Title: Programmable Children
Authors: Jacquie LaVa and Tess
Category: Case File, MSR
Rating: PG-13

Summary: A rash of crimes, from shoplifting and robbery escalating into murder, committed in seemingly random fashion, by young children of affluent families all over the East Coast - Mulder and Scully are called in when one of the childish crimes turns murderous.

Thanks to David Stoddard-Hunt and Aly C for reading and beta work -


~ Prologue ~

EAST BURLINGTON, VT
8:35PM
OCTOBER 28, 2001

Ben Thacken had worked swing shift at the '2-Go' mini-mart on Temple and Main for almost twenty years. He could walk the store with his eyes closed and never bump into a single end display; could stock the shelves in his sleep. He knew most every man, woman and child - and dog - in a ten mile radius of the store, and they knew him. Ben was that rare breed of worker, who found the job he liked and stuck to it regardless of the money. He made $13.00 an hour managing the '2-Go'... and he was one happy guy. He had a little house on the outskirts of East Burlington and although he'd never married, he had a lady friend who went dancing with him frequently and who'd gone with him twice to Cape Cod on vacation. He had a small fishing boat and because he'd saved his money religiously and had made tiny yet wise investments, he had a nice little savings account. He had no bills to speak of. He worked a lot of overtime at the store because sometimes it was so hard to find good, reliable help - and it was important to him that the store run smoothly - for he took his responsibilities very seriously. The upper management of the '2-Go' chain adored Ben; he was a valuable asset to them. He never got sick and he was always more than willing to work holidays. And in all the years he'd worked that place he'd never been robbed...

Until tonight.

Ben whistled off-tune, constantly. It was his trademark, of sorts - a manner of identification between him and his customers. He loved music, any kind of music; he whistled everything under the sun. His co-workers didn't mind; they were used to it. Sometimes when it was a slow night, he'd whistle very loudly, even dance around a little. A few of his regular customers had caught him doing this and they teased him - and Ben was very good-natured about it. He was a happy guy, after all - and it showed in his manner and in the cheerful way he dealt with everyone who came into the store.

So on this quiet night in mid-fall, in the evening when almost everyone was still up at Hancock Elementary watching the annual Halloween play put on by Mrs. Thomas' third-grade class... Ben sure wasn't expecting to see one of her most dedicated students push open the door and slowly walk in. Ben was behind the counter stocking gum and breath mints; whistling off-tune as usual. His head popped up when the door alarm chimed, and his eyes crinkled into a surprised yet pleased smile when he beheld a diminutive figure dressed as the Pink Panther shuffle over to the counter in over-sized Pink Panther feet, and stop front and center. A plastic Pink Panther mask obscured the little face but Ben knew who it was, for the costume had been hand-made and Ben had been fortunate enough to get a fashion show when its owner had run into his store two weeks ago, so excited to show it off...

"Penny! The show over already? Can't be - I thought you had that little dance to do!" Penelope Mason, 'Penny' to her friends, was outgoing and extroverted and had a sweet little singing voice. She could tap-dance up a storm and was a straight-A student, the youngest of three Mason children; her parents were both accountants and the family lived just five miles from Hancock Elementary. Penny had begged to dance in the show and Mrs. Thomas had been glad to have at least one child who was eager to perform. Much of her class was too shy to participate, especially the boys who usually had to be persuaded, although when they actually began rehearsing they enjoyed themselves. But Penny was a born performer and reveled in it.

Which was why Ben expressed such surprise to see her in his store, three blocks away from the school where the show was still in full-force. Penny would never walk away from a performance, unless she was sick, or something. Suddenly worried, Ben came around the counter and squatted in front of the dainty little girl, reaching out a hand to push her mask off so he could see her face, murmuring, "You okay, sweetheart? Are you sick? Where's your mom?" As the mask came off, Penny's blue eyes stared into his, wide and unblinking and... odd. Ben tilted his head to the side, noting the flushed, slightly damp cheeks and the vacant look. He placed a hand against her forehead; she felt a little warm but not unduly so. Ben looked behind her, toward the door. He hadn't seen anyone else come in with her - the store was empty except for them. And it was a cold night. Her parents wouldn't have let her walk even three blocks this time of night when it was this cold...

"Penny, where're your parents? Your brothers? Are they home? Up at the school?" A blank stare was his only answer; Penny was looking straight through him. Something was definitely wrong; Ben was really worried now. He didn't know the number at the school but he could look it up. He spoke softly and reassuringly to the little girl. "Penny, you stay right here, okay? Don't move. I have to go get the phone book and then I'm going to call the school and see if I can find your folks."

Standing up, Ben moved toward the counter, reaching into his back pocket for his cell phone. He pulled out a phone book from behind the counter and was thumbing through it when Penny spoke for the first time since walking into the store.

"Put that down. Open the register and give me your money." Ben dropped the book in shock. He looked at Penny Mason, dressed in her cute little Pink Panther costume, the plastic mask still stuck on top of her head holding her long pale blonde hair out of her sweet face. She stared back at him and the look in her blue eyes chilled him.

But what chilled him even more was the gun he saw, held in both of her tiny pink-gloved hands... aimed straight at his heart. Ben shook his head and blinked. An eight-year-old little girl, holding a gun like a pro, with legs spread and hands cupping the deadly weapon in the standard police stance. Her arms were perfectly steady and her eyes narrowed and concentrated tightly on his face. She hadn't blinked once. Ben found his hand inching slowly, under the counter - toward the silent alarm underneath. In all his years working at the '2-Go', he'd never had to ring the alarm.

Ben could not fathom in his wildest imaginings having to ring it now, because of a delicate little girl dressed in pink and holding a gun on him. It was damned surreal, yet here it was. His fingers inched closer, to within a foot of the button...

"Don't do that. You'll be sorry if you do that. Give me the money, NOW." The little-girl voice was harder now, still high-pitched the way a child-voice should be - but hard as nails. Ben's hand immediately paused in mid-reach, and he stared into Penny Mason's cold blue eyes. Empty eyes... emotionless. Worse than that - dead. Dead eyes, on a little girl. There had to be a medical reason... Ben made a sudden decision. This was a darling child, one he'd known almost from the day she was born. And Penny's folks were so nice. She obviously needed his help.

His mind made up, Ben continued his reach toward the alarm button... and Penny raised the gun and pressed down on the trigger...

It was the last thing in this world Ben Thacken reached for.


GEORGETOWN
6:10 AM
OCT. 30, 2001

"We need a bigger apartment."

Mulder forced open one eye and managed to lift his head off the pillow, that bleary orb searching around for the source of the voice. The room was cool and dark but the closet door was open and a narrow band of light streamed out. He could hear clothes hangers rattling... Turning his head a little he checked out the bedside clock and groaned, flopping his head back into the pillow. His sleepy mumble was raspy and thick.

"Well, we could always use mine. I can just strip it of trivial and unnecessary things, like furniture." He stretched beneath the covers, feeling achy and overheated. Damn flu... he couldn't believe a flu shot could have backfired on him. And damn the FBI policy that required every agent get it in the cheek. Mulder rubbed a soothing finger over the knot in his left buttock, looking up into Scully's sympathetic eyes as she leaned over his side of the bed and brushed her lips over his damp forehead. She perched on the edge of the mattress, still wrapped in her terry-cloth robe and with one hand clutching a blouse. She threaded the fingers of her free hand through his bed-hair and smiled when he sighed.

"Poor baby. A boo-boo on your hienie... and the indignity of shot-induced influenza, too. You're just a lucky guy, Mulder." She leaned in and kissed the top of his head, noting, "At least your fever broke. I used to get sick from flu shots all the time, you know. I don't understand why you didn't just refuse the shot." Her smile widened at his affronted grumble.

"Like I had a choice, Scully. You should have seen the size of that nurse. She had arms like hams. I was afraid she'd sit on me and stab me with that damn huge needle, regardless of my protest." He looked up pathetically at her and added, "And in the midst of my pain you want to move. Can I have a moment to recuperate first?" Scully tugged at his hair lightly.

"Mulder, I had the same nurse. She wasn't any bigger than me. You could have said 'no' and that would have been the end of it. And as far as the moving is concerned, I don't think either place is big enough; actually my apartment is a little smaller than yours. It just looks larger because I don't have any clutter." She chuckled when he sat up, favoring his sore rump, and frowned at her.

"I don't have clutter, Scully. I have organized disorder. I know where everything is, and can find whatever I need. Next time we're over there go ahead and ask me to find something; I'll have it in hand ASAP." As if to prove his point by heading over there at that very minute Mulder pushed aside the covers, swinging his legs over the side, smirking a little when Scully put out a hand and stayed him.

"It's okay, Mulder! I believe you, really. Besides we don't have time to goof around; we have to fly to Vermont. We've been called in on a case; I talked to Skinner while you were sleeping like the drugged dead." She slipped to her feet and grabbed at Mulder's hand, pulling him up and bracing an arm around his waist when he swayed a bit. He leaned on her as she maneuvered him into the bathroom, propping him against the sink and tossing him a clean washcloth. Mulder ran it under cold water and wiped it over his face and neck as he asked his questions.

"What're we up against?" Scully paused in the task of brushing the snarls from her hair and handed Mulder a hand towel. She thought for a moment before she replied.

"Well, Skinner says it's a murder. A clerk at a corner convenience store in Burlington was shot and killed. There was a surveillance camera that caught the crime, so you'd think they'd have it all figured out. I said as much to Skinner." Scully smoothed the brush over her hair one final time, then turned to Mulder and added, "But it seems the killer was a bit - unusual, to say the least. An eight-year old girl dressed in a Pink killed the clerk Panther costume. She shot him in cold blood, Mulder."

Mulder's wide-eyed stare at Scully reflected his shock at her words. He shook his head and squeezed toothpaste on his brush, commenting, "An eight-year-old female Pink Panther murderer, huh? Well, Happy Halloween, Charlie Brown..."


Burlington, VT
Burlington Juvenile Center
1:15 P.M.
OCT. 30, 2001

Mulder and Scully watched Penny Mason through the one-way mirror that overlooked the recreation room of the juvenile center where the child was being held. The tiny, blue-eyed blonde seemed incapable of the crime she was accused of committing.

"It doesn't seem possible," Scully murmured quietly. Penny sat at a table in one corner of the room, listlessly doodling on a white piece of paper with a green crayon.

"I want to see the surveillance tapes as soon as possible." Mulder leaned closer to the glass and squinted, trying without success, to make out what Penny was drawing.

The two agents turned at the sound of the door opening behind them. A woman pushed her way into the room, her face nearly obscured by the small mountain of file folders clutched protectively in her arms. She hurried to set her burden onto the small table in the middle of the room and looked up.

"I'm Penny's caseworker - Jenny Kim." She extended her arm and shook hands with the two agents. Tall with almond shaped brown eyes and sleek, dark hair caught back in a loose ponytail, Jenny seemed too young and too beautiful to be mired down in the sadness and despair so often associated with Youth and Family Services. Appearances can be deceiving Mulder thought, as he glanced back over his shoulder at the frail eight-year-old girl standing accused of cold-blooded murder.

"I'm Agent Dana Scully." Scully introduced herself. "This is my partner, Agent Fox Mulder." Jenny nodded and swept a hand toward the table.

"Please, let's sit down." Mulder and Scully sank onto the metal folding chairs set up on one side of the table. Jenny sat down on the other side of the table and pulled one thin manila folder from her pile.

"What can you tell us about Penny?" Scully asked. Jenny shook her head and opened the folder.

"Not much," Jenny admitted. "I was only assigned to the case yesterday morning." She flipped through several sheets of paper in the file, running one thin finger along down the page as she read aloud.

"Penelope - Penny - Mason. Eight-years-old. She's a third grader at Hancock Elementary School. Straight-A student; has two older brothers, Brian, who is a freshman at Franklin High School and Timothy, an eighth grader at Hancock Junior High. Solid family life. Mr. and Mrs. Mason both work as accountants. Mrs. Mason worked out of the house until all three children were in school full-time. Penny has never been in trouble before this - none of the Mason children have ever been in trouble. Penny's teachers say that she is a gifted student who has worked hard to overcome a reading comprehension difficulty."

Jenny looked up. "Everyone we've spoken to is completely shocked by what happened. Her parents... teachers, neighbors. Everyone we've interviewed says the same thing. Penny is a bright, sweet girl who would never raise a hand to hurt another living being."

Mulder and Scully were pouring over the meager contents of the file. "And yet, here we are," Mulder murmured, looking up from the folder and meeting the social worker's eyes. She nodded ruefully.

"Here we are."

"Ms. Kim, can you tell us what will happen next with Penny?" Scully twisted around in her seat to find the little girl still sitting in her solitary corner, the same green crayon clutched between her fingers.

Jenny reached out and pulled the file back. "The Masons have hired a lawyer, of course." She began to straighten the papers in the file, neatly lining the edges of each piece of paper up with the others. "They want Penny to be released into their custody while the investigation continues and in most cases, the judge would allow that."

"I sense a but," Mulder injected quietly. Jenny nodded.

"But... this case is different from many others." She pushed her chair away from the table and moved toward the mirror separating them from the recreation room. "Because there is no doubt that Penny did commit this crime - the evidence on the surveillance tape is overwhelming - she is going to be held here pending the results of your investigation. She'll also undergo a battery of court ordered tests, both physical and psychiatric."

"And then?" Scully joined her by the mirror. She crossed her arms over her breasts and studied the younger woman's face. "What happens then?"

"I guess that's up to you and Agent Mulder." Both women watched as Penny dropped the crayon and folded her arms on top of the table. The little girl rested her cheek on her arms and even from a distance they could see the tiny tremors wracking her thin frame.

Was it possible? Scully wondered. Did the heart of a killer lurk behind the cherubic blue eyes now blurred with tears? She had one more question to ask the caseworker. "What about the gun? How did she get her hands on a loaded gun?" Jenny sighed and pressed the clasp on her briefcase.

"The gun belongs to Penny's father. It's anyone's guess about the bullets; I would assume he must have kept the gun loaded with the safety engaged. We are only guessing at this point but it seems Penny must have known where to find the gun. The pocket sewn into her costume was meant for her to hold gloves; I asked her mother. It was also a perfect fit for a gun."

Scully nodded, chilled at the probable mindset of this most incongruous of murderers... She turned at the sound of a chair scraping against the cheap linoleum floor.

"We'd like to view the surveillance tape as soon as possible." Mulder stood and looked hopefully at the social worker.

"I'll make the arrangements right away." Jenny gathered her files back into her arms and strode through the door. Mulder leaned against the mirror and watched Penny's eyes flutter closed. Exhausted from fear and confusion, the girl had drifted into an uneasy sleep. Scully studied Mulder's face and recognized the speculative gleam in his eyes.

"What are you thinking?" she asked, knowing that he was forming opinions, rejecting some ideas and refining others as his mind furiously sifted through the meager information provided them.

"I'm not sure..."


"Again?" Scully nodded wearily and Mulder thumbed the button on the remote control sending the videotape in the VCR whirring into reverse. Moments later, he hit "play" and once again the partners watched the grisly scene unravel in all of its black-and-white glory.

The camera mounted above the doors of the '2-Go' mini-mart had perfectly captured the murder in its lens. Mulder and Scully watched Ben Thacken's head pop up from behind the counter and saw a smile light up his face and curve his lips. A second later Penny Mason - resplendent in her Pink Panther costume - walked into view.

"I wish this thing had sound," Scully complained. She leaned forward, trying in vain to read Ben Thacken's lips as his image crouched down in front of the costumed child and spoke. Mulder glanced down at the remote control again and pressed another button, causing the images to move slowly, frame-by-frame across the television screen. He and Scully watched the man push the mask away from Penny's face, gentle fingers running over her cheeks and forehead. They saw him glance over his shoulder, a frown of concern wrinkling his brow, before he pushed to his feet. Saying something to the child, he took a couple of steps toward the counter.

"There!" Mulder exclaimed. They watched the frames advance in slow motion as Penny pulled the gun from a hidden pocket sewn into the belly of her costume. They both strained forward in their seats. Penny's lips moved and even in the grainy black-and-white of the surveillance video, Scully was sure that she could see the shop manager's face pale. His eyes expressed his shock - the same shock Scully felt each time she watched the events play out on the television screen.

Mulder winced as the muzzle of the gun in Penny's hands flashed brightly on the screen and then Ben Thacken was falling. Slowly, endlessly tumbling towards the floor and death. Blood blossomed in a dark gray cloud that Mulder knew in reality was a bright, vivid red, staining the dead man's shirt and splattering over Penny's hand-stitched costume. Penny was knocked to the floor by the kickback of the gun exploding in her hands and Mulder dragged his gaze away from the victim's shocked death mask to the face of his killer.

"My God." Mulder could hear Scully's quiet whisper and it echoed in his own heart when he watched Penny rearrange herself so that she was sitting cross-legged on the tile floor, the gun held limply in her lap. She was rocking and her lips were moving in rhythm with the slow, hypnotic motion of her body. She was still sitting there moments later, staring into space when the lights of a patrol car flashed across the store. Two uniformed officers burst into the mini mart, their eyes taking in the sight of Ben Thacken lying dead in a pool of his own blood and little Penny Mason sitting dumbly next to him, a gun in her lap. One of the police officers moved cautiously through the store, looking for the gunman, never for a moment suspecting that the shooter was an eight-year-old Pink Panther impersonator. His partner crouched on the floor and checked Ben Thacken's pulse. He shook his head and the sigh that lifted his shoulders was visible on the tape. He turned to Penny and carefully lifted the gun from the girl's unresisting fingers. He looked up when his partner completed his sweep of the otherwise empty store. The two officers traded a long, silent look before turning twin stares of shock to Penny who was still rocking back and forth; still staring sightlessly across the room.


Jenny Kim pulled the car into the driveway of the Mason home and turned off the engine. She pushed open the driver's side door and climbed out of the car. Mulder and Scully followed her, closing the doors quietly behind them. They followed Jenny along the path that led to the front door.

Scully looked around as they approached the house. Dried cornstalks were tied to the lamppost at the end of the driveway. A trio of carved jack-o-lanterns grinned at them from stairs leading to the porch and a colorful assortment of pumpkins, gourds and potted mums was artfully arranged on and around a small table to the left of the front door.

Jenny rapped her knuckles on the wooden frame of the screen door. Waiting behind her, Mulder ran his hand down Scully's back. His fingers curled briefly over her hip, offering them both a moment of support and comfort. Scully's lips quirked upward but she didn't look at him. Mulder let his hand fall away and he resumed a more formal stance by her side. The inside door swung open and a young face peered out at them from within the dim interior of the house.

"Brian?" Jenny stepped closer to the young man. "I'm Jenny Kim. We met yesterday - do you remember?" Brian nodded jerkily and his eyes darted to the two agents standing behind the young social worker. Jenny glanced over her shoulder briefly before turning back to face Penny's oldest brother.

"This is Agent Mulder." She nodded to toward the tall man standing behind her. "And Agent Scully, of the FBI. They're here to try and find out what happened with Penny the other day." She smiled sympathetically at the frightened youth. "Are your parents at home?"

Brian nodded again and swung the screen door open, gesturing for the three adults to enter. He led them down a short hallway to the family room.

"Mom? Dad?" His voice cracked. "Some people are here to see you." Brenda and Jeremy Mason stood.

"Penny..." Brenda Mason moved toward Jenny and held out her hands pleadingly. "When can she come home?" Blonde hair, a shade or two darker than her daughter's was scraped into a messy knot at the nape of her neck. Both she and her husband had the haggard, rundown appearance of people who haven't slept and their clothes hung awkwardly from their bodies as if they had lost weight in only a couple of days.

Jenny quickly made the introductions again and the Masons sank back down onto the sofa. Jeremy Mason waved his hand, indicating that the others should also sit. Mulder and Scully arranged themselves on the loveseat while Jenny chose a seat close to Brenda's side.

"Why..." Jeremy Mason's voice broke and he cleared his throat. "Why has the FBI been called in on this case?" His eyes darted back and forth between the two agents sitting across the room from him.

Mulder leaned forward, his hands dangling between his spread knees. "Agent Scully and I investigate the unexplainable," he said briefly. "An eight-year-old girl dressed in a Pink Panther costume and accused of murder... well, that seems to fit the bill."

Scully shifted on the seat next to Mulder. "Mr. and Mrs. Mason, is there anything you can tell us? Anything that will help us to understand what happened?"

Jeremy closed his eyes for a moment, shaking his head. "Should our lawyer be here?" he asked suddenly. Mulder blinked, surprised by the question.

"You are certainly welcome to contact your lawyer, Mr. Mason," he affirmed. "But we really just wanted to ask a few questions."

"Mrs. Mason." Scully directed her words to Penny's mother. "We need you to tell us about Penny. What she's like. Whether she had been behaving in an unusual manner lately... anything that you can tell us that may help explain what has happened."

Brenda lifted fearful, blue eyes to Jenny's. She was seeking affirmation that it was okay to speak to the agents without further jeopardizing her daughter. Jenny reached out and squeezed her hand gently over the other woman's, nodding her approval. Knowing that Jenny had been assigned as Penny's caseworker and trusting that the young woman had her daughter's best interests at heart, Brenda exhaled in a long, shaky breath.

"I... I don't understand." Her voice was soft, barely intelligible and Mulder and Scully both struggled to hear her. "Penny isn't... Penny wouldn't..." She nervously shredded the tissue in her hands. "This is a mistake. My daughter would never... My daughter... oh God! She's just a baby!" Brenda's voice broke on a sob and she threw herself into her husband's arms. Jeremy Mason ran a soothing hand down his wife's back and looked over her blonde head to the pair of agents seated on the other side of the room.

"You've seen the surveillance tape?" Scully took the lead in asking the questions, leaving Mulder free to study Brenda and Jeremy Mason. She knew that he was watching their facial expressions and studying their body language. She knew too that he was peripherally aware, as was she, of Penny's brothers lurking just outside of the family room. Scully understood that Mulder was quietly absorbing every detail of the Mason home and the people who lived within its sheltering walls. He was cataloging and assessing - profiling - the home and the family that had nurtured an alleged eight-year-old murderer.

Jeremy closed his eyes as the memory of the tape washed over him. His wife shuddered in his arms and he tightened his grip on her.

"Yes," he replied. "We both saw the tape, Agent Scully." His eyes met Scully's briefly before darting away again. "I don't... I can't..."

"Let's go through this slowly." Scully's voice was sympathetic but firm. They needed answers from these people. If she and Mulder were ever going to figure out what had caused Penny Mason to shoot a man in cold blood, their best chance of getting those answers would, in all likelihood, come from her family.

"Has Penny been ill recently?" Brenda Mason mopped her eyes with the shredded tissue and pushed away from her husband's chest. She drew in a deep breath. Straightening her back, she looked at Scully. Her frightened gaze swept over the female agent's compassionate, but composed face. A quick glance at the man seated next to Scully showed an alert intelligence peering from behind kind eyes. At that moment, Brenda made the decision to trust. She would answer any question asked if it would help to bring her baby back home.

"No," she replied in a shaky voice. "Penny has always been a healthy little girl."

Scully nodded and scribbled something into the notebook propped open on her knees. "Has she exhibited any strange behavior?"

The Masons shook their heads. "No." Penny's father said. "She's been fine."

Scully glanced up from her notes. "Nothing uncharacteristic?" She tilted her head to the side. "No sudden fits of temper or crying?" Once again, Brenda Mason started to shake her head no, but stopped.

"She... she was a little depressed at the beginning of the summer..." She laid her hand on her husband's thigh and he covered it with his own.

Alerted by the concern shading Brenda's voice, Mulder focused all of his attention on the trembling woman. "Penny... she's a very bright little girl." Mulder noted the pride evident in Brenda Mason's voice. "She's a straight-A student. But..." she sighed heavily. "She struggles with reading."

"Is she dyslexic?" Scully asked curiously.

"No. It's similar in some ways to dyslexia." Jeremy Mason spoke. "Penny doesn't invert words or letters, but she does have difficulty comprehending what she reads. It takes her almost three times longer than either one of our boys to process the written word."

His wife took up the narrative. "We enrolled her at the Burlington Learning Center this summer. She took special reading comprehension classes three times a week for about ninety minutes a session." Her eyes brightened. "Penny really thrived in the classes, but once regular school started..." Her voice trailed off. Mulder and Scully waited quietly for her to continue.

"Penny enjoys her extracurricular activities so much - soccer, Scouts... she loves to dance and sing. She was supposed to sing with her class at the Halloween show that night..." Brenda's head fell forward and she swallowed around the lump in her throat. She swiped at the tears that slipped down her pale cheeks. "We didn't want her to miss out on all of those things by sending her to the Learning Center after school three days a week." She glanced up at her husband and he sent her a supportive smile. They had discussed Penny's reading difficulties at length and were confident that they had made the right decisions.

Once again, Jeremy Mason picked up the story. "Her teacher at the Learning Center was so pleased with Penny's progress over the summer. He felt that if her mother and I worked with her at home using some textbooks provided by the Center, she wouldn't fall behind again. He even recommended that we buy a computer reading program that Penny could use to keep up with her studies."

"Readin' Rocks," his wife interjected. "It's a series of CD-ROMs for children ages five through twelve," she explained. "The lessons are songs - like a music video. It seemed crazy to us at first, but Penny seems to love it. She spends hours at her computer now working with the CDs... sometimes she even hums the songs as she runs around the house."

"You said that Penny was a little depressed at the beginning of the summer," Scully interrupted firmly. The discussion had skewed well away from the topic at hand and she had several other questions for the Masons before they could call an end to the interview. "Does that mean that she was no longer depressed by summer's end?"

Beverly Mason clapped a hand over her mouth. "Oh! I'm so sorry. We really did get carried away... it just was so nice to talk about a problem that we could *solve*." She bit her lip and her eyes clouded again with a film of tears that were never far from the surface. "No. She was so happy with the progress that she had made over the summer and was looking forward to school starting again."

"Has Penny ever been in any fights at school?" Scully asked.

"No. Never."

"Does she have assigned chores here at home?"

Penny's parents nodded.

"And does she finish them? Do you have to argue with her more now than you used to in order to get her to do her chores?"

"No. Penny is a very obedient child," Jeremy said.

Scully sighed. "Mr. and Mrs. Mason. Please. We need to get a true picture of what kind of child Penny is. Other than the depression over her reading difficulties, you've described a perfect child. Does she ever argue with her brothers? Stall or put off doing her chores? Does she fight with you about her bedtime? Does she..."

Brenda surged to her feet. "Yes! Of course. She does all of those things. She turns her nose up when I make vegetable soup and refuses to eat it. She bickers with her brothers over what television show they should be watching. We argue over what clothes she should wear to school in the morning. She's a normal child. NORMAL! She's a little girl. She's my little girl! And she would never... she could never... She's a baby - not a monster!"

Jeremy Mason climbed to his feet and laid a soothing hand on his wife's arm. She raised tear-drenched eyes to his face, then spun away and raced out of the room. Her husband started after her, but Jenny held out a restraining hand.

"I'll go," she offered. "You need to finish up here."

Mulder and Scully stood as well.

"Mr. Mason," Scully began. "Please, understand. I meant no - "

Jeremy shook his head. "Look Agents. I know you have a job to do." He walked across the room and lifted a picture frame from the mantel over the fireplace. He turned the frame around so that Mulder and Scully could see the picture. Wearing a green and white uniform with a soccer ball tucked into the curve of her arm, a gap-toothed Penny Mason smiled into the camera.

"Mr. Mason, I - " Scully tried again to explain.

Jeremy turned the frame again and looked down into the grinning face of his youngest child. "Do you have any children, Agent Scully?" he asked.

Scully pushed down the familiar ache that came with that question. "No, Mr. Mason," she replied. "I don't."

Jeremy Mason nodded thoughtfully and placed the frame back onto the mantel. "Well, then you probably won't understand, but... I know what that surveillance tape shows." Tears swam in his eyes and spilled over his cheeks. "But, as God is my witness, I am telling you - that wasn't my daughter. That wasn't my Penny." His voice broke on a heaving sob. "Please, you've got to believe me. That wasn't my little girl... it couldn't be my little girl."

Mulder laid a sympathetic hand on the man's arm and squeezed lightly. "We'll be leaving now, Mr. Mason. Thank you for speaking with us." His voice was soothing. The other man nodded and swiped his sleeve over his wet face, struggling in vain to hold back the tears streaming over his face.

"I'll see you out."

Mulder waited while Scully gathered up her notebook and pen. They followed Jeremy Mason down the short hallway that led to the front door. He pushed open the screen door and the two agents stepped out into the brisk autumn air.

"Wait!" Brenda Mason's voice cried out from inside the house. They turned around as she flew through the front door. She reached out and grabbed Scully by the hands.

"Please," she sobbed. "Please. If there is anything you can do to bring my little girl home to me... I'm begging you. She must be... be... so scared." Tears ran unheeded over her cheeks, dripping off her chin. "I'm her mother. Please. She needs me... she needs me."

Jeremy stepped forward and pulled his wife into his arms and she buried her face against his chest. "We'll be in touch," Scully promised and climbed down the steps, walking toward the car. Mulder followed her down the pathway. Something... something was niggling at the back of his mind. Something the Masons had said. He turned back again and found Jenny speaking to them in a low voice. He shook his head and spun away, worrying at the elusive thought.

It would come to him, he knew. Later on, when he and Scully were rehashing the interview over dinner, he would remember.

He hoped.


Mulder locked the door and slid the security chain home, then plopped down on the bed next to Scully, who was toeing off her heels and flexing her feet. Silently he raised her foot into his lap and began massaging it, working the kinks out and soothing her ankle. She sighed in relief and leaned back against the headboard.

"God, that feels good. Why did I have to wear new shoes, today of all days?" Mulder smiled and worked at her arch, careful not to tickle her.

"Well, they're very nice shoes. Very sexy on your feet. But yeah, I'd say you picked the wrong day to get stylish... okay, other foot." He traded feet and started in again, thinking aloud as he massaged. "Did you feel as though we got nowhere today, talking to Penny Mason? That is one frightened little girl. No memory whatsoever of what she did - that much I can see is genuine. Children are so open - it's impossible for them to fake it, unless they are just so inherently evil that they were born that way - the 'Bad Seed' syndrome. I have always had a hard time buying into that theory. And I just don't see that with Penny; I think if she had that inclination her parents would have seen it a lot earlier in her life." He finished massaging and gave her foot a final pat, then kicked off his own shoes and joined her at the headboard, propping himself up against the pillow, their shoulders touching. Scully sighed again and leaned her head on Mulder. Her voice was thoughtful.

"I agree, Mulder. All I could see was a scared kid. I looked into her eyes and I saw nothing evil there. Just a child's innocence. Which makes this case all the more frightening and baffling." She turned her head a bit and looked up at her partner, noting the far-off blur of his eyes. Profiling, in retrospect, so to speak - his ability to do this after the fact was strong and amazingly accurate. Scully resumed her former position and sat quietly, content to let him puzzle it out. He'd speak when he had something...

It had been a difficult and non-productive interview - Penny Mason truly didn't remember the crime she'd committed, of that Mulder was positive. They'd sat facing her, both of them taking turns asking her questions. Jenny Kim had sat next to the frightened little girl, holding her hand; Penny visibly shook and the dark circles under her eyes were something no young child should have to suffer. Her free hand was tiny and thin with equally thin fingers that trembled frequently. Mulder had studied that little hand, having the hardest time reconciling in his mind the picture of something so small and defenseless holding a loaded gun, and shooting with deadly aim, to kill. He'd met Jenny's dark eyes, knowing she'd seen him staring at Penny's hand and figuring she understood all too well the incongruity of it. He re-focused on Penny and his voice was gentle.

"Penny, what's the last thing you remember doing, the night of the school play? Do you remember leaving the school?" Mulder kept his face neutral and watched the child carefully for any indication of deceit. Penny's tear-soaked eyes met his and her trembling got worse. Her little voice was clogged with more tears and laced with fright.

"N-no, sir. I was in the gym. Waiting for my turn. My mask kept slipping and Mrs. Thomas had to fix it. I didn't do anything, honest! I stayed and waited. I didn't do anything!" Huge tears poured over the little girl's pale cheeks and she turned into Jenny's arms, sobbing. Jenny soothed a hand over the child's soft hair and blinked hard, affected as well by the fright in Penny's voice. The distraught girl spoke again, her words muffled in Jenny's shoulder.

"I want to go home. I want my mom. Why can't I go home?" Mulder sighed and rubbed at his tired eyes. It was impossible not to want to hug this child and assure her everything would be fine. She was delicate and soft-spoken and seemed incapable of telling anything but the truth. He dropped his hands and looked at Scully; met her sympathetic eyes. There was no way they could explain it to this little girl. That she couldn't go home. That she had with cold intent murdered someone... He'd signaled at Scully with his eyes and she had nodded; they both stood up to leave. After promising to get back to her with their decision, they'd said good-bye to Jenny Kim. Penny had never lifted her head from the caseworker's shoulder, but Mulder noticed her body rocked back and forth in Jenny's arms, and a high-pitched humming emanated from her throat. At the time Mulder hadn't given it a whole lot of thought, but now...

Sitting next to Scully on the motel bed, Mulder re-hashed it all and Scully quietly leaned against him and laced her fingers through his, her thumb running soothingly across the top of his knuckles. Mulder thought about the rocking and the humming. It was almost as though Penny was hearing something in her head; something that compelled her. As soon as the idea popped into his head he couldn't seem to let it go. A compulsion of some sort. Children were so susceptible to any sort of suggestion. So open and willing to embrace it all - up to a certain age they were extremely malleable. Mulder sighed and turned to Scully, murmuring, "Did you notice the way -"

She was asleep against his shoulder, the faint smudges under her eyes a testimony to her exhaustion. Smiling slightly, Mulder arranged her more comfortably against his side, sliding them both down on the bed until they were mostly prone. He slipped his arms around her and smiled again when she huffed in her sleep and burrowed into his arms. Mulder winnowed his fingers through her hair in a gentle, rhythmic motion and felt himself dozing off; just before the waves hit him he pressed a soft kiss to the top of her head and got a sleepy, "Mmmm, love you Mulder"; he whispered the words right back to her and snuggling close, they both slept.


OUTER BOROUGH
GAUTIER, MISSISSIPPI
2:45 AM
OCT. 31, 2001

On the outskirts of Copper Landing the moon was obscured by angry dark clouds. It would rain, and soon. The night was very silent and in the distance the traffic along Highway 90 could be heard as a mere whisper in the gathering storm. It was murky out, but Dwayne Dobbs could see just fine.

He squatted on the porch of his house, an older place that had been in his family for four generations. His Great-Grandpa Franklin Dobbs had built it as a summer home. It was big and rambling and hard to heat in the winter; damp and sometimes smelled of mildew. All the carpets were made of expensive wool; all the drapes were heavy silk. Lots of woodwork.

Nothing was treated with any sort of flame retardant... a fact that made Dwayne's job a whole lot easier, tonight.

Under the glow of a porch light Dwayne finished wadding up newspaper and old brown supermarket bags. He scooped up an armful of the crumpled paper and walked through the open door of the house, feeling his way in the dark; depositing paper with careless precision in certain areas of each room. When he ran out of paper he went back out onto the porch and crumpled up some more, bringing another armful of it inside and trailing it up the stairs to the second floor landing, where he left a pile of it. He hesitated for a moment, thinking - then reached out and grabbed a handful from the top of the pile, walking silently down the carpeted hallway to the bathroom. He dropped it on the floor in front of the sink. As he raised his head he caught sight of himself in the mirror, and regarded his emotionless face with eyes just as dead and emotionless.

Turning from the mirror, Dwayne paced back down the stairs and out onto the porch, scooping up a load of rags that had been sitting next to the wadded paper. Walking back inside he dropped rags next to each pile of crumpled paper. Slowly and methodically... carefully. Precisely.

When all the rags were doled out Dwayne went back out to the porch and hefted a red plastic five-gallon drum with a long nozzle attached. He carried it inside and began pouring the contents over each bunch of paper and rags. It didn't take long, and along the way he spilled the liquid on his shirt and over some of the furniture. He never stopped to wipe it off his clothes or his hands, either - just finished emptying the drum and then carried it back outside. Standing on the porch, Dwayne looked up at the clouds rolling past the moon, flirting with hiding the huge glowing orb one minute and revealing all the next. Dwayne stood quietly, watching. When a dark mass hid the moon completely, he turned back to the doorway of the house and reached in his pocket; drew out a box of wooden matches. Carefully he lifted one out; firmly he scratched across the flinted side of the matchbox, and let the match ignite. Somehow he avoided catching himself on fire, as he stood holding it between his fingers, watching it burn down. When it got too small for him to hold, he dropped it on the porch and stepped on it with the toe of his sneaker. He paused for a moment, looking up at his home - clouds still covering the moon and blanketing everything in a murky charcoal. He tilted his head to one side, hearing something from the silence that perhaps no one else would have been able to hear - then he walked into the house and up the stairs, lighting a match as he went.

Five minutes later Dwayne had deposited a lit match for every pile of soaked papers and rags. He'd had to light the last two piles in a dead run - the flames were beginning to devour the downstairs - but at last they were all lit and Dwayne was running silently out of his house, pausing only long enough on the porch to grab up the remaining rags and the empty drum, which had been filled with gasoline. He leapt off the porch steps and kept on running.

Toward the end of the driveway he veered off into the trees and stopped to catch his breath. Dropping the rags and drum behind a huge weeping willow tree, Dwayne Dobbs turned and faced his burning home, watching as hot red flames licked at the inside windows and the drapes caught fire; observed the way curls of orange death exploded out of the beveled glass and those ruined drapes fluttered out of the gaping window, the fire feeding greedily on the outside air. Dwayne watched it all with a face so completely still and emotionless that he looked more like a photo and very less like a living, breathing, seven-year-old boy...

When on the still and thick humid air surrounding his home, he heard the first screams of unutterable pain and anguish, trapped within the second floor of a nightmare Hell he'd created all by himself... Dwayne Dobbs turned and walked away, down the rest of the driveway and onto Pagan Road, headed somewhere beyond Copper Landing. And as he walked, he hummed, and rocked from side to side, a little.


It seemed as if they'd only been sleeping a short time - instead of most of the night - when the shrill buzzing of the phone snapped them both awake at once. Scully raised her head, disoriented and dry-eyed from sleep; Mulder sat up beside her and reached over her for the phone.

"Mulder." The voice on the other end sounded as wiped out as he felt.

"Agent Mulder, is Agent Scully there with you?" AD Skinner's voice was tinny on the phone but Mulder could detect the worry underneath the professional tones. He stretched hard and swung his legs over the side of the bed as he answered.

"Yes, Sir, she's here. What's going on?" A hard sigh in his ear.

"I need both of you to catch the first flight out to Mississippi. Gautier, to be exact. I have no idea how big a town it is, so fly in as close as you can get. We've got another murder, this time a multiple - and the perpetrator is a year younger than Penny Mason."


OUTER BOROUGH
GAUTIER, MISSISSIPPI
12:30 P.M.
NOV. 1, 2001

Helen Dobbs sat across the scarred, wooden table from the two federal agents. Her dark-skinned fingers nervously traced the names of the countless juvenile offenders who had met in this same room with their parents and attorneys - names defiantly, sometimes proudly gouged into the wood by the young perpetrators for all to see. Thirty-two years old and single, she now found herself to be the sole guardian of her young nephew, Dwayne. Her breath caught on a choked sob as her thoughts turned to the rest of her family. Her older brother - strong, handsome and funny - his beautiful wife and their two little girls. Dead. Horribly burned alive while they slept. She shuddered at the thought. Helen scrubbed her fingers across her aching forehead. There were so many things to do, so many responsibilities suddenly heaped upon her. Her mother had collapsed and was heavily sedated at the county hospital. Her father, always strong, despite his advancing years, had become an old man overnight. Helen's thoughts flitted from funeral arrangements to speaking with her mother's doctor, to checking up on her father and making sure that he had eaten, to Dwayne. Oh God. Dwayne.

"Ms Dobbs?" Agent Mulder's voice jolted her back to the present.

"I... I'm sorry," Helen whispered. The female agent filled a glass with water from a pitcher and pushed it across the table. Helen lifted it with shaking hands, gratefully swallowing the icy water.

"I'm sorry," she said again. "What... what was your question?" Her brown eyes darted back and forth between the two agents and she struggled to focus on their questions.

"What can you tell us about Dwayne?" Mulder repeated gently. His hands rested quietly on the tabletop. Under normal circumstances his fingers would be restlessly playing with a pencil and his leg would be tapping an impatient beat on the floor. Scully knew that he was carefully suppressing all of his normal, jittery movements as he sought to calm the distraught woman seated across from them.

"I... I'm not sure exactly what you want to know." Helen slid her fingers over the condensation-slicked surface of the glass in her hands.

"Did he get into trouble at school?" Scully asked. "Did he get along with his family? Does he have trouble making friends? What kind of grades does he get?"

Helen shook her head and dug through her purse. She pulled out a small bottle of aspirin and fumbled impatiently with the childproof lid. Mulder reached out, took the plastic bottle from her and popped the lid free. He handed the open bottle back to Helen who shook two tablets into her hand and swallowed them with a quick gulp of water.

"No." Helen put the aspirin bottle back into her purse and continued to dig through the bag. She was busily rearranging the contents of her purse. Keeping busy to avoid the agents and their questions. She did not want to have this conversation, she didn't want to think... She suddenly became aware of the unnatural quiet of the room. Helen blew out a ragged breath and set the purse to the side, knotting her fingers tightly together on top of the table.

"Dwayne plays Pee-Wee football in the autumn and Little League in the spring. He has lots of friends. My brother..." Her voice caught on a sob. "Oh, sweet Jesus... my brother." She dropped her forehead onto her tightly knotted fingers. Mulder and Scully shared a pained look as Helen poured out her grief in keening sobs. Scully bit her lip and dropped her gaze to her lap. Her own natural reticence at publicly displaying her own emotions, always left her feeling a little awkward in the face of other's. Mulder pushed a box of tissues closer to the overwrought woman and they waited in sympathetic silence. Finally, Helen lifted her head and drew in a long, shuddering breath. Tear tracks left silvery paths down her dark cheeks. Her soft, brown eyes were rimmed with red and swollen from her emotional bout.

"Forgive me." She sniffed and snatched a handful of tissues from the box. Embarrassed at having broken down in the presence of the FBI agents, she blew her nose and took several slow, deep breaths to center herself.

"Can we get you anything, Ms. Dobbs?" Helen shook her head at Scully's softly spoken question and raised the glass of water to her lips. She drained the glass and set it back onto the table with a quiet clinking noise.

"No, thank you." Composed now, she thought back to Scully's questions. "My brother was so proud of Dwayne," she told them in a steady voice. "First born son and all of that. Dwayne always said that he was going to grow up to become a lawyer just like his daddy and granddaddy. Dobbs and Dobbs..." Her voice was a whisper.

"What about school?" Mulder prompted softly. Helen frowned and lifted her hands helplessly.

"I don't know what to tell you," she admitted. "Dwayne is well-liked by his teachers and classmates. My sister-in-law always told me that he was a leader on the playground. He organizes the games at recess. He makes sure that all of the children get a chance to play. He's a good boy like that. He's... he's just a good boy."

"Grades?" Scully asked.

Again Helen shook her head. "His grades are good. His parents showed me his report card at the end of the school year last spring and he had straight A's." She smiled. "I gave him a dollar for every A..." Her voice trailed off thoughtfully for a moment. "Dwayne is a good student, although he does have a bit of a reading problem."

Scully had been jotting notes down in her notebook and her head snapped up at the other woman's words. She turned her head toward her partner but he wasn't looking at her. Instead he was leaning across the table toward Helen Dobbs. Like a hunting dog catching the scent of its prey, he was practically vibrating with leashed excitement.

"What kind of reading problem?"


"That's gotta be it, Scully." Mulder dumped two packets of sugar into a tall glass of iced tea with one hand and pointed at Scully's notebook with the other. He absently reached for a third packet of sugar and Scully plucked it from his fingers.

"I think it's sweet enough," she admonished. She tucked the tiny paper packet back into the plastic basket on the formica table and looked back down at her notes. "Both children were well liked by their friends and teachers. They were outgoing, athletic and social. Neither child was ever in any serious trouble prior to these incidents. Both children were excellent students who struggled with reading problems," she said. "I agree that it's a strange coincidence." She looked up. He was nodding eagerly.

"Right. And according to Helen Dobbs, Dwayne was using the same at-home reading tutorial program that Penny Mason was using." Mulder fished an ice cube out of the glass with his fingers and popped it into his mouth, crunching it between strong, white teeth.

"Readin' Rocks," Scully said. She squeezed a lemon into her own glass of tea and took an experimental sip. "When I was a kid," she said, "they used to show these little educational snippets between cartoons on Saturday mornings. Schoolhouse Rock." She looked at her partner. "Do you remember it?"

Mulder nodded. "Yeah. Sam was into it more than I was," he recalled. "She drove us all crazy singing those silly little songs about adverbs and adjectives," he said.

A grin curled Scully's full lips upward. "Conjunction Junction," she remembered fondly. "It wasn't just grammar though," she remembered. "They had songs about science, math and American history." She grinned again. "That's how I learned the Preamble to the Constitution," she informed him.

Mulder laughed and stretched his arms across the vinyl back of the booth. "Wanna sing it for me?" Scully wrinkled her nose and propped her chin on her hand.

"I'll pass," she told him. "Seriously, Mulder. What do you think the connection is?" Scully was fairly sure that she knew exactly what Mulder was thinking, but she wanted to hear him say it out loud.

The waitress arrived with their dinners and Mulder took an appreciative sniff of meatloaf and mashed potatoes swimming in gravy when she set the plate before him. He picked up his fork and looked at Scully from the across the table.

"Mind control," he said. He smiled when she mouthed the words along with him. He scooped up a forkful of potatoes and popped it into his mouth.

"Mmm." Mulder loved diner food. He swallowed and nodded toward her own dinner. "Eat up, Scully. After dinner, we have some research to do."

Scully speared a piece of grilled chicken with her fork. "Research?" she asked curiously. Mulder nodded enthusiastically.

"Yep. I'd like to do some digging into this Readin' Rocks program," he said. "Maybe we could get a copy of their customer list." Scully eyed him thoughtfully from across the table.

"Penny wasn't the first," she said slowly. "This has happened before, but no one has made the connection until now." Mulder smiled. He loved it when Scully started thinking the way he did. His grin widened when she added, "Okay - I'll get started on the digging if you'll call Skinner and tell him we're staying here a few more days. Tell him you like the meatloaf too much to leave, yet."

Mulder snickered, bringing a hunk of meatloaf covered with potatoes to his mouth and shoveling it in. He mumbled as he chewed.

"Like he'd believe it, Scully..."


UNDISCLOSED LOCATION LAB
6:43 P.M.
NOV. 1, 2001

Most days Harold found his work so rewarding.

The company was doing very well, and he had just received a hefty raise and had opened another investment account in a new credit union that had great interest rates. When he thought of all the rotten jobs he'd had over the years, with rotten bosses and inadequate pay and horrible hours - and then at last to find his place in the working world... he could feel a huge smile break over his face and it made him laugh aloud, as he downloaded the last of the orders.

Thirty in all; a very good days' work. Thirty families that would be helped immensely by a product he personally believed in, with all his heart. If he had a family he'd sure be using it, as a tool for the better comprehension of his own children - if he had any. As he packaged instructions and selected workbooks and wrapped everything in new cellophane he tried not to bemoan his lack of a life outside his professional sphere. It was all right, he told himself. Hadn't he just laughed aloud at the sheer joy his job could bring him?

No, Harold corrected himself firmly. It wasn't merely a job. It was a career - his career. His life's work and he loved the way it lent importance to his existence. Nothing else had ever lent the same level of importance, as this service did.

As he added the necessary CDs to the almost-complete package, and uploaded the identifying codes from the label into the spreadsheet that was rapidly expanding into a complicated, linked work file - Harold thought of the child this program would help. A little girl; he could almost picture her. Not quite eight years old, living in Wisconsin. On a dairy farm, he'd bet; he liked to try guessing what these young customers' environments could be like, depending upon where they lived. She had very loving and supportive parents, that much was obvious. They'd recognized a need in their darling child, a need to improve greatly upon her comprehension skills. They could foresee the future, knowing how important those skills would be as she grew to adulthood and drew upon her knowledge to obtain that one vital job that would become her career. Maybe she'd love that career as much as he loved his. Somehow the thought made him feel very close to her. He decided to give the sweetheart a discount; after all if her folks were farmers then they probably struggled to make ends meet the way so many farmers did, these days.

He went back into their account and changed their total to reflect a twenty-five percent discount. He knew his superiors would not mind. He was their top manager. He owned stock in the company. He was their best and most enthusiastic salesperson. He was a one-man cheering section for "Readin' Rocks"... he would do anything for the promotion and ultimate success of a product he believed in with all his heart and soul.

Harold was so proud that he was in a position within the company to be considered valuable enough for this sort of action to not only be allowed but approved one hundred percent. It meant everything to him. It was almost as good as having children of his own, when he went to bed at night knowing he'd given assistance to yet another precious child.

He hummed as he finished wrapping the order for little Joy Henley. A sweet name for a sweet little girl. He attached her mailing label and stacked it atop the other orders he'd readied during his day. He'd take them to the post office tomorrow, first thing. Sighing with satisfaction for another day Well spent, he closed all his open files and left the hard drive running. He stood and stretched, snapped off his desk lamp and gathered up his briefcase, jingling his office keys in his free hand. He strode to the door and locked it carefully behind him, his dedicated and busy mind already planning out his next work day. As he stepped into the elevator at the end of the carpeted corridor, he found himself whistling under his breath. Maybe he'd treat himself to a steak dinner at Antoni's on the way home...

The elevator doors whispered shut exactly three seconds before another door in that long corridor opened, and a figure draped in a dark trench coat stepped out onto the thick carpet. The figure walked quickly to the office so recently vacated, fished in a deep pocket of the coat for a small set of keys and unlocked the door; strode in the darkness to the computer glowing faintly in the nicely appointed room. Sitting in the chair still warm from its last occupant, the figure typed a few commands on the keyboard and a spreadsheet appeared. A few seconds later a printout of the sheet appeared in the laser printer and the seated figure scanned the printout carefully, then set it aside and began typing in the codes found on the spreadsheet beginning with the last order of the day... Joy Henley. As her customer profile appeared on the monitor the figure pulled out a small bound notebook, flipped it to a marked page and using the ten-key pad typed in a series of numbers. Watching the monitor carefully, the figure waited patiently for his efforts to load into specified fields in the profile, checking for accuracy. Satisfied the entry was correct the figure pressed 'enter' and the numbers so carefully typed in began to generate into a series of commands that attached neatly to the profile of a little girl who perhaps lived on a farm in Wisconsin and had a comprehension problem.


GAUTIER DAYS INN
7:15 P.M.
NOV. 1, 2001

"Is that what I think it is, Mulder? Where did you get it?" Scully stood in back of his chair and stared at her laptop monitor. Mulder pumped up the volume so she could better hear the music that accompanied the colorful words dancing in rhythm over the screen. Bright colors that would really draw a child's attention, and a happy little tune as well...

"... My name is "Have" and I bet you've seen The way I complement "I" and "Been"! I make a sentence fun to read..."

"Catchy little tune, isn't it? I could hear a kid singing it under their breath... maybe bopping around, a little." Mulder glanced up at Scully as she hung over his chair and her eyes followed the rest of the song bouncing over the screen. The colors were mesmerizing; Scully found herself trying to follow them with her eyes. The music played on, the beat getting faster, the colors flashing more rapidly; she could feel herself rocking on her feet, a little...

"Scully! Hey!" Mulder's voice was firm and urgent, breaking into her concentration. Scully lifted dazed eyes from the swirling and flying colors, staring in confusion at her partner, who had actually reached out a hand and yanked at a lock of her hair. Her eyes focused on him and Mulder frowned in worry at the bewilderment he saw in her face. He turned sideways in his seat and pulled her down across his knees; Scully sank against his chest, her back to the monitor. Her voice came out sounding as confused as the clouds in her eyes.

"Mulder... that was weird. Those colors... that music. It sucked me in, so fast." Mulder nodded and looked over his shoulder at the screen. It was ablaze now, with all sorts of flashing words etched in over bright colors, the music spinning in time with the words. And below the surface of the music Mulder could sense something else; very hypnotizing. In the colors, although for him the pull of the music was stronger. Probably because of his color weakness...

With a decisive hand he grabbed the mouse and closed the window; closed everything down. He turned back to Scully and ran the same hand over her hair, then pressed his fingers over her forehead noting the slight dampness there. He murmured thoughtfully.

"It got to you very quickly, Scully. And I could feel it, too. I can't help but wonder why it would grab at us like that - and not affect the parents who had this in their homes everyday." Scully sat up a little straighter on his knees, coiling an arm around his neck for balance. Mulder noted her eyes had cleared up and she'd stopped perspiring. Her voice sounded better, too.

"You still didn't answer my question, Mulder. Where did you get this? Everything burned up in the Dobbs' fire; and there's no way you could have ordered one and have it here in just a day. So..." She dropped off and he obligingly took it up and answered her.

"It was Helen Dobbs. While you were rooting around on the Internet over at the local library, I called her to see if she remembered seeing "Readin' Rocks" anywhere around Dwayne's room, or knew anything about her brother ordering it for the kid. She told me that she'd heard about the program first and had mentioned it to her brother, then she'd ordered it for Dwayne at the same time his parents thought to do it. With Federal Express faster than UPS, her brother got his order before she got hers, and Dwayne just used the first one received. Helen kept the second set, not bothering to return it - just in case Dwayne's set got torn up. She figured kids are hard on CDs." Mulder tapped a finger on the empty CD box sitting next to the mouse, adding, "She was kind enough to swing by the motel and drop it off for us to see."

Mulder gave her a quick squeeze, which Scully returned with enthusiasm before she slid off his lap and got to her feet. Reaching for the CD box she turned it over in her hands, reading the label. It looked like any learning program, nothing different or special. There were three other CDs in the set besides the one Mulder had loaded on the hard drive; each one was labeled and it appeared that they represented different levels. She raised questioning eyes to her partner and commented, "Nothing odd - pretty innocuous, from the looks of it. So why did it hit us so hard, Mulder? Wouldn't it also do the same thing to the parents of those children, if they were in the room with it running up on the monitors?" Mulder stood up and stretched, then ran his hands through his hair until it stuck up on his head, before answering.

"Well, I thought of that. I put in the last in the series, not for any specific reason - but now, seeing what the CDs are capable of doing to the human mind... I wonder if the intensity of the mind control increases with each level, and that maybe a seed is planted in the child's mind early on in the program, that warns the child to keep certain parts of the lessons secret? Maybe Penny Mason's and Dwayne Dobbs' folks never got to see that final level."

Scully prodded at the box again with an index finger before raising her eyes to her partner again. "You think these kids could be that devious? They're so young, Mulder." He nodded thoughtfully and looped his arms around her waist, snuggling her close. He knew it distressed her to think of anything bad happening to children; Scully was especially susceptible to it because of her own Emily. He pressed warm lips into her temple, then kissed the end of her nose before taking her lips in a very tender kiss. Their mouths clung for a long moment and Scully sighed into his neck when the kiss ended. Mulder kept her close and his reply was as soothing as he could manage.

"They ARE young, Scully - and that's exactly why they would be perfect for an experiment, program - whatever the hell we call it - because they are still relatively unformed at this age. They are sponges. And someone has found a way to make them soak up something very, very rotten."


HOOVER BUILDING
WASHINGTON, D.C.
7:45 P.M.
NOV. 2, 2001

"Scully, look at this!" Scully raised her head at the sound of her partner's excited voice. She leaned her hip against the edge of the desk and looked toward the computer monitor glowing harshly in the dimly lit basement office.

"What am I looking at?" She absentmindedly dug a morsel of sweet and sour pork out of the cardboard box with her chopsticks and popped it into her mouth. Mulder reached out to take the container from her hands.

"Right there," he mumbled around a mouthful of pork. He pointed toward the screen with one chopstick. Scully squinted and leaned closer to the screen. They had been digging through juvenile crimes records from every one of the fifty states since they had arrived back in D.C. earlier that morning. Their search had yielded a lot of statistics about juvenile crime - enough to send Scully into a major depression, she thought wryly - but so far they had been unable to establish any kind of link between the young criminals and "Readin' Rocks".

"Terrence Hewitt, age eight of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania." Scully read aloud. "Cub Scouts. T-ball. Honor Roll." Her eyes skimmed tiredly over the screen looking for the connection. Mulder jabbed at the screen with one finger.

"Right there, Scully!" he exclaimed. "Don't you see?" He tilted his head toward her and Scully could see the blue-tinted screen reflected in the glasses perched on his nose. "Terrence had a reading tutor in first and second grades, but by the time he reached third grade, his reading skills had improved to the point that he no longer needed a tutor." He looked up at her with an expectant look on his face.

"Mulder..." Scully held up one hand in a 'so-what' gesture. "A lot of children need help learning to read."

Mulder nodded and pinched the bridge of his nose between his thumb and forefinger. "But how many of them go on to choke a younger cousin to death with a jumping rope?" he asked.

The fax machine whirred to life and began to sluggishly spit out a sheaf of papers. Scully pushed away from the desk and walked across the room to gather up the papers lying in the output tray.

"What's that?" Mulder asked. Scully walked back to his desk and placed the stack of papers onto the desk blotter cheerfully decorated with doodles of alien heads and spaceships in various sizes and shapes.

"See for yourself," she said as she leaned over his shoulder to read along with him. Mulder glanced down at the list of names piled on top of his desk.

"A customer list for Readin' Rocks, Inc.?" he asked incredulously. "Where did you get this?" He turned his head and stared into her eyes only inches away from his own.

She grinned. "When I was researching the corporation this afternoon, I found out that they had gone public with a number of Class B shares of stock last year," she explained. "The majority of the stock is still owned by a small number of people, but when they went public with the Class B stock, their records - including their customer list - became public as well."

Mulder's gaze was openly admiring. "You're a genius!" he crowed. Scully blushed and tucked an errant strand of hair behind her ear. She picked up the list of names and arranged herself comfortably on the edge of his desk.

"Let's get started," she said. Mulder flexed his fingers over the keyboard and awaited the first name from the list.

Two and a half hours later, they had gone through the entire list of names and were able to match nine children from the Readin' Rocks customer list to the juvenile offenders database. They had all been charged with their crimes in the last year.

Scully was slumped in her chair, her cheek resting against arms folded on top of the desk as Mulder read off the list of names.

"Amanda Lowell, age seven, Atlanta, Georgia. Armed robbery.

"Sheila Anders, age eight, Long Island, New York. Assaulted a classmate on the schoolyard with a knife.

"Robert Madison, age seven. Boston, Massachusetts. Bludgeoned his babysitter over the head with a bicycle pump.

"Gerald Smith, age seven. Nags Head, North Carolina..."

Scully held up one hand. "No more," she moaned. She scrubbed her hands over her face dejectedly. "I don't want to hear any more." Mulder looked up to object when she pushed herself to her feet tiredly and began stuffing papers into her briefcase.

"Tomorrow," she said. "We'll get back to it tomorrow." Mulder peered into her face, pale with exhaustion, and he felt the pull of his own weariness across his shoulder blades. He saved their work onto the hard drive of his computer and made a back-up copy onto a disk that he slipped into his pocket.

"You're right," he agreed. "We've got a lot of traveling ahead of us. We should get some rest." As she followed Mulder toward the office door Scully suppressed a groan at the thought of traveling up and down the Atlantic coast of the United States interviewing these children and their families.

"Let's go home," he said as he snapped off the light and pulled the door closed behind them. Placing a comforting hand at the small of her back, Mulder kept their bodies close as they walked toward the elevators.


UNDISCLOSED LOCATION
3:45 AM
NOV. 3, 2001

The room was elegant and richly appointed, reeked of money and privilege. Side by side at a large, oval mahogany table, aromatic brandy dregs floated in cut-crystal balloon glasses - two cigars smoldered in a matching cut-crystal ashtray. The wisps of smoke curled around the head of a man who tugged at his silk tie and slumped back in his chair, twiddling an expensive gold-plated pen between his fingers. He forced himself to look up when he spoke; made himself keep his voice level and solid.

"We have a problem." In sudden exasperation he threw the gold-plated pen across the room, uncaring of the way it broke apart upon impact. A creak from the chair next to him was the only indication that his words had been heard.

"What problem? Illuminate, please." The voice was calming and yet firmly commanding. There was leadership in the tone. Authority. The man took a deep breath before replying.

"We may have been breached, by a Federal office. I received notification about an hour ago."

The voice next to him remained controlled, although there was a cold edge to it. "An hour ago? And you are just now getting around to telling me? Explain yourself."

The man sighed nervously; they were the same age, but in level of power... years apart; maybe even a generation. It had always been that way between them, for as far back as he could remember. They had grown up together, double-dated together - and the imbalance in their relationship was never more apparent, than now. The man tapped his fingers on the leather chair arm beneath his hand, wondering how much trouble his answer would bring him. He took another deep, fortifying breath.

"I would not have been able to report any sooner; I was still gathering information." That much was true. He swallowed thickly when his companion frowned at the half-baked explanation. The man hastened to add onto his excuse.

"Harold emailed me and told me that someone had requested a copy of our customer list from the public records. You know I'd arranged to have restrictions placed on that list... I gave the job to Harold. Usually the man is completely, one hundred percent dependable when asked to carry out these taskings. Harold apologized profusely for not completing the task; apparently he has been bogged down in orders and felt that was more important than stopping long enough to program the proper restrictions. Of course, we appreciate his dedication -" The man's voice petered off at the slightly imperious hand waved in his face, in reaction to that last sentence.

"Do NOT offer any further excuses. I am well aware of Harold's dedication, as I am aware of the man's technical genius - AND his blind devotion and blithely happy demeanor. He has been the perfect foil for our work - I concede on that truth. But Harold becomes a liability when his dedication, however sincere, puts this project in jeopardy." The chair beside him abruptly scooted backwards as its occupant leapt to his feet and began to pace. The man swallowed several more times, each one gaining in nervousness. This was not good. Anger and impatience, actually rapidly developing fury - all directed toward him. This truly wasn't good... He closed his eyes in panic when his companion's narrowed, cold stare locked onto him. Oh, Jesus... he knew he was really going to HATE the next words he heard -

"Take care of it. I'll let the others know their worry has been assuaged." A decisive turn of one highly polished boot heel, clicking across the wood parquet floor. The man jumped to his feet and called after his companion in a voice he fought to keep from trembling.

"Take care of it? Wait - do you mean to ask me to..." He trailed off when those cold eyes glared at him from across the expensively appointed office.

"Yes. I do mean to ask you - to do exactly what you think I am asking of you. These plans have been in place for a long time. We all knew what would have to be done should a breach occur. We have prepared from the beginning - and we have chosen our path. Our vow to each other - that we would protect the project, at all costs. A Federal office has received our customer list. It's now just a matter of time, before we are found. And one life is not so very much, is it? To protect something this important? So," as he opened the mahogany door and stepped through, tossing one last command over his shoulder, "do as I ask. Take care of it." The door whispered shut behind him, and the man sank down into his comfortable leather chair, running a shaky hand over his damp face.

Looking around at the opulent room, taking due note of the rare, bound books covering one whole wall... all the result of the project - of the kind of money it had generated for them. Borrowed money, much of it - money offered in good faith, on the premise that they could deliver what they had promised their benefactors.

Oh, at first it had been a game to them - a fascinating, heady game. They were the "A" class of their academies; the ones most likely to take over the world. Their brilliance knew no equal; singly they were amazing but together as a team they'd been unstoppable. When they'd begun developing the project, each golden day of planning, trial and error - it had been magical. All of them, moving into the lab together; working day and night... none of them complained; the importance of what they were doing far outweighed the need for such things as sleep and food.

When their project, first created for the sheer exhilaration of knowing their formidable abilities allowed for it - when that project caught the attention of some serious influence - well, how could they resist? How could they not say 'yes'? And their agreement had fueled their passion for the project - and had helped to fund the world of which they had now become accustomed.

Once more, he looked around the room. He didn't want to lose this world. He'd grown up poor; had depended upon scholarships to make his way through college and graduate school. His brilliant mind demanded he rise above his circumstances, and feed his thirst to learn. And once he'd learned; once he'd been afforded the chance to let his mind have full creative engineering, along with his fellow project partners - once he'd lived in a world of such privilege...

He didn't want to give it up. And yet, to protect his fellow partners - his friends and colleagues, known and admired for years - he would have to give it up. All of it. Starting with setting in motion the plan that would safeguard his team.

The man rubbed at his red-rimmed eyes. His walk was slow as he approached a mirrored bar and poured himself a fresh brandy, using a clean cut-crystal glass. He held the drink up to the glow of the fireplace and watched the amber liquid swirl, before raising it to his lips. It burned going down, brighter than the flames curling around the logs. He looked at himself in the mirror hanging over the bar. Bloodshot eyes, lines around his mouth. Worry lines on his forehead. His hair was thinning; a bit of gray around the temples. Jesus.

He was only twenty-eight years old... much too young to heft this sort of burden. Much too young to have to carry out this sort of task...

He set down the glass and walked to the mahogany desk, framed in the floor-to-ceiling bay windows - sat down in front of the computer. Logged in. Opened several windows. Began downloading programs. As he typed he forced himself to look at the screen; made himself check the codes for accuracy... forced himself not to gag when those codes repeated the name "Harold" several times...


MIAMI, FLORIDA
3:38 P.M.
NOV. 4, 2001

Mulder climbed out of the airport shuttle van. Turning, he took Scully's laptop from her and held out his other hand to help her out of the van. He squinted in the late afternoon sun and watched Scully shrug out of her suit jacket in deference to the Florida heat.

"Hot enough for you?" Mulder smirked as the driver stacked their luggage onto the sidewalk. He had long since abandoned his jacket. His shirtsleeves were rolled up and his tie hung loosely around his neck, the top two buttons at the collar unfastened. Scully plucked at the turtleneck of her ribbed sweater and pushed the tight sleeves as far up her arms as they would go.

"Let's just get in the car," she groused. Earlier that day they had been in Boston interviewing the parents and teachers of Robert Madison, the boy who had attacked his babysitter with a bicycle pump. They had intended to visit the babysitter later that afternoon, but when they had heard a report on the radio of a bizarre incident in Florida, they had rushed to the airport to catch the first available flight to Miami. There had been no time to change - and what had been comfortable clothing for a brisk November day in Boston, was decidedly uncomfortable in what passed for autumn in Florida.

Mulder checked the paperwork in his hand and led the way across the parking lot toward their rental car. They quickly stowed their luggage in the trunk and climbed into the car. The moment Mulder engaged the ignition, Scully leaned forward to turn on the air conditioner. Pushing the controls to maximum, she tilted the vents up to allow the cool air to wash over her. Mulder also took a moment to enjoy the refreshing blast of air before turning his attention back to the matter at hand.

"Which way?" He backed out of the parking space as Scully withdrew a sheaf of papers from a pocket in the soft-sided case protecting her laptop and consulted their notes. They had spent the relatively short flight reviewing what little information they had managed to gather and contacting the local authorities by air phone. She read aloud the directions provided to them by the police and within twenty-five minutes they turned onto a street lined with palm trees and modest, but well kept middle-income homes.

Mulder climbed out of the car and spared a glance toward Scully before returning his attention to the spectacle being played out before them. He nodded his head and they began to push their way through the throng of people gathered outside of one of the houses. They reached the police barricades and flashed their badges to slip under the yellow tape stretched around the neatly manicured lawn.

"I'm Agent Mulder and this is my partner, Dana Scully." Scully was dimly aware of Mulder introducing himself to the police lieutenant in charge of the scene as she studied the multitude of people gathered in the street. Men and women. Young and old. Some with children. She could hear the soft murmur of voices lifted in prayer, some speaking Spanish, others in English. A few people held vigil candles in their hands; others clutched rosaries between their fingers. She felt Mulder's hand brush against her elbow and she returned her attention to him and the lieutenant.

"There's not much more that I can tell you," Lieutenant Morales said. "This is the weirdest thing I've ever seen," he admitted. He brushed one hand through his dark, wavy hair and sighed. "There's no evidence of a crime so we can't make an arrest." He planted his hands on his hips, revealing the service revolver tucked safely in the holster attached to his belt.

"My captain tells me that you two have some experience with this kind of thing?" His eyes were dark and incredulous.

Mulder nodded and glanced over the lieutenant's head at the ever-growing crowd assembling in the street. "We've been investigating a series of crimes, all seemingly committed by children, and all of them children the same age as Maria Rodriguez." His eyes continued to rove over the peaceful throng of people for another moment before he returned his gaze and his full attention to the lieutenant.

"We've established a connection between each of these children and we have reason to believe that Maria fits the same profile as all of the other children we've investigated so far," he continued. Maria's name did appear on the Readin' Rocks customer list that Scully had obtained.

"Lieutenant," Scully asked. "Why are all of these people gathered outside of the Rodriguez home?"

Morales scrubbed one hand over the back of his neck and took a deep breath. "Well, like I said, there's no evidence of any crime having been committed." His shoulders rose and fell as he shrugged. "The Rodriguez family is well- liked and respected in this community. They own two local restaurants. Luis Rodriguez took over the management of the family business when his parents retired about ten years ago. He coaches Little League over at the community center and is president of the Home and School Board at Saint Joachim's parish." Morales glanced over his shoulder at the small house bathed in the late afternoon sun.

"His wife, Rose, was a teacher at Saint Joachim's, but when Maria was born, she quit her job to stay at home and raise their family. She's also very active in the parish as well as in the community. She heads the local town watch and organizes the summer carnival every year." He realized that he had strayed away from Scully's original question.

"Anyway, that's why no one can believe that anything like this would happen to this family," he said. "Maria is known by everyone around here as a sweet little girl and every person standing out there in the street will tell you that Rose would never lift a hand toward either of her children."

Mulder's eyes locked on Scully's for a moment before he turned back to the lieutenant. "Wait," he said urgently. "Rose? How was Rose involved in this?"

Morales looked back and forth between the two agents in confusion. "You didn't know?" he asked incredulously. They both continued to stare at him with identical looks of bewilderment on their faces. Morales sighed.

"Luis Rodriguez says that he found his wife and daughter trying to murder his six-month-old son. There's no rational explanation for what happened and many people believe that it is the work of the devil. Father Tom is in with the family right now."

Both in shock, the partners watched the softly chanting crowd gathered behind them for a moment before hurrying along the path that led to the Rodriguez home and the mystery that lay within.


Mulder and Scully stood in the kitchen speaking with Father Thomas Martin in hushed tones. In the living room, Yvette Rodriguez bounced her grandson, Angel, in her arms while her husband cuddled his confused granddaughter on his lap.

"Come now, Maria," he cajoled. "Don't you have a smile for your Poppy?" The old man fished a piece of candy from his pocket and held it out enticingly to the little girl, but she pushed it away and settled her head against his shoulder.

"Bad girls don't deserve candy, Poppy," she sighed dejectedly. Joseph Rodriguez smoothed his hand over his granddaughter's tousled curls and looked across the room to where his son tried in vain to comfort his distraught wife.

"Baby," Luis Rodriguez whispered. "Rose, please," he begged. "We need to talk." He set one strong hand on her shoulder and tugged. His wife lifted her head from where she had buried it in the sofa cushions and stared at the beloved and handsome face of her husband.

"How can you even bear to look at me?" she whimpered miserably. Luis' heart contracted painfully.

"Because I love you," he whispered fiercely. "And I know you. You would never willingly hurt our children; never willingly hurt anyone. Rose..."

She covered her face with her arm and turned away from him, curling up into a ball as fear clutched at her heart. She almost did, she thought. She had almost hurt her baby boy. She peeked across the room to where Maria was curled up in an equally miserable ball on her grandfather's lap and mother and daughter shared a look of sadness and fear and... remembered exhilaration. Rose shuddered and once again hid her face behind her arm, willing herself to forget.

Luis shared a worried glance with his parents. He didn't understand any of the things that had happened in the last two days. He turned his face toward the kitchen, not sure if he wanted to know what was being discussed between his priest and the two agents from Washington, DC. His lips moved in a silent prayer for help.


"Father, you don't truly believe that this is the work of Satan, do you?" Scully leaned her hips against the kitchen counter and crossed her arms over her chest. The Rodriguez house was mercifully cool and she was comfortable for the first time since landing in Florida.

The priest's eyes flicked down to the tiny gold cross glittering against the black turtleneck of Scully's sweater.

"You don't believe in the devil?" he asked curiously. That curiosity was further peaked when he saw her blue eyes flash with emotion before becoming flat and cool again. A movement to Agent Scully's left had the priest chancing a glance toward the other agent as he moved closer to the petite woman in an almost protective gesture. Mulder's face bore the same studied calm that graced his partner's pretty features.

"Scully and I have both seen enough in our work to know that evil does exist in this world," Mulder said in a slightly strained voice. "We'd like to know what you think happened here yesterday."

The priest tugged one of the kitchen chairs away from the table and straddled the seat. He rested his chin on his fingers steepled against the back of the chair and watched the two agents who were patiently awaiting his reply.

"I don't know," he finally admitted. "I've known Rose for many years. I baptized Maria and her brother. My instincts tell me that there is no evil in them." He rubbed his fingers over his forehead. "Yet they are both insistent that they DID try to kill little Angel and Luis corroborates that story..." The priest's voice trailed off in frustrated confusion.

Mulder sat down on one of the other chairs and leaned across the table. His voice was low and urgent.

"Father Martin, we believe that there is evil at work here. But that it is an evil very much of this earth and of human hands." Mulder glanced toward Scully and she nodded for him to continue.

"In the last year there have been a rash of crimes committed by children aged seven or eight up and down the Atlantic coast. Children like Maria. Smart children with attentive parents - children who have never before been in trouble. But this is the first case where a parent has been involved with the crime."

Scully waited for Mulder to take a breath before she picked up the narrative. "As you might understand, it has been difficult for us to interview the children and get a coherent explanation for what drove them to behave in such an aberrant manner," she said. "We're hopeful that Rose will be able to give us some insight into what is going on."

"What makes you so sure that the Maria and Rose are connected in any way to these other children?" Father Tom asked.

Mulder leaned against the back of his chair. "How much do you know about Maria's reading difficulties?"


Rose Rodriguez sat on the sofa, flanked on either side by her husband and her priest. Her daughter sat on the floor, her head resting against her mother's knees. Her in-laws had taken her baby boy upstairs for a nap.

"We need to know what happened here yesterday," Scully began. Her voice was soft and compassionate, yet authoritative. "Mr. Rodriguez, perhaps you could begin by telling us what you witnessed."

Luis swallowed convulsively. He tightened his grip around his wife's hand and looked toward Father Tom for reassurance. The priest nodded and smiled slightly and Luis took a deep breath.

"I heard an odd noise coming from the baby's room," he began. "I knew that Rose and Maria were both up there, so I didn't think much of it. When I heard the noise again, I called up to them, but they didn't answer." He laid one hand on his daughter's frail shoulder. "I went upstairs to see what was going on. The door was half closed and when I pushed it open, I saw my wife standing over the baby's crib with a knife in her hands." He shuddered in remembrance and Rose's fingernails dug into his hand as she clutched it tightly.

Mulder and Scully waited patiently for him to continue.

"Her eyes... her eyes were so strange," Luis recalled. "Her pupils were dilated so that her eyes were almost completely black. Tears were streaming down her face and she seemed frozen in place." He wiped his face on his shoulder and stumbled on through the rest of the story. "Maria was standing next to her mother, rocking back and forth; shifting her weight from one foot to the other. Everything seemed to be happening in slow motion, you know?" The look he directed toward the two agents was bewildered and frightened. "Rose lifted the knife over her head and as I lunged forward, she suddenly screamed 'NO' and staggered away from the crib."

Rose hung her head and tears dripped from her chin to soak the dark curls on her daughter's head. Father Tom rubbed her back comfortingly with his free hand and whispered something into her ear.

Luis hurried through the rest of his story, eager to be finished. "Rose crumpled to the floor, sobbing - and Maria let out this horrible shriek! She snatched the knife away from her mother and turned back toward the crib. I couldn't believe what was happening. I froze." His voice was a shamed whisper as he continued. "Maria isn't tall enough to reach over the top of the crib rail and she tried to get at the baby through the bars. I shouted out her name and she looked up at me with eyes that were as black as her mother's had been. She hesitated and in that instant I was able to knock the knife out of her hands." He laid his hand on his daughter's head, wanting to shield her from this retelling of those awful minutes, but knew that he couldn't. "She fought me, trying to get to the knife. She was so strong." His voice reflected the horrified amazement he had felt as he had struggled to subdue his tiny daughter.

"Finally, she slumped in my arms, exhausted. I let her go and she crawled across the floor to her mother. I picked up the knife and put it on a high shelf and then I stood between them and the baby. Rose and Maria sat on the floor, wrapped in each other's arms, rocking and crying and humming a song." He hummed a little bit of the cheerful little tune.

Maria lifted her head from her mother's knee. "Daddy, that's the song from my Readin' Rocks CD."

Father Tom's head shot up and he stared at Mulder and Scully in stunned amazement. The tale they had told him in the kitchen had been as hard for him to swallow as the idea that a demonic spirit had possessed Rose and Maria. But, now...

Mulder slid from his chair to take a seat on the floor. "Maria," he called to the little girl. She popped her thumb into her mouth and carefully watched the man with the nice eyes make himself comfortable on the rug where she liked to play with her toys.

"Can you tell me about Readin' Rocks?" he asked. "Do you like it?" She sucked her thumb thoughtfully and nodded her head. Mulder smiled.

"Why do you like it so much?" Mulder asked. The little girl narrowed her eyes as she thought about her answer carefully.

"Sometimes I have a hard time making sense out of words." She eased her glistening thumb out of her mouth. "But when Mommy brought me Readin' Rocks, I started to do better!" she pronounced gravely.

Mulder nodded wisely. "It makes it fun to learn?" Maria sat up straight and her entire body was quivering with excitement.

"It sooo awesome!" she proclaimed. "The songs are the best part aren't they, Mommy?" She turned to her mother for confirmation. Rose rubbed her aching forehead against her husband's shoulder. She couldn't figure out why Agent Mulder was so interested in her daughter's reading program. His partner was leaning forward in her seat, her attention fully captivated by Maria's words.

"Yes, honey," Rose murmured dutifully. "The songs are the best part." She looked up when Scully began to speak.

"Mrs. Rodriguez, you're a schoolteacher, is that right?"

Rose nodded. "Yes, but I stopped working when Maria was born so that I could stay at home with my children." The female agent seemed very interested in this line of questioning.

"Do you spend a lot of time working with Maria on her reading?" she asked. Again, Rose found this line of questioning to be strange, but she was so tired and her mind moved sluggishly as she tried to answer.

"Yes. Maria is a very bright student, but has been held back because of her difficulties with reading."

Scully bit her lip thoughtfully. "Where did you learn about Readin' Rocks?" she asked.

"I still subscribe to many of the publications that I received when I was teaching," she explained. "There was an article in one of them about the program and how effective it's been for children with comprehension problems like Maria's." She pulled her hands away from Father Tom and Luis and knotted her fingers in her lap.

"Agent Scully, I don't see what all of this has to do..."

Mulder looked up. "Please bear with us, Mrs. Rodriguez. I know it seems strange, but we do believe there is a connection."

Rose Rodriguez sighed and slumped back against the sofa cushions. She raised one hand and indicated that they should continue with their questions.

"Can you explain how the Readin' Rocks program works?" Scully asked. Rose closed her eyes tiredly.

"It's a series of CD-ROMs," she explained. "There are four CDs in all, and each one is more advanced than the previous one." Her breasts ached - it was time to feed Angel, but she was afraid to touch her baby boy... afraid to hurt him. She crossed her arms over her chest, pressing against her breasts to relieve the pressure.

"The program is very easy to use - in fact it's designed so that a child can use on their own. But I miss teaching and I wanted to give Maria the extra attention so I worked with her on it every day after school while Angel took his nap." Her voice broke as she mentioned her son's name and she wiped a tear away from her cheek with her thumb.

"The CDs teach a child how to read using a series of songs set to cartoons or whirling patterns of color and light. The kids are fascinated by the bouncy tunes and pictures and they become hooked on it. The lessons are easy for them to memorize because they are set to music." Her voice trailed off. She didn't know what else there was to say about the program and she still couldn't figure out where all of this was leading.

"Maria and I began using the program over the summer and her grades have improved drastically this year. She loves it, don't you, honey?"

The little girl had been distracted from the horror of the last two days and she bounced to her feet. "It's great!" she chirped. "And wait'll you see the cool present they sent me." She scampered out of the room.

"Mrs. Rodriguez, have you noticed anything..." Mulder's question was cut short when Maria raced back into the room.

"Lookit!" she cried as she thrust her treasure toward Mulder. He reached out to take the stuffed lion cub out of her hands.

"You got this from Readin' Rocks?" Mulder asked. The little girl bobbed her head excitedly.

"Yeah!" She reached out with one pudgy hand and stroked it over the stuffed animal's back. "It's neat. See what it can do?" As she rubbed her hand over the fur, the toy began to vibrate gently in Mulder's hand and a loud purring sound could be heard in the room.

Rose stiffened in her seat and began to knead her temples with her fingers. "Ohhh," she moaned softly. Maria began to sway back and forth. Her lower lip trembled and she turned to face her mother.

"Mommy? It's happening again, isn't it?"


A general dissection of Leo the stuffed lion cub yielded squat.

Mulder had been tinkering with it for well over an hour, finding nothing more alarming than a basic sound-and-motion box that was touch-sensitive. It looked like any other sound-and-motion box - not that Mulder had seen all that many - and certainly seemed non-threatening. He poked at it one more time with the tiny screwdriver in his hand, glancing up when Scully entered the kitchen.

"Anything?" She sat down across from him and stole a sip of the iced tea he'd been nursing. Mulder shook his head and set the screwdriver down, rubbed at his eyes.

"Nope. Nothing odd-looking. Of course I'm not an expert in toy terrorism..." He stretched and yawned, then reached out a hand and squeezed Scully's shoulder, noting the look of exhaustion clinging to her. "Scully, you look beat. How are they doing in there?" He tipped his head in the direction of the Rodriguez' living room. Scully sighed and leaned her cheek on Mulder's hand for a moment, before answering.

"Well, Maria finally fell asleep on the sofa and Luis carried her to bed. He's sitting with her right now, I think as more of a precautionary gesture. I can tell he's still worried Maria could act out in some way. Rose also fell asleep. She's on the sofa. The baby is still with the grandparents, upstairs. And I feel... numb. I'm sure you can relate." Mulder nodded and gave her shoulder a final caress, before picking up the stuffed toy and examining it again. He found himself irritated that he couldn't figure it all out - not quite all of it - not enough to find a way to solve it, yet.

Before Scully came into the kitchen he had already decided to send the toy to Frohike, and see if he and the guys could find anything. They had the right sort of equipment. Now Mulder murmured, "Well, let's send this - and the last CD of the set - to the guys, and see what they can decipher. If I send it Fed Ex they can have it by tomorrow evening." Scully frowned as she thought about the CDs.

"Mulder, do we really want to let them have both the CD and the toy, at once? What if that combination proves deadly?" Mulder shrugged and stood up, collecting his jacket and the stuffed lion.

"That is why we're only going to send them CD number four, Scully - just to be safe. God knows what would happen if the guys had the full set..." He led the way out of the kitchen with Scully following him and muttering to herself.

"Makes sense..."

After assuring that Luis Rodriguez' parents were staying, at least for the next several days, Mulder and Scully spoke one last time with Lt. Morales and got a recommendation from him for a good local motel. They had decided to stay put for the rest of the week, waiting for the guys to complete their examination of the stuffed toy and the fourth CD.

Mulder finished his call in to Frohike and turned to Scully who was driving slowly through north Miami, looking for the Lassitude Motel. He pocketed his cell phone and remarked, "Well, Frohike's a happy Gunman... give them a toy to play with and we've made their month." Scully chuckled wearily and made a right turn into a modest but nicely landscaped motel complex.

"I'm so happy that they're happy. Let's just hope they find something we can use." Parking the car, they got out and dragged their overnight bags from the trunk of the rental car, trudging their way to the motel office. Both too wiped out to bother with the decorum of two rooms, they just secured a small suite with two double beds and got themselves settled into Room 1102.

Flopping down on the bed closest to the air-conditioner, Mulder snagged one of Scully's hands and pulled her down beside him. She kicked off her shoes and curled next to him, her head resting on his stomach. Mulder winnowed his fingers through her hair as he spoke his thoughts aloud.

"You know, for Rose Rodriguez to be affected so strongly by the program, she would have had to be in on the study sessions right from the very beginning - every one of them. I bet she never left Maria alone with them for a minute. That's one dedicated mama." Scully sighed and traced a random pattern over Mulder's thigh with her finger while she mulled over her own thoughts.

"Well, I think Rose is a very dedicated teacher, as well - I would think she was mostly in teacher-mode when she and Maria went through the lessons. You said earlier this week that you wondered if something in the early CDs would caution a child against letting Mom and Dad see the learning process... I really think you hit on something, Mulder." She turned around to face him, propping her head on his thigh as he bent his knee - needing to see into his eyes. "I think those other children were instructed to keep their parents away and I think the only reason Rose circumvented that command was to be not so much a mother - but a teacher - during those early sessions. I think that's the way Maria responded to her, and that's why Rose was able to become affected by the mind control."

Mulder nodded; it made complete sense. He soothed his hand over Scully's cheek as he replied. "But we still haven't solved anything, Scully. We still have a deadly program out there, sent to God knows how many children. We don't know if all or only part of them have been set for the mind control procedure - and we haven't got a clue as to how the trigger works - and how many of those damn toys have been sent out. Today one potential tragedy was averted, thanks to whatever made Rose Rodriguez snap out of her daze. But Maria didn't snap out of it. Maria had to be forced out, by her father." His hand dropped away from her cheek as Scully sat up next to him and rubbed hard at her tired eyes.

"It's what you said before, Mulder - the children are much more vulnerable. Sponges, right? They soaked it up deeper. Harder. More difficult to break away from whatever insidious messages they were receiving. We've got to find these people, fast - we've got to find out how many more of these programs are out there and we've got to retrieve them before anyone else gets hurt - or worse. God, Mulder! What if they..." Her words trailed off as a new thought struck her, and her face paled as she stared into Mulder's worried eyes.

"Mulder... what if the crimes are pre-programmed as well? Somehow chosen specifically to match the child who uses it? I can't imagine how it could happen, but... after what we have seen of this program, I am beginning to think anything is possible!"


UNDISCLOSED LOCATION LAB
5:43 P.M.
NOV. 6, 2001

The elevator doors swished open and Harold stepped out, his nose buried in the stock exchange section of the newspaper. Pleased to see that his latest stock investment was doing well - knowing this meant he could finally afford to take a little vacation. This was good... not that his work was so stressful, or full of daily tension and difficult supervisors. It was quite the opposite - he loved his chosen career, but sometimes it was nice to get away. It had been a long time since he'd taken a vacation, too. Maybe he'd use a week, and when he returned it would be with even more renewed excitement...

He was so engrossed in his paper that he never looked up as he fumbled for the key in his pocket; placing it in the lock by feel. Likewise opening the door on autopilot, and reaching out a hand to the light switch -

And found himself spun around and shoved up against the wall, handcuffed and spun back around; his confused brain couldn't immediately grasp what was happening to him. A rough voice and a flash of dark blue; a badge shining in the harsh overhead light as the words began to register...

"Harold Grimes? You're under arrest for suspicion of murder. You have the right to remain silent -"

What... who? Him? Murder? God... Harold shook his head, struggling to assimilate and failing miserably. He could feel panic swamping him, drowning out the words of protest he couldn't seem to form; his silence no doubt making him seem as guilty as his accusers were imagining. Somebody pushed his shoulder and he found himself perched on one of his 'visitor' chairs - he could remember how proud he'd been to get those chairs - he raised his blurred eyes and watched five, no six uniformed men tearing through his office...

One of them yanked open files and pulled out all his neatly-catalogued orders and receipts. One of them sat at his computer and brought up his spreadsheets and files - and was busily printing out everything on monitor. One of them tore into his well-organized binders, all shelved and labeled. One of them ground his fingers into his shoulder and rattled off a list of names...

"... Mason. Terrence Hewitt. How about Sheila Anders? Dwayne Dobbs - you remember him? Cute little boy; I got his picture tacked up in my office, you son-of-a-bitch... Maria Rodriguez - oh, but that one got away from you, didn't she? Sick bastard, at least one of them got away! Tell us how you did it, Harold. Show us how you found a way to make a bunch of innocent little kids into criminals... murderers..."

The words churned through his aching head. The words cut into him like the sharpest knives. His children. All his sweet children. He didn't understand. Penny, and Terrence? Murders and criminals? The children he adored helping; those adorable tykes whose loving parents gave him the privilege of helping them learn? Harold could feel his aching eyes begin to tear up; his voice croaked out, "I don't... please, I can't - what happened to my children?"

Those broken words seemed to infuriate the cop holding his shoulder. He cursed violently, the string of obscenities causing Harold to flinch. The beefy face pushed itself close to his and the tone went from surly to hate-filled.

"YOUR children. Jesus... you are way beyond a sick fuck, Buddy. You need a refresher on what you did to YOUR children? What you made YOUR children do, to others? I'd be glad to tell you! Hell, I've got pictures... I'd be happy to SHOW you! On your feet, Grimes!"

Harold was pulled off the chair so hard his shoulder felt dislocated. Spun around - again - pushed roughly toward the door. Dragged into the elevator, blue uniforms surrounding him. He could barely stand upright, for the fear cramping his belly. Those lovely children. Somebody hurt them - and he was being blamed for it...

As the elevator crept toward the lobby, Harold's knees buckled, and he began to weep.


LASSITUDE MOTEL
MIAMI, FLORIDA
7:05 A.M.
NOV. 7, 2001

The insistent chirp of his cell phone roused Mulder from a semi-stupor. He sat up in the armchair, the book spilling from his hands. Must have fallen asleep while he'd been reading... he ached all over; felt like that damn flu was coming back... his hand groped on the nightstand on Scully's side of the bed, finally latching onto it and managing to cut the ring before she awoke. Flipping it open he yawned out a sleepy, "Mulder."

"Mulder, hey. I think I got some answers for you." Mulder rubbed at his eyes with his free hand and sat up straighter, suddenly wide-awake.

"Go ahead, Langly."

"Well, we were able to break down some coded components in the CD-ROM that were attached to the sound card in that stuffed lion..."

The sound of a call-waiting beep on the phone drowned out some of Langly's voice and Mulder sighed and interrupted, "Langly, hang on a sec, got another call and it may be Skinner." He put Langly on hold.

"Mulder."

"Mulder, you and Scully had better get yourselves to the airport, pronto. First flight you can find, to Battle Creek, Michigan. An anonymous tip was received by the local police, who contacted our field office. They caught the person behind the "Readin' Rocks" program. He's in custody - and from what the local blue tells me, his grasp on reality is slipping fast." Skinner's voice had an edge of urgency to it that Mulder seldom heard; he murmured an agreement and put out a hand to gently shake at Scully's shoulder. She came awake quickly and sat up next to him. Mulder mouthed Skinner's message and Scully nodded, her eyes red-rimmed and worried. Mulder smiled faintly at her and spoke low into the receiver.

"You said 'person'. Just one person is responsible for this, Sir? Seems hard to believe." Skinner blew out a tired-sounding breath into the phone.

"Yeah, one person. Name of Harold Grimes. Seems to be a one-man show. All the evidence was found in one place; a lab in North Battle Creek. And everything points to this Grimes. Just get there as soon as you can, Agent - we need to get this one tied up, fast." A grunt in his ear, Skinner's own form of 'good- bye' - and the phone went dead. Mulder flipped it shut and swung his stiff body out of the chair and into bed next to Scully. He snaked one long arm around her and snuggled her close; his other hand thumbed cell phone numbers until he'd dialed Information, asking for the number of the local Uniglobe Travel. Beside him Scully rested her head on his chest, listening to the steady beat of his heart. Her voice was a rusty murmur.

"They got him - where?" Mulder paused in the middle of reciting his credit card over the phone, and let his mouth play over her temple, reassuringly.

"Battle Creek. One guy - overwhelming evidence against the bastard." Scully's lips parted in a grim smile.

"Good." Mulder's smile was as grim - then he stiffened, and cursed aloud.

"Shit! I hung up on Langly!"


BCPD - HEADQUARTERS
BATTLE CREEK, MICHIGAN
9:10 P.M.
NOV. 7, 2001

Agent Mulder? I'm Captain Terschak." The man was tall and brawny, with a Head full of steel-gray hair and piercing light blue eyes. Mulder put out a hand and shook the police captain's bear-like paw, Scully doing likewise as Mulder introduced them, watching in fascination as her small hand was swallowed up in the man's huge grasp. The captain waved them to a seat in the spacious office and Mulder declined, preferring to stand behind the chair Scully gratefully took. She felt achy and slightly feverish. Damn flu...

"Captain, what can you tell us?" Scully's voice sounded a little scratchy to Mulder; he'd just lay money he'd given her the flu. He re-focused his attention on the grizzled Terschak, whose voice was as gruff as his appearance.

"Well, we got a tip yesterday. Email message. Couldn't trace the damn thing. It was sent to me - gave an address and a building number, details about this bastard Grimes. Just enough about those kids that committed the crimes. Enough to let us know it wasn't a crank call." Terschak turned to grab a coffeepot from its warmer, filling two styrofoam cups and doling them out to Mulder and Scully without bothering to ask them if they wanted any. Scully wrapped her hands around the cup gratefully, starting to feel chilled. Mulder sipped at his and nodded his head, encouraging the police chief to continue.

"Some building in the north end - on Bryant Street. Said we'd find everything we needed to convict - including Harold Grimes. So we got a team together and tore over there. Building was empty, but we found three offices and a lab, chock-full of evidence. Well, we started digging and while we were pulling evidence Grimes came walking in. We slapped the cuffs on him and read him his rights. Local FBI has been with him all afternoon but this guy is wasted. I don't think they got anything good. Maybe you'd have better luck."

Mulder set down his empty cup and his eyes met Scully's, knowing she was thinking the same thing - too easy. This whole situation, of finding this mystery man, so fast - way too easy. He voiced his concerns aloud, and watched Terschak's busy gray brows snap together into a single, irritated line of fur.

"Well, shit - of course! Goddamn easy! But regardless of who emailed me - it's there. All of it. Pointing the finger at this Grimes asshole. We got it all... company records. Test journals. Software up the fucking wazoo. Names, dates, addresses of all the kids and a profile on each one that actually committed a crime. Detailed codes and a shitload of other stuff that made my head ache just to look at it. I got it stashed in the other room; you can take a look at it when you're ready."

Scully nodded and stood up, slowly. Mulder steadied her with a hand on her shoulder and she spared him a faint smile, then grimaced when Terschak scowled at her damp, pale face and accurately diagnosed, "Flu, right? I feel for you - had it last week. You want to see this guy?" At their dual nod, Terschak led them out of the office and into an elevator, taking them down two floors to the holding cells.

In the smaller holding cell there were no bars - just plates of one-way glass. Terschak led them to the far wall and Mulder stepped close, getting his first look at the mastermind behind the "Readin' Rocks" mind control catastrophe.

A more ineffectual-looking Mastermind, Mulder had never seen...

Harold Grimes sat slumped on the edge of a rumpled cot. Short - his feet not quite touching the floor beneath them - and balding, rounded narrow shoulders and a paunch belly. Eyes owlishly peering behind thick eyeglass lenses. Dressed in an orange prison coverall, Grimes looked incapable of injuring a gnat, much less creating a program that destroyed young children's minds. He was pale and perspiring, face blotchy with tears, it appeared - and beside Mulder Scully murmured out loud, "No way, Mulder. How in God's name could this man have done what he's been accused of? I know appearances can be deceiving, but I can't see it." Mulder nodded; he was thinking the same thing. He couldn't help but wonder if Grimes was one of a team, and the one unlucky enough to get caught... Terschak's gritty tones broke into his thoughts.

"Well? You want in to talk to this guy? We can shackle him. He seems pretty harmless - blubbered like a baby all the way to the station. Sobbed some more during the Fed questioning; like I said, he more or less fell apart." Mulder shook his head and at a soft affirmative from Scully, he stepped closer to the bolted door.

"No, don't shackle him. I want to see how he truly reacts to us and to our questioning - and if he's restrained I can't get a good reading." Nodding grimly, Terschak punched in a code and the door swung open.


Harold Grimes raised a puffy, tearstained face at the sound of the door opening and his bleary eyes registered the tall man and petite woman, both dressed severely in black, enter the small room and sit down at the table in front of his bunk. They looked very stern. Harold didn't think he could handle any more stern, not after what he'd been through...

He couldn't even begin to wrap his mind around what he'd been accused of doing. Couldn't imagine how anyone who knew him could think this of him. But then again, these policemen didn't know him. They didn't know the level of his dedication to his career. Couldn't comprehend the degree of devotion to his darling children and their hard-working parents. Why, he could no sooner hurt a hair on their precious little heads, than fly around the room! Somehow he knew these two people with the stern faces, sitting in front of him - they were instrumental in the belief of his validity. They exuded authority - and Harold knew he had to convince them of his innocence, and his devotion - if he ever wanted to be allowed to take care of his children again.


Thirty minutes into the interrogation it was clear to Mulder that this man was on the fine edge of insanity.

Harold Grimes had no concept of what he'd done. He repeatedly denied everything the evidence had presented to him. He was under the delusion that the nine children whose crimes had come to the public surface were in effect his own children. He referred to them as his "Little Darling Ones" and rattled off their addresses and personal likes and dislikes, as if he'd raised them himself. It was creepy, Mulder concluded. And he was even more certain that Harold was but one piece of the overall puzzle, for he could swear this man wasn't intellectually capable of the mental machinations necessary to create something like "Readin' Rocks". Mulder cleared his throat and glanced at Scully's weary face, before he resumed his questions.

"Okay, Harold. Once again... do you deny that the evidence found at your lab and office are codes, spreadsheets and other software designed specifically for the "Readin' Rocks" program? Do you deny that the program exercised a mental control over select children whose parents bought the CD set? The evidence is right in front of your face, Harold." Mulder's hand indicated the stack of confiscated materials that Terschak and his men had found at the lab. Harold stared at it in utter confusion - again - and his voice was soft and trembling and sounded more like a frightened child than an evil genius.

"Mr. Mulder... Miss Scully. I swear to you I don't know anything about mind control! I helped design these CDs. I'm very proud of that! I help children to comprehend what they read. I help them to become better students! I love my children! I would never hurt them, never! Please... you have to believe what I'm saying. You have to!"

The sincerity in Harold's voice was genuine. The pleading in his damp, chubby face was also believable. So was the pile of evidence on the table between them, Scully thought. She watched the perspiring man carefully, noting that her partner also observed every small detail. Harold Grimes looked each of them straight in the eye. A man who looked you in the eye while pleading innocence had to be given the benefit of the doubt - this her father had taught her, from an early age. But she'd seen some monsters, in her career... she'd seen them look her in the eye and lie through their teeth.

Was Harold Grimes a monster? Or was he a small pawn in a larger game? Scully truly didn't know. This one stumped her. The man's body language, his entire demeanor - it just didn't add up to a monster. She glanced at Mulder again, thinking she might get a clue from him. Mulder was staring intently into Harold's eyes, profiling hard. Scully could feel it...

A knock at the door distracted all three occupants of the room. The door swung open and Terschak poked his head into the room.

"His lawyer's here," the veteran cop said tersely. His pale blues eyes flashed with annoyance. "He doesn't want us talking to his client again until he's had a chance to meet with him."

Scully pushed away from the table, eager to take a break and maybe grab a cool glass of water to soothe her increasingly sore throat. Terschak turned and mumbled something to someone behind him. A moment later a young police officer shouldered his way through the door to escort Harold from the interrogation room.

Mulder stood up and stretched, trying to work the kinks out of his aching muscles. "This could take awhile," he said. He shared a look of frustration with Scully.

"Come on," Terschak rumbled. "I'll buy you both a cup of coffee."


Harold Grimes was led into a small room and pushed unceremoniously into a hard plastic chair.

"Wait here," the young cop said. "Your lawyer'll be with you in a minute." Harold clasped his shaking hands together on top of the formica counter and stared through the Plexiglas divider at the door on the other side of the room. Lawyer? He didn't have a lawyer. Some of the panic that had been threatening to overwhelm him receded when he saw the man who strode through the door. His chin wobbled as fresh tears filled his eyes.

"Oh, Sir! I couldn't imagine who... Thank God it's you." His eyes latched gratefully onto the controlled face of the young man who stared at him through the thick Plexiglas. "You won't believe what they're accusing me of. The children - my sweet little boys and girls -" He swallowed a lump of fresh tears clogging his throat and looked with pathetic hopefulness into the face of his visitor.

The other man pulled his chair away from the countertop with his foot and sat down, resting his hands in his lap, careful not to touch anything and leave behind fingerprints. The handsome face rearranged itself from irritation to warm friendliness as soon as he met Harold's watery eyes.

"Harold," he said. His voice was low and soothing and Harold felt himself relax under its rhythmic quality. "We need to talk."


For Mulder and Scully the wait seemed interminable. Scully winced visibly as she sipped from a bottle of water, her throat protesting even the slip of the cold liquid past its inflamed tissues. Mulder leaned his head against the back of the chair he was sitting in and indulged himself in a fantasy of curling up between cool sheets and sleeping for the next forty-eight hours or until the worst of the symptoms had passed. Damn, worthless flu shot...

They both looked up when Terschak walked back into his office. "You two look like hell," he said, not unkindly. Scully grimaced and straightened in her chair. Mulder continued to loll about indolently, too tired to force his muscles into some semblance of dignity unless he absolutely had to.

"Well, I've got good news for you," the captain said. He leaned his hips against his desk. "You're not gonna believe this, but Grimes is back in the interrogation room." He crossed his arms over his chest. "He wants to talk to both of you - says he wants to confess."

Mulder sat up, startled by the older cop's words. "You're kidding me, right?" he croaked hoarsely. Scully was sitting on the edge of her chair, looking every bit as stunned as her partner by this turn of events.

"Nope." Terschak's face reflected his own incredulity. "He's waiting for you right now." Mulder and Scully scrambled to their feet and followed Terschak from his office. They walked down the long hallway toward the interrogation room and paused outside for a moment to watch their prisoner through the mirror. Harold Grimes was pacing around the room, muttering to himself. Each lap around the room, brought him past the stack of files and papers that Mulder and Scully had left lying on the table when their interrogation had been interrupted. He paused and his eyes swept feverishly over the papers where the names of his beloved children leapt from the pages and burned themselves into his mind's eye.

"Ready?" Terschak asked. The federal agents nodded and he stepped aside to allow them to enter the room. Scully twisted the lock on the door and pulled it open. Just as she stepped into the doorway, Mulder burst into a violent bout of coughing. He bent forward as the painful spasms tore through his chest. Scully turned back to her partner, a look of concern crossing her face. Caught off- guard, she gasped as Harold yanked her into the room. Scully kicked back with one foot and Harold howled in pain as the thick heel of her boot caught him square in the shin.

Scully was stunned by the strength and speed with which this formerly pathetic creature moved. He threw his not inconsiderable weight at her, pinning her against the door and driving the breath from her lungs. She was dimly aware of Mulder's frantic shouts as her head rapped smartly against the steel door. A second later the door flew open under the combined weights of Mulder's and Terschak's bodies and she and Grimes stumbled away from the door.

Mulder sprang into the room with Terschak and his officers close behind. His hand swept up, his forefinger caressing the trigger of his weapon... and he froze at the sight that met his stunned eyes. How had everything gone to hell in only a few seconds, he wondered dazedly?

Harold Grimes had one arm hooked securely around Scully's throat. Her small hands clawed at his shirt as Grimes' big arm threatened to compromise her air supply. A thin trickle of blood ran down the side of her face. In his other hand, Harold Grimes had her service revolver pressed against her temple.

Mulder lowered his weapon. My fault, he thought. If I had let Terschak shackle him, this wouldn't be happening. His eyes met Scully's. He could see the fear in her blue eyes, but he also saw an unshakable faith that they would figure a way out of this. He took a calming breath, determined not to let her down.

"Harold," he said in a soothing voice. "You wanted to talk to us, right?" He glanced toward the table and held out one hand toward the chairs. "Let's sit down and talk," he suggested. "What you're doing... Harold... this isn't the answer." He motioned behind his back with his hand and Terschak quietly ordered his officers to lower their weapons.

Harold's lips moved soundlessly and his arm tightened spasmodically around Scully's throat. She coughed and her eyes watered and Mulder leaned forward frantically.

"Harold," he said urgently. "You're hurting her."

Mulder had noticed a difference in Harold's eyes and his expression when he had crashed into the room. Eyes that had been so filled with passionate pleading for understanding only an hour or so ago, had been dim. As if a light had gone off - and it was such a clich´┐Ż, that notion that the eyes could dim that way, but that's the way it seemed. His lips continued to move soundlessly and his eyes were odd. They looked... vacant. But at Mulder's pleading words, Harold's eyes flickered oddly and now his words could be heard.

"My fault. I did it. My fault. I did it." He repeated the same five words over and over.

"What's your fault?" Mulder asked, not daring to pull his gaze away from Harold's feverish eyes to look at Scully. He needed to get into this man's head, needed to get him to pull that gun away from Scully...

"Harold?" Mulder called softly. "What's your fault?" he asked again. He edged closer to them until he stood less than two feet away.

A pained expression crossed Harold's face. "Those children," he whispered. "My fault. I did it." He grimaced and his arm fell away from Scully's throat. He pressed one hand against his forehead and the gun against his own temple. Mulder grabbed at Scully and put her behind him.

"Scully, you okay?" he murmured softly. His eyes never left Grimes' face, but he felt her hand fall reassuringly on his back.

"Yeah," she wheezed. "I'm fine." Mulder nodded, vastly relieved. He turned back to the dangerously unbalanced Grimes, and held out one hand to him.

"Harold," Mulder said softly, "just put the gun down and we can talk about this." Harold shook his head and tears streamed down his cheeks.

"NO!" he shouted. "My fault. I did it. Got to make it right." His finger tightened on the trigger.

"Noooo!" Mulder's cry was lost an explosion of sound and violence and shouts from behind him. The smell of sulfur and blood filled the air as Harold's heavy bulk fell, the gun clattering to the floor beside him. He lay in a rapidly expanding pool of blood and Mulder saw the light in his eyes flare briefly before dimming forever.

Shoulders slumping with defeat, he turned to find Scully at his side, her gaze riveted to the dead man lying at their feet. Her hand slipped into his, chilled fingers gripping his tightly, then she shook her head in resignation and stepped toward the open doorway, stopping only to squeeze gently at Mulder's hand and assure that he was following her.


Two hours later they were still sitting in Terschak's office, untouched cups of cooling coffee resting on the desk in front of them. Terschak paced back and forth in front of his desk and drained his third cup.

"I don't get this. Was he playing some sort of game? Come to think of it... were you?" He stopped and his eyes snapped over Mulder impatiently. Mulder sighed and rubbed hands over his weary face.

"No, I wasn't playing games. I don't think Harold acted alone. No way. But I can't help but wonder if he was programmed to admit to it. I saw something strange in his eyes." Scully stared at her partner and nodded slowly.

"He was perspiring a lot," she said, remembering the heat that had poured off his body as he held her tightly against him. "It was almost as if he had a fever," she commented. She paused as Mulder's idea took form in her own brain.

"You're thinking he was under the influence the same as those children, aren't you. Well, it could happen... how would he know, if this was being programmed into him? Subliminal is just that... subliminal. He'd never know." Mulder smiled faintly and nodded.

"Exactly. He'd never know."


UNDISCLOSED LOCATION
2:30 P.M.
NOV 8, 2001

Tooling down the highway in a sporty, red convertible, a young man threw back his head and laughed. He reached out with one hand to tune the radio away from the all-news station that had announced the capture and subsequent suicide of a man from Battle Creek, Michigan who was a suspect in a number of child-related crimes. He signaled for the exit ramp that would lead him to the airport and the private jet that awaited his arrival. It was time to pull up stakes and leave. But he wasn't finished. Not yet. No... he was only just getting started. He sighed in satisfaction.

Another challenge. How he lived for them...


GEORGETOWN
7:30 P.M.
NOV 8, 2001

Scully saved the file that contained her report of their interviews not only with Harold Grimes, but also with all of the victims and their families, beginning with Penny Mason. She shut down her computer and set her glasses on top of her desk. Muffling a cough behind her hand, she shuffled toward the bed where Mulder was sprawled on top of the covers. He had been helping, calling up details of the case with his eidetic memory for her to insert into the report, but he'd dozed off several long minutes ago.

They had spent the night and much of the next morning in Battle Creek, wrapping things up with Captain Terschak before they caught an early afternoon flight back to Washington, D.C. Terschak had recommended that they both just go back to their motel to get some rest, but Scully had longed for the comfort of their own bed and Mulder had acquiesced to her need to go home. The flight from Michigan to D.C. had only been made tolerable by the fact that Scully had medicated them both with a liberal dosing of an over-the-counter medicine and they had slept for much of the flight. Their short periods of wakeful lucidity were spent trying to sort through and tie up the many dangling ends of the case.

The worst was the fate of the children. It was heartbreaking and Scully could barely stand to think of it - and of course having to write up the final report only made it linger like the most hurtful wound.

Penny Mason had been hospitalized two days ago; Jenny Kim had updated them. Unable to handle what the poor child finally understood she'd done, the dainty little girl had fallen apart, and had been rushed to Burlington General in a state of collapse. Her mother and father were beside themselves with grief and worry...

Dwayne Dobbs had also been institutionalized. He'd withdrawn into himself to such a dangerous degree that it was feared he'd never re-surface. His aunt was ill-equipped to deal with a mentally unstable child; she'd consented to have him committed to the state's only mental institution.

The other children who'd been convicted throughout the past year were still locked into whatever verdict has been brought upon them at the time of their individual trials. All the families' attorneys were contesting, claiming that these children's innocence had been proven at the revelation of the Readin' Rocks conspiracy. It was too soon to know what the judicial system would make of this new evidence.

As hard as Scully tried not to dwell on it she found she just couldn't close her mind off to it - and Mulder had wanted to let it all go, as well - but it was their case and they had to discuss it. On the flight home they tried to keep the discussion to a minimum. They were both so wiped out, emotionally as physically.

"I think we can both agree that Harold Grimes was manipulated every bit as much as 'his' children were," Mulder had said as he adjusted the tiny airplane blanket over Scully's shoulders. Her cheek had rested wearily against his chest as she mulled over and lamented the lack of hard evidence. This case, like so many others, would remain open and unsolved - an X-File for which there was no imminent resolution.

"Someone else was masterminding the whole thing," she said thoughtfully. "Why?" She tipped her head back to look up into his reddened eyes. "What's the motivation?" Her head rose and fell on his chest as he shrugged his shoulders.

"Who knows?" Mulder stifled a yawn behind his hand. "Maybe the person behind Readin' Rocks is looking to create an army of malleable children." Scully rolled her eyes and snorted softly.

"You watch too many movies," she complained. Deep down inside, she was privately afraid that Mulder was right, but for so many years now, it had been her job to make him work for it... to make him prove his theories - it was simply second nature for her to question him.

Mulder huffed out a tired laugh, familiar with the game and their roles in it. "Or maybe this person just wanted to see if he could get away with it." Scully had felt a chill travel along her spine that had nothing to do with the flu.

Neither idea was very comforting, she thought now as she shrugged out of her chenille robe and threw it across the foot of the bed. Shivering, she hurriedly slipped under the blankets, tugging them up to her chin.

"Mulder." She rolled onto her side and pulled on his shoulder. "Mulder!" He groaned and turned away from her, flopping onto his stomach. "Mulder," she called again. "You're sick and you should be under the blankets," she told him.

"Too hot," he mumbled, flipping his pillow over and burrowing his cheek into the cool cotton of the pillowcase. The doctor in Scully wanted to protest and make him crawl under the covers for his own good. Selfishly, she had hoped that he would slip under the blankets where she could snuggle up against him. She could feel the heat radiating off him from where he lay on his side of the bed. Chills wracked her body from head to toe and she longed to curl up with him and soak up his body heat. But she was too tired to argue with him.

Mulder cracked open one eye and peered blearily at Scully as she burrowed under the blankets. She looked pale and as worn out as he felt. He reached out and clasped her chilled fingers between his own much warmer ones. Knowing that sooner or later his body would cool down, he managed to get himself under the covers and spoon Scully into him, back to front. She uttered a relieved sigh at the bounty of body heat pouring into her and turned her head to press a kiss into his chin. Her half-closed eyes met his.

"Good night," he whispered as she blinked at him sleepily. His lips quirked up in a weary smile when she kissed him again, then turned her face back into her pillow. Tucking their clasped hands under her chin, she closed her eyes. A few minutes later, Mulder joined her in a restless sleep.


LIMA, PERU
11:30 A.M.
FEB 18, 2002

Eight-year-old twins, Patty and Lisette Rojas raced through their house when they heard the mail arrive. Patty darted around the four-month-old puppy that was nipping at their heels and got to the door seconds before her sister. She triumphantly held a cardboard box over her head and tore down the hallway toward the kitchen and their mother.

"Mira mama! Loque na venido en el correo para nosotros," she panted breathlessly. "Es el software 'Leer es Divertido!' ("Look Mommy! Look what came in the mail for us. "It's our 'Reading Made Fun' software!") Lisette caught up with her and the two girls tore the box open. Patty held the shrink- wrapped package of software in her hands and Lisette dug through Styrofoam packaging, squealing with delight as she withdrew an adorable stuffed tiger cub from the box. Both girls giggled happily as the toy began to vibrate and purr under their stroking hands...

END

Jacquie: Coming up with a case file just about drove me over the edge! Tess was my savior. It was good for us to stretch this way, I think - it made us think a little harder and not depend on our standard technique, which of course is heavily-geared toward MSR. And keeping them from serious nooky was a killer and a challenge! We had to keep remembering there is a rating on VS9. Tess is always a joy to write with but this time I leaned on her more than I usually do, and I trusted her to help me find the way through the X - and she never let me down. Thanks, my dear friend!

Tess: I was pleasantly surprised when Jacquie asked me if I would be interested in co-writing an episode for Virtual Season 9. Always willing to work with Jacquie and having enjoyed VS8 last year, I was flattered. And, I'm willing to admit, a little daunted because as many of you may know, case files are not our usual fare. But, by now, writing with Jacquie has become almost second nature to me and I was quickly seduced by the opening chapter and outline that she sent to me. As always, I thank her, not only for her friendship, but also for asking me to test uncharted waters with her. I hope that you enjoyed the fruits of our labor.

Our heartfelt thanks go out to first and foremost Kimpa, for her incredible artwork. Her images really brought the story to life and we are in awe of her talent. Thanks to David Stoddard-Hunt for invaluable beta and lots of wonderful encouragement; thanks to all the wonderful members of IWTB who cheer us on with their caring and friendship. Special thanks to Patty Meza from Lima, Peru, for the wonderful translation at the end of the fic - to the fabulously creative Aly for giving Tess's fic site such a lovely home- and to the very talented and encouraging folks at VS9 and IMTP - for creating a way for the writers to make their mark on Season 9!

If you want to read more of us, you can find us here:

http://www.envy.nu/tessfiles

 


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