Title: La Verite Nous Sauvera (The Truth Will Save Us)
Authors: Jacquie LaVa and Tess

Category: Casefile, MSR Rating: R to NC-17

Disclaimer: Not ours, instead belonging to that surfer dude with the blonde hair. However, once in a while we borrow them, make them do fun/naughty/dangerous things, then we return them, relatively unharmed (but smiling. A LOT)...

Spoilers: Early Season Six, after "The Beginning" and before "Two Fathers/One Son" - NOTE: Because of the subject matter of this story, reader discretion is advised. Contains references to alternative religious beliefs, which some readers may find objectionable.

Please note that in attempting to insert storyline that has been translated into French, necessary accent marks over certain vowels have had to be removed so that posting to Ephemeral is not compromised. In other words, we really do know how to spell these words!! Honest!

THANKS: To Avalon, Wylfcynne, Ravenwald and Foxsong for their expert advice and guidance concerning spells, curses and all things magick! Special thanks to Toniann for her expertise in leading us through the confusing world of computer servers, networks and the like. Hey, just because we type on them doesn't mean we know them intimately!

Thanks to our wonderful betas, Carol and Sallie. Without them we'd have been lost!

And thanks as always, to Aly for maintaining Tess's wonderful web site.

Additional notes at the end -

SUMMARY: Three women are the victims of black magick and Scully may be next. This time the truth really will save her, because even the smallest white lie could end her life. Now she and Mulder race to unravel the mystery and break the spell before it's too late -


Ponchatoula, Louisiana

She first saw him in a crowded club. The room was dimly-lit, but his features were illuminated by the amber glow of the lights behind the bar against which he was leaning, sipping beer from a bottle and laughing with friends. The air was alive with the wail of a saxophone as the band switched from a lively Cajun reel to slow and plaintive jazz.

Odette Thibodeaux had fancied herself in love many times in her twenty-five years but the moment she laid eyes on him, she knew that this time would be the last time. That this was the man with whom she would share her life. She didn't know his name, but she had seen him in her dreams many times before. His dark hair fell over his brow and even as he shoved impatient fingers through it, she saw his green eyes sparkle with laughter at something one of his companions had said.

"Dieu! Zoe, who is that?" She leaned across the small table she was sharing and directed her friend's attention toward the young man near the bar.

"Who?" Zoe shifted and followed Odette's gaze across the room. A knowing smile curved her lips. "Ah. That's Guy Beaumont," she murmured. "You have good taste, chere."

Odette turned a quizzical gaze on her friend. "What do you know about him?"

Zoe took a sip of her drink and propped her chin in her palm. "His family owns the Beaumont Hotel." She nodded at Odette's wide-eyed gaze. The Beaumont was a four-star hotel noted for its luxurious accommodations and world-class spa.

"The Beaumonts were one of the original families to settle in the Ponchatoula area. Back in the days of the War, the property was one of the largest and richest cotton plantations in the area." Zoe selected a salted peanut from the bowl of bar mix on their table and continued. "Like most people, the family fell on hard times after the War, but they managed to hold onto the house and several acres of the land. In the early 1900's Guy's great-grand-pere decided to turn the house into a hotel." She picked through the bowl again and nibbled on another peanut.

"It was a fairly modest hotel in the beginning - more like a bed and breakfast than hotel," she explained. "But as tourism in the area grew, so did their business. Guy's grandparents were the ones who built it into a luxury hotel and Guy's mama was the one who suggested adding the spa."

Odette leaned against the back of her chair and contemplated the handsome man standing on the other side of the room. Like many people in the area, she was of Cajun descent. She and her older sister, Chantal, had been raised in a belief system that found them in Catholic Mass each Sunday morning, and learning about magick and the casting of spells from their maternal grandmother. Her eyes narrowed and she briefly considered casting a spell to make Guy fall madly in love with her, but quickly discarded the idea. She'd win him the old-fashioned way.

"Do you know him well enough to introduce us?" she asked with a hopeful smile.

"Non." Zoe grinned when her friend's face fell. "But I went to college with one of the guys he's talking with." She tossed back the rest of her drink and stood. "Come on."

Odette fished a compact from her tiny purse and discreetly checked her makeup, shaking her head so that her mass of dark curls artfully fell over her shoulders and down her back. She adopted a reserved expression and her manner was soft and hesitant when she was introduced to Guy. Her reticent ways were calculated to make a man want to find out more about the woman behind the shy smile and they worked like a... well, like a charm. Sometimes, she thought, a spell was overkill. Never underestimate the powers of good, old-fashioned womanly guiles.

Odette saw Guy often after that. She and Zoe would meet him and his friends every Saturday night at the club or for drinks after work in the middle of the week. Twice, she had managed to arrange things so that she and Guy were alone. He hadn't yet asked her out on an official date, but he was always courteous and attentive to her. She didn't want to push things. Her wise grand-mre had always told her and Chantal that the best romances often got their start in friendships and she was content to wait.

She was racing around the apartment that she shared with Chantal one Saturday evening, hurrying to get ready to go out. Claiming car trouble, she had called Guy to ask for a ride to the club. She had long ago given up on asking Chantal to join her and her girlfriends for a night out. In many ways, the two sisters were as different as night and day. Odette's dark-haired, dark-eyed sultriness contrasted with Chantal's cool blonde, blue-eyed beauty. Odette's idea of a good time was an evening of dancing and drinks with friends, while her older sister preferred sharing conversation over a glass of wine in a quiet restaurant.

"Bebe," Chantal drawled from the doorway to Odette's room. "Where's the fire? You're running around like a crazy person."

Odette whirled to face her sister. "Oh, Chantal! Could you help me fasten this?" She held out a thin gold chain bracelet to her sister. Chantal was bent over the tiny clasp when the doorbell rang. Odette's whole body twitched at the sound causing her sister to lose hold of the clasp.

"Depeche-toi!" Odette urged her sister. "Hurry!"

Chantal succeeded in latching the bracelet. "Fix your lipstick, 'tite soeur. I'll get the door."

Odette took a deep breath and pulled out a tube of lipstick. She took a moment to fuss with her hair and dab perfume on her pulse points. She was of the firm belief that it never hurt to keep a guy waiting.

A few moments later, she found out that she was wrong.

Odette had spent the rest of that summer struggling to mask the jealousy that consumed her every time she saw the man she loved with her sister. Guy had been instantly transfixed by Chantal's grace and beauty and had invited her to join them at the club that fateful evening. Chantal demurred at first, claiming that she wasn't dressed for an evening out, but Guy was a man accustomed to getting what he wanted.

And he wanted Chantal.

"Come, ma belle," he entreated. "You look perfect." He tugged on her hand, pulling her closer to the door. "Please, I want to get to know you better."

Staring into his laughing, green eyes, Chantal's resolve melted. "I'd like that, too."

From that moment on, Guy and Chantal had eyes only for each other. On the day they announced their engagement, something inside Odette snapped. Guy was hers! They were meant to be together. Chantal had bewitched him. There could be no other explanation.

Envy and rage ate away at her. At night she was plagued by dreams of her beloved in the arms of her sister; by day she plotted and discarded one scheme after another to get him back. Each Sunday, she lit candles and offered fervent prayers to the saintly images cast in marble on the altars. "Please," she begged each week, "bring him back to me."

But there was never an answer. Finally, Odette decided to take matters into her own hands.

Carrying a small cloth bag, Odette crept to the bayou. Mindful of the hazards that could befall the unwary, she stayed just inside the tree line. A storm blowing in obscured the moon from sight. The night was alive with the croaking sounds made by the bullfrogs, the distant rumble of an alligator and the chirping of cicadas. As the storm moved closer, a flash of lightning illuminated the Spanish moss dripping from the trees around her.

Odette cast her dark robe onto the ground. The cooling breeze stirred up by the approaching storm caressed her naked flesh. From her bag, she drew forth four candles, representative of North, South, East and West. She drove then into the ground and lit them; three black candles to summon the darkness and one purple candle for power. She cast a circle on the ground, using her ritual knife to connect the four candles. She pulled a photograph from the bag and tossed the empty pouch onto the ground. Her fingers tightened around the photograph as she stared down into the smiling and love struck images of Chantal and Guy.

Stretching her arms over her head, she raised her face to the sky and in a low voice began to chant,

"This happy twosome that I see Their love is naught but a betrayal of me Separating them is the only way Let love forsake them from this day With this spell I'll see them part With my power I'll win his heart Thou love is cursed I promise thee By my will, so mote it be!"

Odette used her knife to slice the photograph in two and dropping to her knees, she burned the two pieces in the flames of the black candles. The air around her crackled with energy. No rain fell, but bolts of lightning streaked through the sky and a peal of thunder boomed overhead, silencing the natural sounds of the bayou's inhabitants. Rather than being frightened, she was energized by the power surrounding her. Arms spread wide, she absorbed that energy, breathing it in until it permeated her very soul. Finally exhausted, she wrapped her cloak around her and sank to the ground within the circle she had cast. And as the storm moved away, she slept.

The next morning, Odette wiggled into the clothes she had left discarded in her car the previous evening and left the bayou. She drove to Guy's home, confident of the power of her spell. She glanced up and down the street happy to see that Chantal's car was nowhere to be found. Today she would put into motion her plan to win Guy back. The plan was simple, she thought, as she parked. She would offer him a sympathetic shoulder and a loving embrace. Pulling down the sun visor, she flipped open the vanity mirror and practiced a series of compassionate and caring faces.

Smoothing her skirt over her hips, Odette climbed the steps that led to Guy's front door. The unlatched door fell open easily beneath the knocking hand she had raised. Curious, she pushed the door open and stepped into the foyer.

"Guy?" She closed the door behind her and moved down the hallway. She glanced into the living room and kitchen, but there was no sign of him.

"Guy?" she called again. A deep sense of foreboding rose in her throat as she laid a trembling hand on the bedroom door. Something was wrong...

Odette pushed open the bedroom door and breathed a sigh of relief at the sight of Guy curled up in bed alone. The sheets were pooled around his waist, exposing his strong back to her gaze; his dark hair spilled over the white pillows. She crawled onto the bed and laid a hand on his shoulder. His skin was so cold. Once again, the fear rose in her chest. Her hand trembled as she tugged on his shoulder.

Odette fell back, a silent scream welling in her throat as his body rolled toward her unresistingly. His eyes stared up at her, open and lifeless. The gold crucifix that had hung around his neck - a gift from Chantal upon their engagement - lay broken on his throat.

"No," she moaned. In his eyes, she was sure she read an accusation. "It's not my fault!" she wept. "This wasn't the way it was supposed to happen!"

Five Years Later
San Diego, California Java Net
Cafe 11:40 PM

The cafe was mostly deserted this late at night, and in the main terminal area only a few spots of lighting could be seen. A handful of people sat in front of the odd assortment of Dells, Macs and IBMs, finishing up their online minutes, mindful of the clock ticking on the wall. The caf would close in twenty minutes.

Next to her, a young woman typed with flying fingers, determined to use up every last second of the allotted sixty-minute quota. It hadn't been her intention to peek at the young woman's fevered chat - but she was nosy by nature; besides, she couldn't finish up her own session until this involuntary computer-mate was gone, now could she? Some things were better left private...

With a few last staccato-like jabs of slender fingers, the young woman finished and shut down with only seconds to spare. She flipped her long blonde hair over her shoulder, rose gracefully from her chair and walked away, lugging a heavy-looking backpack. Likewise an older man wearing a business suit finished up at the end of the row, and left.

Thankfully, alone at last... she glanced around, noticing there were fewer lights scattered around than before. She didn't have much time, but then, she really didn't need much, did she? It was almost a done deal. All that was left to do was make the payment, and she was using PayAnyWay online for that. She stifled a nervous butterfly twinge in her stomach and got online, downloading the desired link and logging into an email account that she'd set up specifically for this purpose. She checked her messages, knowing there shouldn't be any but feeling the need to be cautious, just the same - and seeing a clear inbox, she set herself to work.

A minute later she was in a chat room:

[InNeedOf: Are you there?]

[Hexagon: Yes. Have you made up your mind?]

[InNeedOf: Yes, I want to do it. You never told me how much it would cost.]

[Hexagon: Because I doubted you'd follow through. What you ask isn't going to be easy for you to live with, you know. I assume you can handle it?]

[InNeedOf: YES! I want this. I need to do this. I have to. Now, what's it going to cost me?]

[Hexagon: Probably more than you can afford. What I do, I don't take lightly. And I set great value on my talent.]

[InNeedOf: I understand. I'll pay whatever you ask. I want to know how you're going to do it.]

[Hexagon: It's better that you don't know. You will receive a confirming email, when the task has been completed. Now, tell me again the crime, as you understand it.]

[InNeedOf: There's nothing TO understand. She lied to me. She lied to my face, the adulterous bitch. That's all I care to know, other than the fact that she's been fucking my husband. I asked her if she knew who it was and she lied to me.]

[Hexagon: Then shouldn't your husband also partake in the punishment?]

[InNeedOf: NO! I told you I don't want him hurt! What he did, I just know happened against his will. He's a weak man. She threw herself in his face. How could he resist? I don't blame him; I have forgiven his weak moment. If she's out of the picture I know he'll come back to me.]

[Hexagon: If that's what you wish to tell yourself then far be it for me to try dissuading you. So, an eye for an eye, right? That's what you want?]

[InNeedOf: Yes. I told you that the first time I contacted you. "Do onto others" - that's what I want.]

[Hexagon: All right. I'll take care of it. Don't ask me again what I do, is that understood? Just know that your liar will get her just desserts. Now, let's talk money.]

As the lights in the cafe winked out one by one, and the minutes drained from her pre-set limit, she swallowed a lump of panic and guilt all rolled up into one, squashed the horror of having to fork over an exorbitant amount of money, and repeated to herself several times that it would soon be over - and she'd have her Marv back.

She'd have him back - one way or another.

Chapter One

San Diego, California Value-Save Rent-a-Car Montgomery Field
Sunday, 11:30 a.m.

Dana Scully stood in line and used one foot to nudge her suitcase forward as the person at the front of the line stepped up to one of the two Value-Save counter clerks. Waiting patiently, she indulged in a moment of sheer feminine pleasure as she admired the tips of the glossy black boots peeking out from beneath the cuffs of her jeans. Outrageously expensive, made of buttery-soft leather and lending a generous three inches to her height, they were at distinct odds with the well-worn jeans that encased her slim legs. Their purchase had, sadly, been one of the high points of her trip.

The funeral of Captain Thomas Quinn, retired from the Navy for fifteen years and an old Scully-family friend from the days when their father had been stationed at NAS Miramar, had been combined with a family visit. Two days into the visit and Scully had begun counting the moments until it was time to fly back home again. Bill's less than subtle digs at the apparently stagnant state of her career and marital status had been countered with Tara's relentlessly cheerful remarks on how wonderful her sister-in-law looked since their last visit a year prior.

On the other hand, one-year-old Matthew had been a delight. Toddling around the house on unsteady legs, he had charmed his way into his aunt's heart within seconds of the first wet and generous kiss he had pressed to her mouth. She had spent much of her visit on the receiving end of his flirtatious gap-toothed smiles and sticky-handed hugs, and he was the reason she would make a more concerted effort to visit her brother and his family in the future.

Scully swung a black leather tote from her shoulder and popped open the center snap. She dug out her cellphone as she inched closer to the counter, dialed and pressed it between her ear and shoulder. She listened distractedly to the ringing of the phone as she continued to dig through the oversized purse for her car rental contract and a slow smile spread over her face when a sleep-roughened voice greeted her.

"Did I catch you napping?" In her mind's eye, his long length was sprawled over his sofa, a gray T-shirt stretched across his muscled chest and strong, bare feet emerging from the frayed cuffs of his favorite jeans.

"S'okay." Mulder's sleepy response was accompanied by the squeaking of leather as he made himself more comfortable. "Where are you?"

She nudged her luggage forward another step. "I'm at the airport - returning my car."

Both clerks became free within seconds of each other as two customers stepped away from the counter and headed toward the doors and the shuttle van waiting to drive them to their terminals at the nearby airport. The woman ahead of Scully walked to the closest clerk and Scully carried her bag to the other. The clerk, whose nametag identified her as Brenda, held up one finger and leaned away from the counter to replace the toner cartridge in the printer between the two workstations.

"My flight is scheduled to leave on time," Scully said into the phone. A contented smile flirted with the corners of her mouth as she listened to him describe the myriad of ways he had planned to celebrate her return home. The smiled widened into a full grin when she realized that most of his plans revolved around divesting her of her clothes at the first possible moment.

Six years together as partners, the last three months of which had been spent in the blissful throes of a blossoming romance. God, she had missed this man!

Her cheeks flushed and her heart pounded when Mulder lowered his voice to whisper a particularly inventive suggestion into her ear. She choked back a moan and felt her cheeks heat again as the other customer and clerk both glanced her way with knowing smiles on their faces. Scully stammered a hasty goodbye into the phone and dropped it back into her bag. She let her hair swing forward to hide her face as she pretended to rifle through her purse for something. She watched Brenda kneel on the floor to wrestle with the printer and idly listened to the other clerk and customer exchange pleasantries.

"Our computers are terribly slow today, ma'am," the clerk apologized to the other customer. "Perhaps, you would like a piece of cake while you're waiting?" She nodded toward a gaily-frosted pound cake sitting on the counter. "It's my birthday," the clerk continued to chatter as she entered the woman's credit card data into the recalcitrant computer for a second time.

"Happy Birthday... Mary," the customer said with a discreet glance at the clerk's name tag. "Is the cake a gift from your co-workers?" she asked.

A self-satisfied smile crossed Mary's face and she lowered her voice. "There was no card," she said confidentially, "but I'm pretty sure that my boyfriend sent it." She nudged the cake closer to her customer. "Go on, take a small piece. You can't say no, it's my birthday!" Her grin widened to include Scully in the offer. Several pieces of cake were already missing, undoubtedly pressed upon Mary's customers throughout the morning.

"What a considerate man he must be," the other woman said. She handed a small piece of cake to Scully on a paper napkin and took a bite of her own slice. Brenda cursed softly under her breath and slapped a vicious hand against the printer, which immediately sprang to life.

Scully's phone rang and she popped a morsel of cake in her mouth as she fumbled for the phone. She grimaced as the cake melted over her taste buds and saw a similar expression cross the face of the other customer. There was an unpleasant, slightly bitter taste to the cake.

Mulder's voice filled her ear. "Hey, Scully, you hung up before I could ask if you wanted to go out to dinner tonight. I can make reservations for Milano's," he suggested the name of a casual neighborhood restaurant, "or we can just order in when we get home." Scully sidled toward the nearest trashcan to discreetly dispose of the rest of the cake while she mulled over Mulder's dinner plans.

"I love Milano's, but getting take out has a certain appeal of its own," she said. Mulder's husky laugh echoed hers. Ordering out would give them about thirty minutes to work up an appetite...

Mary set the invoice on the counter. "What do you think of the cake?" she asked as she handed the other woman a pen. "I just know he made it himself. It's been so busy around here that I've only been able to grab a bite here and a bite there!" The customer gamely made a show of taking another bite. She swallowed hard and wished for a cool glass of water to wash the taste of the cake from her mouth.

"It's delicious," she lied with a polite smile. The words were barely out of her mouth when she began to cough and gag. Her hands clawed at her throat and Scully turned her attention from Mulder to the commotion taking place a few feet from her as Mary let out a shrill scream.

"Mulder, I've got to go!" she said urgently. She was dimly aware of his shouted, "Scully!" as she disconnected the call and rushed to the woman's aid. She wrapped her arms around the woman and pulled her back against her body, locking her hands over the other woman's midsection to apply the Heimlich maneuver, but to no avail. The woman sagged unconscious in Scully's arms, and she lowered her to the floor.

"Call 911!" she shouted to Mary while she pried the woman's jaw open and swept her fingers into her mouth to clear it of any food before beginning mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. Scully was dimly aware of the frightened murmurs from the staff and customers who stood impotently over the two women. She lifted her head, panting, and shook her head in frustration. It wasn't working. She tried tilting the woman's head back further to clear the airway. She leaned down again, and ran her fingers over the woman's swelling throat, squeezing her eyes shut as she felt the pulse growing fainter beneath the skin.

Scully looked up at the small crowd of people surrounding them. "Does anyone know CPR?" A young man nodded and she yanked him down onto the floor next to her.

"Her heart isn't beating," She settled his hands over the woman's chest. "You start compressions and I'll keep up the mouth-to-mouth. Okay?" He nodded again, locking frightened eyes on hers.


She waited as the young man counted under his breath with each chest compression.

"One-and-two-and-three-and-four-and-five..." Scully took a deep breath and tried to force the air from her lungs into the dying woman's. After what felt like hours, she heard the wail of a siren and was shouldered aside to allow room for the EMTs to work. Scully sat down heavily on the floor, and watched in exhaustion as the medical technicians frantically tried to save the woman's life.

Long moments passed and Scully knew that they were wasting their time. Grim-faced, they finally acknowledged what she already knew to be true.

"She's gone."

A piercing shriek rent the air and Scully spun around to find Brenda staring in horror at the dead woman. Tears streamed down her face and her mouth worked soundlessly. Wildly, her gaze darted over the dead woman and the clutter of paper napkins on the counter. Confused, Scully watched Brenda whirl about and race toward the doors. She tripped over a piece of medical equipment and went sprawling across the floor. She scrambled to her feet just as a beefy-looking security guard ran over and moved to assist her; at the touch of his hand on her arm Brenda screamed and jerked away, bringing her loafer-shod foot up between his legs and catching him square in his crotch. The guard grunted in surprised pain and sank to his knees, clutching at himself. Brenda kicked at him again, this time connecting with his upper shoulder and forcing a groan of pain from the guard as he slipped to the floor.

Shaking, Brenda curled into a ball and wrapped her arms over her head. "It's not my fault!" she sobbed piteously. "This wasn't the way it was supposed to happen!"

Dimly, Scully became aware of the shrill ringing of her cell phone. She fumbled in her bag and pulled out the phone. Without looking at the display, she thumbed it on.

"Mulder... I'm not going to make my flight."

Chapter Two

San Diego, California Days Inn Balboa Park
Monday, 5:36 AM

Fox Mulder parked the rental car across two spaces, killed the engine and rubbed stiff fingers over his burning eyes. He was wiped out. Usually he could sleep on red eye flights, but not last night. Not on a damned twelve-hour airplane milk run he swore had hit every major airport from DC to Los Angeles, with a few po-dunk local runways in between. He'd changed planes at least three times. Well, that's what he got for trying to save the government a few bucks...

He leaned his head wearily against the back of his seat for a moment. He'd been tense the entire flight, worried as hell about Scully. Though he knew she was fine - she'd called him back and had explained as much as she knew of what had happened at the San Diego airport - the tone of her voice was enough to set him on edge. He hadn't been able to relax a bit. There had been something in her voice he couldn't readily decipher, and that nagged at him. After almost six years together, Mulder knew all of his partner's vocal inflections. That knowledge had only intensified since they'd become lovers.

He'd wasted no time in assuring her he was on his way. He'd contacted Skinner first, knowing their former AD would have little or no influence over AD Kersch in persuading him to allow them access to this case - but nevertheless hoping he might. He knew Kersch would likely dismiss the case as nothing the Feds should involve themselves with. But Mulder was getting - for want of a better word - vibes. As soon as he'd heard Scully's voice on the phone, he'd felt it. When he explained his gut feeling to Skinner, his old boss had merely nodded, as if that Mulder-ish awareness was nothing new to him. Which indeed, it wasn't. And Mulder never did find out precisely what Skinner said to Kersch; he was too busy whipping himself into action as soon as Skinner had called him.

"You're on, Mulder - and you'd better play this one by the book... you and Agent Scully."

So Mulder had lost no time getting a bag packed and high-tailing it over to Dulles. Unfortunately for him, the decent flights were packed and he was forced to take the damned red eye.

Mulder pressed the heels of his hands into his eyes again, released a huge yawn and opened his door, unfolding long legs clad in faded, worn jeans. He stretched as he walked to the trunk, popping it open and retrieving his bag. Scully had told him she was on the third floor; Mulder trudged over to the outside stairway and dragged himself up two flights. Knowing he'd be awakening Scully, maybe crawling into bed with her for a couple of hours before they had to take off for the Balboa Park police station, was the one thing that kept him climbing those stairs.

A few minutes later the partner of his dreams was opening the door to him, yawning in his face and offering a sleepy smile as Mulder dropped his bag and scooped her up into his arms, snuggling her close. He buried his nose in her neck; she smelled so good, like lotion and sleep and sweet skin. Her thin nightshirt was wrinkled with sleep and her hair stuck up on end; she had a dried smear of saliva on her cheek and she looked gorgeous. His partner. Now his lover...

Mulder kicked the door shut with a booted foot and carried her across the room, gently depositing her atop the rumpled sheets. Scully relaxed against a mound of pillows and watched with sleepy eyes as Mulder began shedding his clothes.

They hadn't exchanged more than a tired, "Hey, Baby," and a "Morning, Mulder." They'd talk later, he thought. Right now he wanted only to cuddle her under the covers - or on top of them, didn't matter - maybe kiss a little, catch an hour or so of sleep.

She moved over a little as he crawled in and pulled her to him, spooning against her, both sighing at the comforting feel of each other. Mulder kissed the back of her neck and his mumble stirred the fine hairs of her nape.

"How long have we got?"

Scully nestled back against him and sighed again as he nuzzled along her shoulder. "Two hours, less if you insist on taking a shower. Police station's only about a mile away." She let him get in one more nuzzle, then turned in his arms until she faced him, staring into his eyes in the dim light of the room. Mulder brushed a lock of hair out of her eyes and placed a kiss on her cheek, then ran a series of small kisses over her chin, reaching her mouth and lingering there. She tasted as good as she smelled. He could feel himself becoming quite un-tired, in a hurry.

They'd been apart for over a week and he'd missed her terribly, though they'd spoken every night. He'd had a hell of a time sleeping in their bed without her and he was beyond exhausted from a week's lack of rest and now a long, crowded flight. But in his arms she felt like heaven and her soft, warm body was awakening him like nothing else. Mulder tamped it down firmly. Even in the dim room he could see the shadows under her blue eyes. Scully needed sleep as much as he did.

"I vote for sleep, Scully. You can fill me in later - and screw the showers. We'll just reek together."

She chuckled through another yawn, then pushed her face into his neck and managed to wind one leg around his thigh, anchoring him to her body. Mulder pulled the covers over their shoulders and they slept, falling asleep within seconds of each other.

San Diego Central Division Police Balboa Park Monday, 8:10 AM

At eight in the morning, Central Division was surprisingly busy. Uniformed cops and plain-clothes officers bustled up and down the main corridors and the front reception area was swarming with activity. Mulder guided Scully through a gaggle of what appeared to be family members of assorted age, all berating the hapless officer who'd apparently had the audacity to arrest one of their relatives. They were all screeching in Spanish. Mulder grinned as he caught at least one 'Pendejo!', and a particularly nasty 'Mayate!' from an old woman who looked like somebody's sweet old grandmother.

Finally reaching the front reception, Mulder gave their names to a harried-looking middle-aged woman who nodded them toward a set of double doors across the corridor. It took them three tries before they could step out into it without getting trampled; joining the swarm migrating through the doors, they walked swiftly to a small office belonging to a Detective Damarco.

Knocking on the door, Mulder duly noted the stacks of untidy files littering the Sergeant's desk, finally turning his attention to the tiny woman who'd bellowed out a rasping "Come IN, already!", to his knock.

Detective Rosa Damarco was about four and a half feet tall and probably just as wide, looked to be in her mid-fifties and was dressed in a bright red suit that fit her squat little frame like a sausage casing. Her hair was a wild mass of gray-streaked black frizz, tumbling in her eyes from an untidy knot atop her head. At least three pencils and what appeared to be a coffee stirrer stuck out of what was left of the knot; with some amusement Mulder noted the stirrer was a dead-on color match with her suit.

Her face was smooth and round, thick eyebrows frowning at them over a pair of square-cut hot pink eyeglasses. Her lipstick was a shade of orange that clashed horribly with everything else on her person, and when she spoke again her voice took on the quality of grinding, broken glass.

"Who the hell are YOU two? You got an appointment?"

Mulder shook himself out of the instant and utter fascination this woman was holding for him and stuck out his hand, reaching for his badge with the other. "Special Agents Dana Scully and Fox Mulder, FBI, Ma'am. We're here to talk with Brenda Jordan."

Detective Damarco examined their badges silently, then her dark eyes snapped up into Mulder's face, her head moving way back to see his face. She pointed to a couple of metal chairs in front of her desk, grumbling, "Oh, por Dios... sit down! You give me the neck pain, in case you didn't know, you're damned tall!"

Scully smothered a chuckle behind her hand as Mulder obediently sat, muttering, "So I've been told, Detective Damarco."

The minuscule detective grunted out an irate, "Call me Rosa, I don't answer to Damarco; it was my rotten ex-husband's name. I only keep it for the children. Now," she leaned against the desk and crossed her arms over her ample chest, "You taking this Brenda Jordan out of here? That woman belongs in a hospital under observation. Only reason she ended up here is because she did a real job on Mendoza, the guard she assaulted at the airport. Nobody hurts my officers like that and gets away with it, I don't care how screwed up they are. She also kept the guards up all night with her screaming and carrying-on."

Rosa straightened and gestured toward the door, adding, "Might as well go down and see her; maybe she'll scream some more and keep my day crew awake." She bustled toward the door and Mulder and Scully looked at each other in confusion, then shrugged and got to their feet, following the tiny red-suited Rosa.

One floor down the main jail and holding areas were interspersed with small interrogation rooms. Rosa unlocked a door and snapped on the light in one of the rooms. Inside there was a long table with several chairs, a fluorescent fixture overhead and a one-way mirror on the far wall. Rosa picked up a wall phone and punched a number, then barked into the receiver, "Bring the Jordan woman to Room two. Jordan, yes! The screamer, that one. Thanks." She hung up the phone and sat down in a vacant chair closest to Scully. While they waited, Rosa filled them in on Brenda Jordan's night in jail.

"I have never heard anyone scream like that, never. A real set of lungs on such a skinny woman. I bet she hasn't got a voice left. You the one that witnessed the deal at the airport?" She regarded Scully curiously and Scully nodded slowly.

"Yes, I was there. A woman customer choked to death, apparently on a piece of cake. I am scheduled to conduct an autopsy on her later on today - I'm a forensic pathologist as well as a Federal agent - and hopefully determine what killed her."

Rosa nodded. "Mendoza at the airport said as much. Said this woman choked and fell over, then the Jordan woman went ape-shit on everybody and tried to run. Oh, here she comes." Rosa met the guard at the door and took Brenda Jordan's other arm; they guided her to a chair across from Mulder and Scully, and sat her down. Mulder stared at her curiously.

Brenda appeared to be in her late thirties, slender, with mousy brown hair twisted into a sloppy ponytail and small, red-rimmed brown eyes. Her skin was white-pale and her thin fingers twisted nervously; she looked down and refused to meet anyone's stare.

Mulder nodded to Scully, and she cleared her throat. "Ms. Jordan, I'm Special Agent Dana Scully; I was at the airport yesterday. Do you recall seeing me there? Ms. Jordan?"

Brenda nodded jerkily, still refusing to meet their eyes. She opened cracked, dry lips and her voice was a mere thread of a rasp. "I saw you. You tried to help that woman." She suddenly raised her head and her eyes filled with fresh tears as she begged hoarsely, "I'm sorry! I swear I am! It wasn't supposed to happen!" She buried her face in her hands and her shoulders shook violently with sobs.

Mulder reached out a careful hand and touched her arm, feeling the wild tremors under her skin. "What are you sorry about, Brenda? Please, let us help you. Please tell us why you think any of this could be your fault." He kept his voice reassuring and calm, hoping to gain enough of Brenda Jordan's trust that she'd open up to him... but Brenda didn't seem able to control her emotions long enough to answer coherently.

She raised her head and thick tears poured down her pale cheeks. "I can't - I didn't - I don't want to talk anymore, please don't make me talk anymore!" With each word she uttered her panic grew and her voice increased in decibel level, until she was screaming again.

Scully resisted the urge to clap her hands over her ears, but Rosa Damarco wasn't so polite. She covered her ears and her bellow of impatience was amply discernible over the screeching. "All right, ENOUGH ALREADY! Knock it off or I swear I'm gonna cold-cock you!" Something in her voice must have gotten through to Brenda, because her screams bubbled down into harsh sobs, her face again falling into her trembling hands.

As the distraught woman choked and shook, Rosa looked over at Mulder and Scully and shrugged, "I doubt you'll get anything out of her, Agents. Sorry. I'll have her taken back to her cell, and she'll stay there until I know whether or not Mendoza is gonna press charges." Rosa got to her feet and with a jerk of her chin indicated to the guard at the door to unlock it. Before she could approach Brenda however, Mulder put out a hand to stay her, rising to his feet as well and moving around the table, closer to Brenda's huddled frame.

It was a hunch, a feeling - but Mulder was a firm believer in hunches. "Brenda, listen to me, okay? I want you to answer one simple question, and we'll leave you be, for now." He paused and stared at Brenda Jordan, until she looked up into Mulder's eyes, her own red-rimmed and swollen with crying. There was a sheen of utter hopelessness in them.

Mulder held her gaze and kept his voice soft and unassuming. "Brenda, I need to ask you about what you meant when you said it wasn't supposed to happen." Brenda's already pale cheeks whitened even more, and she tried to look away, but Mulder wouldn't let her. Somehow it was of utmost importance that she not break eye contact with him.

Brenda's mouth started to tremble and a look of complete panic and fear crossed her features. Mulder's question should not be creating such a violent reaction; Scully, as well as Mulder, was stunned when her head snapped back and forth so violently that her hair came undone from its untidy ponytail. The whimper in her throat escalated to yet another screech and she jumped to her feet, tangling them in the legs of the chair as her shouts of denial echoed in the small room.

"NO! I don't know anything. Nothing, I don't know WHY that woman died!" As the last shrill word left her throat, Brenda Jordan stiffened and began to choke, her cheeks turning an alarming shade of red. Scully leapt to her feet and caught her as she collapsed, easing her down to the floor, yelling to Rosa to call 911. Mulder dropped to his knees beside Brenda's prone body, working with Scully as she started CPR, his strong hands beginning heart massage...

Their eyes met briefly as they worked to save Brenda Jordan, both of them knowing it was just as hopeless... both acknowledging silently that they were facing another mysterious and inexplicable death.

San Diego, California Days Inn Balboa Park
Monday, 6:51 PM

Mulder closed the door behind him and threw the deadbolt, then fastened the safety chain. Ahead of him Scully had already toed off her heels and fallen face-first onto the bed. He shrugged out of his jacket and dropped it on the nearest chair, then moved to the bed and sat beside her, one hand rubbing gently over her neck and shoulders. He smiled at the huge sigh she released; when she suddenly flipped over onto her back his hand found itself stroking one soft breast. She sighed again and Mulder leaned in to press a nibbling kiss to her bottom lip.

Against her mouth he murmured, "Before I ask you just how tired you really are, Scully... I suppose we should talk over how we're going to handle this case." He delivered one final nibble, then swung his body up onto the bed until he was prone, slipped his mouth to her neck and felt her snuggle in closer.

Scully was quiet for a moment, trailing a slow index finger over his chest; her voice was decisive when she replied, "Well, I see a couple of autopsies in my immediate future, that's for sure. It's only been a little over twenty-four hours between deaths, so hopefully I'll find something interesting and helpful. My 'coincidence-o-meter' can't quite swallow this one, not completely."

Mulder nodded against her hair and ran a warm palm over her back, pressing her closer. "Well, I want to go back over to that rental place - what was it called, 'Value-Save', right? - and talk to anyone I can find who was working there on Sunday. While you're slicin' and dicin', I'll be probin' and profilin'..." He dropped a kiss on her temple and shifted her body around so that they lay face to face. Noting the shadows underneath her eyes had hung around all day, nevertheless he was determined to get their minds off work and on to more important matters... such as getting started on their overdue reunion.

Bringing a hand around to the front of her blouse, Mulder busied himself with unbuttoning the silky fabric, brushing it back to expose her lacy bra, eyes drinking in the soft skin that swelled against each cup. He buried his nose between them and inhaled her, loving the way she felt, the scent she carried there - the pureness of her, the utter good she always brought to him. He'd missed her like crazy; it had been a hell of a long and lonely week without her. And as Mulder eased her bra away and then slid an eager tongue along each tight peak he'd uncovered, as she purred deep in her throat and arched like a contented cat against his mouth... Mulder could only hope they'd get this damned case figured out, solved and be on their way back home, very quickly.

Between mouthfuls of her he mumbled, "You okay with this, baby? Not too tired?" Even as he gave her a handy out, Mulder was already working his way down her bared stomach, unsnapping the side fastening of her skirt, pushing at the material, baring more of her to his eager touch.

Above his head Scully chuckled weakly, fisted a hand in his hair and maneuvered his head until it was exactly where he knew she liked it best. Her answer started on that chuckle and ended on the high side of a raspy moan. "Oh, I'm more than okay, Mulder... not to mention truly awake as well, ohhh, Godddd..."

Chapter Three

San Diego, California County Coroner's Office
Tuesday, 1:55 PM

Scully made the last two neat stitches that would close the ghastly wound of the trademark Y-incision used to examine the dead. Stripping the latex gloves from her hands, she dropped them onto the tray of soiled instruments near the examination table and pressed her fists against the small of her back in a futile effort to alleviate the strain of several hours bent over Brenda Jordan's body. The County Coroner's Office had been able to supply an autopsy bay and equipment, but understaffing had left Scully to perform these autopsies without assistance. She drew the sheet up to cover Brenda Jordan's nude body and a rueful smile briefly crossed her lips with the knowledge that it is the living who worry about things like modesty; the dead are beyond caring.

She crossed the room to the telephone mounted on the wall near the door. She consulted the laminated telephone directory tacked up next to the phone and punched in the appropriate numbers to request that a staff member come to collect the body and to notify the funeral home that the body of Brenda Jordan would soon be released into their care. A second telephone call revealed to her that lawful consent for an autopsy had been given by the next-of-kin of the first victim and that the body would be delivered to the examination room in short order.

Scully pushed open the doors of the autopsy bay and wound her way through the halls until she came upon the lounge for female personnel. From her pocket, she dug out the key to the locker assigned to her for the day. Grabbing her wallet, she wandered over to the vending machines located outside of the locker room. Leaning against the machine, she contemplated her choices. Breakfast had been a hurried and miserly affair of yogurt and coffee. They had overslept and only had time for a quick stop at a convenience store. She had gulped down the small container of strawberry yogurt in the car before Mulder had dropped her off at the coroner's office with a quick kiss and a promise to check in with her throughout the day.

She was out of change and searched her wallet for a couple of crisp dollar bills as the machine adamantly refused to accept anything other than freshly minted currency. She ignored her normal choice of diet soda, instead going for the much needed sugar rush to be found in a 16-ounce bottle of Coke and a package of Oreos. Scully took her lunch back to the autopsy bay and settled into the chair behind the small desk in one corner. She briefly considered playing back the tape of the notes she made during the autopsy, but rejected the idea for a few moments devoted to the peaceful ingestion of empty calories. Munching on a cookie, she idly studied the plaque mounted on the wall next to the desk that proclaimed 'Hic locos est ubi mors gaudet succurrere vitae'.

"This is the place where death rejoices to teach those who live." She had seen the phrase hung in countless autopsy bays and coroner's offices throughout her career. Scully popped the last cookie into her mouth and drained the soda bottle as the distinctive squeak of the rolling wheels of a gurney drew ever closer. She was scrubbing her hands at the sink when the doors burst open to admit an orderly pushing a gurney bearing the covered body of Victoria Durkin, the woman who had died at the car rental office.

Scully initialed the form on the clipboard proffered by the orderly to accept custody of Victoria Durkin's body and scribbled her initials on a second form to release Brenda Johnson's body. She winced at the screeching sound made by the casters of the gurney as the orderly spun it sharply toward the doors before disappearing into the hallway. With a sigh, she popped a blank tape into the recorder.

Scully began her dictation by giving the date and time of the autopsy as she slipped her hands into a fresh pair of surgical gloves and tore open a package of sterilized instruments.

"Victim is Victoria Durkin, a forty-seven-year-old African American female." Scully took out a measuring tape. "Sixty-five and one half inches in height," she consulted the chart left behind by the orderly, "weighing one hundred and forty-two pounds. Next-of-kin reports no known diseases or recent illnesses, but I will contact the primary care physician for verification."

She began to walk around the table, examining the outside of the body. "Slight discoloration to the nail beds of the fingers..." She walked to the other end of the table to examine the victim's feet. "Same bruising beneath the nails of the toes on the right foot; not as noticeable on the left." Scully continued the external exam and noted no other abnormalities. She pried apart the dead woman's jaws and shone a small penlight into the mouth, making note of a slight swelling and redness to the tongue and gums.

Finished with the external exam, she chose a scalpel from the tray.

"I'll begin with the Y-incision." She continued the autopsy, removing the internal organs, weighing and measuring them, making notes on the visible health of each organ and taking small samples of each to be sent to the lab. She used a large bore hypodermic needle to collect blood from the heart and took a urine sample. She collected a small measure of fluid from the eyes to be sent to the lab as well and noted several burst blood vessels in the eyes. She continued to work, dictating the contents of the victim's last meal, taking a sample of the bile found in the stomach and forcing herself to merely dictate the evidence as presented to her without attempting to analyze. That would come later, when she was sitting in a quiet place, reviewing and typing her notes. For now, her job was to gather the data and document her findings so that she could eventually fit the pieces of the puzzle together.

San Diego, California Value-Save Rent-a-Car Montgomery Field
Tuesday, 2:01 PM

The first rush of afternoon rental customers had tapered off by the time Mulder walked up to the counter. It suited him just fine; he wanted some form of privacy.

Behind the counter a woman in her early forties had her ear pressed into a phone propped against her shoulder, leaving her hands free to flip through rental contracts. Mulder noted her name tag declared her to be Susan Moore. A discreet glance around verified she was the only Value-Save clerk on duty. Good - he didn't want to talk to Mary, the clerk who'd been on duty the day Victoria Durkin had died. At least, not yet.

Susan looked up from her call, noticing Mulder and sending him a harried little smile. It was obvious she was trying to get through her phone conversation quickly. Susan kept one eye on the handsome man in the dark suit standing quietly at her counter, mouthing affirmatives into the receiver and hoping her live customer wouldn't become tired of waiting and leave; it wasn't often she got to wait on such a good-looking man.

At last she managed to end the call, and set her phone down. She sent Mulder a brilliant smile, and stepped closer to the counter. "Good afternoon! Sorry for the delay. What can I do for you? Are you picking up or dropping off?" Goodness, what incredible hazel eyes...

Mulder smiled at her, the sudden glamour of it causing her own brown eyes to widen appreciatively. He fished out his badge and flipped it open, keeping his smile easy yet professional. "Actually, I'd like to ask you some questions. Agent Fox Mulder, FBI. I'm investigating the death of Victoria Durkin." He watched the smile slip from Susan's lips and her eyes dull a little as she realized she was to be questioned. He added quickly, "Were you here on Sunday, around eleven-thirty in the morning, when Ms. Durkin collapsed?"

Susan shook her head. "No, it was my day off. I have seniority and don't work the weekends unless someone's sick. Mary and Brenda were working that day. In fact, Mary was supposed to work this morning but she called in sick. Again." The irritation in Susan's voice was noticeable, and on a hunch Mulder took that irritation and ran with it.

"Mary. She was the one who had a birthday on Sunday, right? Is she often unreliable; calls in sick a lot?" He watched Susan carefully as he spoke. And saw another flash of irritation in her expression.

"Oh, often enough. Mary skips out early, comes in late. Calls in sick about once a week, in fact. Usually she's only gone half a day, but this is a small office. There's only the four of us - well, three of us, now that Brenda's gone. When someone doesn't show up it's a real hassle."

The phone rang just then, and with a muttered, "Excuse me", Susan turned to pick it up. While she was occupied Mulder leaned over the counter as unobtrusively as possible and glanced around, seeing nothing out of the ordinary as far as he could tell. Stacks of rental agreements on a large desk that held several coffee mugs of varying colors and sizes. A sweater hanging off the desk chair, another hooked over the top of a coat tree. A pair of sneakers on the floor. It was obvious that more than one person used the area and the desk.

Susan finished the call and turned back to the counter. "I'm sorry for the interruption. It's going to start getting busy around here; usually does this time of day. Is there anything else you need to know?" There was impatience in her demeanor. Mulder eyed the desk again, then nodded decisively.

"Yes, in fact there is something more. I need to check out this desk, and its contents." He gestured with his hand and Susan frowned briefly at the odd request, then shrugged and unlocked the counter hinge, flipping it up and over so Mulder could walk through. Murmuring his thanks, Mulder walked around to the front of the desk and sat down in the chair.

An investigation of the center drawer yielded the usual collection of pencils and pens, rubber bands, metal clips and a metal-edged ruler. Mulder closed that drawer and was reaching for one of the side drawers when he noticed that each of them was labeled with the names of what had to be Value-Save staff: 'Susan'. 'Brenda'. 'Lucinda'. 'Mary.'

Bingo... He pulled open Mary's drawer and sorted through the contents.

A can of Hershey's hot cocoa mix. Several packages of Top Ramen soup and a rather grungy-looking water bottle with the word "Curves" emblazoned across it. A handful of quarters in a little ceramic dish that was decorated with a fat Garfield, face buried in a pan of lasagna. Some files. Some envelopes. A few cards, some without envelopes and one in an envelope, the top slit open, its contents thicker than the average card. Hmmmm... Mulder picked it up and pulled the card out, flipping it open. And a handful of photos fell into his hands.

A-ha. This must be Mary... Young and cute, no more than maybe twenty-five. Short blonde hair and green eyes, slim - and wrapped in the arms of a dark-haired man at least fifteen years her senior. Mulder was guessing this wasn't her daddy, either. He barely glanced at the card itself, recognizing it by its overload of pink and red hearts to be a Valentine's Day offering. The photos were much more interesting. Three in all, two of Mary and her fellow, and one of him all by himself, mugging into the camera, standing in the sun with his hands on his hips. Smiling. Mulder turned the photo over and read the words written in a masculine scrawl. 'Babe - love you. Need you. Just you!'

No name. Interesting... Mulder held the photo closer, noticing the wedding band on the guy's finger. Her husband?

He looked up and caught Susan's eye, standing at the counter watching him. "Um, Susan? Is your co-worker Mary married?"

Susan shook her head. "Nope. Never been married as far as I know, but she's seeing someone; I don't know who he is. He's never been around here, at least not when I'm working. She gets flowers from him sometimes."

Mulder slipped the photos into the card and the card back into the envelope, taking care to place it back exactly where he'd found it. He had one more question for Susan. "When is Mary scheduled to work again, Susan? And what's her last name, please?"

Susan's reply came out on a rather miffed-sounding snort. "Well, like I said, she was supposed work all day today, but I suspect I won't be seeing her until tomorrow. She's due in at eight. And her last name is Luden."

Mulder nodded and thanked her, letting himself out of the back area of the rental area. He walked slowly out the side door and across the parking lot to his car, thinking about Mary and her married boyfriend. Tomorrow's interview should be intriguing...

Then he remembered that Brenda Jordan's funeral was tomorrow, in the morning, and he and Scully had already decided to go to it, hoping to pick up some kind of clue.

Okay, then. Mary could wait - until after the funeral.

San Diego, California Days Inn Balboa Park
Tuesday, 10:25 PM

Scully absently lifted a now-tepid can of Coke to her lips, draining the last of the soda from the container. She had showered and changed into a pair of mint-green cotton pajama bottoms and a white tank top. Now, with her back propped up against a stack of pillows and her laptop resting on her legs, she sifted through the stack of scribbled notes she had written while waiting for Mulder to pick her up from the coroner's office earlier that evening. She had a set of headphones plugged into the handheld tape recorder as she listened to the playback of the dictation of the autopsies she had performed on the two victims.

Across the room, Mulder was sprawled in the armchair near the window, comfortably clad in a lightweight pair of sweatpants. In the short pauses from the sound of her own voice through the headphones, she could hear him humming softly as he poured over the scrawled notations of his own day's work. His head bobbed, keeping time with the song he was humming, pausing only long enough to scoop a handful of sunflower seeds from the opened bag lying on a nearby table. Scully watched him pop a seed into his mouth, intently studying the way his cheeks hollowed as he sucked the salt from the shell before working the tiny seed free with his teeth. He must have sensed her stare, because he lifted his head and sent an absent grin her way. Scully returned his smile before lowering her gaze back to her work. She instantly realized the distraction had caused her to miss several moments of dictation and she held down the rewind button on the tape player for a few seconds, listening to the high-pitched sound of the tape spinning backwards. Hitting the 'play' button again, she refocused her attention on her work and her fingers once again began to dance over the keyboard as she returned to the task of transcribing her audio notes into a typewritten report.

"Slight discoloration to the nail beds of the fingers..." came the tinny sound of her voice through the inexpensive headphones. "Same bruising beneath the nails of the toes on the right foot; not as noticeable on the left." She highlighted the text to indicate that the same traits had been found on both victims.

For the next twenty minutes, she continued typing, making notes of her observations throughout the autopsies including the weight and appearance of each of the victims' vital organs. She was nearing the end of the tape when she was startled from her task by the bouncing weight of Mulder as he settled onto the bed next to her.

"Find anything interesting to connect our two victims?" He stretched out onto his side and propped his head on one hand, craning his neck in an effort to see the screen of the laptop. Scully hit the 'stop' button on the tape player and dragged the headphones from her ears to rest around her neck. Over dinner, he had given her a brief preview of his own findings from the day, but she had chosen, as always, to wait until she'd had the time to briefly analyze the data she had collected before putting any of her thoughts into words.

"Quite a few things, actually." She quickly scrolled through her report, eyes searching for the highlighted text that indicated similar findings from both examinations. "I'm waiting for a number of reports back from the lab," she told him.

"Such as?"

She began ticking off the various reports she was waiting for. "Pathology reports on the tissue samples from the vital organs, as well as blood and urine tests."

"What do you expect - or rather - what are you hoping these tests will reveal?"

She shrugged. "Some kind of tangible, scientific link connecting the cause of death." She reached out and yanked some papers from beneath his hip, absently smoothing out the creases as she spoke.

"If I had to offer a hypothesis right now, I'd say that both women were poisoned." She tapped one of the arrow keys on the laptop to move through the document. "Blood and urine tests will tell us whether the victims were exposed to any foreign toxins, but just from my visual examination alone, I'd say that there is certainly enough evidence to support the theory."

"Like what?" Mulder scooted closer and tugged one of the pillows from behind her back, settling more comfortably onto the bed. His voice was alert and the look he gave her was filled with curiosity, even though his eyelids drooped sleepily.

She mentioned the discoloration beneath the nails on the hands and feet of both women, as well as the swelling and unnatural redness found in their gums and tongues.

Scully saved and closed the file, shut down the laptop and set it onto the bedside table along with the tape player and her collection of handwritten notes. She stretched out one arm to turn off the lamp and slid down in bed to rest her cheek on Mulder's shoulder. She absently traced her fingers over his collarbone as she continued.

"The brains of both victims showed some minor contusions which could be an indication of sudden inter-cranial pressure," she told him. "There was some evidence of inflammation and swelling in their throats and an examination of the stomach contents indicated that they had both..."

Her voice trailed off and she stiffened against him. Mulder stroked his hand through her hair and let it glide down her back.

"What is it, Scully?" He lifted his head and squinted, trying to make out her face in the darkened room. He jostled her slightly, trying to draw her attention back to him.

"An examination of the stomach contents indicated that they both... what?" he prodded.

"Oh!" She was jarred back to the present when he tugged lightly on her hair. She blinked in the darkness. "I'm sorry. They both had eaten yellow pound cake shortly before dying."

Scully burrowed her face into Mulder's neck. "I'll know more when the tests are back from the lab," she said. She forced herself to regulate her breathing and allowed Mulder's warmth to seep into her suddenly cold limbs, relaxing her. She dismissed the unexpected clutch of fear as silly and unfounded.

But she fell asleep with the unpleasant and bitter taste of cake in her mouth.

San Diego, California Balboa Memorial Center
Wednesday, 11:05 AM

Mulder shifted restlessly on the padded folding chair. He and Scully had slipped into the Center's spacious 'Memory Sanctuary' and had snagged a couple of chairs in the last row, wishing to remain as unobtrusive as possible. The first three rows of seating actually consisted of small, comfortable wing chairs and sofas, meant to encourage family members and friends to gather in small clumps and presumably chat about the deceased. Since any kind of funeral home gave him the creeps, Mulder was wishing he could be anywhere but here. He took a deep breath and expelled it slowly, sending a grateful smile Scully's way when she laced her fingers through his and gave them a squeeze. She knew how much he hated this kind of atmosphere.

The sanctuary was about two-thirds full, most of the attendees seated in the comfy wing chairs and sofas. An elderly woman with thin white hair scraped back in a bun was keening loudly, rocking back and forth in the chair nearest to the open casket. An equally-elderly man awkwardly patted her shoulder and wiped at his own streaming eyes. Grandparents, obviously. The first row chairs and sofas were crowded with people in various stages of whispering, crying and the occasional giggle. Another side effect of grief; it made some people laugh. Yet another reason for Mulder to hate the whole memorial process.

Next to him Scully craned her neck to see past the heads directly in front of them. Since they'd first walked in they'd both looked to see if any of the staff from Value-Save would show up. So far she hadn't recognized anyone, and Susan, the woman Mulder had spoken to, had yet to make an appearance.

A small commotion near one of the side doors in front of the sanctuary drew their attention, and they both watched as a somber-faced man in his late thirties walked in, leaning on the supporting arm of...

"Mary, Mary... is that her? Because that's definitely the 'boyfriend' I saw in the photos I found in the desk at Value-Save." Mulder noted the way the petite blonde physically bolstered the grieving widower, leading him to the sofa directly in front of the casket. He sank down and she followed, sitting close to him and keeping her eyes locked on his profile.

Scully nodded, rising up a little from her chair to get a better look. "Yes, that's her. Quite solicitous, isn't she?" They both observed how close Mary sat to the man who had to be Marvin Jordan, how intently she watched him. "You're sure this is the guy you saw in those photos in her desk?"

Mulder nodded, his eyes locked on both of them. "Oh, yeah. It's him. Plenty of snuggling going on in those two photos. Romantic snuggling; our Marvin had his hands all over Mary's ass, in one of them. So," he turned to Scully and grinned, albeit grimly, "We have an adulterous situation, and we have a dead wife. We have, according to your early autopsy findings, a possibility of poisoning. We have Brenda Jordan sobbing in jail that 'it wasn't supposed to happen.' Now all we have to figure out, is..." He paused dramatically, holding his words until Scully frowned and pushed at his shoulder. Mulder chuckled and finished, "All we have to figure out, is the rest of it." Scully sighed loudly and he smirked at her.

A grumble under her breath had him chuckling anew. "You are an idiot. Now shut up and let's listen to this damned service."

The service itself was predictably somber and lengthy; the eulogy given by a tall, scrawny man Mulder presumed was the Center director. He was dressed in unrelenting black, and with his pale skin, hair and eyes looked like a cross between an anemic vampire and an albino. His voice was sonorous and his address delivered in a monotone that drove Mulder nuts. He could feel himself fidgeting and knew he must look like a typical, bored child. He forced himself to sit still.

At one point in the service, a long-winded description of Brenda Jordan's devotion to the ladies in her grandmother's canasta club brought forth not only a grief-laden wail from the elderly woman in the wing chair, but also an accompanying screech of pain from Marvin Jordan. As they watched in disbelief, he laid his head on Mary's conveniently handy shoulder, and bawled loudly and copiously. Scully snorted a soft and disgusted, "Oh, brother," and sat back in her uncomfortable chair, no doubt longing for their motel room as much as Mulder was.

He nodded and murmured softly, "Getting awfully thick in here. I may have to roll up my pants just to wade out. I say we pull Mary aside as soon as the service is over, before she can make her escape with ole Marvin."

"I agree."

The service finally over, the agents remained seated and kept an eye on the front of the sanctuary, waiting patiently for the stream of mourners who filed past the casket, peeked inside and then turned to shake Marvin Jordan's hand or give him a hug. He stood next to the casket, pale and sad-faced, outwardly the perfect example of a grief-stricken husband. Mulder thought the pose was ruined somewhat by the clinging, young blonde-haired woman at his side who had a death grip on his arm. Mary was probably afraid one of the other female funeral attendees would make a play for him, right in front of his embalmed wife.

Shaking off the morbid humor, Mulder nudged Scully and stood quickly when it became apparent Mary and the Widower Jordan were about to exit out a side door. Scully scooped up her purse and hurried after Mulder who was already halfway up the aisle.

"Miss Luden, a moment of your time, please." Mulder caught up with Mary before she could slip out the door. The blonde woman turned and stared up at him, impatience etched in her expression. Mulder flipped out his badge and identified himself; she visibly stiffened at the sight of it in his hand. She let go of Jordan's arm and he looked back in confusion, his eyes settling briefly on both agents, then glancing down at the badge Mulder still held out. Frowning, he faced them and spoke before Mary could say anything.

"You're an FBI agent? What's this about? We're having a private family gathering, here, for God's sake. My wife..." His voice broke off on a choking sob and Mary immediately caught hold of his arm, supporting him again. She turned to Mulder and Scully and her eyes glittered with suppressed tears.

"Please... this isn't a good time. I have no idea why you need to talk to me, but we have to meet up with the rest of the family." She started to lead Marvin Jordan out the door as if he were an invalid, but her progress was halted by the hand Mulder slapped against the open frame.

His voice was polite yet firm. "I'm sorry for your loss. Both of you. But my partner and I need to speak with you, Ms. Luden. It's important. I am sure Mr. Jordan understands, and has other family members who can comfort him while we speak." His arm held fast across the door frame and his tone brooked no argument.

Marvin Jordan nodded jerkily and offered Mary a sad smile. "It's all right, Mary. Brenda's grandparents are in rough shape and I really need to be with them. I've been so wrapped up in my own misery..." He gestured with his free hand and she reluctantly let go of him. Mulder dropped his arm from the door frame as Jordan squeezed her shoulder and walked out to catch up to his family, waiting in the parking lot.

Mulder and Scully ushered Mary Luden into a small conference room that held a table, some chairs and a sofa. Leading her to the table, he seated her politely and asked if she wanted a glass of water. Mary shook her head, but accepted a tissue from the box Scully found on a side table. She dabbed at her eyes while the agents settled themselves in chairs across from her.

Scully folded her hands on the table and addressed Mary first. "Miss Luden, my name is Dana Scully and I'm Agent Mulder's partner. I was at the airport the day Victoria Durkin collapsed. Do you remember me? I was returning a rental car."

Mary nodded as she blew her nose. "Yes, I remember you. You were the one who tried to help her. You and another customer."

Scully smiled reassuringly at the distraught woman. "That's right. Agent Mulder and I want to do everything we can to help the local authorities piece together what happened, both to Ms. Durkin and now Brenda Jordan. We'd like to ask you a few questions. It won't take long." Her voice was calm and Mary visibly relaxed, leaning back in her chair and wiping at her eyes.

"Okay. I'll do the best I can."

Mulder smiled at her. "Good. Just a few initial things we need to establish... you and Brenda Jordan worked together at Value-Save. How long had you known her?"

Mary thought for a moment. "Oh, about two years, I guess. I got the job right out of college. I wanted to get into teaching but my final grade point average wasn't good enough. I had a real hard time with college and almost dropped out a couple of times. But I stuck it out and got my degree." There was pride in her voice and Mulder nodded encouragingly. Mary blushed a little and continued, "Anyhow, Brenda was the one who trained me, and we were friends right from the beginning. We were all really good friends. Brenda and Marvin have been so good to me." Tears re-formed in her eyes and Mary bravely blinked them away.

Mulder did his level best to make appropriate sympathetic noises, but it was really tough to do when all he wanted was to grasp her narrow shoulders, shake her until her teeth rattled, and call her a hypocrite to her face. He restrained himself, however, and was grateful when Scully somehow sensed his anger and took up the questioning.

"Mary, do you know if Brenda was sick? Did she have any health problems? Did she miss a lot of work because of taking sick leave?"

Mary shook her head firmly. "No, not at all! Brenda was always at work. Even when she got a cold she worked. Once she came to work with a high fever. She was very dedicated to her job."

Okay, the woman was a paragon in the work force. There had to be a reason Marvin strayed in the first place, other than the fact of Mary's youthful beauty versus Brenda's relatively plain-Jane appearance. Mulder tried again. "Mary, do you know whether or not Brenda was happily married?" Blunt and to the point. Scully shot a swift glance his way but didn't say anything.

Mary's jaw dropped a little. "Happily... how would I know? I don't know... yes, of course she was happy with Marvin! God, who wouldn't be? He's a wonderful man!" She twisted her tissue into little shreds. "She loved him, and he loved her! Why would you think Brenda wouldn't be happily married?"

Mulder eyed her carefully and decided to let her have it, hoping it might shake something loose. "Because Marvin Jordan was having an affair with someone. We have proof." As he uttered those words, Mulder watched Mary's face carefully, and saw the color drain right out of her pretty face, saw the way her eyes got huge with shock. Or was that guilt? He was about to find out.

"Wha... are you... how... proof?" Mary's voice was thin and high. Mulder reckoned it could be shock mixed with guilt. He and Scully both watched as Mary's fair complexion went from pasty to bright pink. Her fingers were mangling what tissue shreds she had left, and her pointed little chin wobbled a bit. Her eyes dropped to the table and she refused to raise them even when Scully addressed her directly.

"Mary, listen to me. Agent Mulder and I have a job to do here. We have two women who have died under inexplicable circumstances. We have been assigned to solve a puzzle, and we have to go at it from all angles. If you can tell us anything at all about the woman that Marvin Jordan was seeing, we'd really appreciate the help." She eyed Mary Luden closely, carefully.

And Mary flushed pink again; her forehead actually broke out in a light sweat. She gave the appearance of a woman caught in a maelstrom of guilt - and her reply was predictable and given without looking either agent in the eye.

"I don't know anything about Marvin having an affair. I don't know anything!"

Three seconds later Mary Luden was on the floor, gasping and choking while her throat swelled - and Scully and Mulder were trying again to save a life they both knew in their hearts was beyond their saving. And once again, as they worked over Mary Luden's prone and unresponsive frame, their eyes met - and in Scully's Mulder could detect something besides helpless frustration.

He could detect fear.

Chapter Four

San Diego, California County Coroner's Office
Thursday, 3:36 PM

For the second time in two days, Scully stripped a pair of soiled latex gloves from her hands and tossed them onto the tray of instruments used during her examination of the victim's body. She took her time while washing her hands and splashed cold water on her face, beating down the niggling fear growing in her mind. Blotting her face with a paper towel, she took a deep breath and tried to school her features into placid lines. She balled her fingers around the paper towel and turned to face her partner.

Mulder was sitting at the small desk in the corner of the room. His feet were propped on top of the desk and his attention was focused on the file in his hands. Scully leaned one hip against the side of the desk and cleared her throat to gain his attention.

Mulder waved the file in his hands. "I have no idea what I'm reading," he confessed, "but at least it gave me something to look at while you were doing your thing over there." He tilted his head toward the sheet-covered body of Mary Luden.

Scully took the proffered folder from his hands and flipped it open. She scanned the contents of the three page typewritten report inside. "Well, the tests do not indicate the presence of any known toxins," she said. Her brow wrinkled in frustration. "Although the creatinine levels are elevated."

"Creatinine levels?" The perplexed look on Mulder's face prompted her to explain and she unconsciously fell into the kind of lecture mode she had used as an instructor at Quantico.

"Basically, it's a chemical waste that is generated from muscle metabolism. It's produced from creatine, which is a molecule used for the production of energy in muscles. Roughly two percent of a body's creatine is converted into creatinine every day. It's carried by the bloodstream to the kidneys where most of it is filtered out and disposed of in the urine."

"And how does that relate to what's going on here?" Mulder unscrewed the cap from a plastic bottle of water and chugged several mouthfuls.

Scully tapped the folder against her palm and continued her lecture. "The normal level of creatinine in the blood of an adult female is 0.5 to 1.1 milligrams per deciliter. Obviously, adults with a larger muscle mass can have higher levels."

"And in Brenda Jordan and Victoria Durkin...?"

Scully referred back to the report. "I would not describe either of them as being muscular, yet the creatinine levels for both were close to 4.5 milligrams."

"Is that high enough to cause these violent deaths?"

Scully shook her head. "No. As a diagnostic tool, an elevated creatinine level is indicative of poor kidney function. If the kidneys are impaired and are not filtering out the creatinine, then the levels will rise." Scully set the folder onto the desk and reached out a hand for the water bottle.

"But even then, an adult would have to have a creatinine level of close to 10.0 milligrams to even warrant the possible need for dialysis to help remove wastes from the blood. Some drugs can sometimes cause the creatinine levels to rise, but as I said, these test results do not indicate the presence of any known toxins. Certainly an elevated creatinine level would not cause a person to collapse and die they way these women did."

Mulder gnawed on his bottom lip and considered everything she had just told him. "What about Mary?" he asked. "Did you find any similarities to your examinations of Victoria and Brenda?"

Scully boosted herself onto the desk and unscrewed the cap from the bottle of water. "Same swelling of the tongue and abnormal redness to the gums. Inflamed and swollen throat; discoloration beneath the nails. Examination of the brain showed similar contusions to those found in my examinations of the other women."

"Well, I know that too much time has passed for you to find traces of the pound cake that the other women ate, but since you told me that the cake was there for Mary's birthday, I'd have to say that chances are very high that she would have eaten some of the cake as well."

Scully took a quick drink from the water bottle in a futile attempt to wash away the gnawing taste of fear.

"I heard her tell Victoria Durkin that she had been nibbling on the cake throughout the morning."

Mulder planted his shoes on the edge of the desk and pushed the chair back, its wheels squealing loudly in protest. He leapt to his feet and began pacing around the room.

"Well, then that's got to be it," he murmured. "The cake is the one thing that ties all three women together. Did you notice how many pieces of cake were missing?"

"I... uh. Mulder..."

"Whaddya think? More than half of the cake? Less?" He glanced her direction as he began a second circuit around the desk.

"Less than half. Listen, Mulder, I-"

Mulder nodded. "Okay. I'm pretty sure that the lab tests from Mary's autopsy will show results to the others-"


"While we're waiting for the lab reports, we can head back to Value-Save. We need to pull the records of everyone who was in the office that morning. Employees, customers... God! She might have offered some of that cake to the clerks from the other car rental counters in the airport."


He stopped pacing and turned to face her. Scully dropped her eyes and began peeling the label from the plastic bottle in her hands - a nervous habit of hers that he had become acquainted with early in their partnership.

"Scully?" He felt a hard ball of worry forming in his stomach as he took a step closer to her. When she looked up with a frightened expression, he was sure he could actually feel the blood drain from his face. She hadn't said a word since sharply calling out his name, but he knew. And when she finally did speak, her words struck him with the force of a bullet.

"Mulder... I ate some of that cake too."

San Diego, California Days Inn Balboa Park
Thursday, 7:18 PM

The heavy drapes familiar to every hotel room across the country were drawn closed. A lamp turned to its lowest setting gilded the couple entwined on the bed with an amber glow.

The bedspread had been tossed to the floor to join the pile of their clothes. Mulder was stretched out over Scully, trapping her between the crisp coolness of cotton sheets and the hot heaviness of his body.

No words passed between them. Instead, serrated sighs and muffled moans stood proxy for declarations of love. Propped on his forearms, Mulder tunneled his fingers into the crimson hair spilled over the white pillowcase. She raised her face to meet his descending mouth; his lips tugged at hers with a desperate passion that belied the unhurried movements of their hips.

Scully bound him to her with legs loosely coiled around his waist. With every languid thrust of his body into hers, her fingertips skated up the sweat-dampened hollow of his spine and with every reluctant retreat, skimmed back down the same path to dip into the matching dimples at the small of his back.

They joined their bodies in a frantic bid to keep their fears at bay, mating in an ageless reaffirmation of life and love. And when their passions had been spent, Mulder wrapped strong arms around Scully as she buried her lips against the pulse beating steadily in his throat. And resting in their protective embrace on this night, their sleep was relatively untroubled.

Watery early-morning sunlight was leaking in through the slatted blinds when Mulder stirred awake. Face buried in his pillow, he first registered the sound of birdsong outside their hotel window, then slowly came to awareness. Flopping over on his back, he stretched and rubbed the heels of his hands against his eyes, then glanced over at Scully's side of the bed, ready to smile and kiss her awake.

She wasn't there.

Frowning, Mulder sat up, looking around. He'd risen a few hours ago to get a glass of water, and she'd still been in bed, sound asleep. At least, she'd seemed that way to him. He'd slipped back under the covers and cuddled her close, falling asleep almost instantly.

He got out of bed, figuring he'd find her in the bathroom, since the door was partially open. Naked, he approached the door and rapped his knuckles lightly.

"Scully? You in there?"

A muffled "Yeah", floated back to him. Mulder pushed the door open all the way and walked in, his eyes focusing with difficulty in the dim little room.

She was sitting on the bath rug, her back resting against the tub. Cross-legged, wearing the wrinkled shirt he had on yesterday, her hair in tangles and her chin propped in her palm. Mulder sat down on the toilet seat and she glanced up at him with a small smile on her face. He reached out a hand to stroke her hair and Scully leaned into it like a small cat.

"Whatcha doing?" Even in the dimness Mulder could see the smudges under her eyes. She hadn't slept well at all. She shrugged and rubbed her cheek on the back of his hand as it curved over her shoulder.

"Nothing much. Sitting. Thinking. I couldn't sleep very well."

Mulder nodded, then opened his arms to her. Scully slowly got to her feet and moved closer, swinging a leg on either side of the seat and straddling his lap, face to face. Their eyes met, unsmiling and intent, both tired, both needing far more sleep than they'd gotten.

Mulder kissed her neck and felt tiny goosebumps form under her skin. "Thinking about recent developments and revelations? It's pretty much what kept me from getting into that deep REM."

She nodded and laid her cheek on his shoulder and her breath stirred the fine hairs behind his ear. "Yeah. It's hard not to. I woke up right after you came back to bed, and everything flooded my mind at once. I couldn't fall asleep again, so I came in here with the idea of taking a bath, and ended up on the rug, thinking." She hitched herself closer and Mulder stroked soothing hands up and down her back as she added, "Trying to piece all of this together has actually given me a headache. I took four aspirin and they're just now taking effect."

Mulder pressed his lips to her forehead. "Poor baby. It's frustrating. We need answers, and soon. We also need a plan. Is there anything else you remember about that day, something you haven't mentioned? Did you see anyone besides Victoria Durkin eating the cake? How much of it did you actually swallow, Scully?"

She thought for a moment. "I never saw anyone else eating it while I was standing there - other than Durkin. There were at least three pieces missing before she handed me a slice. And she gave the cake to me before she took any for herself. As I mentioned earlier, I heard Mary say she'd been nibbling here and there, so I assume she'd pulled a slice of the cake aside, probably first thing when she opened it up. I never saw Brenda eating, so she must have had a slice of it before I got up to the counter. That leaves one other slice unaccounted for." She frowned a little, forcing herself to recall minute details. "I ate one decent-sized bite. The cake tasted bitter - left an odd taste in my mouth. I swallowed it, Mulder - the entire bite I'd taken - and I dumped the rest of it in the nearest trash-can. I don't think anyone saw me do it. And just a few seconds after I threw it away, Victoria Durkin began choking."

Mulder nodded, relieved as hell that she'd only eaten a bite. Though Scully hadn't found evidence of any toxins, if they were dealing with some form of poison, thankfully she wouldn't have ingested much.

He sifted gentle fingers through Scully's tangled hair as she rested her head on his shoulder. In the silence of the small bathroom, a steady drip of the tub faucet blended with the chirp of a noisy lark in the tree outside their window. Sunlight slowly lightened the dim interior and without checking the watch he'd forgotten to remove last night, Mulder knew they had to get moving. They had a lot to do that day.

But he was loathe to move, didn't want to let go of the soft woman in his arms. He faced the knowledge that despite his efforts to remain calm, an insidious fear was escalating within him. His arms tightened around Scully's body and she cuddled even closer, her mouth now buried against his neck. Underneath his shirt she was bare and warm, her legs dangling on either side of his hips. His own body had responded to her damp warmth as soon as she'd sat in his lap - and for the time being he'd been content to feel her rubbing into his erection, the friction a comfort as well as an arousal.

But now... it seemed as if a potential time-bomb had found its way into their lives. It was just too incredible, the thought that a piece of cake could kill. No apparent cause, no trace of toxins. Elevated levels of chemical imbalance in the human body that could actually be the result of anything other than what each of these women ate prior to their deaths. It was easy to rationalize, that was true.

Easy... until it involved the woman he loved, adored, lived for. Easy - until the moment he admitted to himself that he was scared shitless.

She'd eaten a bite of cake, chewed and swallowed it. One bite. Maybe it wasn't enough to hurt her - and maybe it was. How the fuck could they know for sure? Three people were dead, and each of them had apparently eaten different amounts of the cake. Each had died at different times after ingestion.

It didn't add up.

And he was worried - hell, beyond worried. Scared shitless. It had to be repeated. He couldn't remember being this frightened even when Scully had been taken from him, even when he'd raced against time into that frozen Antarctic hell to save her from a fate he still struggled to comprehend. Time bomb.


His arms gripped her hard, panic and worry blending into an urgent and desperate need to connect with her, to feel her life force all around him. Mulder shoved one hand into Scully's hair and pulled back her head, barely registering her muffled squeak as he covered her mouth with his and kissed her, deeply. Demandingly. He stood up with her still in his arms, mouth locked to her lips, and carried her back to their bed. He deposited her on the twisted bed sheets, tugging off the shirt she still wore, following her down, draping his body over hers, their kisses now frantic as the force of his desire caught her alight.

She didn't ask why; she knew. Scully's arms and legs twined around him tightly; she met kiss for kiss and touch for touch. Mulder was marking her as his, as surely as any male animal marked his mate. She understood, he knew it... for she gasped as he pushed between her legs, pressed himself into her wet center, slipped inside and drove himself home. Her nails dug into his back, her teeth latched onto his bottom lip in a nipping kiss and she bit him as his hard thrusts raced them both to the edge.

And as they fell from that great height, for one perfect moment each were able to forget that anything at all threatened their love, and their world.

Chapter Five

San Diego, California Value-Save Rent-a-Car Montgomery Field
Friday, 8:15 AM

When Susan Moore arrived at the satellite office to open up for the day, Mulder and Scully were waiting for her, standing next to Mulder's rental car. Both wore dark suits and somber, albeit polite expressions. Both were also exhausted, having never fallen back asleep after the second contact with their bed. They'd held each other close, silent, deeply into their respective thoughts, resting for another hour before finally rising and facing the day. By mutual agreement their first stop would be to the Value-Save, to scoop up anything they could find. Then they had a 'date' with Marvin Jordan... he just didn't know it yet.

Susan smiled at them as she approached their car, her gaze lingering appreciatively on Mulder. The smile slipped a bit when she noticed the way he seemed to be leaning into the personal space of the small, slender red-haired woman at his side - who sure didn't seem to mind. Susan sighed; some women had all the luck. She kept her smile in place as she reached their sides.

"Good morning. Back again, I see. What can I do for you, Agent... I'm sorry, I can't remember your name." It was a partial truth; she remembered his first name. God, who could forget a name like Fox? Especially when the man more than lived up to that name -

Mulder smiled easily, offering his hand. "It's Agent Fox Mulder. This is my partner, Agent Dana Scully. If you don't mind, we have just a few more questions concerning Mary Luden and Brenda Jordan."

Susan looked confused for a moment, then shrugged and unlocked the door, holding it open for them. She switched on the lights and pressed a small button below the window, illuminating an 'Open' sign. Mulder and Scully waited until she'd booted up her computer and performed a half-dozen other office tasks. While the coffeemaker sputtered and dripped, Susan pulled up a few extra chairs behind the counter and they all sat.

"I'm not sure what more I can tell you, Agent Mulder, but I'll be glad to help out in any way I can." Mulder smiled gratefully at her, and she blinked in reaction to the full force of it. Lord, the man was lethal...

"Ms. Moore," Scully addressed her and Susan's attention shifted reluctantly, "I was here at the rental counter last Sunday when the customer Victoria Durkin died. Agent Mulder and I are trying to piece together not only what happened to her, but also to Brenda Jordan and to Mary Luden. We know you weren't working that day, but if you can think of anything that might help us..." She broke off, eyeing the woman closely. Susan Moore may not have been at work, but she might have heard something from another employee and filed it away in her memory.

Susan shook her head sadly. "No, I'm sorry. I haven't really heard anything other than normal shock. I mean, two co-workers, dead! I really liked Brenda. She was a sweetie. Mary, well - she was nice, too. But I knew Brenda better. I worked with her the longest."

The coffeemaker chose that moment to shut off and Susan jumped up to grab a cup, asking the agents if they wanted any. Both refused, and Susan busied herself with pouring a cup and adding a large spoonful of sugar before sitting back down again. She gulped half the cup before she continued talking. "I wanted to go to Brenda's funeral, but I just couldn't. I'm really bad with death, and funerals give me nightmares. Now I wish I'd gone."

Mulder watched her drain the cup, noticing the slight shake of her hand. Deliberately using her first name, he inquired, "Susan - the day that Brenda and Victoria Durkin died, there was a cake sitting on the counter. It was Mary's birthday that day, and she'd cut some of the cake and had given pieces of it to several people. We know that Brenda had a piece, and Mary ate some of it off and on throughout the morning. Do you know what happened to the cake after Sunday?"

Susan thought for a moment. "Well, I remember tossing the cake in the garbage on Monday morning when I came in. It was all dried out. Nobody had thought to cover it, I guess."

Mulder smiled encouragingly at her. "Can you remember how many pieces were missing from the cake you threw away?"

If Susan thought the question odd, she hid it well. "Not really. I mean, there were pieces gone, there were crumbs on the desk we all use. I just tossed it." She was very curious now, and it showed as she asked, "Why do you ask? Is there something about the cake that - " Her eyes widened as she put the deaths alongside the fact both her co-workers had eaten the cake; she exclaimed, "You think the cake made them sick, or something? You think the cake hurt them?"

Mulder and Scully locked eyes momentarily; Mulder gave her a tiny nod. Scully turned to Susan Moore and asked, "Ms. Moore... you didn't eat any of that cake, did you?"

"No, I didn't - oh, my God! I could have eaten it! I mean, I don't like cake but I crave sugar something terrible, especially with my morning coffee! And I sure eyed it a bit; it had lots of icing and looked pretty good to me even though I usually never eat the stuff. Oh, God... I could have eaten it! Please... did that cake kill Brenda and Mary? Was it... poisoned?" Susan was white-faced with panic.

Scully put on her most reassuring smile. "No, Ms. Moore. We don't think the cake contained poison. But there is a possibility it was tainted in some way. That's part of our investigation. We have to trace back to anyone besides Brenda and Mary - and Ms. Durkin - who may have eaten some of the cake. That's why we're asking you if you'd be willing to turn over your customer files to us - the ones from last Sunday. If we could pinpoint your Sunday customers, it would help a great deal."

Susan nodded, still shaky. "Sure. You can take them, as long as I have them back by the end of the week so I can Fed Ex them to the main office. We have to do it every Saturday, close of business. Well," she rubbed her fingers across her eyes, "I guess I should say 'I', not 'we'... seeing as I seem to be the only Value-Save employee left in the office since Lucinda quit and the others - well, since they... left..." Her voice broke a little. She rubbed at her face again, then rose and walked over to a beat-up lateral file, opening it up and pulling out a thick folder. "Here's everything from that Sunday. It looks like a lot but it really isn't. We staple all the contracts and assorted paperwork together so we don't lose anything."

She handed the folder to Mulder, who murmured his thanks. "We'll make sure to get this back to you in plenty of time for sending out. Now I think we should get out of your hair so you can start your day. Oh, one other thing - would you mind if we looked through the desk one last time? I know I went through Mary's drawer, but now I'm thinking we might want to also look through Brenda's as well - just in case something was missed."

Susan waved her hand toward the desk. "Be my guest."

While Scully flipped through the contents of the folder, Mulder searched through Brenda Jordan's drawer. It yielded even less than Mary Luden's had. A few dog-eared paperback novels. A purple coffee mug heavily stained on the inside, with the words, 'Who Loves Ya, Baby!' emblazoned on each side in neon pink. A hairbrush. A handful of cough drops and an unopened package of 'Thank You' cards.

Nothing. Mulder sighed in frustration, closed the drawer and then once more opened Mary's, determined to find something he overlooked before.

He flipped through the items again, carefully, this time opening the files he'd bypassed the first time, when he'd been more zeroed in on the photos he'd found. One file appeared to be nothing more than the usual employee-type items: health care reimbursement forms, compensation forms, paycheck stubs.

The second file appeared to be a little more personal; a few letters addressed to Mary from a 'Lydia Luden' - mother, or possibly sister? Mulder set them aside and kept looking.

A few seconds later, he found it... a receipt from a company called 'The Delivery Guys', for delivery of "One Cake, addressed to Mary Luden, care of Value-Save Rental Satellite Office, Montgomery Field".


The receipt had an address imprinted for the delivery company. Mulder pocketed the receipt plus the letters he'd found, then turned to Scully, catching her eye. She nodded and tucked the folder under her arm. Together they thanked Susan Moore for her help and assured her they'd bring the folder back to her on Saturday morning. They left the rental car office.

Out in the sunshine Scully glanced up at Mulder, squinting against the brightness of the day. "Okay. Now what? I saw you stuff something in your pocket. What did you find, Mulder?"

He pulled out the receipt and waved it under her nose. "Delivery receipt. For the cake. Paydirt, Scully - I hope. I say we go there first, then pay Marvin Jordan a little visit. He's lost two women in just a few days; I'd bet he's probably feeling really down. Maybe he'll talk. And if not, maybe we can... persuade... him to talk."

Scully sighed as she opened the passenger side door and slipped into her seat. "I have a feeling this is going to be one damned long day."

**San Diego, California Crowder and Jordan CPA Offices Friday 9:45 AM

Mulder swung into the parking lot and nabbed the last spot he could find and killed the engine. Leaning back in his seat, he rubbed his fingers into his dry, gritty eyes.

The delivery place had been a waste of time; it was only open on the weekend, just a small struggling business. They'd have to come back on Saturday. He rubbed at his eyes again, and without a word, Scully rummaged through her bag, coming up with a bottle of Natural Tears. She handed it to Mulder, who smiled his thanks to her and tipped his head back, shooting several drops into both eyes. He gave the bottle back to her, wiped the excess from underneath his eyes, and commented, "I must be drying up from the inside, or something. I can't keep any moisture under my lids."

Scully patted his shoulder in mock-sympathy. "I'll peel an onion and wave it around in your face, Mulder. That ought to be good for a few crocodile tears." She flipped a grin his way, then opened her door, Mulder copying her movements. He sent her a rude look across the top of the car.

"Smart-ass. Okay, let's see if ole Marv is home."

They walked up flagstone steps, entering the office through thick glass double doors that opened into a spacious lobby tastefully decorated in muted shades of gray and soft blue. Low, soothing canned music was meant to please, as was the bubbling fountain in one corner of the waiting area. The low sofas and glossy magazines scattered over polished tables invited the visitor to relax - and perhaps forget they were about to head into an accountant's office and maybe hear something distressing about their finances.

The overall effect of Crowder and Jordan was understated, elegant - and expensive-looking. It was obvious Marvin Jordan was doing quite well in the accounting business.

They gave their names to an efficient-looking woman in her late fifties sitting at a wide, neat-as-a-pin reception desk; her nameplate identified her as 'Mavis Flynn'. She looked down her nose at them from behind a pair of steel-rimmed half-glasses; she barely glanced at their proffered badges.

"Mr. Jordan is unavailable." Low voice, cold as the North wind and just as blunt. Great, Mulder thought; a barracuda. Truly the last thing they needed right about now.

He tried a smile. It dried up in the desert chill of Mavis Flynn's polite glare. "I know we don't have an appointment. But it's very important that we speak with Mr. Jordan. Now." Mulder's smile stayed steady but his voice was firm, brooking no argument.

Mavis Flynn was not swayed in the least. "And I repeat: Mr. Jordan is not available." She leaned forward in her seat, her eyes gaining another inch of frost to match the icicles dripping from her tongue. Idly, Mulder wondered if she'd ever gotten herself laid. Her panties were probably three sizes too tight...

He shook off the grossly unprofessional and vaguely disturbing thought and leaned forward as well, stating, "Madam, I suggest you make him available. We're here on official FBI business. And our time is every bit as valuable as Mr. Jordan's -"

The unflappable Flynn interrupted him quite rudely. "Somehow I doubt that. However, I would be happy to reserve approximately seven minutes of Mr. Jordan's time, for your usage. I believe I can fit you in at four-forty-two, on Monday." With that, she opened her appointment book, chose with great care a black lacquered fountain pen, and poised her writing hand over Monday's page. One gray eyebrow ascended in their direction as she awaited their decision.

Mulder stared at her for several seconds, then turned to Scully, meeting her own raised eyebrows and silent exasperation. Wordlessly, he stepped back from the reception desk, glanced in three different directions - and suddenly made a beeline for a closed door at one end of the spacious room. Scully grinned and followed; Ms. Flynn squawked aloud, sputtering, "Here, now! You cannot go bursting in on Mr. Jordan!"

Mulder tossed back a cheery, "Sure I can, Ms. Flynn - Marv and I are old memorial-service buddies." He and Scully reached the door, Mulder jerked it open and they stepped inside, almost slamming it on Mavis Flynn's pointed, stuck-up nose.

Inside an office even more luxurious than the main reception area, Marvin Jordan looked up in shock from the high gleam of his polished desk, and exclaimed, "How the hell did you get - oh, it's you. The FBI agents from the other day. Listen, this is a hell of a time to be trying to talk to me. Jesus, haven't you people got any empathy? I've just lost my wife, and now my best friend..." The man's face was pale and his eyes were rimmed in dark circles. Obviously he'd been grieving - but for whom? The million-dollar question, Mulder thought.

He and Scully flipped out their badges again, as per regulation, then Scully spoke first, keeping her voice even and low. "Mr. Jordan, Agent Mulder and I understand you've been through some difficult days, lately. And as we said before, we're sorry for your loss of Brenda and your friend Mary. But you have to understand that we're conducting an investigation. We need your cooperation and your help. It can't wait, so we request that you bear with us and allow us to ask you the questions we deem necessary."

Jordan stared hard at both agents, before shrugging and leaning back in his chair, the picture of abject misery. "Go ahead, but please keep it brief. My head is pounding and this is the last thing my blood pressure needs."

Mulder nodded. "We'll keep it as brief as possible. Now, Mr. Jordan... please, tell us: how well did you know Mary Luden? Was your association with her through your wife or had you known her before she started her job at Value-Save?"

"Well, I didn't meet Mary until a Christmas party at the rental office. I suppose she'd been working for them maybe four months. Brenda had taken Mary under her wing, like a mentor, I guess. Mary was like a little sister to me." Marvin looked appropriately misty-eyed. Scully choked back a silent gag, and Mulder had to bite the inside of his cheek hard to keep himself from saying something he'd surely later regret.

"Okay. So you and Brenda befriended Mary. Do you know of anyone who might have wanted to hurt her? Did she have any enemies? Anyone who might have been jealous of her?" Mulder watched the other man's eyes very closely.

Jordan looked bewildered. "Enemies? Mary? God, no! She was sweet and kind, full of life. She loved everybody. Who'd ever want to harm Mary? And, jealous? You mean, other women? Hell, I don't know - I don't think so. She was a pretty little thing but just as nice as can be. No, Mary didn't have any enemies that I'd know of."

Mulder nodded, "Okay. Were you aware, Mr. Jordan, that Mary Luden was having an affair with a married man? And would it have been possible that the wife of that married man might have gotten in the way of their combined happiness, as scorned wives sometimes do?" He waited for the explosion of denial...

He didn't have to wait long. "WHAT? Mary, having an affair? I don't believe... NO! She wasn't like that! She wouldn't do that!"

The shock in his voice and in his demeanor was very convincing, Mulder had to admit. And he was lying through his teeth, as well. Interesting and frustrating... Mulder chose to let that line of questioning rest for a bit, glancing over at Scully as he nodded to her.

Reaching into the pocket of her suit coat, Scully brought out the pictures of Mary and Marvin, snuggling together; silently she handed them to the distraught accountant. "Mr. Jordan, would you care to take a stab at explaining these photos? We found them in Mary's desk at work."

The color drained from Marvin Jordan's face as he looked down at the photos Scully had thrust into his hands, staring in disbelief at the sight of him and Mary cuddled in a loverlike spooning pose. His mouth opened a few times but nothing came out. Finally, clearing his throat, he attempted a feeble, "Well... I think I know when this one was taken. We had a dinner at our house and you know, we were all such great friends... I think Brenda took this photo - and you see, Mary and I were just goofing around..."

Silently, Scully reached out and flipped the photo over, allowing him to read the back inscription, which proclaimed: 'Me and My Marvy at the cabin'.

If possible, Jordan's face paled even more upon reading the words written there, in the childishly round script of a young woman who'd foolishly thought herself in love with a man years older than her - and married, as well.

In the silence of Jordan's now-visible panic, Scully took the photos from his hands and shuffled through them until she found the shot of him standing alone in the sun. She showed it to him, then turned it over so he could read the inscription, 'Babe - love you. Need you. Just you!' Written in a masculine hand, it didn't take a genius to see that the bold scrawl on the photo matched the handwriting visible on a yellow legal pad that lay on Jordan's desk.

Mulder coughed softly. "Mr. Jordan, Agent Scully and I have had a very long week. Between the two of us, we have witnessed the deaths of three women. And if we have to take up residence in San Diego, we're going to get to the bottom of their deaths. Now, I suggest we just cut to the chase. I strongly recommend you quit lying to us and tell the truth, for once in your life. Were you having an affair with Mary Luden?"

Jordan heaved a great sigh, hanging his head. His arms hung limply at his sides and his hands trembled as he finally nodded. When he raised his face his eyes glittered with tears. "Yes. Okay? Yes, goddamn it! Mary and I were in love. I was going to ask Brenda for a divorce. I had every intention of marrying Mary! Jesus... I adored her. We wanted children! Brenda... she hated kids. She never wanted any with me, and when I found out how she really felt about babies, it was the beginning of the end, for us. Our marriage was really shaky long before I met Mary. I swear it."

The tears overflowed down his face and he swiped at them impatiently. "Brenda... she never wanted to go anywhere, do anything. I worked my ass off every day and all she wanted to do when I got home was watch television. For hours. Or, she'd be on the damned computer all fucking night. It wasn't a marriage. Not for a long time." His eyes swam with more tears as he pleaded for their understanding. "Brenda and I shouldn't have gotten married, I see that now. We never wanted the same things. And when Mary came along, it was as if everything in the world I ever desired was right there in one sweet woman."

The agents had heard this line of defense before, in the six years they'd been partnered together. Mulder was immune to the whole 'crime of passion' routine - and he knew Scully was, as well. "Look, Mr. Jordan... personally it matters nothing to me whether or not you found yourself stuck in a loveless marriage. If you were unhappy and went elsewhere for that happiness, it's also no skin off my big toe. But if you in any way combined that unhappiness with the thought of doing away with one woman, in order to have the other, free and clear..." He purposely let his words dangle. And watched the other man's face very carefully.

Utter shock wreathed Marvin Jordan's face. "You think I killed my wife? I don't... you think I KILLED Brenda so I could have Mary! Jesus Christ!" The shock was too real. Mulder could see it for himself. Marvin Jordan was actually rather lousy at concealing the truth - and it was obvious he was in deep distress about Mary Luden.

Scully caught his eye briefly, and Mulder nodded slightly. She placed the photos on the corner of Jordan's desk, and faced the pale and trembling accountant. "Mr. Jordan, it's our belief that Brenda's and Mary's deaths are highly suspicious. You've already more or less figured that out for yourself, otherwise you wouldn't have reacted so strongly to Agent Mulder's remark. We still need your help. Is there anything you can remember about that Sunday; Mary's birthday? Anything at all? Did you buy her a present, or flowers, have anything sent to her at work? Did you buy her a birthday cake?"

Jordan wiped at his eyes and stared at Scully in confusion. "A cake? No... in fact, I suck the big one when it comes to birthdays. I never remember them until the day after. It used to piss Brenda off all the time. I could remember every other special day, except a birthday. I had forgotten about Mary's, until the next morning. She called me and told me about that woman who collapsed at the counter; poor baby was so shook up about it. I remember she gave me grief about forgetting her birthday card, but thanking me..." Jordan broke off, eyes widening a little as he pulled from his memory. "Now that you mention it, Mary did say something about cake. She thanked me for sending her a cake. But I never did that; personally, I don't eat sweets at all. I'd never think about giving anyone a birthday cake."

They had known that, of course. The receipt for the delivery of the cake had been found in Brenda Jordan's desk drawer. Her husband's genuine confusion sealed the deal. Mulder planted his hands on the edge of Jordan's desk. "We're going to need copies of your wife's credit card bills."

"Okay. This is what we know so far." Mulder was counting down, as he and Scully sat in the idling car outside Crowder and Jordan's offices. Inside, an upset, no doubt grieving Marvin Jordan had been told not to leave town and to call them immediately if he thought of anything else. Now, it was left to the agents to string together what they'd learned.

"Three women die within a variable time frame, all having eaten cake that may or may not be toxic in some way. It may or may not be murder. It may or may not be anything more than an accident. Mary Luden thought her boyfriend sent her the cake, and a receipt from the delivery place - found in Brenda Jordan's desk - shows us nothing except Luden's name as the recipient of the cake. Mary Luden was having an affair with Brenda Jordan's husband, and Brenda herself may or may not have known about it. For that matter, she might not have understood the trouble her own marriage was in. Right so far?" He glanced over at Scully and she nodded, busy jotting down notes on a pad of paper.

"Yes, so far. And we have more or less established the three deaths as being a result of consuming the cake. What we need to figure out is how, and why. I think how would be the more important of the mysteries."

Mulder curled a palm over her free hand, twining their fingers together. He squeezed her hand gently and she returned the squeeze, then continued, "We need to find the trigger. For every action there is a reaction, right? Basic physics. Something about that cake has got to be toxic; I just haven't discovered it yet. That doesn't mean it's not there."

Mulder nodded, suddenly drained to the bone and fighting back feelings of helplessness. "It's there, Scully. Probably as obvious as hell. Hiding right out in the open. We just need to let it find us." He gave her hand another squeeze. "I know you probably already told me... but humor me, okay? Tell me the very last thing you remember hearing Victoria Durkin say, right before she died."

Scully pressed the heel of her hand into her forehead, thinking. "Well, let's see. She was eating the cake. I remember thinking mine tasted really bad, surprised because it looked so professionally decorated. Durkin ate all of her piece, I'm sure; I didn't see her toss any of it away. Mary asked her how the cake was, and Durkin said it was delicious. Then she started choking."

Mulder nodded encouragingly. "Good. Now, Brenda Jordan. She was upset, frightened. She'd been screaming most of the night, according to that Detective, Rosa Damarco. I asked her what she'd meant when she'd yelled about 'not supposed to happen that way'... remember? She got even more hysterical, said she didn't know why Durkin died. Then she started choking."

Scully picked up the narrative from there. "Right. And then, Mary Luden. She was nervous, had difficulty looking us in the eye. Guilty as hell, that's for sure... but about having an affair, although she disavowed it, as I recall. Loudly. Then she choked, and collapsed."

As she spoke those last words, Scully's eyes locked with Mulder's - both of them acknowledging the same epiphany - that three women had all choked to death immediately after answering a question.

A question... there had to be some kind of connection, Mulder was thinking. Question - response. Death.

What the fuck could it be?

And then he heard it all again, in his mind; let it flow through him again, like a rerun:

'How's the cake? Delicious...'

'What did you mean? Nothing, I don't know why she died...'

'An affair. I don't know anything about it...'

And there it was, all of a sudden. Right there, so plain and so simple it could have easily passed him over. Simple answers often were the most deceiving. Simple. Deadly simple, apparently...

A lie. They'd all told a lie. Right before death, each of them had lied. It hit him, rolled over him and lodged inside him, icy-hot and stabbing, a bolt of certainty that sank in his gut and bit him hard. Mulder grabbed at Scully's arms and held on like a lifeline. He could feel the heat actually drain out of his body.

"Scully, they lied. All three of them lied, seconds before they died. I don't know how in hell it could have happened that way, but somehow that cake killed them because they ate it and then told a lie." **

Chapter Six

San Diego, California Java Net Cafe
Friday 2:18 PM

Scully pushed the passenger door closed and walked around the car to join Mulder on the sidewalk. She squinted against the sun and surreptitiously rubbed her fingers against her forehead.

"How's the headache?" he asked as they walked. She opened her mouth to brush off his concerns but stopped when he abruptly wrapped a bruising hand around her arm.

"Ow! Mulder!" She looked up to see both panic and caution in his eyes. She blew out a frustrated breath. She couldn't think of any science to back up Mulder's theory that the telling of a lie was the trigger in the deaths, but she had promised him that she would be careful. Until today, she'd had no idea how many tiny, seemingly insignificant fibs or half-truths tripped off her tongue with ease every day.

"I'll be happy to get back to our room and collapse into bed," she admitted. It wasn't really a direct answer to his question, but it wasn't a lie, either. A ghost of a smile flitted across his face in acknowledgment of her deft handling of his question. The faint smudges beneath her eyes were proof of her claim of tiredness as well as an answer to whether or not her headache had abated. His grip lightened and his hand slid down to clasp hers briefly before holding the door open for her to precede him into the Java Net Cafe.

"In my day," Mulder leaned over Scully's shoulder and spoke directly into her ear, "the kids used to hang out in video arcades, playing Pac-Man and swilling sodas."

Scully huffed out a quiet laugh and looked around the busy cafe. One end of the shop housed a coffee bar. Three clerks bustled behind the bar pouring exotically named coffees into paper and plastic cups bearing the green and yellow Java Net logo. The hissing of steaming milk warred with the whirring sounds made as a clerk ground fresh coffee beans for a waiting customer. Mouth-watering baked goods in gleaming glass display cases tempted all to abandon their diets. Overstuffed furniture was scattered about to create a cozy and inviting environment for customers who were engaged in quiet conversations or catching up on their reading.

The other side of the cafe was an entirely different world. Dozens of computer monitors stood on gleaming metal workstations. Two pre-teen girls giggled as they swapped instant messages with unseen friends. Several college-aged students had apparently abandoned their dorms and personal computers, choosing instead to do their research in a more communal setting. A harried looking mother glanced at her watch, tapped her young son on his shoulder and held up three fingers to remind him that he only had a few minutes left to devote to the game he was playing.

Scully watched two teenagers battling alien invaders for supremacy of the earth on a monitor near the windows that were tinted against the sun. When a blinding flash of light exploded on the screen, the two young men howled and threw themselves against the backs of their chairs, tossing down their game controls. Apparently round one went to the alien forces.

Scully tilted her head back to look up at Mulder. "They're still playing video games," she murmured. Her eyes followed one of the teenagers as he worked his way across the store to the coffee bar for a refill. "They just prefer their caffeine without the carbonation."

Mulder followed her gaze, briefly wondering how the kid's jeans riding so low on his hips managed to defy the laws of gravity and not plummet to the floor. He knew he sounded like an old man, but watching the teen saunter across the room with his boxers proudly on display to anyone who cared to look...

"Takes the expression 'be sure to wear clean underwear' to a whole new level, huh?"

Scully laughed again. "They're expensive, Mulder," she chided, eyeing the familiar logo of a high-end designer on the waistband of the youth's boxers. "You don't want to just cover them up."

Mulder arched one brow. "In that case, I'm gonna run out tomorrow and buy you half a dozen designer bras." He aimed a discreet glance at Scully's breasts and heaved a lusty sigh.

Scully stifled the retort that sprang to mind and settled for a classic eye roll. She tugged her lightweight jacket over her hips and followed the kid in the low-riders toward the counter. Mulder waited a beat or two before following her across the room, thoroughly enjoying the way the three-inch heels of her new boots lent a distinctive sway to her hips beneath the soft knit of her trousers. A slow smile curved his lips and he made a mental note to buy that designer lingerie, content with the knowledge that he would be the only one invited to the fashion show.

By the time they reached the counter, he had schooled his features into the more serious and much practiced persona of a government agent.

"What can I get you?" The freckle-faced blonde behind the counter looked up at them with an expectant smile on her face.

"We'd like to speak with the manager," Scully requested politely. The girl shrugged and looked toward the far end of the counter.

"That's him, there," she pointed. She raised her voice. "Warren, these people want to speak with you." The young black man working the cash register glanced up and nodded.

"I'll be with you in a moment," he promised before turning back to the customers he was helping. He handed one woman several bills in change while her companion scribbled something into a book lying open on the counter. Warren signaled for one of the clerks to take over at the register and walked to meet Mulder and Scully.

"What can I do for you folks?" His expansive smile dimmed when they discreetly laid their badges onto the countertop.

"I'm Agent Fox Mulder. This is my partner, Agent Dana Scully of the FBI. Do you have an office or someplace we can speak privately?" Mulder asked in a low voice. Warren looked up and his brown eyes reflected the confusion and worry that even the most innocent of people feels when confronted with silver badges in faux leather wallets.

Scully's smile was soft and encouraging. "Everything is okay," she assured him. "We just need to ask you a few questions." Warren warily beckoned them to follow as he led the way to a grouping of comfortable chairs tucked into an otherwise empty corner of the store.

"We just received a delivery of supplies today," he explained. "The office is jammed with unpacked boxes. I hope this is okay." He waited until the two agents were settled into their chairs. "Can I get you anything? Coffee?" They shook their heads and Warren sank into his chair.

"How can I help you?"

Mulder pulled a photograph from the inside pocket of his jacket. "Do you recognize this woman?"

Warren studied the photo carefully and nodded. "Yes. I've seen her here. Has she done something wrong?"

Scully pulled several sheets of paper from her leather tote. "Her name is Brenda Jordan," she told the young manager. "We're investigating her death and the deaths of two other women." She consulted the papers in her hands. "We acquired copies of Mrs. Jordan's credit card records and found out that she had made several visits to this cafe in the days and weeks before her death."

The confusion evident on his face, Warren shook his head. "You don't think someone here had anything to do with..." A look of horror widened his eyes.

"No." Mulder leaned forward, his elbows resting on his thighs. "It's routine. We're trying to piece together Mrs. Jordan's movements during the last days of her life. What can you tell us about her?"

Warren relaxed and bent forward, unconsciously mimicking Mulder's pose. He glanced down at the photo again and shrugged. "Not much," he admitted. "She came in here four, maybe five nights while I was working. Usually got here after ten o'clock." He handed the photo back to Mulder and glanced towards the lively scene on the other side of the store. "The older folks like to get here after the kids have gone home and things quiet down."

Mulder bit his lip and hurriedly glanced down; Scully pasted a polite and encouraging smile on her face while she struggled not to take offense. Brenda Jordan had only been a few years older than she.

"She would get a small latte and pay for her computer time," Warren continued. "She was quiet. Spent a lot of time glancing around to be sure no one was watching what she was doing."

"Did her behavior strike you as odd?" Mulder asked.

Warren let out a jaded laugh "Nah. A lot of people come here because they don't want anyone at home to know what sites they're surfing. We get our fair share of twitchy, nervous types."

"Is there any way we could trace Mrs. Jordan's activities while she was on-line?" Scully wondered.

Warren's forehead creased. "Listen... I'm just the manager here. I don't know that I have the authority to give out that kind of information on our customers. Don't you need a warrant or something?"

Scully stifled a sigh. "Mrs. Jordan's husband is cooperating with our investigation. He provided us with his wife's credit card statements, which led us to your store." She noted that Warren still looked worried. "Tell us what would make you more comfortable in helping us."

Warren pushed himself to his feet. "Let me call my boss." Mulder and Scully exchanged long-suffering looks and watched the young man walk to his office. Ten minutes passed before Warren reappeared.

"My boss - Mr. Janowski - is on his way. He should be here in about an hour," he explained. "Are you sure I can't get you anything while you wait? It's on the house."

Java Net Cafe
Friday 3:32 PM

They whiled away the time sipping their drinks and quietly reviewing the other transactions on Brenda Jordan's credit card statements which consisted of a dozen or so average purchases of gasoline, groceries and clothing. In comparing the last month's statement to several preceding, the only transactions that appeared out of the ordinary were those of her recent patronage of the Java Net cafe.

"Agents?" A trio of shadows fell over them and they looked up to find Warren standing nearby with two other men.

"Agents Mulder and Scully - this is the owner of the store, David Janowski." They stood and greeted the man with the friendly smile and worried eyes.

"This is my attorney, Bob Dunn." He swept a hand toward the third man. Once the introductions and handshakes had been dispensed with, everyone sat down again. Scully noticed the subtle shifting of Mulder's legs which was an indication that he was growing impatient, but a quick glance at his face showed a mask of interested patience.

"I asked Bob to accompany me because I want to make sure that my business and I are covered - legally speaking - before we release any information." He stretched his legs out and settled his hands comfortably over his stomach. Mulder and Scully dutifully turned their attention to the lawyer, explaining again that Marv Jordan was cooperating in their investigation and that no one at Java Net Cafe was under any scrutiny.

"As we told Warren, we're simply trying to track Mrs. Jordan's movements in the time leading up to her death," Scully said pleasantly. "As a matter of routine, we review the credit card statements of a person whose death is suspicious," she explained. "Mrs. Jordan's credit card statements indicate that she only recently began to frequent your store."

"We interview people who knew or interacted with the deceased," Mulder picked up the narrative. "Family, friends, co-workers. In Mrs. Jordan's case, we're looking to find out if she had established any relationships - business or personal - over the Internet." He shrugged and glanced at the three men seated across from him. "That's where you, hopefully, will be able to help us."

Janowski glanced at his attorney with a questioning look. Bob Dunn pursed his lips and thought quietly for a moment about what he had just been told. "You don't sign any confidentiality agreements with your clientele," he mused aloud. "As a matter-of-fact, you don't enter into any contract with them at all." He nodded. "Of course, we want to cooperate with the FBI. What do you need?"

"Thank you," Scully murmured. "We need access to the websites that Brenda Jordan visited when she was here."

David Janowski looked at his employee. "Warren, is that something we can do?" The young man nodded.

"We'll need to use the office. I can't access the server from any of the public terminals."

A few minutes later the five of them had picked their way through the boxes of supplies lining the hallway and office located behind the coffee bar. Warren was seated in the chair behind the desk. He booted up the computer and picked up the phone.

"Lisa. Would you bring me the log books for the last two months?" He hung up the phone and glanced at the group surrounding him. "Our customers pre-pay for their computer time," he explained. "They sign in and out of a log book that we keep at the cash register." The door to the office opened and the blonde-haired girl from the coffee bar walked in with two books.

"Here you go, Warren." She handed the books to him and looked curiously around the assembled group. "How are you, Mr. J?"

Her boss smiled. "I'm well, Lisa. Thanks. Do me a favor?"


"Can you handle running things out front? Warren's going to be tied up with us for a little while."

"No problem."

"Thanks, Lisa."

She pulled the door closed behind her and everyone returned their attention to Warren.

"Tell me, Warren," Mulder asked. "How does this work? I assume that the history trail is wiped clean each time a customer ends their session and logs off the computer?"

"Right. Each customer is assigned a user identification number. They use their ID number every time they log on, along with a password of their choosing.

"But you can access the history from this computer?" Scully crossed her arms over her chest and leaned against a filing cabinet.

"No. The server will only tell us when she logged in and what terminal she was working at on any given visit. Then we'll have to go out there," he jutted his chin toward the door, "and pull the information from the individual machines she was using." Warren entered his own user identification numbers and password into the computer. "The customers don't have access to the server, but we do from this computer."

He flipped open one of the log books. "We do basic maintenance on the computers twice a month - you know, wipe the temporary Internet files and history, clear out the caches, defrag the hard drives, stuff like that," he explained. "If you can tell me what dates she was here, I can pinpoint what time she came and left."

Mulder leaned over Scully's shoulder as they consulted the printouts of Brenda Jordan's credit card statements. "It looks like October 12th was the first time she came in," Mulder said. "She was back about a few days later on the 16th. Then she was here again on the 21st, 23rd and 24th." Warren grabbed a pen and scribbled the dates as Mulder read them aloud.

Scully flipped to the next page of the statement. "That's it," she told them. "There are no other entries, so she either never came back, or she paid cash for her computer time."

Warren ran a finger down the entries in the log for October 12th. "Ah, here she is." He tapped his finger on the page. "She signed in at 10:03 PM and then signed out at 11:18". He jotted the information down with one hand and rapidly turned the pages with the other. "October 16th... October 16th..." he muttered as he flipped through the pages. "Okay, here we go. In at 9:53 and out again at 10:45." He searched the log book until he had all of the log entries for the five dates in question and then flipped through a calendar on his desk. He spun back to the computer and the others waited quietly as his fingers flew over the keyboard and an inexplicable series of prompts and commands flashed on the monitor.

"We lucked out that she used the same computer every time she stopped in," Warren pushed his chair away from the desk and stood. "Unfortunately, none of the information from her visit on the 12th will still be available." He jabbed a finger on the calendar. "We wiped the computers a couple of days after that. "Everything else should still be there. Let's go see if anyone is using that unit now."

They drew curious looks from the customers as they trooped out of the office and gathered around one of the computers in the cafe.

"Now what?" Bob Dunn asked.

"Now we find out what she was doing." Mulder braced his hands on the edge of the Workstation and watched Warren use the mouse and keyboard to pull the information they were looking for. The cursor zoomed over the monitor. Warren's finger clicked madly on the mouse as he moved from one screen to the next. He jumped from the history folder to the temporary Internet file folder, highlighting various files, always moving on faster than any of the others could follow. Scully opened her mouth to ask him to slow down a bit.

"Uh, Warren, could you maybe slow..."

The young man lifted one hand from the keyboard to hold her off even while the other continued to masterfully manipulate the mouse. In less than twenty minutes time, Mulder and Scully held pages of information still warm from the printer.

"Damn, he's good!" Bob Dunn exclaimed.

Mulder looked up from the papers in his hands. "Kid deserves a raise!" He and Warren exchanged a grin.

"Do you need anything else?" Warren asked.

Scully shook her head. "Not at the moment, but if we need your expertise, may we give you a call?"

Warren looked to his boss who nodded his approval.

"Sure," he said. "I'd be happy to help."

San Diego, California Days Inn, Balboa Park
Friday, 6:20 PM

While Mulder was out getting their dinner, Scully was back in their hotel room going over the information they had brought back from the cafe. She shifted, trying to find a more comfortable position as she sat at the small desk. She briefly considered settling onto the bed with her laptop, but she feared she would succumb to the lure of taking a nap. She pulled off her glasses and rubbed her fingers under her eyes. Arching her back against the uncomfortable chair, she raised her arms over her head, indulging in a long, satisfying stretch. She was tired. What she needed was a hot shower. Scully glanced toward the bathroom and considered taking a break before shaking herself back to reality. She peered at the papers spread over the desk and typed a URL into the browser window on her laptop.

"www.customcurses.com," Scully murmured. It was true, she thought as she watched the page slowly load. You really could find absolutely anything on the Internet. Brenda Johnson had been visiting some very interesting web sites before her death. Mulder would love this, she thought. She glanced at her watch and noted that he would be returning with the food at any moment. She used her forefinger to toggle the cursor control on the keyboard and with great fascination began reading what appeared to be a menu of spells, hexes and curses to be had for a fee - spells for love and luck; for weight loss; to protect and bless a home; to bring good health; spells for prosperity and wealth. Black magick - hexes to be cast upon the rival for a lover or break up a marriage. Curses to inflict pain on an enemy or throw their lives into turmoil and chaos...

Engrossed in the wealth of information artfully displayed on the web page, she was distracted by the faintly annoying sound of a computerized version of 'Take Me Out to the Ballgame' playing. She fumbled about with one hand and pulled Mulder's cell phone from beneath the papers scattered over the desk.

"Scully," she said into the phone.

"I'm sorry, I was trying to reach Fox." Scully felt her hackles - and her blood pressure - rise at the sound of the other woman's voice.

"He's not here at the moment, Agent Fowley." Scully worked hard to match the older woman's falsely pleasant tone. "Is there something I can do to help you?" Her eyes fell back onto the computer screen and she idly clicked on something marked 'Curses for the Vain'. She bared her teeth in a feral smile as she imagined what the statuesque woman would look like if her hair fell out.

Scully allowed herself a second or two to wallow in the pleasurable fantasy before turning her attention back to the voice in her ear.

"No, thank you." Diana's saccharine-sweet voice might fool Mulder... "He asked me to do some research for the case you're working on and I wanted to... well, just tell him I called. He knows the number," she purred.

Scully's eyes narrowed but before she could reply, the other woman had disconnected the call. Scully pushed her chair away from the desk and stood. Her hand clenched around the phone before she tossed it angrily onto one of the beds. She scrubbed her hand against her pant leg and growled softly under her breath.

"Who was that on the phone?"

Startled, she spun to find Mulder poised inside the open door of their room, a curious look on his face. He held two bottles of spring water in one hand and balanced a pizza box on the other. She had been so caught up in her reaction to Diana's call that she hadn't even heard him open the door.

She didn't want to give him Diana's message; she didn't want to even speak the other woman's name. She and Mulder were in a good place - a wonderful place in their relationship. Their conflicting opinions on Agent Diana Fowley, however, were a continual sore spot between them. She opened her mouth to brush off his question, to tell him that it had been no one - a wrong number, when his earlier words of caution rang in her head.

Instead, she told him the truth. "It was Agent Fowley." She took a deep breath and forced a note of studied calm into her voice. "She has the information that you apparently asked her to get." She could feel the angry flush stealing over her cheeks and she dropped back into her chair, studiously concentrating on the web page glowing softly on the laptop's screen.

Despite her best efforts, ice frosted her words. "She said you had her number. I'm sure she's waiting for your call."

Mulder set the pizza and the bottles of water down on top of the dresser. "I, um, asked her to do a little research." His voice was slightly conciliatory.

"Yes, I know." Scully continued to feign interest in the display on her computer screen. "She didn't see fit to leave the information with me, however, so you'll have to call her back."

"Didn't see fit to..." He frowned and shook his head. "Well, she probably felt that since I was the one who asked her in the first place, she'd need to talk to me personally. She knows I always answer my cell phone, and - what?" Mulder's brow knit in confusion as he observed her reaction. "You're looking at me strangely. What's wrong? You're not angry she called, are you?"

Scully glanced up. "I was just surprised that you thought we needed help from an outsider. I wasn't expecting her call." Her words belied the casually disinterested look she had adopted.

"Outsider?" Mulder sputtered. "Diana isn't an outsider. She's a good agent and could be a lot of help to us. I'm sorry I didn't mention I'd asked her for help, but then again, we don't exactly see eye to eye on Diana, do we?" he challenged.

"I'm really not in the mood to get into this tonight, Mulder. Let's just eat the pizza before it gets cold so we can get back to work." She rose from her seat.

Mulder stepped into her path. "No, I don't think so, Scully. I can tell Diana's call upset you, and I want to know why another agent collecting information that can only help us on this case, gives you this level of attitude." He planted his hands on his hips. "I think we need to talk about this. Now."

She wished she had kept her mouth shut. "Can't we just let this go? I'm tired. This entire trip to San Diego has been exhausting." She lifted her hands before her to imply that she was conceding defeat. "God only knows how we managed to solve any cases before Agent Fowley came back," she said sarcastically, "but if you think we need her help, then by all means, let's take her help. Why not?"

If he wasn't irritated before, he was now. "Jesus! You're just not willing to give Diana a break, are you?" He took a deep breath in an effort to dial down his temper. "Look, I know she rubbed you the wrong way right at the beginning, although I'm still not sure why. And I may be less than thrilled to see her teamed up with that pencil-neck Spender, but Diana is not the enemy. You don't know her the way I know her, Scully."

She was sick to death of hearing about how well Mulder knew the other woman. "Well, Mulder, although it's not unusual for us to hold differing viewpoints on any number of things, I'm willing to concede that you have a much more... intimate knowledge of Agent Fowley's, uh... character."

For a moment Mulder regarded her in bewilderment, then her words connected with him and he nodded knowingly. "Ahh. I see where this is going. You're resentful of Diana because I had a past association with her. Admit it. You're jealous." He was pushing. He had known from the moment the two women had laid eyes on each other that Scully had developed an instant disliking to Diana. But whenever the subject came up, she retreated behind the icy cool persona of Agent Scully. This was his chance to drag it out into the open and he was not going to let it slip away. He pushed down the niggling worry, that this wasn't the best of ideas, and added, "That's what this is. I could have asked another agent, an 'outsider', as you put it - I could have asked someone else to help out and you wouldn't have ruffled one feather, would you? But this is Diana Fowley, and so you can't see anything but green."

Scully rolled her eyes. "Oh, please. She hasn't earned my trust yet. Can we just leave it at that?" She had no intention of giving him the satisfaction of knowing that she was jealous of the older woman. She could barely acknowledge the fact to herself.

But Mulder wasn't going to back down. "No, we can't leave it at that. No fucking way!" He stepped closer. "I see this as yet another example of how you can't seem to handle any reference to Diana, any association. Jealousy, pure and simple. In this case, potentially damaging, because I think she could help us." His voice was chastising. "So, what do you want to do? Lose out on some vital information just because you don't like the fact that my ex-partner is hanging around enough to be of assistance?"

Scully ducked her head, seething at his patronizing tone. "Ex-partner!" she muttered. She shoved her fingers through her hair. "I don't trust her. You taught me that, remember, Mulder? Trust no one. I learned at the feet of the master." She needed to get out of this room before she did something - said something - she would regret.

Mulder moved back into her path, determined to clear the air. "You have no reason not to trust her, Scully. She has never done a thing to you. You chose to dislike and mistrust her from the first, based on nothing more than the fact of my past association with her. That's jealousy, with a capital "J"."

He took a step back and lifted his hands in supplication. He could see the angry flush blooming over Scully's cheeks. The situation was getting out of control. He softened his voice and tried to get Scully to understand.

"Look, I know Diana. I know her dedication and I know her loyalty. She means a lot... she has been there for me, in the past, before we met, back when I needed an anchor in my life."

But his efforts fell on deaf ears. "I have every reason not to trust her, Mulder." Now Scully stepped into his space. "You were so ready to blame me. You were furious with me when I was unable to provide OPR with the science you needed to prove that the virus I was infected with last summer was extraterrestrial." She shot him an angry look when he tried to interrupt. "But you were very quick to forgive Agent Fowley when her report was less than supportive. You left me with Gibson to run off with her to the power plant. And even though you claim that you both saw an alien being, there was no mention of it in her report. And yet you continue to insist that she's protecting you, protecting the work."

Scully's heart was pounding in her chest and she was having difficulty controlling her breathing. "You condemn me for not believing in something I didn't see, but you praise her when she lies in a report and hangs you out to dry. So, no. I don't trust her." She closed her eyes and crossed her arms over her chest. "And I don't know you when she's around, Mulder."

"That's bullshit, Scully!" He wrapped his fingers around her biceps and hauled her against him. "I'm the same person I've always been, the same person you've always known." He gave her a tiny shake. "As far as my 'reasons' for going with Diana to the power plant instead of with you... maybe right about then, after what we'd been through in that frozen hell-hole, what I needed most was a more open mind, regardless of the outcome." Mulder dropped his hands from her arms and paced away from her. Suddenly it was vital he make her understand something he himself wasn't completely sure of...

"I've been as honest with you as I can be," he continued. "You know that. I'd like the same courtesy, Scully." He turned to her with a pleading look on his face. "I want this out in the open at last, so we can deal with it. If we have to keep it covered up, our relationship will never be solid."

Scully was beyond hearing the beseeching tone of his voice or the look of pained love on his face. "As honest as you can be? Meaning what? Is there a certain point at which you feel that it is okay to be less than honest with me?" She stalked across the room and poked a finger into his chest to emphasize her every word.

"You want honesty? Fine. You're right. Our relationship will never be solid until we get it all out. I don't like Agent Fowley. That doesn't surprise you." She stepped back. "Maybe this will. I don't like you when she's around because when she's around you're less than truthful."

Mulder paled, clenching his hands into fists. "I'm less than truthful. Is that so? You don't know shit from shinola as far as what you think I might be, when someone from my past is in my life." Her words cut him, and he reacted to them, all emotion and little reasoning.

He grated out, "All you can see is that a woman I used to be partnered with, someone I trusted the same way I trust you, has come back. Because I don't treat her with suspicion, treat her like shit, there's something wrong with me, that suddenly I'm less than worthy to be with you in any capacity." He exhaled harshly. "Jesus, Scully! Grow up! You think I'd act this way if someone from your professional past came back and you had some interaction with him? I'd like to think I'd handle myself with a modicum of maturity!"

Scully stared at him in astonishment. "Professional past? You're going to stick with that?" She huffed out a disbelieving laugh. "Okay. Well, I guess you're being as honest with me as you can be." She narrowed her eyes and once again crossed her arms over her chest defensively. "Do you think I'm stupid? That I don't know? That I can't see the little looks between the two of you? That I didn't notice the nervousness you displayed when she and I first met? You and she share a bit more than a professional past, wouldn't you say?" Her expression challenged him to tell the truth.

But Mulder had no intention of making it easy for her; for once Scully was revealing some deep-rooted feelings and emotions, and he wanted to see where they led. "What nervousness? What are you trying to say, Scully? Or, rather, trying to ferret out?" He was well aware of what she wanted to know, but she was going to have to come out and ask. He was tired of living in Scully's happy land of denial. "Why don't you for once just come out and ask what you think you need to know, so we can find a way to move on?"

Her mouth gaped open. "Oh my God! Now who's being childish?" Her laugh was bitter. Ugly. "I wonder what Agent Fowley would think if she knew that you were so reluctant to admit that you had once been her lover? Was she that forgettable? Or was it so special, so memorable that you have to hoard your memories to yourself?"

Oh, shit. He wasn't sure he was ready for this. And he was trying with little success to keep his anger in check, as he retorted, "What the FUCK does a past intimate relationship with a woman have to do with what you and I have, right now?" He didn't know how things had spun so far out of control, but there was no turning back now. "Do I ask you for details about your relationships? The past is just that - past."

Fighting down his frustration, Mulder tried to make her understand. "Yeah, Diana and I were together, years ago. Yes, I cared for her, a great deal, as she cared for me. She wouldn't hurt me, Scully. Never." He pleaded with her to believe him, to trust his judgment. "We have a past between us and we've kept the friendship intact. If that's too much for you to handle - if you don't think your ego can handle it - if you think I am going to suddenly turn against Diana because my partner and lover is jealous and insecure... forget it!"

The pleading in his tone suddenly twisted into something else, and he was powerless to keep it in; he could feel it bubbling up inside. He locked eyes with Scully's. "We work this out, and we get past it, or we forget it. Because I am fucking tired of having to explain my past, to anyone! Including you." As those words left his mouth, Mulder bit down the urge to take them back, to beg her to help them find their way out of the rapidly-escalating scene they both seemed bent on creating.

Scully's breathing was as labored as if she had run for miles. She knew she was out of control and she didn't know how to get that control back. Didn't know if she wanted it back.

"None of the men I had relationships with in the past have plopped down between us, nor are they likely to." Her expression was incredulous. "You're being untruthful again, right here and now. You haven't kept your friendship intact," she mocked. "In fact, I'm willing to bet that you hadn't heard a peep out of her from the day she left until the day she magically reappeared in Spender's meeting last year." She heard the strident sound of her own voice and struggling for a moment's dignity, she took a deep breath.

"If I'm jealous and insecure it's because I've known from the moment I laid eyes on her that you were keeping something from me. Until that moment, I never thought you would lie to me, Mulder." Angry tears pooled in her eyes but she refused to let them fall. "If I'm jealous and insecure it's because I dislike the fact that you treat ME with suspicion when she is around." She hid shaking hands behind her back. "If I'm jealous and insecure it's because I dislike the implication that because Agent Fowley readily believes, she is more worthy of your trust than I."

She gulped in a steadying breath, determined to get it all out. "I dislike being relegated to the backseat when she's around. I dislike being treated like the new kid on the block when I've been here for the last six years while she's been God only knows where," in spite of her efforts, she was ranting. "I dislike hearing about how she was your anchor when you needed one. I dislike hearing about her dedication and loyalty while you question mine." Her voice rose to a shout. "And I dislike the fact that you think I'm so petty that I would ask you to make a choice!" She spun away from him and blinked back tears. She'd be damned before she would let him see her cry.

Mulder drew back in shock - at her tone, at her words, at her interpretation of things. How could she misunderstand this way? He was incredulous. "You ARE asking me to make a choice! Can't you goddamn see that, Scully?" He scrubbed his hands over his face in disbelief. "And not only are you acting jealous and insecure when you have no reason to, but you're also expecting me to just forget a time in my past when I was semi-happy, almost normal." He grabbed her by the arm and whirled her around to face him.

"You wanna talk about fair? Yeah, let's talk fairness! Yes, I have memories of my time with Diana that I won't let go, because they meant something! The same as I have memories of you, that nobody can take away, or make me think are less than worthy." His face was mottled with anger. "You think if somebody came along and told me to forget what I have with you, that I'd just lie down and do it? I don't treat people that way, not the ones that in the past or present mean something to me!" He tightened his grip on her arm when she tried to pull away. She was going to hear what he had to say.

"Remember, Scully. I'm the Poster Boy for family dysfunction! When something decent happens to me, I tend to hang onto it for a while! So don't ask me to drop it, Scully, I can't, any more than I could drop you. If you think I could... if you feel I care so little for you that I could drop you - then you don't know me, not at all." His expression was sorrowful, that she could know him so little.

Scully's eyes narrowed. "I never asked you to give up your memories of your time with Agent Fowley. What I'll never understand is why you lied to me - YES!" she exclaimed when he shook his head in automatic denial. "You lied by omission," she accused. "Not only did you never mention to me once in the last six years that you had a partner when you discovered the X-Files, but you danced around your relationship with Agent Fowley when she reappeared. You and I weren't lovers then," she reminded him, "so why lie?" She drew a deep breath and yanked her arm free of his grasp.

"When you hammer the point home over and over that she is a believer and I am not, I can't help but question where your trust lies. You trust her. Fine! I get that. I don't trust her. Do you get that? Why is it when it comes to her, you are automatically right and I'm automatically wrong?" she wondered. "Why is there no room on this topic for my point of view?"

She walked away, putting distance between them, using the bed as a physical barrier. "I don't care to be compared to her as either your partner or your lover. It seems I don't measure up." Her glare was mocking. Contemptuous. "So no, I haven't asked you to make a choice. She glanced away and back, and this time the tears spilled over her lashes. "But sometimes... sometimes I could hate you for not making it on your own."

He couldn't see her tears through the red haze that clouded his vision; couldn't hear the sob in her voice through the roaring in his ears. The woman he adored, was learning to worship, feeling something akin to hate? For him? Jesus! Unacceptable! Unbelievable... The pain her words caused him almost sent him physically reeling; it was all he could do to keep his feet and not double up with it.

Every muscle in his body clenched as he faced off with Scully, across the width of the bed and with anger and tears etching her cheeks. His voice rushed out in a thick growl, "NO. You don't. You DON'T hate me. I will NOT accept you thinking you hate me. You love me. I love you. I fucking love you more than goddamn LIFE, Scully!" His eyes had started to burn and sting; his avowal of love sounding more like a declaration of war.

His voice roughened with pain, he threw at her, "How many times have I proven my love to you? About the same number of times you've saved me? Remember that, 'Partner'? You save me and I save you. You own me. And I OWN you." He reached across the pitiful barrier of the bed and grasped at her, bringing her body onto the mattress, coming down next to her.

Panic, worry, fear and anger, desperation tearing at him, he found himself shouting. "I'm NOT going to let you try to squeeze out of a commitment between us, using your jealousy of Diana, you got that?" He used his weight to pin her to the mattress and wrapped his hands around her wrists, restraining her flailing arms, "I'm not giving either of us some sort of an out from our relationship. I'm not letting you pick another fucking fight, hoping you'll piss me off enough to turn from you and hit the road."

He held her wrists with one hand and curled the other around her jaw, forcing her to meet his gaze. "It's NOT gonna happen! Say it," he demanded. "Say you love me, you trust me, SAY IT! You need me, the same way I need you. SAY IT!"

Her eyes spat at him with equal force as her words. "Fuck you. Get the hell off me, Mulder, before I do you some serious bodily damage." She squirmed beneath him, determined to ignore that need he expected her to admit to. And the more she squirmed, the more aroused she found herself... and suddenly Scully was tired of being the unflappable, sensible one. She was out of control, for the first time in many years - and she realized it felt good.

Damn good.

Something must have shown in her eyes, because Mulder gripped her tighter, for once not thinking about bruises. He dive-bombed her mouth, muttering against her lips, "I'm not letting you go. Not for something this goddamned unimportant." He took her mouth hard, deeply; in his frenzy to take he didn't realize she was kissing him back, just as hard. His tongue stabbed into her throat, his arms tightened, his legs twisted around hers. In the air the sound of their breathing grated, heavy and dense.

With a raw groan, Mulder released her wrists and pulled at her loose sweater, yanking the neckline down over one creamy shoulder, exposing her bra. His fingers tangled in the strap and managed to work it off, tearing the delicate lace in the process. Scully bit out an angry, "You tore my favorite bra, damn you!" Her fury was blurred by the way her back arched up into his face when he covered one hard nipple with his teeth.

She sucked in a gasp. "Jesus!" Her hand grasped his hair, nails digging into his scalp, holding his head so tightly against her breast that her skin mashed his nose. Mulder pushed at her, enough to afford him a few fortifying breaths, hazel eyes blazing down into hers. Her blue glare burned up at him, just as bright and hot.

Mulder shoved a hand between their bodies and tugged at her jeans, opening them just enough to make room for the two fingers he used to pierce her. A sobbing moan escaped Scully's throat and her hips bucked up into his palm as he stroked her, deep inside where she was pulsing and wet.

They'd made love in tenderness and in mounting passion, in a kind of compassion and with overwhelming love. This was their first time making it in anger, in any kind of desperation - and it was fiery and violent and fast. It was wrong and yet, strangely right. Sometimes the thing you think you'd never want is just the thing you need, most of all...

She was shuddering under his hand, her stomach muscles rippling in reaction to the spear of his fingers. Eyes locked on each other, mouths open and gasping for air, they grasped and dove, bit and scraped at bared skin. Scully untangled a hand from Mulder's hair, pulling at his scalp, and raked it down his body until she could reach his swollen penis. When she wrapped her fingers around it in a greedy squeeze, he sucked in a cursing breath and pumped his hips on her palm. Her grip was too much, but there wasn't a way in Hell he'd make either of them stop, not now.

Not ever.

Mulder's anger had not diminished one bit during their passionate, silent exchange, and he knew hers hadn't, either. And he was afraid to speak, knowing that if he opened his mouth right now he might not be able to control what came out. Better to show her, better to feel the painful pleasure of her showing him. Scratch him, pull his hair, bite him, leave a mark on him... draw blood. It was better than the indifference she had strove to pile on him just a few minutes ago. He'd rather bear her inflicted wounds than her silent frost - for heat and pain meant she felt, for him. If she didn't love him she wouldn't touch him, bite and kiss him... wouldn't run the hard clutch of her hand up and down his aching flesh, until he thought he'd go mad with the need to erupt.

Not this way, goddammit - he'd release it all, inside, where he could feel her hot, her wet, her need. Inside.

He groaned it in her ear, "Inside, Jesus, now, Scully, right now..."

Her nod against his throat was frantic; she released him with one last, hard tug, growling a breathless laugh when he hissed out a protest at the way she'd tweaked his sensitive skin. They both wriggled out of what was left of their clothes, and Mulder came down hard on her body, inanely glad when his weight whooshed all the air out of her lungs. His elation was short lived, however... for Scully easily slithered out from beneath him, pushed at him until he hit the mattress, face down - and clambered over his back.

"Oh, Christ! -"

Her mouth was everywhere at once, trailing wetly over his shoulders, nipping hard little bites straight down his spine, hands curling over his tight cheeks, tongue doing an eager dance in the wake of her relentless fingers. She bit him high on one hip and he groaned into the pillow; she spread her body atop his, wet center aligned precisely on the small of his back - and licked deep into one ear while her palms raced over any part of his body she could reach.

She was killing him.

With one final burst of strength, Mulder shook her off, wincing when her teeth caught the tender cartilage above his lobe. He grabbed two fistfuls, hands filling themselves with Dana Scully, jerking her under him again, this time twisting his limbs around hers, blindly aiming for her heat, another hiss forcing its way out of his lungs when his aim proved true and he thrust deep.

So wet, God... so unbelievably wet and sunstroke hot. Tight. Pulsing. Trembling, all around him, so damn good it was just too fucking good...

He rasped it into her mouth as he kissed her, as he drove into her. "Good, you feel so good, Scully, I love it, love you..."

She pressed both hands down on his hips, forcing him deeper; her legs now a tight coil around his chest, and her reply shattered him. "Doesn't change a thing, God, Mulder, I'm dying here, I hate this, love you, love you -"

Then words, however impassioned, became less than worthless, as they forged themselves together, pounding harder, moving faster, digging deeper. This was what mattered, at this moment the only clear truth. They might be at some kind of impasse, but they'd find a way around it. They might harbor resentment, buried deep for who knows how long... but they'd work it out, sometime later. It was their first full-blown fight and it had shaken them to their roots. Sex might not be the best answer, but for them it was the answer they needed.

For Mulder the act of loving Scully this way had transcended the tender, had gone past supplication and jack-knifed all the way to primal. The animal in him was loving it, even as the more civilized human thought to cringe at his rough display. He shoved the human down and let the beast have full reign.

For Scully the way her body responded to her lover's new approach was a revelation. She was hurt, pissed off, furious with him - and so madly in love that all of the above didn't seem to matter a good goddamn, although she knew once it was over those feelings would come screaming back and she'd have to deal with them. Right now she was more determined to not only match his hard passion, but make a mark or two of her own, all over him. She sank her teeth into his shoulder and grinned around the chunk of flesh she held captive, as he swore aloud and buried a hand in her hair, trying to pull her teeth out of his skin. She also noticed his protest didn't stop him from cramming more of himself into her writhing body...

At this tenure and level of heat their coupling couldn't possibly last much longer, and when his muscles started to clench up, Mulder wasn't ready to stop or let go. Heart tripping madly inside his aching chest, he pressed his face to Scully's, harsh and uneven puffs of breath burning her ear. His fingers bruised the soft skin of her hips as he yanked her up higher, tighter; her answering scream of release clamped at him, tore at him - redeemed him. Mulder sent one more furious thrust her way, then the force of his own climax just about rendered him unconscious. He shuddered and pulsed, gasping, finally coming to rest in the arms of his woman, feeling those arms encircle him weakly, smiling into her hair when the feather of her lips caught his jawline.

He wanted to tell her he loved her, endlessly. He wanted to whisper in her ear, moan to the heavens, of how much she meant to him, how he couldn't live without her, would die if this unsettlement between them lasted beyond the loving they'd just experienced.

And he wanted to put his hands on her shoulders, and shake her until she admitted to him those exact same sentiments. Shake her until she admitted she loved him the same way, believed in him, had never for one second even doubted her trust in him.

Then he wanted to do it all over again, kiss her until she melted, find himself hard, needy and ready, plunge inside, deep inside her heat, all over again... then come down from the amazing high, to rest in her arms, forever.

But he kept silent, only turning to face her in the rumpled bed, snuggling her close, his arms gentle around her soft body and his breathing steady in her ear.

Their feelings were still raw, as tender and aching as their bodies. The echo of the words they'd shouted at each other still floated in the air above their bed. A rough, passion-laden bout of sexual relief would not make it dissipate; they had to be realistic. Tomorrow the tension would be back. Tomorrow the doubts and worries would be back.

Tomorrow Mulder would feel even more guilt - that he'd in some way forced those words from her because subconsciously he just had to know - and she couldn't lie to him, could she? She couldn't lie. And he was a bastard, for even thinking that way, considering it. Part and parcel of what they'd have to work out, though...

Tomorrow they'd deal with it. Both of them.

In his arms Scully was as silent as he - but her limbs rested against him, and her palm drifted over his chest in one tender sweep before it came to a stop, over his heart. Her breathing evened out to a solid slumber, and Mulder allowed himself to follow suit.

Somehow they'd start fixing it, tomorrow.

Chapter Seven San Diego, California Days Inn, Balboa Park Saturday, 7:35 AM

Morning crept in dim and watery through the draperies at the window. Face buried in the pillow, Mulder came awake slowly, feeling the ache brought on by sleeping tensed up. Usually it happened when he threw off the covers in his sleep, then couldn't awaken enough to wrap them back around his shivering frame.

This time a sleepy remembrance of what had transpired the night before had him groaning under his breath as he gingerly moved his arms and legs, stretching as much as he could bear to, before he sat up and swung his legs over the edge of the mattress.

Behind him, wound up into most of the blankets and sheets, Scully slept like the dead. She'd probably snatched the covers from him in the middle of the night as usual - and because Mulder was sure they'd slept without touching, she'd managed to stay warm while he'd gotten chilled to his now-aching bones.

Mulder stared at her with gritty eyes. Resisting the temptation to reach out a hand and run it under the bedsheets and over Scully's naked skin, he instead reached over his head and stretched again. There was a three-fingered scratch on his forearm. Red and angry-looking, it stood out as a vibrant reminder of the wild night they'd had. The scratch throbbed a little; he lowered his arms and got slowly to his feet, wincing when his balls swung into position. The left one was also throbbing, and not in a pleasant way. Mulder seemed to remember a moment just hours ago, when Scully's grip on his private parts waxed a bit too enthusiastic...


A movement behind him had Mulder glancing over his shoulder in time to see Scully turn over from her side to her back, the blankets slipping down far enough to afford him an unobstructed view of her neck - and three nice, splotchy bruises. Christ... how long had it been since he'd put a damn hickey on a woman's neck? He couldn't even recall that far back. Mulder shook his head wearily as he stumbled to the bathroom, refusing to feel guilt over the way he'd marked her. He winced as he relieved himself, finding more tender spots along the underside of his penis. And he remembered the death-grip Scully had kept on him last night, when their bedroom was hot and dark and wet with their passion and desperation.

Moving to the shower and turning on a hot spray, Mulder thought about how their first real fight as a couple started over something inconsequential and very nearly destroyed what they'd built so carefully, so lovingly. Stepping under the steaming water, he stood and let it beat down on his sore body, smiling as the memory of how each ache and pain he now sported actually came to be.

Anger had torn them up and anger had brought them together. Combined with a very real fear - that Scully would leave him, just walk out in a fit of denial - Mulder had been left with only one option: take. Hard. With both hands. Which was exactly what he'd done, leaving behind some bruises along with a large chunk of his aching heart. He'd taken, and given, and taken some more, then given again - and Scully had returned the favor with a strength borne of equal fury and desperation.

Mulder rinsed off and stepped out, dripping all over the floor as he grabbed for the nearest towel. He buried his face in its fluffy softness, rubbing at his hair, his mind a determined blank, save the task at hand... to think about the day ahead; think about the leads needing to be tracked down. The minutes and hours ticking away without any sure knowledge of what was triggering the time bomb in something as innocuous as a birthday cake. That's what was important right now. Think about Scully, with that potential bomb in her body. And batter down the guilt of knowing what some of the questions thrown at her could have cost her, had she chosen to fib, even a little.

He groaned into the bunched-up towel, then his head jerked up at the soft sound of her voice, in the doorway.

"Mulder? Are you... all right?"

Their eyes met over the expanse of the small bathroom. In his, traces of self-derision and blame, not only for the finger-shaped marks he could see on her soft, nude body, but the sure knowledge that he could have pushed her way too far last night, and lost more than her respect and love. He could have lost her forever, forfeited her life. That in his sudden need to hear the truth, her honesty, he pushed buttons better left untouched. She could have so easily lied, just to protect him... He let the guilt wash over him, hoping she wouldn't be able to see it.

But Scully knew him too well; reflected in her eyes were worry and unease, that in reading him like a book she knew just how far his self-flagellation had already gone... not because of what they'd done last night, beyond the fighting. Because the loving had been fierce and glorious and yes, it had bruised her. His attitude had bruised her more deeply. Strangely enough, she wasn't thinking of the possibility that anything less that spoken truth could have had dire consequences.

She was thinking of their impasse. They still had to deal with that, but now wasn't the time. They had more urgent matters to attend to.

He twisted the towel between his fingers and drew in a deep breath. Scully stood quietly, waiting to take her cue from him. He gave a sharp shake of his head and released the air from his lungs in a long sigh. He wasn't ready to talk yet and truthfully, neither was she. Nerves had been rubbed raw and emotions still simmered too close to the surface. She feared what would happen if they tried to broach the topic again.

She dipped her head, the tiny nod telegraphing her willingness to shelve the subject until another time.

"I'm finished in here." He wound the towel around his hips and moved toward the doorway. "Why don't you grab a shower and I'll get us some coffee."

Needing to touch him, Scully laid a hand on his arm as he squeezed past her in the tiny doorway. "Would you get me a bagel, please?" she asked.

Mulder looked down at the hand curved over his forearm, delicate and pale against his darker skin.

"Light cream cheese?" he asked expectantly.

"Nah. Get me the real stuff. We have a lot of work to do today." She scraped her tangled hair away from her face with her free hand and peered up at him. The questioning look on her face asked whether they would be able to redirect their attention to solving the mysterious deaths of the three women.

Mulder's arm slipped from her light grip as he stepped into the bedroom, but he briefly caught her fingers with his own.

"I'll be back in a few minutes and then we'll get started," he promised.

Scully nodded and pushed the door closed behind her as she entered the small bathroom. She stared at her reflection in the mirror and released a shaky breath. She closed her eyes and offered a quick prayer that they would find a way to resolve the tension between them. Breathing out a whispered 'amen', she rubbed a hand over her heart. Leaning over the tub, she spun the taps to start the shower. Over the hiss of water and the pounding of her own heart, she heard the door to their room open and then close.

The faint sounds of Scully's shower filtered through to the bedroom as Mulder sat at the small table by the window, booting up the laptop. Next to him was the list of web sites culled by Warren, the manager of Java Net. Tapping at the keys, Mulder waited impatiently for the rest of his login to process, then popped on Internet Explorer. He brought up Google and glancing over at the first site on the list, tapped in the site.

A minute later he tapped in the next one, then the next, slowly working his way down the list in the order in which Brenda Jordan must have first brought them up. The first few sites yielded little more than amateur web pages filled with personal accounts of Satanism, spell-casting and what-not. Brenda hadn't been looking for that, Mulder was sure of it. Rubbing at his eyes in frustration, Mulder clicked in a few more sites.

A few minutes later, catching a look at the eighth site, he thought it had serious possibilities, and started typing it in, then paused and thought about it.


Hoodoo. Another term for voodoo. Spell-casting. Gris-gris bags and potions, hexes.

Spell-casting... Hmmm. Maybe...

Mulder's knowledge of voodoo and hoodoo was somewhat limited, but he knew spells and charms could be cast on all different kinds of things, animate and inanimate. Mulder ran his finger down the progression of sites on the page, thinking about how Brenda might have worked her way through them, discarding one, zeroing in on another. If she'd pulled up the hoodoo site, she'd have had to imagine a spell could be put on something... or someone. Her husband, perhaps? A spell, to make him fall in love with her again, and forget anyone he'd been boinking on the side?

Or maybe... a spell on Mary, to sour her love, destroy her need for ole Marv... maybe even do away with the competition completely.

Mulder read the last site, and on a hunch typed it in.


He waited. And waited. And cursed aloud when the site came up 'Unavailable'. Whoever owned that site must have taken it down, for whatever reason. Hell...

Opening the drawer of the nearest nightstand, Mulder pulled out a phone book and flipped open the Yellow Pages. Most big cities had everything from tattoo parlors to head shops, listed in their directories. San Diego shouldn't be any different.

A few seconds later, he was on the phone, asking to speak to the owner of 'Born On The Bayou'.

"This be Madame Bojeaulie. What can I do for you, chere?" The voice was low and rich.

Mulder tugged on his shoes as he requested, "I need some information, please. I need to know if a voodoo charm can be placed on an object, such as food."

The low voice chuckled in his ear. "Now, what you be wantin' to know that for, hmmm? You want to make some girl fall in love with you?"

Mulder forced himself to chuckle back, fighting his impatience. "Yes, that's exactly what I want. She's gorgeous, and she won't even look my way. I thought if I sent her some chocolates, maybe... she loves chocolates. Maybe if some of them had a love charm on them..." He let his voice trickle off suggestively.

Madame Bojeaulie chuckled again. "Right idea, chere - but wrong discipline. Voodoo, it don't want to work that way. Now, gris-gris bags, they work just fine. You put one of those around your lady's neck and I guarantee she'll be yours, forever. You come on down, see me. I'll fix you right up, promise."

Mulder stifled another sigh of impatience. "Well, if voodoo isn't what I want, then what is? Can you recommend someone?" He childishly crossed his fingers, feeling intuitively that this woman knew exactly what he was really looking for.

Madame Bojeaulie breathed heavily over the phone for a second, then replied in a regretful rasp, "Well, now... you sound like a mighty handsome man, chere. I'd like nothing better than to have you walk into my shop and brighten my day. But maybe I'm not what you be needing, eh? I think maybe you want to go see Louisa Dupree; she be the owner of 'Spell-Spinners'. She and me, we been friends since we both came here, twenty years ago, from N'Awleans. You tell her Bojie sent you; she'll take good care of you. Over on Baltic Square, bebe; you got a pen? I'll give you the address."

Three minutes later, Mulder was out the door, leaving behind a hastily-scribbled note propped on the laptop screen.

'Scully: got a lead. Meet me at 14325 Baltic Square. Love you. Mulder...'

Scully reluctantly turned off the water. She had taken a longer than usual shower, but the hot water had felt so good on her aching muscles and - she had to admit - she was stalling for time before she had to go out and attempt to work with Mulder as though nothing monumental had happened the previous night. Wringing her hair out, she pushed the shower curtain back and reached for a towel from the metal rack mounted on the wall near the bathtub.

Patting her skin dry, she stepped out of the tub and wrapped the towel around her damp hair. Still stalling, she moved through her morning ablutions slowly, brushing her teeth and smoothing a lightly scented body lotion over her throat, arms and legs. She wiped the steam away from the mirror and applied her makeup with a practiced hand.

As she was getting ready for the day, she noted that there were no sounds coming from the other room. Mulder was taking his time bringing breakfast back, she thought. Perversely, she felt a little better knowing that she wasn't the only one who was feeling a bit awkward. She tried to quell the knot of anxiety that had settled in her stomach. All couples fight, she told herself. It's normal. We love each and everything will be fine. The important thing right now is to finish the job.

Finished with her pep talk, she pulled the towel from her head and draped it over a hook on the back of the bathroom door. She combed her hair out, took a deep breath, opened the bathroom door and stepped into the bedroom. Her eyes fell on the twin cups of coffee sitting side-by-side on the desk.

"Mulder?" She looked around and immediately felt stupid for doing so. The room was too small for Mulder to be hidden from her sight. She picked up one of the paper cups of coffee. She took a small sip and grimaced. It was barely warm. Obviously, Mulder had brought the coffee back a while ago. A white paper bag held her bagel and cream cheese. A half-eaten sweet roll lay on a napkin nearby.

"Where the hell is he?" she muttered as she walked to the closet to select something to wear. She pulled clean lingerie from her open suitcase and was fastening the hooks of the bra when she saw the note propped up against the laptop screen. She quelled an instinctive surge of annoyance. Read the note before you get angry, she silently cautioned herself. But despite her calming words, she knew what she would find.

'Scully: got a lead. Meet me at 14325 Baltic Square. Love you. Mulder...'

She crumpled the note in her hand and tossed it onto the desk. She strode across the room and twitched back the curtains, peering out onto the parking lot.

"Perfect," she snarled. He'd ditched her. Again. Despite repeated promises to the contrary, he had left her behind to chase after a lead. And he'd taken the car.

"Got a lead," she mimicked as she rooted through her bag for her cell phone. "...love you." Any conciliatory thoughts that she had been entertaining during her shower had flown out the door the moment her eyes had landed on the note. How urgent could this lead be that he couldn't have taken the time to walk ten feet across the room to poke his head into the bathroom and let her know? How imperative was it that he couldn't wait for her to join him?

In the wake of the prior evening, old resentments easily came to the surface. Damnit! This case was important to her. Each one of these women had died - literally in her hands - as she impotently tried to save them. And now, if Mulder was to be believed, her own life was on the line. Yet once again, he dismissed her, left her behind to hare off on his own, too impatient to wait and discuss the matter with her; expecting her to come running along behind him like a good little subordinate.

Scully tossed herself into a chair and moodily pressed the speed dial on her phone to call Mulder. She'd be damned if she was going to call a cab. He could just turn around and come back to get her. She heard the phone ring - in stereo. In disbelief, she eyed the mound of bedcovers that had spilled onto the floor as she listened to the muffled ringing coming from beneath. Unbelievable! He had forgotten to take his phone.

Forget it, she thought as she thumbed off her phone, effectively silencing his. She let her head fall against the back of the chair. If he wants to do this on his own, let him. She closed her eyes for a moment, determined not to chase after him this time.

But a lifelong, highly honed sense of guilt, accompanied by the tiny niggling fear that always assailed her when Mulder went off on his own drove her back onto her feet. "This is my job," she mumbled to no one. Besides, she reminded herself, she couldn't kill him if she wasn't in the same room with him.

Decision made, she stuffed both cell phones into her bag and finished getting dressed. She yanked open the drawers on the nightstands in search of the local telephone book. Spying the familiar bright yellow cover lying on the floor near the desk, she picked it up and flipped through it until she found the listing she was searching for.

"Hello? Would you please send a cab to the Days Inn in Balboa Park..."

Spell Spinners Magick Shoppe 14325 Baltic Square
San Diego, California

From the outside, 'Spell-Spinners' looked like an upscale bookshop. In the window, soft indirect lighting shone down on featured hardcover publications, propped on small smoke colored satin-covered pedestals. A bouquet of waxy magnolia blossoms filled a squat bowl, next to a copy of 'Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil'. When Mulder opened the door he heard a tinkling of Far-Eastern chimes, instead of a customer buzz.

Inside the scent of sandalwood incense mixed with flowers and candlewax hung pleasantly in the air. The shop was crammed with tables and bookshelves, all groaning with an eclectic assortment of books, candles, exotic-looking bricabrac and an impressive collection of crystals and other accouterments of magick.

There was a cluttered counter with an ancient cash register, and standing in front of the cash register, cursing colorfully in French, was a woman with long gray-streaked wavy hair tumbling over her plump shoulders, a pair of fuchsia half-glasses shaped like stars slipping down her nose. She slapped both hands on the old register and swore at it in a low, fury-coated voice.

"Morceau de merde! Fichu vieux morceau de merde antique!" She even went so far as to spit at the ancient piece of equipment. Mulder couldn't translate her rapid French, but he figured she had to be rather pissed off.

He cleared his throat, and her head snapped up, large dark brown eyes narrowing behind the outrageous eyeglasses, before her expression brightened and she ran her now-admiring gaze over him in one sweep of pure female enjoyment. What a speciman beau du manhood...! Her frown rearranged itself into a melting smile in about one half-second flat, and she leaned on the counter, aiming that smile at Mulder.

She purred out a sultry, "Well, now... what can I do for such a handsome man, this fine day, hmmm? You be wanting a charm? Maybe some incense? You name it, Louisa got it. That's me. And Spell-Spinners be the best in San D, mon ami."

Mulder couldn't help but smile back at her, recognizing a still-lovely woman on the upper end of fifty who'd obviously never lost her ability to flirt. He let his gaze wander around, pretending to give off an air of helplessness. "I got your name from Bojie, over at 'Born on the Bayou'. I'm looking for a... love spell... and Bojie said you could help me." He managed to add an air of lovesick sadness to the helpless male routine, and watched Louisa Dupree melt in her shoes.

She clucked her tongue at him, pressing a be-ringed hand, loaded down with bangle bracelets, on his arm and patting it. "Bojie, she know all about the broken heart, mon beau. She send you to the right place. I can fix you up, make your woman want you like she want no other. This I guarantee."

Giving his arm another squeeze, Louisa pulled a key out of her pocket and moved toward a large cabinet in the corner of the shop, tossing over her shoulder, "You wait a bit, chere. I'll show you what I got."

As she stuck her head into the open cabinet and rummaged around through books, files and what-not, Mulder inquired, "I was thinking about maybe a spell, on a box of chocolates. She loves chocolates. Can you do that? Put a love spell on food?" He watched her carefully.

Louisa pulled her face out of the overstuffed cabinet and swung around to meet his guileless look. She frowned a bit. "You want a spell put on food? Oh, now, chere... that be a whole 'nother thing! Bojie tell you I'd spell food? Bebe, I only do that when all else fails! We try something tamer first, you see? Then if it don't work we can come on stronger, vous etes d'accord avec moi?" So saying, she stuck her head back in the cabinet, and Mulder fought back a frustrated groan, looking around the shop impatiently.

A movement caught his peripheral and he turned toward a curtained doorway. An elderly woman stood there, dressed in unrelieved back from head to toe. Thin white hair straggled over the high collar of her long-sleeved dress, and her eyes were the same dark brown as Louisa's and gleamed at him from behind steel-gray frames. She crooked an arthritic finger, beckoning him. With a glance toward the muttering Louisa, Mulder moved over to her.

The woman was tiny and bird-thin. She peered up at Mulder for a moment, then spoke in a thickly accented, quavering voice. "You want the woman, n'cest pas? You won't find it here, la reponse, mon ami. Ma fille, she go gentle, vous comprenez? You want le charme fort. Strong. Not here, comprenez? I know who." She grasped his arm, tugging him closer; obligingly Mulder bent over until her puckered mouth was up against his ear. He could smell coffee and peppermint on her breath, as she whispered into his ear.

"There be sisters, mon ami. My grand-nieces. They know le charme fort, comprenez? But one, she have la magie plus foncee. Darker, you see? You need dark. For food, very dark. You go see Odette, she lives on Fourth. Nineteen Fourth. That be what you need. You tell her what you want. Allez, maintenant! Go!" She released his arm, nodded once at him, and melted back into the shadowed doorway, disappearing behind the heavy curtains.

Mulder cast a swift glance over his shoulder, noting that Louisa had dragged out a large cloth-bound book and was flipping through the old and yellowed pages. He moved silently to the door and slipped out so carefully the overhead chimes alert never connected.

A minute later he was on his way toward Nineteen Fourth, and a grand-niece named Odette.

In a townhouse on Fourth, in a dim back room, a woman with a mane of wild, dark curls cascading down the back of her blood-red dress stood at an ornate old mirror. Staring dreamily into her own dark eyes, she ran a pearl-encrusted boar's hair brush through her long tresses. They sprang around her face as if they had a life of their own. In a way, they did.

She believed that everything had the capacity for life, that everything had the right to die. Human, inhuman, inanimate, didn't matter. It could be... tampered with. Brought to life and disposed of. Used, made better, rendered in whatever fashion she chose. With the right words, charms, power... anything was possible. She had always known this. She had always trusted. And she had never been afraid to challenge the forces, stretch the boundary and taunt the darkness. It served to make her strong and powerful at a young age.

She liked it. Loved it. And she'd never go back, never stop.

Setting the brush down on her walnut bureau, she picked up a small crystal decanter and lifted the stopper, trailing the heady contents of her favorite perfume over the curve of her neck and down between her breasts. As she inhaled its spice, she suddenly had the feeling that she was standing on a vital precipice, about to face the ultimate challenge. She could almost taste it. Something was coming. Or someone...

When her doorbell tinkled softly, she let herself smile in satisfaction. Giving herself a final approving once-over, she walked out of the room, down the hallway, her movements all sinuous grace and swaying hips. She descended the stairs, her dark brown gaze locked on the tall, shadowy outline framed behind the frosted glass of her front door. With each step closer, fresh tingles erupted under her skin. She'd felt this way, before... years ago, on a hot night in a crowded Ponchatoula nightclub.

Someone coming. Someone, already there.

Chapter Eight

Spell Spinners Magick Shoppe 14325 Baltic Square
San Diego, California

"Here we are," the cab driver announced. Scully peered out of the taxi's window, unsurprised to find that 14325 Baltic Square housed a magick shop. She stepped out of the cab and took a quick look around. There was no sign of their rental car. She wondered if Mulder had already come and gone.

"Would you mind waiting?" she asked as she pushed enough money to cover the current fare and tip through the open window. The cabbie glanced at the dashboard clock and shook his head.

He quickly fanned the bills with an expert flick of his thumb and forefinger taking note of the generous tip she had given him. "Sorry, ma'am," he said, genuinely regretful to give up this fare. "I'm punching out. I gotta get home and take my kid to her soccer game."

"No problem." Scully pushed away from the cab and stepped up onto the pavement. "I'll put another call in to your dispatcher. Thanks, anyway."

He lifted the handset to the dispatch radio. "Want me to take care of it?"

She shook her head. "I'm not sure how long I'll be," she told him. "It's easy enough for me to call again. Thanks for the offer though." She smiled her thanks and turned toward the store. The cabbie waited until she had disappeared into the shop before he pulled away, wondering as he drove toward home what such a pretty girl needed with a store like that.

Scully was faintly aware of the melodious tinkling of chimes as she stepped into Spell Spinners. Her eyes tracked over the store, skimming over the collection of books and crystals and taking careful note of the herbs lining the shelves behind a counter. There was no sign of Mulder. As a matter-of-fact, there was no sign of anyone - not even the owner.

"Hello?" she called out. She walked toward the counter, her fingers absently trailing over a glass bowl filled with small, colored stones. A woman poked her head out from behind a curtain that Scully imagined hid the storeroom from the rest of the shop.

"Bonjour," the woman said. "I will be with you in just a moment." Scully nodded and leaned against the glass counter, studying the pretty crystals lying on a bed of deep purple velvet while she waited.

"I'll be back in a little while, mama," she heard the woman say in a low voice. She stepped through the curtain and smiled brightly. "Je suis desole de vous continuer l'attente," she apologized for keeping Scully waiting. "You like the crytals, oui?"

"They're very pretty," Scully acknowledged. She fished her identification from her pocket and opened the wallet to display her badge. "I'm Special Agent Dana Scully of the FBI." The woman frowned and pushed her graying hair over her shoulder with one hand as she reached for Scully's badge with the other. "I was supposed to meet my partner here," Scully told her.

The woman peered at Scully's photo identification and then looked over the top of the wild fuchsia frames of her glasses to study the face of the woman standing so alertly on the other side of the counter. "I am Louisa Dupree," she said. "Is there un certain ennui?" She handed the wallet back to Scully. "Is there some trouble?" she clarified.

Scully shook her head. "My partner told me to meet him here," she repeated. "Have you seen him?"

"Non. I am sorry," Louisa said. "You are the first FBI Agent I have met." Louisa's cheeks dimpled with her charming smile. Scully tapped her nails against the glass display case.

"He's tall," she said. "Dark hair, hazel eyes."

The many rings on the woman's hand sparkled as she pressed her fist against her chest. "Mais oui," she acknowledged. "Such a man was here. Tres beau." She fanned her face with her fingers and flashed a wicked grin at Scully. "But he was not FBI."

"What did he want?"

Louisa planted her elbows onto the countertop and leaned forward. "He wanted un charme d'amour - a love charm," she said. "But he disappeared before I could get what he needed." She clapped her hands together once, jingling her bracelets and shrugged.

Scully's brow creased as she frowned. "He just wanted a love charm?"

"Oui. We have many such customers." She swept a hand out to point out the many features of her shop. "Most people are looking for l'amour, non?"

Scully drew out the small picture of Mulder that she kept hidden behind her identification. "Was this the man who was here earlier?" She was confused as to why Mulder would ask her to meet him here and then not wait.

"Oui," the woman said again. "But..." she hesitated and cast her eyes downward feeling suddenly awkward. "He wanted me to cast a spell on a box of chocolates." Her eyebrows arched over her glasses as she widened her eyes. "That is not my way," she continued. "But as I was-"

"Louisa!" The woman lowered her head with a sigh at the querulous sound of her name being called. "Excuse moi," she apologized. "My mama..."

A tiny and aged woman appeared from behind the curtain. "Vous recherchez votre amoureux," she rasped as she shuffled toward the counter. Louisa gasped and laid a restraining hand on her mother's arm.

"Excusez-la," she murmured. "My mama, she suffers from Alzheimer's." She tapped a finger against her temple. "Her memory is not so good."

"What did she say?" Scully asked curiously.

"Your lover, he was here," the old lady repeated in English. She shrugged off her daughter's hand and stepped around the glass counter. Scully's face flamed at the old woman's words.

"We're not..." She fought back the instinct to deny the personal aspect of her relationship with Mulder while working. "Did you speak with him?" she asked instead.

"Oui. He wanted le charme fort... a strong love spell." She ran her gaze over the younger woman appraisingly. "Mebbe the charm was not for you, oui?"

"Mama!" Louisa cried out in a scandalized voice. She laid a hand on her mother's shoulder and tried to draw her back. "You must not speak this way!"

"Soyez silencieux!" The old woman silenced her daughter with a sharp command. "Je ne suis pa fou!" she snarled. "I am not crazy," she repeated in English for Scully's benefit.

She stepped closer and caught Scully's chin in her gnarled hand. "Your young man, he come looking for le charme fort," she said with an emphatic nod. "He asks mebbe ma fille can make magick on a boite de chocolats to make a woman fall in love with him. I told him ma fille not make that magick and I send him where he can get what he wanted." She studied the flush that rose in Scully's cheeks and saw something spark in the blue eyes that held her own gaze. The man needed no charm to make this girl fall in love with him, she noted. So, the charm must have been intended for another woman, she decided.

The old lady let her hand fall away from Scully's chin as she took a step back. This girl was the police - she didn't want to be on the wrong side of the law, but neither did she want to interfere in things if the young man was looking to find love elsewhere. A little misdirection from a confused old woman wouldn't hurt...

She let her shoulders slump. "My grand-nieces, they own a shop - Jour et Nuit," she said in a tired voice. Scully glanced toward Louisa in confusion.

"Day and Night," the other woman translated. "It's on Poplar Street - about twenty minutes from here. My nieces, Chantal and Odette, they own the store." "Is it a magick shop as well?"

Louisa nodded. "Oui. La magick." She wrapped a sturdy arm around her mother's waist. "S'il vous plait," she murmured as she looked at her mother's slumping form. "It is time for mama's nap."

Scully nodded and thanked Louisa for her time. She watched the two women disappear behind the curtain. She tugged open the door, sending the chimes overhead into a tinkling dance and yanked her cell phone from her pocket. Intent on placing another call to the cab company, she was unaware of the old woman's appraising gaze as she peered through the curtains.

19 Fourth Street
San Diego, California

Her hand reached for the glass doorknob, slender ruby-tipped fingers grasping and turning, pulling at the heavy mahogany, opening it, swinging it wide, staring up, and up...

Mon Dieu. So tall, so wide-shouldered. Such dark hair, such clear eyes, such a full, sensuous mouth. So much like...

Her lips were actually forming the word 'Guy', when the handsome male in front of her smiled and inquired in a low, sexy rasp, "Are you Odette? Your great-aunt sent me. I'd like to talk to you about having a spell cast."

Odette's eyes began to glow... and she extended her hand, let his fingers engulf hers, allowing herself that first amazing moment of shivering awareness. When she tugged at his hand, backing into the room, he followed.

The interior of Odette's house was dim and cool, smelled faintly of jasmine, or honeysuckle - he always got those two scents confused with each other. Mulder looked around as much as he could without seeming too obvious. There wasn't all that much to see that could constitute strange, or prove potentially dangerous. The rooms were charmingly old-fashioned and seemed to boast a decent collection of antiques.

She still retained hold of his hand, and was pulling him toward what appeared to be a small, ornately-decorated parlor. He sank down into a velvet-covered wing chair and stared up at the dark-haired woman who regarded him intently.

She was delicate but curvaceous. Thick, almost-black hair hung in fat curls down her back; wispy waves set themselves around her heart-shaped face. Her eyes were huge, as dark as her hair, framed with long eyelashes. Her lips were wide and generous, painted the same ruby red as her dress and her tapered fingernails. Those nails were currently drifting up and down his sleeve in a manner designed to intrigue and flirt.

She was a beautiful woman - and she left him dead cold. Mulder knew that regardless of the presence of Scully in his life, even if he'd met this woman under any circumstances she would have the same effect on him. There was something here, he could feel it. Something... wrong. Ugly.

If she was in any way responsible for the deaths of three women - and the cause of putting the woman he loved in danger - he'd bring her down. But first, he had to gain as much of her confidence, as he could.

Odette couldn't take her eyes from this handsome man. Dieu, he was so perfect. Her eyes roamed over the wide shoulders, encased in a well-tailored suit jacket. The pale blue of his dress shirt brought out interesting glints in his eyes; the curve of his full lips held a promise of sensual delight. Oh, yes, she could feel it. Sensual, from head to toe. Sitting in front of her, those eyes of his, looking into hers... he was magnifique. She'd once known a man such as this, years ago. She'd lost him.

She was a firm believer in the way Fate could play a hand. She'd always celebrated the way she could manipulate it, bend it to her will. She'd honed her powers these past few years and it had at last paid off... because it was so clear to her that she'd been given another chance to have the man she'd always considered her soul-mate.

Odette knew men. She knew their thoughts, what was important to them... what made them strong as well as what rendered them weak. Her Guy had been weak, even as his strength had held her captive. But she knew men - and she accepted they were sometimes weak. Around other women, they would show it, the side of them that made them men. They couldn't help it...

She'd been robbed of the opportunity to show Guy how much of a woman she could be, for him. Before she'd had a chance with him, her sister had interfered.

Of course this beau homme was not Guy. But there was something... she could sense it. Feel it, in her heart. He'd come back to her, somehow he'd found his way. She would not lose him again.

She licked her lips, noting the way his eyes followed the movement of her tongue as it slicked over her lipstick. Her voice came out in a low purr. "So, ma chere. You want a spell. Tell me, how did you hear of my... talents?" She watched him, charmed when he ducked his head and gazed up at her from beneath his lashes. Ah, a shy one. She notched up her smile from sexy to smoldering, and aimed it right at him.

It was taking all of Mulder's focus to keep from reacting to her patent seduction with something other than a sarcastic roll of his eyes. He'd never encountered anyone so obvious, and that was saying something. After all, he'd known Phoebe Green, and you sure couldn't get much more obvious than that.

He'd endure anything to get at the truth.

He forced himself to smile back at her, still giving her a lowered-lashes gaze. "Your great-aunt gave me your name and told me how to find you. I told her I was looking for a very special spell. She said you were the one." He purposely allowed his tone to warm up into a low husk, and saw the way she visibly preened at his words.

Her index finger trailed idly down his cheek, enjoying the shiver of reaction she felt under his skin. "Tante Nanette told you that, eh? She's wise, my dear Tante. For you, I'm the one. So," she leaned in closer, let the heady fragrance of her perfume weave through his senses, "You need a spell. What kind of spell, chere? Tell me how I may assist you. Tell me all about it."

Mulder fought the urge to grind his teeth in disgust. Jesus, whatever the hell she called perfume, it was about to gag him. He took a shallow breath, figuring she'd think he was panting. "I need a love spell. There's a woman... she doesn't know I'm alive, not in a romantic way. Yet. I need to put a spell on her, make her fall in love with me." He gave her a suitably pleading look.

Odette could feel her heart beating faster. He was talking about her, she just knew it. She was seldom wrong about such things. Tante Nanette called it 'la deuxieme vue'... 'the second sight'. Odette used to think it was a true nuisance, but now she was very glad to have the ability. Every hair on her head was tingling. Oh, such a feeling; she never dreamed she'd experience it again, not in this lifetime.

She wanted to throw herself into his strong arms, absorb his scent, wrap him all around her, swallow him whole. She wanted to press so close to him that she'd see out of his eyes. She wanted to possess his soul, the way he'd owned hers, for five long years. But first... she wanted to play the game. Half the excitement of getting there was the journey, n'cest pas?

She stroked a finger down his cheek again, loving the rough-satin of his skin. "A love spell. My specialty, mon bebe. It would be my pleasure to bring your lady to heel, so to speak. Why don't you tell me about her? Describe her to me. Close your eyes," she brushed her hand over his face, feeling the flutter of his lashes as he did as she bid him, "Close them, chere, and tell me about her. Let your heart be your eyes."

Oh, brother... hell, he didn't have time for this! And yet, if he didn't play her goddamned game, he might never find anything out. And he had a feeling that she was the one responsible. He couldn't explain it, he just sensed it.

Obediently, Mulder kept his eyes shut and began conjuring up a visual of Scully; engaged - for the first time since entering this house - in something completely enjoyable. "She's the most beautiful woman in the world. Her skin is like silk and her lips are full and ripe. I just know they'd taste as sweet as they look. She's so perfect. Her eyes - her body. Her smile... it drives me crazy when she smiles at me." Mulder's voice took on a husky, dreamy quality, as he described Scully.

Hearing the timbre of that honeyed rasp, Odette felt a shiver vibrate up her spine. To hear him speak of her this way, at last... it was a dream come true. He HAD wanted her, years ago! He had pined for her, dreamed of her; it was in his voice and written all over him, in the flush that stained his cheeks.

She ached to slip into his arms, where she knew she belonged. But the anticipation was so delicious... she wanted to prolong it just a little more. "She sounds like quite the belle dame, chere. So, tell me... what's her name? It would help greatly with my spell, if I knew her name." Odette could feel herself actually tremble with the need to hear her name pass his lips.

Mulder opened his eyes and stared at her, vaguely noting the odd thickness in her tone and seeing the hectic blush on her face. For one small second he forgot the potential danger this woman presented, instead registering somebody who seemed interested in hearing a little about the woman he adored.

The soft smile on his face matched the words he spoke. "Dana. Her name is Dana..."

Jour et Nuit 5936 Poplar Street
San Diego, California

After exiting another cab, Scully's heels tapped along the brick path that led to the door of Jour et Nuit which was tucked into the first floor of a stately old brick home on the tree-lined street. Pushing open the door, she stepped into the shop and took a curious look around. While Jour et Nuit obviously carried many of the same products as Spell Spinners, the clutter and disarray of the other shop was missing here. The store was bright and airy. A bouquet of hothouse bred sunflowers stood in a tall vase on a table near the door and Scully trailed her fingers over the silky petals of the happy-faced flowers. Neatly arranged shelves behind the counter displayed the various herbs, oils and incenses for sale. Crystals cut and faceted into teardrops, ovals, squares and circles artfully hung from nearly invisible wires in the bay window that fronted the store.

The late morning sun poured through the windows and touched the crystals, sending wild prisms of rainbow colors dancing over the walls of the store. A glass display case housed earrings, bracelets and necklaces - some almost fairy-like in their delicacy, others heavy, ornate and medieval. Debussy's 'Clair de Lune' - and not the New Age music that Scully admittedly expected - played softly from hidden speakers.

Behind the counter, a woman a year or two younger than Scully looked up from the computer that was sitting on one corner of an antique rosewood desk. She tapped a quick command onto the keyboard and pushed her chair away from the desk.

"Bonjour," she said in a lightly accented voice. "May I help you?"

"I hope so," Scully replied. "I'm Special Agent Dana Scully of the FBI." Once again, she flipped open the wallet encasing her badge and photo identification. "Louisa Dupree sent me to see you."

The younger woman looked up from her study of Scully's badge, alarm flashing in her blue eyes. "Tante Louisa? Is something wrong with her? Is it Tante Nanette?"

"No, no," Scully hastened to soothe the other woman. "They're fine," she assured her. Scully took a moment to study the woman behind the counter. Her hair was a short, shining cap of blonde that framed her face and she wore a simple white blouse tucked into a pair of tailored gray slacks. A cross of silver filigree hung around her neck and tiny silver hoops dangled from her pierced ears. Like her shop, she was completely different from her more flamboyant aunt. "Nanette is your great-aunt?" Scully queried.

"Yes." The woman frowned and looked back down at Scully's badge. "I don't understand. Why would Tante Louisa send you to see me?"

Scully tucked the wallet back into her pocket. "Are you Chantal or Odette?"

"Forgive me." A light flush of embarrassment stained her cheeks. "I am Chantal Thibodeaux. My sister, Odette, works in the evenings." She pointed to a framed photograph hanging on the wall behind the counter of the two sisters, which had obviously been taken outside of the shop at its grand opening. Scully took a moment to study the picture closely. In the photo, Chantal's arm was wrapped around her sister's waist. Though a gentle smile curved her lips, there was a sadness to her expression. Odette's head was tipped toward her sister's, her dark tresses tangling with Chantal's blonde hair.

"Jour et Nuit, hmm?" Scully asked shrewdly, as she glanced away from the photograph. Chantal grinned.

"Oui. Our papa always said we were as different as day and night, so..." She swept her hands out to her sides. "It seemed a fitting name."

"Is there a large Cajun community in San Diego?" Scully asked.

"Non," Chantal replied. "Odette and I left Louisiana about five years ago and moved to San Diego to be near family."

"You had no family in Louisiana? No one to leave behind?"

The sadness that Scully had noted in the photograph once again dulled Chantal's blue eyes.

"Non. There was no one left." Chantal rubbed agitated fingers over the counter, smoothing away an imagined smudge from the spotless glass of the display case. "You never said why Tante Louisa sent you here."

"My partner asked me to meet him at your aunt's shop," Scully said. "But when I arrived, he had already been there and gone." Scully tamped down the irritation and the niggling worry that threatened to distract her. "Your great-aunt told me that he had been asking for a spell. She said that he specifically asked about having a love spell put on a box of chocolates." She watched the other woman closely and saw a flash of fear cross her face. A second later her expression had smoothed out again.

"I don't understand. Why is the FBI interested in love spells?"

Scully hesitated before answering. Although Mulder had taken off earlier that morning before they had a chance to discuss the case any further, she had learned over the last six years to follow his thought processes. They had agreed that the common denominator in each death had been the consumption of Mary Luden's birthday cake. Given Mulder's penchant for things out of the ordinary and the wild goose chase he was leading her on as she trailed after him from one magick shop to another, it wasn't terribly difficult to figure out that he believed that a spell of some sort had been cast over the cake. Judging from the old woman's tale of his visit, it was obvious to Scully that he was posing as a lovesick man looking for help to sway the object of his affections to return his love.

As she had at Spell Spinners, she pulled out the photograph of Mulder and laid it on the counter.

"This is my partner, Agent Fox Mulder," she said. Once again, she watched Chantal's face closely for any sign of recognition. "Your great-aunt told me that she had sent him here. She told him that one of her great-nieces would be able to help him with the spell he was seeking."

Chantal looked up from the picture with a guarded expression. Her eyes flicked quickly toward the photograph of she and Odette and back again. "I'm sorry," she said, coolly. "I can't help you." She pushed the picture back toward Scully. "Your partner has not been here." She stepped away from the counter. "You are, of course, welcome to wait for him," she offered cordially. "However, I have work that I must attend."

"Chantal," Scully's senses were telling her that something wasn't right. Mulder should have been here by now. She didn't know if Chantal was involved in this case or not, but her instincts were telling her that she was not.

"Please. You may be of more help than you know."

19 Fourth Street
San Diego, California

Every pore in her body radiated it. Each hair on her head pulsed with it. Her heart - pounding with it. Her eyes - blazing, her throat filling up with bile because of it.

Hatred. And jealousy, far beyond anything she'd ever felt in her life. For a woman she'd never met, a woman she'd gladly tear apart with her bare hands. Outwardly she remained calm, a secretive smile pursing her full lips, a sensual promise in her eyes as she listened to this man - HER man - wax poetic about the woman he desired. A woman who wasn't her, could never be her. The look in his beautiful eyes tore at her as he described the woman; as he painted a vivid picture of the way she appeared, to him.

"She's petite and slender, but perfectly formed. Thick hair, a gorgeous shade of red. And her eyes... big and bright blue. She's everything I have ever wanted, in my life. Her love... it's all I think about. It's all I need. To have her love..." The soft voice was full of longing, the dreamy faraway gleam of his gaze focused inward on the woman Dana.

To have her, he needed un charme d'amour, a love spell. That he would come to Odette, the woman who'd pined for him five long years, who'd never forgotten him... and ask for a charme to woo and win another woman. Bitterness washed over her like a flood. She lowered her lashes to hide the pure fury spilling from her dark eyes, and forced herself to listen to his words; allowing his rasp-honey voice to penetrate her numbed consciousness.

"She's intelligent and has this incredible soft side to her personality. She cares about the things I care about; family, duty, loyalty. She's brave. Dedicated. And passionate... so passionate." His words trailed off a bit and he flashed a small grin at her, shrugged a bit. "Anyhow, that's Dana. She's worth any amount of cost, if a spell could be created to make her fall in love with me. Can you help me, Odette?"

His upturned face revealed need and want, a touch of the vulnerable little boy combined with the sexiness of an adult male in the prime of his life. He was her destiny, this Odette knew. She'd never dreamed he'd find a way back into this world, but he had.

And to keep him, she'd do what was necessary, even if it meant she'd cause him pain. This she also knew, and accepted. She would not lose him again, not this time. Her pour toujours amoureux... her forever lover.

Odette traced the curve of his cheek and smiled at him, keeping her tone smoky and her words reassuring. "Of course I can help you. It would be my... privilege... to help. You need a charme and I have the means to give you what you want." She brushed a thumb over his full bottom lip, then slipped her hand to his shoulder and pressed him back in his chair. "Rest yourself, bebe. I will need a moment to ready myself. Tell me," she forced her tone to remain level, "it may be asking the impossible, but do you have anything of hers? Something personal. Something she has touched. Do you?"

Mulder shook his head regretfully. "No, I don't. I'm sorry. I do have a photo of her, would that help? I took it secretly, a few weeks ago," the lie slipped smoothly out. He reached into his pocket for his wallet; dug through it until he found the small snapshot of Scully that he'd carried with him for almost a year. It was a little worn around the edges from spending months and months in his wallet, with his ass sitting on it for extended periods of time... but it was such a perfectly Scully-ish image of the woman he adored.

Her smile was enigmatic as only she could achieve, her eyes glancing to the side as if something amused her just out of the frame of the photo. Wearing her black trench coat, hair blowing a bit in the breeze, she stood in front of a rented Taurus, one hand on her hip and one propped on the car. Rosy cheeks and mouth glossed lightly with lipstick, here was Dana Scully at her most beguiling - beauty and intelligence shining out, a combination potently sexy and wholly appealing to him. He handed the photo to Odette and watched for her reaction.

It took every ounce of self-control not to crush the photo in her fist. Mon Dieu, this was the woman who caused such an exquisite man to fall to his knees in adoration?

She was short. With short hair. Dressed in the most boring-looking coat, barely a speck of makeup on her boring little face. No jewelry, nothing to make herself alluring for a man. And blue eyes, so common. Odette wanted to scream aloud. Instead she made herself smile and nod in complete understanding.

"Oui, I can see what you mean. Well, this will be enough, I think. I do have a spell that works with things such as photographs and images. We will simply adjust a little, hmm? You relax, mon bebe; I have a few preparations to make. I will return in a moment." Leaning in, Odette gave in to the temptation to touch him; she brushed a small kiss over his temple, ignoring the painful tug on her heart when he startled and flinched, just the tiniest bit. Gripping the photo, she moved into a far corner of the room and vanished behind a sliding glass door.

Mulder let out a breath of relief and sank back into the wing chair. His nerves were on full alert. The feeling he had, that she hadn't bought a word of it... so strong. He couldn't fathom why; she'd given no outward indication that she was anything more or less than what she professed to be. But he'd dealt with spell-casters before, and he knew how unpredictable anyone could be if their personalities were tinged with madness, however slight. If this woman was the one they were looking for, she was definitely dangerous - and crafty enough to hide it well. Insanity and power combined was a frightening combination; this he also knew. Mulder quickly talked himself into remaining calm and unruffled.

In a narrow room off the parlor, Odette stood in front of her altar, both hands clenched into fists. There was a silver-framed mirror hanging on the wall next to the altar; for once she avoided looking at her reflection, knowing very well how she'd look in her current frame of mind. And for once she didn't care about the way anger and fury could cut lines into her perfect face. At the moment she was far past caring.

He needed to be punished for his betrayal. Once again he'd deserted her for someone else, someone inferior in every way. Five years ago his betrayal had involved her sister Chantal, and although Odette tried to forgive, it had been almost impossible for her to pretend as though she still cared for her sister, once Guy was gone. And yet, she'd never forgotten that if only she'd been wise enough to stake her claim first, Guy would have never been tempted by Chantal. Most of all, Odette blamed herself for her naive stupidity.

Never again, she decided, as she set about inserting candles in their holders and placed them in a five-point star pattern on the altar. Four white, and one black positioned in the east. With steady hands she lit each one, again refusing to look in the mirror. Usually she adored staring at herself in candlelight... another reason to hate this woman Dana; because of her Odette was too despondent to enjoy her normal self-admiration.

But not for long. There was a spell that could be cast. Odette knew of it, although she'd never tried it out before. If only she'd read about this spell five years ago, things might have been so very different. But at least the Powers had seen fit to give her another chance. She'd been offered an opportunity that she wasn't about to waste.

Odette picked up the photo she'd been given of the red-haired woman named Dana. Her enemy. The woman who'd somehow found a way to bewitch her Guy. It didn't matter to her that this woman most likely hadn't a clue the beautiful man sitting in her parlor was already taken - had been claimed so very long ago. Women had a sense of ownership, didn't they? Deep inside their hearts they could feel if there was another woman who had a claim. Her own sister should have felt it - as this boring little twit should. No excuses.

Holding the photo on her palm, face-up, Odette slowly closed her fingers over it, as she stared into the flames. In a firm voice that vibrated against the walls of the tiny room, she set the spell; as she spoke she slowly crushed the image of the bitch Dana in her hand:

'I command the minions of night to banish this woman from his sight. As I hold her image in my hand and crush it, send forth to her man, A pain cut deep into his heart whene'er her face to him imparts - Jagged spears will split his head with knives of fire like molten lead. Each time he sees her pain will grow; her name will thrash him to and fro - His only peace my loving arms, his only respite from all harm. Let her face be his agony... as I will, so mote it be.'

She could feel the power of the spell thunder through her veins and she fought the urge to scream out loud. It had worked! She knew. Such power, such a talent she had! Always a source of pride, now Odette felt invincible, majestically omnipotent. She stared into the mirror, seeing for herself the way the five luminaries reflected her inner magick, the way the flickering flames shadowed her face into a darkly exquisite work of art. She smiled the most ferocious smile...

Taking a deep breath, she pinched out the candles with her fingers one by one, saving the black one for last. This one she put out, and then rubbed the oily charred remains of the wick on her inner wrist, welcoming the stinging burn. Delicately she licked at her skin, cleaning off the blackened residue; then she turned and walked out of her tiny sanctuary, the crumpled photo still in her fist.

Jour et Nuit 5936 Poplar Street

San Diego, California

"I don't see how I can be of any help to you," Chantal protested quietly. "The spell your partner seeks - it is very dark. What is his interest in it?" Scully noted Chantal's fingers nervously playing with the silver cross hanging around her neck.

"That's a lovely necklace," she commented. Chantal's face showed her bewilderment with the sudden change of topic. "It does seem a bit at odds with all of this," Scully said as she looked around the shop.

A hint of temper showed in the twin spots of color that appeared on Chantal's cheeks. "You are very narrow-minded in your views," she shot back, pleased to see the federal officer's lips thin in her own suppressed display of anger.

"I was raised a Catholic," Chantal explained, "and although I seek peace and comfort and salvation in God, I do not discount those powers embedded in His very creations. I believe that we can draw on Nature and her powers, from the earth, from fire and water and wind."

Scully arched one brow, hearing in Chantal's voice the same passion, insistence and challenge that so often rang in Mulder's.

"I was raised a Catholic," she countered, fingers touching the tiny gold cross that rested in the hollow of her own throat, "and although I too find my peace and salvation in God, I take my earthly comfort in science and the tangible proofs it offers me."

The two women faced off from opposite sides of the counter and with silent nods, acknowledged that while their faiths were rooted in the same beliefs, they looked at the world through different eyes.

"My partner would find in you a kindred spirit," Scully murmured. She waged a brief internal debate about how much information to offer and then decided to go with her instincts.

"We're investigating a series of suspicious deaths," she explained. "My partner - who is admittedly more open to... extreme possibilities than I, apparently believes that there is some link between the practice of magick and these deaths."

Her stomach knotted with a fear that she would not give name to, Chantal listened quietly as Scully described the events that had taken place since that fateful morning at the Value-Save car rental office.

"... and so I came here directly from your aunt's shop, hoping to catch up with my partner."

Scully's voice trailed off as she wrapped up her recitation of the events which had lead her to this moment at Jour et Nuit and she waited expectantly for the other woman to comment, only to be met with silence.

"Chantal?" The blonde startled at the sound of her name being called.

"I... I'm sorry. I was just processing what you've told me," she said. "It sounds more like a movie plot than something that could actually have happened."

Scully huffed out a tired laugh. Welcome to my life, she thought. Instead she nodded knowingly. "Many of the cases we investigate do seem unbelievable," she agreed.

"Chantal," she began again. "Your great-aunt sent my partner here for a reason," she said.

"My great-aunt is old and sometimes forgetful," Chantal countered. "Your partner has not been here. It seems likely that Tante Nanette became confused and gave you misinformation, oui?"

Scully shook her head. "No. I don't think so." She leaned into the counter, aware, despite Chantal's efforts at maintaining a placid expression, that she was nervous about something. She continued to press for the information she wanted.

"Your great-aunt said that she told my partner that one of her grandnieces had the power to assist him in the spell he was seeking. Was she right?" Scully paused for a moment allowing that to sink in.

"You ate some of the cake too!" Chantal exclaimed, with sudden insight.

Scully blinked, startled by the sudden change in the direction of the conversation.

"That is why you and your partner are so desperate to find the person who cast the spell, non? You fear for your life."

Scully met the other woman's gaze. "Yes. Look, the only link between the deaths is the fact that all three women ate the same cake." She drew in a deep breath. "My partner obviously believes that magick played a part in the deaths of these women and that anyone who ate the cake is also at risk."

"But you do not believe. You doubt. You discount the powers of Nature?"

The residual anger from her fight with Mulder and his subsequent disappearing act, the mounting worry as to his whereabouts, her fears for her own life along with the resentment she felt at hearing the faintly condescending tone of Chantal's voice all combined to send Scully's temper soaring. She slapped her hands onto the counter and leaned across it, pushing her face close to the other woman's. Her aggressive body language was contradicted by the coolly professional tone of voice she adopted and any efforts towards maintaining a friendly and relaxed conversation were dropped. While Scully's instincts continued to tell her that Chantal was not involved in the murders, those same instincts were screaming that the other woman knew more than she was admitting.

"Ms. Thibodeaux, you indicated to me that the spell my partner was seeking is very dark. Your great-aunt seemed quite confident that he would be able to find what he was looking for here. If you are not familiar with that type of magick, then perhaps you know someone else who can help me."

Scully pushed away from the counter and crossed her arms over her chest. "Jour et Nuit," she mused aloud. "Light and dark." Her gaze strayed from Chantal to land speculatively on the picture of the two sisters hanging on the wall.

"Perhaps your sister can help me."

Scully looked away from the picture and back at Chantal who was obviously afraid. Her face was pale and her eyes were bright with unshed tears.

"Chantal," Scully said gently. "Please. If you know anything..." She walked around the counter and led the other woman back to the desk, urging her to sit down.

"Chantal," she began again. "I understand the bond between sisters." As always, her throat tightened as the image of Missy - laughing and free-spirited - sprang to her mind's eye. "But please. Three women are dead and I think you can help them."

Chantal's chin wobbled and she snatched a tissue from the box on the edge of the desk, dabbing at her eyes. "Odette... is hot-tempered and fiery. Full of life. Always curious... about everything."

"Even the dark side of magick?"

"Maybe," Chantal shook her head. "A little." She raised troubled eyes to Scully. "She does not fear it as I do," she admitted. "But non. I cannot believe she would... murder. Non! You are wrong."

Scully leaned a hip on the edge of the desk and stared down at the other woman. Her voice was soft, but implacable as she continued to press.

"You said she's curious about the darker side of magick. Your great-aunt told me that one of her nieces could cast the spell my partner was seeking. You told me that spell is dark... if your great-aunt was not speaking of you, then she must have been speaking of Odette." She paused for a moment before continuing.

"I need you to be honest with yourself and with me. Is Odette capable of casting this spell?"

Chantal shuddered and dropped her face into her hands. Her mind whirled with thoughts of her younger sister. The beautiful, sultry, laughing girl who had been always looking for a good time and ready to fall in love at a moment's notice had changed. The Odette of their youth was gone and in her place was a woman that Chantal was forced to admit she did not know. There was a coldness that lurked behind her dark eyes. In her blood red dresses, with nails lacquered to match, she played the role of dark-haired, beguiling witch to the hilt. The laughter and brightness that Chantal had always associated with her younger sister had been replaced over the years with a bitter darkness. Forced by the confrontation with the federal agent patiently awaiting her answer, Chantal finally acknowledged the reason why she spent as little time with her sister as she did.

There was an evil... a wickedness lurking in her sister's heart that frightened Chantal to her very core.

"Chantal," Scully's voice gently prodded her for an answer. "Is Odette capable of using her magick to hurt someone?"

Chantal mopped her face with the tissue clutched in her fist. She lifted her head and nodded jerkily. Once.


Scully's heart tripped behind her breastbone and icy waves of fear swept through her.


Chapter Nine

19 Fourth Street
San Diego, California

She'd been gone just long enough to make him very suspicious. Mulder made himself sit quietly and not fidget, choosing to distract his nerves by taking in the rest of Odette's parlor.

It was a curious mixture of traditional Victoriana and more modern New Age, with scattered collections ranging from ancient Druid to futuristic dragons. One corner held an altar draped in red silk, covered with varying candleholders and an assortment of ornamental daggers. Incense curled upward in a thin, spicy plume; a Haitian death mask glared through the fragrant smoke.

It was just about what he'd expected to see in a spell-caster's domain - a little bit of flash and show, a bit of the real and unreal. Mulder drummed his fingers on the arm of the chair and wondered what in hell was taking Odette so long to 'prepare' for whatever spell she'd decided would make the woman of his dreams fall in love with him.

She wasn't sane. Mulder could tell that much just by watching her, the way she fought to maintain a sultry expression throughout his rhapsody of Scully. He'd seen the way her slender fingers had tightened, struggling to remain loose instead of curling into fists. There had been a flare of her nostrils, a narrowing of her dark eyes, a tensing all over her frame. Tiny things, but they gave her away easily. She'd been furious. And yet, when he'd first walked through her door, settled into her pretty little antique chair... she'd been sensuously welcoming, her body language and entire demeanor that of a seductress.

Maybe it had been the photo of Scully that had set her off, Mulder decided. Odette was probably the kind of woman who disliked other women and was male-oriented. He'd seen it before... and for the second time in several days an unbidden and unwelcome image of Phoebe Green crossed his mind. Mulder impatiently shook it off.

He glanced around quickly, forcing a smile to his face, when a soft rustle behind him indicated Odette had re-entered the room. Her smile was in place, sultry as ever; her walk oozed sexuality and her eyes held smoky promise. But beneath the smolder, there was something else; Mulder could sense it. His guard, already up and running, heightened and locked in.

Odette moved to his side, her hand outstretched. "Forgive me, mon bebe. It seems I crinkled your photograph a bit in preparation."

She handed him the photo; Mulder's fingers closed over it, studiously avoiding her skin but still brushing over her palm. He repressed a shudder, missing the way her eyes narrowed at his reaction. "Thanks. It's the only one I have of her, and it means a lot to me." He smoothed out the worst of the wrinkles and re-pocketed the photograph.

When he looked up, Odette was regarding him carefully. "Why don't you relax, chere... and I'll explain the charme to you. I'd like you to understand what I do, so you feel confident your Dana will soon be yours." And she stared at him. Hard.

Mulder nodded, unsure how to respond. "All right... See, I'm relaxed." He leaned back in the chair, feeling his muscles start to clench up and willing them to ease. The look on her face... as if she was confused.


The front door suddenly rattled, a chime pealing out... and they both turned as a tall, blonde woman entered the room. Beside him, Odette drew in a sharp breath - and Mulder smiled uncertainly as the woman locked blue eyes on him, her expression somber and a little worried. But before she could utter a word to either of them, his gaze caught at the petite woman who slipped through the archway and stepped into the parlor -


Even as he parted his lips to greet her, white-hot pain shot through his head and Mulder cried out, hands clutching at his hair, additional spears of agony lancing into his chest, legs, arms. He fell out of the chair sideways, rolling to the floor, curling into a tight ball as the pain radiated through him. What the fuck -!

Dimly he heard her frantic, "MULDER!" He groaned, unable to speak or move, unable to do anything but let the torture eat into him.

Scully raced across the room and dropped to her knees beside Mulder. Her heart was beating frantically and her hands trembled as she reached out to touch him. His face contorting in an agonized grimace, he rolled away from her searching fingers.

"Mulder?" She was faintly aware of Chantal crouching on the floor behind her. And she frowned when Odette sank to the floor beside Mulder in a swirl of red skirts and black hair. Her eyes narrowed as the other woman gathered Mulder into her arms and her breath caught when she saw his features relax at Odette's touch.

"Mulder, please," she crawled across the floor on her hands and knees to reach him. "What's wrong?"

Mulder could barely hear Scully through the roaring in his ears, the frantic tone of her voice barely registering. He dragged open heavy-lidded eyes to find her concerned face close to his own. Fresh pain washed through him and he slammed his eyes shut, instinctively turning away from her and burrowing into the comfort and relief found in the arms surrounding him.

"Shhh, mon coeur," Odette cooed. She ran her red-tipped fingers through his hair. "Everything will be well." Her eyes clashed with her sister's shocked gaze, and Odette lifted her pointed little chin challengingly.

"Oh no." Chantal's voice came out in a rasp of panic and she shook her head despairingly. "Odette, what have you done?"

Odette's gaze was locked onto the face of the man in her arms. "I have taken back what is mine," she murmured. "You stole him from me once," she whispered to her sister, as she trailed her knuckles over his warm cheek, "and he died because of your betrayal." A triumphant smile curved her lips at the sound of the pained gasp that escaped Chantal's mouth.

She glared at Chantal, enjoying the hurt she'd inflicted on her older sibling. "Your love killed him," she said accusingly. Her lips pursed in a false moue of sympathy as she watched a tear trickle over her sister's pale cheek. "Poor, silly bebe, you never knew, did you? That he was mine. Tres stupide, n'cest pas? But he has returned to me and this time he will know there is no other woman for him but me." She leaned down and brushed her mouth over Mulder's. And her next impassioned murmur sent fresh shock through the two women who knelt on the expensive oriental carpet and watched the surreal tableau play out before them.

"Je t'aime, Guy."

Those words may have been spoken in French, but Scully knew their meaning... and her hands clenched into tights fists, her entire body going on protective alert for her partner. It was obvious this 'Guy' was a dead lover - and just as obvious that he'd belonged to Chantal, not her crazy sister, for beside her Chantal moaned tearfully and buried her face in her hands.

Mulder's senses swam as he was enveloped in the cloying scent of Odette's perfume and he weakly turned his face away from hers. He struggled to focus and for a moment he was caught on the knife's edge of the fierce emotions that radiated from the three women surrounding him. Those emotions were a kaleidoscope of colors hammering at his battered senses - the gray of Chantal's aching sadness, the black of Odette's insanity. The red of Scully's fury.

He wanted to break away from the grip of this dangerously unstable woman, wanted nothing more than to cling to his partner, his lover. He also knew Odette had charmed him somehow, turning him against Scully in the most agonizing way possible. He couldn't even look at her, attempt to reassure her; the stabbing pain all through his body bore testament to the power of Odette's magick.

Mulder's peripheral glance caught the rustle of Scully's jacket as she moved suddenly, her voice a low snarl of anger. "Get your hands off him!" She rose to her feet and stood threateningly over Odette. The other woman laughed mockingly and once again tightened her arms around Mulder, who was too weakened by pain to push her away.

"You do not listen well," Odette smirked. "He was never yours. Always he was mine, five years ago he was mine! Death could not keep him from my side... YOU cannot keep him, either!" She looked back down at the face pressed against her generous breasts, then sidled a mocking glance up at her adversary. "He cannot even bear to look at you," she laughed. "Can you not see? The sight of your face makes him sick!" Once again she ran her fingers over his face, cupped his jaw possessively and lowered her mouth to his.

That gesture of greed was the last straw, and a low growl of rage rumbled in Scully's chest. Knowing she was taking a chance on causing Mulder more pain, still she couldn't stand to see this murderous bitch touching him any longer. Bracing her feet, Scully swung at Odette. Her backhanded slap caught the other woman across the face and sent her sprawling to the floor. Scully took advantage of the moment and hurriedly moved between Odette and Mulder. She was reaching for the gun nestled in the holster at the small of her back when Odette's foot swept through the air and knocked her to the ground.

Scully's gun clattered to the floor and spun out of her reach. Odette kicked out again and her foot caught her opponent sharply on the temple, leaving her dazed. Odette spun and ran into her private sanctuary.

Scully shook her head to clear it and saw Odette's red skirts disappear into another room. What happened next took place in a lightning quick passage of seconds.

Staggering to her feet, Scully glanced wildly around the room looking for her gun. She found it in a corner near a small table and rushed to pick it up. Scully wrapped her fingers around the gun, for a moment taking comfort in the cool familiarity of the grip in her hand. She heard Odette's crazed shriek of laughter a second before she sensed the other woman slip up behind her.

Scully straightened, her finger curled around the trigger. As she brought her arm up to fire she felt a burning pain across her bicep and the gun fell from suddenly nerveless fingers. Blood ran in crimson rivulets down her arm and she swayed dizzily, her stomach heaving with pain and the sickening scent of her own blood.

Scully cursed herself for the momentary loss of control that had caused her to strike out at the woman first and reach for her gun second. Dazed and numb, her eyes focused on the blood dripping from the ritual knife in her adversary's hand. Odette raised her arm over her head for the killing blow and Scully turned her face toward Mulder for one last despairing look, understanding for certain just how helpless her position truly was. She'd never reach her gun... her shooting arm was incapacitated. And Mulder was barely conscious.

Then suddenly it was as if time itself had stopped. Everyone caught their breath as the light in the room faded. Shadows rushed down the walls and across the floor, dark and malevolent. Three gray, threatening specters, they coalesced in the center of the room and hovered over the polished wood floor, their murky outlines rising up and forming a trio of misshapen entities.

Odette's knife slipped from her fingers and she stared at the spectres, eyes wide with terror. As Scully watched in disbelief, it seemed the younger woman shrank almost into herself. Odette's arms came up around her head in a protective gesture and her voice was reedy with fright and despair.

"I did nothing wrong! Sejour loin de moi! STAY AWAY!"

She slid to the floor on her knees and tried to crawl away, but the shadows followed relentlessly, homing in on their prey. Odette managed to scuttle halfway across the floor but her heel caught on the edge of a wool carpet runner. She fell to her side and rolled over onto her back, both hands stretched out in front of her, the defensive gesture as ineffectual as her attempted escape had been.

There was no escape this time, not from the deeds she'd perpetrated and from the lives she'd so arrogantly taken.

With silent purpose the shadows descended upon her, forcing an agonized scream from her bloodless lips. In a blinding flash of light they engulfed her, lifting her up and then flinging her across the room. Odette's body hit the wall with a dull thud and she slid to the floor.

A tiny gasp slipped from her throat and one word materialized as her breath hitched for the last time.


And she was gone. Her eyes stared sightlessly toward Mulder; on the floor where it had fallen the ritual knife glowed brightly for a moment before fading to a dull gleam.

Chantal cried out, "ODETTE!" Rushing to her side, the grieving woman scooped the body of her baby sister into her arms and wept against her tangled black hair.

Mulder groaned and shook his head, residual stings of pain lancing through the muscles of his arms and legs, before draining out and leaving him weak but coherent. He sat up gingerly, scrubbing his hands against his face to clear his vision and saw Scully collapsing to the floor, bright blood coating her arm.

"Scully!" Ignoring his lingering aches, he scrambled across the carpet and gathered her close. She moaned and her head lolled wearily against his shoulder.

"Mulder, are you okay?" she whispered.

He nodded and laid her gently on the carpet. "There's no more pain. I'm all right," he told his partner. "You're the one who's bleeding." He laid gentle fingers on her arm. "Let me see how bad it is." She braced herself as he tore open the sleeve of her shirt to inspect the wound. Her eyes were heavy with exhaustion, her face pale from the loss of blood but she couldn't stop staring at him.

"It's deep," he fretted. Picking up the now-dull ritual knife from the floor, he cut the sleeve completely away from her shirt and pressed the fabric against the wound. "Maybe some muscle damage." Mulder reached into his pocket for his cellphone and came up empty. He slapped his free hand against his clothing, wildly searching for his phone.

"In my bag." Scully raised her head from the floor and weakly pointed in the general direction of the leather tote that had fallen to the floor. "You left your phone back in the hotel room," she rasped.

Milder hurriedly grabbed her bag and dragged it back to where she lay. He yanked a phone - his phone, her phone, he had no idea whose - from the tote and placed a call for emergency aid with trembling fingers.

"This is Agent Fox Mulder of the FBI," he stated as he clamped the fingers of his other hand over the makeshift bandage. "I need you to send an ambulance and the police to 19 Fourth Street. I have an agent down and," he glanced across the room to where Chantal was holding her sister's body, "our suspect is dead at the scene."

He listened for another moment as the operator confirmed the address, then ended the call.

"They're on their way," he whispered. He gently eased his arms around her again, lifting her from the floor. She sighed softly as his warmth surrounded her.

"It's going to be okay," she reassured him. Her good arm curled around his neck and his breath broke over her face in a shaky sigh of agreement when he brushed his mouth over hers.

Rocking her in his embrace, he listened, as the wail of sirens grew steadily closer.

San Diego Central Division Police Balboa Park
Saturday, 9:10 PM

"I had no idea, Mon Dieu. You must believe me. I didn't know Odette could be conjuring such dark charmes." Chantal Thibodeaux sat in the uncomfortable plastic chair and gripped a paper cup of coffee between trembling fingers. Across from her on an equally-uncomfortable sofa, Mulder held Scully's hand in both his own. Her head rested on his shoulder and she had finally given in to the load of painkillers she'd been ordered to swallow; she was asleep, cradled in his arms. Mulder had tried talking her into staying overnight at the hospital; she'd refused. With an arm bound in a tight ace bandage and immobilized in a sling, twenty neat stitches holding the knife wound closed, Scully knew she'd be in a lot of pain but she was determined to remain locked to Mulder's side.

He sure wasn't complaining about that.

He held her gently and let her sleep, leaning back on the sofa and meeting Chantal's sad eyes with his usual steady regard. It was late and all he wanted to do was take Scully back to their room at the Days Inn, roll them both into the bed-sheets and sleep for several days. But Chantal needed to talk and as long as Scully was safe in his arms, Mulder was more than willing to listen.

But first, he had a few questions of his own. "I think you must have suspected something, am I right? She was your sister. You must have known for a while that she was troubled, not herself. After all, you worked together closely, every day." Mulder stroked a careful hand over Scully's back, soothing himself as much as her, as he spoke.

Chantal started to protest, then shook her head and offered a helpless shrug. "Oui. I won't lie to myself any longer. Yes, I knew something was wrong, had been wrong for some time. After Guy... passed away," she tried not to choke on the upsetting words, "after he was gone my world was in shambles. The morning it happened I'd been sewing my wedding gown; I was so happy. His grandmere's betrothal ring was on my finger. And Odette... she had been so quiet about the wedding plans, but I thought she was just feeling emotional, you comprenez? Happy for me, but full of emotion. She always felt everything so deeply, it was her way."

She took a shaky breath and wiped at her eyes. "We moved to San Diego at the invitation of my Tante Louisa. She had a shop and was expanding, she needed help. I was still in mourning, and Odette was becoming withdrawn. I didn't know why but I was too miserable to say much to her. There was nothing left for us in New Orleans, so we moved. We stayed with Louisa and Tante Nanette until we could start a shop of our own and find a place to live. But Odette wanted to live by herself; at the time I never questioned why. I just let her go. I needed to mourn alone; I suppose I pushed my sister away from me. But I never imagined - I never thought..." Fresh tears brimmed in her eyes as she stared pleadingly at Mulder, "I didn't know she had loved Guy! She never said a thing to me. If I'd only known..."

Mulder tried to reassure her. "Chantal, you were in love with a man who loved you back. From the sound of it, he probably didn't even know Odette existed in any capacity other than your younger sister. This isn't your fault; first and foremost you have to understand that. Your sister harbored an unhealthy obsession for a man she could never have, and she somehow found a way to destroy the future you'd just begun to build together. I've no doubt she was responsible for his death. And I think you understand better now, just what she was capable of."

The bustling entrance of Rosa Damarco interrupted their conversation. Even late into the evening the rotund detective was as colorful and wild-haired as ever, dressed in a lime-green suit, her wiry curls spilling out of a haphazard bun pinned atop her head.

She plopped down in the nearest chair and regarded Scully with a jerk of her chin. "How's she doing? Can't believe she's not in a hospital, Dios! You should have insisted. What kind of boyfriend are you, anyway?" Not giving a sheepish-faced Mulder the chance to reply, Rosa barreled on. "Okay, we got the data from Odette Thibodeaux's computer, remind me to send thanks to that Warren kid for staying late. A real whiz-bang, that boy, I should be so lucky to have someone that sharp working for me. Anyhow," she pulled a folded sheet of paper from her pocket and slapped a pair of fuchsia reading glasses on her nose, "according to the kid, Thibodeaux operated a 'dark charme' web site under the name 'Hexagon'. Brenda Jordan somehow found the site while surfing over at the Java Net, and the rest you already know. Guess this Odette liked her spells nasty."

At a pained gasp from Chantal, Rosa angled her a glance of brief sympathy. "Look, I'm sorry, okay? I know she was your baby sister, but she was also a killer. For whatever reason, your sissy chose her life path. It's nothing to do with you, got that? Don't you go heaping even a teaspoon of guilt on your shoulders." She reached out a pudgy hand and squeezed Chantal's arm gently, then surged to her feet and trotted over to the door, adding, "You're all free to go."

At the twin looks of surprise on the faces of Mulder and Chantal, Rosa snorted. "You forget, I'm from Mexico. San Duartes, to be exact. I know all about Brujas - witches," she clarified. "I was born into a family of traditional Mexacali Catholics: spell-casters, tarot cards, and a lot of mysticism. You name it. My mama was a medium and talked to the dead all the damn day long. Even our stupid dog could send you the evil eye and give you the creeps. Believe me, I have no problem at all swallowing this kind of thing."

Rosa winked at Chantal, her kind smile enveloping the distraught woman in sudden warmth; then she looked Mulder up and down appreciatively. "Agent Mulder, you take care of your pretty lady, you hear? Or else I'll have to come to DC and kick your ass. Don't think I won't do it, hell, I'd probably enjoy it! Now get some sleep; you all look like something my cat wouldn't even drag in from the front yard." The door of the interrogation room slammed behind her, the noise awakening Scully who sat up and pushed tangled hair out of her eyes.

Mulder pressed his lips to her forehead, in affection as much as an attempt to check her temperature. "Hey. How're you feeling?" He kept a supportive arm around her and Scully sighed and stretched carefully.

"I feel as though a Mack truck ran over me backwards, then dumped a case of swords on my arm. Hopefully, that's not how I look, as well."

Mulder gave her a tender once-over; she was pale and there were dark smudges under her eyes; her hair stuck out all over and her chin was bruised. She looked gorgeous and he told her so, watching with interest as her cheeks flushed pink.

She pushed at him with her uninjured arm. "You're not capable of making a fair judgment, Mulder. I seem to remember you telling me once how cute I looked with mumps." She smiled at him, recalling the way he'd gone into detailed rhapsody over her ten-year old chipmunk cheeks, as they'd sat side by side one evening in her apartment and had flipped through an old photo album.

Mulder kissed her nose. "Well, you were damned adorable with those puffy eyes and puffier cheeks, Scully. I knew there and then I was in love," he added, ignoring her muttered, "Oh, brother."

He looked up when Chantal cleared her throat softly, and smiled at her, wishing there was something he could do to ease the pain and disillusionment he knew she had to be feeling. And he hated like hell to have to ask her anything more, but there were still a lot of unanswered questions.

He played with Scully's fingers as he queried, "Chantal, there are some things we need to talk about. I'm sure you can guess what we need to ask you."

Chantal nodded, wiping at her eyes with a wrinkled handkerchief. "You wish to know if the charme Odette used to taint that cake has been lifted by her death. Yes, I would say it has. The rule of 'three times three' is very definitive, and it's a power not to be fooled with." At Scully's look of confusion, Chantal hastened to explain.

"Our magick is governed by strict rules. We are to use our powers for good, not evil or even personal gain. It's a positive force meant to assist in making the universe a more balanced place. However, there are those who would misuse their power. I am saddened to know my own sister was one such person."

She struggled for a moment with her emotions, fighting to get them under control, then continued. "When a spell-caster casts dark or negative charmes, their power is in turn charged negatively. There is a rule called 'three times three'. It means that whatever you do to someone else will in turn revisit you, three-fold. Odette not only forced negative power upon the world; she also drew blood with her ritual knife, when she cut you. Such an act of violence is forbidden. We cannot use the knife to harm any living creature; retribution is swift and fatal, as you yourself could see."

Mulder nodded, reliving again the moment when those three frightening shadows of deep gray slid over Odette's body and threw her back against the wall. He shuddered, feeling Scully shiver as well.

He gathered her closer. "So when the 'three times three' rule ended Odette's life, it also negated whatever charmes she'd set that were still active."

Chantal nodded, "Yes, certainment. The one she'd set over Mademoiselle Scully, and the one she used to poison the birthday cake. You should have no further trouble with either."

Scully slanted a look up at Mulder. "You think we should test it out, Mulder? I could tell a whopping lie, and see what happens."

Mulder visibly paled. "I don't think that's a good idea, Scully. We can't take a chance like that -"

She interrupted him with a hand to his mouth. "Mulder... I'm a reasonably truthful person but everyone fibs and everyone lies now and then. It's human nature. I can't go through life trying to second-guess myself twenty-four hours a day, and I can't just blurt out my thoughts with little regard for someone's feelings. I'd go insane and so would you." She curled her hand around his neck and pulled him down until she could reach his lips; kissed him softly. Mulder clutched her tightly, staring over her bright head at Chantal Thibodeaux. The blonde woman returned his pleading expression with as much reassurance as she could muster.

After a long moment Mulder swallowed hard and nodded. He caught Scully closer, burying his face in her soft hair. He whispered, "Okay. Go ahead. Give it your best shot, baby."

Scully took a deep breath, unable to quell the queasiness in her stomach at the thought of testing Chantal's theory. It had to be done, though... She straightened her shoulders and looked Mulder square in the eyes, then declared firmly, "Mulder, I don't love you."

Mulder's arms tightened convulsively and he groaned under his breath... but nothing happened. Scully remained in his embrace, warm and alive. He managed to croak out a weak, "You wanna rephrase that, Partner?"

Her relieved chuckle was music to his ears. "Certainly, Partner. I love you." She curled herself close to his heart, her arms ringing his neck, and repeated it into his parted lips.

"I love you, Mulder."

The smile on his face was as bright as a sunrise. "Ditto, Scully."

Her voice dripped affront. "Ditto? That's all you have to say to me?"

He snickered, "Oh, not by a long shot. You just wait until I get you alone, Chipmunk Cheeks."


San Diego, California Days Inn, Balboa Park
Monday, 10:42AM

Scully glanced over her shoulder and reaffirmed that Mulder was in the bathroom, packing his shaving kit, before stepping out of his view and furtively easing her arm from the sling. She dropped her chin toward her chest and then rolled her head back toward her shoulders, enjoying for a moment a respite from having the weight of her arm supported by the sling around her neck.

Across the room, Mulder's cellphone chirped. "I'll get it," she called as she walked around the bed. She instinctively reached for the phone with her right hand and bit back a gasp as an arrow of pain lanced down her arm. Wincing, she wrapped her injured arm around her waist and lifted the phone to her ear with her other hand.

"Scully." She listened to the caller for a moment and the dull throbbing in her arm was not the sole cause for the grimace on her face.

"Just a moment." She skirted the bed and almost collided with Mulder as he stepped out of the bathroom.

"It's for you." She slapped the phone into Mulder's hand with unnecessary force. He frowned at both the tone of her voice and her unsupported arm.

'Put your arm back into the sling,' he mouthed as he raised the phone to his ear. The mystery of Scully's suddenly icy demeanor was quickly solved as Diana's husky voice came through the phone. Mulder groaned under his breath but dutifully listened to the mostly one-sided conversation, dividing his attention between brief responses to Diana's inquiries and watching his partner shove clothing into her suitcase with jerky motions. After another moment or two, he ended the call and stuffed the phone into his pocket.

"Let me." He laid a hand over Scully's as she struggled to knead the tension from her neck using her uninjured arm. She reluctantly dropped her hand and waited docilely as he unfastened the sling. He rested his warm hand on her neck and let his thumb glide over her collarbone in a gentle massage.

"She's got the X-Files, Scully. That's the reality of it." His voice rumbled from above her head and she lifted her gaze to meet his in the mirror mounted over the low bureau on the other side of the room. "And she can keep us in the loop." He dipped his fingers beneath the collar of her shirt, tenderly kneading the tightness from her shoulders.

"More than that," he continued, "she's a friend."

Scully closed her eyes. His tone was implacable, but his touch pleaded with her for understanding. She turned around and lifted her face to his.

"I don't trust her," she reaffirmed her earlier position with quiet emphasis. "And it's my job to watch your back."

They regarded each other with grave eyes, silently acknowledging the other's viewpoint. Understanding that neither would relent in their opinion, but instead would strive to work around it much the same as with any other dissension in their professional and personal relationship. It was too important to them, not to remain focused on what was most vital...

Their future. Together.

Mulder helped ease Scully's arm back into the sling and refastened it behind her neck. When she would have moved away he caught her around the waist and bent to her, his expression soft and adoring.

"I love you," he vowed softly.

Scully stroked her fingers over his jaw in a gentle caress before she stepped back and lifted her black tote from the bed. Her murmur of, "I love you right back," made him smile from ear to ear. She slung the tote strap over her uninjured arm and moved to the door.

Over her shoulder she sent him a mock-impatient glance. "Come on, Mulder. I seem to recall that you owe me a dinner at Milano's." She tugged open the door and stepped out into the sunlight. Mulder grabbed their suitcases and hurried after her. He quickly tossed the bags into the trunk of the car and then circled it to open the passenger door for her. When she was settled into her seat, he leaned down to fasten her seatbelt.

His murmur in her ear was suggestive. "I'm pretty sure we agreed to getting takeout and bringing it back to my place..."

Scully raised her eyebrows and a tiny smile graced her lips. "Let's go home, Mulder."


The End

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