Title: The Ghosts of Thurmere Hall
Summary: A quiet vacation in England begins with a ghost hunt as Mulder and Scully investigate the paranormal activity at Thurmere Hall.
A/N: This is the result of six months of semi-hard work, restless nights, and a plethora of emails to the following people, all of whom have been instrumental in getting this off the ground: all_shine_on, hummingfly67, mack_the_spoon, and memories_child. Thank you also to those on my LiveJournal filter list who provided encouragement along the way, and to greydawning and newo_fic for the Big Bang support community that has been immensely useful. Finally, thank you to memories_child and truemyth for taking an idea and putting it out there for the rest of us to become a part of.
Based on a real place and true events (with a lot of creative licence).
Turn the lights off, sit back, and enjoy.
Ominous black clouds crowded in the sky above the sixteenth-century Manor House. Oak trees, their limbs bare yet plentiful, stood in the grounds nearby; the slightest breeze would have ruffled the leaves of the evergreens, hiding in the shadows of the taller trees, yet the air was still. The ducks were gone from the river next to the house and no wayward sparrow or blackbird called out into the darkness. The park, of which the house was at the centre, was usually teeming with wildlife, and even at seven-thirty on a drab October evening there could often be found the odd brave dog-walker or two, or birdwatchers with equipment both amateur and professional keeping an eye out for an owl or nightjar. Tonight there was nobody. Everything was motionless, muted, and Susan Dalton didn't like it one bit.
She had lost track of time after seeing the last stragglers out and locking the doors of Thurmere Hall at five. If it wasn't for the new exhibition arriving tomorrow, she would have followed them out and gone home herself, but the old display needed to be boxed and ready to be moved and the cases had to be cleaned for the new collection. Susan just knew she wouldn't have time in the morning because visitors potentially started arriving at nine and then she had to be on hand to offer a guided tour or to answer any questions about Thurmere's history. There was no way she could come to work early, not when she had to drop Hannah off at school at eight-forty-five and no earlier. The delivery had been due to arrive in fifteen hours; Susan had sighed to herself in resignation and begrudgingly wandered over to the east wing, the designated art gallery-cum-museum, to get to work.
She had been so immersed in carefully packaging the delicate objects that she was surprised to find two and a half hours had passed when she glanced at her watch. All that remained was for the shelves to be dusted and the glass casing polished, and then she could go home. Getting to her feet and stretching, Susan made her way to the cleaners' storage cupboard, heels loud on the floorboards, echoing into the darkest recesses like a funeral bell. She rubbed her neck with one hand as she went. She was getting too old to be sitting on the floor for two hours at a time.
Arriving at the door, she selected the rarely used key from the ring on her belt and opened it, flicking the switch just inside. A dull light emitted from the naked bulb hanging from the ceiling. The small room was cluttered, to say the least, and for a moment Susan stared in disbelief at the mess. No one cleaner tended to stick around for longer than a couple of months for various reasons - another job suddenly came up, health problems, it's just not working out - yet she was amazed anyone could find anything to clean with amid the chaos. The rest of the Hall was impeccable; there was a certain irony in the cleaners' cupboard being the dirtiest in the whole house.
Susan started with an old shelving unit to her left. There were marks in the thick layer of dust that showed where a can of fluid had been dragged instead of lifted. Scanning the bottom shelves and finding neither a feather duster nor polish, she stood on tiptoes to see the top. The floorboards creaked a little in protest at the change in pressure but they remained firm. The top shelf yielded bleach, air freshener, some papier-mache/wallpaper paste solution that should have been thrown out months ago, and... her fingers reached in earnest for a cylinder hidden behind a bottle of white vinegar... polish! Susan smiled in triumph.
She found a couple of old rags in a corner and the duster, oddly enough, inside the drum of a defunct washing machine half-hidden by plastic sheeting. By the time she had uncovered all she wanted, her skin and clothes were covered with age-old dust and a thin film of grease (she didn't know where that had come from but she wasn't about to start asking now). Tired and bedraggled, and more than ready to leave Thurmere Hall behind for the night, she crossed the small room to the sink under the window to wash off as much of the sticky substance as she could before admitting defeat and handing her suit over to the dry cleaner. She was pleased to find the taps still worked and she scrubbed her hands vigorously under the running water.
It was as she reached for a tissue to dry her hands she happened to look out of the window onto the courtyard below. A figure was walking across it.
Susan froze. The only way to get to the courtyard was through the house and she had locked the door hours ago.
She was certain she had.
Had someone broken in?
She hadn't heard anything but that didn't mean much.
Were there more?
She held her breath, eyes riveted to the form illuminated by the courtyard lights, shadow long and black over the stone flags. Susan was fairly sure it was a female, judging from the shape and the clothes. She frowned. The dress looked familiar... Tudor-esque, perhaps. There were biannual re-enactments outside the Hall and the clothes were stored in the attic when they weren't being used. The intruder must have broken in and taken them, Susan reasoned. But why? What would anybody want with an Elizabethan costume?
The woman in the courtyard stopped under one of the lamps and looked directly at Susan. Her eyes were sunken into her skull, covered by thin, pockmarked flesh that seemed to have been subjected to a torture rack, so taunt and strained it was to fit over her bones. She was so pale, even under the golden glow, and yet her eyes shone with an unnatural brightness, boring into Susan's with such force that she almost took a step back but couldn't bear to tear her gaze away. It was as though the woman was looking not at her but *through* her, into her soul and every fibre of her being, and a cold chill worked its way through her body, causing her to shiver and the tiny hairs on her arms to stand on end.
And then, under Susan's scrutiny, the woman vanished.
Nine-sixteen on a Saturday morning, or so the alarm clock's luminous red LCD digits claimed as they burned into her sleepy eyeballs. Why did the manufacturers make them so damn bright? At least it was the weekend and that in itself meant no chirpy, caffeine-fuelled DJ playing terrible music and even worse phone-in competitions. It was almost enough to compensate for the ridiculous lights. Her mind, still foggy with the vestiges of sleep, conjured up an image of the clock's digits in a neon desert. Scully snickered softly to herself; they wouldn't look out of place in Las Vegas.
She rubbed her bleary eyes and ran a hand through her mussed hair, taking in the empty space beside her. She had slept well and for a good eight hours - the doctor in her approved - and it would take a few minutes for her muscles to lose the natural lethargy that came with a decent night's sleep, a rarity in her line of work. She glanced again at the clock on the bedside table and decided to lounge in bed, another five minutes, partly because she couldn't find the energy to move just yet but mainly because she could and she so seldom had the opportunity.
The shutter blind at the window had been left open overnight and now weak rays of fall sunlight filtered in through the horizontal slats, stretching lazily across the floor and the blanket covering her body. Dust particles danced like fireflies in the musty air; too many out- of-town cases combined with the cool temperatures meant the apartment was overdue for a good airing out. She longed for a time when she could throw open the windows and feel the refreshing breeze swoop in to take away the nightmares that clung to the cobwebs as if they were dream catchers. The bad dreams were few and far between nowadays; her sleep was restful and not often permeated with horrific monsters and sick men, and although her recent re-encounter with one Mr Pfaster was still fresh in her mind, Scully was able to rely on her unconscious to keep him locked away while she dozed. She trusted herself more than jail cells.
Sighing softly, she tossed back the sheets and dragged herself from the comfort of the bed, pulling on a shirt she found at the foot of it. Her feet made little noise as she padded into the living room.
Mulder, dressed in jeans and a rumpled t-shirt, was seemingly engrossed by something on his computer screen. No discernible artist's impression of Bigfoot or the Loch Ness monster adorned the monitor to give her a clue as to where his interests lay that morning. It could be mothmen in Ohio or zombies invading upstate New York for all she knew, or maybe something as innocuous as the latest Knicks news or the batting averages for the Yankees in the '87-'88 season. She never did know with Mulder. He was a matryoshka except he grew bigger with every layer she peeled off, revealing more of the whole instead of depleting it, never losing the essence of who he was despite her knowledge expanding like the universe as he granted her access to the wonderful workings of his mind. Sometimes she thought she could see it, heavy cogs straining with the magnitude of his tangential thoughts and ideas, his off-Broadway beliefs.
She pressed a kiss to the top of his head, sneaking a glance at the computer before perching on the edge of his desk and stealing his coffee.
"Good morning," he said with a smile, leaning back in his chair and folding his arms across his chest.
"Morning," she replied between sips of the hot liquid. "I didn't think I'd sleep so long."
"You were pretty out of it when I got up. I think the drool patch on my shoulder has just about dried," he teased.
"It's not my fault a certain somebody kept me awake until one in the morning."
"Wasn't it worth it?" A mischievous glint appeared in his eyes. Scully ducked her head, grinning, keeping silent yet answering his question all the same. Oh, it had most definitely been worth it, spending a Friday night with his head between her thighs and that wonderful tongue teasing her almost to the point of torture. She had gained her revenge later when she had taken him in her mouth, smiling around him as he muttered an unintelligible stream of sounds that may have included her name. And then when he had settled himself on top of her and entered her with one long, smooth stroke... she felt her toes curl just thinking about it.
Damn, but that man knew how to play her like a violin. When it came to her body, he was Itzhak Perlman himself.
Back to the room, Dana, she admonished as though she was coming out of a hypnotic trance (and perhaps she was). "What are you working on?" she asked, lifting her head to find him staring at her legs peering out from under his navy blue dress shirt, the one he had worn to the office yesterday and the one she had slid off his broad shoulders that very same evening. He touched her knee briefly; a ghost of a smile flashed across his face before he turned his attention back to the screen.
"I've received an email from a woman who works in a Grade One listed building in England called Thurmere Hall." He explained, and then read: "It was built in 1575 by the Charnocke family, decorated with bay windows and the Ionic columns which even now flank the entrance, and was passed on through the generations until the early nineteenth century. It fell to Robert Smith-Bannister, who added the south wing and stuccoed the interior. He left the ceilings of the drawing room and the Great Hall alone, however, and the mid-seventeenth century plasterwork is still there to this day."
He pulled up a photograph of heavy wreaths and disporting cherubs for Scully to look at. She put the coffee cup down and obligingly peered at the image. "I've never known you to be particularly interested in architecture alone."
"Well, the house was gifted to the people of Charnley - that's where this place is - in 1922 as a memorial to the men who had died during World War One. Since then the local council has maintained it. It's rumoured Oliver Cromwell stayed there in the 1600s before going into battle." He glanced at her to gauge her reaction.
"Mulder, just get to why you're giving this credence. I assume it's related to the paranormal," she said, a bemused grin coming to the forefront at his delighted expression, "so please, enlighten me. A place that old must be haunted, right?"
"Oh, Scully," he sighed happily, pleased she had said it even if she was mocking him. His hand snaked around her waist to pull her into his lap. He gave her a quick kiss before scrolling through the email on the monitor. "Susan Dalton is the visitor services officer at Thurmere Hall. Last Tuesday evening she was working late, packing up an exhibit of local artefacts, when she saw a woman walking across the courtyard."
"I take it that's unusual."
"Highly. She locked the door before she started working, two hours earlier, and that's the only way in and out. She later checked all the windows in case someone had broken in but there was nothing out of the ordinary."
"So this woman in the courtyard had been in the building before she locked the door," Scully said.
"Maybe," Mulder conceded, "but that doesn't explain why she was wearing a dress right out of a costume drama. Or how she vanished into thin air before Mrs Dalton's eyes."
He nodded. "Disappeared. Completely. One minute she was stood under a lit lamp and the next she just... wasn't." He smiled to himself at Scully's frown; he knew her mind was sifting through the garbage for a plausible explanation, eyes bright and alert despite recently waking. He suspected teleportation wouldn't be high on her list of theories. Maybe she would account for the shadows as a place to hide or she could question Mrs Dalton's eyesight or mental health, or maybe she would even suggest an elaborate hoax or a prank carried out by bored teenagers. He still didn't know, even after seven years of working together, how she would respond to his latest theory and he enjoyed the lack of predictability in their partnership, just as he suspected she did. After all, if you don't use it, you lose it, Mulder mentally recited, remembering the motto one of his professors at Oxford used at the end of every tutorial.
And her mind was racing so fast he was amazed her synapses could fire in time.
"And how do you know this woman, this Mrs Dalton, is legitimate? How did she get hold of your email address, Mulder?" she finally asked, surprising him by not offering her opinion on the disappearing lady of the Manor. That was Scully, not tossing the obvious his way for him to toy with and rebuff.
His lips curved upwards ephemerally as he said, "Apparently her husband's pretty big on paranormal phenomena. He's from North Carolina originally and had read a couple of articles I wrote for Omni relating to ghosts and spirit manifestation. He suggested she contact me when she told him what happened. The Gunmen have already checked them out: they aren't nutcases."
Scully supposed she should be glad for the impromptu background check; the Gunmen meant well, even if them claiming someone was crazy brought to mind the words 'pot' and 'kettle'. Mulder and Scully had examined far too much based on attention-seekers and time-wasters. "The husband's interested in the paranormal - I take it she isn't?"
Mulder shrugged. "She's seen Ghostbusters."
Scully stared at him for a moment like he had sprouted another head. "Mulder," she said, "are you seriously considering investigating this?"
He rested his chin on her shoulder. "We both have vacation time stored up."
"Yes, exactly. Vacation, Mulder. As in taking a break from work. Besides, this would mean going all the way to England."
A low voice in her ear growled, "Remember what happened the last time I went to England? What happened when I came back?"
She felt a flush work its way up her neck. "I remember," she murmured.
"Come on, we'll go, spend the night, check it out, perform an exorcism if necessary, and then we're free to enjoy the delights of the English countryside. It'll be fun." He gave her a gentle squeeze and looked at her expectantly.
She heard Quasimodo at work in the distance.
Their flight was delayed at Dulles and that was only the beginning. A storm kept them grounded for over an hour with nowhere to go and nothing to do but watch the rain pelt the windows and the lightning draw ever closer. A young girl two rows back let out an ear-piercing scream whenever the thunder hit. Scully winced and cursed herself for forgetting to pack Tylenol in her carry-on.
The turbulence was bad all across the Atlantic, almost as bad as the queasiness of her stomach. She wasn't terrified of flying but the mechanics of keeping a plane in the air largely depended on a smooth ride; factor air pockets into the equation and the variable changed everything. Change could be a good thing but not when it involved nose-diving several thousand feet. But Mulder held her hand and let her use his shoulder as a pillow; he told her ancient ghost stories and she was lulled to sleep by the tone of his voice, as comforting to her now as the well-worn copy of Moby Dick she carted around with her as a child.
She landed in England but her suitcase didn't. Typically, Mulder's was one of the first bags off the line. He heaved it off the conveyor belt with a satisfied grunt and said, "One down, one to go. We'll be out of here in no time." His words were a curse: they stood at baggage claim for ninety minutes, watching the crowds disperse and the bags disappear. There was still no sign of her case. They traipsed to the other side of the airport to enquire about it and were told to go back to where they had come from; airport policy seemed to be 'it'll show up eventually'. Mulder, wise man he was, purchased some ridiculously overpriced coffee in an attempt to keep her temper at bay. He slung his arm across her shoulders as they walked. The belt was still moving when they got back. Her suitcase was making the rounds alone.
They managed to grab a taxi outside the terminal. The driver got out to help them with their luggage and once it was stowed away he asked where they were going.
"Thurmere Hall, in Charnley."
His face went white, eyes wide and staring. "No, no, I don't go there."
"It isn't far," Mulder said.
"I don't go there."
"Why not?" Scully asked irritably. It had been a long day and all she wanted to do was check into that quaint B
"I just don't go there. Find another taxi. I don't go there."
Mulder opened his mouth to protest but Scully put a hand on his arm. "Let's go."
While he dragged their bags from the back of the vehicle, Scully wandered down the ranks and asked each driver if they would take her and her partner to Thurmere Hall. One sped off upon hearing the name. The majority refused outright, rolling up their windows and turning back to their newspapers. She was ready to commandeer a car to drive there herself when a voice behind her said, "I'll take you."
The big man, muscular and taller than Mulder, held her gaze but did not intimidate her. "You'll take us to Thurmere Hall?" she asked as her partner took his place by her side, bags at his feet.
"I'll take you."
"If I may ask," Scully said once they were on their way, "why did so many drivers refuse to go?"
"They're very superstitious."
"All of them?" Mulder questioned.
"If they weren't when they first started on this job, they are now."
"And why's that?"
"Look," their taxi driver said, glancing at them periodically through the rear view mirror, "certain places in these parts have reputations, and with good reason. I take it you've heard of the Pendle Witches?"
"Vaguely," Mulder replied. "I think an old roommate might have mentioned them once or twice."
"Happened not too far from here, back in 1612. A local woman named Alizon Device is walking through the forest up on Pendle Hill when she comes across a bloke, John Law, a peddler, and asks him for some pins. Well, it all kicks off, with her claimin' she was gonna buy them off him and his family sayin' she had no money and was beggin' and stealin', but a few minutes after they first meet, he suffers a stroke and blames her. Now, there's already bad blood between the two families, real Capulet and Montague conflict if you know what I mean, and there's some cursin' on both sides, almost a dozen dead bodies thanks to witchcraft, if you listen to local lore, and next thing you know, you've got eleven people on trial with ten hangin' from nooses by the time it's through."
Mulder had listened intently to the man's story, had noticed how he dropped the 'g' from the ends of verbs when he was excited and losing himself in his tale of witchcraft and rivalry. He wondered if he did something similar, if Scully had picked up on a telling signal in his voice when he had the slide projector up and running and plane tickets in his pocket, a stamped 302 in a manila file. He'd have to ask her.
"It'll be getting busy this time of year, though," the driver warned. "Ever since a TV crew filmed up there on Halloween a couple of years back, there've been crowds every October. I think some of them are trying to recreate Blair Witch." He chuckled.
"TV crew? Did they find something?"
"Depends on your definition of 'something'. I swear, I've watched that damned show for months and whenever anything remotely interesting happens, it's either off-camera or they go runnin' the other way." He shook his head. "The presenters seemed spooked enough - excuse the pun - but it's a load of baloney if you ask me."
"But it's not far from Charnley?"
"Mulder!" Scully protested.
"What? I'm only asking where Pendle Hill is; if it's on our way to the hotel then-"
"You said Thurmere Hall was it, the only paranormal activity you'd indulge yourself in for the week. You'd forget about work and the FBI and pending cases so we could spend some quality time together enjoying the English countryside." Her voice was deliberately low, the tone the same one she used before a meeting with the AD when she told him to keep his temper under wraps. This time, he sensed she was struggling to control hers.
"Were they or were they not your words, Mulder?" She fixed him with a stare. He could see the driver out of the corner of his eye looking at the road and not the bickering couple in the back of his taxi. He'd probably seen it all before.
"They were, and I intend to uphold that, but while we're here-"
"I'd rather not spend my week off traipsing through the woods with you. I know what happened the last time, and the time before that, and I am not prepared to do that again while we're on vacation. We came here to get away from work; Thurmere Hall was a compromise, Mulder. If I go with you, you devote your time to relaxing for the rest of the trip instead of chasing ghosts and witches and God only knows what else." She pinched the bridge of her nose and squeezed her eyes shut.
Instantly, his hand caught her wrist. "Are you okay, Scully?"
"Just a headache," she muttered. "It's been a long day."
"And I haven't made it any better by arguing with you, I know. I'm sorry." He cupped her cheek despite the seatbelt digging into his side. "This is it, okay? You, me, Thurmere Hall, tonight. We walk out of there and we check into the B
"That sounds good," she whispered.
He smiled. "I know it does. We'll do it, I promise, just as soon as we're done in Charnley."
The rest of the forty-five minute trip was spent in silence save for the occasional explosion of a barking voice from the driver's walkie- talkie. Mulder's hand found Scully's across the empty middle seat and he squeezed her fingers, encouraged when she curled her digits around his possessively. Once off the motorway, they drove along quiet roads, the glow from the streetlamps highlighting the shops and houses, until they too disappeared. The lights became less frequent; the landscape was reduced to barely visible fields. The roads narrowed until there was hardly room for one car, let alone another going the opposite way, and twigs from the bushes lining the road snapped at the windows. Even with the headlights on, the darkness seemed to advance and consume.
The driver suddenly took a left turn onto a bumpy dirt track, which thankfully didn't take long to navigate, and the loose stones at the other end were slightly better for the car's suspension. He pulled up on the secluded parking lot, keeping the engine running, and said, "I hear this place is haunted. That's what the other guys tell me, at any rate. That's why they won't come near here."
"Really," Mulder replied, keeping a straight face more for Scully's benefit than his own. He could tell by the stiff set of her shoulders and the lack of a smile in the past twelve hours she still wasn't in the best of moods despite his efforts. To exuberantly overindulge in a bit of small talk about apparitions would place him firmly in her bad books, if he wasn't there already, and they were supposed to be on vacation. Together. One disagreement in the back of a taxi was quite enough. He kept his voice relatively light as he enquired, "What have you heard?", risking a glance at Scully only to find she was intently watching the driver, awaiting his response. He supposed she saw this as a case and she always gave her full attention to the work. Of course, it was also feasible she wanted to disprove any theories he might come up with as quickly as possible so they could leave and truly begin to unwind. After the disaster at the airport, he vowed to try and make that happen for her.
"There are rumours," the driver said carefully, "and bear in mind they're only rumours to me - I've never seen anything strange and I've been coming round these parts for twenty years - but a lot of people believe them, including the other guys driving taxis. They all claim to sense some weird shit, pardon my French, whenever they get close to the Hall. You know that shivering sensation, they say someone's walkin' over your grave? According to them, everyone here shivers even when it's twenty-five degrees out and sunny. You'd think they all got pneumonia or something. Not many of them'll talk about it and even fewer will bring you here, but one guy once told me he's seen people, ghosts, materialise out of thin air, shadows walking past lit windows when it's been shut up the night. I dunno, sounds like too many horror movies and stories told over campfires but something got them scared, that's for sure."
"But you don't believe it? You've never felt anything?" Mulder asked.
"Can't say I've seen anything out of the ordinary but I got to admit, there is something not quite right with Thurmere Hall."
"What do you mean by that?" Scully enquired.
He unbuckled his seatbelt and turned to face them properly, eyes serious. "It's a feeling you get when you go near the place, like you know something's about to go wrong but you don't know when or what or how. I can't explain it, exactly; you'll see when you get up there."
They got out of the taxi, grabbed their bags, and paid the driver. Before he pulled out, he said, "You two needing a ride to your hotel later tonight?"
"Actually, we're staying here overnight," Mulder replied.
The driver stared at them. "You two gotta be the craziest tourists I ever had in my ride. You're seriously staying here? Even after you heard all that shit?"
"Because of all that shit."
"Rather you than me, my friends. Couldn't pay me to spend the night in there."
"Oh, we're doing it voluntarily," Mulder said cheerfully. "Thought it would be a rush."
The driver looked at Scully. "Miss, forgive me for saying so, but you got yourself one mad hatter of a boyfriend."
"This is nothing," she replied dryly. "You should see him at home."
He laughed. "Well, just be careful, alright? And if you need a ride tomorrow - if you make it outta there - you just give me a call and I'll pick you up, take you wherever you wanna go." He handed Mulder a scrap of paper with his number on.
"Thank you, we will."
He took one last look before pulling away and out onto the open road again. "Crazy motherfuckers," he said to himself with a smile, shaking his head.
Mulder and Scully watched the car until it disappeared from sight. Scully stamped her feet against the gravel in an attempt to warm up; there was no Indian summer in the North of England and she could see her breath condense as soon as it left her body. Above her head, a streetlight flickered once, twice, and then cut out completely. Mulder glanced up at it and then back at his partner.
"Let's hope that's not an omen."
The other lights instantly shut down in perfect synchronicity. They were plunged into a rural darkness, made worse by the early nightfall at such a time of year and the heavy cloud cover above. Both listened intently for signs someone else was there but only the howling wind made a noise as it rattled the limbs of the deciduous trees a few yards away, their leaves already sacrificed to the elements. Stones grated underfoot as Mulder dug into his pockets and pulled out a flashlight, turning it on quickly. He couldn't shake the feeling they were being watched, invisible eyes attuned to their every move.
Scully quirked an eyebrow. "You were saying?"
He slowly scanned the deserted car park. "Okay, that's... how do you explain that?"
"Walk and talk, Mulder. It's freezing out here."
"If that cab driver's to be believed, it won't be any better once we get inside," he said as he grabbed the handles of their cases and started to drag them across the loose stone to the narrow passageway leading to the Hall. Flanked by overgrown hedges and weeds, it was only wide enough for one person, and even then it was a squeeze. Mulder went first with his flashlight, the cases trailing behind him. "All this vegetation's making me think we're in the maze at the Overlook Hotel and some guy with a pair of shears is waiting for us at the other end. There's something spooky about this place, Scully."
"You haven't even seen it yet," she argued.
"How else would you explain our sudden descent into darkness back there?"
She muttered a curse as she tripped over a tree root. "A power failure, maybe. You have to consider how remote and isolated the Hall is; it must be fifteen minutes to the nearest building. We're in the middle of nowhere, Mulder. They probably have blackouts all the time."
"I don't think it's a blackout, Scully."
She had been so intent on watching her feet she almost ran into the back of him, sidestepping at the last possible moment. "Why did you stop..."
Her gaze fell on the drab grey facade, impressively lit by bright yellow light coming from the ground floor windows which appeared to reach at least sixteen feet high when four were stacked, as was the case with the two battlement-esque towers that were part of the main structure. The building was constructed of simple stone blocks, possibly granite, with the quoins and even the mullions of the upstairs windows the same dreary shade. The balustrade framing the asymmetrical front was crumbling in places yet still gave the house an elegant air unlike any other despite its dourness. It wasn't a terribly ugly building, by any means, and the sheer size and history of the place was unequivocal but it was still grim and bleak, especially in the darkness.
Scully half-expected to hear a hound baying nearby but there was just another sharp gust of howling wind that made her pull her coat tighter around her frame.
"First impressions?" Mulder asked.
"The Addams Family could live here," she said, still eyeing up the house. Mulder barked out a laugh and nudged her shoulder.
"C'mon, it'll be fun," he said, and set off towards the defunct driveway. She followed him quickly, surprised when the loose stones they had been walking on suddenly turned to solid asphalt twenty yards away from the entrance and then to sandstone flags for the final few steps. It was as though someone had tried to modernise the place and make it easier for visitors but then couldn't be bothered finishing the job. At least this was safer than before; Scully had thought she might break her ankle on the shifting balance of the stones, and that was with sensible shoes on in dry weather. In a month or so, in the heart of winter with a thin sheen of ice coating the ground, the short walkway would be a lethal tunnel, near impossible to cross.
Thurmere Hall loomed in front of them. The door could have been claimed from a monastery. It was made from thick, dark oak, the nail- studded wood tarnished with deep etches and grooves. A gothic- inspired lion's head doorknocker sat proudly on the right hand side, its gaping mouth rusted. A single gold knob, also weathered, lay unobtrusively at waist-height. As Mulder knocked on the door with childlike glee, Scully took the time to take a closer look at the building.
The semi-octagonal towers that framed either side dwarfed the archway and the door that nestled underneath it. Peering inside, her face to the cold glass, Scully saw they housed bay windows. The window frames had been painted white a long time ago; they were now peeling but from a distance it was not noticeable. It had been a good idea, at least in principle; the colour had added a little light and brightness to the otherwise gloomy frontier and would have been likely to blind a first-time viewer to the obvious flaws. The Ionic columns Mulder had told her about were taller than both the door and the arch, coming to rest under the third row of windowpanes. A twin set of stone lions lay poised on top of the pillars, staring into the distance with permanent expressions of contempt on their frozen faces.
"If this place was truly haunted, Mulder, shouldn't the door have suspiciously creaked open by now?" She crossed her arms over her chest.
He glanced at her and knocked again, loud and booming. "Maybe the poltergeists are on vacation. The lights are on but nobody's home..."
"You did tell this woman we were arriving today, didn't you?" Scully received a glare by way of a reply; she held her hands up in surrender and turned her back to the Hall, stepping onto the asphalt again. She exhaled loudly and rubbed her neck with one hand, attempting to soothe the aching muscles; sleeping on a plane never did serve well, even if Mulder did kindly offer his shoulder as a pillow. Now she had to spend the night awake in this godforsaken house - if they ever got in - when all she wanted was to feel the tips of her fingers again, have a decent meal in her stomach, and fall asleep next to her partner. Playing Dan Ackroyd to Mulder's Bill Murray wasn't exactly her idea of a good time, not least when they could be spending their vacation exploring England's natural beauty and history.
Behind her, the door swung open. She swivelled to see a flushed middle-aged woman stood in the doorway, catching her breath.
"I'm so sorry," she apologised immediately. "I was upstairs when you knocked. It takes a while to get down here. You're Fox Mulder? Susan Dalton: pleased to meet you." She held out her hand, which Mulder shook.
"This is my partner, Dana Scully." He offered an introduction. "Scully?" he asked when she didn't respond.
She was staring at one of the upstairs windows. "Mrs Dalton, is there anybody else here with you tonight?"
"No, just me. Why?"
"There's somebody moving around upstairs," Scully said calmly, keeping her eyes fixed on the glass. Mulder took a step back to look, Susan following, and as they watched a decidedly human silhouette slowly crossed from one side of the lit window to the other.
"When we arrived, there were no lights on upstairs at the front of the house," Mulder said quietly.
"I didn't go near there; I was working in the back," Susan whispered, breathing heavily.
"You didn't turn that light on?" Scully asked sharply.
She and Mulder glanced at each other before moving for the door. "This way?" Mulder asked, already heading for the wide staircase with Scully hot on his heels, the large entrance hall echoing their footsteps from the stone floor.
"Top of the stairs, the door at the end of the corridor on the right!" Susan shouted, pulling their suitcases inside before shutting and bolting the heavy door behind them with nary a creak.
The landing at the top of the stairs was dark. Mulder pulled his flashlight from his pocket and flicked it on, the yellow beam illuminating first the floorboards and then the portraits on the walls: Christopher Columbus, William the Silent, Ambrogio Spinola. Scully's breathing was loud and strong in Mulder's ear as they slowly advanced down the shadowy hallway, Mulder's knuckles white, his grip a little tighter than usual on the flashlight. The beam was too weak to reveal much of the long corridor, creating deep, impenetrable shadows. Mulder made the light dance over what surface it could, finding nothing of interest until it hit the wall at the end.
The door on the right was closed. A light shone from around the frame and, as they edged closer, a shadow passed behind the door. Scully's sharp inhale was loud in his ear. Footsteps sounded from inside, heavy soles tapping against the floorboards. Aiming the flashlight at the door, Mulder wiped his palm on his jeans before reaching out shakily for the handle. Scully's fingers dug into his bicep; she was holding her breath nervously.
His fingertips made contact with the handle.
There was a loud bang from inside the room.
The flashlight died.
CONTINUED IN PART TWO
CONTINUED FROM PART ONE
They were immersed in total darkness. As they stood there in shock for several heartbeats, adrenaline surging through their bodies, Scully's rational mind tried to convince her the blackout was caused by unusual electromagnetic activity or a downed power line. Her racing pulse told her otherwise.
They were both still, unmoving, as if they were incredibly lifelike waxworks. They had been in the Hall for all of two minutes and already a cold sense of foreboding had crept under the skin. Scully's grip was ironclad on Mulder's arm. His breathing was quick and shallow, his palms sweaty. It was odd, standing so close together yet unable to see, and she was glad it was caused merely by a lack of light as opposed to actual blindness. Experiencing the latter once was more than enough.
"Is everything okay up there? I heard a noise." Susan's voice filtered up the staircase. Mulder's instincts kicked in amid the disorientation and he groped blindly for a solid surface, his hand coming to rest against the doorframe.
"Stay there, Susan. We're checking it out," he shouted back.
"Mulder," Scully hissed. "What the hell was that?"
"Don't know. One way to find out." Steadying his resolve, he yanked the door open in one swift movement.
The flashlight came back to life in his hand. Not daring to ask how or why, he did a quick survey of the room. Pale light filtered in through the closed windows. Nobody was there. The beam glossed over the cradle, the king-sized bed, the armoire, the fireplace, and swept along the skirting boards, paying special attention to the dark corners. Nothing.
Mulder took a hesitant step inside. There were so many shadows, so many places for someone to hide. He flicked the light switch a couple of times but the light didn't come on. The flashlight caught tiny shards of glass on the floor under the light fitting. He glanced back at Scully before advancing further. The floorboards creaked and he halted mid-step, eyes and ears alert for a minuscule giveaway of another's position: a cough, perhaps, or the movement of a shadow. He held his breath expectantly, could sense his partner's presence behind him, and they waited.
After a long ten seconds, he began to move again, climbing over the rope barrier carefully. Mulder slowly stalked over to the bed, pulling the covers back and crouching to shine the flashlight underneath the frame, finding only dust. Standing again, he headed to the armoire, steeling his nerve and tugging on the doors until they opened. The inside was empty. Although it seemed futile, he even dragged the drawers out and shone the light into the space they left. It was also empty.
Frustrated, he ran a hand through his hair. There weren't many more places somebody could hide. The room was a decent size but furniture was sparse, the majority of it not large enough for someone to hide behind or inside. He walked all around the room, pausing at random in the hopes of catching someone unaware. In the far corner, an invisible cobweb brushed against his cheek and he spun around quickly, the flashlight held out as if it was his gun, but there was nothing sinister about the insect's lair. He frowned, looking closer.
There was a crack in the ceiling.
It started right in the corner and inched away towards the centre of the room, as faint as a pencil mark someone had tried to erase. If the cobweb hadn't hit him he doubted he would have noticed it. Mulder craned his neck and followed the thin line as if it was the route to buried treasure. It stopped not far away from the bed and he climbed on it without qualms, ignoring Scully's warning about it being an antique, and traced his finger over the line carefully, applying a little more pressure when nothing moved.
"What are you doing?"
"There's a crack in the ceiling. I think it could lead to an attic or something."
"Mulder, wouldn't an attic opening have to be a square or rectangular shape to accommodate a body?"
"Yeah, probably," he said absently, "but maybe this leads to it. A weak spot."
He prodded and poked the same area for a couple of minutes before giving up and shining the light elsewhere. Clambering off the bed, he scanned the ceiling for other signs of potential hideaways and, upon finding everything to be in working order, bounced on the floorboards for good measure, mumbling a 'you never know' in Scully's direction. Disheartened, Mulder pressed his cheek flat against the wall next to the armoire and forced the beam to scrutinise the gap in between the furniture and the wall. It looked smooth but he tried to shift the cabinet just to be sure. It didn't budge. He concluded that if he couldn't move it quickly their supposed intruder couldn't have either; besides, there were no groove marks on the floor to suggest it had been shifted. Another dead end.
He rested his forehead against the wall briefly before heading back into the room. "There's nobody here, Scully."
"Are you sure?" she asked from the doorway.
"The most lifelike thing in this room is the doll in the crib," he replied, holding it up for good measure. "I checked everywhere; you saw."
"Did you try the windows?"
Mulder paused: had he? He'd been so intent on catching someone hiding inside the room that he hadn't thought they would be hanging from a ledge outside of it. It was a considerable drop to the flags below, too, but he ought to be thorough.
He placed the doll back under the blankets and strode over to the window opposite the door and looked out. There was no body lying outside the Hall and the stones didn't look disturbed from what he could see. He tried lifting the bottom frame but it held firm. Wiping his hands on his jeans, he tried again and got the same results. He muttered a curse under his breath and went for it once more, biceps straining with the effort. This thing's impossible, he thought, but then his eye caught a change in depth and an unnatural shine, and he ran his finger over it.
The windows were nailed shut.
He relayed the information to Scully. She stepped into the room, stopping at the barrier and folding her arms.
"It's not possible," she said lamely.
"You saw me nearly dislocate a shoulder trying to lift it," he said, hands on hips, "and there's no way a guy climbed out of there tonight. Those nails have been there for months, if not years, and they aren't budging."
"But what about the shadows? And the noises? Mulder, what about the bulb?"
He shrugged. "It burned out."
"Burned out?" she asked incredulously, eyebrows rising. "It looks like it exploded!"
"So it exploded."
She scoffed. "Bulbs don't just explode for no reason, and it's highly coincidental it did so just as we were about to enter the room. Did it ever occur to you that whoever was in here smashed it to aid his escape?"
"What escape?" he countered as he walked towards her. "There's no evidence anyone was just in here."
Scully stared at him in disbelief. She knew he could bend evidence to fit his theories sometimes but this was plain ridiculous. So they hadn't caught the intruder in the act; it didn't mean there wasn't one at all. It could be the same person who startled Susan by walking across the courtyard, and previous knowledge of Thurmere Hall and its layout would certainly account for the rapid disappearance just now.
"You saw the shadow. You heard the, the shoes, on the floor."
"Yes," he said calmly, crossing to her side of the rope barrier, "but I never said a person did it."
"Ah," she said blandly. "You think this was your resident ghost at work."
"I don't see what else it could be." He waited for her to walk out of the room before him, shutting the door securely once they had left. "There was no way somebody could have been in that room," he continued as they set off down the corridor. "I know we weren't particularly gung-ho about jumping in there but nobody was hiding, the windows were locked from the inside, and there's no other way out of that room than through the door we were standing on the other side of."
Please don't mention Tooms, she prayed as they began to descend the stairs.
"Anyway, did you hear a noise from inside after that bang?"
Scully thought back. "I don't think so," she said slowly, "but that doesn't mean there wasn't one. We were both scared and the sudden rush of adrenaline probably blocked out any sounds we would have normally heard."
"Come on, Scully, you don't believe that. You know as well as I do that adrenaline heightens the senses; it doesn't diminish them or render them useless. You're reaching," he said, shooting her a triumphant grin as they reached the bottom of the stairs where, funnily enough, the light was working perfectly well.
She remained tight-lipped. The lack of an explanation both she and Mulder could accept without qualms wasn't really surprising - when did they ever agree on such matters? - but the absence of a logical rationalisation for her to believe in was irritating, like when Mulder tapped his fingers against the arm of the couch when they were waiting for a meeting with Skinner. It was true that adrenaline would, in all likelihood, have allowed them to hear much better, and if it wasn't for the blood thundering in her ears at the time she would have ruled out another noise altogether. As it was, she was unsure of what had unfolded in the room upstairs: dark shadows passing by lit windows, mysterious noises, broken light bulbs...
And the night was still young.
The flashlight was safely tucked away in one of the pockets of his leather jacket but Mulder felt for it every couple of minutes, reassuringly patting his side as if scared it had disappeared although nobody had moved. He and Scully had caught up with a skittish Susan Dalton in the entrance hall and she had led them to an employee breakroom near the back of the house. It was big enough to house a small kitchenette, a dining table, a ratty old couch, and a handful of chairs, and Susan kept her hands busy by making coffee while Mulder and Scully sat and recounted their findings.
"You're sure there wasn't an intruder?" Susan asked, unconsciously pulling her cardigan tighter around her frame.
"I'm sure," Mulder replied. "I checked everywhere." Susan didn't look reassured.
"He did," Scully confirmed. "I watched him do it. He even looked under the bed."
"Well, if you say so..." She handed them both a cup of coffee before sitting down herself. "You really think we have ghosts here, Agent Mulder?"
Scully caught his eye but didn't say anything. Mulder glanced away; he had a pretty good idea what she was thinking anyway. Years of being partners and a couple of months sleeping together meant he knew her well enough to voice her thoughts when she refused to. There was the FBI's reputation to consider as well as their own, even if it wasn't strictly 'official' business. Besides, he didn't want to piss Scully off just as they were due to embark on their first vacation as a couple; he was pushing the limits by being here, after all, and he'd hoped she would be relaxed enough to briefly forget about all the horrors they had witnessed over the years. She deserved that much, at least.
He gazed at her, conveying meaning without words, before facing their host.
"Just Mulder, please, Susan," he said with a charming smile. "And I think it's possible there's something paranormal happening. I can't think of another explanation that fits right now."
"And a ghost could turn lights on, cast a shadow?"
"I believe so, yes," Mulder said carefully. Scully stayed quiet but he knew he had to tread wisely. "Poltergeists in particular are notorious for causing mayhem and mischief; they can move objects from one room to another, make noises, appear as apparitions or shadows. Some cause electronic equipment to malfunction. Some people report EMF - electromagnetic field - sickness or nausea when a poltergeist is present and investigators have confirmed high readouts of electromagnetism when a ghost has been known to be in the same room. They're usually harmless, like Casper, and the owners' main complaint tends to be that it's annoying more than frightening. The only real problem comes if it's a malevolent spirit. They're the ones you want to watch out for. They're likely to hurl things at you, do anything that results in destruction and harm."
Susan pulled at a loose thread on her sleeve and asked, "Is there one here?"
"I doubt that, Mrs Dalton," Scully cut in before Mulder could reply and issued damage control. "There's no evidence to suggest that."
Mulder shot Scully a look that said 'don't be so sure' but didn't press the issue. "Nobody's been hurt here lately, have they?" he enquired.
Susan shook her head. "I don't think so. There hasn't been a major incident for months; the last one I recall was Joanne King's boy falling down the stairs at a wedding. He broke his arm."
Numerous possibilities zipped through his mind and he could feel the excitement and anticipation build. There had been a murder in the kitchen with a candlestick or maybe someone had hung himself from one of the beams in the attic. Mulder was aware that such violence was substantial evidence of poltergeist activity and he itched to prove it to Scully, to give her something tangible she couldn't refute or explain away with scientific reasoning. The earliest scientists thought the Earth was flat; she thought his theories were harebrained and downright ludicrous. Even the brightest minds were wrong some of the time.
"The boy fell down the stairs?" Mulder asked, leaning forward in his chair. "Are you sure he fell? Could he have been pushed?"
"Oh, no, not at all. He was playing with some of the other children and he was running. He missed a step and went down. A roomful of people saw it."
Mulder begrudgingly gave her that one, falling back into his seat, the excitement leaving his body like air from a punctured balloon. He changed tack. "When did the hauntings start?"
"The first time I was properly aware of it was when I contacted you. I'd never really come across anything quite like that before."
Scully interrupted, "This is the woman in the courtyard?" Susan nodded. "I'd like to take a look once we're done here."
A woman cannot simply disappear, Scully thought firmly, several possible rationalisations coming to mind immediately. She thought she saw Mulder's lips quirk into a grin even though she didn't voice her beliefs aloud.
"Have there been any other indications of poltergeist activity? Anything strange going on? Our cab driver said a lot of people were spooked by this place."
"Agent Mulder, any building as old as Thurmere Hall is going to generate rumours of ghosts whether there's anything to suggest it or not," Susan said ruefully. "I used to think it was just fodder for stories told at sleepovers but I'm not so sure anymore. My keys kept going missing, every couple of days for two months, and I'd find them in the strangest of places, like in the fireplace in the entrance hall or one of the cups in a cabinet here. I thought I was being scatterbrained but now I don't know."
"It certainly sounds like something a poltergeist would do," he mused, "and that's it? There's nothing else you could attribute to a ghost?"
"I can't think of anything. Of course, I've heard the horror stories the kids tell, but I've never seen anything to give them credence. Well, I hadn't." Susan looked down at her coffee cup and fell silent. It was one thing to admit the existence of ghosts to yourself; it was another thing altogether to voice it, and to a couple of FBI agents at that. Derek, her husband, had encouraged her to contact some guy who wrote articles about the paranormal for Omni, that magazine Derek loved so much, and she had done so, but she never expected the man to work for the American government and she certainly never expected him to volunteer to spend the night at Thurmere Hall investigating. He seemed to believe everything she had told him and had been courteous enough to conduct a thorough check of the room upstairs, if what he and his partner said was true. He listened vigilantly and hadn't yet laughed in Susan's face; she thought that good enough.
The woman, Dana, was different; she was cautious and careful, and Susan sensed she wasn't too pleased to be at the Hall. She had checked her watch three times in the past fifteen minutes alone and kept gazing at Mulder (would 'glaring' be a better word? Susan mused), as if silently telling him to hurry up so they could get the hell out. Susan didn't understand why the redhead had bothered to come along if she was going to be miserable about it. It wasn't official FBI business, Agent Mulder had told Susan, so surely his partner could have stayed behind. Maybe she felt some kind of loyalty or duty to him.
Or maybe the term 'partner' was misleading. Susan saw Mulder shift in her peripheral vision and glanced up to find them looking at each other, so intensely focused she thought one or both of them might spontaneously combust. She'd heard of non-verbal communication but they were having a conversation with their eyes; nothing had been said aloud when Scully's eyebrow quirked and Mulder smiled softly, tilting his head to one side. He might have recited a sonnet or told her he loved her because suddenly her features softened and she gave an almost imperceptible nod, and it was over just like that. Mulder took a sip of his coffee and Scully looked at Susan, her features turning impassive when she realised she had been watched.
"Are we done here, Mulder? I'd like to take a look at that courtyard now."
"Sure, Scully. Is that okay with you, Susan?"
"Of course," she answered quickly, getting to her feet. "I just need to tidy up and lock the door behind us."
The agents glanced at each other for a split second before standing at the same time. Mulder drained his coffee and took both his and Scully's cups to the sink before joining his partner at the door. Susan turned on the tap and ran some water into the empty mugs, her back to the couple, praying she wouldn't turn around at an inopportune moment and find them mentally starring in their own production of Romeo and Juliet.
She coughed loudly before moving, plastering a smile onto her face. "All set."
They stepped out into the corridor as Susan turned off the lights and shut the door, locking it soundly. She noticed how Mulder's hand rested on the small of his partner's back and Susan quickly brushed past them to walk in front and lead the way. Their footfalls were brisk on the floorboards and the absence of any other noise was unsettling, although there was no reason for anything or anyone else to be making a sound. No clock chimed; no cat hissed as it scuttled into the darkness. The Hall thrummed with a nervous energy and it made Susan pick up the pace in an attempt to ignore her galloping heartbeat.
Unlocking the door at the end of the corridor, she held it open for the guests to pass through into the courtyard. Scully lifted the collar of her coat to ward off the chill; she had almost forgotten how cold it was outside and immediately longed for the heated interior of Thurmere Hall or, even better, the fire in the room Mulder had rented at the B
"I'm fine," he said, lowering his voice, "but you can always give me a full check-up later, Doc."
Scully felt herself blush despite the cold. "Maybe I'll hold you to it, Mulder," she murmured to his surprise and delight before taking a step away from him. Being so close inspired reactions inappropriate for work, especially in the presence of others.
Mulder cleared his throat. "Susan, can you show us where you saw the woman a couple of weeks ago?"
"Yes, certainly." She strode over to the building on Mulder's left and stood outside the door. "These were the servants' quarters when Thurmere Hall still belonged to the Charnockes," she explained. That accounted for the Tudor-esque facade, the brilliant white off- balanced by the dark half-timbering and prominent cross gables. The windowpanes were small and Mulder was fairly sure he would have to crouch if he had any hopes of getting through that door with his head still attached to his body. This place might have echoes of Sleepy Hollow but he didn't fancy becoming a horseman searching for his skull.
"She came from inside?" he asked, raising his voice to be heard above the wind.
"I'm not sure... I think so. The first time I saw her, she was around here." Susan took half a dozen steps away from the building, towards the centre of the courtyard, and stopped.
"Where were you at this point?"
She pointed to a window on the second floor of the Hall, behind Mulder. "The fourth one in from the left." Scully gave it a critical evaluation. The lamps framed all four sides of the courtyard, unobtrusively standing in corners and halfway along each wall, and they collectively offered a good view of the square, at least from the ground. Scully wasn't sure about how useful the lights would be two floors up but Susan was clearly visible from where she was currently standing. The glass looked a little dirty, as though some kind of moss or fungus was growing on it, but none of the other windows appeared any cleaner. It wasn't any better or worse than most of the others; the light would probably reach it and it afforded a decent view, being near the middle of the Hall.
"Alright," Mulder said, "and she was walking?"
"Yes, like this." Susan folded her hands in front of her chest and began to move across the courtyard, her pace steady yet unhurried, as if she was taking a stroll instead of rushing for a bus. "And she stopped here," she said when she reached the lamp in the middle of the building on the right, turning to face the agents.
Scully briskly made her way to Susan's side and perused her surroundings for an explanation. Susan insisted the woman she had seen had been directly under the light. It would take a couple of seconds to run to any other building and it would involve darting over flags almost fully illuminated by bright light. Susan had noticed some intricate details about the woman and she hadn't shown any indication of poor eyesight around the duo; she probably would have seen it if the woman had bolted.
Scully turned her focus to the building on the right hand side of the courtyard, the one she was standing perhaps two feet away from. It seemed the most modern, the brick not quite as discoloured and eroded, and a nearby window frame was still mainly white instead of the bleached, cream disfigurement of the rest of the Hall. The paint had only just begun to chip. She peered inside, shielding her eyes from the light above, and saw small metal tables with matching chairs stacked on top.
"What's this used for?" she asked.
"That's our tea room," Susan answered. "It's open four days a week and when the weather's nice we drag the chairs out here. There isn't much demand for it this time of year and not many people stop by Thurmere Hall in the winter, at least not long enough to stay for a drink."
Scully heard Mulder walk up behind her to join the conversation. She moved away from the glass. "Is this locked?"
Susan nodded. "From the inside. Has been since the middle of September. The temperatures dropped a lot after that and instead of opening windows we turned the heating on."
"The door's all the way over there." Mulder helpfully pointed to it. It was even further away from Thurmere Hall's main building and perhaps ten feet away from where they were currently standing. Scully cursed the slightly smug undertone present in Mulder's voice; just as she had ruled out the other buildings, he had eliminated this one.
"There's no other way into the building?" she asked.
"Not from the courtyard. There's a door around back in case of a fire or something but it's only been used in summer to let the air in." Susan sensed Scully's desire and need to account for what had happened. "That woman I saw just plain disappeared, Agent Scully. I didn't even blink and she was gone."
It negated standard quantum physics and Scully should know; she tackled Einstein's twin paradox for her senior thesis at university, but with Mulder a lot of scientific principles seemed to shoot right past without a lingering look back. She was his meteor shower and while she didn't want to cause the extinction of his otherworldly ideas, she would have liked to have made a few craters on the surface. She sometimes thought whatever she said bounced right off him without impact. He seemed happy to accept Susan's statement as fact.
"People don't just disappear," Scully said stubbornly, folding her arms.
"But ghosts do," Mulder supplied. She glared at him. "I'm just saying," he said, raising his hands playfully in surrender, "and given the clothes Susan described, it would make more sense."
"More sense than someone stealing them in order to pull a prank?"
Susan intervened. "I checked our costumes; nothing was missing."
Mulder shot Scully a triumphant look, his features highlighted by the light emitting from the bulbs on all sides. In that moment, he looked so boyish and at ease she almost forgave him for dragging her halfway across the world in the freezing cold to look for apparitions. Almost.
"You have a theory," Scully said to him instead.
"Based on what we've seen and heard, I think it's likely there are ghosts here. Susan, you described the state of dress of the woman you saw in your email; I did some research and it suggests she died around the turn of the seventeenth century, towards the end of the reign of Elizabeth the First and maybe even when James the First was King of England. That would fit with the timeline of the house being built-"
"Why is that important?" Susan interrupted.
"I think she lived here," Mulder said, stuffing his hands into the pockets of his jeans, "and that she also died here. I believe she's still here. What I don't know yet is why." He turned to Susan. "Which buildings were here in 1600?"
"Most of the Hall, although the east wing was added later, and the servants' quarters. We've tried to keep them as original as possible but several renovations have been done on each to make sure they don't collapse. It was the council's idea and since they paid to reinforce the beams and the like, we couldn't really argue. Besides, they employ us."
Mulder began to stride across the courtyard to the servants' quarters. Susan looked at Scully questioningly; the agent shrugged and muttered, 'he does that', before following him. Three pairs of shoes sounded brusquely against the uneven stone flags and Scully was once again glad for her sturdy boots and the lack of ice. A broken bone would really make the vacation complete.
Mulder suddenly raised a hand and stopped, causing Scully and Susan to freeze, and cocked his head to one side.
"Ssh." He listened intently for a few seconds. "Can you hear that?"
Scully concentrated and strained to hear above the predatory wind that wanted to rip her coat from her body. It was ferocious and loud, the enclosed area seeming to amplify the sound and intensity instead of offering protection from the elements, and she thought it must have been drowning anything else out. All Scully picked up on was the whistle of the wind as it whipped the brickwork and ruffled their jackets, nipping at exposed skin. She could sense Susan behind her, could see Mulder in front, and if they were half as cold as she was they should go back inside and warm up instead of standing stock still in the bitter chill outside.
Then she heard it.
Someone was playing a piano.
The notes were intermittent, carried not on a faint breeze but a gale that lashed out. The open door to the Hall worked to their advantage, the corridor beyond acting as a hollow tunnel to echo and waft the music into the cold, expectant air outside. Despite its lack of fluency it sounded familiar. Scully closed her eyes and blocked out the weather, small noises made by her companions, her thoughts, and focused purely on the music. It washed over her and engulfed her in the recognisable melody, and she could almost believe she was at home in the tub with the CD player on.
"It's Mozart," Scully called out. "Piano Concerto Twenty-One."
Upon her admittance of hearing something, Mulder spun on his heels and ran back towards the house with Scully and Susan in pursuit. He crashed through the door Susan had wedged open earlier, causing it to slam against the wall with a resounding bang, and shot off down the corridor, his face the picture of determination. It was growing louder, the Pied Piper's beckoning, and his long strides became a swift jog, a galloping run. He heard Scully call his name but he couldn't wait for them to catch up; the concerto was already climbing, nearing its climax, and he had to get there before it did and the pianist disappeared. Mulder pushed open a door to his left, staying in one place just long enough to see there was no piano before continuing down the corridor. Doors were thrust open on either side and still the music was playing, shouting his name, laying breadcrumbs in G Major. He could see the front doors up ahead, could see the end of the corridor merge into the beginnings of the large entrance hall, and when he got there he would have run out of rooms. The music was definitely coming from along this corridor.
Another door went flying into the plaster; Mulder ignored it and stormed to the next. His fingers closed around the handle and he jumped back as if shocked before grasping it firmly and pushing it open. The final few notes of Mozart's masterpiece hung in the air like chandeliers.
There was no smartly dressed pianist playing.
Scully came to a stop by Mulder's side, laying a hand on his arm and peering inside while catching her breath. Beyond the rope barrier, a grand piano sat proudly in the centre of the room, the rest of the furniture relegated to the sidelines. A couple of chairs with little padding sat stiffly by the fireplace, above which hung a portrait of a middle-aged man with a thin moustache who looked as though he had been trying not to grimace when being painted but had failed miserably. The long, tall window to the left of the fireplace, near the furthest corner, barely let in any light and was caressed by scarlet drapes which were tied to the walls with frayed and grubby gold tassels. Everything was dark and gloomy, not aided in the least by the sheer amount of wood: dark oak panelling, the same floorboards that were present throughout the house, wooden-backed chairs, a desk. The gold frame around the painting, as well as the colour on the canvas, was eye-catching but it was nothing compared to the ceiling.
Scully's inhalation was loud in his ear and Mulder could understand her sharp intake of breath; he too was impressed. It was exactly like the photograph they had seen at his apartment but it was more magnificent in the flesh, not least when compared to the drabness of the rest of the room. The ceiling was high and covered with modelled figures of the heavens, the undercutting of the plasterwork breathtaking. Cherubs watched over the room, eyes wide open but lips permanently sealed. They clung to wide leaves and luscious stalks, twisted vines and stems of roses forever in bloom. Mulder wondered how many secrets they had heard over the centuries, how many answers they might hold, and half-expected them to spring to life before his eyes as though he was in a Disney movie. The only berth they left was a wide circle in the middle of the ceiling for a light to hang down. Mulder suspected it had originally been candles instead of bulbs up there; if it wasn't for safety regulations and the need to keep up with new technologies, they would be there still.
Time hadn't completely stopped inside Thurmere Hall. Even so, Mulder wouldn't be surprised to find a buffet lined up in the dining room with a mouldy wedding cake and jilted bride, still bitter over a last-gasp rejection centuries old, toying with her Estella.
"What's this room used for?" Scully asked quietly.
Susan's voice came from behind the duo. "It's the drawing room. It was used for entertaining visitors and to give the owner of the house and his guests more privacy. The ceiling was added in the 1750s, the same time as the glass front of the Hall was rebuilt. That's Edward Charnocke in the portrait. He was the first to live here with his family once they had acquired the land off the Knights of St. John of Jerusalem in 1575. It took a further twenty-five years to build around the courtyard and bricks have been knocked down and put back up so many times between then and now that I lose count."
"I need to get closer," Mulder whispered automatically and then cleared his throat, speaking normally. "I have to see."
Susan nodded doubtfully. "Just be careful. We put those barriers there for a reason. Everything in there is authentic and expensive."
"Don't worry, Susan, I won't break anything," he promised. Scully raised an eyebrow. He grinned at her in acknowledgement before climbing over the rope and heading straight for the piano, his trusty flashlight already out of his pocket. He walked around the instrument, studying it from all angles cautiously as if he expected it to bite, a tuneful Venus Flytrap. He crouched to shine the beam underneath the case and over the pedals, soon getting to his feet again and leaning over the keys.
"Mulder, maybe it would be easier with the lights on," Scully said.
"You can try. Doesn't look like the intruder broke this one." She ignored the comment and flicked the switch, bathing the room in light. All three squinted at the brightness until their eyes adapted to the change; even now the room remained dreary. The light seemed to emphasise the oppressive melancholy of a room confined to history. Nobody would use the furniture for its true purpose. Instead, it was kept behind a rope barrier for visitors to gaze at as though it was an extinct butterfly in a glass case. There was an overall sadness to the place despite its relatively good upkeep; no amount of renovations could hide the joyless presence of Thurmere Hall.
Scully called to him, "Find anything?"
"Nothing but a fine layer of dust which says this part of the room hasn't been touched for a couple of days." He ran his index finger over the top of the piano and held it up even though Scully and Susan were too far away to see if it was dirty or not. "Ghosts don't leave prints."
Scully stalked over to where he was standing and examined the piano for herself. "Could it have been a recording?" she asked as she slid her fingers underneath the instrument's body.
"There's no tape recorder or CD player here, and there's no speaker system to pump noises through the house," Susan answered, hovering nervously behind the barrier. "I've never come across a recording of that piece of music in all my years working here."
Scully sighed and muttered to Mulder, "Please don't tell me you think Mozart's ghost was just serenading us."
A smile graced his face. "No, no. It's Oliver Cromwell who was supposed to have stayed here, not Mozart." He squeezed her shoulder as he passed, heading for the door, and she dutifully followed like she always would, no matter how many times she grew tired and told him otherwise. If she believed in past lives, she undoubtedly would have thought herself to have been a loyal canine that forever trotted at her master's side. And slept on the bed.
They stepped outside and waited as Susan locked the door, rifling through the thick band of keys she had clipped through a belt loop. The corridor's appearance was unremarkable, the walls covered with hundred-year-old wallpaper that should, by all accounts, have faded or peeled away long ago but which still stubbornly clung to the recesses. Scully found herself thinking of herself and Mulder in much the same way: were they adornments of an era, refusing to move from the comfort of their basement walls because they had been there so long, their quest for the truth the glue keeping them there? The 'I Want To Believe' poster doubled for the painting by an unknown artist, showing a gallant knight on horseback. Glancing up, she found the ceiling to be devoid of sharpened HB stalactites as well as fake angels and wreaths. Thurmere Hall wasn't a home anymore; it was a museum, parading antiques to the delight of historians, obediently opening its doors three hundred and sixty days of the year although precious few wandered inside. At least their basement office, with air conditioning that was constantly on the fritz and sunflower seed shells in every nook and cranny, was a comfort and a haven.
"Susan?" Mulder's voice filtered in through the fog of Scully's musings. "Why are you locking the door now?"
Scully glanced at the woman, who looked like a rabbit under interrogation. "I always lock up at the end of the day," Susan said slowly, tugging at the sleeve of her cardigan. The keys were still clutched tightly in one hand but a couple slipped loose and rattled against the doorframe like old bones.
"Yes. This floor and the next."
"Mulder, I really don't see where you're going with this," Scully interrupted.
"None of the doors along this corridor were locked when we came in from the courtyard. I opened every single one trying to find the source of the music," he said, "and I didn't struggle with any apart from this one. It felt like an electric shock when I touched the handle."
"But... but I locked them all this evening before you arrived!" Susan cried in disbelief. "I remember doing it!" Scully felt a pang of sympathy for the woman who had been nothing but courteous since they had arrived at Thurmere Hall. Being immersed in ghouls and goblins every day sometimes made Scully forget about those who were not used to serious, candid talk regarding paranormal phenomenon (or the lack of it). Susan Dalton was just a scared citizen looking for answers, wanting to know she wasn't alone in experiencing strange happenings and hearing things that go bump in the night.
"I'm not saying you neglected to do your job," Mulder said calmly. "I think somebody unlocked them afterwards."
"These keys have been with me all night, right here!" Susan held them up and pointed to her belt loop with the other hand, the clip still attached. A quick sleight of hand trick would probably be enough to pry them away from her yet both Susan and Mulder were convinced there was nobody else in the building. Scully acquiesced and agreed that the keys were likely to have been in Susan's possession for the entirety of the evening.
"Maybe they didn't use a key," Mulder thought aloud.
"Or maybe somebody else has a set of identical keys," Scully countered. Why did he always have to ignore the most logical explanation?
He argued, "There's no trace evidence to suggest anybody else has been in the house and the breakroom door was locked until we came along and Susan opened it. Nobody has been tracking our movements all night so they could sneak around and open doors at the right time to confuse us. Face it, Scully, whatever is going on here is highly unusual. Bulbs don't spontaneously explode; people can't just disappear. So what is going on?"
"A ghost," she said flatly, crossing her arms and glaring at him as she voiced what she knew he would be thinking. Mulder looked at her, a challenge in his eyes. "What purpose could a ghost possibly have in unlocking a bunch of doors to rooms that have seen better days?"
"I don't know." He shrugged. "That's what we're here to find out."
CONTINUED IN PART THREE
CONTINUED FROM PART TWO
They returned to the spacious entrance hall to use the computer at the reception desk. Susan and Mulder pored over the screen, occasionally henpecking at keys, and appeared thoroughly engrossed in the activity. Scully leaned against the wall for a few minutes, watching them and becoming lost in her thoughts. This is what it comes down to, she reflected, using well-earned frequent-flier miles to cross the Atlantic in a plane that was too similar to a rickshaw to make anyone feel safe. Indulging a worried woman's paranoia. Traipsing around a building that lived in the past and made money off history and hearsay.
She sighed. It was a far cry from the career in medicine she had been so enthusiastic about as a teenager but this... this still mattered. She helped people through her work. It was compelling and challenging and certainly different, and most of the time she enjoyed it. It was at times like this, when Mulder found facts in hunches and whims, that she grew tired. He hadn't changed since they'd started sleeping together. In truth, she hadn't expected him to, but she couldn't deny the thought had crossed her mind that he might not stray so far from the nest anymore. That hadn't panned out - of course it hadn't - and although she was a tad wistful at ignoring the road most travelled, she was pleased to see that Mulder was still Mulder and she was still Scully (when did she begin to define herself by comparison?). Only she smiled more now, and spent evenings and weekends being loved by the best of men.
If that meant devoting a night to ghostbusting, then so be it. They had the rest of the week to themselves to do with what they pleased, and she was sure they could reach some sort of compromise as to how to spend their time.
Scully wandered away from the desk, looking at other parts of the room. Mulder glanced up at her and offered a tentative half-grin; she smiled back reassuringly. She wasn't really mad at him. Of all the places he had dragged her to over the years, this was certainly one of the nicest. When he had said 'haunted house', she had pictured a ramshackle old building with overgrown weeds and a family cemetery round the back. The reality was much more pleasant, even if it wasn't the B
The slight heels of her shoes clacked against the stone flags as she wandered over to the far wall where a table stood, brochures and leaflets neatly stacked on its surface. Scully idly rifled through a couple: a Labour Party councillor trying to persuade people to vote for him at the next local election; deals at the leisure centre for half-price badminton courts and free swimming for the under-sixteens and over-sixties; a book club advertising for new members. When would she ever have the time to make it to a book club - or any kind of club - with consistent attendance when Mulder was prone to spontaneous cross-country (and international) trips? And she dared not let him go alone, not after the arguments, injuries, and subsequent days of uncomfortable silences they'd had upon returning from business undertaken single-handedly. Unless direct orders came from the upper echelons of the Bureau, requesting one to assist with a separate investigation, they went together or not at all.
Scully skirted the perimeter of the room, the walls wainscoted to at least nine feet, and cast her eye over the numerous paintings hanging in dull gold frames. She recognised Sir Francis Drake but had to read the inscriptions on the others: Muhammad the Second; Gabor Bethlen, Prince of Transylvania; King Charles surrounded by his family. Two family crests hung over the large fireplace, lions curving around glorious red and golden yellow shields like vicious parentheses. A high-backed wooden chair sat stiffly next to the staircase. Scully picked up the card lying on top and read: 'Sirloin Chair. James I, King of England, was sitting on this chair when he knighted a loin of beer, pronouncing it 'Sir Loin'. The chair was donated to Thurmere Hall in 1960.'
She smiled at the tale and tried to imagine what life had been like back then. Had the evening been jocular and the king in high spirits? Had he simply drank too much? There would have been raucous laughter at his proclamation, polite subjects humouring their ruler, and then they would have dug into a hearty meal. Scully fingered the edge of the card, wishing it could tell her more. Thurmere Hall may have contained the objects used all those years ago but it couldn't speak of the occasions in which they were used. It was sad, really, to be silenced for eternity.
Mulder called her name and she looked up, the spell of her reverie broken. "Did you find something?"
"How sure are you that the music we heard was Piano Concerto Twenty- One?" he asked.
"Almost certain. The wind was blowing pretty hard but it's a famous piece, quite easily recognisable."
"Huh," he muttered, leaning back in the chair and rubbing his jaw. "That's odd, because Mozart was alive between 1756 and 1791."
And I'm sure that handy little detail will come in useful when we're watching Jeopardy! on your couch, Mulder, so thanks for sharing. "... your point being?"
"The woman in the courtyard," he said slowly, "was described as wearing clothing popular in Elizabethan times. That was a hundred and fifty years before Mozart was even born."
"Ghosts can't learn to play new music once they're dead?" Scully shot back, raising an eyebrow.
"They can't adapt to changes in fashion, either." He smiled. "I think maybe the house is running on a loop. That's why we're getting the spread of the years: the woman from the 1600s, a Mozart concerto from the 1700s. Thurmere Hall has a memory, or maybe thousands of them, that got sucked into the structure and became a part of it before it could die and be lost forever. Hear me out," he said as Scully opened her mouth to protest. "It's called a residual or non- intelligent haunting. The same things happen over and over, like a song on repeat, and don't respond to the present environment, which would fit with the old clothes and lack of interaction. I don't know why these particular memories are being revealed to us, if they have some greater meaning or if they've been chosen at random, but something has possessed this place to store the data and play it back. I'm not sure what that could be yet."
Susan's frown matched Scully's. "It was only a week or two ago I saw the figure in the courtyard. How could it jump over a century in so short a time? And what about the noises from upstairs? When are they from?"
Mulder gave a helpless little shrug; his partner's lips quirked upwards in an amused smile. "I don't know how it could shoot ahead so fast. As for the noises upstairs, they must be somewhere in between our bookend years. We can't narrow it down much more than that; it was far too indistinct to pinpoint a certain time."
They all jumped when the front door rattled and banged within its frame, another howling gust of wind shaking the weaker extremities as if in a breezy snow globe. However, Thurmere Hall had proved itself to be sturdy since its conception, having survived two World Wars and numerous floods when the banks of the nearby river overflowed, and rationally such knowledge should have made them feel safer. Should have, but didn't.
"It's only the weather," Susan said nervously. "It's always the same this time of year."
"Uh huh," Mulder muttered absent-mindedly, eyes riveted to the door that had looked so strong and solid when he had first glimpsed it. Now, in the midst of being hammered by the angry gale, it looked only a matter of time before it started to splinter and snap, leaving the Hall wide open for anyone and anything to enter.
"Anyway," Scully said firmly, "back to your theory, Mulder." He could hear the air quotes. "What I don't understand is why a building would store memories, as you put it, and then play them back seemingly at random."
He tore his eyes away from the door and looked at her, remaining perched on the edge of his seat. "Most ghost hunters believe the majority of residual hauntings are produced by the strong thoughts created by people while living, and that they continue to exist in the atmosphere. They tend to occur in places built over quartz or limestone. It's more likely to be quartz because certain pressures can release minute electrical charges which could free the memory. It's a good transmitter, too. On the other hand, limestone's more organic. If organ tissue or bones somehow became a part of the rock, the memories could be stored that way. Maybe erosion leads to the liberation of the information. Do you happen to know what kind of rock Thurmere Hall's built upon, Susan?"
She wrung her hands. "No, I'm afraid not. Limestone's sedimentary though, right? The river's at the side of the house; could that somehow contain limestone?"
"I forgot about the river," Mulder confessed. "Research into residual hauntings also suggests the presence of running water nearby serves as a conduit. Most often it's when something is built on top of the water source but the river's so close I think it could still work."
"If that's the case, how do we stop the hauntings?" Susan asked.
"Wait a second," Scully interrupted. "I think we're all forgetting something. You've been talking about these residual hauntings, where everything's on a loop and there's no interference, correct?" Mulder nodded. "What about Susan's keys? And the light bulb? We have a corridor full of open doors that were previously locked. That doesn't sound particularly residual to me."
She had a point. "Manipulation of the physical environment does imply a poltergeist, as I suggested earlier," he said markedly. "Both theories are equally possible. A poltergeist would, however, explain everything that's happened here tonight: the lights, the sounds, the doors. It would also account for your keys going missing, Susan."
"But that was months ago!"
"It's still a sign of poltergeist activity," he argued. "If it was purely residual then it couldn't touch your keys. Everything else might still happen but it's the keys that are important, I think. Poltergeist activity centres around psychokinesis, the ability to move things with the mind. Researchers aren't sure if it comes from the people who live in or visit the building or from a troubled spirit. I've seen cases of both. The common theory is that poltergeist hauntings centre around adolescent girls, like in Carrie, and the surge of hormones at puberty provides the spirit with enough energy to move objects and create chaos."
"Sorry to point out one huge flaw with your theory applying here, Mulder, but none of us are pubescent," Scully said wryly, "and yet we've witnessed some unusual goings-on tonight."
Mulder bit his bottom lip, momentarily crestfallen. Scully was right, of course, and the tone of her voice implied she had taken great pleasure in revealing the gaping hole in what he thought to be an otherwise-solid conviction. Her intruder hypothesis seemed to have dropped off the map; at least she was going along with his ghost theory now. The cab driver had been right in saying there was something strange about the Hall; Mulder felt it too, the unease as loyal a companion as his shadow, but it wasn't strong enough to call off the hunt.
He opened his mouth to throw a glib remark back at Scully but something thudded against the door before he could speak. Peripherally, he saw his partner reach for the gun that wasn't there, fumbling at the space by her hip. Susan was frozen to the spot, eyes wide. He rushed out from his place behind the desk and raced to the door, yanking the handle.
"Dammit!" he cursed. "The keys." He held out his hand to Susan, who stared blankly at him. "The keys, Susan! I need to unlock the door!"
She snapped into action, unclipping the ring from her belt and rifling through the set of keys with quivering fingers, selecting one and holding it out to Mulder. Her hand was shaking so much the other keys jangled together with tuneful metallic clinks reminiscent of wind chimes. He grabbed it from her and shoved the key in the lock, surprised when it rotated smoothly. He was already turning the handle before he thought to grab something to use as a weapon - who knew what was on the other side? - but it was too late; the door was opening, and there was-
There was nobody standing there. Brow furrowed, Mulder ran outside and scanned the darkness for the culprit. Pulling out the ever- present flashlight from his pocket and flicking it on, he jogged to the front of the tower on his right, beyond which lay the walkway and parking lot. It was too dark to see anything and he couldn't hear the crunch of stones indicative of another person fleeing the scene. All the same, he hurried to the other side of the front wall just to be sure. The flashlight beam fractured upon hitting the water of the river. There were no footprints along the muddy bank.
When he returned, Susan was smoking a cigarette in the doorway. Scully was crouching a few yards away, looking intently at something on the ground in the poor light. He kneeled beside her and shone the flashlight near her feet. The beam revealed a dead sparrow, its skull crushed and feathers matted with blood. Leaning close together, their breath mingled as they conducted an examination of the bird.
"Looks like it flew right into the door," Scully murmured, attention still on the corpse. She didn't want to touch it without gloves so had to settle for observations only. "Probably died on impact."
"What would cause a bird to hit something instead of fly around it?"
"I'm a pathologist, Mulder, not a vet or a zoologist. This kind of thing just happens sometimes." She shrugged it off. "Haven't you ever had a bird fly into your window?"
"I never noticed," he said, "but don't you think it's odd this would happen right here, at Thurmere Hall? You have to admit there's something weird going on, Scully."
"When is there not something weird going on around you, Mulder?" she replied with a rueful smile, standing and rubbing the back of her neck with a grimace. He too got to his feet, his hand coming to rest on the small of her back.
"Are you okay?" he asked, concern evident in his voice.
"Okay," he said, so quietly she turned to look up at him. He faked a smile but she could see the lack of belief in his eyes. 'I'm fine' hadn't cut it since the days of her cancer, when he could clearly see she was anything but, and his dislike of the phrase had only seemed to grow in strength every time she uttered it. It was a Pavlovian response, his sudden rush of simmering anger upon hearing the words, and she tried to curb their frequency to make him happy. It had just slipped out this time like a recorded message.
She glanced at the doorway to find Susan had gone back inside the Hall after finishing her cigarette and, once satisfied they were alone for now, Scully laid a hand on Mulder's cheek and forced him to make eye contact.
"It's only a crick from bending to inspect the bird," she said firmly. "It'll go away in a few minutes. There is absolutely nothing else wrong, okay?"
"Are you sure?" Mulder asked softly. "I know you don't really want to be here. We can leave if you want."
"And miss out on an opportunity to prove you wrong?" she teased. "I don't think so."
He grinned at that and chuffed, and she was pleased to see the familiar twinkle back in his eyes, a comforting constellation. Scully smiled back and didn't pull away when he leaned in and pressed his lips to hers. They were cold but she soon ignored it as he slanted his mouth over hers again and again. Normally they would refrain from such contact when working but it wasn't an official FBI case, they were thousands of miles away from home, and the only other person in the vicinity was busy elsewhere. Besides, they would hear her heels on the floor if she began to move. It was also cold, dammit, and he was so warm. Throwing caution to the hungry wind, she allowed the kiss to continue for a brief moment, reaffirming her connection to Mulder and his to her, before reluctantly breaking the touch of his lips against her own.
"We should get back inside," she murmured, pulling the collar of his leather jacket up around his neck to ward off the chill.
He pulled her into his arms instead, enveloping her in his warmth. "In a minute."
"Mulder, it's freezing out here!" she protested, yet made no effort to move.
"We've been in colder places than this," he reminded her, "and came out relatively unscathed." He allowed the relative quiet to reign for a few moments before leaning in to whisper, "Thank you for being here with me."
She held him tighter and closed her eyes to ward off the onslaught of emotion at his heartfelt statement. It wasn't fair of him to use her devotion to his advantage; he knew perfectly well she would be at his side in almost any situation, and taking the time to actually thank her for it, although he did mean it, was a ploy to make sure she wasn't mad at him. As it was, she was as curious about Thurmere Hall as he, even though she didn't subscribe to his ghost theory. There was a more earthly explanation, she was sure of it, but if he was happy to chase after something that didn't exist then she would humour him. It was only for one night this time and she didn't have to work the following day, and there was little harm in a late night in an English Manor House.
Scully pulled back and murmured, "Come on, before you freeze to death."
He smiled fondly at her before they set off back to the Hall. The wind had died down considerably, taking some of the biting chill away, yet the temperature still hovered just above zero, threatening ice if not snow. The sky was clear but for the odd star; it seemed even clouds dared not tread near Thurmere Hall.
Mere paces away from the door, something whizzed past Mulder's ear, missing him by millimetres, and crashed into one of the pillars holding up a stone lion.
"What the hell was-"
Another flew past, and then another, and then there were so many noises he couldn't keep track of them all but at some point Scully grabbed his hand and pulled him inside, slamming the door shut. The harmony of sickening thuds continued, seeming to echo and multiply in the vastness of the room, and Mulder took an involuntary step back from the entrance. Somewhere a window broke and the sound of shattering glass filtered in from another room. The cacophony of destruction was almost unbearable, as loud as a pneumatic drill yet all the more terrifying because it was unpredictable; would the next one knock the door clean off its hinges?
And, just as soon as they started, the noises stopped.
All that remained was heavy breathing from the agitated occupants, who all looked at each other with dazed expressions. "What was that?" Mulder finally croaked.
"It sounded just like before," Susan whispered, "except a hundred times more powerful."
Scully agreed with that. The first noise moments ago had been scary enough; this was more like an onslaught, a battle cry. "Better open the door and find out what happened," she said. "We can't ignore it."
Mulder nodded. He took a deep breath and Scully noticed his hand was shaking as he reached for the handle and slowly pulled the door open. The ground was littered with dead birds, feathery carcasses spread like a blanket over the flags and loose stones. The exterior wall was riddled with dark red splotches that at first reminded him of nosebleeds and stained tissues, of a time when worry was his constant companion, but he steered away from those memories and focused instead on the carpet of tiny corpses. "Anybody here a Hitchcock fan?" he questioned nervously.
Scully surveyed the scene before crouching yet again to inspect the birds. "Yeah, but these are all dead, not attacking. Susan," she asked over her shoulder, "do you have a pair of latex gloves anywhere? The kind you use for washing dishes, anything like that?"
"I think there's a pair in the breakroom. I'll have a look for you." Susan scurried off down the corridor full of unlocked doors. They listened until the rapid tattoo of her heels faded to a faint pulse.
"They're all dead?" Mulder whispered, his voice harsh in the cavernous entrance hall. "What could cause that?"
"Bear in mind my knowledge of bird physiology is limited, but other than a shift in the magnetic poles I can't think of anything that would lead to something like this. Most of these birds should have migrated by now."
"I don't remember seeing a single one since we arrived at the parking lot," Mulder commented.
Scully admitted, "Me either." That in itself wasn't odd; after all, she had just assumed they had flown south for the winter. But when coupled with an assault like a scene straight out of The Birds it begged several questions, none of which had clear answers. "Where did they come from? Are they nesting in the roof?"
"Would you choose this place to live? I don't think any breathing creature wants to be near here."
"Apart from us."
"Thanks for being inclusive." He quirked his lips in appreciation. "One bird flying into the building I could understand, but an entire army of them? It doesn't make sense."
Scully could agree with that. If it was just the windows that had been hit, it would account for something; birds often fly into glass. But that only happened during the day and it was pitch black outside now, as it should be at past midnight. The moon was out there somewhere but it seemed to have been swallowed up by the night. Could mass hysteria present itself in avian bodies? Were they so consumed by fear of something unknown in the darkness that they lost their ability to navigate? An involuntary chill ran up her spine; didn't that mean someone was walking over her grave?
Susan's footsteps were increasing in volume and Scully half-turned to greet her, accepting the gloves proffered without a word. Susan and Mulder hovered over her shoulder like nervous parents as Scully slipped the gloves on and carefully dislodged a bird from its resting place. Its body was limp and still warm in her hands, the beady eye open and boring a hole into the heavens, and she lifted it this way and that in an attempt to notice anything out of the ordinary. It was just a bird, albeit one with its skull crushed. The three others she visually examined were the same and she relayed her findings to the expectant observers.
"So what happened?" Susan asked. "Could it be a disease?"
Scully stood, stripping off the gloves. "Maybe, although I can't immediately think of one that would have a sudden onset in hundreds of birds like this."
"I read a report once on birds dropping out of the sky in New Zealand," Mulder said, "and the investigation concluded that there were extremely high amounts of lead and nickel in the water, over one hundred and thirty times the recommended health levels. Over four thousand birds died of lead poisoning in the course of seven months."
"The river?" Scully asked.
He nodded. "That's what I'm thinking. Has the water content ever been tested, Susan?"
"I think the council checked it years ago but it isn't used for drinking or bathing so nobody really cares. We look to make sure people aren't dumping waste in it but we're only here eight hours a day and there aren't any security cameras."
"Still, Mulder," Scully said in slight protest of accepting the theory so quickly, "it would have to be ridiculously high for all these birds to die at once. Prolonged exposure would have too many variables for something like this to happen. You said it yourself: four thousand birds over seven months. We must have at least two hundred here and it happened in the space of minutes. It was a bombardment. They didn't drop; they fired into the wall."
"Maybe they just missed their target," Mulder mused.
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"Maybe they were aiming for us; you saw how close one came to hitting me. What if they weren't directionless? What if they really were attacking, like in The Birds?"
"Attacking?" Scully asked incredulously, both eyebrows raised.
"Birds are common features in many cultures and belief systems, often associated with life and death." She felt a lecture coming on. "The Ancient Egyptians built their tombs with narrow shafts so the ba, the soul, could fly out in the form of a bird after death. Most religions believe birds take souls to where they need to be, such as doves in Christianity and Judaism. There's a restless soul in this building and they've come to retrieve it."
"I think we disturbed it by poking around tonight," he said without a hint of jocularity.
Scully held her tongue when he mentioned 'we'; he had been the one climbing all over antique beds and shoving ancient armoires. It wasn't worth getting into a fight over. But a spirit released because of a few pokes and prods? Now that she could argue with.
"Mulder, people have been in this house for centuries. Surely something would have manifested itself before now."
He fixed his gaze, eyes so intensely focused on her she almost forgot Susan was standing only a few feet away, listening. "Who says it hasn't?"
The old heater next to the wall gurgled and burped as it strained to warm the large room. Mulder seemed unaffected by the temperature and the noise, busy henpecking at the computer keyboard and squinting at the monitor with a furrowed brow. Scully and Susan had been designated the task of looking through the incident books. The most recent lay on the desk; the older ones were stored in a cabinet behind it, and they had dragged them out and stacked them in piles on the floor and the tables Susan had procured from a storage cupboard. Pouring over musty pages covered with scrawling, barely-legible handwriting, Scully rubbed at her eyes to stop the words merging into a swirling vortex again, rereading an entry for the third time because her brain just couldn't comprehend the meaning behind it. When was the last time she had slept? It felt like days ago, and maybe it was. How many hours behind was D.C., anyway?
With every page turned, she felt more and more certain that she was wasting her time. Not many people got hurt at Thurmere Hall - the entries were sporadic at best, often going weeks without something new - and that in itself should have indicated to Mulder that there was no ghoul intent on causing harm. Having relayed that thought to him twice now and having received the same insistent reply of there being something important in those books, Scully gave up trying to convince him otherwise and left him to churn through the thousands of results Google had coughed up.
But now her eyelids were drooping and she wasn't processing correctly. She needed a decent night's sleep - dozing on a plane didn't count - or a shot of pure caffeine to jolt her nerves into working again. Scully felt certain she had pulled longer hours as a med student and probably even as an FBI agent on the X-Files, but factor in a long flight and the adrenaline wearing off from being scared out of her wits (at least twice) and she was bound to crash sooner or later. Looking at Mulder, she could tell he had lost some of his initial enthusiasm. He was slouching in his seat, head propped up on his hand, and if it wasn't for the occasional mouse click she would have thought him asleep with his eyes open. Susan was still diligently probing the records, slowly enough for Scully to believe she was carefully reading each one instead of merely scanning it, and it appeared as though nothing would distract her from her task.
Scully stretched and held a hand over her mouth to contain a yawn that yearned to escape. The portraits on the wall at the other side of the room glared at her disapprovingly. No time to sleep, not when Mulder thought there was paranormal activity going on and she had an opportunity to prove him wrong, or at least dissuade him from whatever madcap theory he was currently fixated on. He had mentioned so many, she wasn't quite sure which was his favourite.
A coat of dead birds apparently meant the creatures were escorts to Heaven or Hell, coming to collect the troubled being that had plagued Thurmere Hall for centuries. Scully had several issues with said theory but the main one was that the Hall had no more accident-prone visitors than any other Manor House. The record books dated back to 1922, when the building was gifted to the public, and Mulder thought there would be a major event within the first few months. Scully had started there, prying open the journal and dutifully paying attention to the faded letters, but it became apparent that nothing more serious than a sprained ankle had been suffered. The last time she checked, ten minutes ago, she was working her way through 1943 - Susan had begun with the most recent and worked backwards - but even the war yielded little.
Her spine felt stiff and when she stretched it creaked like the floorboards upstairs. The heater was still making some rather worrying noises but Mulder's cheeks were looking a little rosy so it must have been producing some heat. She was sat too far away to feel the direct benefits, the cold wood and stone enveloping her instead, and her coat didn't feel like it was helping much. Her chair scraped unnecessarily loudly against the floor as she pushed back and headed for the heater next to Mulder.
"You got something?" he asked absently as she approached.
Scully pressed her hands to the heater, pleased when her fingers registered the warmth and the numbness dissipated. She was still tired and a tad cranky but the heat was a step up. "Nothing that would interest you. Or me, for that matter." When he didn't respond, she enquired, "Are the wonders of modern technology aiding your investigation?"
"I'm getting ready to throw this damn thing out the window," he replied, sighing. "The problem with the Internet isn't a lack of information; there's just too much of it. And a lot of it's useless. There are pages full of Thurmere Hall's history but no mention of illnesses or deaths or fires. It's all so... clean."
She turned to face him fully, leaning against the heater to take advantage while she was there. "Why don't you just accept that nothing untoward has gone on here?"
"Because that would mean the troubled souls the birds were here for are us," he said blankly, "and I can't accept that." Scully wanted to reach out and take him in her arms, reassure him she wasn't going anywhere, and then chide him for believing something so extraordinary and whimsical. But that was what made him Mulder and she couldn't stop his insecurities from manifesting in theories about the paranormal because that was what he always did, even before they started sleeping together. She thought back to one Christmas Eve spent in a house not too dissimilar to this and hoped the experience this time around would not involve weapons of any kind.
Mulder coughed and shifted uncomfortably to alleviate the silence, bringing Scully's focus back to the present. "Besides," he said easily, "plenty of controversial issues go unreported. Doesn't mean they didn't happen."
She briefly saw red. "So why am I wading through incident reports if what you're looking for isn't in there?" she hissed. "Am I completely wasting my time here, Mulder? Are you just keeping me occupied so you can do the actual work?"
He looked startled at her outburst and his mouth opened and closed several times without a noise coming from it. Running a hand through his hair in frustration and nervousness, he saw she was waiting expectantly for an answer, arms crossed and eyes glaring. "I don't know what to tell you," he whispered back, aware of Susan nearby and the quietness of the room (which probably meant she could hear them anyway). "If you don't want to be here-"
"Would you stop! I have told you countless times that I have no problem with us being here, but as long as we are, I need to know I'm doing something productive."
"Of course you are," he protested. "Any death or major injury in those books could indicate a presence trying to make itself known. You don't get far with rearranging furniture." Mulder had hoped that would make Scully smile but her face remained passive. "I know you don't believe in ghosts, and I know you'd rather be asleep at that B
She pulled back the sleeve of her jacket to check. "Ten thirteen, according to my watch." Mulder held out his wrist: his watch showed the same time, the second hand unmoving. Scully double-checked hers and saw it was in the same condition. "Mine must have stopped too," she said.
"Huh; the clock on the computer doesn't work either," he uttered, raising an eyebrow. "That's a bit odd, don't you think? The odds must be a million to one for both our watches to stop at exactly the same time. All right, we'll give it until dawn and then we go, regardless of anything we might have found. Please," he added upon seeing the look on her face.
Scully sighed in resignation. She both loved and hated how well he knew her; Mulder saying 'please' and appealing to her sense of reason was almost guaranteed to make her do anything for him. He was aware of that. She knew he knew. He knew she knew he knew, and he didn't care. If she really didn't want to do something, she would say no and he would back off.
"Just until dawn," she said firmly, and stalked away from him.
He caught her hand as she slipped past. "I'll make it up to you," he murmured in that soft tone she liked, his thumb circling her palm. She nodded curtly at him and moved back to the pile of record books but Mulder caught the faint blush on her cheeks and the acknowledgement in her eyes; the gauntlet had been laid. He fought to keep the grin from his face as he turned back to the computer.
Susan didn't so much as look up from the page as Scully took her seat again, for which she was grateful. Over the years she had become an expert in fielding questions on her relationship with Mulder, truthfully denying any romantic involvement when others insisted they were more than friends, and now they were lovers she felt uncomfortable lying to anyone about it. She wasn't embarrassed by him, had grown used to his quirks and accepted them, and where most just found him odd she thought him endearing.
That said, their relationship was private and nobody else needed to know any details; they still didn't know if their enemies were keeping an ear out or if they even cared anymore. They had both been cautious at first, convinced after that first night everybody would know somehow and they would be immediately separated. When nothing happened after a month, they dropped their guards a little and learned to enjoy their new relationship, until the time came when it was second-nature to spend the night in the other's bed without fear of repercussions.
A bed sounded really nice, Scully thought wistfully. She'd rub her cold feet against Mulder's shins in retaliation for the side-trip to Thurmere Hall and he'd have no choice but to take it like a man. Then he'd wrap himself around her, making sure there was no place left on her body that was cold, and they'd both fall into a sleep devoid of big old houses and dead birds. But none of that could happen until dawn and she might as well do something in the meantime, even if she did think it useless.
Susan tossed her book to one side and grabbed another from the large pile. Scully glanced down at the blotted pages in front of her and resigned herself to spidery handwriting and insignificant data. Jane Gribbs grazed both knees when she tripped and fell on the stone floor in April 1947. John Liptrott, gardener, sliced his thumb off when trimming the hedges in November of the same year. Everything had a very logical, albeit unwritten, explanation. She almost wanted something to have occurred just to make the mountainous stack before her seem more interesting.
The rest of the Forties and the entirety of the Fifties flew by in the space of half an hour; the books were exceptionally quiet. Had nobody visited the Hall then or was there just a lull in everyday accidents? Scully mentally filed the data away for future reference and picked up another book from the gradually decreasing stack.
It was the same old story until just over halfway through, when she turned the page and began to read, something catching her eye: a parched scrap against the spine. "There's a page missing."
Both Mulder and Susan looked up but it was Mulder who spoke. "Missing?"
"Torn out," Scully replied. "You can see it." She slid the book over to Susan, who examined it and nodded in confirmation.
"Nice catch," Mulder complimented. "Which dates surround it?"
Scully checked the pages. "April and July, both 1963."
"Want to bet something big happened between then? Susan, was there building work going on at that time?"
"I can't recall anything outright. The final building, what's now the tea room, was completed in 1825 and then nothing was touched until the mid-1920s," Susan explained. "As I understand it, that's when a couple of the bedrooms upstairs with little historical significance were converted into memorial rooms for the men who died during the First World War. All their names are listed on the walls and there are a couple of display cases containing artefacts, a miniature of Charnley at the time, things like that."
Converted bedrooms? Mulder's ears pricked upon hearing those two words. A change as big as that would surely rattle an age-old inhabitant, perhaps one lying dormant for decades like a volcano, the building work serving as a trigger to bring a spirit erupting out of hibernation. Of course, one would expect all kinds of disasters to occur in the weeks following the renovations but Scully had claimed the record books detailed nothing suspicious. And now a page was torn out from twenty years after the work had been completed. Mulder felt certain this was what they had been looking for, the fact that it was missing only serving to reduce his doubt even more. They needed that page.
He started pacing to alleviate the sudden rush of energy. "Something happened in 1963," he began, "something bigger than the renovations that came before. Whatever it was, the spirit didn't like it, and since then it's been roaming the hallways, trying to find peace, maybe, or exact revenge."
"What were those dates again?" Susan asked suddenly, leaning over even as Scully read them out. "Agent Mulder, Thurmere Hall was inexplicably closed between April and July 1963. It's always struck me as odd that there's no public record of what happened at the time. Nobody stays in Charnley very long so I haven't been able to find anybody who lived nearby then. I've asked councillors but nobody seems to know why the Hall was shut."
"Or they do know but don't want it made known," Scully suggested. "Someone from the council must have had an idea, even if they didn't authorise it. Thurmere Hall belonged to the people of Charnley from 1922 onwards, correct? But it was run by the council?" Susan nodded. "Then someone from the local government had to have given the order. Nobody else could have closed it."
Mulder smiled ruefully. "Another government conspiracy. Alright, I think we have to assume we've found the right time. Now where do we look? The page is missing from the books, there's no public record, and nobody wants to help us."
"You could try a different search on the internet," Scully suggested. "If you include the months and the year alongside the name, maybe we'll get lucky."
There were no objections so Mulder returned to the computer and hammered out the information, the bewildered look on his face saying it all as the results came up. He clicked a few links to verify their uselessness before pushing the mouse away and looking over at the two women helplessly.
"The library," Susan said with dawning realisation. "They have copies of all the local newspapers going back decades. A friend of mine works there and she said they were undertaking a huge project to put all the papers and microfilm onto their website so we could access them for free without going into town. If there was a note in one of the papers, it should be on the site."
Mulder, fuelled by a new purpose, was on the page before Susan had finished speaking, navigating the maze of links. "I need a library card number to see the articles," he groaned.
"I have a card in my purse," Susan said. "Give me two minutes; my bag's in the breakroom." She hurried away.
Scully yawned and rested her head in her hands. She could hear Mulder drumming his fingers against the desk and anyone else may have interpreted it as impatience but she knew he just needed to keep busy; where she was content to take a break for a couple of minutes, he couldn't feel as though he was doing nothing. Scully was surprised he hadn't started a conversation already instead of staring at the screen. The silence was palpable and the atmosphere heavy with anticipation, yet she welcomed it; it was better than the staleness that had reigned before. At least now they were getting somewhere.
Susan returned with the library card clenched in her fist, proffered like a gift. She read out the numbers as Mulder typed, leaning over his shoulder once the access screen disappeared and directing him to the right area.
"It's still in the early stages," she apologised, "so it might make finding it difficult, but everything's supposed to be online now. It's only the organisation that needs some work."
"Thank you, Susan," Mulder said gratefully. "Here's 1960... it can't be much further away."
Scully looked on with weary interest. Mulder and Susan were watching the monitor with rapt attention, both pairs of eyes scanning the images and text Mulder was scrolling through for the keywords. As the clicking slowed, Scully dragged herself to her feet and joined them behind the desk, arms crossed as her gaze settled on the black and white print of old articles.
"Found April," Mulder said, tilting his head to look back at Scully, almost like a puppy after a reward.
"Take it back to March," she suggested. "If Thurmere Hall was closed in April, the notification, if there was one, should have been in the March news."
He did as told and the trio unconsciously leaned closer to the screen as if pulled by invisible string. They read through the first week, the second, and as they neared the end of the third, Scully was beginning to feel they had made a mistake until Susan pointed excitedly at the screen with a cry: "That's it!"
And indeed it was. They gazed at the small column of text as if it the Holy Grail itself was laid out before them. All that is gold does not glisten: the print was a little rough and faded in places but still legible. They devoured it hungrily; after knowing very little all night, this was a lifeboat to cling to, if not a perfect answer then at least a clue to propel them forwards. Scully for one was tired of being in stasis.
"An archaeological dig!" Mulder wanted to rub his hands together in glee. "This is fantastic!"
She had to smile at the exhilaration in his eyes as he looked up at her, awaiting her reaction. He suddenly looked ten years younger. "It's certainly something," she responded in agreement. "But how could something as big as an excavation be kept quiet for so long? Even Susan didn't know about it."
"I only knew the Hall was closed for a couple of months; I didn't know why," Susan reiterated, "and nobody else was willing to discuss it with me."
Mulder tugged at his lower lip. "Put shadowy archaeology together with a page torn out of a record book marking accidents and incidents: what do you get?"
He lapsed into silence and Scully wasn't sure if the question was rhetorical or not; she thought about mentioning Indiana Jones just to see his reaction. "Something happened during the excavation," she hedged instead, "and someone, maybe an employee here, made a note of it. It disgruntled the powers that be or the members of the archaeological team and the page was torn out of the book."
Susan was nodding but Mulder's lips were pursed. "So what happened that would be important enough or controversial enough for someone to prevent others knowing about? Could someone have died here?"
Before either woman could reply, a deafening noise like cannon fire exploded from upstairs, just the once, but it was loud enough and unexpected enough to cause three hearts to dent ribcages and Mulder to leap from his seat. There was no echo to be heard, as though a bowling ball had been dropped opposed to a basketball, and the resulting quiet made one doubt it had happened at all. But although there was no ringing in her ears, Scully knew what she had heard was real, and after risking glances at both Mulder and Susan she knew they knew, too.
She began marching to the stairs, not waiting to see if they would follow her. No sooner had she reached the curve halfway up did she hear Mulder's thunderous steps behind her, drowning out Susan's more delicate touch. They hurried to keep up with her as she paced like a drill sergeant past Spinola and Columbus, the portraits still hanging as before, eyes staring straight ahead yet following, following.
Scully headed for the room at the end of the corridor as surely as there was a target painted on it and neon signs pointing to the door. It was fitting that all roads led to Rome; the strangest of things seemed to go on in this room - Houdini's room, if earlier events were to be believed - and even though the entire estate radiated and pulsed with an extraordinary tension, it was here the curiosity could not be contained and the pull was strongest, like some unseen magnet was tugging at the iron in their blood and the fillings in their teeth, the implant at the back of her neck. Perhaps it was a shared hysteria - but Mulder and Susan hadn't caught up with her when the baby started crying.
They weren't the meek sounds accompanying a few tears; this was a full-blown wail, the middle of a temper tantrum, and it sent a chill racing down Scully's spine. Humans are biologically predisposed to respond to an infant's cries but this was so ear splitting they would have done anything to make it go away. Mulder broke into a jog and pulled ahead of Scully as they neared the door with a sense of urgency like no other. One easy push and the door swung open. The cries grew louder.
The trio piled inside and Mulder immediately climbed over the rope barrier, searching for the source of the noise. There was no actual baby in the room, of that he was certain, but something had to be making such a racket and he was going to find it this time. The bedcovers were thrown back, the armoire doors yanked open so suddenly they nearly fell off their hinges, and the crib was empty save for that doll with plastic lips sealed shut in secrecy. He picked it up and held it to his ear in case it had a mechanism built in but it wasn't the source of the screeching. Susan shouted to him but he could barely hear her over the incessant cries of a troubled infant.
"What?" he yelled back, taking a step closer to the rope where she remained with Scully. Neither expressed much desire to get closer to the noise.
"The cot!" she screamed. Her next few words were unintelligible.
At his confused look, Scully elaborated. "There's an audio player taped to the underside of the crib!" she bellowed. "It's on a timer during the day to add to the authenticity of the experience for visitors; turn it off!"
Mulder turned back to the crib and got down on his hands and knees, peering underneath the wooden frame and setting eyes on the black box. He tugged at it until it came away from the body, a few splinters peppering the floor, and he quickly scanned it for the 'stop' button to turn off the offending din.
"One problem!" he shouted, getting to his feet. "The tape isn't playing!"
CONTINUED IN PART FOUR
CONTINUED FROM PART THREE
Scully snatched the device from Mulder's hands and examined it as if it was a bomb, even though it was perfectly clear the wheels weren't turning and the tape was stationary. Turning it over, she pulled the batteries out hastily, hoping against hope that the noise would stop once there was no power source to a machine that wasn't emitting. The wailing remained constant even as the batteries went into her pocket.
It was getting under Mulder's skin, the constant crying of a child, and the hairs on his arms and the back of his neck bristled, standing guard like a porcupine's spines. He would get a headache next - from Susan's pinched expression, he deduced she already had one - and then he wouldn't be able to think straight because of the pounding behind his eyes. If the crying wasn't from the tape, where was it coming from?
Abruptly it ceased, only to be replaced with a long, low moan, like that of a beast caught in a trap. The room grew cold, more suitable for use as a morgue than a bedroom. Breath condensed into a thick fog as soon as it was expelled from the body and hands were quickly shoved into pockets, coats hurriedly zipped and buttoned, and the flashlight shone into the nooks and crannies. It appeared their assailant was once again invisible.
Mulder closed his eyes to focus more intently on the sound; losing one sense heightened the others, and he hoped his hearing was accurate enough to be able to pinpoint the source. It seemed to be coming from one place - it wasn't circling the ceiling, like he had half-suspected from some long-ingrained schema about ghosts - but he wasn't quite sure where. Not near the door, he knew that much. Peering out from under almost-closed lids, he slowly navigated the room, guided by the moaning. Past the bed, not in the armoire either... he came to a standstill at the other end of the room and opened his eyes fully to stare at the fireplace.
"Over here! It's coming from here!"
Scully and Susan rushed over to stand by his side, both commenting on how the noise was decidedly more focused at this spot. "Is there anything up the chimney?" Susan asked. "There was a grate installed that prevented anything getting in or out but it could have become dislodged."
Mulder looked at Scully and she smirked a little as she nodded to the floor without preamble. Sighing, he got down on his hands and knees to crane his neck past the hearth and into the flue. The angle was such that he couldn't see very far but he didn't need to. Leaning so far into the fireplace had caused Mulder's ear to be pressed against the back wall and he was certain the noise was coming from behind it.
Crawling back out and dusting himself off, he said, "We need to pull the brick out from back there."
He wasn't sure who looked more shocked, Scully or Susan. His partner's expression was one of almost comic disbelief, whereas Susan's was more stunned incredulity and doubt. "Mulder, you cannot be serious," Scully finally said.
"The moans are coming from behind the hearth; there might be someone trapped in there," he argued lamely, knowing Scully wouldn't believe his reasoning but would be compelled to help anyway; the doctor in her would demand it - not that she would ignore a cry for help otherwise - and he knew he had her at 'trapped' when her shoulders sagged and she threw a 'you'd better know what you're doing' glare his way.
"Trapped?" Susan echoed. "That's not possible. There hasn't been any building work here for years-"
"Any authorised building work, perhaps," Mulder interrupted before she could reel off a long list of reasons why someone being trapped inside Thurmere Hall was impossible. He looked her square in the eyes. "Susan, it is really important that we get a look at what's behind there. It could answer all your questions and then we could go home. I know we're all tired but we need to resolve this, and getting back there is the way to do it."
Conflict clouded her eyes. The desire to know what was going on was overwhelming but there was the Hall and her job to consider; demolishing one of the oldest buildings in the north of England wasn't going to give her a promotion. They had worked so hard to maintain the original features; they had even hired a team to clean the ceiling of the drawing room with specialised equipment. Knocking down brickwork because of a noise seemed like all the time she and the other employees had spent was wasted. But Mulder and Scully had flown in from America to investigate and she would be wasting their time if she declined. There was no denying Thurmere Hall had a certain aura about it that was driving away visitors and if these two could find out what that was...
Mulder knew she was torn. It was a listed building, after all, and giving her consent would probably cost her the job she loved. "There's something behind there, Susan, I know it," he said quietly. "We need to see what it is." He glimpsed a brief nod of the head and quickly decided that she had agreed. "Alright, good. Are there any tools we could use?"
"Tools?" Susan again looked panic-stricken.
"A pickaxe or something. I work out but I can't tear down brick with my bare hands," Mulder joked.
"I don't, I don't know. You never said anything about tools. This is an important building; you can't just go around tearing bits of it down because you feel like it. That's the original brick from when the fireplace was first built; it can't be replaced. We have special restorers and cleaners working here; people come out every five years and clean the ceilings, and it's really expensive," Susan rambled.
"Okay, okay," Mulder soothed. "Mind if I take another look? I won't demolish anything," he promised. She agreed to that and he hurriedly got back on the floor before she could change her mind. He pressed his ear against the brickwork again to make sure he hadn't been hearing things - nope, it really was there - and managed to get the flashlight into the small space to see better.
The structure was old but it had been built well. It was still sturdy and, were it not for safety precautions, could even now have been used to house a roaring fire. Mulder ran his fingertips lightly over the back wall and found the brick to be firm instead of crumbling at the slightest touch. There was a musty smell confined to the small opening, like that accompanying old library books, and he found the air to be thick and difficult to breathe. Was everything in this place trying to kill him?
He gave himself a few more minutes before he would need to inhale fresher air again and continued his examination, albeit a tad more rushed than he would have liked. There was a dark scorch mark about two metres up the flue, visible only when he stretched out the arm holding the flashlight as far as it would go, the beam glancing at what appeared to be an edge of the grate Susan had mentioned. Frowning, he pulled himself further into the hearth to try and see more clearly. He knew chimneys gathered soot and became dirty over time but if Thurmere Hall was so meticulous about its cleaning to hire people purely for the upkeep of the ceilings, wouldn't the fireplaces have been maintained too?
"When was the last time this fireplace was used?" Mulder asked from inside it.
"Not since before the house was gifted to the public," Susan replied instantly. "Nothing's really been used since then. None of the period pieces, anyway."
He brushed his knuckles against the scar on the brickwork and studied them intently. None of the material had rubbed off. "But it's been cleaned since the last time, right?"
"Oh, yes. As soon as Thurmere Hall left private hands there was a team in doing all sorts of work to make the place presentable. They polished the floorboards, too, as well as giving everywhere a lick of paint. I'm certain they swept the chimneys."
Mulder's heart began to beat a little bit faster and he bent awkwardly, sticking his head out into the room. Beads of sweat had formed on his forehead from being inside the confined space and he instantly felt the cool temperatures again. "That's when the grate was installed?"
"I believe so."
"Mulder," Scully questioned, "what did you find?"
He disappeared inside the hearth again only to reappear a moment later with an expression akin to pride. "Before the grate was installed, you could light a fire and the smoke could travel freely up here and out into the open air," he explained, putting the flashlight back in his pocket, "but now that couldn't happen. Now, the smoke doesn't have much of a place to go; the small holes in the metal would allow some to escape but not nearly as much as before. So it becomes trapped. Instead of floating up and out, it's bouncing off the barrier that's suddenly in the way."
"But it was only put there after the last fire had been lit," Susan said.
Mulder countered, "Then why are there scorch marks and smoke burns on it?"
"Someone used the fireplace after that grate was installed," Scully commented. "Sometime between April and July 1963, by any chance?"
It was Mulder's turn to raise an eyebrow, this time in speculation. Without expert analysis they couldn't deduce the date of the fire. Maybe it wasn't important; maybe it had been a particularly bad night and the archaeological team had trudged inside the building to escape the elements, and lighting a fire had been the only way to warm up. It was certainly possible but alarm bells rang in Mulder's head just thinking about it. His gut was telling him there had to be more to it than that. All this weirdness had to be related.
Mid-moan, the sound stopped. Mulder's eyes jerked instinctively to the fireplace and he found himself holding his breath. The room had become too quiet, with an anticipatory edge he didn't like and a temperature cold enough to form icicles on his eyelashes. He could feel eyes boring into the back of his head with all the focus and intensity of a hypnotist, but Scully and Susan were both in front of him; he could see them out of the corner of his eye so that must mean-
He whipped around with his hands clenched into fists just below his chin, ready to defend himself against whoever might be there, but only the dark oak panelling greeted him sourly. Feeling a little foolish, he lowered his hands and tried to shake the sensation.
"Mulder? What's wrong?" Scully asked.
"Nothing," he said distractedly, staring at the corner of the room, where he thought those eyes were watching from.
"Okay... well, where do we go from here? Do you have a theory?"
He turned to face Scully at her questioning but convinced himself he could still feel the dart-like pricks of unseen eyes watching him. "A theory?"
Scully studied his face carefully and then spoke slowly, as if to a child. "An idea about what's going on."
"Oh." He cleared his throat. "I still think there's a presence here. I don't know what it wants, if it wants anything at all; there's no known purpose for residual hauntings and we don't even know why they happen in the first place. There doesn't seem to be a reason for it."
"Residual? I thought you decided there was a poltergeist."
"Why not both?" he argued. "Nobody said they couldn't coexist. It might be unlikely but it's possible, and it would explain what's been going on. A poltergeist couldn't interfere with a residual haunting - they don't interact - but it could voice its complaints at having to share its space."
"A grumpy tenant," Scully said flatly.
"Or a grumpy house," he pointed out. "Haven't you noticed how the lights are only out in certain rooms? How it's much colder in here than in the entrance hall downstairs, which is odd because this is a smaller room with the same size radiator. It should make it easier to heat."
"Mulder, it's a house. It's brick and mortar. It doesn't have feelings."
"Don't you feel on edge in this room?" he asked.
Scully crossed her arms. "Well, yes, but that makes sense given what we witnessed in here earlier. We're remembering that and our minds are convincing us that something's going on when it isn't."
"If we can remember, why can't the house? I know it isn't living," Mulder said, holding out a hand to stop Scully's protests, "but I know I feel safer in other rooms. I think those are the ones the house has control over; the others belong to the ghost." He paused for effect. "I don't know how the archaeology fits into this," he admitted. "I wish we had the page from the records book. That might go a long way towards explaining everything."
"It's long gone, Mulder. The chances of recovering it now are slim to none. It could have been burned in here and even if it wasn't, paper disintegrates easily."
"Unless it was put somewhere it wouldn't," Susan cut in. At their puzzled expressions, she continued, "What if it wasn't destroyed? Maybe it wasn't hiding something; maybe it was hidden."
"For what purpose?"
"Someone knew too much. They wrote it down before they forgot - or before they were killed - and then hid it until it was safe. That's what always happened in the old films, anyway."
"So where is it now?" Scully asked. "Presuming it's still intact."
"It never was safe," Mulder said with dawning realisation, looking at Susan. "Nobody came back for it. It's wherever it was left. That's what you're thinking, isn't it?"
Susan nodded. "None of the staff have ever mentioned finding a note. Where do you hide something you don't want others to see?"
"Bury it?" Scully suggested.
"This is only paper," Mulder reminded her. "It'd be lost before you could dig it up again."
"With another piece of paper, then," she retorted. "It wouldn't look out of place and wouldn't decompose like it would if exposed to air or sunlight."
"Hiding in plain sight? I can buy that." Mulder nodded. "Especially if the ghost doesn't have control over that place."
"There's a study," Susan said immediately, "with a bookshelf stacked full of books."
They hurried down a maze of corridors with the urgency of the White Rabbit. They passed more portraits of grim faces in gold frames, none of them recognisable, and Susan pointed out one of Thurmere Hall's most valuable antiques: a twenty-three-and-a-half foot-long shovel- board table in mixed Gothic and Renaissance style. As the trio approached it stretched yawningly into the distance and when they passed Scully noticed the frieze of vine branches carved into the end, the emblems of lions and crowns and unicorns adorning the tabletop. And then they were at the other end, where the floor became uneven and each step was a concentrated effort to avoid tripping, but they came to a halt outside a plain door not too far away from the roped-off table.
Susan unlocked it and held the door open. It was not a huge room but 'a bookshelf' was an understatement. Two walls supported floor-to- ceiling bookcases, the shelves buckling under the weight of old hardbacks with dusty red and green covers and gold print. While it wasn't quite the New York Public Library in terms of sheer volume, it was still exhausting to imagine rifling through all those books for a forty-year-old piece of paper that may or may not be there. There was a beautiful mahogany desk in front of the window with stationery neatly laid out ready to use; more books dotted its surface. The phrase 'needle in a haystack' sprung to mind.
"It could be in any of these?" Scully asked in disbelief, scanning the shelves.
"Maybe we'll get lucky and it'll be in the first book we open," Mulder suggested. Scully's eyebrows told him what she thought of that idea.
Susan started at one end and Scully at the other, with Mulder somewhere in between. They worked methodically and as quickly as they dared, but handling old books was a delicate business and they were conscious of the time. There was an urgency that came with the night, something in the darkness outside that made the heart beat faster and the nerves extra-sensitive. Arthritic spines creaked in protest as they were pried open by frantic fingers. Every minute that passed felt like another minute closer to an impending deadline; to what, they didn't know and weren't sure they wanted to find out.
The musty scent of old books began to permeate the air. Dust flew and dropped gracelessly to the floor as if sensing the futility of dancing in the beam of the flashlight held in Mulder's mouth or the moonlight coming in through the window.
"Got something," Susan suddenly called. The agents dropped what they were doing and crowded round her as she carefully unfolded the piece of paper, still extraordinarily white from being trapped within the pages of Austen's Northanger Abbey. It was creased and the left side was jagged from where it had been torn out of the book from downstairs.
Pen had been put to paper with a shaky hand. The words skipped around the lines and never came to rest exactly on one. The black ink was smudged and the page was full of scribbles and crossings out, as if censored like Government files they had seen before. The writing was bold - the pen had been pressed so hard into the paper it was almost etched - and the odd word was scrawled in uppercase letters ('MURDER', 'CRAZY', 'HAIL MARY').
"The archaeological team went mad?" Scully questioned.
"Were driven mad, it says here," Mulder pointed out. "By a priest sent from Hell."
"That's an interesting paradox."
"Priests can't go to Hell?"
Scully refrained from answering. Mulder and organised religion did not get along (with him, maybe it was just anything organised. Rules eluded him as frequently as logical explanations did). To argue saintly virtues and the philosophy of Heaven and Hell would be to go round in circles at a time when they really needed to move forward.
Instead she said, "I think the more important question is, what was a priest doing here in 1963?"
"A priest's ghost," Mulder corrected. "The note says mumblings of prayer and sermon were heard and then the figure of a priest appeared before the team. He walked through walls while quoting from the Bible and clutching a rosary."
"A priest's ghost, then," Scully muttered, gritting her teeth.
Susan said, "Depending on how far back you're willing to go, he could be over four hundred years old. The times are long gone when a priest would be called to a deathbed, at least in these parts, and the only other scenario I can think of that would fit would be in the late sixteenth to early seventeenth century. Protestants were running the country and everybody had to adopt the new religion; anyone caught practicing Catholicism was declared a heretic and killed. But some families refused to change and so they hired Catholic priests to conduct sermons at their houses. Sometimes they gave them room and board."
"If he lived here that would be a good attachment, enough to justify a haunting," Mulder pronounced. "It could be that he died here too but it doesn't have to be that way; a strong link when living could pull him back after his death. Living and preaching here in secrecy could constitute a desire to stay once in the afterlife; maybe the priest did something when alive and was punished but wants protection in death, and this place was his sanctuary for years. It would make sense to him to come back."
"Could he have been caught? As a Catholic, I mean," Scully asked. "Susan, you said people were killed for it."
"I think you could be right," Susan said. "In 1602, Edward Charnocke and his wife left Thurmere Hall to head south and it fell to a cousin of his, George. Historians can't find any further traces of Edward after he moved away. If the family were practicing Catholics and they were harbouring a priest, they would have been turned out and probably killed."
"Why is there no record of it?"
Susan thought for a moment. "They were nobility; that might have bought them some leeway with the Queen. That and George shared the same surname but as a proud Protestant. He wouldn't have wanted it dragged through the mud. He could have consented to his cousin's death as long as it was kept private."
"The Charnockes were nobility?" Mulder asked, surprised.
"They weren't quite Dukes or Lords but they were proud of the family crest and were in good favour with the monarchy. We've found evidence of the Charnockes in Charnley and surrounding areas going back to the fourteenth century. Edward's father, Richard, was a high-ranking official in the army."
"So we've got a well-received family concealing a Catholic priest in a time of Protestant uprising. He's caught somehow, the family are killed, and the house is passed on to the next in line," Mulder recapped. "And the priest is back here now. He terrorised an entire archaeological team in 1963 until they all went mad and disappeared, from the sound of things, but nothing else has happened."
"They found something they weren't supposed to," Scully said. "Something incriminating, maybe, evidence of horrors centuries old, and he... took care of it."
Mulder looked at her approvingly. "I think we need to see where this priest was kept when he was alive."
Susan said, "We've long suspected there might be a priest hole here, a space cut into the wall for him to hide in, but we've never found one. We have to be careful, given the authenticity of the Hall, not to damage anything, so we haven't been able to tear down walls to find it. But if you think a Catholic priest lived here in secrecy, it would make sense, wouldn't it? And it might hold some clues?"
Mulder nodded. "Works for me. But we'd have to find it and you haven't been able to yet."
"We haven't been able to search," Susan protested.
"We could search now. Where's the logical place to start?"
"The former chapel."
Mulder held out his hand to indicate Susan should show them the way, mouthing 'there's a former chapel?' to Scully when she caught his eye. She raised an eyebrow at him and set off after Susan. Mulder kept pace with them as they retraced their steps from before, passing the shovelboard table and the portraits, and heading back down the stairs. His mind was racing with possibilities, so fast he could barely cling to one idea before another came along. A family with secret-bearing skeletons in the closet wasn't novel by any stretch of the imagination but it was intriguing nonetheless.
Susan led them outside the house (where they took care to avoid stepping on dead birds) and towards the river. Taking a left before hitting the banks, they edged single-file along the narrow walkway at the side of the house. They passed the tearoom, where Mulder handed Susan the flashlight so she could continue to lead, and the back end of the courtyard was soon swallowed by the darkness. Mulder could still hear the river to his right as the water rushed over the rocks but it was no longer visible. The looming outline of a forest came into view, the pines and oaks towering over them like skyscrapers.
Set into the canopy of dark trees, almost hidden by bracken, was a quaint white-stone building that looked more like a large outhouse or garage than a chapel, but that was where they were heading. The exterior was crumbling in places and weeds climbed the walls eagerly. Mulder's attention was drawn to them and Scully prayed it wasn't poison ivy; it wouldn't be unusual for him to find something dangerous in a relatively menial situation. He sniffed and then snatched several handfuls of the greenery, stuffing the plants in his pockets, mindful of Scully's questioning gaze. He shook his head. The message was clear: I'll explain later.
Susan managed to unlock the door and they went inside. Rows of pews lay before them, separated by the nave, and at the far end, almost sunken into the wall, was the altar. There were no windows. Despite the typical layout, the only other sign of it being a place of worship was a gold crucifix nailed to a wall.
"Excuse the dust," Susan apologised. "Nobody comes in here anymore."
"That's okay," Mulder replied noncommittally, still taking in his surroundings.
Susan continued, "I'm sure there's something here, a tunnel or a priest hole, at least. I know we're a good way out of town but the family wouldn't risk visitors seeing a priest walking around out here."
"You think there's a passageway to the house?"
"Yes, I do."
Scully interrupted, "Has this not been investigated before?"
"The council will pay for its upkeep but that's it. They say there are more important causes government funding could go towards." Susan smiled sadly. "There's just no room in the budget for an old building anymore. If we could afford to get proper equipment out here, even just to check for changes in the density of the land between here and the Hall, I'd vote to do it."
Mulder's fingertips brushed against the pews as he wandered down the nave. There were no hymnbooks laid out, no stained glass windows, no bell tower or spire, and he began to wonder if there had been more of a religious zest during a service or if this building too was perpetually downcast. But where Thurmere Hall was melancholy, the chapel was gloomy with a touch of suspenseful expectation; Mulder had felt it as soon as he'd walked in. He sensed the ghostly priest having full control of this part of the estate and fingered the leaves in his pocket absentmindedly.
He reached the altar and gave it a cursory glance before moving on. The back wall of the chapel was only a few feet away and there were no other rooms; it was a perfect rectangle, with no alcoves or crevices to mar the line of the brickwork. Surely the priest hadn't lived in the house with the family? Secrecy was imperative and the Charnockes were too important to allow a Catholic priest to have free reign of the Hall. They had built the house themselves when Elizabeth was Queen of England, when Catholics were imprisoned and killed for displaying their faith publicly. If they had control over the design and the building work, it would have been easy to slip in an underground passage and a priest hole or two.
Mulder began to pay close attention to the floor. There had to be a trapdoor somewhere, cleverly concealed to go unnoticed for so long. Or maybe nobody had bothered looking, as Susan had said. Time is money better spent elsewhere.
"Can we move some of these pews, Susan?" he asked.
"I suppose so," she replied. "Like I said, nobody comes out here anymore. We don't even bring people here when we give tours; it's too far back from the house. I was hoping to renovate it, actually, so we could make use of it. I put it to the board at our last meeting."
The unmistakable churning of a lock being thrown cut off a response. The keys were still in Susan's hands. Nobody was within ten feet of the door. After a quick glance at Mulder, Scully strode over and tried the handle.
He had flashbacks to a rooftop in Dallas. "Are you sure?"
"Yes, I'm sure!" she snapped. "Try it for yourself."
"Okay, okay," he said, throwing up his arms. "Susan, try the key."
She plucked out the piece of metal and attempted to use it on the door. The wind started to rise, howling around outside like a wolf knowing there were three little pigs trapped inside with no visible means of escape. With no windows and no other door, it seemed as though the walls were closing in like they were part of an Indiana Jones movie (except Mulder was fairly sure the intrepid explorer never began to felt claustrophobic in tight situations). Heavy branches snapped against the walls and rattled the structure as Susan shakily wrestled with the key. "It won't fit. It won't go in the lock," she said, panicked.
Mulder rubbed his jaw in agitation. "Okay," he said decisively, "let's move the pews. There's another way out of this room and we're going to find it."
The pews were heavy and he was covered in a thin sheen of sweat upon pushing the first one out of the way, even though he had been aided by Susan and Scully. Once they got some momentum going it wasn't as bad but the hard part was getting the damn thing to move in the first place. The second pew proved to be just as difficult to move as the first and ultimately the venture was just as futile, revealing nothing. The third one, however, shifted a couple of feet and then refused to go any further. Mulder shoved it but it was stuck.
"I think it's snagged on something," he said, straightening and wiping his forehead.
"Can you lift it?" Scully asked. "You only have to get it over whatever it's stuck on then we can push it again."
"I can try." He vowed to start lifting weights at the gym if he couldn't manage. Running, swimming, and basketball games were all well and good but they weren't much use when it came to shifting heavy objects. Squatting at one side, Mulder scrubbed his palms against his jeans to dry them before finding a good grip on the pew. His breathing was loud through his nose as he strained against the material - wasn't it only wood? It must have been weighed down somehow - his knuckles white and face contorted, and he thought his biceps were about to burst with the pressure when it finally came off the ground. Mulder lifted it a couple of inches before taking a few small steps to the side and setting it down with a bang.
Panting from the exertion, bending over with his hands on his knees, he gasped, "Happy?"
Blinking to get rid of the sweat in his eyes, he saw Scully fingering her cross idly, eyeing him with a little smirk. "Very," she said. "I think you might have found your trapdoor."
"Looks that way." Mulder glanced at the rusty metal handle protruding from the floor. "Susan, are you sure nobody's noticed this before?"
"We... we've never been able to move the pews," she confessed. "Every time we tried it was as though they were stuck to the floor, nailed down or something, except there was no visible way for it to be. I never thought we'd do it tonight but given the other weird things that have been happening, I figured it was worth a try."
"Well, it worked," Scully said.
"Because of you," Mulder commented. She looked at him incredulously. He pointed to her neck. "Your cross. You were touching it when I was lifting the pew. I think you drew the priest's attention to it. It might have been years since another Catholic has been in here and you broke his concentration long enough for me to get the pew out of the way."
Scully frowned but stayed quiet. His theory made sense, in a roundabout way and if she believed in ghosts. Which she didn't, she assured herself. But then what else could have allowed Mulder to suddenly lift the pew that had previously felt as heavy as gold? She could attest for his strength, of course: his muscles were well defined and he had once spent all afternoon clearing the junk out of his bedroom so they could actually sleep in there, throwing things into cardboard boxes then marching them out ready for a trip to a nearby dumpster. He had made that look easy but this had been decidedly more difficult, and it was true that his luck had changed only when her fingers touched upon the gold symbol around her neck.
She told herself she was tired and the actual reason would make itself apparent with daybreak.
"Can I borrow your lighter, Susan?" Mulder enquired.
"Um, sure, okay." She fished it out of her pocket and gave it to him, whereby he immediately set fire to a couple of the leaves he had pulled up from the front of the building and walked around the chapel, making sure to hit all four corners.
"What are you doing, Mulder?" Scully asked.
"It's sage," he replied, as if that explained everything.
Scully and Susan shared a look. "Sage?" Scully finally bit.
"Yeah. It would be better if it was sage incense but this'll have to do. Professional ghost hunters burn it to get rid of a problem spirit. It's the smell they don't like, I think, or maybe the smoke; there hasn't been much research on why it works. It's called space clearing. You have to get the smoke wherever a ghost might be hiding and it flushes them out."
"How did you know it was sage growing outside? And why is it here at this time of year? The cold should have crippled it weeks ago."
"You couldn't smell it before we walked in?" he asked. "It smells like marijuana. And obviously that wasn't pot out there. I think it's the house again, helping us. It's fighting against the priest's hold and while it can't get in the chapel it can take over the exterior, hence the wall of this stuff."
Scully didn't even want to ask how he knew so much about combating ghosts - it was probably stored from an old x-file anyway, although he did do his share of additional reading away from the office - but she was willing to accept what he said as fact for believers and non- conformist sceptics. Tradition and age-old remedies had often been replaced with modern alternatives but if Mulder thought burning a plant would remove a ghostly presence then who was she to argue? She supposed it was a comfort to him, to be doing something, and if he truly believed in it then he would be psychologically stronger, too, and hopefully less distant than he had been for a brief moment in the bedroom.
"I think that ought to do it," he said to no one in particular, carefully scanning the chapel as if by sight alone he could deduce which areas, if any, were void of sage.
"Now what?" Scully questioned.
"We leave," he replied simply, striding to join them by the moved pews. "We burn sage in every room of the house apart from one which will be used to contain our priest. We're going to need salt, too; don't ask me why but a circle of salt, as well as protecting a person, will trap a ghost. Or so I've heard. Once he's stuck, we gather everything up, all the salt, and destroy it." With a look of grim resolve he asked, "Are you ready to check it out?"
"We've come this far."
Susan also gave her consent and Mulder pulled at the handle. The door opened with surprising ease - the hinges didn't even creak - and they peered into the space below. Susan wordlessly handed the flashlight back to Mulder and he eagerly thrust it into the gap. The smell of dirt rose from it like from an earthy oven. The hole was about six feet deep and fed into a tunnel leading away from the chapel and back towards the house. There was a rotted wooden ladder propped against one side.
"Mulder, are you sure it's safe?" Scully asked when he set foot on it.
"What about the tunnel? There might be a cave-in further down the line."
He shrugged. "Only one way to find out. Besides, the door's locked. Short of breaking it down, which I don't think we'd be able to do no matter how much you touched that cross, this is the only way out."
She sighed. He was going down that tunnel whether she went with him or not; she could tell from the set of his eyes and the tone of his voice. When Fox Mulder was determined to do something, she knew there was no way of stopping him. An unexplored, underground passageway to him was a red flag to a bull.
Mulder reached the bottom of the ladder and looked up. "You coming?"
After a hesitant second, she began to climb down to join him. The wooden rungs bent with the pressure of her feet but they didn't snap. She felt certain she had a palm full of splinters but it was too dark to check. Scully took the flashlight off Mulder and pointed it down the tunnel as he helped Susan down the ladder. The earth was held up by wooden frames at regular intervals and the support beams seemed to be sturdy. She didn't know how they had managed to avoid destruction by termites or natural wear and tear but now wasn't a good time to start questioning things like that. They had made the decision to go - well, Mulder had, but she had chosen to follow him - and they weren't going to back out now.
Scully passed him the flashlight before he held out his hand, knowing he would need to be the canary. His martyr complex was too much to bear at times but this was just natural instinct, the genetic predisposition of a male to protect females. She could handle her own and regularly made sure he knew it, too, but in this case he could be the one to discover a clew of worms or a colony of ants.
He lit more sage and they set off slowly, Mulder having to stoop awkwardly to avoid hitting his head on the low roof. The ground underfoot was firm, for which they were all glad, but sharp stones jutted out from the makeshift walls and they had to bunch together in the middle of the tunnel to avoid them. At one point Mulder stopped and cocked his head to one side, listening intently, and then started up again, muttering, "Just the river."
Scully was sure she was inhaling soil and tiny flies, and wondered now if that persistent tickly feeling in the back of her throat was anything similar to how Mulder had felt during his encounter with tobacco beetles. She coughed and kept moving, trying to ignore the pervasive smell and the knowledge that she was, technically, six feet under.
They trudged on for another couple of minutes before the flashlight hit a dead end in the near-distance. They were approaching another wall of earth, the other end of the tunnel, and the only way to go now was up courtesy of a ladder not too dissimilar to the one they had used to descend. This one looked more weathered, the wood deeper in the throes of rot. Scully wasn't sure if it would hold her weight, never mind Mulder's.
He had the same idea. "I think you'd better go first," he said, eyeing up the ladder. "I don't want to break it and leave us trapped down here. At least if you two can get out you can unlock the chapel door for me."
"What if we're too heavy for the rungs?" Susan asked.
The silence hung between them heavily. The answer was obvious but neither wanted to reply. Scully began to mentally calculate how much oxygen there was in the tunnel and then berated herself for thinking that way, towards the pessimistic side of life. The ladder just looked like it might break in pieces if a fly landed on it; it was probably a lot stronger.
Not convinced by any means but finding no other alternative, and ignoring Mulder's outstretched hand containing the flashlight, wanting her hands free, she set foot on the ladder before her rational mind could persuade her otherwise. Taking a deep breath, she hoisted herself onto the rungs, feeling them bow under her weight but hold. Each rung posed a new danger: would this be the one to go? She felt as though she was playing Russian roulette; every step closer to the top statistically increased the chances of the next rung snapping. The ones left behind were lucky empty chambers.
Mulder had been aiming the flashlight just above her head to guide her but the beam was faint and above lay only darkness. She couldn't tell if she was five feet or fifty away from the top but prayed it was closer to the former. The wood was splintering under her fingers and she thought it only a matter of time before it would give way and she would plunge right back to the bottom again.
"How you doing, Scully?" Mulder's voice filtered up the shaft.
"Never been better," she replied quickly, not wanting idle conversation to break her concentration. Mulder must have understood because he remained quiet from then on save the occasional murmur to Susan. Scully climbed a few more feet - she thought she had to be at least twenty-five feet off the ground by now - and then her hand grasped for a rung that wasn't there. She felt higher up but there was nothing: this was the end of the ladder. There was still space above her head.
Keeping one hand tightly on the last available rung, she reached out for the walls surrounding her and began to feel for a foothold or a ledge. The walls were no longer made of dirt; instead Scully's fingers brushed against something rougher, like stone, and it was then she knew she had to be somewhere inside the house. And that meant there had to be a hidden door to get in and out.
She hit something that sounded hollow and pushed hopefully. When it held firm, she slapped the heel of her hand against the wood and it jolted, the bottom scraping against the floor on the other side. Rust from the hinges dotted the ledge like seeds the more she forced the door open, and eventually she was able to widen it enough to climb inside.
It was still dark but at least she could stand. Scully could feel the walls close by on every side, a walk-in coffin, and she felt along them carefully. There was a ridge protruding an inch or so from the wall on her right, at about waist-height, and it moved relatively easy when she applied some pressure and pulled. The bottom half of the wall opened up and she crawled out into the bedroom.
Allowing herself a moment to breathe fresh-smelling air, she examined the mechanism. One of the wooden panels next to the fireplace was on a hinge (located inside the secret passageway) and when closed nobody could tell it was there. Judging from the amount of rust, Scully guessed it had been decades since anyone had used it. Behind the wall lay the priest hole, which then opened into the tunnel. The priest must have lived in this room, using the passageway to get from the chapel to the house and vice versa in the event of a sermon or visitors.
Scully admitted it was cleverly concealed; there was nothing special about the panelling to indicate what lay behind it. She crawled back into the hole and shouted down to Mulder, "I'm in the bedroom!"
There was a muffled discussion at the bottom of the ladder and then he replied, "Susan's coming up."
It was a few minutes before the older woman's head appeared at the opening and Scully held out a hand to help her up, leading the older women out of the tunnel and into the house. Susan dusted off her clothes and gaped at the bedroom and the passageway, shaking her head slightly in amazement. "Your partner's still at the bottom," she informed Scully, "but he gave me a bunch of sage and said to start burning it in all of the rooms and corridors on this floor save for this one. I have the lighter but here's the key to the breakroom; there's a saltshaker in the cupboard above the kettle and there should be a box of matches in one of the drawers. Can you find your way?"
"We'll be fine. You'd better start without us; we don't have much time." As Susan left, already setting fire to the first piece as she entered the corridor, Scully knelt in front of the opening to the passageway. "Mulder?"
"There's an area at the top of here the size of your closet. And there's a really strong smell coming from down there, Mulder."
"I know," he called. "It's all this sage. I'm on my way up." The ladder creaked a lot more under his weight than it had when the women had used it; Scully leaned over the hole and prayed she would see his face emerge from the darkness before too long. She could hear rustling and then the gloominess wasn't quite so gloomy anymore as the beam of the flashlight came into view. As it got closer she could see he was gripping it with his teeth, freeing up his hands for the ladder. Holding out a hand, she helped him into the small space just as a rung snapped from under his feet. He pushed the door closed behind him.
"Susan went ahead and started with the sage," Scully informed him as he crawled out from the panelling. "The salt's in the breakroom."
Urgency nipped at their heels like a disgruntled terrier as they beat a hasty retreat from the bedroom and flew down the stairs, the soles of their shoes barely touching the runner. The pungent odour was fading as they moved away from the first floor but it lingered in the air and they could almost taste it. Although a place such as this demanded respect and it felt wrong to break above a mild jog, they both ran from the bottom of the stairs to the breakroom, sprinting down the corridor like it was a racetrack, somehow sensing that every second made a difference.
Mulder barged into the breakroom door in his rush, causing it to burst open and slap into the wall. Scully was mere paces behind and they both paused briefly in the doorway as they looked inside. The light was on and a cupboard door and a drawer were hanging open expectantly. The kettle perched beneath the open cupboard door.
"The house is helping again," Mulder breathed in awe.
Scully strode over to the cupboard and rummaged around for a few seconds before emerging with a saltshaker in her hand. "Right where Susan said it would be. There's a bigger container of salt at the back, too. How much will we need?"
"Take whatever we can get," he replied, finding the matches in the open drawer as he thought he would. "I should invest in that stuff. We could go into business together, Scully. It works in keeping zombies at bay."
"Let's just hope it traps ghostly priests, too," she said pointedly.
CONTINUED IN PART FIVE
CONTINUED FROM PART FOUR
Burning the sage was a time-consuming process. Each corner, nook, and cranny had to be hit with the smoke for reasons Scully didn't quite understand; Mulder said it had something to do with getting stale air moving, with the sickly sweet smell being so repulsive it worked as a deterrent to prevent anything going back there for a while afterwards. She periodically glanced at her watch out of habit only to be reminded that it had stopped hours ago; it was difficult to judge the time from inside a house with no clocks that worked, especially when she had no idea what time it had been when they had first stepped outside when the birds fell from the skies or even what time it had been when they had arrived at Thurmere Hall to begin with. Had her watch stopped when she set foot inside the building? Earlier, maybe, on the parking lot? She didn't know, and the lights from the rooms made seeing outside to watch for the impending dawn nearly impossible; several times she caught sight of her own reflection instead.
On a couple of occasions they heard Susan's steps upstairs but other than that they went about their job quietly, not wasting time with idle chatter. They were a well-oiled machine, swapping sage and matches with ease as they split to assault adjoining rooms, coming together again outside and moving on without a word passing between them.
Having cleared all the rooms along that corridor, they doubled back and aimed for the entrance hall. Mulder pulled each door shut as they went by to contain the burnt sage and to prevent it seeping out through the door leading to the courtyard (he half-suspected it to blow open in an attempt to undo all their hard work). Scully strode ahead determinedly, her mind fully focused on the task at hand. She rounded the corner and stopped dead, as though she was caught in the headlights of an oncoming car.
There was a figure dressed in black robes standing in the middle of the entrance hall.
The priest raised a hand slowly, slowly, and a gnarled finger broke free of his clenched fist to point right between her eyes. A necklace dangled from his hand and for a brief moment she thought it held the eyeballs of the archaeological team that went mad - that were driven mad - and who saw the same terrifying image she now saw, but then logic kicked in and she noticed it was just a rosary, just plain old beads, even if they did remind her of the unseeing eyes of a thousand dead birds.
He began to advance, muttering under his breath. "During those days men will seek death, but will not find it; they will long to die, but death will elude them."
"Scully? Did you say some-" Mulder started as he entered the hall, stopping quickly as the priest came into view. The clergymen appeared unperturbed by Mulder's presence; still he came forward, finger cast out, verses spewing from his mouth without reference to a Bible. The rosary swung from side to side, as captivating as a hypnodisc spiral, and the priest's words washed over Scully and held her in place as though he was as manipulative as a snake charmer.
His form remained a constant even as the background swirled and morphed behind him, and although she couldn't take her eyes off the clergyman her peripheral vision picked up on the change in era. The paintings became less faded, the floor smoother and shinier, and suddenly the hall was *alive* and filled with people on rewind. Jeans and t-shirts gave way to waistcoats and suits, and those to silk stockings, corsets, breeches, garricks. Scully was still aware of the priest heading towards her but the bodices and doublets of a bygone time captured her attention and divided her focus between the past and the present.
When time stood still again, a young woman with a black eye was on her hands and knees scrubbing the floor before the fireplace. A shadow loomed behind her and Scully saw the priest - she would recognise that face anywhere - bend over to speak to the girl, who visibly stiffened and minutely shied away. The priest's hand caressed her cheek delicately before his demeanour changed and he hit her with a closed first, the resulting crack of the woman's head hitting the floor making Scully wince. But he didn't stop there. Straddling the girl's prone form, his punches rained down on her like Hell's fury before the image faded from view and another took its place.
There was a sudden knock at the door and Scully watched as the young woman, the same one from before, face still swollen and bruised, rushed to answer it. She admitted two policemen, conversed with them for a moment (although Scully couldn't hear what they were saying; she was watching a silent movie), and then pointed up the stairs. The men ran off and reappeared a moment later, the priest in full regalia clutched by the arms between them. He was enraged, his face red and mouth moving in what appeared to be a series of yells, and his eyes narrowed upon seeing the young woman cowering near the entrance. Wrestling with his captors, he managed to break free and dove for the girl. The light caused something to glisten in his right hand just before he reached her and slit her throat with the knife. The Red Sea flowed from her neck as the policemen pulled the hysterical priest from the body and abruptly the image cut off, bringing Scully sharply back to the here and now.
The priest was staring at her with the same look in his eyes as he had when he murdered four hundred years ago.
Oh my God he's going to kill me
Scully tried to open her mouth to speak, to scream, but it felt like it was glued shut.
Do something just do something Mulder please help me Mulder
Ten feet away. Seven. Five.
Hail Mary full of Grace
Scully caught a whiff of sulphur seconds before the scent of sage invaded her nostrils. The priest halted immediately, breaking his gaze to glare at Mulder, who took a brave step forward with the plant held firmly between two fingers. The priest stepped back quickly, his Grim Reaper demeanour suddenly replaced with one of a frightened animal caught in a trap. Mulder could see he was panicked by this abrupt turn of events, this changeover of dominance, and pressed the issue, stalking forward like a confident predator.
The priest balked, snarling like a rabid dog before diving into the unlit fireplace and disappearing from sight. Mulder dropped what was left of the burning sage to the floor and turned his attention back to his partner.
"Scully?" he asked softly. She still looked paralysed, eyes wide and fixed on the spot where the priest had been standing. "Hey, Scully, snap out of it. He's gone, okay? We still have work to do if you don't want him to come back." She didn't respond. He hesitated before reaching up and gently cupping her cheek.
He felt her stir under his palm. "Mulder?"
"Yeah, Scully, it's me." He smiled reassuringly and, when it looked like she didn't know what else to say, wrapped his arms around her tenderly. It only took seconds for her to return the gesture.
"What happened?" she asked quietly.
"He had you in some kind of trance, I think. He was pointing and there was that rosary and his words..." Mulder trailed off and shook his head. "We need to burn the rest of this sage as soon as possible. I don't even want to think about what he might do next."
"He killed her, Mulder," she murmured.
"This poor woman. I think she worked here. He... he hit her. Abused her. More than once, I'm led to believe. She finally called the cops and when..." She took a minute to compose herself. "When they got here they caught him but he broke free and he killed her. He had a knife; he managed to get to her throat. It was right there, Mulder, right by the door!"
He held her close again, pressing his lips to the top of her head and trying to soothe her with what he hoped were comforting tones. When he felt her shakes subside he said, "The house showed you." She nodded against his chest. "It was fighting him with you. His hold on you was weakened because your attention was divided."
"Weakened? It didn't feel weak."
Mulder grimaced. "Bad choice of words. But your eyes kept flickering to other parts of the room. I think if he'd been able to keep you looking at him, things would've been a lot worse."
Scully looked around the room and asked, "Where did he go?"
"He disappeared into the fireplace." Mulder kept an arm around her as they slowly crossed the hall to examine it further. She didn't protest about his proximity and silent support, and he gathered what happened must have really shaken her. Asking for help came once in a blue moon; accepting it without question was a similar rare occurrence. He tried not to show it but he was worried about what the priest had done to her, and why she had been affected but he hadn't. Was it a simple question of faith or was it something more sinister? Predators pick off the weakest first and, although he knew Scully was anything but weak, when they stood next to each other a six-foot tall man presented stronger than a petite woman on appearances alone. If they factored in weaponry and hand-to-hand combat, things might have been different.
They shuffled a bit further across the stone before coming to a stop in front of the fireplace, the staircase and the Sirloin chair to their left. "What is it with ghosts and fireplaces in this house?" Scully muttered.
A light bulb snapped on for Mulder, a mental slap to the forehead, and he berated himself for not thinking of it sooner. "The entrance to the tunnel to the chapel was behind the fireplace in the bedroom upstairs," he began, "and there were scorch marks on the grate. Our priest dove into this fireplace once I waved a bunch of sage at him." He knelt down and lit a couple of leaves, throwing them into the fireplace so the smoke could drift upwards.
"You think there's another tunnel?"
"It wouldn't surprise me. Think about it: there's got to be plenty of room free to install a fireplace. It needs to be set back into the wall, the air needs a chimney or some kind of ventilation, at least, and then there are all the pipes. What if instead of just the one priest hole and passageway there was a network of them running all over the house?"
Scully folded her arms and eyed up the hearth in front of her. "I suppose it's plausible. But in that case, why haven't any been discovered before now?"
"You heard Susan: everything in here is authentic. They can't go around knocking walls down so it's remained hidden. Or maybe the archaeological team stumbled across one accidentally and that's what woke our priest up and made him turn on them, and he's been protecting his hideaway ever since through whatever means necessary. The house even tried to stop him. I think Thurmere Hall itself set the fire in the bedroom in an attempt to smoke him out but he managed to put it out in time."
"Why even stay here if this was the place where he was captured?"
"Maybe it's purgatory: being reminded of his so-called sins all the time can't be a vacation. Or it's all he knew when he was alive so he has nowhere else to go. He took care of the 'problem' before he was taken away so it would be safe for him to return here."
"If by taking care of the problem you mean he killed her..."
"And the archaeological team found the bones or evidence of that."
"Which then brought him out of hibernation. Why didn't he do something when the rooms were converted in 1922 to be used as war memorials? And why does the house want him out now as opposed to any other time over the past couple of hundred years?"
Mulder shrugged. "I can't speak for Thurmere Hall. The priest could be disruptive, driving away visitors or generally causing trouble. He might be gaining power through whatever means - anger at the mention of the chapel being converted - and it wants him gone now before he becomes too powerful to overthrow. And the rooms before had no significance to him, no sentimental value. But I'd be willing to bet good money on him being pissed at the idea of converting the chapel."
He thought she would lament the lack of evidence again but surprisingly Scully remained quiet. Mulder could feel everything starting to come together, the separate strands of the spider's web joining in the middle, and the knowledge caused a familiar surge of adrenaline to spark over his body. He couldn't explain why he thought he was right - he just knew; maybe the house had subconsciously told him - but a mystery going back over four hundred years had been taken from the shelf and dusted off, and it was time to be laid to rest. So there was no definitive proof (when was there ever with an X-File?) and no doubt Scully would deny seeing or hearing anything suspicious once it grew light, but he knew the truth. Susan knew. The house knew.
"It was trying to catch our attention," he murmured. "The woman in the courtyard. The noises and the shadows. The music. That wasn't the priest; it was the house."
"How do you figure that?"
"The woman in the courtyard was to alert Susan to another presence in the house. When we arrived, a light appeared upstairs and that shadow passed across the window. We heard the footsteps and then the bulb smashed or exploded or whatever other verb you feel is appropriate. The ghost did that; everything before was the house trying to alert us to that room because it knew that's where the tunnel was. And then not long ago there was the crying and the moaning, again in that room."
"The house trying again," Scully said slowly.
Mulder nodded eagerly and started to pace up and down, gesturing with his hands. "But it cut off and I got the distinct impression someone was watching me." So that's why he'd been temporarily out of it. "The house is all-encompassing but the priest can only be in one place at once. When he found out what the house was doing he had to rush over from the chapel or wherever he was hiding to stop it."
"Why us? Why hasn't anyone noticed all this before?"
"Susan said there aren't that many visitors, especially in winter. Those who did show up might have thought it was all part of the experience, like the recording of the baby crying, or maybe the house only comes alive at night and nobody's here to witness any of it."
"The magic of the night?" Scully raised an eyebrow. "That's just a tad too cliched, Mulder."
A smile tugged at his lips. "Yeah, maybe. But who knows, Scully? Before tonight you would've denied that ghosts exist." He sauntered towards the corridor at the foot of the staircase before she could reply, tossing a "You coming?" over his shoulder.
She scowled at his back as she followed.
A short time later they had covered the entire ground floor between them. It was now enveloped in a nauseating haze that made the place smell like a drugs den with skunks living there for good measure. Their noses had grown so accustomed to the stench, having been surrounded by it for so long, it barely even registered anymore. Susan looked flustered but equally unaffected when they met up with her near the top of the stairs.
"There's only this side of the corridor to do now," she explained, a little out of breath. "I think I managed the rest."
"Good job," Mulder congratulated her. "And you left the bedroom alone?"
She nodded and lowered her voice. "Should he be in there now?"
"I think he could be but he showed up downstairs earlier."
"Wh-what? I thought you said the house had control and that he could only go in certain places!"
"Mulder believes there to be a network of tunnels running all over the house and originating near fireplaces," Scully cut in. "If that's the case, it's likely the priest would have been able to get into most rooms when he was living. He feels more attached to certain ones - the chapel, for obvious reasons, the bedroom - because they were just for him. The others were more communal and he couldn't be in there often because of guests and the high risk of being caught."
"We need to burn sage in all the fireplaces," Mulder added.
To her credit, Susan only appeared crestfallen for a few seconds. "There aren't that many up here. It's mainly the other couple of bedrooms."
"I'll do it," Mulder offered. "Just give me directions. You can be hitting this corridor while I'm gone."
Susan began to tell him where to go and Scully's mind wandered along with the oral map. Turn right here, take the next left, follow the corridor round until you see a painting of a woman in a red dress and it's the door to the left of that as well as the one directly opposite. It sounded so grand, this journey of sweeping hallways and dozens of rooms with portraits lining the walls like sentries. She would have liked to explore under normal circumstances (or whatever constituted normal anymore), to soak up the atmosphere of an era long gone and almost lost. Both culture and free time in which to enjoy it seemed evasive; Maine, at least, had proven to be nothing like a vacation at all. And England was shaping up to be the same. She just hoped Mulder had forgotten about Pendle Hill.
He pressed a bunch of sage into her hand before he jogged away, promising to meet them outside the bedroom door as soon as he was done.
"Shall we get started?" Susan asked.
"Let's get it over with. You wouldn't happen to know the correct time, would you?"
Scully was on the receiving end of a rueful smile. "Clocks don't work here."
As if to emphasise her point, the grandfather clock skulking in the corner of the first room they entered did not raise a hand in greeting; it seemed destined to droop at five-thirty forever. Instead of standing proud, it was as if the furniture was slumped in defeat. Running a hand delicately over the top of a hard-backed chair, Scully allowed herself a short minute to mourn alongside them. Footsteps belonging to intelligent and well-cultured people should grace these floors, eyes feasting on a snapshot of history, yet this was a window display far away from Fifth Avenue, trapped behind a locked door in a house few dared to enter.
"It's sad, isn't it?" Susan said as she flicked the lighter and a piece of sage began to burn.
"This place. It's beautiful, really, but being out here in the middle of nowhere and the stories people tell don't exactly make for a good reputation."
Scully smiled wistfully. "Unfortunately reputation means a lot."
"Tell me about it. I wish people would just give Thurmere Hall a chance. I bet most of the citizens of Charnley haven't been and it's not that far away. I know I'm biased because I'm a historian and I work here but it's an amazing building, so magnificently restored and in excellent condition. There's so much to learn just by coming here; it's like you can feel the history coming off the brickwork in waves."
"When we see the back of the priest then maybe more visitors will start to come," Scully suggested reassuringly. "His presence could have been a subconscious deterrent for some time."
Susan's expression brightened. "I hope you're right. It would be nice to have some interest in the place again." There was a semi- awkward silence before she said, "Oh, I am sorry. Here, take this." She pressed the lighter into Scully's palm. "You could be starting next door while I'm in here."
The corridor wasn't overly long and they were split between the final two rooms when they heard Mulder's footsteps drawing closer. He waited in the hallway until the sage became too diminished to hold and it was reduced to barely-glowing embers on the floors. Nodding briefly to both women, he led the way to the bedroom, his strides long and confident. The silence was oppressive and there was something in the air, lurking beneath the pungent aroma of sage, that felt both supportive and menacing in the same instant. It only increased as they neared the bedroom door.
"If I'm not back in fifteen minutes, get the hell out," Mulder told them once they were a few paces away from the entrance.
"I'm going with you," Scully said immediately.
"Have you forgotten what he did to you before? This guy has some kind of power over you, Scully, and I'm not about to let him do that again."
She argued, "We have a few sage leaves left plus enough salt to surpass a man's recommended yearly allowance. It's like garlic and crosses to vampires; if we have them they can't touch us."
Mulder wanted to comment on her apparent newfound beliefs but knew now was not the time. A fiery redhead was a bit of a stereotype but she encompassed it on occasion and he could sense her stubbornness on the issue, eyes staring back at him with steely resolve.
"If he starts to move towards you, make a circle of salt around yourself. Throw the damn stuff at him. Whatever makes him back off." She nodded. He turned to Susan. "Can you make sure there's sage ready to burn in case something happens? Stay close to Agent Scully; watch each other's backs."
"Can we just do this? Standing here talking about it is making me nervous," Susan admitted. "I want him gone. He's been here long enough."
Mulder looked first at one and then at the other. They were both resolute, both ready and determined, and he could think of no reason to wait any longer. "Alright then. Let's go."
The door opened with surprising ease. Mulder took the first hesitant step inside, peering around the frame and taking stock of the room. Had the Pamplona Bull Run taken place here? It was a far cry from the manicured neatness that had existed before. The crib had been tipped on its side. The armoire drawers had been thrown across the room. Even the sheets on the bed were lying in a tangled heap.
And it was still so, so cold. Like a morgue.
Mulder crept further inside, indicating to Scully and Susan to follow slowly and silently. He couldn't see the priest and that worried him; they had burned sage in every other room so where else could he be but here? The trashed room certainly pointed to frustration, although it was more reminiscent of Kurt Cobain than a seventeenth-century clergyman. All the signs suggested an animal in confinement, scrabbling for an escape route in panicked delirium, but there was no visible means of exit and no priest.
He felt Scully's hand on his arm as she leaned up to whisper, "Where is he?"
He shook his head minutely, still trying to grasp that concept himself. The sage had to have worked! They had seen the priest's reaction to it firsthand in the entrance hall downstairs, where it was made clear he didn't like it at all, was repulsed by it. Given that he couldn't go where the smoke lingered, where could he have been?
"Show your cross," Mulder murmured. Scully looked up at him incredulously. "Do it," he urged. "He reacted in the chapel when you touched it; maybe it'll catch his eye again."
Warily, she pulled the gold cross out from underneath her shirt and jacket collars and held it aloft. The room seemed to hold its breath. Mulder made a twirling motion with his fingers; Scully turned three- sixty on the spot, a modern-day ballerina in a music box, and waited for a signal.
Instead of a mass explosion of action, the result came about not with a bang but with a whimper. A shape began to form in the middle of the room, a human silhouette gradually taking shape and growing more solid, losing its transparency as it filled out. When it came into view, the look on his face was not of the mild-mannered attitude one expected of a man of the cloth; it was of pure hatred. Hell burned in his eyes and his hand shook with rage as he pointed once more at Scully.
"And I will execute vengeance in anger and fury upon the heathen, such as they have not heard," he hissed.
"I think that's our cue," Mulder muttered, tossing the lid from the tub of salt to the floor and grabbing a handful, throwing it across the room like a crystalline baseball.
The priest howled as the salt made contact, scratching at his eyes with rake-like fingers and dropping to his knees in agony. He was muttering under his breath, something about God and mercy and forgiveness, and when his hands fell to his sides he stared pitifully with bloodshot eyes as red as the fires stoked by Satan.
Staggering to his feet, he moaned, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?", stumbling like a drunk in Scully's direction. Her faith would be his salvation; she carried God around her neck with pride whereas his own crucifix felt like an ever-tightening noose. His hands outstretched like a needy child, the priest lurched forwards, visibly recoiling when Mulder's hand dug into the tub again, emerging with white grains tumbling from between his fingers. He gave a meek cry as Mulder tossed another handful of salt at him but he kept on coming.
Mulder took a protective step in front of Scully. "Susan," he warned.
"Just tell me when."
Scully asked, "Don't we need a circle around him?" Mulder nodded. "Take the tub and start doing it. He'll keep heading this way as long as I'm here."
He shook his head vehemently. "Follow me around," he suggested instead, keeping one eye on her and one eye on the priest who was growing ever closer, gripped with religious fervour and insanity. Mulder grabbed her wrist and pulled her swiftly to the right; the priest followed, making tiny mewling sounds in the back of his throat. Susan caught the saltshaker Scully threw to her and began to pour a semi-circle behind the ghost.
Confident his attention was elsewhere, namely on his partner, Mulder allowed handfuls of the salt to drop to the floor as they stalked around the room. All the while Scully kept her cross held firmly between thumb and forefinger, direct in the priest's line of sight. He probably thought he had an ally, she contemplated. And now he's going to die not on the cross but by it.
He was mumbling pleas and prayers for forgiveness when the circle was completed and he sagged to the floor in a spineless heap, at which point his body took on the same eerily translucent quality as before. His eyes bore into Scully's and, as much as she wanted to, she couldn't tear her gaze away. There was no hypnotic trance this time, no pull through rosary beads and Bible quotes, yet this was more than just idle curiosity. She had seen him kill, just like many other men, but she was still shocked that a member of the clergy could ignore God's word so completely. There was something tying her to this man who was now dying a second death; was it their faith or was there something deeper, something more meaningful hiding just out of reach?
"Put him out of his misery, Mulder," she finally said, watching as he did as asked and covered the priest's body with sprinkles of salt as delicate as snow. The dead man's body (thinking of it as a dead ghost's body was more than her brain could comprehend at that moment) faded from view and all that remained was a pile of white crystals on the floorboards in the vague shape of a human corpse.
"Now what?" Susan asked quietly. A fire sprung up from the hearth at the other end of the room in answer to her question.
"Guess he's being cremated," Mulder replied. The trio stood quietly for a moment, looking as sombre as if they were attending a funeral. There were no sirens rushing to the scene, no paramedics or doctors to pronounce and call time of death, and it was strangely overwhelming to witness the demise of a man over four hundred years old.
"We'd best clean this up," Susan said after a while. "Dawn's breaking."
Swivelling to look out of the window in surprise, they saw the first tinges of gold snapping at the edges of the darkness. "Yeah," Mulder answered distractedly. "And then it's time to go."
It was late afternoon when Scully woke. The space beside her was warm, obviously not long vacated, and from under the thick blanket she could hear the muffled noises of Mulder in the bathroom. Padded footsteps that reminded her of a lumbering bear followed and the mattress dipped as he joined her again, sliding under the sheets and wrapping an arm around her waist, pressing his cold feet into the backs of her legs.
"Grab a pair of socks or something instead," she grumbled good- naturedly.
She felt his smile as he kissed her shoulder blade. "You're warmer. And awake now. I didn't wake you, did I?"
"No," she answered honestly, turning and smiling at the sight of him gazing at her. He looked adorable, all rumpled ex-baseball star with his mussed hair and light hint of stubble. "I think I've caught up on lost sleep."
Mulder mumbled, "Mmm," as he settled his weight on top of her. "Good to know. I take it you aren't tired, then."
"Not right now. Maybe I'll go for a walk," Scully mused, fighting a grin. "The fresh air should make me sleep tonight."
He growled low in her ear, "I can think of something else that should wear you out," just before he kissed her and she gave up pretending, wrapping her limbs around his body like a cocoon and holding him close.
An hour later they cracked a window so she could get her fresh air.
As night fell, the temperature dropped, and a cold chill whipped around the building, small white crystals began to appear on a grate lodged inside a fireplace in a bedroom at Thurmere Hall.
A voice could be heard whispering in broken tones, "In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth."
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