guy you saw on a certain videotape."

"I don't know what you're talking about." The right words, and I really wanted to believe him. Only I didn't.

"That videotape from the construction company. One of those men is dead."

"I didn't barbecue anyone, and you're the one who showed me the tape," he said.

Mulder's the human polygraph, the doctor of intuition, but I know a thing or two about bullshit myself. His answer was too flat, too deadpan. I'd taken this guy in after the FBI put him out with the trash, and I had only myself to blame if it turned out they were right.

"If you think I'd keep quiet to cover my own sorry ass, you don't know me very well," I said.

My high-beams caught the "Prentice Farm" logo on the back of the trailer. *Always fresh! Always delicious!* I eased my foot off the gas.

"I do know you, Jerry," he said. "Hell, you know me too. I'm not a killer."

The bullshit was gone from his voice, but he wasn't giving me any answers.

"I want to know what's going on with you," I said. Then I remembered Dana's phone call. "I think your wife does too."

I took my eyes off the road to catch his reaction. It was gone in a second, but what passed across his face was desperation.

"Back off," he barked. "And stay away from my wife."

"I'm not going to cover up your torch job!"

"Look up the police report." His voice was strained, almost ragged. "I bet they're not even calling it arson."

I had. It was all about hazardous materials, improperly stored. But I hated the weasel way he was answering me.

"But you know something about it," I said.

"What would I know?" His voice was a monotone. "I'm the one who suffered a psychotic break, probably related to learning of the pregnancy of my partner. I've never been able to give a satisfactory explanation for my subsequent disappearance, and my wildly bizarre accounts of that time are evidence of paranoid delusions possibly enhanced by the ingestion of psilocybin or similar compounds."

Old news. He was the ex-agent unfit for even ordinary-level security clearance, and I was the jack-ass who hired him.

"You've had seven years to rehabilitate yourself," I said. "Tell me what's going on."

The minutes dragged on while he ground his knuckles into the palm of his left hand like he was trying to break in a mitt. Finally he leaned forward and turned on the radio.

"I was looking for something," he said, his voice barely above a whisper.


"The fire got to it first."

"What kind of something?" I asked.

Mulder reached for the radio again and turned up the volume. "Maybe I should begin at the beginning."

On September 10, 2001, I was working in the FBI bullpen with a telephone to my ear and a cruller in my mouth. On September 12, the bullpen had doubled in size and I was in charge. Anyone who'd worked air piracy or counter-terrorism, anyone who seemed bright and ambitious, those guys were all reassigned. Their places were filled by the deadwood from other departments. Cuba watchers, mostly, even a cluster of weasels who'd made a career out of Yoko Ono. I was supposed to teach them how to use the phone; fortunately, most of them knew.

But on 9/11 there was only one thing that mattered, and that was getting hold of my son. My wife was okay--going to a blood drive, never mind that I ordered her to stay home. I woke my daughter, because I didn't care what time it was in California and I had to hear her voice. But my son was in New York and I couldn't get through. Three thousand people in the Towers, nine million people in the city, three hundred million in the country, and I didn't give a damn.

When John F. Kennedy was shot you knew LBJ would be President. With 9/11, you didn't know anything. You went to bed one night feeling safe, and the next morning you learned that your kids, your wife, anyone you loved could be crushed to dust while you watched on TV. My son was okay, but I didn't hear from him until night time. It's not something I'll forget. And now here was Mulder, filling me in about an army from outer space on stand-by to invade the earth.

But if Mulder was playing Paul Revere, he was Paul Revere on acid. Everything he told me had a twist, a condition. Maybe they wouldn't attack, but without a doubt they had the capability, and I needed to know that. Actually any number of planets had contemplated taking us over, and loads of them had scouted us out. So far nobody wanted to make the first move--some kind of stand-off. What did they want from us? How the hell did he know? He still hadn't figured out why we were in Iraq.

And you can forget "one if by land," because it wasn't like that. They might be coming from the polar regions, or under the sea. In fact they were already here, and had been for a very long time.

Resistance was. . . futile? possible? unnecessary? irrelevant?

These were things he'd learned while he was missing, or worked out for himself, as best he could, in the years he'd been back.

"Before you decide I'm paranoid, think about this: If one of the Aztecs found out about Spain and tried to warn Montezuma, what do you think they would have said about him?"

Mulder sounded crazy all right, and I was finally weighing the possibility that the psychotic break and the paranoid delusions might be the real deal.

"Come on, Jerry, you know I was missing. Did you think I was hiding out in Disneyworld?" he asked.

Now I was the one jacking up the volume on the radio. "I thought it was black ops. They used you for something they needed to bury."

"Get out! You thought I was a secret agent?" I think he liked the idea. He straightened his collar and smoothed back his hair.

"More likely I figured you for the fall guy," I said. The radio was blasting oldies and we both had to shout.

Mulder shook his head. He twisted the volume down, his mouth set in a grim line. "Black ops isn't the only thing they cover up." "Right. There's that secret cure for cancer, the car that doesn't need gas--oh, and alien abduction."

He looked at me and shrugged. "Then I guess I have nothing else to tell you."

"Okay, I'm listening. What did they want from you? What did they do to you?" He shut his mouth and turned away. "Hey, we're trying to figure out if you're nuts. Maybe something they did left you that way," I persisted.

"I could be crazy and still be right," he said.

"Were you tortured?"

The silence stretched on, and finally he broke it. "No," he said very quietly. "Not by their standards."

"What does that mean?" I asked.

"As long as they don't do anything worse to us than we've done to each other, it isn't torture," he explained.

"That leaves a lot of leeway," I said.

"It's not a major concern," he said. "We have a short lifespan and a quick breeding cycle."

He sounded so matter of fact I could believe he was quoting them.

"Like lab rats?" I asked.

"Yeah, sure. Close enough."

"Oh, come on. Can you prove this?" I asked.

"I had the proof in my hands, but I didn't realize it. The X-Files. Scully and me, stumbling on different mutants everywhere we looked. I was so busy arguing about them, I never saw the pattern." He shook his head. "Meanwhile she studied them one by one. She saw so many freaky things she forgot they were freaky."

Freaky, yeah. He said enough wacko stuff to make *Twilight Zone* seem like a documentary. I guess I should have been reaching for the butterfly net, but my spider senses were signaling me to keep cool and pay attention. There was another reason I had to keep listening and keep him talking, and that was his family. Part of me was wondering if it was possible for him to be totally Froot Loops without Dana picking up on it. The rest of me was thinking that maybe I'd have to be the one to make her see it.

At least I had a direction for my follow-up: Dana Scully. She'd seen what he'd seen, but she was still with the FBI and still certified sane and rational. I would have to talk to her.

"Just promise me you didn't start the fire," I said.

"I told you, no."

"And you didn't kill that man?"

"There's no body. Check it out with the arson squad."

A weasel's answer, but I let it pass.

"And Dana can back you on the freaks and mutants?" I asked.

The look he gave me was pure panic this time. "No. You can't talk to her," he said.

"I thought you said she saw them too."

"I'll try to get you the files, okay?"

"What's the matter, Mulder? You don't think Dana will remember stretchy-man or the poison-dart brain-sucker?" I asked.

"I told you to leave her alone," he insisted.

I caught a glance at the speedometer and realized I was pushing ninety. I eased off the gas and took a deep breath. "Why, Mulder? Why can't I talk to Dana?"

"Because I say you can't. Because it has nothing to do with you and you don't know what you're doing." His face was red and his voice cracked. I looked right into his eyes as I took out my phone, and when he knocked it out of my hand I couldn't help jerking the wheel.

"Fuckin' maniac!" I shouted, dragging the car back into the lane.

"Fuckin' asshole!"

I was done with him. As soon as I could get him out of my car I'd call his wife.

"You can't tell Scully," he said. His voice was back to his normal monotone but I didn't bother responding. "Telling her is the same as telling them." He found my phone on the floor and picked it up, setting it down on the console. "There's a microprocessor in the back of her neck, Jerry. She's under their control."

When did Mulder's problems become my problems? I guess it was the day I hired him. And right now, either Mulder was my problem, which was terrible, because he was probably a killer and definitely insane. Or else it was Mulder's problems that were my problems, and that was worse.

I really needed to know which.

I know Mulder's story about aliens and abduction sounds crazy, but there's something my wife discovered that gave it some weight A few years ago, while Mulder was working on his PhD, he started bitching and moaning about eye strain and I dragged him out to see her. She's an optometrist, so it made perfect sense to me. She has an office set up at home, but mostly she practices for VisionsInc, which is where I took him. The look she gave me wasn't exactly, Thanks, hon, for bringing me new business, but she let him fill out her paperwork and took him inside.

I was hanging around the waiting area when Mulder came flying out of the room.

"What the hell?" I asked.

"Could you stick around?" he mumbled.

"What?" I couldn't believe I'd heard right. Roz followed him out.

"Why don't you come in with us, Jerry," she suggested. She pulled off her white coat and tossed it on a chair.

"What about his right to privacy?" I asked, but really what I wanted to do was roll on the floor and laugh. My hard-boiled P.I. partner had a doctor phobia, which was even funnier because he was married to one.

"I'll waive that," he said. He looked like a ghost, and I was wondering if I'd have to hold his hand. I didn't connect Mulder's problem with his captivity, not until later. Then it wasn't so funny.

My wife put him through the works that night, even the stuff that normal people don't like. She figured he would never be back, and she wanted to cover it all. She cajoled and chatted, and while he never actually relaxed, he let her continue. Read this, point to that, how many do you see, which is brighter. On and on and on.

"I think there's a lollipop with your name on it," I said when he lived through the glaucoma test. All the while Roz was asking him about his family, about school, as if he was ten instead of forty. She got him back into the chair, and I thought his troubles were over.

"These drops will dilate your pupils so I can get a better look," she said, squirting them in before he could object. "They sting a bit." Mulder's knuckles were white as he gripped the arm rests.

"Jeez, honey, all he wanted was some reading glasses," I told her.

"We're almost done," she said. She got him talking about his little boy, which kept him happy until she started shining lights in his eyes.

"When did you have eye surgery?" she asked him.

"I didn't," he said.

"Hm," she said.

"Brain surgery," he offered.

"Something happened to your retinas," she said. "A blow to the head? A fall? A car accident?"

"It's possible," he said.

"This would have been a violent event. You would know about it."

"Then I guess it happened."

Roz kept up the questions, but he stopped answering. Finally she was finished, and he chose his frames at random, without even trying them on. I drove him home.

About a week later Mulder made it a point to rave to me about his new glasses.

"They've got prisms or something. I don't get headaches when I read."

"Great," I said.

"Apparently I had eye surgery."

"What kind of surgery?" I asked.

"Some repair. She made me an appointment with an ophthalmologist."

"When are you going?" I asked.

His answer was kind of a snort. "Great glasses, though. I can read all night," he said.

Usually Roz doesn't talk about her patients, but Mulder had told her it was okay. What she saw was impossible, unheard of. She didn't come out and say that Dr. McCoy had done the job with his tricorder, but she came close.

"You've got to get him to see a specialist," she said.

"I'll work on that," I promised.

If you put it all together, it almost made sense. Mulder said he was taken by aliens, and whatever happened to his eyes was out of this world. If the dumb schmucks had only fixed his presbyopia, we would never have known.

But alien abduction didn't prove that nasties had come to earth and planted freaks all around. It didn't prove that Dana Scully had a microprocessor in her neck. For that I'd need more than my wife staring into Mulder's big green eyes. Logic said I should talk to Dana, but Mulder made it sound like that could bring the end of the world.

That left me with Walter Skinner. I didn't have much use for him before I retired, and I lost all respect when he wouldn't testify at Mulder's hearing. Wouldn't or couldn't, because the official explanation is that he was sick. The guy used to run marathons and throw barbells around the gym, and then the day Mulder's ass hit the pavement, he retired on full medical disability. Does that smell like roses to you?

I called around for Skinner's number, but nobody I knew was in touch with him, and I know a lot of people. I finally tracked him down through his phone company. I figured he'd turned into a hermit, but I called him anyway and he invited me over. Maybe he was curious about what I wanted, or maybe it was because we had Mulder in common. It turned out Skinner lived in a luxury building by the Metro station. Right by the train, but I bet he used to have a bureau driver take him to work.

The building was elegant and his apartment was refined, but as soon as I stepped in the door, I knew. Even before I saw the walker folded against his chair or the oxygen tank in the corner, I could smell it.

"How've you been?" I asked. He wasn't using the walker, or the oxygen, and he was slow but steady as we walked back to his living room.

"Treatments three times a week. Plasmapheresis. And these." He rapped his knuckle against the side of his leg and I heard the hollow knock of plastic. "How are you?"

"Can't complain," I answered. I sat down on the sofa, and he lowered himself into the armchair.

"You thought I was full of shit," he said mildly. "You thought they paid me off to watch Mulder go down in flames."

There was no point in denying it. "I'm sorry, man."

This guy used to silence a room full of rowdy lawmen by scowling at them the way he was scowling at me now. I hoped he couldn't read my pity.

"Water under the bridge," he said, turning away. "What's on your mind?"

"You were the AD in charge of the X-Files," I began, and he snorted.

"In charge of the X-Files? Sure, on the organization chart."

"Some of the things Mulder told me sounded kind of hard to believe."

"Yuppie-eating garbage creature?" Skinner asked. "Demon dog from China?"

"Uh, no, actually. This was about mutants."

He nodded. "He and Scully encountered a surprising number."

"These cases were documented and confirmed?" I asked.

"Many of them, yes. The dog-tailed shapeshifter, the hibernating liver-eater, the humanoid fluke, the mothmen. . ."


"Confirmed entirely or in part, yes," he said.

"Oh," was all I could say. It would have been so much easier if he'd told me that Mulder's claims were unfounded or at least unprovable.

"The best way to walk the tightrope is to pretend you're on the sidewalk," he said. "Don't look down."

"I like my feet on the ground," I said--and stopped short. The moment would have passed smoothly if I hadn't realized what I'd said, but now he was studying his fingernails and I was feeling like a schmuck. I was sure that every sentence I uttered from now on would manage to include something about legs or feet, and I decided to cut to the chase.

"How did you get sick?" I asked.

He scowled and looked away. "Nanocytes," he said, but I thought I must have heard him wrong.

"Parasites?" I asked.

"Nanocytes. Advanced technology," Skinner explained. "Extremely advanced."

I guess I was getting used to life on a tightrope, or I couldn't have asked the next question. "Advanced technology, like Dana Scully's microprocessor?"

He shook his head, eyes downcast. "I have something in my blood, like sickle-cell anemia on steroids," he said. "Scully has a microchip in her neck."

"Same origin, though?"

He hesitated a second, but this time he nodded. "Yeah."

I blinked. "So. . . the aliens did this to you?"

"It's alien technology." His voice was tight. "Alien technology wielded by human beings."

"No offense, but this sounds kind of strange."

"None taken," Skinner replied. "But what is it you really want to know?"

"Dana Scully's microchip. The way Mulder tells it, they can control her with that thing."

When he talked about his own troubles, he sounded good and pissed, but as he answered my questions about Dana, he sounded sad. "It happened," he said.

"Against her will?"

"Against her will," he confirmed. "Without her knowledge."

"But if it's removed, she'll get cancer?"

"Yes," he said. "Exactly."

So there I was with Skinner vouching for Mulder's sanity, and me wondering if Skinner wasn't nuts himself. We just looked at each other for a while.

"Next time you come, bring beer," he said. "And remember, don't look down."

The alien stuff had gone from wacko to possible, but it was still hard to overlook the probability that Mulder had made the choice to break into a house and kill the man who lived there.

Mulder wasn't admitting it, but he didn't deny it either. He swore he had nothing to do with the fire, but when it came to the dead man, he just hammered on the fact that they never found a body. Mulder let me check his gun, and I could tell it hadn't been fired recently. Or cleaned, for that matter. But that didn't prove a thing.

I could split hairs and say that I didn't actually tap Mulder's phone, since his office line belongs to me and cell transmission is fair game. Suffice it to say I was sharing in some of his calls. Very few, really, since most of Mulder's conversations were with his wife. Cozy stuff, but I didn't need to listen.

His other calls were mainly work-related. There was the gallery owner who found some reason to ring him up nearly every day, but I guess his soft, sexy voice was enough to keep her paying our fee. In Dover a little watering hole was getting the shakedown by some petty mutts when Mulder convinced the owner to offer free drinks for off-duty cops. The boys in blue were happy, but the barkeep kept calling to bitch that paying protection would have been cheaper.

Then one day a guy called to rant about the internet. "They see it all! Wikipedia's the worst, they read every word!" I would have called him a crackpot except that Mulder kept listening.

"If they get their facts from the internet, they'll get a lot of things wrong," Mulder said.

"It's not just wrong and right. They learn our language. They learn to blend in."

"Did you have time to study what I gave you?" Mulder asked.

"It looks perfectly simple."

"Thank you." There was more than gratitude in his voice, there was profound relief.

"Perfectly simple once you have the gazinta."

"Don't. Just don't."

"You know, the part that *goes into* another part?"

"All right. Where do we get the gazinta?"

"They don't actually call it that. . ."

"I don't care what they call it. Where can we find one?"

"I'll let you know."

It sounded to me like the crackpot was stringing him along, and that surprised me, because usually Mulder has no trouble sounding nonchalant and uninterested.

The same guy called the next day.

"Sousa," he said.

"Corny, Al," Mulder answered.

"Don't call me that! Sousa, got it?" the guy asked impatiently.

"I think so," Mulder said.

Then the informant exploded with a list of numbers. Maybe Mulder had time to write them down, but I sure didn't.

"Then this is it? This is the gazinta?" Mulder asked, but he got no answer and the line went dead.

I hurried out of my office to the reception area, so that Mulder would have to pass me on his way out. Marthe was at her desk, and I realized I'd have to play it cool if I didn't want to involve her in our drama. Only there was no drama, because Mulder didn't leave his room.

"Need something?" Marthe asked me.

"Could you pull up our phone records for the last two months," I improvised. Figured I'd check for other calls from Mulder's crackpot. Her eyebrows climbed and her shoulders hunched, and I made a quick guess that she'd been using my lines for something other than business. I'd have to look into that, but not right now.

"Change that. Just get me the calls coming in," I said. She smiled and her shoulders relaxed.

I waited while she worked on her keyboard, waited while the printer hummed to life. I should have barged in on Mulder as soon as the call ended, but I'd missed that chance. The whole thing was making me kind of crazy. Then, when Mulder finally did emerge from his office, he didn't look wild or excited. Truth was, he looked grim.

"I need these notarized," he told Marthe.

"I'm doing something for Jerry," she said.

"When you're done," he said.

"What have you got?" I asked.

"Loads of papers, for Billy. Guardianship, trusts, that kind of thing."

"You should have done that years ago," Marthe said.

"Yeah, Scully's been hounding me," he said.

"Who'd you pick?" I asked. Dana had wanted her brother named as primary guardian, in case something happened. Mulder's list had started with his mother-in-law and wound through Skinner and a trio of bachelor software consultants. It was an old argument, and I was curious to see who budged.

"Her brother."

"The asshole?" Marthe asked. Marthe was about my age, with steel-gray hair and a powder-blue cardigan. She pronounced it "ess-hole."

"His wife is nice," Mulder said. "The kids get along."

"Don't sign it yet. You have to wait until I am watching," she said.

"I know. And I have my ID," Mulder said. "Jerry, can you witness for me?"


"And I'd like to keep a copy in your safe," he added.

By now I was wondering if the crackpot's message was a threat.

"Anything wrong?" I asked.

"Just being responsible," he said.

Marthe took her position as a notary very seriously. Mulder and I signed our names and she wielded her seal, stamping neatly and carefully. I saw that the bachelor software consultants who washed out as guardians ended up being executors.

"Last chance, Jerry. If you take my kid I'll give you my fortune," Mulder said.

"Him? He is much too old," Marthe opined.

Then I had to go into my office to handle a call from the Treasury Department, and when I was finished, Mulder had left for the day.

"So many accounts and policies. A millionaire," Marthe said. "He's taking the afternoon off."

"I don't think he's a millionaire," I said. He didn't live like one, but what the hell did I know?

"A crazy millionaire. Look what he did to the shredder."

She had the cover off, and she was pulling chunks of paper from between the blades.

"His documents?" I asked.

"No, the newspaper. He stuffed the Washington Post into my shredder."

I went back to my office and closed the door. Remember *A Beautiful Mind,* where Russell Crowe is a schizophrenic genius who thinks he's getting coded messages from the newspaper? I thought of that, but I also thought about the crackpot informant. Maybe he was the madman. And I thought that if Mulder wanted to keep the newspaper out of my mitts, all he had to do was take it home with him--except then his wife might see it.

So Mulder was making arrangements for his child in the event of his death... only it wasn't really that kind of arrangement. It was in case Billy lost both his parents.

It seemed like a good time to follow up on that suspicious fire in Maryland.

I called the Chevy Chase PD, where my great personality and old connections got me through to the detective squad. Still no body--the new theory was that the guy torched his own house to fake his death. "No proof yet, but the guy was their VP for finance. I think what we got here is another Enron," the lead investigator said.

Nobody else was blaming Mulder, but nobody else knew what I knew. I was stuck in some very dark calculations, and what broke me loose was a call from an old friend. Well, not exactly a friend.

Winston Canaday was a semi-legit gunsmith. Not quite a mutt himself, but most of his friends were mutts. Of course the rest of his friends were cops. Apparently he and Mulder had business together.

"He wanted to know if anybody else was looking for a gizmo like yours," Canaday said.

"Like mine?" I asked.

"That gizmo I got for you. That crazy shiv your boy was looking for."

"Okay," I said. When you're trying to play along, keep it simple.

"He does work for you, right?"

"Didn't he tell you?" I asked.

"He mentioned your name, but I couldn't figure what you'd want with an ice pick."

And now I was thinking of Mulder's gun, that hadn't been fired, and wondering if he was packing a stiletto. I reached for my Tums but I kept the sick feeling out of my voice.

"Winnie, if I told you everything, then you'd be as smart as me," I said.

"Yeah, if you were so smart, I'd be in prison," Canaday said.

"Nah. I told the prosecutor we couldn't afford to feed you." Winston Canaday weighed about four hundred pounds last time we crossed paths.

"I forgot you're a comedian," he said.

"Hey, man, you think I'd send Mulder your way if I didn't trust you? You're old-school, Winston. I'm old school too."

"Do me a favor. Keep your babbo away from me. And I'll give you a little tip--he's not the guy you should send when you're buying a weapon."

"Oh, no. What did he do now?"

"Just not very sharp, that's all. Too eager," he said.

"Winnie, why don't we get together and talk this over in person?" I suggested. "You still out by the airport?"

"Nah, not for years."

I left a message for my wife saying not to count on me for dinner and I made a quick stop before I headed to Canaday's new place. My GPS got me all screwed up, but I finally found it. He was doing business out of a workshop between a warehouse and a transmission rebuilder. He trundled around the premises on an electric scooter.

"Neat," I said.

"Pretty cool, huh? Whatcha got there?"

"Couple of sausage parm heroes--you interested?"

So we talked business over our little snack.

"You finally retired from the FBI," he said.

"A few years ago."

"Not connected at all? You still got friends, though," he said.

"Hey, I don't judge you by your friends," I said.

"And this Mulder, he's not a feeb?"

"Not any more," I said.

"Here's the thing. He wanted me to call if I heard about anyone else looking for that special ice pick. He was willing to pay. Hot to pay. Pushy." Mulder usually knows how to turn on the charm, but you can't get on Canaday's good side unless you feed him.

"Not good," I agreed.

"Seriously, Jerry, what's the deal with the ice pick? It's more like a spike than a blade. And nobody spring-loads a knife that way--you could get hurt."

"Must have been hard to find," I commented.

"Find it? It's custom made. And then he wanted to know if anyone else was looking for a spring-assist stiletto. I figured, fat chance someone else wants a crazy thing like that."

"Custom made? How many did he want?" I asked.

"Just one." Canaday raised his eyebrows.

"How many did you get?" I asked. Unless it was made entirely by hand, they'd cranked out more than just the one.

"Got a dozen. And no luck unloading them, until that second buyer showed up."

"No skin off your ass. Mulder paid for the whole run," I said. "If you found a buyer to take the rest, that's pure gravy."

"Mulder could have bought them all, Jerry. He just didn't ask the right questions."

"So the second buyer bought the rest?"

"Just one. If you want the whole lot of 'em, I could give you a very nice price."

The price didn't sound very nice to me, and in the end I took only one. Canaday said he was selling it to me at cost, which was a lie, but I had to have it. I needed to see what the hell Mulder was carrying these days.

"Next lot will be cheaper. Design and die are all paid for."

Canaday putt-putted his scooter over to some shelves at the rear of his shop and used a device on a stick to retrieve a box from an upper shelf.

"So who's the second buyer?" I asked, putting my box on the table next to my sandwich. "Who's the other guy who wants a crazy stiletto?"

"Mulder was going to pay for that info."

I shook my head. "He thinks I'm made of money," I said.

"Look, Jerry, right is right. He was going to cough up five grand."

"So how come you're calling me instead of him?" I asked.

He heaved a wheezy sigh. "It's like you said--I'm old school. I won't sell out a client for a couple of quick bucks."

"It's one of the reasons I respect you," I said.

"From where I sit, it's a simple thing. You like ice picks, he likes ice picks, so maybe you have other common interests."

"That's about the size of it," I agreed. "I don't much care what else he's up to. Like you said, I'm not with the FBI any more."

"He's a little guy, Jerry. He does little favors."

"Little favors for big guys?" I asked.

"Not that kind of favor. Say a guy has some ugly prison ink, or maybe just some big tat that could get him fingered," Canaday explained. "Maybe somebody gets hurt, and they can't take him to a regular hospital."


"True story: This clown sticks a ruby up one nostril, a diamond up the other, and he hops on a plane. Twelve hours later he hops off the plane, out comes the diamond but the ruby is gone. Vanished. He knows he can't go to the emergency room, so all he can do is go to his *sponsor,* shall we say, and explain the situation. Maybe the guy will kill him, but maybe he'll just cut his nose off. Well, the guy does neither. Instead he takes him to this doctor--"

"He's a doctor?" I interrupted.

"He's a doctor," Canaday confirmed. "See, ratting out a guy to the Feds, that's a shitty thing to do. But just telling a friend about a doctor, that's no big deal. Maybe you got a tattoo you don't like."

"Maybe I got a diamond up my ass," I said.

He gave me a wheezy laugh. "Me too, brother, me too." He wrote the name on a scrap of paper, plus an address.

"No phone number?" I asked.

"I don't want it could lead back to me," he said. "Besides, this ought to be enough."

I gave Canaday something for his trouble, but nowhere near what Mulder had offered him.

"If I can get the five thou out of Mulder, we'll split the difference," I said.

He pantomimed spitting on the floor. "Pepsi generation. Who needs them?" he said.

As soon as I got in my car I opened the box and had a look at my new weapon.

If I was ever going to order myself a custom-designed shiv, this wouldn't be the one. It was about as dangerous and impractical as a gas-engine nail clipper. The blade was deadly sharp and the spring was over-powered. I wanted to put it away with the blade extended, only it wouldn't fit in the box. Believe me, I was very careful as I retracted it.

Who would want a weapon like that? Well, Fox Mulder, for one. And also a certain Alvin Kurtzweil, purported medical doctor and performer of favors. I had given my word I wouldn't bring the law down on Alvin Kurtzweil, but that didn't mean I couldn't use my contacts to do some research.

What kind of doctor ends up with friends like Winston Canaday? What kind of doctor needs a spring-loaded ice pick?

I should have gone back to the office, because I couldn't focus on anything at home. Roz was all excited because Mark had landed a role in a real play, in a real theater, and instead of being happy for him I was a jerk.

"I bet he's the waiter."

"He doesn't only play waiters," she protested.

"He was a waiter on *Law and Order,*" I reminded her. "He was a waiter in that stupid commercial."

"He was excellent."

"Honey, he was on the screen for ten seconds. And he is a waiter, so it wasn't exactly a stretch."

"Just don't ask why the kids talk to me instead of you."

"They don't want to talk to me?" I asked. Jenny talks to me; it's her brother who has the problem.

"You should call Mark and tell him you're proud of him."

I tried, and ended up saying it to his answering machine. Probably just as well. I sat down on the couch and kicked off my shoes before swinging my feet up on the coffee table.

"You're working too hard," my wife said.

"This might be a bad time to tell you I'll be late again tomorrow." Tomorrow was our showdown with the chicken bandit.

"If we sold the house. . ."

"We'd still have to live somewhere."

"A condo. Less money. Less work. You could retire for real," she said.

"I like this house. I like my work."

"Sometimes it doesn't look like it," she said.

The next morning I did a computer search on Alvin Kurtzweil before I left for work. Turned out he was a real MD, med school and all. You never know with a mob doc, half the time it's a vet or a podiatrist. This guy was a gynecologist. He had a record, but nothing I would have expected. Multiple arrests for kiddie pornography, no convictions. Hopefully his present duties didn't involve children.

I arrived late at the office, but Mulder was later. I took it on myself to trace the route for the Prentice Poultry delivery, just in case Mulder wasn't on the ball. I was thinking that I really might stop by Skinner's again. He could be the only other man in the world who knew what it was like to spend every waking moment thinking about Mulder.

My electric ear signaled me to a call to Mulder's cell and I slipped on the headphones. It was the same crackpot, *Al.* Since my gabfest with Canaday I'd been wondering: Al, Alvin?

"Mencken," Al said.

"I can't play with you today. I'm on my way to work."

"I'm sure this time. The gazinta."

"You'll say anything to get me to do your errands."

"Errands? These are missions. Crusades."

"Forget it, Al."

"Don't call me that!"

"You can call me Betty," Mulder said. "I'm done chasing your half-assed clues."

"Mencken! Seventeen--four--twelve--three; Twenty--"

"I'm hanging up now."

"Mulder!" And then Al blurted out a name and a street address He was still yammering urgently when Mulder ended the call.

I did not finish my map, I did not finish my coffee. I went to my car and headed for the address. It was halfway between Mulder's house and my office, and there was no way he wouldn't check it out. I didn't even bother turning on the GPS to track his car.

It was called Gulliver's Travel Agency, and it was located up a flight of stairs between a laundromat and a bail bondsman. I didn't see Mulder's car but I knew he was coming. I parked around the corner and climbed up to meet Gulliver.

Gulliver turned out to be a slightly-built older man, Indian or Pakistani, with wispy white hair combed across his scalp. He was plucking items from his desk and tossing them into a brief case.

"Hi," I called brightly from the doorway. "Looks like you're going on a trip yourself."

"We are closed," he said.

"But this is an easy one. I'm looking for a cruise, five days. Someplace warm."

"Try another travel agent," he said.

I took a couple of steps into the room. "I can just take a few brochures," I offered.

"I have none," he said.

I didn't see any. There wasn't much in the room to make it look like a travel agency, beyond a few posters on the wall. A couch and a TV on a stand made me wonder if the little guy actually lived here.

"I'll help you pack. Maybe we'll find something," I said.

I reached for his briefcase, and he grabbed my arm. His old hand felt like steel.

"Hey, I just wanted to help!" I tried to sound dumb and confused.

"Who are you?" he asked.

"Nice way to treat a customer," I complained. "Let go of me."

In one motion he released my arm and punched me in the head. He used his fist, but it felt like a stick and it stunned me like I'd been coshed. I folded up like a string puppet and the little man tossed me out of the way like I was a sack of trash.

Some guys come up swinging, but it's usually safer to stay down. I lay in the corner, watching with very little curiosity while the little old man finished packing. Even when Mulder appeared at the door I was only mildly concerned.

"You must be Gulliver," Mulder said.

"We are closed."

"My friend was going to meet me here. Mind if I use your phone?"

Gulliver's shoulders stiffened, and he turned to the corner where I lay in my stupor. Before my eyes, with the old man staring into my face, Mulder killed him. I saw the flash of something shiny before he plunged it into Gulliver's neck. One blow, and Gulliver went down.

So that's how you use a spring-assist stiletto.

Mulder unplugged the processor from the computer, picked up the briefcase, and then struggled to carry them both from the room.

He hadn't even seen me. I heard him tramping down the stairs before I realized I should have called to him. I lay on the floor, fairly comfortable except for a sore spot where the old man had decked me. Fuzzy and content until I noticed that the little old man was shriveling up and turning green. Then I got a whiff of something. It wasn't tear gas, but my eyes burned and my nose and throat tightened until every breath was a chore. I remembered about the fire. If this place burned up like the last one, I was going to die. I decided to scream, but it came out more like a suggestion.

"Help. Help me?"

"Jerry? What are you doing here?" Mulder's voice, from the doorway, sounding far more beautiful than I remembered it.

I couldn't open my eyes but I managed to stagger to my feet. "Mulder?"

He was coughing as he stumbled to my corner.

"Shit, you're heavy," he complained as he dragged me down the stairs.

"You came back," I croaked gratefully.

"I wanted to see what else he had."

Mulder shoved me in his car.

"I'm going back to look around," he said.

"No," I warned him. "Fire. Like the house in Chevy Chase. Gonna burn."

"We don't know the time frame. It might take hours."

I fumbled for my phone.

"I'm calling 9-1-1. There are people in there."

Mulder climbed into the driver's seat. "I'll call," he sighed. He found a round-about way to do it, calling someone else and asking him to send the alarm, but he got it done.

He started the car. I wasn't foggy any more. I just felt lousy. "Were you sure he was one of them?" I asked.

"You saw what happened. That was no human," Mulder answered.

"How did you know that before you killed him?"

"I studied them," he said. "While they studied me, I studied them. Then afterward, I studied people."

Holy shit--that PhD he didn't want was a set-up. "The science behind intuition," I said.

"That was the part I could publish," he said. "Most of it was about how to spot a human."

My vision was improving, but my eyes burned more than ever and I was starting to shiver.

"Drop me off at home," I said.

"I'll take you to my place. Let Scully have a look at you."

"She's home?" I asked. Even if I'd lost track of a couple of hours, it was still the middle of the day.

"It's her late class. She leaves after dinner."

"I think I just need to rest," I said. Still, Mulder's offer sounded pretty good. It sounded a lot better than scaring the shit out of my wife.

"How are your eyes?" he asked.

"They hurt like hell," I said.

"Remember, you can't tell her about the alien."

"Great. I'll tell her an ordinary little old man cleaned my clock."

"Did he?" Mulder asked.

"Popped me on the head. He had a fist like a blackjack."

He nodded sympathetically. "We can say you bumped your head, but that won't explain your eyes."

"It feels like pepper spray," I said.

"What if some old lady thought you were trying to mug her? She whacked you with her cane and sprayed you with her mace?"

"That's so flattering."

"You were diving into the salad bar when you hit your head on the sneeze guard and fell into the jalapenos."

"Maybe your cheap aftershave knocked me out and I hit my head when I fell," I said.

Mulder shrugged. "We'll think of something."

"Yeah, we're doing great so far."

What I didn't realize was how much I'd be flying solo when it came to dealing with Dana. Mulder got me in the door and onto the couch, and then he took off.

Dana was too polite to come out and ask me what the hell I was doing in her house.

"I bumped my head and he thought you should have a look," I said. "I told him I was fine."

That explanation worked well enough, and I tried to be as straight with her as I could. She was relieved that I hadn't lost consciousness, but concerned when I described that foggy feeling: Awake, aware, but totally apathetic.

"What happened to your eyes?" she asked,

"I don't know. Allergic to something, I guess."

"You seem sleepy. Did you take Benadryl?"

"Yes." If she thought I was sleepy from getting clocked, she would keep me awake. Instead she washed my eyes with saline and gave me a blanket. I slept like a rock until Billy came thundering home from school. I woke up feeling rotten, but it was my regular rotten--backache, sour mouth, stiff neck, burning knees. The way I feel every morning.

"Uncle Jerry's here!" Billy observed.

"He needs to rest," Dana said.

"I'll help him."

Kids like me. Even babies burst into laughter at the sight of my face. It's a gift. Billy wanted to play basketball, but fortunately for me it was a video game.

"You lose! Play again?" Billy asked.

"Sure, kid. Who wins when you play against your dad?"

"I do, but he plays a lot better than you. You stink."

"My guy won't jump," I complained.

"'Cause you don't know what you're doing."

I was feeling well enough to leave, but I had no idea when Mulder would show up and I didn't want Dana to see that.

"I know you have to teach tonight. I can stay with Billy if you like."

"If it's not too much trouble," she said. She's crafty, though. Just as crafty as her husband.

She gave Billy an early supper, nudged him through his homework, and wrangled him a ride to his cub scout meeting. But meanwhile, on the sly, she canceled her class.

"Feeling better? I made lasagna," she said.

"You didn't have to do that."

"It's Stouffer's," she said. "I was hoping we could talk."

"Sure," I said. We sat down at the table, but I knew this was bad. I hoped against hope she was going to ask me if Mulder was having an affair.

"I'd offer you wine, but you bumped your head. We have root beer, if you'd like."

"Water's fine," I said. I picked up my glass, and she picked up hers. I thought we were going to clink them, but she took a sip and put hers down.

"Mulder's . . . changed," she said.

I stuffed a forkful of salad into my mouth.

"I understand that, after what he's been through. I would understand if he closed down emotionally," she said. "At first I thought that's what it was."

I nodded. It seemed better than saying something pointless.

"He hasn't closed down. Not with Billy. Not with me, most of the time." She pushed the salad around on her plate. "Sometimes it's as if a wall drops between us. He'll turn away, or even walk out the door."

She looked to me. I drank some water.

"I used to think he was crazy, the way he connected everything to conspiracies and aliens," she said. She kept poking at her salad, pushing the radishes into a little pile. "Now he won't even talk about it. He won't even listen."

It was the first time in my life I didn't feel like eating, but I speared a bite of lasagna. "Remember, he lost his security clearance," I said. "Maybe he doesn't want you to get in trouble."

"I hope he discusses it with other people. You, maybe?"

I chewed thoroughly, but she waited me out. "We talk about work, mostly. News, sports," I said. Her eyes were locked on mine, and she was begging me to tell her more. "Family. You. Billy. He loves you, Dana, there's no question about that."

She looked away and sighed. "He was fired from the Bureau, but I never believed that would stop him," she said. "Then you gave him a job, and I was sure he'd find a way to continue the work. Has he?"

My mouth was full. I shrugged.

"All he talks about are cheating husbands and crooked store managers. Ordinary mutts." She smiled, because she was using my word.

"That's most of my business," I said.

"When he enrolled at Maryland, he said we needed another doctor in the house." Again, those piercing blue eyes. "He never uses the title, and he never uses the degree. I thought maybe it had something to do with his search."

"Looks nice on the letterhead," I ventured, groaning a little inside.

"I could surrender my clearance, if that's the problem." She pushed her salad plate away. "I don't want to be the reason he abandoned his quest."

"He loves you," I said again.

"I know."

"Trust him," I said.

"I do trust him. Wait, what do you mean?" she asked, but I had said too much already. All I could do was lie, and it still didn't stop her from hurting. I told her I had to see a man about a chicken and bolted outside to call a cab.

The driver who arrived had one cloudy eye but he had one good eye. I let him drop me off a couple of blocks from where I'd parked my car, and I gave him my idea of an average tip. The streets had enough activity that I could blend in. There's something nice about a place where people just go about their business. Dupont Circle or Georgetown even, sometimes it feels like everyone's putting on a show.

I reached the street with the phony travel agent and saw I'd been right about the fire. The building was still standing but the front of the laundromat was boarded up and yellow tape crisscrossed the door to the staircase.

My car sat where I had left it, none the worse. I drove to my office, unlocked the door, and sat there in the dark. I guess I could have gone chasing after the chicken truck, but instead I played solitaire until midnight, and then I went home and went to bed.

I'd overlooked something, and it would have been sticky if my wife didn't prove once again that she's the brains in the outfit. We were eating breakfast, one of her low-calorie productions with egg whites and vegetables and yogurt pretending to be sour cream.

There was a knock at the door, an obnoxious one. Only a cop knocks like that. He wasn't wearing a uniform, but the cheap suit confirmed it even before he showed his badge.

"Is something wrong?" Roz asked. She was steeling herself for what he was going to say, but I knew it wasn't that kind of trouble. There's a different knock when they deliver bad news.

He was from the arson squad, checking out the license plates of suspicious vehicles. He wanted to know why my car spent half a day miles from my job or my house. He referred to the neighborhood as "gritty," which is a good description. The people who live there are mostly solid, but when somebody comes in from outside, they're not looking for yoga lessons or cappuccino.

I was rigging a story in my head. There was a bail bond place downstairs from the travel agency, so maybe I was a bounty hunter. Only it wasn't going to work if I couldn't remember the bondsman's name.

And then Roz jumped in. She's an artist.

"I'm sorry, Jerry. I never told you about this, but it's just one of those things," she said. "There's something you don't know about me."

"Aw, baby," I said.

"I was going for a wax job. Not one of those Brazilian waxes, just what they call a bikini wax."

"I'll need the name of the establishment," the investigator said.

"I don't understand about the Brazilian wax. Why should a grown woman have to look like a child? I don't know how the girls can stand it. Although I've heard you get used to it. Call me chicken, I don't want to find out. I just wanted something so I could wear a swimsuit without the worry. It's not a salon, just an apartment, but the girl does a good job, very professional. And her sister does nails. My girlfriend Barbara found them."

"Then I'll need their names," he said.

"Their real names? They're Korean, I think. Or Filipino? The girl who does waxing calls herself Lucy, and the sister with the nails is Lucille. Stupid, isn't it? Unless they're not really sisters. I don't think a mother would name her children Lucy and Lucille. But those aren't their real names."

"Ma'am, how long did it take for you to get your, um, bikini wax?"

"Oh, you have no idea. You see, when I got back to the car, the warning light was on. Not the oil light, the other one, for the engine. I was going to call Jerry, but then I would have to tell him about the wax. So I called Barbara. She said she would pick me up, and later she would ask her son to come look at my car. Well, there's no way I want *him* touching my car. I couldn't tell her that, so I said we should go to the Olive Garden. When you go at night there's such a long wait."

"Why don't you give the detective Barbara's number?" I suggested. Roz is a character, but Barbara is even worse.

"Barbara started going to them for the nails. Just the tips, at first, but then she started with the acrylics. Remember those crazy nails the girls used to have? One girl at the bank, especially. Two inches long, they must have been. She had to turn her hands sideways to count out the money. I used to wonder--how in the world does she wipe herself?"

"The funny thing was, when I went to pick up the car that evening, the light wasn't even on," I said. I had to jump in because Roz didn't know when the car was moved. "Maybe it was the brake light you saw, honey."

"Jerry, I can tell the brake light from the one where you need a mechanic," she said. "Not that Barbara's son is a mechanic. He can't keep a job, but she puts up with him, so I keep my mouth shut. A bum. And then I see how hard those Cambodian girls work, with the waxing and the nails. I'll be honest with you, I know it isn't legal waxing customers in your apartment. So if you want to arrest me, you go ahead, but I'm not going to get those girls in trouble."

The investigator stood up. He took out his card, as if he was going to tell her to call if she thought of anything else. Then he put it back in his pocket.

"If you have a woman detective, I could show her the wax job. It really came out nice," Roz said.

I walked the investigator to the door.

"Bikini wax," I said. "Who knew?"

Roz waited until the door was closed.

"This is about Mulder," she said.

"Yes. He's in the middle of something big," I said.

"Did he set that fire?"


"It's Mulder we're talking about. How can you be so sure?" she asked.

"I was there. He didn't set the fire."

"Then you're involved too."


"It's big and dangerous and you're in the middle, you and Mulder. And I bet you can't tell me anything about it."

When I was in the Bureau, I couldn't tell her anything about what I was doing, and it got me in the habit of keeping work to myself. This was different. The only danger now was that she'd think I was nuts. "I can tell you. I don't know if you'll believe me, because it's crazy stuff. You'll have a million questions, and I won't know the answers. We can talk about it after work."

She frowned. "Just how big is this?" she asked.

"Huge, but maybe it's so big that it doesn't matter. Like... like if you're a mouse in the cellar of the Vatican when they elect a new pope. You wouldn't give a damn."

"You wouldn't give a damn about his views on theology," she said. "You'd sure as hell want to know if he liked cats."

Two things I could have done if I was still trying to decide if Mulder was telling the truth. I could have seen a doctor to make sure my brain was working right, after yesterday's conk on the head. I could have sniffed into the arson investigation, at least to find out what time the fire started. I couldn't alibi Mulder for any time after he dropped me off at his place.

I didn't bother. Instead I sat down and played the video cassette where Mulder had recognized one man for an alien. Now that I'd met an alien up close and personal, maybe I'd be able to spot one on a tape. I knew the name of the dead VP, but not what he looked like. If I could pick him out, the way Mulder had. . . Well, I didn't know where we'd go from there.

I practically dozed off while I watched. I got myself a cup of coffee and tried again. One guy kept sticking out. What was different about him? Nothing, really. Not a movie star, but not a bad-looking guy either. He just looked like he wasn't where he belonged.

It sounded like hocus pocus, even to me, but I figured it was time to find a photo of the dead VP. I guess the man was camera shy, because it took a bit of digging. And . . . yeah, that was him.

When Mulder came in I was set to tell him what I'd done, and grill him about the ice pick and how to use it, but he was full of the latest news about Prentice Poultry.

The plan was for him to catch the heist on video, then give the crooked son the chance to come clean to his dad on his own. "It didn't go quite the way you had in mind," he said.

"What happened?" I asked.

"If the hijack went through, I'd be stuck giving depositions and testimony. Even if it didn't go to court, I could be tied up for weeks."

"Could be," I said. My gut told me that this was going to end up behind closed doors, with lawyers from the chicken farm and the FTC hashing out a deal. Old man Prentice was not going to send Junior to jail.

"So I kind of chased off the hijackers."

"So the shipment kind of went through?" I asked.

"The shipment went through, and then I drove over to visit Josh."

"Josh Prentice?" I asked. In my mind he'd always been *Junior.*

"Yeah. We took a walk. I bought him breakfast."

"And he broke down in tears telling you how his father never paid him any attention?"

"Actually, that's exactly what happened."

"He's confessing to the old man even as we speak?" I asked.


"All right. What you need to do is call the old man. Tell him his son has something to say, and he'll need to get squared with at least his insurance carrier to make this right. Because Josh is going to forget everything he told you. You've got to move while you have some momentum."

"You have better rapport with the old man. What if you call him while I call Josh," he suggested.

The day before I had learned that aliens are real, that they have a right fist like a wrecking ball, and that they spew green poison when they die. Today I was on the phone with a poultry magnate sympathizing about his wayward boy. I could see how Mulder had picked up his habit of cutting corners.

"You could have been killed, taking on the hijackers by yourself," I mentioned.

"It wasn't a real hijacking. I knew they wouldn't have guns. Anyway, I'm going home to get some sleep."

"What about the aliens?" I asked.

"Jerry, I was up all night following a chicken truck."

"What about the stuff you took from the travel agent?"

"My guys are working on it."

"You have guys?"

"My three friends with the VW van. They're my computer guys," he said. "They'll let me know when they have something."

Mulder was going to bed. I could carry on with my regularly scheduled activities.

I think that was the freakiest thing of all. The aliens have landed, but the chicken parts must go through.

Mulder was in and out of the office over the next few days. I don't know if he was dodging me or if he was just busy. One evening I picked up a six-pack of Molson and headed over to Skinner's.

He was using the walker this time, and leaning on it hard.

"Bad day," he explained, grimacing. He took his time getting himself back into his chair, and when he was finally seated he unfastened his prostheses and let them drop to the floor.

"Can I get you anything? Call anyone?" I asked.

"No. Just a bad day," he said.

"Maybe you shouldn't," I said, showing him the six-pack.

"Few sips won't hurt."

I opened a beer and handed it to him. He took a swallow and set it down on the table.

"How's life up on the tightrope?" he asked.

"Maybe you can help me out with that," I said.

Before he answered, he looked down to where his legs ended in stumps. It was a quick glance, and he looked up as soon as he realized he was doing it.

"What can I do for you?" he asked.

"Whatever Mulder's doing to fight the aliens, he's doing it on his own. If more of us could get together, at least we'd have a chance. We can go on-line, hook up with other people who believe. We can spread the word."

"Were you in the service?" he asked.


"Ever seen combat? Because you're looking at it the wrong way. They're stronger than us by a factor you can't imagine. They have abilities we don't understand. Our only real hope is that they get tired of us."

"So, sabotage? Guerrilla tactics?"

"Think about this, Luskin." He folded up the walker and set it down to lean against his chair. "You've got a wife and a family. You better think long and hard before you decide to do anything that will make you stand out."

"What if I'm willing to take the risk?" I asked, even though I didn't know if I was willing or not. For the first time I considered that torturing Mulder and letting him go might have been their idea of a warning.

"Then do it on your own. Don't turn to the internet because that's one place where they blend among us with total ease."

Skinner picked up his bottle and picked at the label. I opened a beer for myself. "They're not invincible," I said. "I saw Mulder kill one."

"What kind?" he asked.


"What kind? Black oil? Big claws? Shapeshifter?"

"I don't know what you're talking about. No claws, no oil, and no shapeshifting either. He stuck a pick in its neck and it died."

"Green stuff came out?" he asked.

"Yeah, green poison gas."

Skinner nodded. "That was a shapeshifter. Some of them are on our side. Some have moral objections to interfering with us, and many more think it's not worth the expense. A few just think we're cool. They come here on assignment and *go native.*"

Mulder had compared himself to an Aztec trying to warn Montezuma about the Conquistadors. I was starting to feel like an Aztec dropped off in the middle of the Senate cafeteria, trying to make sense of the cliques and coalitions.

"That's hard to believe."

"Some of the aliens are better friends to us than some of the humans," he continued. "The last time humans banded together to face the threat, they sold us out."

Skinner was telling me to give Mulder room to work, and my wife was saying it was time to drive up to New York and see Mark's play. We went.

Holy cannoli but he was good. The play was so-so, sort of a semi-comedy about a mob boss. Think *Guys & Dolls* meets *Scarface.* Mark, though, was phenomenal. He played the second-in-command to the main detective. He didn't have any solo numbers, but in one of the songs he had a line to himself. Also, in scenes with just the crime family, he was one of the background mutts. I knew he had a great voice, but I never realized he could dance. It was weird to see his name on the Playbill, because he goes by Mark Laskin. Sounds better than Luskin, right? It took me a second to remember it wasn't a typo.

We spent a few days, did some tourist stuff, revisited some favorite places. Roz said there was no point in even thinking about how much we were spending, and I agreed with her. We took Mark out to dinner a couple of times, and once we had lunch with him and his roommate.

Driving home, I felt pretty good. You don't like to see your kid pick a career with so many ups and downs. A million broken hearts and all that. But I could see that right now he was doing okay. Doing great.

"We should fly out and visit Jenny," my wife said.

"We should," I agreed. "Maybe fly her to New York so she can see the play."

"I'd like to take Mom."

Bringing her mother home for Passover every year is more work than the cooking.

"Her hearing's gotten so bad," I reminded her. "Maybe Mark could get someone to tape him."

"It's a short flight."

"You know, Marthe was saying she wanted to see it. . ." What would it take for me to send my office manager in my place?

"We'll wait till it's warmer," she said. "Jerry, what did you think of Lawrence?"

Lawrence was the roommate.

"He seemed nice," I said.

"I like him too."

Roz was beat, so instead of stopping at the diner we went straight home. Then I went out for coffee and a doughnut.

Couple of doughnuts couldn't add much damage after four days of fabulous dining. No point in brewing a whole pot of coffee just for me. That explains the coffee and the doughnut. I have no explanation for why I decided to stop in at my office.

Mark's big number was about forgotten cops, how everyone remembers the bad guys' names, but not the cops who brought them down. I was whistling the tune as I opened the door. The reception area was dark, but light was coming from the hallway. I stopped whistling. I hadn't seen any cars out front, but I hadn't checked in back. I drew my weapon as I went to investigate.

And yeah, I'd brought my piece to New York. I feel safer if I'm packing.

Mulder stepped out of his office and stood there blocking the doorway.

"What's up?" I asked.

"My client doesn't want to be seen here," he said. "I promised him privacy."

I gave him a look to ask him what was up. If he couldn't talk at least he could give me some signal.

"I'll explain later. Go home," he said.

It wasn't so much that I didn't believe him as I didn't care. If Mulder was telling the truth all we'd lose was a customer. I pushed past him into the room.

"Jerry! Now this is a treat."

It was Barry, the dart-playing bowler from Applebee's. Only there was something off about him, something I hadn't noticed the first time.

"Good to see you, man. Are you here on business?" I asked.

"Yes, unfortunately. I wish I had time to buy you a drink."

"Business, Jerry. If you'll excuse us," Mulder said pointedly.

I holstered my gun, but I left the strap open.

"Might as well stay, now that I've seen him," I said, flashing a nice, easy smile in Barry's direction.

"I'm sure Mulder can handle this on his own," Barry said.

He was a big, genial man, the kind of guy who would help you put in a deck or lend you his truck. He looked nothing like Gulliver the travel agent or the dead VP from the construction firm, but somehow he seemed the same. I could only think of one reason for that.

"Where are you from, Barry?" I asked. "I don't think you ever told us."

"He knows," Barry said to Mulder.

"He knows nothing," Mulder insisted. "Jerry, I'm begging you, don't mess this up for me. Just go home."

"What would you say if I told you I was from another planet?" Barry asked.

"Wow," I said. "Now that's what I call a tourist."

Apparently that wasn't the right answer.

"Sorry, boys, but playtime's over. Put your weapons on the table."

"Come on, Barry, just a friendly conversation. And Jerry's gonna go now," Mulder said.

I could say that Barry moved fast for a big man, but he moved faster than any man. I thought he was going to go for my gun, but he didn't go for me at all. He went for Mulder. One hand on his arm, and then the sharp crack of broken bone.

"Shit!" Mulder's voice was ragged and he doubled forward clutching his arm against his chest. "Why'd you do that?"

"You are dangerously unpredictable, and your friend may prove a distraction," Barry said. "Put your weapon on the table if you want to continue this conversation."

Mulder made the effort, but he couldn't get to his piece left-handed.

"Give it to him," he said, twisting toward me as he pulled back his jacket to expose the shoulder holster. "Give him yours too."

I stared at Mulder, waiting for some sign of alarm. His bowling buddy from another planet had just snapped his arm like it was a quick alternative to handcuffs.

"Guns don't work on him anyway," Mulder added. His face was tight with pain, but I didn't see fear. Speechless, I laid down Mulder's gun and then mine.

"Surrender your weapon, Mulder. That's not a suggestion," Barry said.

"You have it." Mulder jerked his head to indicate our guns.

"I'm beginning to understand why everyone finds you so irritating. Would you really prefer for me to break more bones before I disarm you myself?"

Mulder looked annoyed as he groped awkwardly in his pocket, but when Barry reached forward to help him, he turned away. Finally he produced his second weapon, that shiny silver stiletto with the spring-loaded blade.

"I should break your neck just for fun," Barry said.

"What's wrong with you?" Mulder asked. "Are you on the rag or something?"

"I've been summoned."

"Summoned. And all this time you've insisted that you don't work for them."

"I don't work for any government or any faction. I am merely an observer."

"Some observer. You broke his arm," I said. That drew his attention.

"I can't tell you how much I've enjoyed your company. You're not as urban or urbane as your friend here, but your middle-brow wisdom is simply a joy."

"Barry's just a big old fanboy when it comes to humans," Mulder explained.

"The wounded wise-cracking hero used to be one of my favorites, until the novelty wore off."

"His fuckin' planet decides to get the hell off our fuckin' planet, and he's taking it out on me," Mulder said.

"Not quite. My *fuckin' planet* is calling home the civilians, because your *fuckin' planet* is no longer approved for casual visitors."

"We're a travel destination?" I asked.

"What other planet has Elvis Costello and banana cream pie?" Mulder asked.

"Or Whitney Houston, before you people ruined her," Barry said. "But where are my manners? Please, gentlemen, have a seat and make yourselves comfortable."

We did what he wanted, and he stood facing us, his back to the door.

"I'd be a lot more comfortable if you would unbreak my arm," Mulder said.

"I thought you opposed extraplanetary interference."

"Hurts like a bitch," Mulder said.

"That's the core of a raging argument in some circles. Is it morally acceptable to abandon this little world after so many years of manipulation?"

"They used us as their laboratory. They gave us diseases," Mulder explained to me.

"Mistakes were made. If it were possible to return you to your pristine state, I'm sure we would do it," Barry said.

"That's a piss-poor apology," Mulder said.

"I asked him to be quiet and let me use my influence. In a few years they might forget about you entirely. Is that unreasonable?" Barry aimed the question at me.

"He's not good at keeping quiet," I said.

"Scully has a fucking microchip in her neck. They made her walk into a fire. They can read her thoughts. They can force her to hurt herself, or our son," Mulder said.

"The political picture has shifted entirely. Nobody with any authority wants to do that," Barry said.

"Humor him," I said to Barry. "Just take the chip out and he'll lay low."

"If he was serious he could take it out himself. Set her free, since it means so much to him."

"But she would die," I said.

"She will die anyway. What does she have left? Forty years? Fifty?"

"Barry, you could do this for me. You're leaving anyway, and I'll wait until you're gone. Just tell me how to do it," Mulder said.

Barry shook his head. "It can't be done. Not safely."

"It can," Mulder insisted.

Even Barry could hear the desperation in Mulder's voice. "Only in theory," he said gently.

"But there's a device for it. Something that locks into the tumor seed so it can be removed," Mulder said.

"Tumor seed?" I asked. My wife beat breast cancer fifteen years ago. I lost a nephew to Hodgkin's. "What? You guys invented cancer?"

"Look how far *you guys* have come toward a cure," Barry said.

"Do the right thing, Barry. Do it because it's right," Mulder pleaded.

"You've become intolerable, Mulder, in a very literal sense, but for the sake of our friendship, I will fix your arm," Barry said quietly.

That's what he did. I couldn't see how he did it, because he was standing between us, towering over Mulder even as he lowered himself down to chair level. I think he really did feel some friendship for Mulder, but as he'd told us up front, this was business.

"Better?" Barry asked.

"Yeah, thanks," Mulder said. He flexed his arm a couple of times and seemed satisfied. "Barry, I'm so close. I've got the device. I just need someone to operate it."

"I've really enjoyed knowing you, Mulder. You're an archetype, but also an original," Barry said.

"Give me a name then. Tell me someone else who can help."

"I thought you learned of someone. I thought you had a source who would help you."

"He stopped calling. Did you people take him?" Mulder asked.

Barry was tall and muscular, and I didn't like the way he was standing over Mulder. "*You people.*" He sighed. "We're many people, just as you are."

"Hey, can you say something in your language? What do you think of earth women?" I asked. "Do you have spaceships?" I couldn't draw his attention.

"I'll miss you, Mulder," he said. "I'll never think about Earth without remembering you."

"Don't go all maudlin on me."

"A small crew of scientists will remain. I'll do what I can to see that Scully isn't bothered."

"Thanks." Mulder sounded surprised. He also sounded clueless.

Barry leaned closer to him. "This will be painless, and as quick as I can make it."

For once in my life, I was quicker.

I'd never killed anyone before, never stabbed anyone, and I think my hand shook as I gripped the spring-loaded stiletto. I'd seen Mulder use one, but I'd been at the wrong angle. I didn't know what I was doing and I didn't know if I could do it.

I could. I pressed the point against the back of his neck and popped the switch. Barry grunted once before he dropped, and I had to take a hop backward so he didn't knock me over.

Mulder looked at me in astonishment. "How?" he asked.

"Ice pick," I managed to answer, even as Barry corroded on the floor and wisps of gas hissed out from the puncture. "We gotta go," I said, because I wanted to be out of there before he burst into flames. As I reached down to pull out my stiletto Mulder said, "No, leave it," but my hand was faster than my brain and it kept going. The blade left the hole, and the leak of green gas went from a trickle to a gush.

"Fuck," said Mulder. We grabbed our guns and ran.

We met up at an all-night coffee shop. Old habits die hard, and both of us jockeyed for the seat facing the door. I knew Mulder was off his game when I won. I fed some quarters into the jukebox, another old habit. I had so many questions I didn't know where to start.

"You make a lousy Scully," Mulder said.

"She lets you watch the door?" I asked.

He smiled. "She had no field experience when she was assigned to me. She didn't know about watching the door until she read it in a crime novel."

"No experience at all?" I asked. A new agent should start out in a large division, at least for a couple of months. The X-Files was not a normal choice for a first assignment.

"I was a crummy mentor." He peeled the wrapper of his straw and twisted it into a string. "I fell in love with her."

"But how could you work like that?" I asked. It's one thing for two forensic accountants to snuggle up after they analyze the books. But two field agents, where one might have to send the other into danger?

"The psychological term is *suppression.* I refused to think about it and I kept my distance."

"Obviously that didn't last."

He flattened the straw and rolled it into a spiral. "When there's one person who comes through for you and trusts you to come through for them, and you get to where you take the trust for granted, and then you find out there's more to them . . ." He shrugged. "You know how it is with a partner."

I spread some marmalade on my English muffin. "Even on stake-outs where Gilligan wore his blond wig, I was never tempted," I said.

"But even Gilligan, if they did something to him you'd want to get them back. And what they did to Scully. . ." He unwound his straw and stretched it out on the table, smoothing it flat with his index finger. "So what kind of partner am I?" He looked up at me. "What kind of husband?"

"What exactly do you think you can do? Barry said they were leaving. He said nobody was interested in her any more. The bug's still in place, but no one is listening."

He'd ordered a grilled cheese sandwich, and it sat there on his plate while he consumed his fries. That sandwich started looking mighty good after my English muffin was gone. "So what are your options?" I asked.

"Option one, I don't do anything. We're just a big wad of dogshit that they stepped in by mistake, and they have no intention of coming back to us," Mulder said.

"Kind of what Barry said."

Mulder nodded. "Option two, I take the information I got from the executive's computer, and the device I got from the skinny old travel agent, and I use them to get rid of the chip and the cancer. I know that's what Scully would choose--in spite of the risk."

"Risk?" I asked.

"Death. Cancer. Brain damage."

"Shit," I said.

"If I lost her. . ." His voice trailed off, but his hand was on the spot where his jacket bulged over his gun.

"Mulder." I felt like I was trying to call him back from somewhere.

His shoulders slumped and his hand dropped to the table. "But there's Billy."

"Damn right there's Billy," I said.

"Billy," he agreed. "Damn right. Anyway, I have the instructions, but I still need a doctor to operate the device."

"That's what you meant when you asked Barry to give you a name."

"He might have come through if you hadn't killed him."

"Yeah, you had him right where you wanted him."

His sigh acknowledged my point. "It's like I told Barry. I had someone, but I pissed him off and he won't talk to me."

"You have that effect on people. Want me to talk to him?"

"Yeah, if I could find him. He only calls from a prepaid disposable."

"Al," I said. "The guy who made you shred the *Washington Post*."

"What did you do, tap my phone?" Personally, I don't know how anyone can trust a cell phone, but Mulder was honestly indignant.

"You don't have to tap a cellular," I reminded him. I *intercepted* it."

"Is that how you got the ice pick?"

"Winston Canaday's an old associate of mine. We, uh, work well together."

"Yeah, I knew he was one of your mutts," Mulder said.

"Halfway between a mutt and a weasel," I explained. "Oh--he got a name for you. Another guy who was looking for an ice pick."

"Really? Someone who knows about the aliens and knows how to kill them."

"A mob doc. Actually--"

The click in my brain was more like a resounding clunk, like a giant wheel had turned and all its heavy gears had groaned into place.

"Actually, Mulder, this could be the guy you need."

One thing about the aliens I'd gotten wrong. They don't automatically burn when you kill them. The travel agency and the construction exec's mansion must have been booby-trapped. The next time I went to my office, Barry was gone but there was no damage at all.

I had an interesting time telling Roz about it. She took it all in, nodding now and then.

"Well?" I asked when I was finished.

"Well what?"

"That's all you have to say?"

"I don't like the part about do-it-yourself brain surgery on Dana."

"Nose surgery. Just taking something out of her nose."

"Maybe you don't realize the proximity of the nasopharynx to the brain. I'll draw you a diagram."

"No, that's okay."

But she did. You know, there's a lot of stuff up there. Nerves, arteries, bones. And the brain is right there too.

"Lucky we found a medical doctor for that part," I said.

"A gynecologist. I wonder if he's planning to take the scenic route."

Kurtzweil's office was in back of an appliance repair shop.

"How did you find me?" he asked huffily when Mulder and I burst through his door.

"This is my friend Jerry. He knows everybody," Mulder said.

"Everybody?" Kurtzweil eyed me uneasily. Most people who pay for his services are connected, and he had to be thinking I was a wiseguy.

"What's the story, Alvin? You let Mulder do favors for you, and now you don't want to do for him?" I asked. I should have brought a cigar to light.

"Killing those things, that's good for all of us, isn't it?"

"Don't be a weasel, Alvin." I gave him a slap on the cheek and ordered him to sit down. "Go ahead, Mulder. Show him what you got."

Mulder reached for something in his pocket. From the outside it looked the same as the spring-assist stiletto. It made me sick to think about getting it shoved up your nose.

Kurtzweil took the device and turned it over in his hand. "I don't know," he said.

"I heard about the ruby," I said. "Alvin here was able to prevent a misunderstanding with an associate of ours in the import business," I explained to Mulder.

"The ruby was this big," he protested, holding his thumb and pointer finger a half-inch apart. "I don't even know what a cancer chip looks like."

"You're a doctor, Alvin. A man worthy of respect," I said

"Respect is everything to Jerry," Mulder reminded him.

Kurtzweil looked at me with more fear than respect. He pushed the button on the device he was holding, and instead of a spike, a length of cable curled out from it.

"Like a plumber's snake," I said. "Easy."

"The tip is supposed to match itself to the cancer chip. It's practically automatic," Mulder said.

"I'd be happy to recommend a good ENT," Kurtzweil offered.

"We'll be in touch, Alvin. Don't leave town." I patted his cheek, gently this time, and we left.

"Somebody's been watching way too much Sopranos," Mulder said when we were back in the car.

"You kidding me? That was Marlon Brando."

"Well, Alvin's buying it. How long until he figures it out?" Mulder asked.

"Couple of days, easy. He's not going to take the chance of asking around about me."

Mulder nodded. He was quiet as I drove back to the office.

"What's our next step?" I asked, but he didn't seem to hear me. Except that ten minutes later he said:

"We have to go see Skinner."

"We do?" I pulled over to the right lane, because that exit was coming up.

"You know where he lives?" Mulder asked.

"I've been there."

"That's good, that brotherhood stuff. I don't see him enough."

I do make it a point to keep in touch with fellow agents going through bad times, but they're guys I've worked with side by side. Skinner was never in that category.

"So why go there now?" I asked.

"Scully named Skinner as her proxy. She chose him to make her decisions if she can't do it herself," he said.

I thought that was strange, but there was no damn way I could say so. Naturally you'd figure Mulder would be the one.

"She doesn't trust me to pull the plug," Mulder explained.

I was going to say how this wasn't about pulling the plug, but again I shut my mouth. If things went bad, it could come to that.

"He's a good choice," I said. Skinner knew what life was like when other-world hardware took over your body.

"Thanks," he snapped.

"She wanted to spare you the guilt," I suggested. "Besides, Skinner can be more objective." I glanced over at Mulder and saw his hands were in fists.

"I got it," he said. "Just shut up."

Skinner answered the door before I finished knocking, but he was sitting in a wheelchair.

"Mulder?" he said, after a brief nod in my direction.

"It's been a while, sir," Mulder said. "How, uh, have you been?"

"I'm waiting for the medi-cab. I thought you were the driver."

"If this is a bad time," Mulder mumbled.

"It's fine. Come in."

"What happened to your legs?" I asked Skinner.

"They had to be re-fitted. I'm picking them up today."

"We could come back," Mulder offered, but Skinner was already backing himself out of our way and I followed him in.

"I'm sorry I haven't been to see you," Mulder said.

Skinner maneuvered his chair to face the sofa. Mulder and I sat down.

"We're both busy men," Skinner said. "Why are you here now?"

"It's about Scully."

Skinner nodded. "Is she all right?"

"That's really the question," Mulder said.

"She seemed fine last week," Skinner said.

"She is fine," Mulder said. Skinner looked at his watch, and I decided to take a chance on talking out of turn.

"There might be a way to take the microchip out of her neck, but maybe it won't work. Maybe it will kill her. Maybe it will remind the aliens they have unfinished business."

Mulder nodded. "Yeah, that's about it," he said.

"You can take it out and she won't get cancer?" he asked.

"If it works," Mulder said. "The faction that manages the chip is a fringe group, laying low for now."

"For now," Skinner repeated.

"I don't know if the chip is even working any more,"

"If you doubt the destructive power of antiquated, abandoned alien technology, take a good look at me," Skinner said.

"This isn't about you," Mulder said.

"The Lone Gunmen think the chip could malfunction at any time, or that it could be hacked," Skinner said.

"They might be wrong."

Skinner leaned way forward, his hands gripping the arms of his chair. "What the hell's the matter with you, Mulder?"

"I just don't want to hurt her." He sounded dazed and distant.

"Well, you are," Skinner said. "She knows you don't trust her. You're afraid of losing her, but she's already lost you."

"That's not fair," Mulder protested. "That's really not fair."

"Don't let this chance go by." It wasn't an order, it was a commandment. "Take care of your partner. Take care of your wife."

Mulder didn't say a word, just got up off the couch and walked out the door.

"I'll call you," Skinner whispered as I followed Mulder out.

If it wasn't for Billy, I think we would have done it that night, but there was an easy way to get him out of the picture if we waited a day. Dana had family coming to town, and Billy would be able to have a wonderful visit and sleep-over at his grandmother's house with his adored cousin. Mulder and Dana sat in the front seat, Billy and I were in the back.

"Matthew is a skateboard genius," Billy told me. "Everyone is, in California. I bet I'd be good if we didn't have to live here."

"We've got the Air and Space Museum and the National Zoo," I said.

"They have Disneyland, and their zoo is awesome too. Matthew plays the drums, and I can't play the drums because we live in an apartment. And I can't have a skateboard because Mom says there's no place to use it."

Dana had to know that something was up. I never doubted her trust in Mulder, and the way she went along with his convoluted arrangements proved it. Did it really make sense for Billy to sleep at his grandmother's when the house would be full with his uncle's family? Why was I coming along for the ride? Dana never asked.

"Matthew and his mom get to fly in on a Navy plane because his dad is in the actual Navy!" Billy said.

"Your mom is in the actual FBI," I reminded him.

"Big whoop," he said.

"Your dad is a P.I.," Mulder added.

"So gay," Billy said.

"William! That is not appropriate," Dana admonished him.

"Jerry and I are just friends," Mulder said.

"Stop it, Mulder," Dana said.

Billy turned to me. "Dad said your son is gay, but you don't talk about it."

"I told you he hears everything," Dana hissed.

"That's right," I said. "He's a famous actor."

"Cool. I didn't mean that kind of gay."

"No harm done."

We were going to pick up Dana's sister-in-law and nephew at the naval air base, which was the opposite direction from Baltimore. Dana would drive me to pick up a rental car while Mulder waited for the plane.

That last wrinkle was my contribution, because Mulder wouldn't be allowed to take his gun on the base, and he'd have to leave it with me. That was the warning Skinner gave me by telephone; make sure Mulder was unarmed in case something went wrong with Dana's treatment.

We were all supposed to meet up by some restaurant, and the sister-in-law and the kids could drive to Baltimore in the rental while Dana, Mulder, and I went back to the city. Dana's mom owned a compact, and Dana's brother was a big man. His ship wasn't due in for a couple more days, but Mulder said it was cheaper to rent by the week anyway. It probably was.

"I'm going in the SUV with Matthew, right?" Billy asked.

"Yes, William, you can ride with your cousin," Dana confirmed.

"'Cause this car is gay."

Dana knew something was up, and she knew it was something about her. She'd quietly refused her sister-in-law's pleas to go along to Baltimore, and she was practically silent through lunch. If it wasn't for the two boys whooping and giggling you would have thought we were at a funeral.

Now she sat next to Mulder, I sat in the back, and I saw they were holding hands.

"Matthew's grown," Mulder said.

"They really need to take him to an orthodontist," said Dana.

"Are you sure they haven't?" Mulder asked anxiously.

"I don't know, Mulder. Maybe they have," she said.

"Jerry, you still have my gun," Mulder said. The first time he asked for it I'd pretended not to hear him.

"It's in the lockbox in the trunk," I said.

"When did you get a lockbox for the car?" Dana asked Mulder.

"I didn't."

"It's mine," I explained.

"We should get one," she said.

"I'll pull over at the rest stop, so you can give me my gun," Mulder said. There was a Welcome Center ahead, with a bathroom and restaurant.

"They make that Maryland fried chicken here, with the cream gravy," I said.

"Jesus Christ, Jerry, we just ate," he said.

"Yeah, but it's hard to find, and as long as we're stopping anyway. . . "

It worked. He drove on past.

Twenty miles later Dana broke the silence:

"I enjoyed Jennifer's paper," she said.

"Oh. Thanks." Nobody calls her Jennifer, and I didn't know she'd sent a paper to Dana.

"She should think about dental school."

"*My* Jennifer? She's an anthropologist."

"If she's serious about forensic odontology. . ."

"There goes your retirement," Mulder said.

Jen was paying her own way through grad school, except for a little help here and there. I wouldn't mind paying for dental school if at least she would be a dentist. I started thinking about how we could re-do my wife's office, hang a new shingle. Dentist, that was something you could fall back on.

What does it tell you when thinking about paying out thousands of dollars is a welcome distraction?

Mulder turned off the highway and drove us through an ugly industrial area, but Dana didn't say anything. She didn't ask when he parked the car in front of a dusty storefront in a half-empty block of concrete buildings.

"I guess we're here," she said, releasing her seat belt.

"We're here," he confirmed. He led the way into the shop and she followed, but first she turned to me and handed over her gun.

"Keep him safe." She didn't even say it out loud, just mouthed the words. I tucked the gun into my waistband. I hate how that feels but I had no place else to put it.

Kurtzweil was waiting for us, but I can't say he was glad to see us.

"A word with you, sir?" he said.

"You're among friends, Alvin. Call me Jerry," I said.

"Jerry, I mean you no disrespect, but I cannot carry out this procedure. The risks are too great, and I have sworn an oath to do no harm."

"Alvin, any further delay will obligate me to shoot you in the knee. That will make the procedure more dangerous still, and therefore a greater violation of your oath. I say this with all respect."

"You're a doctor?" Dana asked Kurtzweil.

She'd been so cooperative and quiet I had started to wonder if Mulder had actually briefed her. I didn't think he would risk it, but it would explain her unquestioning obedience. Now I knew he hadn't told her a thing. She just plain trusted him.

"I am a doctor, but unqualified to do what they demand of me," Kurtzweil answered.

Right now he looked like an alcoholic who'd gone too long without a drink.

"Unless a bullet in the knee would improve your qualifications, I suggest we get started," Dana said.

"His hands are shaking," Mulder hissed into my ear.

Kurtzweil pushed open the door that led to his area of the shop, and Dana was right behind him.

"I don't want him to touch her," Mulder whispered.

"It isn't your choice," I reminded him.

Kurtzweil's room had a variety of benches and chairs. I guess most of his business was tattoo removal. I wondered what Dana thought as she looked around.

"Where do you want me?" she asked, and he waved toward the chair.

She was ready to hop in, except that's when Mulder lost it.

"Scully!" He had his arms around her and if he wasn't crying he wasn't far from it.

"It's all right, Mulder. I want to do this."

"Give me your gun," he said in a low croak.

"What, you shoot me if I won't do it, he shoots me if I do?" Kurtzweil complained.

"I don't have my gun, and you don't need one. If anyone needs to be shot, Jerry will shoot them," she said. She sounded like a kindergarten teacher, and it was pretty funny but nobody laughed.

"Scully," he said again. She touched his chin and he leaned down to kiss her. They stood there a while, him towering over her, finally resting his cheek against her head, and then she pushed him away and got into the chair.

"Give the doctor room to work, Mulder," she said, and he took a step back.

"Mulder, go sit down. I don't want you passing out."

It made me feel better to think that Dana was the one in charge. Mulder sat down on a low bench.

"What is your name, Doctor?" Dana asked.

"Kurtzweil. I'm Alvin Kurtzweil."

She nodded. "Go wash your hands, Dr. Kurtzweil," she said. And he did.

"Do you need to set up?" she asked.

He thumped down a couple of grayish towels, a pack of gloves, and a tube of KY jelly. Then he showed her that thing that looked like our ice-pick weapons. I think she went pale, but maybe not. She's kind of pale anyway.

"I was afraid to use the autoclave," Kurtzweil said. "Didn't want to break it."

"Good thinking," she said.

"I'll scrub."

He washed his hands again and put on the gloves. Dana Scully must be the bravest woman in the world, because she had no idea what he was going to do, and she just sat there.

Kurtzweil picked up the icepick and pushed the button, and the little coiled cable jumped out. Dana's eyes got wide but she didn't say anything. He dabbed the end of the cable in a blob of jelly, and then he brought it up against her nostril. I couldn't help wincing, but not Dana.

Kurtzweil poked and fiddled, asking her to turn her head first this way, then that. Her eyes closed to slits and her mouth was a twisted frown as he slid the cable into her nose and then stood there holding it.

"I'm trying, Jerry, you see that," he said. "It's not happening like in the literature."

Mulder's head dropped and he sank forward on the bench.

Dana's voice cut through the silence, a little nasal but crisp with authority. "Try the other naris," she said.

Kurtzweil pulled the thing out, lubed it again, and poked it into the other nostril. All this time his hands had been shaking, so it took me a second to realize that the thing itself was now vibrating.

Kurtzweil seemed relieved. "Automatic. It guides itself," he said.

I guess all Kurtzweil had to do was hold it and feed it in, or maybe not even that much. Dana had her head back and her eyes closed, but then all of a sudden the cable in her nose went from flexed to rigid. Her eyes flew open and she let out a surprised "oh!"

"You found it. Get it out," Mulder said.

"It's against the bone," Kurtzweil said.

"It's supposed to latch on," Mulder said. He was standing behind Kurtzweil, watching over his shoulder.

"The bony plate is in the way," Kurtzweil explained.

"You're going to have to break through," Dana said. "Mulder, go sit down."

"What? How?" Kurtzweil asked.

"Press harder," she said. I was thinking of the picture Roz made for me, with all the blood vessels and nerves back there.

"I'm pressing," Kurtzweil insisted.

"Push harder before Jerry has to shoot you," Dana added vehemently. Tears leaked from her eyes, but her voice was hard as flint.

His eyes squinted shut and he pressed. The cable-thing began to hum and whatever it was doing must have hurt because Dana was grimacing and her hands gripped the arm rests. I could smell something burning.

"You're doing a very good job," Dana said through clenched teeth.

The smell grew worse and there was a trickle of blood from her nose. Dana's head was jammed against the chair and her back was arched. There was no doubt it hurt, but she wasn't making any noise and I was grateful. If she'd screamed or even whimpered, I know Mulder would have lost control. Maybe me too.

Meanwhile that cable-thing had sprung to life. It was like a silver snake, throbbing and twisting on its own. Dana looked like she was trying to escape into the chair. Maybe it was the effort to keep from screaming or maybe it was because she had that thing up her nose, but her breath was coming in gasps that sounded too harsh and too infrequent. I was starting to feel like I was trapped in a nightmare but if Mulder could take it I knew I had to take it too. He was sitting on one of the benches, suddenly drenched in sweat. I'd been leaving it to him to call this off if it went too far, and now I had to wonder if he was even capable. Dana was right--he would have passed out.

Suddenly the humming noise stopped. The cable-thing gave out a little *ping,* and with a snap it curled back into the handle. Mulder jumped up and grabbed the device from Kurtzweil's hand. He pressed the button and the coil slid out, but now it was cool dead metal. He held it up to the light as he studied it.

"There's the chip," he said. He held it out in front of Dana. "This made the cancer, Scully. I had to get it out."

"I can't see it," Kurtzweil said, crowding in to get a look.

Mulder elbowed him aside. "You're not finished. You have to cut the chip out of her neck," he said.

"I don't think the device will work on that one," he said. "I'll get you more leads, more names, and maybe you can find what we need for that second chip."

It's funny how a guy can sound like a weasel even when you don't know what he's talking about. I took a step closer to him, just for the hell of it.

Dana was holding a bit of gauze up against her nose. "It's right here, Dr. Kurtzweil," she said coolly, fingering a spot on her neck. "You can see the scar and you can feel it under the skin. Now pick up your scalpel and get it out."

Whatever scam Kurtzweil had been planning, he gave it up and did what she said.

Later when I told my wife about it, she gave me another lecture about anatomy. She said stuff on your neck could turn out to be attached to your spinal cord. You don't just go cutting without having an x-ray, a CAT scan--something so you have some idea what's in there. She mentioned scrubbing the area thoroughly and then using lidocaine to make it numb. Kurtzweil didn't do those things. A dab of alcohol, a slit with the scalpel, then he poked inside with some tweezers and pulled out the chip. A tiny bit of metal about the size of a pinhead,and Kurtzweil wanted to keep it, but Mulder took it, along with the other one.

"I'd like to go home now," Dana said. The gauze had spots of brown, looking darker and dirtier than blood.

Mulder helped her out of the chair. "Can you walk?" he asked.

"Don't be silly," she said. She leaned on him, though, and she still pressed the gauze against her nose.

"I'll meet you outside," I told them. I wanted to give them a couple of minutes alone, but Kurtzweil gasped and started backing himself away from me.

"I see you were able to uphold your oath," I said. I wasn't ready to let him off the hook completely until I was sure that Dana would be okay, but I'd had my fill of playing the heavy.

Kurtzweil tossed the used gloves and towels into a bin. "She shouldn't blow her nose," he said.

"What?" I asked sharply.

"Forty-eight hours. Just let it drain." He didn't look quite so fearful, but his hands still trembled.

"How do you know?" I asked. I tried to catch his eye but he got even more squirrelly.

"Common sense." He dropped the scalpel into a plastic canister. "Plenty of fluids. Tylenol for fever."

Skinner told me the best way to live life on the tightrope is to never look down. The longer I did it, the easier it became.

Mulder's situation was different. I don't know exactly when Dana got those chips put in her, or when Mulder decided it was worth everything to get them out. I do know it had been years since he'd let anything else drive his days, and I guess in some sense he was looking to get his life back. He wanted a rain check for the time he missed with his son, a do-over for all the silence between him and his wife. He gave me his resignation and I wished him well.

I heard from him once in a while. He e-mailed to ask my opinion on Royal Caribbean versus Norwegian. Dana called to say how much they loved Mark's play and how he'd given them a backstage tour. Roz saw Mulder in her office when he wanted new glasses, and this time he had no trouble with the exam.

Then one day Mulder showed up at the office with a bag of fried chicken.

"Come to beg for your old job back?" I asked.

"Scully's at work all day, and she has this crazy idea that if I'm home I should clean the house," he said.

I moved things around on my desk to make room for the chicken. "I gave away your office, but I guess we can work something out," I said.

Mulder hung his jacket over the back of a chair."Freelance. Scully wants me to make use of my higher education," he said.

"You could teach," I suggested.

He took some paper plates out of the bag and put them on my desk, followed by napkins and plastic forks. "You know anyone who wants to learn how to spot an alien?" he asked.

I shrugged. "You got a point there," I said.

"Coleslaw? Potato salad?" He loaded our plates.

"Thanks. There's soda in the fridge." He got up and brought over a couple of cans as I helped myself to a piece of chicken.

"You know, Jerry, you're no slouch yourself when it comes to intuition," he said.

I gestured him to wipe his nose, the old sign for brown nose. The chicken was exceptional, by the way. Crisp and spicy, but not too hot.

"You notice things," he insisted. "You've got those spider senses."

"So?" I put down my drumstick and cleaned my hands on a napkin.

"Just saying." He picked up a thigh. "Can you believe Scully calls this greasy? Billy and I have to sneak out of the house to eat it."

Mulder's got a second talent, beyond that spooky intuition. He doesn't only read the signals, I think he transmits signals of his own. It's like he can tweak a conversation to make it go the way he wants. We were sitting at my desk, eating some outrageously delicious fried chicken, when I mentioned something that had been on my mind.

"You took a hell of a chance trusting Kurtzweil," I said.

He popped open a soda. "He came through for us."

"He's one of them," I said. There was something about Kurtzweil, just like there was something about Barry and Gulliver. If I knew it, Mulder knew it too, and I hoped he wasn't going to play dumb.

Mulder nodded his agreement. "He's nowhere near as obvious as Barry was. If you picked him out, your spider senses are ready for the big league."

I pushed my plate away. "He almost fooled me. That act of his, pretending he was afraid I would shoot him."

Mulder took a biscuit. "He enjoys playing human. Besides, a bullet wouldn't hurt him, but it would definitely blow his cover."

"Anyway, he came through when we needed him."

"Mission accomplished." He leaned back. "Right?"

"Yup." I pulled the waste basket from under my desk and cleared away the plates. The bag of chicken was still half full. I twisted the top of the bag to close it up.

"They're still here you know," he said. "Crazy renegades like Kurtzweil who like to blend in. A handful of scientists and observers."

"You think they're a threat?"

Mulder shook his head. "They don't mean us any harm."

"And there's nothing we can do about it even if they did, right?" I tried to hand him the bag. "The main thing was to get their hardware out of Dana, so she wouldn't be at their mercy."

"Scully insists on a broader view."

I found myself wagging my finger in his face. "If we start killing them they will definitely take us out. Didn't you tell her how the guys in charge want to leave us alone? Did you tell her what your buddy Barry had in mind on your last date?"

"God, I miss that guy," Mulder said in his usual deadpan.

I laughed in spite of myself. "Would you take your damn chicken and go home?"

"Scully says we need to be ready if the situation changes. We should be watching them and learning as much as we can. Making contact with the friendly ones."

I shook my head. "So much for your early retirement and life of leisure."

"Happens to the best of us." He finally accepted the bag of chicken. "You're in, you know."

He stood up so I stood up. "When did I sign on?"

"Human being? Check. Aware of aliens? Check. Spider senses? Not required but definitely useful. You're in." He raised the grease-stained bag in a salute. "See you around, boss." He was out the door before I could say another word.

I stood there, mouth half-open, staring at the closed door. I was in? Now what was I supposed to do? Call my insurance guy and up my coverage? Drop in on Winnie Canaday and buy up the rest of his shivs? Change the letterhead--Luskin Associates, Protecting the Earth?

Me, protecting the earth. I'd be satisfied if I could keep my kids from harm. More than satisfied. It brought me back to 9/11, when I would have traded everyone in Manhattan if it meant my son would be safe.

Safe--ha, ha, ha. We're all up on Skinner's tightrope, even the lucky ones who think they're on the ground.

When did Mulder's problems become my problems? I guess they always were.

### end

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