Wednesday, September 15, 4:00 P.M.
Fox Mulder, special agent of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, wrinkled his nose and hunched forward to peer out through the rental car's windshield.
"Tell me again what we're doing out here in the middle of nowhere, Scully."
Exasperated, Special Agent Dana Scully sighed and rolled her eyes at her partner.
"It's not nowhere, Mulder, it's South Dakota."
"Same thing," he replied sullenly, cringing away from the emptiness outside the car. "Where are the buildings? The traffic, the activity, the signs of life?"
"Feeling a little agoraphobic?"
Mulder shook his head hesitantly. "Wide open spaces I can handle," he said, eyeing the beige landscape rolling past their windows. "But this? This is ... bleak. Are you sure anybody lives out here?"
The petite redhead chuckled low in her throat. "Enough bodies to generate an X-file," she replied, nodding to the manila folder on his lap. "C'mon, be a sport. I don't give you this much grief when you drag me off to godknowswhere on a moment's notice."
"That's different, Scully," Mulder pronounced with a patronizing air of superiority. He glanced sideways to see if she was playing along. She was.
"Oh really! Please explain how running after Fiji Mermaids and UFOs on a whim in the middle of the night is so much more respectable than flying to South Dakota to consult on a homicide."
"Easy," smirked Mulder. "There's at least something unusual, something interesting, involved in my cases. This one is just some old guy some old Iowan guy dead of cardiac arrest that your old school chum" he officiously consulted the case file "Claire doesn't want to let rest in peace. This isn't an X-file, it's just a cheap diversion for a spinster English teacher with an overactive imagination someone who's clearly out of her mind with boredom." Satisfied with himself, Mulder snapped the folder shut.
"You could not be more wrong, Mulder." Scully had to laugh. "First of all, Claire is never bored. Secondly, there's no good reason for Liang Chen to have died of a heart attack. He was tremendously fit for his age, and the medical examiner found no evidence of cardiac disease whatsoever. Liang was healthier than we are. Add to that the fact that his front door had been pried open, and you've got yourself a mystery."
Mulder scoffed. "Oh, come on, Scully, give me a break. The old coot forgot his keys one day and let himself in the old-fashioned way. And you know as well as I do, Doctor," he emphasized her Title, "that heart disease is not a prerequisite for cardiac infarction. No way this is a homicide. No evidence, no suspect, no case." This was a debate they'd had countless times before. It felt good to Mulder to be arguing the rational side of things for once.
"Well, you're wrong," Scully maintained. "According to Claire, there is a suspect: Rick D'Amato, proprietor of the Red Dragon T'ai Chi school. He's Claire's sifu, and she wants his name cleared."
"Whoa, whoa, back up a little. This D'Amato guy is your friend's ... seafood?"
"Sifu, Mulder, sifu," she repeated. "Her T'ai Chi instructor."
"And what, pray tell, is T'ai Chi?"
"It's a Chinese martial art, a style of kung fu. You might have seen people practicing on the mall early in the morning." Scully knew her insomniac partner had passed many a night and dawn on the capitol mall not far from their office in the J. Edgar Hoover building back in DC. He nodded recognition.
"That? That looks like dance, not kung fu. You're trying to tell me that's the same martial art Jackie Chan and Bruce Lee practice?" Mulder punctuated his question with the best B-movie karate pose his long arms could manage in the cramped confines of a Ford Taurus.
Scully kept her attention on the flat grey ribbon of I-29 ahead of them. She didn't get to sit in the driver's seat very often, and she wasn't about to blow it by letting her partner's antics distract her from the road, unnervingly straight though it was.
"Similar, but not the same. Those guys do different types of kung fu than Claire does, but if you rev T'ai Chi up to fighting speed, the resemblance is much greater."
Mulder snorted. "This I've gotta see."
"You will," Scully promised.
"All that aside for the moment, who suspects D'Amato of killing Liang, why, and most importantly, how? I want motive, method and opportunity here, Scully."
"All right," Scully rose to the challenge. "Motive: D'Amato and Liang are proprietors of rival kung fu schools, D'Amato at Red Dragon in Vermillion, South Dakota, and Liang at Six Directions in Sioux City, Iowa. There's where the case crosses state lines, by the way, letting the Bureau in on it. D'Amato's students trounced Liang's at a kung fu tournament held in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, last weekend."
"Then wouldn't it make more sense for Liang to kill D'Amato for revenge?" Mulder interrupted.
"Maybe he tried," Scully acknowledged. "That's what some of the Red Dragon students think. She says that Liang's crew got verbally abusive toward them in the parking lot after the tournament, and D'Amato's bunch returned the insults in kind. She believes a fight would have broken out had not D'Amato come out of the building when he did to put a stop to it."
"And where was Liang during this little altercation?" Mulder was becoming intrigued in spite of himself.
"Standing right there, Claire said, not doing a thing about it. That sort of behavior a teacher allowing bullying and intimidation by his students is frowned upon in martial arts circles. D'Amato pointed this out, and Liang said something to him in Chinese that no one else could understand and that D'Amato refused to translate. Now Liang's students are claiming that D'Amato drove to Sioux City Tuesday night, broke into Liang's house with the intention of avenging this insult, and that's when things got ugly. Here's our exit."
"More amber waves of grain. Talk about ugly," Mulder said.
"Really, Mulder, I'm surprised at you," Scully scolded. "I should think you'd appreciate a mellow change of scenery after all the stress we've experienced lately. An autumnal stroll among the ivy-covered halls of a sleepy college campus, far from the madding crowd, an open-and-shut case, a weekend in the country ... beats the hell out of that nice trip to the woods' you hauled me on."
Mulder winced at the memory. What had started out as an investigation of the mysterious disappearance of some west-coast loggers had turned into a nightmarish brush with mortality. Recalling the swarms of tiny green bugs that had enveloped and then invaded their bodies, he shuddered. Thanks to his stubbornness, they had barely escaped from that case with their lives. Mulder offered Scully his best contrite-puppy expression.
"I said I was sorry."
"I know, Mulder," she replied gently. She had forgiven him long ago. "Check the map, please. We're almost there. We're looking for Dakota Hall on the east side of campus. And read fast, will you? It's a very small town."
Looking askance at the fast-food restaurants and bars that welcomed weary travelers to Vermillion, Mulder buried his prominent nose in the street map.
"Go left at the stoplight," he ordered.
"Which ... oh." There was only one light in sight. Scully steered the car south on Plum Street and maintained her pace. After a block, institutional brick bunkers loomed, as much as a four-story building can loom, on their right.
"See that tiny little gravel alley back there?" Mulder asked, twisting in his seat to point behind them. "I think we should have turned there."
"Damn," Scully cursed softly. Muttering under her breath about insufficient signage, she found a place to reverse course and eventually made it back to the intersection. The Taurus jounced its way down the alley, which turned out to be a very narrow street under construction but devoid of workers, and hove with a mechanical sigh onto the cratered pavement of a parking lot discretely labeled Visitors.
They found a parking spot, exited the car, and stretched in the late-afternoon sunshine. The sky, a perfect shade of September blue, extended in all directions forever. Mulder regarded its blankness skeptically, repressing the urge to duck.
Dana Scully, on the other hand, felt energized at being back on a university campus after a not-so-long absence. She found dedication to learning inspiring indeed, it was one of the traits she admired in her truth-obsessed partner. Snaring the map from him, she set off in the direction of her friend's office.
"Come on, Mulder, Claire said she'd be in Dakota Hall until 5:00. We can catch her if we hurry."
The tall man caught up to her in a few easy strides. "Lay on, MacDuff."
A short walk fetched them up against the English department's building. One of the oldest structures on campus, it was built of native stone instead of the more "modern" brick. Mulder pointed out a few strands of ivy struggling up the rugged walls.
Inside, they had no trouble locating Claire Hughes's office on the first floor, but the doctor was not in. However, the departmental secretary informed them that her class, in session on the third floor of the building, would be getting out any moment and they could probably catch her in the hall if they were willing to wait. They were.
As the two agents loitered outside Claire's office, students parted and swirled past them like a flannel-and-denim river around government-issue boulders. As a particularly youthful trio of undergraduates gabbled by, Mulder turned to his partner with raised eyebrows.
"I don't know about you, Scully, but I'm starting to feel a little old here. You?"
Scully shook her head, red hair swinging. "Not me. I love the academic environment." Watching his eyes follow the young women down the hall, she elbowed him. "Guilty conscience?"
Mulder was saved from answering by a shout from the end of the corridor.
"Hey! Dana K!"
The crowd parted to reveal a woman of medium height dressed in a flowing black tunic and skirt. Despite the cascading hair and sparkling eyes, it was her posture Mulder noticed first. Her back straight as she surfed the human tide, she glided toward them without effort, her gaze locked on Scully's. She deposited a black leather laptop computer satchel at their feet and enveloped Scully in a joyous hug.
"Dana K!" she exclaimed again. "You made it. You look marvelous!" Stepping back, she took in the other half of the duo. "And this must be the Byronic Agent Mulder."
To Mulder's surprise, the blonde woman threw her arms around him as well. It was an impersonal embrace across the shoulders, barely long enough for him to cross his wrists reflexively over her back. He had a fleeting impression of lithe strength, humming energy and silken fabric, in that order. Normally such an unexpected intrusion into his personal space would have put Mulder on his guard, but Scully's friend did not seem to have intended any offense. Quite the opposite, he reflected; she seemed ready to welcome him on the strength of his partner's recommendation. Scully had been saying nice things about him. He smiled.
Amused, Scully performed the formal introductions. "Mulder, may I present Dr. Claire Hughes, Ph.D. Claire, Special Agent Fox Mulder."
Hughes offered her hand, which Mulder shook, trying to decide whether her eyes were blue or green. Retrieving her bag, she said to Scully sotto voce, "He doesn't seem that spooky to me."
Scully chuckled, a rare musical sound. "You haven't seen him eat."
Dana's laughter was equal parts pleasure and relief. She hadn't realized until now how much she'd missed the irreverent Claire. They kept in touch by phone and e-mail, but it wasn't the same as being in one another's physical presence. Claire brought out the seldom-seen impish side of Dana Scully.
And Scully was glad Claire had greeted Mulder warmly. She was always wary of introducing friends from different parts of her life lest the carefully separated worlds collide. Claire had given ear to countless unedited late-night rants in which Scully did not always paint Mulder in the most glowing of hues and had said on more than one such occasion that the man sounded like a self-absorbed, inconsiderate shit. But Claire made it her business to read between lines and listen between words, and clearly she understood the affection her friend felt for her brooding counterpart. Claire did not suffer fools gladly, nor did she hug indiscriminately. If she had opened her arms to Mulder, it was because she had opened her mind first. Scully exhaled with satisfaction.
"Come on into my office," Claire invited them. Deftly fishing a key ring from her capacious bag, she led them into her cinder-block sanctum and shut the door. It was a large office by university standards, nearly eight feet by ten, a perk of Claire's status on campus. Two mismatched guest chairs cluttered the floor; a wan cactus squatted on the windowsill. Books on battered wooden shelves lined all available wall space, interrupted only by windows, the door and a moderately chaotic work surface. Text loomed from all directions. While Claire busied herself at the desk, Mulder tried to take in the titles without appearing nosy.
Crossing to him, Claire held out a hardcover book with a cartoonish cover. Bold colors depicted a gratuitously bulging hero and heroine squaring off opposite a bristling alien monster. Mulder accepted it eagerly, eyes devouring the lurid illustration.
"You've been a good friend to Dana, Mulder. Thank you for that," she said simply. To Scully, she added, "Advance copy of Time Signature. I had Paul ink me a special cover. One of a kind."
Mulder had opened the book to examine the flyleaf and now raised his head and his voice in alarm. "You're Claire Hughes the author!" he accused.
Nonplused, Claire arched her best Spock eyebrow at him. "Which Claire Hughes did you think I was?"
"Scully, you didn't tell me you knew the greatest science fiction writer of our generation!" Mulder wailed.
"Yes I did," replied Scully indignantly. "You just weren't paying attention."
"I thought you said the Bureau recruited him for being observant," said Claire. Scully shrugged.
Mulder rambled on. "I'm a huge " turning to Claire, he gushed, "huge fan. You're really her?"
"And this is her your autograph?"
"Written by my own hand," she pledged.
"Damn," he whispered, sinking into one of the chairs. Gazing up at Claire with undisguised adoration, he said, "It's gonna take hours to wear this dopey grin off my face." He looked from her to the novel and back again. "Can I keep this?"
"Please. It's a gift."
"Wow. Thanks. Scully, I'll get you for this. Thanks, Miss Hughes."
"It's Doctor Hughes. And call me Claire."
"Yes, ma'am. Will do," he mumbled, paging to the first chapter.
"Don't get too absorbed in that, Mulder," Claire cautioned. "We've got 10 minutes to hike across campus to my next class. It's one you'll need to observe to understand why I asked you to come. Not that your rapt attention to my work isn't flattering."
"Sure, okay." He didn't actually look up until Scully tugged at his sleeve.
Scooping up what appeared to be a ski tote bag, the writer/professor hustled them back into the hall and relocked her office. Steering them outside, she set off to the north at a brisk pace. Scully had to power-walk to keep up. She tried with limited success not to snicker when Mulder offered to carry one of Claire's bags. She gave him the long, thin ski carrier, which rattled and clanked in a suspiciously un-ski-like manner.
"What's in this thing?" Mulder inquired, testing its heft and balance.
"Art supplies," Claire replied with an upstage wink at Scully. The answer appeared to satisfy Mulder; he raced ahead to the next question on his mind.
"So Scully, how on earth did you ever get to know Claire Hughes?
Scully feigned offense. "Is it so inconceivable that I could be friends with a famous author?"
"Well, yeah. You don't even read science fiction." Then Mulder made the connection. "Wait a minute. You went to the same college, didn't you."
"But still. What gives?"
"You're the profiler," said Claire. "Figure it out. Why would our paths have crossed in college?"
Mulder reasoned it through, thinking aloud. "Your college careers overlapped between 1983 and 1985. I know this from Claire's publicity bio. Claire was studying sociology, Scully was in physics. Small likelihood of classes in common ... dissimilar extracurricular interests ... look outside the classroom." He pondered for a moment. "Claire's first novel, The Book of Jay, was published in late 1986, so she had to have been working on it in '85. The story involves time travel and includes some very technical discussion ... nice work, by the way . . . I've got it!" Snapping his fingers, Mulder swiveled to face them, walking backward. Claire dodged adroitly out of the path of the six-foot ski bag. "Claire needed some help with the physics, so she asked around to see who was the local relativity-theory whiz kid. And your name, Scully, was at the top of the list. A meeting was arranged. A theory was propounded. A conspiracy was born." He bobbed his head triumphantly.
"Well done, well done," Claire applauded. "I take back that crack about your observational skills. You only got one part wrong."
"The actual meeting," Scully supplied. "I heard Claire read an excerpt from the work in progress at an open-mike gathering and approached her afterward to discuss it."
"Approached!' Discuss!'" Claire snorted. "Mulder, the woman ran me down and informed me that the premise upon which I based my entire book was complete shit."
"That's my partner," Mulder nodded proudly.
Scully protested, "I did not! I may have been a little ... vehement in expressing my views, but I certainly did not say your novel was shit."
Mulder looked on with interest. He didn't hear Scully curse very often.
"Oh, pardon me. You said I was full of shit."
"I did not!"
"Did too. Takes one to know one, Doctor."
"Yeah, well, at least I'm a real doctor, none of this Ph.D. nonsense."
"Ladies, please," Mulder interjected, righting his course. "You're detracting from my brilliance in figuring that out."
"So, Dr. Claire, not to put too fine a point on it, but why are we here?"
Sobering, Claire answered, "As I said, you'll need to observe the T'ai Chi class before I float my theory about Master Liang's death. One class won't explain everything, but it will provide some background, some vocabulary. And here we are."
Claire ushered the agents into the university's fine arts building. Studiously cool art and acting students greeted Claire by name and pretended not to be interested in her companions. She stopped outside a ladies' room and asked them to wait. Five minutes later she emerged in loose black cotton trousers and jacket, hair braided, face clean. The rambunctious mood she had displayed outside had quieted but not disappeared. She led them down a branching hall to a dance studio, a practice space shared with Red Dragon T'ai Chi, where a dozen pairs of shoes lay just outside the door. Already barefoot, Claire bowed and entered. Mulder and Scully left the only dress shoes in the pile and followed.
Pausing in the doorway, Claire said, "Class is about two hours long. Listen and watch. Save your questions until afterward, OK?" Seeing their nods, she ducked inside.
The dance studio was a monument to utility, consisting only of four walls and a hardwood floor. A mirror adorned the north wall; ballet barres jutted from the other three. Other than that, there was nothing in the way of ornament. The room's content, rather than its construction, was its focus.
Mulder and Scully quickly realized that they were the only people standing. The other dozen students, like Claire dressed in loose-fitting workout gear, sprawled about the floor in varying postures of stretching and meditation. Seating themselves on the floor in a corner near the door, the federal agents failed to make themselves inconspicuous.
Although no signs of martial rank were visible, the class had already sorted itself into pecking order. Claire joined a tall, thin, freckled man with his back to the mirror. Scully knew from Claire's description that he had to be Seth Bost, Rick D'Amato's second in command. The rest of the class left them alone at the front of the room, marking them as the leaders. A wiry dark-haired man held court among the junior students, accepting their congratulations on his recent victory over the reigning tournament champion and expounding theories on the demise of the late Master Liang. A senior student at D'Amato's school, he, like Claire, acted as an assistant instructor.
As he basked in the attention of his peers, Scully realized who he was. She leaned over to clue in her partner.
"Mulder, I think the champ there is Joe Barnett. Claire showed me a picture of him once. Claire had been dating Joe for the last year and a half, but she broke up with him about a month ago."
"Seems like a handsome enough guy," Mulder mused, taking in Barnett's cocky smile and wrestler's physique. "Why would she dump him?"
"She said he was getting too intense about his martial arts studies. Apparently he studies several arts besides T'ai Chi and lately has been devoting all his time to them."
"Can't blame a guy for being dedicated."
"No," said Scully slowly, thinking of Mulder's own dedication to his personal quest, "but Claire said that all he thinks about these days is fighting. He's abandoned the spiritual or meditative aspects almost entirely."
Mulder nodded sagely. "And Claire, being a woman of intellectual pursuits, requires more intellectual stimulation."
"Exactly what kind of stimulation did you have in mind, Mulder?"
"Shh. They're starting."
Bost, the lanky redhead, had risen to face the class, and at that silent signal everyone quieted and fell into line. Claire and Joe stood at either end of the front row with the rest between and behind them. They moved through a quick series of warm-ups with the tall man murmuring instructions from the front. Then the group formed a circle for standing meditation, again guided by his soothing voice. The mood in the room shifted palpably from restless to restful as the leader encouraged the class to relax, focus and find a center of balance. The routine reminded Mulder somewhat of hypnosis sessions he'd undergone.
At last Bost roused the students from their reverie.
"First section of the form, once through," he announced. As the lines reformed, he continued, "Take it slow, keep together, match your breath to your movements." He turned to face the mirror like everyone else. "Ready ... begin."
They began a series of slow, gentle movements that resembled what Mulder had seen through morning mist on the mall. Shifting their weight gradually from foot to foot, backs straight, heads level, arms waving like seaweed in the tide, the class crept and pivoted like cats on the prowl. Comparing the rank and file to Claire, Bost and Barnett, the onlookers began notice what distinguished the experienced T'ai Chi practitioners from the beginners.
Bost floated over the floor as if underwater, long limbs rippling like afterthoughts in the wake of his torso. His languid grace allowed for no extraneous motion, yet he addressed each posture completely. As Bost's path brought him to within arm's length, sinking on one leg to brush his knuckles across the floor, Mulder realized that he couldn't even hear the man's clothes rustling. The utter stillness about him was almost eerie.
By contrast, the newer students were easy to pick out of the lineup. Stiff rather than relaxed, they trod heavily upon the floor and jerked their hands through the air, twisting awkwardly as they tried to emulate their instructor. They tottered off balance, their feet out of alignment, rear ends jutting behind them. They worked hard at being graceful. After just a few minutes of slow movement, a couple were red-faced and panting from their efforts.
When the form segment drew to a close, the class stood motionless for several seconds as if to absorb the implications of their actions. Then, again taking their cue from Bost, they straightened and stretched their legs, and few ducked out for water before the next activity began. Claire squatted next to her guests to ask them what they thought so far.
"It's beautiful," said Scully. "I didn't realize martial arts could be so graceful. And you must have thighs of steel."
"Tell me about it," Claire laughed, slapping a solid quadriceps.
"Yeah, but what you were doing doesn't exactly look lethal," Mulder protested. "At the rate you were going, I could have kicked every butt in this room all by myself."
"I'd hold off on that kind of assertion if I were you," Claire cautioned. "Speed isn't everything. Listen and watch," she repeated. "We're about to pick up the pace a little." She rose and padded out the door toward the water fountain.
Gazing after her, Mulder murmured, "Was it something I said?"
"You jumped to a conclusion, Mulder," Scully told him. "Claire expects better than that from us. She invited us to this class so we could "
"Listen and watch, I know," he sighed. "OK. I'm all sensory organs."
All the students had by now returned to the studio. Bost addressed them again from the front of the room.
"All right, ready for push-hands? Partner up and spread out, junior students with senior students." He gave them a moment to divide into pairs. While Barnett waited near Bost, separate from the class, Claire joined a shy-looking young woman who had struggled through the form segment earlier. Heads turned expectantly for further instructions.
"Tonight let's work on a simple split and push. Like this." Profiles to the class, Bost and Barnett faced one another, their feet shoulder-width apart, right feet forward and left feet back. Their height difference disappeared as Bost sank deep into his stance.
"He pushes at my chest with both hands, just like the pushing posture in the form," said Bost. Barnett obliged by shifting his weight forward, palms out, feet flat. "I sink back, bringing my hands up between his." He did so, deflecting Barnett's hands to the outside. "See? That's the very first movement of the form, that raising hands. Here you can see the practical application behind the posture.
"Now I'm in position to push and he has to block." They reversed roles, Bost shifting forward for a shove while Barnett sat back to block the push from the inside out. They demonstrated back and forth a few times, arms sweeping in big arcs.
"Once you're comfortable with the basic drill," Bost continued, "start making your circles smaller and maintain contact at the wrist. Practice sticking to each other and sensing each other's movement. Keep your elbows down. Don't worry about going fast; adhering is more important." He showed what he meant, keeping his wrists glued to Barnett's, rolling his hands to the inside to push as soon as he was deflected. Barnett did the same.
"Don't try to actually push each other off balance yet. Work on your hands first. Begin."
For several minutes the class worked diligently to put the instructions into practice. Scully watched Claire coax her hesitant beginner into a balanced stance, knees over toes, hips square. They started by shifting back and forth in unison, establishing rhythm. Scully heard Claire explain the importance of keeping the head and waist at a steady height rather than bobbing up and down, then stifled a giggle as Claire demonstrated with exaggerated bounce what not to do. Her silliness had the desired effect; the new student laughed and relaxed a little. She progressed to pushing and blocking, gaining a little confidence each time she succeeded in brushing her opponent's hands aside.
Bost and Barnett circulated about the room correcting form. They instructed students to keep their feet flat on the ground and not to sink weight into their back legs until they felt the push. Bost also called for the class to switch feet, putting the right foot back to give the left leg a rest. After a few minutes, everyone changed partners.
Bost kept the practice of this easy drill brief, calling for attention once more. Recruiting a different student to demonstrate with, he showed what would happen if the pusher extended her arms too far or leaned forward into the shove: the defender would keep hold of her wrists as he retreated and pull her forward off balance, perhaps into a knee or a kick.
"Push and block with intent this time," Bost directed. "Take it slow, but pursue an advantage if you see it. If you're feeling comfortable, add a step backward on defense. Both sides focus on staying rooted, keeping your center of gravity low. Begin."
The lively study continued. Successful pushers sent their partners stumbling backward, while successful defenders pulled them off their feet. Beginners concentrated on not getting thrown around; advanced players began to vary their attacks and defenses. The noise level escalated. Soon there were a couple of controlled shoving matches in progress. Bost and Barnett worked the room as before, offering refinements and keeping the boisterousness in check. The visitors pulled their feet out of harm's way.
When everyone in the room had broken a sweat, Bost called another break. After they'd all had a chance to get a drink, he announced, freestyle push-hands would begin. Anticipatory chatter followed the group into the hall.
Claire offered her guests a hand getting off the floor. Declining, Scully levered herself up on the barre overhead. Mulder accepted the outstretched hand and let Claire assist him to his feet. Several vertebrae clicked back into place as he arched his spine.
"OK, I take back what I said before about kicking your butt," he said with a grin. "That blocking thing was the practical part of just one step in the form?"
Claire nodded and demonstrated the posture alone, her hands floating harmlessly to shoulder level and back down to her sides while her feet remained planted. This time they could see the potential behind the movement.
"And every step is a fighting move in disguise?" He swept an arm out and back in imitation of what he'd seen.
"Yes," Claire answered, "each posture can be used as an attack or a defense, sometimes both. We can also use each to promote a particular aspect of health by concentrating on the breath and the flow of energy, or chi, through the body. We use movement to generate chi, breath to focus it, and intent to issue it outside the body."
"What do you mean, issue it? You mean you shoot the stuff out like a laser beam?"
Claire laughed at the image. "Not quite, but one can direct the flow of energy. Let me show you. Turn yourself perpendicular to me." She pulled him into position so that they faced at right angles to one another. "Here," she added, pulling him a few steps further into the room, "come away from the barre. Now I'm going to push your shoulder. On the first push, I won't issue chi, I'll just push with arm strength. The second time, I'll use legs and leverage. The third time, I'll issue. Don't resist, now, just let me push you."
Scully moved around in front of them to watch. Mulder set himself, automatically preparing to resist despite instructions. Standing with her left foot forward and right foot back as she had for the push-hands drill, Claire put her right hand against Mulder's biceps and pushed. Using only the strength of one arm, she barely caused him to sway.
"I am invincible," Mulder proclaimed. Scully rolled her eyes.
For the second push, Claire flexed her knees and put the power of her legs into the effort. Mulder rocked off balance and took a step to right himself.
"Not bad," he said.
With a conspiratorial smile at Scully, Claire said, "Third time's a charm."
Although the third push looked no different from the second, Mulder found himself airborne. Lifted completely off his feet by a jolt of energy from Claire's palm, he stumbled several steps and caught himself against the ballet barre. He gaped for a second, then marched back over to her, hands on hips.
"What the hell did you just do?" he demanded.
"I issued chi. Did you feel it?"
"Yeah, I think I did. Do it again." Mulder squared himself for another shove, and Claire again sent him stumbling.
"That's amazing!" he enthused. "How do you do that with no visible effort?"
"Mulder," Scully spoke up, "Claire has been studying T'ai Chi for 10 years. This isn't the sort of thing you can just pick up in five minutes."
"Oh," he said, crestfallen. "I suppose not. But," he fixed Claire with a pointing finger, "you'll tell me more about it later?"
"As much as you can absorb," she promised.
The room had filled back up with students returning from their break. Scully and Mulder hastened back to their corner as Bost highlighted the rules.
"Tonight we'll do some freestyle. Put your skills into practice without a set drill. That's all this is practice, not a contest. Stop and go back if you want to try something again. Also be ready to stop for corrections. Take it slow, exercise control.
"Doyce and Virgil can start us off. Let's say Virg attacks with Single Whip and Doyce counters with Brush Knee and Step," Bost prompted.
Two young men bowed to each other in the center of the studio, spectators seated around the perimeter. Bost moved back out of their way. Virgil, built like a linebacker, stepped out at half speed with his left foot forward and left hand extended. Doyce, more of a quarterback type, swept the strike aside with the back of his right wrist equally slowly and stepped forward to get inside his opponent's guard. Moving like figures in an ether-soaked dream, they lunged and parried their way around the room. Doyce quickly emerged as the aggressor, bobbing and weaving like a boxer, while Virgil consistently foiled him with boulder-like stability and unexpectedly deft flicks of the wrist.
Scully guessed that Bost had chosen this middling-skilled pair to lead off because they set a tone of energetic give and take. They slowed down when instructed to, kept their contact light and backed up to explore alternatives when one of them caught the other out. She watched Virgil pause once or twice to make sure Doyce saw an opening. Bost interrupted them several times to ask the class to suggest strategies.
After about five minutes, they bowed out and a less experienced duo stood up. One was Maureen, the beginner Claire had shepherded through the push-hands drill. Clearly reluctant to test her new skills so soon, she moved into position at Claire's encouraging nod. Bost partnered her with a fluttery young blond man named Justin. Although they both moved slowly and clumsily, the timid woman gained the advantage every time her partner looked around for approval, which was often. No amount of direction from Bost could keep the boy's eyes on the task at hand, and he grew more flustered with every mock blow she landed. The gallery offered constructive commentary for both, but Justin became almost immobilized by frustration. Bost retired them after just a few minutes of activity.
Maureen sat down flushed and introspective, trying not to smile. Although the sparring match had not been a competition, she had still come out ahead. She carefully did not look toward Justin, hunkered dejectedly across the room with Joe Barnett whispering in his ear. Bost offered neither praise nor rebuke, but simply moved on.
"Claire, how about you and Max."
Claire stepped up to face a man twice her size. At least six feet tall, he weighed well over 300 pounds. A cherubic smile did not hide the gleam in his eye as he hulked over the innocent-looking blonde woman. Bost seized the teachable moment.
"There's an obvious size difference here," he said. "What kind of strategies do these two need to employ?"
The students muttered to each other for a few seconds, then called out their ideas.
"Claire should stay on her feet." "Keep away from the walls. Move in circles." "Try to surprise him." "Get inside his guard." "Tire him out and then run."
Bost nodded. "These are good tactics," he commended them, "but all the suggestions so far have been for Claire. Max can't rely on size alone; he's got to be smart, too. What should he do to counter the advice you've given Claire?"
This question stumped the group for a moment, but their thoughts soon crystallized.
"Keep her at arms' length." "Don't let her get to your elbows." "Cut off her escape route and just keep pounding away." "Watch out for her speed."
"Good." Bost ended the brainstorming. Turning to the combatants, he said, "You've heard the advice. Use it." He gestured them together for the bow and got out of the way.
Claire wasted no time mounting her attack. She led off with a quick dart forward and a punch aimed straight for the face. Max swatted it aside impatiently, even a restrained block knocking her hand well away from his body. He retaliated with the same attack and the fun began.
Right away Scully could see that Claire and her partner were moving faster than their predecessors had and using more than merely light force in their pushes and blocks. Punches and kicks remained moderate, but whereas the other students had mostly shied away from actually striking each other, Claire and Max were landing their hits carefully. They were sparring, not just pushing hands. Scully admired the control it took to stop their blows precisely short of hurting one another. She began to appreciate kung fu movie fight sequences a little more.
The speed of their movements further complicated their task, for they were honestly trying to penetrate one another's defenses. Max gave no quarter to his smaller opponent, advancing like a tank in attempts to trap her against a wall. Claire dodged to the side or right past him, but never retreated in a straight line. A few times she ducked under his guard to position her feet behind his, but rather than slam him to the ground, an out-of-bounds move in classroom sparring, she voiced her advantage.
"I throw you with Parting Wild Horse's Mane. You go backward over my leg." With one arm flung across his chest, she twisted her hips slightly. Max obliged by stumbling off balance a little to the side, but he had his counter-move ready.
"OK, but I take you down with me. And then I sit on you."
"No way. I'm too fast." She zipped just out of reach, then right back in to pull a well-timed punch to the nose.
"Now you're making me mad," Max warned, grinning.
Bost stopped them there to show how Claire had set up her throw and, Scully thought, to interrupt the momentum they had been building and had them walk through it again so the class could observe from several different angles. From there they continued as briskly as before.
Claire showed off her speed with a flurry of close-range strikes and blocks that succeeded in penetrating Max's guard. Changing tactics, he lunged toward her like a bear after meat. Brushing his grasping hands past her hip, she trapped one huge arm against his chest, cat-stepped forward and pushed. Instead of stumbling back a step or two this time, Max took to the air as Mulder had. He landed on his feet, backpedaled and redoubled his efforts, playfulness gone.
When Claire launched Max a second time, Bost bowed, effectively ending the exchange. They bowed to him, then to each other, and stood back. Max, florid and winded, swigged from his water bottle. Claire exhibited no signs of exertion other than mussed hair. Bost walked them through a few more situations for the group's benefit, then dismissed the class. He announced a ten-minute break before the weapons review was to begin.
The gathering broke up slowly and socially. Amid the banter, junior students approached their betters for quick reviews and questions. The federal agents waited while Claire sought out Maureen to talk over her first sparring experience, then while Max, his sense of humor restored, hoisted Claire in a huge bear hug.
"Impressive," Mulder enthused when Claire was finally free. "I had no idea. And this was just play?"
"No, not play," she corrected him. "That was a serious exercise of skill. But taking practice seriously and taking oneself seriously are two different things. We try to have fun."
"You must trust each other a lot to let things get that intense, especially at higher levels," Scully commented.
Claire nodded. "Trust is vital. If partners don't trust each other or themselves it makes them twitchy, which leads to a loss of control, which leads to injuries." She rubbed her left shoulder gingerly. Scully zeroed in on the motion.
"What's that about?"
"Don't be macho. What's wrong?" Scully reached out to her friend, intent on conducting an examination right then and there.
"Later," Claire admonished, catching and squeezing Dana's hand before pushing it aside. "You might call it a case in point."
"You were injured and didn't tell me?" Scully accused. "What happened?"
"We were practicing a throw a couple weeks ago, the same one I used on Max. Seth and Joe and I were having the students throw us for real we wanted them to practice the full movement with follow-through. We had the mats out and everything. You saw how Max would have gone over my leg onto his back? That was the instructors' role, to fall all the way down. The catch is, to practice this throw safely, the thrower must leave the throwee free to fall and roll without hindrance. We told the students over and over to let go when they knocked us down.
"But one person" she glanced at nervous Justin drilling strikes and counters with Barnett in a corner "disregarded the instructions and tried to break my fall by keeping hold of my arm and pulling upward on it as I fell. He caused me to fall at a very awkward angle and prevented my slap and roll entirely. My damn clavicle snapped like a twig." Claire sighed, rubbing it again. "After hurting me like that, he doesn't trust himself, and his classmates don't trust him, either. I'm surprised he's still in the class."
Ignoring all the other information, Scully demanded, "How long ago is a couple weeks?"
"Three," Claire answered defiantly, "and don't lecture me, Doctor, I know what I'm doing."
"After watching you let that enormous man bat you around like a Ping-Pong ball and squeeze you half to death, I'm willing to debate that."
"Let?'" Mulder interjected.
Claire shook her head patiently. "You saw the way Max hugged me: he put pressure on my waist, not my shoulders. He wouldn't do that. Trust, Dana, trust," Claire admonished, shaking a finger at her. "Trust Max to treat me respectfully. Trust me to insist on it. Trust Seth and Rick to keep an eye on us both. Trust. We'd never get anything done in here without it."
Scully refused to be mollified, but refrained from further argument when the end of a quarterstaff whizzed past inches from her ear. Mulder flinched violently, almost losing his balance, and muttered an ungentlemanly word under his breath.
"Language," Bost cautioned from across the room, his back to them. Mulder would have sworn no one else could hear him.
"Doyce," scolded Claire, "keep a grip on that thing."
"I got it, I got," he assured her. He also moved several steps away.
Arms crossed, Scully turned back to fix Claire with a raised eyebrow.
"What were you just saying about trust?"
"I trust Doyce," Claire maintained. "If he hadn't been in control of that staff, we'd all know it by now. He was showing off for company.."
Smoothing his tie, Mulder changed the subject. "I'd sort of hoped to see Mr. Tournament Champion in action. Why didn't he do any sparring?"
Claire compressed her lips, considering her answer. She decided on full disclosure. "Time to go get a drink," she said, leading the way to the hall.
Safely outside the studio and away from curious ears, Claire continued, "Polite reasons: We ran out of class time, and everyone saw Joe in action on Saturday anyway. Real reason: Back to the trust issue. Seth no longer trusts him to spar without getting carried away, and after the tournament he persuaded Rick not to pair Joe up with anyone but himself or Seth or me. And I refuse to play with him because of our past relationship. His anger has no place in this classroom."
Scully pinioned her friend with a long, searching look. Finally she said, "You're afraid of him."
Mulder immediately rose to Claire's defense. "Scully, that's ridiculous. Claire just opened up a can of whup-ass on a guy twice my size without even breaking a sweat. She'd have no reason to be afraid of Barnett."
Claire sighed and shook her head. "I'm afraid the perceptive Dr. D has the better of you this time, Mulder," she said. "I am indeed afraid of Joe Barnett. I can hold my own against other experienced fighters; I've stood toe to toe with Joe plenty of times in the past. But he's been manifesting some dangerous intent lately, and given our history, I don't trust him not to slip up' with me, either consciously or otherwise. With his speed and strength and knowledge, the kind of accident he'd cause would be a lot worse than just a broken collarbone."
"Are you saying he'd kill you?" Scully asked worriedly.
"I don't know as I'd go that far," Claire hedged. "But ... I can see him putting a little too much torque on a joint lock or something, yes. Maybe not even intentionally. But his theoretical knowledge is getting ahead of his practice, as I said before, and it can be dangerous to think you know more than you do."
"You mentioned that Bost's attitude toward Barnett changed after the tournament," Mulder said. "Did something unusual happen there?"
Claire crossed her arms and shifted her weight, clearly uncomfortable with what she was about to say. Finally she huffed again and spit it out. "Look, I feel bad about gossiping to you about this. It's a studio matter, and my opinion is colored by my feelings toward Joe. But Rick has been counseling Joe for months to slow down, take some time to master what he's been learning, and Seth has been wary of him since we split up. At that tournament Saturday, he was barely in control in the ring, and he lost it a couple of times. Seth and Rick saw it, too, and although the judges never called him on it, a few other people mentioned it to us afterward."
"What do you mean, lost it'?" Mulder pressed.
"Joe won the sparring competition. Not fighting, sparring. There was no actual fighting at that tournament. Anyhow, Joe did a couple of lunge strikes that would have gone clear through his opponents if they hadn't moved out of the way. Fortunately, the guys he was up against were able to do so. But it was clear from where I was sitting that had he connected, the blow would have been far beyond the contact level allowed, protective gear or no. Bone-breaking force. Frankly, I'm surprised he didn't get sanctioned for it.
"Look, I'm going to go limber up with my staff," she continued. "There'll be a few minutes of warming up and then we'll review some weapons forms. Shouldn't be more than half an hour."
Scully delayed her friend with an outstretched hand. "One thing, Claire. Where is Rick D'Amato tonight? I know he's not in custody for the murder; there wasn't enough evidence to hold him. So why isn't he teaching his class?"
"Ah, an easy question at last." Claire smiled, forcing some of the tension out of her expression. "Rick is a grad student, and one of his classes is meeting right now. He should be somewhere on campus, but I don't know where. Seth is in charge on nights when Rick is out."
"A grad student?" asked Mulder. "What's he studying?"
"Chemistry. Polymers. In fact, he was in class Tuesday night, too, when Master Liang was killed."
Scully looked up sharply. "He has an alibi? Has it been checked out?"
"I knew it all along, of course, but without proof, my word doesn't mean much. The police just verified it and issued their statement this afternoon. You were probably in transit."
"So he can prove he was in class that night."
"Several other grad students and the professor can all vouch for him," Claire assured her.
"Great. Now we don't even have a suspect."
"Polymer chemistry? Here?" Mulder squeaked.
"Rural this place may be, Secret Agent Man, but backward it is not ... entirely." Claire bowed back into the studio.
Chastened, Mulder turned to his partner. "What do you think, Scully?"
"I think Claire talks softly and carries a big stick."
"And I think that redheaded guy is a little creepy, don't you? Doesn't he seem almost superhuman to you? He's just a little too calm, even for a Zen master."
"Technically, Mulder, T'ai Chi relates to the philosophy of Taoism, not Zen," said Scully, ever the teacher. "Come on."
When they reentered the room, Claire was liberating a six-foot quarterstaff from the ski tote Mulder had carried across campus for her. Two bladed weapons in sheaths rattled as she set the bag back down. Enlightenment struck Mulder and left him grinning.
"Oh, I get it," he muttered. "Martial art supplies."
The weapons class was much smaller and more loosely structured than the previous one had been. There were only half a dozen participants: Bost, Barnett, Claire, Virgil, Max and Doyce. A few junior students had lingered to watch. Following their example, the federal agents pressed close against the wall and kept their heads down.
After warming up with spins, sweeps, body blows and lunges, Bost lead the group twice through a staff form, once slowly and gracefully and once fast and hard. They repeated the process with straight swords and then with sabres, the weapons appearing like live things in the adepts' hands. True to Claire's word, the review took only half an hour, and then she was packing her bag and leading her guests out to their shoes.
The trio stepped out into a brisk autumn breeze and headed back toward the rental car. Mulder, no longer starstruck, spent the walk peppering Claire with questions about T'ai Chi, Scully saying little but hearing much. What she heard, mostly, was her two best friends chatting together as if long acquainted. She heard her partner using subtly leading questions to try to get Claire to reveal her inner thoughts. And she heard Claire, accustomed to deflecting over-eager journalists, keeping her answers light and impersonal. Claire knew what Mulder was doing, he knew that she knew, and they were both enjoying the game.
When they reached the car, Claire collected her long bag from Mulder.
"You two will be wanting to meet with local law enforcement now, am I right?" When Scully nodded, Claire gave them directions to the police department and added, "I'm going to work a little more in my office, then head home. Stop by, won't you? The bubbas in blue can steer you my way."
"What about your theory?" Scully asked. "You said when you called that you had an idea about Liang's murder."
"Indeed I do, but I don't particularly like it. Go get some facts and figures so you can blow me out of the water."
Scully pursed her lips but decided to reserve judgment until she had a clearer picture of the case. "All right," she said. "We'll see you later."
Wednesday, September 15, 8:00 P.M.
Doctor Claire Hughes's Office
University of South Dakota Campus
Claire let herself into her office, debated locking the door, and finally decided to leave it ajar. Students sometimes stopped by in the evening, and she wanted to be accessible. A locked door with light peeping out beneath would do nothing to improve her image as an eccentric artist. She drew the shade over the window, though, so that her silhouette would feel less exposed. Setting her mental alarm clock for an hour, she sat down at the desk with a sheaf of student short stories.
Forty-five minutes later, Claire yanked her eyes from desktop to doorway. She was not startled, precisely, because she knew that someone had just appeared at her entry. What disturbed her was that she hadn't heard either door slams or footsteps.
"Working late, Teach?" Joe Barnett lounged arrogantly against her doorjamb, muscular arms bulging across his chest. He knew Claire didn't like being caught unaware, and she hated being called Teach. He smiled a mocking smile and continued to stare at her.
Claire kept her body still while her mind raced. She could tell by Barnett's leer and his body language that he was up to no good. The deliberate sneaking, the display of strength, the blocking of her exit all designed to put her on her guard. That Joe would try to intimidate her made her angry, both because he should have known better and because it was working. Without taking her eyes from his, she made a quick mental inventory of items on and near the desk that she could use in self-defense if the need arose. Pen, scissors, letter opener, paperweight, even notebook paper: all potential weapons in the right hands. Hers or his. Her swords were out of reach, zipped into their bag across the suddenly too-small room. She drew in a slow breath to keep her voice neutral.
"I asked you not to come to my office or my house any more, Joe," she reminded him. "I have nothing further to say to you. Why are you here?"
"Oh, no reason," Barnett drawled. "Since you're done fucking me, I'm free to see other women, right? Thought you could introduce me to that cute little redhead who was tagging along with you at class."
"She's not your type."
"Maybe she's yours, then, eh?" Barnett snickered.
Claire refused to be baited. "You know better than that."
"Yeah, right. Maybe you're just trying to get next to that gangly loser with her." Stalking forward, he placed both hands on her desk and leaned down to her eye level. "Not one to let your bed get cold, are you, Teach?"
It was harder this time to muffle her retort and harder still not to withdraw they were practically nose to nose but Claire held her tongue. Sidestepping the taunt, she said, "For your information, they're FBI agents who were sent to investigate Master Liang's death. They wanted to observe a class, and I volunteered to show them around."
Barnett leaned even closer. "Did you now," he breathed, eyes traveling down over her body and back up to meet her gaze. "And what all will you be showing them?"
Claire was saved from answering by the slam of the exterior door. Footsteps echoed in the hall, and then Agent Mulder's voice boomed from the doorway.
"Dr. Hughes?" he inquired sternly. "Are we interrupting something?"
Behind him in the hall, Scully stifled a sigh. Mulder to the rescue! If she weren't as concerned for Claire as he was, his protectiveness would seem almost funny.
Barnett straightened slowly away from the desk and sauntered over to Mulder, hand outstretched.
"Why, you must be the famous FBI agents come to save us from the murderer in our midst," he said in a voice dripping poisoned honey. "Aren't you going to introduce me to your new friends, Teach?"
Claire rose and stepped out from behind the desk, glad to escape from her corner. "Joe Barnett, Special Agents Fox Mulder and Dana Scully. Agents, Joe Barnett."
"Charmed, I'm sure," said Barnett.
Mulder looked pointedly down at their handshake, which had grown a lot firmer than he'd like. Moving on without comment, Barnett advanced on his partner.
"A pleasure, Mrs. Scully."
"Dr. Scully." The doctor was not amused. "Don't leave town in the next few days, Mr. Barnett. We'll want to interview you regarding the death of Master Liang Chen."
"Good. By the time you get around to me, I should know who done it."
"Leave the investigating to the authorities, Mr. Barnett. We're dealing with a probable murder here. It's nothing for civilians to get mixed up in."
"You're also dealing with Master Liang and the circles he moved in," Barnett snapped. "And that's nothing for you two to worry your pretty little heads about." With that, he eeled out the door and disappeared in the shadowy hallway. The tension level in the small office dropped significantly with his exit.
"You all right, Claire?" asked Mulder solicitously.
"Fine," she assured him, waving off his concern.
"You said before that you were frightened of Joe," Scully reminded her gently.
"And I am," Claire agreed. "But he wouldn't pull anything stupid in a public building, with the door open, with his fingerprints all over my desk." A half-truth. His sudden visit had rattled her a bit.
"Speaking of my office," she continued, changing the subject, "what brings you here? I thought you'd come to my house after your meeting. It must not have lasted long. Is that good or bad?" She began gathering her papers and laptop in preparation for leaving.
"The meeting was a bust," Scully admitted, shaking her head. "They couldn't tell us anything we didn't already know, and that was very little to start with. I'd really appreciate knowing your theory, Claire."
The writer nodded and snapped her computer bag shut. "I don't mean to string you along, D, but this is not the place. Follow me to my house and I'll spill it all. After you," she added, ushering them into the hall so she could lock up. Turning to Mulder, she asked, "You're not allergic to cats, are you?"
Wednesday, September 15, 9:00 P.M.
Hughes Residence, Vermillion, SD
"As you may have guessed by now, Joe Barnett is my prime suspect in the murder of Master Liang," Claire began. She paused to fill a copper kettle with milk from the refrigerator and to splash a tablespoon into each of two saucers on the floor. Sullivan, the sleek black female, jumped down from the countertop where she had been trading cheek rubs with Agent Scully. Gilbert, a grey tabby, abandoned Mulder's ankles to join her in lapping at the treat. Mulder tried, discretely and in vain, to brush silvery cat hairs from his dark trousers.
"I had a feeling you might say that," he said, pacing the dining and living rooms of the cozy Cape Cod. Echoing his earlier challenge to Scully, he said, "I assume you can supply motive, method and opportunity?" His eyes devoured every detail of artwork, knickknacks and furniture, searching for clues about their owner.
Claire took a deep breath and started her recitation. "Motive: Master Liang's students got mouthy with Rick D'Amato's students after the tournament on Saturday. Personal comments were made to and about Joe regarding his conduct in the sparring competition and his victory by questionable means. Joe doesn't take kindly to insults, and they did get in a few zingers. Joe also considers himself something of a defender of the faith, his faith being the gospel according to Rick on that particular day. Meaning he'd think it would look worse to brook insult to his teacher than insult to himself. He was good and mad in the parking lot. Seth had to lead him away from the confrontation." Claire stirred the milk as it warmed and set out mugs and spoons.
"Good but not good enough," said Scully, playing devil's advocate. "You and Seth and several other students witnessed the exchange as well and were presumably equally irritated at hearing your friend and your teacher badmouthed. The same motive would apply to either of you any of you."
Claire nodded. "Granted," she acknowledged. "But hear me out. The method of the murder narrows the suspect list right down."
"Let's hear it, then. So far, no one's been able to convince me it's murder." Watching her partner prowl, Scully asked, "Mulder, are you listening?"
"Hanging on every word," he assured her. Fingering the spine of a hardcover copy of the Asimov classic I, Robot, he begged, "Please tell me this isn't a first edition."
"'Fraid so. And it's signed, too. Are your hands clean?" Mulder growled jealously.
"Anyway," Claire went on, "opportunity: Master Liang was home alone that night. Joe has no alibi."
"Neither do you and neither does Seth Bost," Scully pointed out.
"True, but I don't have method, either, and I fear Joe does."
Scully crossed her arms and braced a hip against the back of the couch. "I don't think I'm going to like this."
Claire took the milk off the stove, poured, and mixed in the chocolate. "I don't think you are either, D, but it's the best I can do," she said, handing mugs around. Mulder accepted his and sipped from it with surprising delicacy.
"Your method involves this chi business, doesn't it," he prompted. "That's why you wanted us to see your class and feel your issuing power."
"Got it in one." Claire saluted him with her cup. "Here's the thing: Chi is sort of like the wind. Not so very long ago, no one knew quite how to quantify wind, although everyone could observe its effect on trees, tall grass, etc. You've seen the effect of my chi, and Mulder, you felt it, even though you didn't observe the chi itself.
"Well, chi is energy in motion rather than air in motion, and it can affect energy systems in addition to physical bodies. Specifically, a chi jolt can disrupt the electrical pulses that regulate the heartbeat, resulting in fatal arrhythmia.
"I suspect that Joe went to Master Liang's house and struck at him like this." Claire demonstrated a one-handed strike with her palm at heart level, very like the push technique she had demonstrated in the studio. "I've heard of monks using this technique to kill in ancient times, and given the direction Joe's studies have taken lately ... You don't even have to touch your victim with a strike like this. You just zap chi through his heart and watch it go haywire."
"That's what you meant by issuing'?" Mulder asked. "Projecting this chi energy outside the body."
"Yes," said Claire, "but you'd have to be super-advanced and super-focused to achieve this, which is why the suspect list is so short. Only Rick or Seth or Joe or Master Liang himself would be capable of something this esoteric."
Mulder rubbed his chin thoughtfully. "What about you?"
Claire shook her head. "I haven't reached that level yet. Far from it," she said dismissively. "Compared to those guys, I'm a rank amateur.""
"And what about Seth Bost? He looked like the most advanced student in the room to me. Both you and Barnett defer to him."
"Seth is the most senior student at Red Dragon, with skill well beyond what Joe or I possess," admitted Claire. "But his spiritual development is on a par with his physical ability, and murder is simply beneath him. He's too ..."
"Well, yes. He's reached such a level of inner equilibrium that things like verbal insults just don't bother him. Everyday annoyances roll off him like water off a duck's back. And in class, safety is his number-one concern. He won't let the rest of hurt each other, and he certainly wouldn't misuse the art that way himself."
"And Rick D'Amato, as his teacher, is presumably even more above this sort of thing," Mulder offered.
"Right. Rick would never, ever use his abilities to harm another person. I doubt it would even occur to him. Plus, he was in class all evening. Of the three people who could actually kill with a chi strike, only two had opportunity and there's only one I think would actually have a motive to do it. And sad to say, that's my ex-boyfriend. Joe Barnett," Claire finished.
Mulder said nothing for a moment, then turned to his partner. "Scully, you've been awfully quiet over there."
Scully stirred restlessly and began to pace the perimeter of the living room herself. "You know what I'm going to say, Claire," she began apologetically.
Managing not to sound defensive, Claire offered, "You're skeptical of the idea of issuing chi outside one's own body. No empirical evidence. And you'll point out that just because I don't believe my friends Rick and Seth are capable of murder doesn't mean they aren't."
"Right." Scully relaxed a little, relieved at not having to tell her friend her case was terribly weak. "I'll keep in mind what you've said, but I really can't form a theory of my own until I've seen the body."
"When will that be?"
"Tomorrow," said Mulder. "Scully will perform the autopsy while I view the crime scene. Saddle up, kids," he added with a western twang. "We're headin' for Sioux City, Iowa."
"Geez, Mulder, drool much?" Scully asked as they got back into their rental car.
Mulder quickly checked his chin for signs of cocoa. Finding none, he asked, "What do you mean?"
"Claire, Mulder! I can't believe you actually offered to carry her books! If I'd known you were such a groupie, I'd have brought a camera."
"If I had known your old school friend was one of the greatest literary minds of our time ... why didn't you tell me, Scully?" Mulder pretended to sound wounded. He fished out the novel Claire had given him and tried to read it in the glow of the streetlights.
"When I first realized you hadn't made the connection, I considered telling you," Scully admitted. "But then the opportunity arose to introduce you to Claire in person, and I couldn't resist the chance to see the look on your face. I told Claire you were a fan of her novels," she said more gently, "but I had no idea she would give you one. Autographed, yet. With a one-of-a-kind, original cover illustration."
"Yeah." Mulder turned the gift over in his hands so he could admire the author photo on the back flap. "Do you think that means she digs me?"
Scully laughed. "In your dreams, Mulder."
"Seriously, though. You must have said something nice about me, or she would have given me the business end of her sword instead. C'mon, what'd you tell her? Which of my praises have you been singing?"
His partner spared him a sideways glance as she drove. "If you must know, I told her I trust you."
Mulder was silent for a moment, genuinely touched. Then he reached over to sock her gently on the shoulder. "Thanks, D."
"That's Dr. D to you, Mister," she retorted, fixing him with a mock-severe glare.
They rode the rest of the way to the motel in companionable silence.
Wednesday, September 15, 9:00 P.M.
Seth Bost and Joe Barnett debated over tea in Bost's small kitchen, as they had countless times before. Barnett had come to Bost, his senior in T'ai Chi study and longtime friend, to ask his help in figuring out who killed Master Liang Chen. They had to do what they could to solve the case themselves, Barnett argued, to preserve their mentor's good name. Bost disagreed, saying that they should remain uninvolved in the investigation. D'Amato had an alibi and didn't need clearing, and the real culprit would be caught soon enough. They just had to be patient and let the FBI agents amass their physical evidence and serve justice under due process of law.
Barnett was growing frustrated with Bost's lack of enthusiasm. Barnett knew he was prone to hotheadedness, but he felt that he had cooled enough by now to look at the situation rationally. OK, so Rick didn't need to be vindicated. There was still a murderer at large, and he saw nothing wrong with trying to shed some light on the truth. Bost, he thought, was overreacting to the opposite extreme, showing no interest at all in finding out who had killed a respected, if not beloved, colleague. He was surprised, in fact, at Bost's refusal to budge on this point.
"How do you think Liang died?" Barnett asked, changing the subject. "The police said it was a heart attack, but I'm having a hard time believing that. Master Liang is no more likely to have a heart attack than I am." Striding the length of the room and back, he missed the small smile tugging at Bost's mouth.
"Could be the intruder frightened him," the taller man suggested. "He was old. The sudden shock might have been too much."
"Nah." Barnett dismissed the idea out of hand. "You've heard the stories. Liang could sense people approaching him from a room away. Rick can do it, too, so you know it's possible. There's no way anybody could sneak up on him Liang even if they wanted to. Especially after fiddling with the lock like that," he added as an afterthought. "That had to have made some noise."
Bost shrugged, impassive. "You have a better theory?"
"Maybe," said Barnett. "Maybe. Rick has told us about how one person's chi can disturb another's enough to hurt them and even cause tissue damage. He showed me once, on my arm. It tingled for hours before it settled back into balance. What if somebody did that to Liang, only to his heart instead of his arm? Wouldn't that be enough to cause a heart attack?"
"I suppose it's possible," said Bost dubiously, "but you're talking about a very advanced skill. How many people in this area would even understand the idea, let alone be able to do it?"
Counting names off on his fingers, Barnett said, "Rick, of course. But there's no way he would have or could have. And you could, I assume." He held up a second finger.
"Could you?" Bost challenged, deflecting attention from himself.
"Yeah," came the quick response. "But I didn't."
"Of course I'm sure! Committing a murder isn't the kind of thing that would slip my mind!"
"I mean, are you sure you could focus your chi like that?"
"No question." Barnett couldn't quite keep the cockiness out of his voice. "I might be better at that sort of thing than you think."
Bost let the boast slide and asked instead, "What about Claire?"
"Uh uh. Claire does not have what it takes."
Shaking his head slowly, Bost said, "I think you underestimate our dear Claire. It wouldn't be the first time, would it, Joe?"
Barnett's expression hardened as the barb struck home. Claire's dumping him was still a very sore spot on his ego. "I told you I didn't want to talk about her."
"I think we'd better. Face it, Joe. No one would suspect Claire Hughes, revered author, of murder. But if she did the deed and framed someone else, you, for instance, she'd kill two birds with one stone, so to speak. She'd get Liang out of Rick's hair and you out of hers. You have no alibi for the night of the murder, plus you were seen arguing with the victim just a few days before. You are suspect number one, my friend."
Joe could not believe what he was hearing! Seth actually thought Claire was capable of a lethal chi strike? No way! And he had the balls to question Joe's own ability at the same time? Didn't the guy pay any attention at all?
"Fuck you, Seth," he spat disgustedly. "You're not taking this seriously. I can figure it out by myself." Banging his teacup down on the table, he slammed out the door.
Fucking smartass, thought Barnett as he stomped down the darkened street, arms pumping angrily. He has no idea what I can do. No idea. I could kick his scrawny ass if I wanted to. Any time. And I can kick his ass at solving this murder, too. Then we'll see who's so smart. Then we'll see who's top dog around here. And dragging Claire into it! He brought that bitch up just to piss me off.
The tirade against Bost carried him halfway home, but eventually his fury ebbed and his gait slowed. Yeah, Bost was a self-righteous dickhead who deserved to get knocked off his high horse, but he was no idiot. If Seth truly thought Claire could manage a lethal strike, maybe she deserved a second look, he acknowledged grudgingly. As a suspect, of course. Nothing more. Hell, it would be just like that conniving bitch to be guilty as sin, then throw suspicion off herself by getting all buddy-buddy with the FBI. And unlike Rick, Claire had no alibi. Yes, he needed to have another conversation with Miss High and Mighty.
Ducking into an all-night convenience store, he scrounged thirty-five cents out of his pocket and dialed the familiar number from a pay phone.
"Hey, babe," he said when she answered. "We need to talk about this murder thing. You have some explaining to do. I'm coming over." He hung up without waiting for a reply.
He didn't notice the long, thin shadow trailing him as he left the store.
Thursday, September 16, 10:00 A.M.
In her sunny back yard, Claire Hughes sliced and thrust her way through a T'ai Chi sword form. Officer Lowell Oswald of the Vermillion PD watched with fascinated apprehension as the blade flashed off her silver blade and golden hair. He had long wanted to meet the famous and beautiful author, whose works he devoured like candy, and he fervently wished that the circumstances were different. But he was on duty here. Loath though he was to interrupt her practice, it had to be done. Remaining on the outside of the fence, he cleared his throat.
Claire had known the policeman was watching her for several minutes before she heard the polite ahem. Now that he was actually asking for her attention, she would give it. She brought the form to a close and, chambering the sword in the crook of her arm, met him at the gate.
"Excuse me. Claire Hughes?" the man asked. When she confirmed her identity, Oswald introduced himself. "I'm afraid I have bad news, ma'am."
Reflexively Claire tightened her grip on the sword. What could be so bad that the police would have to inform her in person?
"What is it?" she demanded.
"The deceased remains of Joe Barnett were found this morning in Coyote Park. A pair of students cutting through on their way to a 9:00 class spotted the body partially concealed in the bushes near the basketball court." He gave her a moment to digest the information, then suggested they go inside. Numbly, Claire led the way.
Joe? Dead? With a body dumped in a public park, the police had to suspect foul play, as did Claire herself. Her first thought was that Joe's death was related to Liang's, and she wondered if Oswald had made the connection.
Her second reaction, and one that hit much harder, was a feeling of immediate and overwhelming loss. It had been weeks since she had been willing to call Joe Barnett a friend, but they had been lovers for nearly two years before that and had still been colleagues in the Red Dragon studio. Now, suddenly, in the time it took the sun to set and rise again, he was gone. She didn't want to miss him, but she would. Later once she knew why he was dead.
In the living room, Claire paced while Oswald explained that he was trying to trace Barnett's movements of the night before. He was interviewing friends and acquaintances as a matter of routine. Claire knew, though he did not mention it outright, that as Joe's former lover, she would be an obvious suspect. She recounted for him both the previous evening's in-person conversation with Barnett, downplaying the tension, and the enigmatic phone call.
"Why didn't you call anyone when Barnett failed to show up last night?" Oswald asked. Claire, now perched on the arm of her couch, turned her face away from the window. Despite the drawn blinds, the bright autumn sunlight streaming in through the south-facing windows was starting to give her a headache. That, and her clenched teeth.
"Why would I have called anyone?" she countered irritably.
"You and he had some history together, and you stated that he had attempted to intimidate you at your office yesterday evening. Didn't the prospect of Barnett coming to your house at night, while you were alone, bother you at all?"
"As you can see, Lowell, I'm armed and prepared to defend myself." Claire hefted the sword. She hadn't put it down since Oswald delivered the news. She noticed distractedly that her knuckles had gone white from the pressure of her grip on the hilt. If she tried to wield it in this state, she'd have precious little dexterity.
Oswald shifted uncomfortably away from the blade. He was a pale marshmallow of a small-town cop, his girth enhanced by the bulletproof vest he wore beneath his uniform. His interviewee was upset at the moment over the news of her ex's death, and she was also reputed to be an accomplished swordswoman. Add that to an artistic temperament, and who knew what could happen?
"I can see that, ma'am. Would you care to put the sword down?"
"No, I would not." She crossed her arms over her chest, the blade glinting alongside a face that had gone almost as pale. Oswald plowed ahead with his queries.
"How did you react when Barnett did not arrive as planned?" he asked.
"I was relieved," Claire replied honestly. "I'd already had one confrontation with him that day and didn't relish another."
"Were you surprised that he didn't show up?"
Claire shrugged, feigning a nonchalance she didn't feel. "Not really. Joe is was often more talk than action. I figured he was just trying to continue his scare tactics from earlier."
"Had he done that often? Try to scare you?"
Claire answered reluctantly. "A couple times when we were still seeing each other and I threatened to break it off, and a couple times after I did break it off."
"And did you report this to anyone?"
"Like I said, the man was all talk. And he never made any specific threats, just dropped hints, so what would have been the point?"
"Still," Oswald offered, "it must have been annoying."
"I see where you're headed, Lowell, and I don't care for the insinuation," Claire interrupted, deliberately using his first name again to try to gain an advantage in the conversation. "Yes, Joe's attitude annoyed me. I don't like being bullied. But I certainly wasn't mad enough to kill him to shut his mouth."
"Can you describe for me your whereabouts last night, starting around 10:00?"
Claire sprang up from the couch and began to pace. "I don't believe this."
"Routine questions, Miss Hughes.."
"Dr. Hughes." She did not offer to let him call her Claire. "Short answer, Lowell. I worked in my office here at home until about midnight. Then I went to bed."
"Alone? I'm sorry, I have to ask."
"Yes, alone. I worked alone, I slept alone, and I was practicing alone this morning when you got here." She punctuated her statement with quick jabs of her sword. Oswald stood his ground, barely.
"Did anyone call or come by?"
"No," Claire said shortly. "The best I can do is a couple of e-mail messages I fired off just before I went to bed. My computer time-stamps them when they're sent, and the recipient's machine will stamp them when they're received."
Apologetically, Oswald said, "We'll need to verify those. And your phone records as well."
Claire bit back a retort as her phone rang. She stalked over to answer it. "What!" she snapped into the receiver.
"Claire, it's Mulder." The FBI agent sounded concerned. "I just heard about Barnett. Vermillion PD called me. Are you OK?"
For some reason the warmth in the voice of a man she'd just met was almost as unnerving as the news she had so recently received. She leaned back against the wall and made a conscious effort to loosen her grip on the weapon.
"I'm all right," she said. "Officer Lowell and I were just discussing it."
"The police are questioning you? Why?"
"I'm the ex-girlfriend. Cherchez la femme. Also, Joe called me last night and said he was coming over here. He never made it."
"Jeezus, Claire, I'm sorry. What "
"Thanks." Claire cut him off, not wanting to continue the conversation with Oswald in the room. She hadn't told the local cop exactly what Joe had said to her that she had some explaining to do regarding Liang's murder and she didn't feel like doing so now. It would only raise more questions she couldn't answer. Unless asked specifically, she would reserve that information until she knew what to make of it.
"Where's Dana?" she asked Mulder.
"Still at the coroner's office, but she should be done in another hour or so. Then we're heading back to Vermillion. Will you be home?"
"I have a class at noon. I'll be in my office before and after. Then home."
"We'll see you there." He paused for a second, unsure how to phrase his last question. Finally he just asked. "Are you sure you're OK? You sound a little . . . strained."
Claire bit back any number of sharp replies. She found his inquiries a little presumptuous, but then again, he was a friend of Dana's, and perhaps he felt he knew her through that connection. He was just trying to be nice. "I'm all right," she repeated. "See you soon."
She disconnected, Lowell Oswald looking on with interest. "Who was that?" he wanted to know.
Claire took a deep breath and set about explaining whom she had just spoken to and why. It was going to be a long day.
Thursday, September 16, 12:30 P.M.
Claire dismissed her 12:00 class early after accomplishing little. It had been a mistake coming to school. She wasn't going to get anything constructive done. The campus was abuzz with the news of Joe Barnett's death, and her students and colleagues had been able to talk of little else. The fact that she had known the deceased, as well as the week's earlier homicide victim, made it impossible to deflect attention from herself. The headache that had taken root that morning during Oswald's questioning had blossomed into something with a life of its own.
She needed to steal a few moments' quiet and center herself again. No sooner had she assumed a wu chi meditation stance and taken a few deep, calming breaths when there came a knock at the door. She had locked it this time, not caring whether she seemed accessible or not.
"Claire? It's us." The heavy wooden slab, left over from the university's more prosperous days, muffled Dana's voice.
"Coming," she responded resignedly.
Scully offered no platitudes but simply folded her friend in a hug, an echo of the joyful embrace they had shared the day before. Tears of confusion and frustration and grief welled in Claire's eyes all at once, but she blinked them back before they could fall. Mulder slipped unobtrusively into the office and turned to shut the door behind them, giving the two women a small measure of privacy. When they broke apart, he added a friendly squeeze on Claire's shoulder.
Giving her time to collect herself, the agents spent the next few minutes updating her on what they had learned in Sioux City, which wasn't much. After conducting the autopsy, Scully could add little to the speculation about Liang's cause of death. The body showed no defensive injuries, no signs of struggle or disease. Scully expected the toxicology screening to come back negative for drugs and poisons as well. Liang had died of heart failure. If someone had killed him, they had done it without landing a blow.
Mulder's visit to the crime scene had yielded little more in the way of new information. There were no signs of a struggle in Liang's home, no evidence of theft. The one nugget he had gleaned was that the door lock, although it appeared to have been jimmied, had not been forced open.
"That tells me that the door was opened from the inside, by Liang himself," Mulder said, "to someone he knew and allowed into his home. Liang had no reason to suspect trouble. With his guard down, he would have been an easy mark for that hand-of-death whammy. I think the killer fiddled the lock on his way out to make it look like a break-in."
Claire scowled at Mulder's terminology, but she couldn't think up a better descriptor offhand. Dana Scully was scowling as well, and Claire could see that her friend still wasn't fond of the idea of chi as a cause of wrongful death.
"According to preliminary reports," said Scully, "Joe Barnett also died of heart failure, and there were no wounds on his body, either. On the surface, it would appear that he died or was killed in the same manner as Master Liang. That's only circumstantial, but it's all we've got at the moment. We're due at the crime scene at 1:30, Claire," she added. "I'm sorry we can't stay longer."
Mulder leaned forward intently. "So we need to know: What did Barnett say to you on the phone last night?"
Claire repeated Joe's ominous pronouncement word for word. "It almost sounded like he was accusing me with that you have some explaining to do' bit. But that doesn't fit. Even if he reached the same conclusion I did about the chi hit, he wouldn't suspect me of doing it."
"Why not?" Scully asked, her interest piqued.
"He doesn't didn't believe I'm capable. Physically, anyway. He didn't think I posses the skill to kill that way, and I don't. Temperamentally, though ... well, we didn't part on the best of terms. In that regard, he probably believed me capable of anything. Maybe he thought I was an accomplice or something. Or maybe he was just trying to rattle my cage again."
"Hmm." Mulder glanced at his watch and pushed up from his seat, all business. "Scully, we've gotta hit the road. Claire, will you be at home later?"
"There's a regular T'ai Chi class on Thursday nights. Tonight's will probably be devoted to the memory of our fallen comrade," Claire answered. "So I'll be either at the studio or at home."
Scully clasped her hands one last time. "Try to take it easy. We'll talk about this," she promised. The two agents slipped out the door.
As they strode out of earshot of Claire's open window, Mulder turned to his partner, but she forestalled him with a raised hand.
"Don't say it, Mulder," she warned.
"Say what?" he demanded.
"That you suspect Claire of these killings."
"But you're thinking it, Mulder. You have to be. She doesn't have an alibi for the time of either murder if we can call it murder, and I'm still not convinced."
"According to Claire herself, she doesn't have the ability to carry out a hands-off killing, if that's what happened," Mulder argued. He had, in fact, considered Claire as a suspect and had not yet ruled her out, and for that reason he thought it odd to find himself defending her. To Scully, of all people.
"She doesn't. And she wouldn't. And she didn't. End of discussion."
Thursday, September 16, 2:00 P.M.
Claire sought refuge, as usual, in the practice of her art. She had fled her office, disgusted by the speculation and rumor swirling around Joe Barnett's death and tense with her own unresolved feelings about it. She unplugged the phone and trotted down into the basement with Gilbert and Sullivan, sensing her upset, close on her heels.
In silence and candlelight, she again took up her standing meditation posture and resumed the relaxation exercise Scully and Mulder had interrupted. Feet shoulder width apart, hips tucked under, hands at her sides, Claire focused on her breathing. She concentrated on the soothing in-out rhythm and began to clear her mind. As she got her chi energy (and her blood) circulating again, her fingertips began to tingle. Until then, she hadn't realized her hands were cold.
Moving to the first formal stage of the meditation, she let her fingertips touch in front of her navel and separate slightly. This was the stage during which to calm one's thoughts, and her mind was muddy with them. Why had Master Liang been killed? Why had Joe? Were the two related? Claire thought so. They appeared to have been killed in the same manner, by the same person.
She puzzled over who might stand to benefit from both deaths. She doubted it was any of Liang's own students. Even if one of them sought advancement to the head of Six Directions over his dead body, no one in his organization was capable of delivering what Mulder had termed the hand of death. However, she had heard rumors that Liang was involved with the Chinese mafia. If that were true, the case was completely out of her league.
Then there was Joe's phone call to consider. He had known, or believed he knew, something about Master Liang's murder, something he thought she could explain. What? Had he known who the killer was? How would he have found out?
Also, there was Rick D'Amato. He had the only clear motive for killing Liang: to avenge an insult if that's what Liang's untranslated last words to him had been to shut down a rival school and to become top kung fu dog in the region. But he had an airtight alibi for Tuesday night: a classroom full of fellow students and a professor who could vouch for his presence. Rick was an honorable man. If he really wanted to eliminate competition from Liang, he would have found a better, legal way to do it. Claire knew she had to speak to Rick as soon as possible.
Frustrated, Claire raised her hands to heart level, palms inward, arms rounded, for the second stage of meditation. This was the posture for addressing the spirit and emotions, and they came in a flood. Sadness was chief among them. She had often wished herself rid of Joe since their falling out, had even wished at times that he would just drop off the face of the earth. Now that he had, however, she was left with regret that they hadn't gotten over their bitterness to become friends again. She had liked Joe, even loved him once, and now his vitality had been suddenly, brutally erased. His empty place in the classroom would mirror the one in her heart.
Next came guilt. To think that she had suspected Joe of murder! It seemed so stupid now to have believed that he would kill an old man over a few trivial words. In her newfound sympathy for her former lover, Claire regretted having told Dana and Mulder of her suspicions. Her case against him seemed terribly flimsy now, the accusations unfair. His brush with the FBI agents in her office had made him aware that he was a suspect. It was a small leap to assume that impetuous Joe had decided to clear his own name just as Claire had set out to clear Rick D'Amato's. Had he learned something about the real killer that made him a threat? By getting Joe involved, had she gotten him killed?
And Seth Bost. How would he be reacting to news of Joe's death? The two men had been friends before Claire had known either of them. Despite his recent mistrust of Joe, Seth had to be at least as upset as she was right now, and she had only been thinking of herself. She should be with him right now, offering and receiving comfort. Seth ...
Almost unconsciously, Claire lifted her hands above the crown of her head in the meditative posture for seeing. With palms out now, elbows down, she rested her forearms against an imaginary wall. She didn't expect anything so dramatic as a vision, but she had often achieved creative insight in this stance, and she could use one now.
Her mind kept circling back to Seth. A man of few words, his devotion to the studio and to Rick was as strong as Joe's. He was the yin to Joe's yang, the cool head that prevailed over the hot temper. Seth had led Joe away from the confrontation with Liang's students. Seth had lobbied Rick to contain Joe's rapidly growing and lethal knowledge base. Seth didn't want the school or his teacher embarrassed, didn't want the students hurt ... and had been at home alone on Tuesday night.
Claire shrank instantly away from that train of thought, but it wouldn't fade into the background. Seth Bost, a murder suspect? She couldn't shake it. He was on her own list of people who could kill with chi, and if he had been alone on Tuesday, he had opportunity as well. He was known to Liang; the old master, seeing Seth at his door, would have opened it wide and invited him in.
As for motive ... What if Seth's loyalty to Rick and Red Dragon had grown a little too strong? Murdering Liang would serve two purposes: eliminating competition from Six Directions and framing Joe Barnett for the murder, ridding Red Dragon of a potential liability. But Seth just wasn't capable of such madness. Was he? Claire saw with sudden clarity that didn't really know him that well at all. In the studio, she had trusted him implicitly. Outside it ... she simply didn't know.
Claire lowered her arms to her sides, blew out the candles and trotted back up the stairs with a renewed sense of purpose. She wouldn't bother Dana with her suspicions just yet; she didn't want to wrongfully accuse another friend. But Rick knew Seth as well as anyone did. It was time to pay her teacher a visit.
Thursday, September 16, 2:15 P.M.
Agent Mulder shrugged out of his business suit and into his sweats. Scully was again occupied with an autopsy, Joe Barnett's this time, and Mulder was on his own until she could come back with some more conclusive data. He figured he'd go for a run, which just might happen to carry him past a few important local landmarks, like Rick D'Amato's house, Seth Bost's, the late Joe Barnett's, Claire Hughes's, Coyote Park and wherever else came to mind as he jogged. He'd had some of his best ideas while running and was never one to discount the thought-clearing powers of physical activity. Vermillion was a small, flat, gridlike prairie town, so he wasn't worried about getting lost. Pocketing his street map and list of addresses, he headed out the door.
Claire's house was the farthest away from the hotel, about two miles as the crow flies. Mulder decided to start there and work his way back through town. His argument with Scully outside Claire's office had sharpened his curiosity about the writer rather than dulling it. There were a few more questions he wanted to ask her. That Scully assumed Mulder suspected her old friend was a telling point; it meant that Scully's doubts were no more at rest than his own.
And they were reasonable doubts. Claire had no real alibi for the time the deaths had occurred. She had been alone, without witnesses, both Tuesday night when Liang Chen died and Wednesday night or early Thursday morning when Joe Barnett met his end. Although Claire had been quick to assure them that she lacked the ability to kill a person by issuing chi, Mulder wasn't so sure. He could still recall the jolt of energy she had sent through his body with her simple demonstration the day before. He didn't really know what a death blow ought to feel like, but he was sure the lady could shake a guy up. That was method and opportunity right there.
As far as motive went, Joe Barnett loomed large in his mind. Claire had gone out of her way to throw suspicion onto Barnett, citing his dangerous fighting tactics, his argumentative behavior at last weekend's tournament and especially his interest in lethal techniques. She had just dumped the guy and said that she was afraid of him. What better way to rid herself of a troublesome ex than to frame him for murder? If Barnett had proved innocent or accused her in kind, Claire could always have claimed that he was trying to frame her in retaliation for the break-up.
But Barnett hadn't gotten the chance to prove anything. He had called Claire, told her she had some explaining to do, and an hour later he was dead under mysterious circumstances. Claire was familiar with the small town and with Barnett's travel patterns. It would have been easy for her to intercept him on his way from the store her phone records indicated, do the deed and return home unmissed.
Mulder's heart was beating a little harder by the time he reached Claire's block, and not just from the run. The game was afoot and he was tracking a murder suspect, pursuing the truth. But he sincerely hoped that the trail would not end at Claire Hughes's doorstep. For Scully's sake, he did not want the friend who called her D and made her laugh to turn out to be a murderer. And for his own sake as well. Mulder had taken a liking to Claire and felt reasonably comfortable with her, which he did not around most women. He admired her fiction and her martial art and hoped to get better acquainted, both with Claire and, through her, with his buttoned-down partner. He could only imagine what kind of stories the witty author might tell about Dana Scully, rebel college student.
Mulder slowed to a walk a few houses from Claire's and ducked into the alley that would take him past her back yard. A glance into the detached garage showed that her car, a modest black Saturn according to Scully, was gone. Mulder felt equal parts disappointment and relief. He could find Claire later at the T'ai Chi class, but for now, perhaps he could take a quiet look around her house undisturbed.
When they had visited her the night before, Mulder had noticed that like many small-town residents, Claire did not employ an elaborate security system. Although her back door was locked, it was no trouble to persuade it open with a few small items he happened to be carrying. Gilbert and Sullivan greeted him with studied feline indifference, not even bothering to shed on his clothes this time.
He passed through the kitchen and dining area into the living room, not sure what he was looking for. There were no hastily scribbled notes beside the phone, no tell-tale answering machine tape with an incriminating message on it, no trail of breadcrumbs to indicate what the homeowner knew or where she had gone. Her laptop computer sat on the desk in the study, and he briefly considered hacking her e-mail but thought better of it. His power-geek friends the Lone Gunmen could have managed it in minutes, he was sure, but his own computer skills were not up to the task. The study, being the most personal room in the writer's home, would be a likely repository for items important to her, so he spent a few minutes searching in vain for wall safes, hollowed-out books and false-bottomed cabinetry.
Mulder bypassed the bedroom with only a cursory glance. Much as the prospect appealed to him, he could not at the moment justify poking into Claire's drawers. He paused only long enough to learn that she had been home and changed clothes the blue ensemble she had been wearing in her office earlier hung back in the closet and that she was not a particularly neat housekeeper. He would satisfy himself with a tour of the basement instead, then continue his run. He still had plenty of ground to cover.
Claire's basement, dark and cool, still smelled faintly of heated paraffin. Closer inspection revealed that liquid wax in several candle holders had yet to resolidify completely. Mulder had no trouble piecing together the events that must have transpired: Claire had come home from campus and put on comfortable clothes, spent some time in the basement with candles lit, probably meditating, and then left recently enough that the wax was still warm. He wondered where her meditation had led her.
Mulder's own thoughts were leading him to no conclusion. It was time to move on. Letting himself out the way he had come in, he consulted the map and turned toward the next stop on his list, Rick D'Amato's house.
Bost Residence, 2:40 P.M.
"Hi. I've been in the lab all day and only heard about Joe just now. I'm sorry, Seth. I know you were good friends before things got strange."
Seth Bost knew the gentle voice on the phone as well as his own. Friend, mentor, father-confessor, Rick D'Amato had been all of those to him in recent years. Compassionate and generous to a fault, it was he who had assisted Seth in all that he had accomplished. Unfortunately, it was also he who had let things go too far. When Bost replied to D'Amato's words of sympathy, the sadness in his voice was as much for his teacher as for his murdered classmate.
"Thanks, Rick. I know he meant a lot to you, too." Bost drew in a shaky breath, paused for composure, then changed the subject. "So how did you find out? Did the police track you down?"
"No," D'Amato answered, surprised. "Another student came in to use the lab, recognized me and offered condolences." After a beat, he asked, "Why? Did someone come looking for you?"
Bost cursed himself mentally. That question had been a misstep, and he prided himself on subtlety. Still, he could turn it around.
"Yeah, they did." He managed to sound bewildered. "I was online all morning and they couldn't reach me by phone, so an officer stopped by. I could hardly have been more shocked." That was the truth. Indeed, the last thing he had expected to see was a police cruiser parked in front of his house a few hours after Barnett's death. The sight had almost given him a heart attack.
"Why did they feel it was so important to talk to you?"
"Well, it made me pretty mad, actually. They wanted to know where I was last night. They were asking me for an alibi."
"And?" Was it Bost's imagination, or was D'Amato's question a little sharper than it should have been? He pretended not to notice.
"I was online last night as well home alone, of course, but the e-mail I sent would be time-stamped."
"That should suffice, then. Or did they bring up the delayed-send option?"
Bost paled beneath his freckles. What was Rick hinting at? If he had been talking to other people about time-delayed messages ...
"The ... what?" he asked.
"The delayed send. There's a feature on most e-mail programs where you can tell it to send the message in a certain number of minutes or at a specific time of day rather than transmitting it immediately." A beat. "I'm surprised you didn't know."
"You learn something new every day, I guess."
"I guess. Listen, Seth, I called the police for more information when I found out Joe had died. Or been killed. I'm starting to wonder if it had something to do with Master Liang. I'd like to talk it over with you. Do you think you could come by the house?"
"Sure, Rick. I'll be right there."
Clay County Morgue, 2:45 P.M.
Special Agent Scully conducted her autopsy quickly and by rote, her mind not entirely on the task. Joe Barnett was a healthy adult male who had died of heart failure. While she could find no reason for his heart to have failed, such things had been known to happen. The proximity in time and place to Liang Chen's similar demise notwithstanding, she had no clear cause to rule a case of wrongful death. Dictating as much into the microphone that hung suspended over the autopsy table, Scully concluded the ritual and began cleaning up. She would report her findings to Mulder, and together they would pay a visit to Rick D'Amato, a key player in this drama whom they had yet to interview.
That was the plan, anyway, but Scully suspected events would take a different turn. For instance, she did not believe for a minute that she would return to the Day's Inn and find her partner patiently waiting for her so they could discuss the case and pursue leads together. She debated whether it was even worth stopping by the hotel, or if she ought to drive straight to Claire's house, where he had undoubtedly gone to get answers to the questions he still harbored about her.
Scully couldn't generate too much anger at Mulder for wanting to flesh out Claire's story. On paper, she did fit the description of a suspect if they were truly dealing with murder and Mulder was obligated to investigate. She predicted that he would choose to do so without telling her in order to spare her feelings, and she appreciated that. She also knew he was wasting his time. Claire Hughes was not a killer. Scully knew that as surely as she knew her own name. Maybe, instead, she would leave the two of them to get acquainted and do some digging of her own.
Claire seemed as sure of Seth Bost's innocence as Scully did of Claire's, but Bost was an unknown quantity. She recalled his lithe, silent movements in the T'ai Chi studio the day before, the eerie quiet that surrounded him. Mulder had remarked that the man seemed a little spooky, and she had retorted that it took one to know one, but she had learned to trust her partner's hunches. Despite Claire's confidence in Bost, he gave a professional criminal profiler the willies, and that was enough to make her take a second look. Scully turned the Taurus toward his neighborhood and began formulating a list of questions in her mind.
D'Amato Residence, 3:00 P.M.
Claire heard the noise before she could reach the front door to knock. A window was open in Rick's house somewhere, and through it Seth's and Rick's voices, raised in argument, carried partially. She paused a moment to try to make out what they were saying but got only the sound of furniture being dragged across a hardwood floor, followed by breaking glass. She sprang up the front steps and yanked open the door.
The couch, chair and end table in Rick's austere living room had been heaved back against the walls, and a lamp lay shattered beneath a window. Seth advanced on his mentor at impossible speed, his open right palm poised to fall directly upon D'Amato's heart.
"Rick!" Claire shouted.
Her sudden arrival caught both men's attention, but neither had time to turn fully toward her. Bost's momentum carried him forward to complete his strike as planned. Although there was no physical contact between them, D'Amato reeled back as if struck, clutching his chest. Bost didn't even watch him fall. Instead, he sailed toward Claire where she stood frozen in the doorway, face slack, eyes blank, his hand raised once more. If she hadn't known better, it would have looked as if he was waving hello.
Reflex interceded at the last moment, and Claire twisted desperately aside. She let the motion carry her into the center of the room, glad now that the furniture had been flung aside in the earlier fight. She didn't spare a glance at D'Amato's motionless form on the floor, and she didn't waste her breath trying to reason with Seth. Obviously Rick had tried that already, with disastrous results. There was no time for shock. She forced her thoughts into focus, knowing she would need every last bit of skill she possessed, as well as a good deal of luck, to survive this clash.
Seth lunged faster than she had ever seen him move. Claire dodged again, thrusting her foot into his path for an ankle sweep. He stepped over it as nimbly as a cat. Casually, he lifted his own foot high in the air above her head.
Had Claire not already been in motion, she would have suffered a fatal head injury. As it was, she managed to lean just enough to one side to save her life. The heel hammered down on her shoulder instead. She crashed to her knees in a pool of autumn sunlight, ignoring with great determination the disintegration of her freshly healed collarbone and its surrounding tissue. Seth retracted his foot, stepped back to a more advantageous distance, and lashed out again. The knife edge of his foot caught her in the side as she rose, sending her flying across the room to dent the drywall with her head and back.
Well, that was fast, she thought dimly as she slid to the floor. Nothing like the movies.
"FBI! Don't move!"
Special Agent Fox Mulder burst through the half-open door with his gun at the ready, not sure what he would find. In a split second he took in D'Amato lying near the window, Claire slumped in a corner and Bost turning to face him. He had come expecting a quiet interview, not
Bost's backhand cracked across the side of Mulder's head hard enough to spin him a full 360 degrees. His service weapon cartwheeled across the floor, which tilted up to meet him. He went down like a skater on ice, limbs flailing bonelessly in all directions, too stunned even to close his eyes.
The distraction he had provided was just enough. Picking herself up, Claire crossed the room in three long strides. Without pausing, she drove her right hand straight for the center of Bost's chest
And he staggered back, suddenly uncoordinated, gaping in disbelief.
"Claire?" he asked incredulously. He backpedaled until he tripped over the upended chair, eyes never leaving hers. He collapsed in an inglorious heap and did not get up.
"Claire!" Dana Scully shouted. Skidding in her dress shoes on the hardwood, she took in the scene at a glance. D'Amato and Bost were not moving. Mulder lay in a rapidly spreading pool of his own blood, groggily raising his head at the sound of his partner's voice.
"Did you see that, Scully?" he croaked.
"Hey, D." Claire greeted her flatly as if in a trance, without turning her head. Crossing the few steps to D'Amato's prone form, she sank abruptly to her knees beside him, slapping him hard on the chest as she descended. His body arched as if shocked, and Scully heard a ragged gasp. Claire sank back on her heels in an almost meditative posture and ceased to stir.
Scully reached for her cell phone and dialled 911.
Friday, September 17, 10:00 A.M.
"Rick's all right, then?" Claire's voice, as she lay propped in the hospital bed at a 45-degree angle, was barely a whisper. They had talked too long already, Claire explaining her suspicions of Bost, and Scully had to lean forward to hear what she said.
"Well," she explained, "he's in the cardiac ICU right now. He was experiencing severe tachycardia when the paramedics arrived, but they managed to stabilize him. He's expected to recover."
"And Mulder?" Claire asked.
From the doorway, Mulder answered for himself. "I've been better, but I'll get over it. Just a bruised beak." He approached the bedside, modeling his bandaged nose and blackening eyes with a crooked grin. Claire watched his entrance with a weary gaze. He had hit D'Amato's floor face first and looked as if he had suffered much worse than a minor concussion.
Finally, Claire asked the hardest question, the one she had delayed as long as possible. "And ... Seth?" She knew what the answer would be. Dana squeezed her hand and delivered the news as gently as she could.
"Seth Bost is dead."
Claire closed her eyes against the tears she felt welling up and concentrated for a moment on simply breathing. It was not an easy task; Bost's kick had broken three of her ribs, and despite the medication she was receiving, breathing deeply still hurt. But she had to face up to it. There were consequences to be borne. Inhaling as bravely as she could, she confessed, "I killed him."
Mulder and Scully traded a look across the bed. They had covered this ground already, and while they agreed upon what they had seen, they could not reach consensus about what had actually happened in D'Amato's living room.
"You're not being charged with anything, Claire," Dana told her.
Claire knit her brows in a confusion that had nothing to do with drugs. That couldn't be right.
"I killed him, Dana," she insisted. "Mulder saw me."
"True," he said, but added nothing, preferring to allow Scully to explain.
"I was standing in the doorway when Bost died," Dana reminded her. "I saw what happened, too. You came straight at him like you were going to push him down, but he stumbled back from you without your ever touching him. I saw you rush him, but I didn't see you kill him. Seth Bost died of cardiac arrest."
Claire opened her mouth and then shut it again. Technically, Dana was correct. Still. "I killed him the same way he killed Liang and Joe and Rick, almost. With chi."
Scully shook her head silently.
Claire glanced at Mulder. Surely he knew the truth of the situation. But he just nodded twice, slowly, and she couldn't tell whether he was agreeing with her or with Dana.
"Stubborn," she accused them both. "You'll say there's no empirical evidence that I killed him, and I won't be charged."
With an air of finality, Mulder pronounced, "And that's the truth." Quietly he added, "Perhaps you underestimated yourself, Claire."
Ambiguous praise. She had found an ability she didn't know she possessed and used it to kill a friend all in the same moment. She had underestimated herself and her chi, all right. She still did not entirely grasp the ramifications of this newfound power.
Sensing her thoughts, Dana squeezed her arm reassuringly. "You've got plenty of time to deal with this. Save your energy."